Our Faith, Not Our Works, Brings Us Peace With God: A Sermon on Romans 4:4-5

This summer I was working with youth at my church in Calgary and I had an opportunity to teach a lesson on the passage that I am preaching this morning. I asked the youth if they knew for sure that they were going to heaven. One of the youth whom I have known for many years responded that he wasn’t sure; he had made a lot of mistakes and didn’t think his life was good enough for God to accept him. Have you ever felt like that? I know that even three years ago I did. Have you ever struggled with how we can know for sure we are going to heaven? With how we can have confidence that we are right with God?

Knowing how we can be found acceptable in the sight of God is incredibly vital to our daily lives. If we have to work, if we have to be perfect in everything we do, to gain righteousness; then we will live life paralyzed by the knowledge that we will never attain God’s standard. That is where I was 4 or 5 years ago. I thought that I only had two choices; to either pursue God and be paralyzed by fear, or ignore Him and His standard and live life my way.  For me it was a struggle with knowing how I can have peace with God; knowing this, how to have peace with God, is vital in the life of every man and woman. In Romans 4:4-5 Paul shows us how we can acquire righteousness, he answers the question; how can we have peace with God? Please take your bibles and turn with me to Romans 4:4-5. In Romans 4:4-5 Paul writes to the Romans; “Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.”

In the first three chapters of Romans Paul explains why we need righteousness. Righteousness is a right, an acceptable, state before God. Paul in chapters 1-3 of Romans explains what took me the last few years of my Christian walk to truly grasp; every one of us was born into sin, we were born enemies of God.  Because of sin God’s wrath is directed towards mankind. To be in a state of peace with God we need righteousness. How can we get righteousness, how can we be found acceptable in this sight of God?

In Romans 4:4-5 Paul writes to the Romans; “Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.”

Paul’s first answer to the question of “How can we have peace with God” is that we cannot have peace by working.

 

V. 4 reads; “Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due.” The “now” that opens this verse indicates a transition from the previous verses in chapter 4. Paul has just finished arguing that Abraham could not have received righteousness by working because he had no boast before God, but if he had worked he would merely be receiving what was owed to him and he would be able to boast of all the righteous works he had done.  In v. 4 he explains his previous argument; he writes that when someone works he is not receiving a favor but only what he has earned. This makes sense. If I am working down at Starbucks and I spend 8 hours working and make ten dollars an hour, I will get paid 80 dollars. This $80 is not a gift from the manager to me, it is not a favor he is showing, but it is what is due to me according to the work that I have done.

What is assumed here in verse 4 is that righteousness is given to us as a favor, that it could never be earned. This is something that Paul establishes earlier in the book of Romans. In chapter 3 we find a famous verse; “all have fallen short of the glory of God.” Paul argues in the first three chapters of Romans that no one can make themselves right before God by their own works; even one bad work is enough to render any good works void and place us under the wrath of God. For Paul good works require a good heart, and since none of us have a good heart we will never be able to do any good works, let alone enough to give us a right standing before God.

The famous orator Charles Spurgeon once illustrated it this way. Imagine that God entrusted you with a perfect, spotless, crystal vase. This is the most beautiful vase you have ever seen. God just asks us one thing, he has trusted us with the vase and asks for it back in the same perfect condition. If we return it perfectly we will receive a reward. If we even get a tiny scratch on this spotless vase we will no longer be able to receive this reward; the requirement was perfection. Spurgeon goes on to tell his audience that we haven’t just scratched this vase; “we have cracked it, chipped it; ah! my brethren, the most of us have broken it and smashed it to pieces.” [1]

If we are hanging by a rope and the tiniest part of it fails we will fall. Even if 99.9% of the rope is in perfect condition the 0.1% that is weak renders the whole of the rope useless when it is entrusted with the task of holding someone up.

Paul in this verse wrote that our works will only get us what is our due; and because we have all fallen short of God’s standard our due is not righteousness but His wrath.

Our works do not bring us peace with God, they cannot.

 

If our works do not bring us peace with God, than what does? In verse 5 Paul delivered a shocking statement to the church in Rome. In verse five he wrote; “but the one who does not work, but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, receives his faith as righteousness.” This would have blown the Jews in Rome away. For them the idea that God justifies the ungodly was ridiculous.

The word we translate ungodly here is the Greek word ασεβης [asebēs]; it is a very strong word that would have coincided with the Jewish concept of a “sinner.” Someone who is ungodly, which is what Paul declares that we all are, is someone who is an open and defiant sinner against God, someone who is in rebellion against God, and who is outside of the covenant with God. This is what would have shocked the Jews; Paul was saying that even though the Jews in Rome did their best to keep the law, they were not perfect enough to meet the Standard of God’s covenant and were in need of God’s grace. As those who are ungodly we are desperately in need of God’s grace, we are in a state of war with Him; we are His enemies.

Because of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross God was able to do something that it would seem He said He would not do in the Old Testament. In Exodus 23:7 God says that he will not acquit or justify the guilty, but because of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross bearing God’s wrath and taking on himself the punishment for our crimes, God is able to declare that we are no longer guilty. This is a striking contrast that would have caught the Jews attention, but it is not a contradiction. In the Exodus God is saying that He will not declare a man with who is unholy in nature to be holy, this would be declaring a false reality. This I like me looking at a black chair and declaring it to be blue; this would simply not be true. Here in Romans Paul is using the word justify in a different way.

In this verse Paul writes that God justifies the ungodly, this means that he declares them to be just. That is, He legally declares those who are guilty to be not guilty based on Christ’s life and death which took the guilt of the ungodly away. To be justified is not to be perfect, God is not changing the ungodly so that they are perfect and no longer sinful people, this is a different work of God in the lives of sinners, but what He is doing is declaring them to be not guilty based on the holy and perfect life of Christ.

To have peace with God, to receive righteousness, we have to realize that we could never earn it. To not work but believe in the God who justifies the ungodly means that we have to realize that we are ungodly; we have to realize that our works will never get us anywhere and look to the God who saves those who cannot save themselves for grace. This is the contrast that Paul intends when he talks of the man who is not working. He is not meaning that we should sit down and do nothing, which is something that he writes strongly against later in Romans, but he is saying that we need to stop depending on our own works and acknowledge that we are ungodly

To have peace with God we need to understand that we are ungodly and that we need His grace to save us.

 

Once we know that our works can’t save us and we acknowledge that we are ungodly there is only thing we can do; we have to turn to God and trust that He will save us through a favor. This is the profound conclusion that Paul makes in V. 5 of Romans 4. He writes; “but to the one who does not work, but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.”  This is incredible; this is contrary to everything we know. It is probably safe to say that every religion in the world requires their adherents to work or live righteously in one way or another to earn peace with their deity. This is every religion but Christianity, in Christianity we are told that we could never earn peace with God. Peace is a free gift from God, a favor given to us based on nothing we can do, no work of our own, but on the work of Jesus Christ in living a perfect life and dying a terrible death. This truth is what drove the protestant reformation in the 15th and 16th centuries; they proclaimed that it is by faith alone that we are saved, that we can have peace with God.

This is the profound truth that Paul unravels in Romans 4:4-5; our faith is how we receive righteousness. This righteousness means that we have peace with God. This is one of the most profound truths of Scripture. When we are credited with righteousness it does not mean that we become holy and perfect people, what is happening here is a legal transaction. Righteousness is credited to our accounts so that we are no longer in debt, we no longer have a legal debt that we owe to God. Let me illustrate this.

It is as if we were soaked in mud from head to toe, we are absolutely filthy; this is our state before God. He doesn’t hose us down so that our clothes and skin become spotless and perfect. Instead what He does is He takes the spotless robe of His Son Jesus, who because of His perfect life was free from all mud and dirt, and He drapes it over our shoulders so that when He looks at us He does not see the dirt and mud but the spotless robe of His son. This is how we are declared to be righteous; even though we still make mistakes and have sin God does not see our dirt, He doesn’t see the mud, He sees the Spotless life of His Son who died in our place.

To get this righteousness what we do is believe in the God who justifies the ungodly. By our faith we are declared righteous because the perfect life that Jesus lived, the work He did, is credited to our account in the place of our works which could never earn us life.

Our faith, not our works, brings us peace with God.

 

Our works cannot bring us peace with God; they will only ever earn us our due, and that will never be righteousness. The only way we can have peace with God is by realizing that we are ungodly, unable to ever earn righteousness, and trusting in Him who justifies the ungodly to give us righteousness as a favor. Our faith, not our works, brings us peace with God. Because of our faith we have peace with God, in response to this peace Charles Spurgeon once asked his audience; “What fear is there to the man that is of peace with God? Life?—God provides for it. Death?—Christ hath destroyed it. The Grave?—Christ hath rolled away the stone and broken the seal.”[2] Our faith, not our works, brings us peace with God.

 
A recording(video) of this sermon can be found here

 


[1] C. H. Spurgeon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, Vol. LX (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1914), 63.

[2] C. H. Spurgeon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, Vol. IX (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1863), 285.

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