God Justifies the Ungodly

Romans 4:1-17

17 February 2008

St John's, Shottesbrooke

Morning Prayer

[Note: this is a very short sermon on Romans 4:1-17 preached from the Authorised Version (KJV). I've also done a longer version from the NIV.]


Are you a good person?

I really hope you aren't. Yes, you heard correctly: I really hope that you are not a good person. I hope that there are no good people here this morning. Because if you are a good person you will never be right with God.

To justify this statement that you may find surprising, I want to focus on two verses from the passage in Romans chapter 4: verse four and verse five.

Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.ref

These verses contrast two ways of getting right with God, or gaining righteousness. We can either try hard to be good — which verse four describes as "working" — or our approach to getting right with God can be on the basis of trust — that's verse five: him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodlyref.

Paul's message here, and throughout Romans and all his writing, is, stop trying to make yourself right with God and start trusting God to make you right.

Stop Trying (to get yourself right with God)

If you believe you are a good person then, when you approach God, you will always try to do it on the basis of your own good works.

If you think you are a good person, when you appear before God you'll want to say to him: look at what I've done! Look how often I went to church, even when it was cold! Look at how much money I've given to charity. Look how hard I worked as church warden. Look how well I did the flowers. Look how many lessons I read. Look how often I played the organ. You've heard me say the Lord's prayer every single day.

Look, Lord, I've never cheated on my expenses, I've never even received a parking ticket, let alone a speeding fine. I've never been unfaithful in my marriage. And, I've always tried to be so nice to people.

Look how good I've been; you know I've tried really, really hard. Now, Lord, pay me what you owe me!

That's what verse 4 says, isn't it? Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt.ref Pay me what you owe me! I've done the work, now pay me my wages!

When I get my payslip each month, I know that I deserve it. I've put in the hours; I've done the work and tried to do it well. The company is just fulfilling its side of the contract: they are paying me what they owe me, and they should probably pay me more. But if we come to God with that attitude we are in serious trouble.

Even Abraham didn't come to God with that attitude. In verse 2 Paul says that if Abraham had trusted in his own obedience he would have had something to boast about before God. But even Abraham had nothing to boast about before God. Even he could not get right with God on the basis of his own good deeds. And if Abraham couldn't do it, what hope have we got?

As Paul has spent the previous three chapters proving, not one of us is good in God's eyes. For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of Godref. He says, by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight:ref. God is not impressed with our efforts. We cannot get right with God be trying to be good.

We need another way.

Start Trusting (God to put you right)

And that's what we find in verse 5. In verse 4 Paul says stop working; stop trying to get right with God. In verse 5 he says, start trusting: start trusting God to make you right.

He says, But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.ref Stop trying; start trusting.

Righteousness from God cannot be earned, Paul is saying, it can only be received as a gift.

Paul says that God "counts righteousness" to us. In fact, he talks about God counting or reckoning righteousness six times in these verses. The point is that it is not our own righteousness. We have no righteousness of our own. In the sight of God there is nothing right about us. But God can impart or impute to us a righteousness that we have not earned.

The picture is like this. Morally we are bankrupt. We are so deeply in the red that we can never ever earn enough to get ourselves out of our debt of sin before God.

But, Paul says, God is willing to make a transfer to our accounts. He can transfer righteousness from his account to ours to completely wipe out our debt. And he will do this if only we will trust him instead of trying to work our own way out.

Just as in the world of finance, when a debt is cancelled, somebody somewhere has to pay. And this is what happened when Jesus died on the cross. If we trust in his death for us, then it is Jesus' righteousness — his goodness — that is credited to us, and our moral debt — our badness — that is transferred to him.

As Paul puts it elsewhere, For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.ref. Our moral debt can be transferred to Jesus; and Jesus' righteousness can be credited to us.


So, Christianity is not for good people. Most of the world, and quite a lot of the church, seems to think that Christianity is about moral reformation, about trying hard to be better people. But Paul tells us that that is entirely and completely wrong.

Most people seem to think that the message of Christianity is "Be good, be good, and God will be pleased with you!". But Paul tells us that the message of Christianity is "God justifies the ungodly".

If you have never come before God and confessed to him your deep and hopeless ungodliness then you can never be right with him. If you are relying on being a good person and hoping God will be pleased with you, then you are lost. You've never understood the Christian faith at all.

The challenge of these verses is, will you stop trusting in your own goodness, and come and trust him that justifieth the ungodlyref?