The great Romans commentator Robert Haldane once said that without the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer, there would be no salvation. This doctrine is absolutely central to the doctrine of justification by faith alone, and is therefore central to the Gospel. This doctrine is also under attack these days from various quarters. Some people think that because the righteousness belongs to God, that therefore it cannot belong to a child of God when that person comes to faith. They say that God’s righteousness is not some kind of gas that can be passed from one person to another. Some people thereby limit justification to the doctrine of the church. They say that it is not so much about how you come into relationship with God, as it is about how you tell who is part of the people of God. But what does our passage say?
In chapter three, Paul has been showing us that there is no one righteous. The Gentile is not righteous, and is without excuse. The Jew is not righteous, even though they have the law. God is righteous, because He is the One who justifies the ungodly through the redemption in Christ’s blood. Paul is arguing against legalism in the latter part of chapter 3, especially in verse 28, which says, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” There has been considerable discussion concerning the phrase “works of the law.” Does this phrase mean that all works of the law are excluded from justification, or does it refer primarily to “boundary markers,” those ceremonial Jewish customs that marked Jews out as Jews? The NPP has argued that it refers primarily to boundary markers, to circumcision, dietary laws, anything particularly Jewish. They appeal to verse 29, which says, “Or is God the God of Jews only?” the idea being that God the boundary markers would have separated Jew from Gentile in justification. The problem with their appeal to this verse is that it doesn’t settle the matter at all. Paul could just as well say that if he was referring to all works of the law or to some of the works of the law. In the OT prophets, the Israelites were condemned for keeping the whole law to themselves, when they were supposed to be a light to the Gentiles. Since the Jews were hoarding up the law for themselves and not letting the Gentiles have it, Paul could well say, “Or is God the God of Jews only?” Paul is temporarily granting that justification by works is possible, only to crash it around their heads later on. The Jews were the only ones to have access to the law. If justification were by works, then Jews would be the only people to even have a prayer of being justified. Paul says that that is not the case. Now all people of the world can be justified. It is not limited to Jews.
The authors of the NPP also appeal to a Qumran document called 4QMMT to support their position. The phrase “works of the law” in 4QMMT, they say, clearly refer to the boundary markers of Judaism. However, the phrase in 4QMMT is NOT “works of the law” but “SOME of the works of the law.” N.T. Wright, for instance, has argued throughout his Romans commentary on this passage that the word “law” refers to the Torah, the OT law. How is it then, that “works of the law” could only refer to the ceremonial aspects of the law? So Paul is therefore arguing against legalism in Judaism.
Paul has finished saying that justification is by faith, and not by works. The Jew would immediately answer, “But what about Abraham? Wasn’t he justified by how good a life he led?” The Jews appealed to the example of Abraham to prove that they could be right with God by what they did. Paul answers with an emphatic “no.” Obviously, if even Abraham, who is undoubtedly a righteous man, had to be justified by faith, and not by works, then surely everyone else who wants to be right with God has to justified in the same way that Abraham was. The early church father Chrysostom puts like this: “For someone to be justified by faith if he had no works was unusual. But for one who had plenty of good works to delight in being justified not by works but by faith-that was something to cause amazement.” The premier example of righteousness for the Jew was Abraham. Therefore, Paul uses that very person as a counter-example. He takes the rug out from under the Jewish objector.
Paul starts out with an argument that takes the form of a modus tollens. If Abraham was justified by works, then there is something or him to boast about before God. Abraham has nothing about which he can boast before God. Therefore, Abraham was not justified by works. Instead, Abraham had faith.
Now we must understand how verse 3 functions in the context if we are to understand the passage at all. It says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness. We might ask the question, “What is it that was counted as righteousness?” The Arminians say that it was faith. Faith was counted as righteousness. However, this cannot be, since faith is a receiving and resting on Christ for Christ’s righteousness. It might better be translated “It was counted to him for righteousness.” The reason for this is that “for righteousness” is a phrase that has some things left out of it. It really means, “God credited righteousness to Abraham by the instrumentality of faith.” It is not faith itself that is the ground of our righteousness before God. Faith is like two empty hands reaching out to receive something. Faith is not the ground but the instrument of justification. The real ground of our faith is Christ’s righteousness.
That is what Paul goes on to show in verses 4-5, where he introduces a bookkeeping metaphor. Paul says that grace and debt are mutually exclusive. If you earn it, then it can’t be given to you. This alone proves that it is not faith that imputed for righteousness. If it were, then faith would turned into a kind of work. Even the end of verse 5 does not shake us in this reading of the text, when it says, “his faith is counted as righteousness.” On the principle of Scripture interpreting Scripture, we must realize the nature of faith. Faith is not a thing. It doesn’t have a substance of its own. Faith is a dependence on God. Faith is trust. That is exactly what Paul says when he says “Trusts him who justifies the ungodly.” That is one of the most remarkable statements in all of Scripture. Scripture constantly tells us that it is utterly wrong to justify the ungodly, to acquit the wicked. That is what happens when the judge lets the guilty person go free. Proverbs 24:24 says, “Whoever says to the wicked, ‘You are in the right,’ will be cursed by peoples, abhorred by nations.” Proverbs 17:15 says, “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the Lord.” Exodus 23:7 says (the Lord is speaking!), “Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent and righteous, for I will not acquit the wicked.” Last but not least, is Isaiah 5:22-23: “Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine, and valiant men in mixing strong drink, who acquit the guilty for a bribe, and deprive the innocent of his right.” Well, God is obviously doing something new and different to be able to justify the ungodly. That new thing is the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our faith in Christ means that God can justify the ungodly while still remaining just and holy. Notice that in saying “the ungodly,” Paul is including Abraham in that category. What? Righteous Abraham ungodly? Yes. Paul has proved that in the first three chapters. There is no one who is righteous, no, not one. In case we didn’t get the fifth time, He says it about ten times more. And no, righteousness is not basically about the status of being a covenant member, as N.T. Wright says. Righteousness is about keeping God’s law. We haven’t kept it, and so we need to trust in someone who has. The righteousness of Jesus Christ is the only righteousness available to us. We need a perfect righteousness, not merely a fairly good kind of righteousness, because God’s law is holy, just, and good.
Paul goes on to speak about the forgiveness of sins. How are justification and forgiveness related? Well, Paul says that they are two sides of the same coin. Notice how Paul interprets David: the forgiveness of sins described by David is called “the imputation of righteousness apart from works” by Paul. They are not exactly the same thing. What Paul is saying is that you cannot have the one without the other. F.F. Bruce puts it this way: “the non-imputation of sin, in which the psalmist rejoices, amounts to the positive imputation of righeousness…for there is no verdict of ‘Not proven’ in God’s court.” Another writer puts it this way, “Sins are not forgiven except in such a way that Christ’s righteousness is imputed.” In other words, you are either condemned or vindicated. If you are acquitted, then you have the status of righteousness. There is no such status as “merely forgiven.” If we are forgiven, then we are sons. If we have escaped hell, it is because we have been given heaven. The same act of God does both simultaneously.
Paul goes on to talk about circumcision. Is it possible to say that Abraham was justified because he was circumcised? Paul says no. Paul argues that Abraham was justified long before he was circumcised. The Jew would then ask, “Why did Abraham get circumcised at all?” The answer is so that Abraham would be the father of all who believe. Since Abraham was justified before he was cirucmcised, then Abraham was just like a Gentile who comes to faith and then becomes circumcised. Abraham wa cirucumcised so that he would be the father of the Jews who believe. So we can see that Abraham is the father of all who believe.
This has important implications for the debates swirling around us today. We believe, as good Reformed people, that baptism takes the place of circumcision. If that is true, then what is good for the goose is also good for the gander. Justification does not happen at the time point of baptism. And faith may or not come at the time-point of baptism. Again, going back to Chrysostom, “Circumcision is meaningless if there is no faith within. It is a sign of righteousness, but if there is no righteousness, then there is no sign either.” Indeed, it is quite possible to have faith, never be baptized, and still have assurance of faith. When it comes to assurance, there we really see the payoff of the correct doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. Whence comes our assurance? Chapter 18 of the WCF talks about assurance of faith. It does not mention baptism once. It says that “such as truly believe in the Lord Jesus (there is faith which justifies), and love Him in sincerity, endeavoring to walk in all good conscience before Him, may, in this life, be certainly assured that they are in the state of grace, and may rejoice in the hope of the glory of God, which hope shall never make them ashamed.” It goes on to say that the ground of assurance is founded upon the divine truth of the promises of salvation, the inward evidence of those graces unto which these promises are made, and the testimony of the Holy Spirit. Does that mean that our baptisms mean nothing when it comes to assurance? No, it is one of the means of grace. However, since baptized people fall away from the faith, baptism is not a certain means of assurance. When we ask, “How can I know that I am saved?” the answer lies in the righteousness of Christ imputed to us. It is because we do not earn it as wages due to us. It is because Christ has earned it for us. Augustine says it this way, “For Abraham was justified not by his own merit, as if by works, but by the grace of God through faith.”