October 23, 2023
“To the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.”
Some 455 years before the PCA began, a German monk dared to ask: How can I find a gracious God? Luther’s question was satisfied only when he rediscovered the doctrine of justification by faith. This radioactive doctrine would quickly turn society on its head. Why was justification by faith so impactful then, and what relevance might it have today? Let’s consider Paul’s words more closely.
In Romans 4:5, Paul’s understanding of justification comes into sharp focus as he draws a distinction between the person who works and the person who trusts. The distinction is absolute: The one who trusts “does not work,” because that person recognizes that working simply will not work. No one could ever be enough or do enough to meet God’s standard: “all are under the power of sin” (3:9), “there is no one righteous” (3:10). If anyone is going to be deemed qualified for salvation, this qualification must come in the face of human disqualification. God must “justify the ungodly.”
But how can God remain just and justify the ungodly? Paul gestures back to the answer in verse 4, when he observes how the reward of a person who works is not calculated “as a gift,” but “as an obligation.” By using the word “gift,” Paul reminds us of how God’s righteousness has now been unveiled as a gift through Jesus Christ (3:21–26). The fitting response to this gift is faith, which “is credited as righteousness.” This cannot be because faith is some kind of alternative qualification; faith is a disposition that recognizes that one possesses no intrinsic qualification; a disposition that drives one to look outside oneself—to Jesus—for qualification. When God looks out at the world, there is one thing and one thing only that God finds acceptable—the gift of his Son. Faith recognizes this reality and rests in this gift.
Many today question the enduring relevance of justification by faith. What does this doctrine offer to a society that isn’t even sure if a god exists, much less of the need for that god to be gracious? It is important to remember that to be justified simply means to be deemed right with respect to a standard—a readily relatable concept.
After a number of suicides at the University of Pennsylvania, a task force was established to explore the mental health of students. The findings were tragic: “The pressures engendered by the perception that one has to be perfect in every academic, co-curricular, and social endeavor can lead to stress and in some cases distress. … [Distress] can manifest as demoralization, alienation, or conditions like anxiety or depression. For some students, mental illness can lead to suicide” (1). The college campus is not unique in its imposition of standards. Thou shalt be skinny; thou shalt be healthy; thou shalt be put together; thou shalt be laid back; thou shalt be unique; thou shalt be present; thou shalt be successful—these are some of the intense pressures we live under. Despite our best efforts none of us can ever seem to do enough or be enough or have enough. Paul’s words apply: “for by works of the law no human will be justified” (3:20).
To be sure, Paul is not talking about the law of making perfect grades, of inclusivity, of tolerance, or of being true to yourself. Paul is talking about the Jewish law, which is the best law, given by God. But if that law can’t make a person righteous, how much less any modern one! The consequence of all this failure to measure up is that our society lives not so much under the burden of guilt (I’ve done wrong), but shame (I am wrong). But it is precisely here where we need to recover the reformers’ (and Paul’s!) articulation of justification, which says that what we receive in justification is not simply a record, but a person.
In any case, maybe the need for righteousness isn’t just a 16th-century religious problem after all. Maybe it’s a 21st-century, human problem. To that very human problem, there is a distinctly divine answer: you cannot be enough; you cannot do enough; but Jesus is enough, enough for you and me.
(1) See Julie Scelfo, “Suicide on Campus and the Pressure of Perfection,” New York Times, July 27, 2015.
Kyle Wells pastors Christ Presbyterian Church in Santa Barbara, California.