UNEARNED CREDIT: JUSTIFICATION BY FAITH
By David Feddes
How can I be right with God? I can’t ask myself a more important question than that, and neither can you. What would you say if you were to stand before God right now, and he asked, “Why should I let you into heaven?” Would you be tongue-tied? Or do you have some reason for thinking you’re right with God?
If you haven’t thought about this before, it’s high time you did. Maybe you’d rather avoid the subject, but you can’t avoid it forever. Like it or not, the time is coming when you will stand before the Judge of heaven and earth. Jesus is coming again, and even if he delays his coming for many years yet, the fact remains that you are going to die, perhaps sooner than you think. You can’t avoid the day of reckoning. You will have to stand before God, and you need to be right with him before that time comes.
So how about it? If you had to stand before God right now and he asked, “Why should I let you into heaven?” what would you say? Could you give an answer? Would it be an answer that God found acceptable?
Here’s the story of someone who wrestled with this very problem. Martin was a brilliant young man. At age 21 he already had a master’s degree and was headed for a career in law. But Martin’s thoughts were on more than just his career. He often thought of God and of heaven and hell. He wanted to be right with God and have a place in heaven, but he wasn’t sure how. The thought of meeting God terrified him. Martin was part of a church, but his church didn’t do much to ease his fears.
One summer day, Martin was walking along when the sky become overcast with black clouds. The lightning flashed, the thunder rumbled, and the rain began to pour down. Suddenly a bolt of lightning struck so close to Martin that the impact knocked him down. In his terror he cried out, “St. Anne help me! I will become a monk.”
You see, Martin’s church taught that the saints could help a person gain favor with God, and the church also taught that if you joined a monastery and became a monk, you had a better chance of making it to heaven. And so, unlike many who make promises in a panic and later forget them, Martin kept his promise. He gave up his career and entered a monastery to work on his salvation.
There Martin devoted himself to prayer, singing, study, and meditation. He did so well that in less than two years, his superior selected him to become a priest. But even this did not give him peace with God. As he was saying his first mass, he had another crisis. During the mass, he found himself reciting the words, “We offer unto thee, the living, the true, the eternal God,” and as Martin later told the story,
At these words I was utterly stupified and terror-stricken. I thought to myself, “…Who am I, that I should lift up my eyes or raise my hands to the divine Majesty? The angels surround him. At his nod the earth trembles. And shall I, a miserable little pygmy, say ‘I want this, I ask for that’? For I am dust and ashes and full of sin and I am speaking to the living, eternal and true God.
The young priest was shaken. It took every ounce of his power just to stay at the altar long enough to finish saying the mass.
After that Martin worked even harder to earn God’s approval. He prayed even more than the rules of the monastery required. He studied theology for long hours; he got his degree as a doctor of theology. He fasted, sometimes going three days in a row without eating a crumb. He went to confession constantly, in accordance with his church’s teaching that, in order for your sins to be forgiven, you had to confess them to a priest. But he knew that there had to be some sins he was overlooking. If his salvation depended on his ability to recall every last sin and confess it to the priest, then he was lost.
Martin kept searching for peace. It frightened him to think of God, so he thought of God’s Son, Jesus. But he knew that Jesus would return to judge the world, and that frightened him all the more. He turned his prayers to Jesus’ mother Mary; he hoped she might be tender and compassionate and put in a good word for him. It didn’t help. He chose twenty-one dead saints as his special patrons, three for each day of the week, and he prayed to them. But that didn’t help. There he was: a priest, a theologian, a monk, completely devoted to the practice of religion, and yet no matter what he tried, it couldn’t put him right with God.
Then came the discovery. Martin began to study the Bible book of Romans, and he kept coming across a phrase that puzzled him: “the righteousness of God.” He took the phrase to mean that God is righteous and acts righteously by punishing those who are wicked. That was a terrifying thought. Martin wrote,
My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit could assuage him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him…
Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the righteousness of God and that statement [in Romans] that “the righteous shall live by his faith.” Then I grasped that the righteousness of God is the righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning. This passage became to me a gate to heaven.
Martin Luther had discovered how to be on good terms with God: not by good deeds or church rituals or prayers to saints, but by trusting in God’s free gift of righteousness in Christ. Luther wrote, “If you have a true faith that Christ is your Savior, then at once you have a gracious God, for faith leads you in and opens up God’s heart and will, that you should see pure grace and overflowing love.”
What Luther found in the book of Romans transformed his life. It also transformed the life of the church. On October 31, 1517, Luther launched a public protest against church abuses and teachings that were clouding the Bible’s message of justification by faith. His protest sparked the great movement known as the Protestant Reformation. I mention all this, not just as a history lesson, but because you need to face the questions Luther faced and discover the answer Martin Luther discovered in the Bible.
Justified by Faith
If God asks you, “Why should I let you into heaven?” and you say, “I’m basically a good person” or “I’ve gone through the right rituals” or “I’ve tried my best,” you will be lost forever. Your best isn’t good enough. In order to be right with a perfectly righteous God, you need nothing less than perfect righteousness. And you’re not perfect. You’re a sinner.
In order to be right with God, you need to give up on your own qualifications and accept the perfect righteousness of Christ as a gift that God freely credits to those who believe. The Bible makes this absolutely clear in Romans 4:5, which says, “To the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.” In other words, being right with God is a matter of unearned credit. It’s a matter of believing, not achieving; of faith, not works.
The Bible says in Romans 3, “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood” (3:21-26).
If God asked you, “Why should I let you into heaven?” what would you say? You might say, “Well, I’m basically a pretty good person.” But God would say, “No, you’re not. There is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10). You see, to qualify for heaven, you have to be sinless. And if you think you’re sinless, you’re fooling yourself and you’re calling God a liar. As the Bible puts it, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us… If we claim we have not sinned, we make [God] out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives” (1 John 1:8,10). If you’re counting on your own goodness to get you into heaven, I guarantee you on the authority of God’s Word that you’ll never get there.
In order to be justified (or given a right standing) by God, you must give up on what you’ve done and trust in what Jesus Christ has done. Instead of working to earn God’s favor, trust a God who justifies the wicked, and God will credit your faith as righteousness.
This gospel of unearned credit, of justification by faith, is not a new message. It wasn’t new when Martin Luther came upon it almost 500 years ago. Luther found it from the book of Romans, written by the Apostle Paul 1,500 years before Luther. And it wasn’t even new in the book of Romans. This is how God has always dealt with his people, including those who lived thousands of years before Jesus came. Even before the New Testament book of Romans was written, even in Old Testament times, righteousness was a matter of unearned credit, of faith and not of works.
Paul made this discovery in his own life when he tried to earn salvation by works. His religious fanaticism turned him into a hater of Jesus and a killer of Christians. But then Jesus appeared to him, and Paul put his faith in Jesus and was made right with God through faith. After thinking things through and taking another look at the Old Testament Scriptures, Paul found that justification by faith had been God’s way of salvation all along, even in Old Testament times.
Abraham and David
In Romans 4 Paul shows this by looking back at two of the leading figures in Old Testament history: Abraham, the father of God’s people, who live 2,000 years before Christ; and David, the great king who lived 1,000 years before Christ. Paul writes:
What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. What does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (v. 1-3).
Did God declare Abraham righteous because Abraham earned it? No, God made some promises to Abraham, Abraham believed those promises of God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. Paul then brings out the full significance of this. He says,
Now, when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited to him as righteousness.
There’s a big difference between a wage and a gift. When you punch the time clock every morning and put in a hard day’s work, do you consider your paycheck a gift? Of course not! It’s something you’ve earned. You’ve worked hard for it. You deserve it. Your boss isn’t giving you a gift; he owes you that money. “When a man works,” says Paul, “his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation.”
However, that’s not how salvation works. The Bible doesn’t say “Abraham worked hard, and God gave him credit for the righteousness he had earned.” No, it says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Apart from any achievements on Abraham’s part, his faith was credited to him as righteousness. He was credited with something he hadn’t earned. It was a gift.
Abraham’s faith is proof, says Paul, that “to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited to him as righteousness.” But, you might wonder, how can the Bible use Abraham as an example of God justifying the wicked? Wasn’t Abraham a great and godly man? Well, keep in mind that before God called him, Abraham was an idol worshipper. And even after he came to know God, Abraham was a sinful man in need of forgiveness.
The Bible tells the story of what happened while Abraham and his wife Sarah were staying for a time in Egypt. Sarah was beautiful, and Abraham was afraid the king might want her and that the king might have him killed in order to get her. Abraham was willing to lie and pretend that Sarah wasn’t his wife. He was so concerned for his own skin that he was willing to let another man sleep with her. God kept it from happening, but it certainly wasn’t because Abraham was so noble or courageous (Genesis 12).
And if once wasn’t bad enough, Abraham did the same thing again later on, this during a stay in Palestine. He again pretended Sarah and he were not married because he was afraid of the king. Again, he was willing to let his wife become part of the king’s harem, and it was only God’s intervention that kept it from happening (Genesis 20).
It was this Abraham—Abraham the former idol worshiper, Abraham the cowardly liar who was willing to let another man have his wife—it was this Abraham who believed God and was credited with righteousness. According to Romans 4, Abraham is proof that “to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited to him as righteousness.”
And Abraham isn’t the only Old Testament example. What about the great King David? According to Romans 4,
David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to who God credits righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him” (v. 6-8).
If a right standing with God depended on a perfect record, David didn’t have a chance. David committed adultery with Bathsheba. David had her husband Uriah killed. David took no action when his daughter Tamar was raped by his son Amnon. But although David was sinful, he admitted his sinfulness and trusted in a God who credits righteousness apart from works.
Both Abraham and David discovered the very same thing: righteousness is a matter of unearned credit. “To the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.” Already in the Old Testament, God’s people were saved through faith and not works. They found that the Lord didn’t count their sins against them, but that instead, he credited to them a righteousness they hadn’t earned.
How could God do this? How could he be a just judge and still leave the sins of people like Abraham and David and countless others unpunished? Because he had already determined to send his Son to pay the just penalty for their sins. Paul says, “God presented [Christ] as a sacrifice of atonement through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished” (Romans 3:25-26). Instead of condemning Old Testament believers for their sins, God was adding their sins to Christ’s account until the day when Jesus would pay the price on the cross, and God was crediting to those Old Testament believers the righteousness that Jesus would someday earn for them.
So you see, God’s way of salvation has been the same throughout history. For Abraham, 2000 years before Christ, and for David, 1000 years before Jesus came, it was a matter of faith and unearned credit based on the future work of Christ. For Paul, writing not long after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and for us, 2000 years later, it is a matter of faith and unearned credit based on the completed work of Christ. No matter who you are, no matter where you live, no matter when in history you live, the answer to the question, “How can I be right with God?” is always the same.
If you could go to heaven and ask people there how God accepted them, you’d hear the same refrain over and over. If you asked Abraham, “How did you get here?” he’d tell you, “I was an idol worshipper, a liar, and a coward, but I trusted a God who justifies the wicked, and he credited me with a righteousness I didn’t earn.” If you asked David, “How did you get here?” he’d say, “I was an adulterer, a murderer, and a failure as a father, but I trusted a God who justifies the wicked, and he credited me with a righteousness I didn’t earn.” If you asked Mary Magdalene, “How did you get here?” she’d say, “I was an immoral, demon-possessed women, but I trusted a God who justifies the wicked, and he credited me with a righteousness I didn’t earn.” If you asked St. Paul, “How did you get here?” he’d say, “I was the chief of sinners, a proud blasphemer, a killer of Christians, but through Jesus Christ I trusted a God who justifies the wicked, and he credited me with a righteousness I didn’t earn.” If you asked Martin Luther, or anybody else in heaven, how they got there, you’d hear the same refrain.
So how can you be right with God? The very same way as every other person whom God accepts: by admitting your own sin and putting your faith in the perfect obedience and sacrifice of Jesus Christ. What happens is this: God takes your sins and transfers them to Christ’s account. The price of those sins is fully paid through the infinite suffering and death of Jesus on the cross. God then takes the perfect obedience and holiness of Christ and credits that to your account, so that you are counted as having the perfect righteousness required to enter heaven. Christ got what you’ve earned, so that you can get what Christ has earned. That’s the miracle of divine bookkeeping. In the words of the Bible, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Romans 3:22).
That’s why God sent his only Son into the world: to purchase unearned credit for the people he loved. “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). The only way you can be right with God is by accepting the blood-bought righteousness of Jesus.
So let me ask you again: What are you counting on to make you right with God? Are you hoping you’re good enough to please God? Or do you put your faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ? “To the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.” If God is moving you to accept his unearned credit right now, then make these words of a Christian poet your own personal prayer.
Not what my hands have done can save my guilty soul;
not what my toiling flesh has borne can make my spirit whole.
Not what I feel or do can give me peace with God;
not all my prayers and sighs and tears can bear my awful load.
Your voice alone, O Lord, can speak to me of grace;
your power alone, O Son of God, can all my sin erase.
No other work but yours, no other blood will do;
no strength save that which is divine can bear me safely through.
I praise the Christ of God; I rest on love divine;
and with unfaltering lip and heart I call this Savior mine.
My Lord has saved my life and freely pardon gives;
I love because he first loved me, I live because he lives.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.