A Commentary by John Stott
Romans 4:1-8 a). Abraham was not justified by works. (continued).
Paul now moves on from Abraham to David, and so from Genesis 15:6 to Psalm 32:1-2. He finds a fundamental agreement between the two texts. *David says the same thing* when he describes *the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works* (6). We notice at once how the language of ‘crediting’ has changed. God is still the person who in sheer grace does the crediting, but now what he puts to our account is not ‘faith as righteousness’ but ‘righteousness’ itself. This is what David’s Old Testament beatitude teaches. Three times, in Hebrew parallelism, he refers to evil deeds, once as *transgressions (anomiai*, ‘lawlessness’) and twice as *sins (harmartiai*, ‘failures’), for sin is both the stepping over a known boundary and the falling short of a known standard. And three times he tells us what God has done with them. Our *transgressions are forgiven, our sins are covered*, and our *sin the Lord will never count against us* (7-8). Instead of putting our sins into account against us, God pardons and covers them.
We are now in a position to bring all this rich vocabulary together. Paul’s mind is not limited to one expression or to a single imagery. He has made it clear that the righteousness of (or from) God, which is revealed in the gospel (1:17; 3:21f.), is his just justification of the unjust. So in the second half of chapter 3 he keeps on using the verb ‘to justify’ (e.g. 3:24, 26, 28, 30). He also continues to use it in chapter 4 (4:2, 5, 25), as he will in chapter 5 (5:1, 9, 16, 18). He dismisses out of hand the possibility that Abraham could have been *justified by works* (2). But when he affirms positively how God *justifies the wicked* (5), he uses new expressions. First, God credits to us faith as righteousness (3, 5, 9, 22f.). Secondly, he credits to us righteousness apart from works (6, 11, 13, 24). And thirdly, he refuses to credit our sins against us, but pardons and covers them instead (7-8). One cannot claim that these three expressions are precise synonyms, but they belong together in justification. Justification involves a double counting, crediting, or reckoning. On the one hand, negatively, God will never count our sins against us. On the other hand, positively, God credits our account with righteousness, as a free gift, by faith, altogether apart from our works.
One is reminded of another, somewhat similar, double statement of Paul’s, namely, that in his work of reconciliation God was ‘not counting men’s sins against them’, but instead ‘made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (2 Cor. 5:19, 21). Christ became sin with our sins, in order that we might become righteous with God’s righteousness.
We may recall that in AV verb *logizomai* is sometimes translated not as ‘credit, count or reckon’ but to ‘impute’. For example, ‘Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin’ (8), indeed the person ‘unto whom God imputeth righteousness apart from works’ (6). The imagery of counting and crediting is financial, but that of imputation is legal. Both mean to ‘reckon something as belonging to someone’, but in the former case this is money, in the latter innocence or guilt (cf. 2 Sam. 19:19; Acts 7:60; 2 Tim. 4:16). This language became prominent in the sixteenth-century debate whether in the act of justification God ‘infuses’ righteousness into us (as the Roman Catholic Church taught) or ‘imputes’ it to us (as the Protestant Reformers insisted). The Reformers were surely right that when God justifies sinners he does not make them righteous (for that is the consequent process of sanctification), but he pronounces them righteous or imputes righteousness to them, reckoning them to be, and treating them as, (legally) righteous. C.H. Hodge clarifies this for us. ‘To impute sin is to lay sin to the charge of anyone, and to treat him accordingly.’ Similarly, ‘to impute righteousness is to set righteousness to one’s account, and to treat him accordingly’. Thus Paul writes in Romans 4 both of God not imputing sin to sinners, although it actually belongs to them, and of his imputing righteousness to us, although it does not belong to us. What Paul affirms is ‘that it was by means of faith that Abraham came to be treated as righteous, and not that faith was taken in lieu of perfect obedience’.
A further question is whether the righteousness which God graciously imputes to us may be said to be the righteousness of Christ, whether we may legitimately speak of being ‘clothed in the spotless robe of Christ’s righteousness’, and whether Zinzendorf was correct to write (in John Wesley’s translation):
Jesu, thy blood and righteousness
My beauty are, my glorious dress;
Midst flaming worlds, in these arrayed,
With joy shall I lift up my head.
This kind of language even in devotional hymns, is unfashionable today, and is declared by some to be theologically inadmissible. Indeed we must agree that the precise imagery does not occur in the New Testament. We are certainly told in this very letter to clothe ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 13:14; cf. Gal. 3:27), but his righteousness is not mentioned as the garment we are to put on. Nevertheless, on at least three occasions Paul comes so close to this picture that I for one believe it biblically permissible to use it. We are told that he was made sin for us, ‘so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (2 Cor. 5:21); that ‘he has become sin for us…our righteousness’ (1 Cor. 1:30; cf. Je. 23:6); and that if we ‘gain Christ’ and are ‘found in him’, then the righteousness we have is not our own but ‘the righteousness that comes from God’ through faith in Christ (Phil. 3:9). In each case, either Christ is our righteousness, or God’s righteousness becomes ours when we are in Christ. ‘Being clothed’ with the righteousness of God or of Christ is not mentioned; we are given the even greater privilege of ‘having’ it and even ‘becoming’ it. Once the reality of imputed righteousness is accepted, there can be little objection to the ‘clothing’ metaphor.
Tomorrow: Romans 4:9-12. b). Abraham was not justified by circumcision.