Romans 4:22-25, “22 That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” 23 But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, 24 but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, 25 who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”
Justification by faith alone, theologians have often told us, is simply shorthand for justification by the work of Christ alone. God requires a positive record of righteousness, and when we abandon all hope of pleasing the Lord in ourselves and rest only in Jesus, the positive record of righteousness He earned is imputed to us. It is put on our account before God, and He declares us righteous (Rom. 3:21–26; 5:12–21). Faith alone in Christ also manifests the imputation of our sin to Jesus in the atonement, His death to satisfy the wrath of God that we deserve (2 Cor. 5:21).
We emphasize justification by faith alone on account of Christ alone because if we believe our efforts play a part in the Father’s legal declaration that we are righteous, we deny the Lord’s perfect justice and destroy the only basis by which we can stand before Him unafraid. If God declares us just by taking our own deeds into account, then Jesus did not really mean what He said about the Lord’s demand of perfection (Matt. 5:48). After all, the best of our deeds are still tainted by impurity. Furthermore, when we try to bring our good works to God as a basis for our justification, we mix impure goodness with the pure and flawless goodness of Christ. We clothe ourselves with a garment that cannot protect us on Judgment Day.
That is why Martin Luther says in his commentary on Galatians 2:15–16 that “when we are in the matter of justification, that is not the time or the place to speak of the law.” In other words, our doing of the law of God plays no role in His legal declaration of righteousness. Of course, obedience is not optional, but it results from our justification; it does not produce our justification (Eph. 2:8–10; James 2:14–26). Only faith in Christ that relies on nothing but Christ and His promises allows us to be accounted as righteous in God’s sight. This was true for Abraham, today’s passage reveals, and it is true for every other sinner as well (Rom. 4:22–25).
All we need to do in order to be clothed in Jesus’ perfection and forgiven of sins before our great Judge in heaven is to “accept this gift [of righteousness] with a believing heart” (The Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 60). A right standing before God can be had only through Christ’s merit, and this merit is ours when we despair of our own righteousness and flee to the arms of the Savior for refuge.
As sinners, we regularly overlook the faults and transgressions of others. We know that no sinner is perfect, and so we are often willing to give people a pass when they do the very same misdeeds of which we ourselves are guilty. Yet, we err when we project this same attitude onto God. He demands absolute perfection, and the good news of the gospel is that Christ has met our need for perfection and that we benefit from His work through faith alone.