I think they call it “sticker shock.” It’s that feeling you get when you first lay eyes on the price listed on the tag, the sticker, or the menu. If it happens inside a store or a restaurant, you might find yourself feeling a bit out of place, like you’re about to be “found out.” The contents of your wallet—or the lack thereof—testify to one thing: you don’t belong there.
College students go through something similar at the start of every school semester. With every class their eyes glaze over at the shock of seeing the syllabus—the list of work they’d be expected to complete in order to receive credit for taking that course.
We’ve all been there. We’ve all had those moments when it seemed that others’ expectations seemed impossibly high. We may have been angry with them for holding us to such standards; we may have felt dejected for failing to live up to them.
Throughout the book of Romans Paul emphasizes God’s righteousness. It is the standard by which each of us is measured; it is the standard by which each of us falls short (cf. Romans 3:23).
But, Paul says, in His infinite mercy God has chosen to declare us righteous, to “justify” us by pardoning sin and treating us as innocent.
CREDIT WHERE CREDIT ISN’T DUE
I suspect that Paul knew that his listeners would have trouble swallowing such an enormous message of grace. So he turns to the story of Abraham to help unpack just how it could be that God could look at a sinful human being and declare him anything other than unworthy.
What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:1-3)
If you have a background in church, you may remember Abraham from a Sunday School lesson. Abraham was the Father of the Jewish nation. It was through Abraham that God promised His people the blessing of the Promised Land and the blessing of descendants.
Not much is written about Abraham’s life before God called Him, but Joshua tells us that his family “lived beyond the Euphrates River, and they worshiped other gods” (Joshua 24:2). Abraham didn’t have a “church background.” Until God reached into Abraham’s life, it’s likely that all he knew was the wayward faith of his family.
So it’s significant, then, that God would reach into this man’s life and declare Abraham ”righteous.” We can’t possibly attribute this to Abraham’s faithful service to God, because he worshiped someone completely different. No, instead, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6).
Personally I prefer the older translations that emphasize that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness.
What does “credit” mean? Think about gift cards for a moment. Someone recently was generous enough to give me a fifty dollar gift card to Café del Sol. And what that means is that even if I have no money in my wallet, the staff of Café del Sol will treat me like I do. Why? Because that gift card gives me store credit—my spending power comes not from the money I bring, but the gift I’ve received.
That’s what Abraham experienced. To be “credited” with righteousness means that even though Abraham had no righteous deeds of his own, God treated him as though he had a perfect record of obedience. And the same can be true of you and me—that if we place our trust in Jesus, then we can “credited” with a perfect, righteous record of faithfulness and moral purity.
The reformer Martin Luther called this “alien righteousness,” by which he meant that this righteousness came from outside ourselves. He meant this to be a marked contrast to “active righteousness,” the righteousness we think we earn through moral effort.
Paul writes that only the righteousness of Christ have any real bearing on our lives:
4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness,6 just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:
7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
and whose sins are covered;
8 blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”
9 Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. 10 How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. 11 He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well,12 and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. (Romans 4:4-12)
Even here Paul is continually emphasizing just how little Abraham deserved to be “credited” with righteousness. Sure, Abraham moved onward into obedience, but Paul makes clear that God declared him righteous before—not after, but before Abraham took any steps of obedience. The ritual of circumcision—which by Paul’s day was a symbol of a great religious heritage—was only an outward sign of God’s work of justification.
Paul goes on to say:
13 For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14 For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15 For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression. (Romans 4:13-15)
Righteousness comes through faith. Our attempts to secure God’s approval through our own efforts will always cause us to come up short. We find a place at the King’s table not because we’re rich enough to pay the check, but because the King has already paid for our order. We are credited with the treasury of His merits even when our own treasure chest looks more like an ashtray.
“Sinners come inside; with no money, come and buy.” (Isaiah 55:1, paraphrase)