Righteousness Apart from Works
In Paul’s epistle to the Romans, Paul cites a passage from one of David’s Psalms to demonstrate that “God imputes righteousness apart from works” (Rom. 4:5-8). So, how does God “impute righteousness” here and what “works” does the apostle speak of?
When we go back and look at the Psalm Paul cites, it is amazing to note how similar David’s words are to the covenant we, as Christians, are under.
David says, “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit” (Psalm 32:1-2; cf. Rom. 4:7-8).
First of all, it is critical to note that Paul equates “imputes righteousness” (Rom. 4:6) with “does not impute iniquity” (Rom. 4:8; Psa. 32:2). So, contrary to the claims of many, there is not some type of miraculous transfer of the Lord’s righteousness to a Christian when they believe, God simply does not credit or count one’s sins against them when they trust in Him. The important question, however, is what is necessary to “trust in Him” (i.e., faith).
Secondly, it is important to recognize that the “works” Paul has in mind here will identify the “works” he has in mind throughout the book of Romans. As a matter of fact, these are the same “works” he basically has in view in all of his writings. Paul’s first century readers would readily identify with whatever “works” he has in view. Chapter 2:17-29 sets the stage for Paul’s argument, and clearly, he has the law of Moses squarely in view.
Thus, we must ask as we read, is Paul striving to argue “no works” are necessary to obtain righteousness (as so many believe today)? Is Paul using this quote of David to demonstrate that all one has to do is “believe” that Jesus Christ died for our sins in order to obtain righteousness and that there is nothing else required (i.e., “no works” are necessary)? Or is Paul demonstrating throughout this context that one cannot and will not find salvation by “works” of the Law of Moses, whether they are Jew or Gentile? Let’s consider this question.
As we examine more thoroughly the context of Psalm 32, we learn that David did not believe that nothing was required of him except his “faith” (i.e., believing that God would forgive him, as most characterize faith in this context today). Psalm 32:3-4 tells us that when David “kept silent” (i.e., did nothing), he suffered greatly. On the other hand, David says, “I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I have not hidden. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and You forgave the iniquity of my sin” (Psa. 32:5-6).
So, David clearly did not find righteousness apart from ALL “works” since two critical “works” were done by him. He ”acknowledged” and “confessed” his sins (cf. Prov. 28:13). David concluded “For this cause everyone who is godly shall pray to You in a time when You may be found” (Psa. 32:6). Thus, prayer is the medium by which one acknowledges and confesses his sins. He concludes his Psalm saying, “Many sorrows shall be to the wicked; but he who trusts in the Lord, mercy shall surround him” (Psa. 32:10). Hence, he characterizes acknowledging and confessing his sins in prayer as trusting in the Lord.
Not only is it amazing how David’s prescription to those under God’s covenant for receiving the forgiveness of sins is so similar to what John sets forth, it should not surprise us that trusting in God includes not only relying on His promises, but also doing what He commands to obtain those promises. John wrote, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:8-9). When we deny our sins (i.e. do nothing), our sins are imputed to us. When we do what God says (i.e., trust in Him), our sins are not imputed to us (i.e., we find forgiveness and cleansing). It is important to note that John’s conditional statement is written to Christians. It is written to those who are “in Him” through baptism, having their sins cleansed by His blood (cf. Eph. 1:7; Gal. 3:26-27; Rom. 6:1-6).
Overall, this demonstrates that Paul did not have “all works” in view when he wrote Romans, but a specific set of “works.” The greater context reveals that Paul has the “works” of the Law of Moses in view. He is telling those Jews (and Gentiles) of the first century (and all ages) that works of the Law of Moses would not make them righteous. Rather, by faith in Jesus Christ we find our justification, peace and grace (cf. Rom. 5:1-2).
Nevertheless, by citing Psalm 32, Paul gives us an inspired commentary. He does not only show the prophetic nature of David’s words (since in David’s age, the law of Moses demanded animal sacrifice for his sin, in addition to a penitent heart). He also demonstrates what it means for a Christian (a baptized believer— cf. Matt. 28:19) to obtain righteousness by faith. A Christian must trust in the words of the Lord Jesus. We will not find righteousness by doing what Moses commanded us to do, but we will find righteousness by doing what the Lord Jesus Christ has commanded us to do (cf. Luke 1:6).
This was an essential message in the first century. It is just as essential today! We must wholly trust in the Lord and do (i.e., practice, work) whatever “works” He has taught us to do (cf. 1 John 3:7; Matt. 28:20; Prov. 3:5-6) to obtain righteousness (cf. Heb. 11:4).
When we live this way, the only One we can rightfully boast in is the Lord. Our boast cannot be in our own merit, nor can we argue the Lord owes us anything, since we have simply done what was commanded of us (cf. Luke 17:6-10). Instead, as Paul concluded in his epistle to the Galatians, our boast can only be in the Lord. He wrote, “For not even those who are circumcised keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh. But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation.” (Gal. 6:13-15, emphasis mine, jlp).
Only those Christians who trust God as David trusted God will find “righteousness apart from works”! Only those who trust Jesus, and do what He says to become a Christian, will find the cleansing of their sins (cf. Acts 22:16). Therefore, hear Him, believe Him, confess Him, repent and be baptized (Matt. 28:19-20; Mark 16:15-16; Acts 2:38; Rom. 10:9-10)! Begin your walk by faith today!
By Jonathan L. Perz
From Expository Files 20.6; June 2013