5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness,
Each of these verses has the word “reckoned” (ESV “counted”). In brief, Paul uses the word to make an important contrast. A person who works earns a wage that is placed into his or her payroll account. The wage is reckoned as an obligation by the employer to make good on the payment. God, in contrast, reckons faith the only requirement for an ungodly person to be freely given the status of righteous. Seeing faith, God places righteousness in the account of an ungodly person. How amazing is the gospel of Jesus Christ!The wonder of grace by faith alone
Most teachings on Abraham focus on his and his wife Sarah’s early foibles and the maturing of his faith and obedience, culminating in his willingness to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham rightly stands out as both “father of faith” and paragon of obedience.
It is a bit surprising, therefore, that Paul uses Abraham to make his point that God reckons righteousness on the basis of faith alone, not works. Paul ignores Abraham’s many deeds and boldly proclaims that God “justifies the ungodly.” Douglas Moo quotes one of the early church fathers, Chrysostom, who noticed the significance of Paul’s claim:
The lesson of Abraham
By any human standard, Abraham was a great man. He amassed great wealth and was generous with his riches. A considerate man, he let his nephew Lot have the choicest land for his livestock. A capable leader and military commander, Abraham put together his own private army of 318 men to rescue Lot from captivity by a coalition of four kings. And being the honorable man that he was, he refused to accept the spoils of his victory.
Abraham was also a great religious man who on numerous occasions heard God speak to him. When God told him to leave his homeland, he did, and God blessed him, saying he would make from him a great nation. Following his victory over the warring kings, a priest by the name of Melchizedek blessed Abraham. God then appeared to him again in a vision, “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”A tragic assumption
Surely a man of Abraham’s character, accomplishments, and obedience to the word of God was worthy of being admitted to heaven. Millions of people in this nation and around the world would agree with that statement. Many, though perhaps admitting they do not measure up to Abraham’s standard, still think of themselves as good people worthy of heaven—that great golf course, fishing hole, or sewing circle up in the sky.
What a tragic mistake all these people make. Now hear what Paul says. Abraham was an “ungodly” man until he believed. His works did not obligate God to save him. He had moved toward God, but he remained a sinner desperately in need of salvation. Had he died before he believed, his generosity, his noble character, his feats as a leader of men, his religious mindset—none of these things or anything else he did—would earn from God the status of righteousness.
You see, these things I told you about Abraham took place before God reckoned him righteous. After the vision I referred to, God promised Abraham an offspring. It was then that “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). Only when he believed did the ungodly Abraham gain the standing before God as righteous. Faith, not works, changed his destiny. Though he died several millennia ago, he lives now with God.God spoke to us
At the end of this chapter Paul says a very important thing. He says that the words God spoke to Abraham—specifically, “it was reckoned to him”—were not written for Abraham’s sake alone but also for us. Paul says righteousness will be reckoned to us when we “believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (24–25).
We cannot earn righteousness. But God freely and willingly justifies us who are ungodly as a gift we obtain by faith. Christ died for the ungodly, for sinners, for enemies of God. Such was Abraham before he believed, and such are we before we believe. Only through faith—trust—in Christ do we obtain “access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (5:2).