Paul’s making his case from Scripture that we’re justified before God not based on our performance at all but solely based on faith in Christ. As we mentioned before, he’s using Abraham and David as his pieces of evidence. What he says about Abraham was so pivotal that I had to spend an extra day on it.
Abraham had a lot of things he’d done for the Lord. Based only on God’s spoken word, Abraham had left behind everything he’d ever known in Ur: Most of his family, all his friends, his home, etc. And did God tell him where he was going? No. He told him simply “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.” Then later the Lord told him that he would bless Abraham with children, and that his children would outnumber the stars in the sky, and here’s where we get to the verse that Paul quotes. It’s difficult to overstate how important this one verse is to the apostle, and thus it should be just as important to us: “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
This is precisely what Paul was talking about with regards to justification by faith. God gave Abraham a promise, he trusted the Lord, and God credited it to him as righteousness.
The way a lot of religions--in fact, this is the default setting everybody seems to have--see our relationship with the Almighty is something akin to a balance sheet for a budget. You have credits and debits. When you sin or do something wrong, you have something taken out of your “account” with him. When you do something good, then you add to the “plus” column. When you die, God weighs the scales, and if your “good” column outweighs your “bad” column, then you’re good to go.
The problem is that with God, none of our “good” can ever make up for the “bad.” It doesn’t take more than a drop of poison (depending on the type) to turn a healthy glass of water into a deadly concoction. As I’ve mentioned before, his standard is not “better than Hitler.” His standard is perfection. Anything less isn't good enough to be declared righteous in his court.
So what do we do? Well, nothing. But here’s another explanation as to what God did through Christ. We believe in God’s promises, specifically his promise that if we trust in Christ, we’ll be saved. For example, one of my personal favorites: “Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.” Or John 3:16.
He then takes that faith in Christ and “credits” our “account” with the righteousness of Christ. And as far as our “bad” column is concerned, it’s erased then broken into pieces, never to be brought up again.
Now, if you were perfect before him, if you never sinned in thought or word or deed, and if you perfectly loved him (the most important commandment, remember), then theoretically he’d be obligated to accept you. Anyone want to volunteer for that system?
For the rest of us--those who are not Jesus—we have to trust in the One who “justifies the ungodly.”
Now, I need to make a quick note here. It’s entirely possible that I have some Roman Catholic readers here. I love you as much as I possibly can without knowing you personally. So I have to shoot straight with you.
I want to be completely fair and honest with you. The Catholic Church, at best, is really confused on the point of salvation. This by no means indicates that there aren’t any saved Catholics, but it does mean that their church has given them something besides the pure and simple Good News. Quite frankly, what the Catholic Church officially teaches concerning salvation completely contradicts verse 5. They categorically deny that God justifies someone who isn’t really righteous. If you aren’t personally righteous in your conduct, then God will not pronounce you as such.
Again, this flatly contradicts the plain meaning of verse 5: He justifies (declares righteous and not guilty) the ungodly. He doesn't make us righteous in our conduct and then declare us so. He declares us righteous and then starts the process of making us righteous in our personal conduct.
According to Paul himself, it’s really really really important that we get this straight. Nothing less than our souls are at stake here.
Father God, I can testify personally that you certainly do justify the ungodly. May my whole life and everything I am and do reflect that glorious truth.