Pastor’s Class Notes
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
TWO PARADOXICAL ABSURDITIES
Introduction: It is natural for man to believe that one is saved by works, but to God such an idea is absurd. On the other hand, God offers to man salvation without works; but man views such an idea as absurd.
The two verses of our text deal with these two paradoxical absurdities. Paul is desperately trying to get men to turn from that which seems “logical” in their own eyes. It is imperative that men “lean not unto their own understanding.” They must instead accept God’s prescribed way.
Romans 4:4 “Now to him that worketh is the reward
not reckoned of grace, but of debt.”
Paul is here using a simple illustration from everyday life to show the absurdity of believing in salvation by works. If a man could earn his salvation, Heaven would not be a gift, but rather a debt that God owes.
A man who works for an employer does not consider his paycheck a gift. It is rather something earned. The employer is technically in debt to the worker and can be thrown in jail if he refuses to pay.
That is exactly the way men wish salvation to be. They want God to be in their debt. Something that can be earned appeals to their pride. “Man is much like a silkworm, he is a spinner and weaver by nature. A robe of righteousness is wrought out for him, but he will not have it; he will spin for himself, and like the silkworm, he spins and spins, and he only spins himself a shroud. All the righteousness that a sinner can make will only be a shroud in which to wrap up his soul, his destroyed soul, for God will cast him away who relies on the works of the law” (Spurgeon). God owes the human race nothing! God will never allow Himself to be viewed as a debtor.
As long as a person works for salvation, he will not receive it. It is impossible for God to be a debtor to any man. Imagine a sinner demanding Heaven with the boldness of a laborer demanding a paycheck. No human can dare approach God and say, “You owe me Heaven. You are in debt to me.”
Heaven would be a Pharisee’s paradise if men could earn their salvation. For eternity we would have to listen as men bragged about this and bragged about that. Heaven’s glory would not belong to God, but rather to men.
Such a condition just cannot be. Do not go to Heaven’s gate expecting to find a cashier’s window there. They are not going to distribute “x” number of tickets based on “x” number of good deeds which will entitle them to “x” degrees of happiness in heaven. No! No! No! Away forever with any such thought. Everything will be of grace.
You will be foolish to come claiming you deserve what is inside. You must come solely as a suppliant, as one staking his all on mercy. It is natural for man to believe that one is saved by works; however, to God such an idea is absurd.
Romans 4:5 “But to him that worketh not, but believeth
on him that justifieth the ungodly, his
faith is counted for righteousness.”
After revealing the absurdity of the principle of salvation by works, Paul now proceeds to establish the validity of that which men by nature view as absurd–the principle of salvation without works.
According to this verse, the man right with God is the one who “worketh not, but believeth on Him. . . .”
“Worketh not”–in other words, the one who gets saved is the one who throws aside any pretense of earning salvation.
God does not mean for believers to forsake good works, nor does He disparage obedience to the law. The only kind of good works He forbids is when these efforts are attempts to bribe Him. God disdains our trying to be mercenaries. He does not like it when we try to “buy Him off.”
We must never demand things of God as though they were justly our due. God utterly refuses to take anyone into heaven who claims to be good or godly based on their own merit.”
“Believeth on Him”–God saves those who place their trust in Him rather than in themselves. Faith involves the recognition of one’s own inability to save self. Faith is unnecessary in one who senses total self-sufficiency. Faith involves the distrusting of every earthly thing for salvation. It involves the desertion of every human means for merit. Faith never approaches God as a hireling. It refuses to claim it is owed any wages. It clings to God and God only. Salvation is found totally apart from works. In fact, any man who tries to merit salvation is making his chances for Heaven worse, not better.
Salvation without works seems to men ludicrous, impossible, ridiculous, preposterous. Nevertheless, it is true, and our text tells us why–God “justifieth the ungodly.”
Justification by faith without works has to be the means of salvation, because God justifies the ungodly. Ungodly people are the only kind that Jesus saves.
Justifying the ungodly is God’s noblest work. No other judge or court can do such a thing. They can only justify the just and punish the guilty, but God reverses this process. He condemns those who profess innocence, and justifies those who profess their guilt in repentance and faith.
Salvation is an absolute miracle. God does not first make us good and then save us. He saves us first and then sets Himself to the task of making us better. It is a miracle wrought by grace through faith in Jesus.
Therefore, ungodliness is no barrier to salvation. The only thing that can keep a man from being saved is refusal to repent in faith. The load of your sin cannot in itself keep you from salvation. There is no need for you to despair. You are not beyond hope.
In fact, if you are a sinner (and you are), you are a prime prospect for salvation. Jesus said that He came to seek and to save the lost (LK 19:10). He saves ungodly people. That is why I know I am saved.
If this verse has said God would save John Marshall, I might fear that it meant another person of the same name. Seeing my name given in this verse would not give me near as much assurance as seeing my spiritual name there.
“Ungodly” is the real me. I know exactly to whom that refers. I cannot mistake that identification. It means that even I can be saved. (If I were Pentecostal, I would cut loose and shout right now. Come to think of it, I think I’ll do it anyway. HALLELUJAH!)
William R. Newell is best known now as the author of our beloved song “At Calvary.” However, in his lifetime, he was famous as an excellent expositor of the Word of God. D. L. Moody brought Newell to Chicago to serve as assistant superintendent of Moody Bible Institute. Later, however, Moody himself commissioned Newell to devote all his time to Bible teaching. Newell began weekly Bible classes in Chicago, Detroit, Toronto and St. Louis. He had an experience here in our own city of St. Louis that involved this particular verse we are now considering. Let me share it with you.
Newell was holding noon meetings in the Century Theater. After the lesson one day, he was confronted by a riverboat captain, one of St. Louis’ most widely known men. The captain said, “You are speaking to the most ungodly man in St. Louis.”
Newell shouted, “Thank God!”
The captain was stunned. “Do you mean you are glad that I am bad?”
Newell replied, “No, but I certainly am glad to find a sinner that knows he is a sinner.”
The captain confessed, “O you do not know the half! I have been absolutely ungodly here in St. Louis for years and years.” The captain told how he had tried to read the Bible and pray. He had even given money to help the needy, but he still sensed his own ungodliness. William Newell turned to Romans 4:5 and read it. The captain related to the word “ungodly.” He said, “There! that’s what I am–ungodly.”
The captain wanted to know what to do to be saved. Newell told him the main deed had already been done. Jesus had died for the ungodly. God’s judgment had fallen on Him. All who believe on God on the ground of Christ’s shed blood shall be saved.
The captain immediately said, “Mr. Newell, I will accept that proposition,” and off he went without another word.
Next noonday, the captain asked permission to address the theater of businessmen. They all knew of him and listened as he said, “I want to tell you all of the greatest proposition I ever found. I am a business man, and know a good proposition. But I found one yesterday that so filled me with joy, that I could not sleep a wink all night. I found out that God for Jesus Christ’s sake declares righteous any ungodly man that trusts in Him. I trusted Him yesterday; and you all know what an ungodly man I was. I thank you for listening to me; I felt I could not help but tell you of this wonderful proposition: that God should count me righteous. I have been such a great sinner.”
Newell said this man lived many years in St. Louis, an ornament to his confession.