Some time ago, in connection with a national radio program that we produced, we went down to the center of Dallas, Texas, and stopped people on their busy round of life. We put a microphone in front of them and asked two very simple questions. The first question was, “Do you believe there’s a heaven?” The second question we asked was, “If so, who goes there?”
We talked to all kinds of people, to bankers and to busboys, to teachers and to students, to men in overalls and to people in white collars. And of that group of people to whom we spoke, 75 of them told us they believed in a place called heaven.
It was when we asked our second question that we got into trouble. “Since you believe there’s a heaven, who goes there?” The answers were as varied as the people to whom we spoke. Some folks just shrugged their shoulders and walked away. Others told us that they didn’t know. One lady said that, frankly, it was none of our business! Of that group of people, about 75 in number, every single one of whom told us they believed in a place called heaven, only two could give us any kind of clear-cut answer as to the kind of people who go there.
I would like to bring you a very simple message from what I believe to be one of the greatest gospel sentences in the Word of God. It is greater even than John 3:16, for it contains in its bosom all that John 3:16 proclaims and even more. It comes to us from Romans 4:5. “But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.”
When you first read that sentence, you may find it a bit difficult to understand. If you look at the sentence closely, however, you will see that the Apostle Paul is describing the people that God “justifies.” These are the men and women whom God declares are righteous and have an acceptable standing with Him. These are the people God will accept in heaven.
In this verse Paul gives us the characteristics of the individuals that He justifies. Those characteristics have a way of turning our values upside down, and they demonstrate the way God thinks is often quite different from our own.
The first characteristic of the people God justifies is that every single one of them has been an ungodly person.
Notice the text, “But to him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.” If you missed it there, you would find it in Romans 5:6, where we are told the only people for whom Christ died are those who are described as “the ungodly.”
This is one of the shocking declarations of the Scripture. God does not justify Bible readers. God does not justify praying people. God does not justify tithers or church members. God does not justify Baptist, or Methodist, or Roman Catholics, or Jewish people, or Episcopalians. God does not justify people who attend your church. The only people God justifies (that is, “declares righteous”) are “ungodly” people.
Since that is the clear statement of this sentence, the question is, “What does the Bible mean when it talks about the ‘ungodly’?”
The term “ungodly” could simply mean to be unlike God. I suppose all of us, in our better moments, would be willing to confess that is true of us. After all, God is infinite and we are finite. God is all-powerful and we are weak. God is all wise and we are limited. Most of us would be willing to admit that in these ways we are unlike God. But this word is far more severe than that. It not only means that we are unlike God, but in the context of Romans, it also means that down deep inside we are opposed to God.
It’s very much like that word, “un-American.” When you say that someone is “un-American,” you do not mean he lives in Canada or Mexico or Great Britain or Russia, but that the individual supports an ideology opposed to the principles on which the government of the United States was founded. That is the sense in which this word “ungodly” is used in the New Testament.
Not only are we different from God, but we are opposed to God and to God’s will in our lives. Again and again, we say “yes” when God says “no,” or we say “no” when God says “yes.” For example, we know what we ought to do and yet we do things we know we ought not do. We know that we ought to be kind, but often we are unkind. We know we should be honest, but we are dishonest. We know we should be pure, but often we are impure. We know we should honor our parents, but often we dishonor them. Again and again, by deliberate choice, we have said “no” to God’s “yes” and “yes” to God’s “no.”
In Romans 3, Paul, quoting the Old Testament, said that God looked down among the children of men and declared that “there is none righteous, no, not one. There is none that seeks after God.”
So you see, some time in your life, if you are going to be made right with God, you must admit that you are wrong with Him. If you are ever going to get to heaven, you must admit that you are ungodly — not because it’s the religious thing to do, or out of modesty, but because you recognize that it is true of you.
Every year the American Cancer Society spends thousands of dollars telling us about cancer’s seven danger signs. By means of advertisements in the newspaper, motion pictures, through articles in magazines, the American public has become aware of the symptoms of cancer. Yet, every year thousands of Americans die of cancer who have recognized the evidence in their bodies. Because of fear of the physician, or a fear of spending money, or worse, the fear of finding out they have the disease, they do not seek out a doctor. As a result, they die of cancer.
In the same way, if we are ever to gain health with God, we must admit that the Bible speaks the truth about us. We have gone our own way. We have rebelled against what we know we ought to do. We are ungodly people. Of course, since the Bible says this is true of all of us, it places all of us on exactly the same level before God. The prostitute and the preacher, the lawyer and the lawless, the gunman and the governor, the sophisticate and the savage, the doctor and the dunce — all stand before God as ungodly men and women in desperate need of God’s salvation.
So the first characteristic of all the people who ever get to heaven is that some place in their lives they faced the truth about themselves: they have admitted that they are ungodly.
Not only must anyone who ever gets to heaven admit that she is ungodly, but, in addition, she admits that she is unworthy of being there.
Again, notice our sentence closely: “But to him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.” It is “to him that worketh not.” This also cuts across the grain of human thinking.
We grow up in a society that, in a thousand different ways, tells us that we are rewarded on the basis of what we do. The first day that you went to kindergarten and the teacher put a star up on the chart, she was teaching you that lesson. All the way through school, when you did good work, you received high grades. If you did the best work over the twelve years, on graduation night you were allowed to make the valedictorian address while everybody else shifted in their seats. In later life, when you do effective work, you get the bonus. When you play well, you receive the medal. Wherever we live life, we are being taught that we are rewarded on the basis of what we do.
The lesson has been set to music. Those of you who have seen The Sound of Music know that in the delightful musical Maria falls in love. Standing opposite a man who has fallen in love with her, she sings a song to him:
There you are, standing there, loving me,
Whether or not you should.
Someplace in my youth or childhood,
I must have done something good.
Nothing ever comes from nothing.
Nothing ever could.
Someplace in my youth or childhood
I must have done something good.
Maria’s explanation for her romance is simple: she is being loved because in her teenage years or earlier, she did something good. We cannot escape being taught that rewards come for what we do.
God does not play that game; God changes our rules. He does not justify people on the basis of their conduct. Why? The answer is found in Romans 4:4. The previous sentence states: “Now to him that work-eth is the reward not reckoned of grace but of debt.”
Here’s the principle. At some time or another you have probably worked for a wage. Most of us do it now. I’m sure that on the fifteenth and on the first when we get our paychecks, few of us throw our arms around the boss and thank him for what he has given us. We probably feel that we are worth about twice what we are getting. What we get in that pay envelope is owed us. If you worked and received nothing in that envelope, every labor union in the land, every law court in the country would stand behind your right to collect. The principle is clear: when you work, what you receive is a wage owed to you as a debt. It is not a gift. It is not an act of grace or kindness. It is a debt owed to you.
God is not going to justify us on the basis of what we do, because that would put God in a position of owing us heaven. Even the U.S. government understands that principle. We have a friend who as a hobby enters contests. Some time ago, she entered a contest in which, in twenty-five words or less, she described the virtues of a certain brand of carpet. As a result, she and her husband won a trip to Hawaii. It was a marvelous trip, but a few days after they returned, they were visited by an agent from the Internal Revenue Service. He informed them that Uncle Sam wanted his tax on the trip. My friends protested that they should not be expected to pay tax because all they had done was to write a mere twenty-five words. No hard work was involved in writing twenty-five words. But the agent reminded them that they had entered into a contract. What they had received was really not a gift given to them by the carpet company; it was actually a reward for writing the sentence. The government understood the principle of verse four. What you receive for work is a debt owed, not a gift bestowed.
God will not owe us eternal life. God justifies men and women as an act of love, an expression of His grace, a gift of His kindness.
When we work to win God’s approval, we are asking God to give us heaven as a wage. God says “no.” It is to him that worketh not but believeth on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.”
The hymn writer put the first two characteristics together:
Let not conscience make you linger
Or of fitness fondly dream,
All the fitness God requires
Is that you sense your need of him.
There is a third characteristic of the people that God justifies and declares fit for heaven: Not only has every one of them admitted he is ungodly and realized that he is unworthy of what God bestows upon him, but any one with a right standing with God must take God at His word, believe God, put his faith in Jesus Christ.
Look at the sentence: “But to him that worketh not but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.”
If you and I are justified on the basis of faith, if that’s what opens the door to heaven, then what does it mean to have faith? The Anglican Bishop O’Brian defined faith by describing it: “He who knows what is meant by faith in a promise knows what is meant by faith in the Gospel. He who knows what is meant by faith in a physician, faith in a lawyer, faith in a friend, knows what is meant by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. He who knows what is meant by faith in a remedy knows what is meant by faith in the blood of the Redeemer.”
When I am ill, I go to a physician who examines me and writes out a prescription. One qualification for being a doctor is that he has to have bad handwriting. A second is that he writes out prescriptions in code that ordinary people can’t understand. I take my prescription to a druggist who looks at it and then disappears behind a counter. Returning he hands me a bottle, “Here, take two three times a day.” When I take that medicine home, I do not simply set it on a shelf and look at its beautiful red color. I take it. I trust that remedy to do what the physician says it will do. I appropriate it. If you know what it is to trust a remedy, then you know what it is to trust the blood of the Redeemer.
A friend of mine had a growth on his windpipe and he described his condition this way, “I’d like to get up and walk out of this hospital, but if I do that, I’ll die. I’d like to reach in and grab hold of that thing and pull it out myself, but I can’t. I’ve got to trust the surgeon.” If you know what it is to trust a physician, you know what it means to trust Jesus Christ.
If you know what it is to trust a lawyer, you know what it means to trust Jesus Christ. Another friend of mine was accused of a serious crime. I asked him what he thought when he was first accused. He said, “The first thing that happened was that I got scared, and the second thing that happened was that I reached for the phone and called the best lawyer in the city.” Then he said, “I had to trust him.” That lawyer conducted an investigation and, when they went to court, my friend simply sat and allowed the lawyer to plead his case. The lawyer won the acquittal. If you know what it is to turn your case over to a lawyer, you know what it is to trust Jesus Christ.
If you know what it is to believe a friend, you know what it is to believe the Gospel. A student came to my office at the seminary. He had some large debts, and he needed to pay his tuition. Things were pretty tight, but when he walked into my office, his face was as bright as sunshine. When I asked him what had happened, he replied, “I got a phone call from a friend in Iowa who told me not to be concerned. He promised to pay my bill.” Suppose I had said, “Have you seen any money yet? All you’ve got is a promise.” I think the student would have said to me, “Look, I know that man and when he says hell pay the tuition, I trust him.” The student did trust his friend, and the tuition was paid.
So you see, he who knows what is meant by faith in a promise, knows what is meant by faith in the Blood of the Redeemer. He who knows what is meant by faith in a physician, faith in a lawyer, faith in a friend, knows what is meant by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. When you place your faith in Jesus Christ, in God who justifies the ungodly, that faith is counted for righteousness.
Imagine that you owed a staggering amount of money and that a wealthy man decided to give to the people in your community access to several million dollars to pay their debts. All you had to do was go down to the First National Bank, present your bills and from this account your bills would be paid. You would hear that good news and go gather up your bills. Then you would present those bills to the teller at the bank. Now a transaction would take place in the accounting room at the First National Bank. You would present your bills, and from the rich man’s lavish trust fund the bank would put to your account money to pay all your bills. You would walk out of that bank free of debt.
In a sense that’s what happens when you place your faith in Christ. You come to God admitting that you are a sinner, admitting that you can do nothing to justify yourself and relying on Jesus Christ to pay the debt of your sin. In the counting room of heaven, the righteousness of Jesus Christ is placed to your account, and you are forgiven all of your debt. God stamps your account “paid in full.” You can be as sure of heaven as though you were already there. You take God at His word and your faith is counted as righteousness.
Some time in your life you have to make that decision. Faith is not something into which you drift. It is not just admiring the Bible, or even understanding its facts. There must come a time when you cease trusting anything else and trust Jesus Christ alone. In that moment you are declared righteous.
Charlotte Elliott as a young woman was deeply concerned about her relationship with God. She grew up in a church where she had heard this message several times; yet somehow or other she did not understand how to be made right with God. One day an old preacher visited their home. In the course of the conversation, in his rough, gruff way, he said, “Charlotte, when are you going to come to Jesus?” Charlotte Elliott, taken by surprise, replied, “Oh, I don’t know how.” The old preacher said, “You don’t know how? Why, you just come as you are.” Later in the evening when Charlotte Elliott went to her room, those words of that preacher kept turning over in her mind. She knelt by her bed, and as best she knew how, put her faith in Jesus Christ. Out of that experience Charlotte Elliott wrote a hymn that reflects that decision:
Just as I am, without one plea,
But that thy blood was shed for me
And that Thou bidst me come to Thee
Oh, Lamb of God, I come.
Just as I am, Thou wilt receive,
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve
Because Thy promise I believe,
Oh, Lamb of God, I come.
Just as I am, and waiting not
To rid my soul of one dark blot,
To Thee whose blood can cleanse each spot,
Oh, Lamb of God, I come.
“And it is to him that worketh not but believeth on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.”
Something wonderful can happen to you. Something wonderful is waiting to take place in your life. God wants to give you a right standing with Himself. And some time you must come to that place where you put your trust in Jesus Christ for yourself. If you’ve never done that, I invite you to do it right now.

Share This On: