I’m going to try a very theological post for those who have struggled with some of the same questions concerning faith and works that I have.
Romans 4:6-8 says:
David describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness without works. "Blessed are those whose lawlessness is forgiven and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin."
There is no doubt that such a man exists, but does every Christian qualify as such a man?
Some say yes because Paul says, "To him that does not work, but instead believes in the One who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness."
That’s Romans 4:5, immediately before the description of the blessed one to whom the Lord does not impute sin.
However, if we’re going to be honest Bible interpreters and not just people who agree with every tradition that is handed to us, then we have to admit that not every Christian is going to enjoy that blessedness. Paul gives plenty of warnings to Christians that their sins most certainly can be imputed to them.
Do not be deceived; God is not mocked. Whatever a man sows, that will he reap. He that sows to the flesh shall from the flesh reap corruption. (Gal. 6:7-8a)
Or how about:
Therefore, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh to live according to the flesh, for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, then you will live. (Rom. 8:12-13)
For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ so that everyone may be rewarded for the deeds done in the body, according to what each has done, whether good or bad. (2 Cor. 5:10)
It doesn’t matter whether you believe in eternal security or not. It doesn’t matter whether you think these verses refer to our eternal destiny, heaven or hell, or not. The fact is, in some way there is a judgment for the fleshly or bad things we have done. Thus, those who are facing this judgment are having their sins imputed to them.
That simply cannot be denied.
Ephesians 5 is even more clear. I want you to note in the final sentence of the following passage that Paul is implying that Christians who live in sin will be judged in exactly the same way as the heathen:
For this you know, that no immoral person, unclean person, or covetous person—who is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of the King and of God. Don’t let anyone deceive you with useless words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore, do not be partakers with them. (Eph. 5:5-7)
Note also that once again, Paul says not to let anyone deceive you about this.
So Who Is the One to Whom the Lord Will Not Impute Sin?
John gives us a couple clues to Paul’s meaning—that is, if we believe that God inspired both Paul and John to write what they wrote. If we believe that, then we don’t want to come up with an interpretation of Paul that contradicts what John wrote or vice versa. We also don’t want to come up with an interpretation of Romans 4:6-8 that contradicts so many other statements Paul made, including the ones we’ve quoted above.
John speaks, in my opinion, of the very same blessedness that Paul speaks of, but in different words.
If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus the King, his Son, cleanses us from every sin. (1 Jn. 1:7)
This is the same awesome promise Paul made. John is talking about a person who is cleansed from every sin on an ongoing basis.
Pretty neat, but apparently John thinks that’s only going to happen if we "walk in the light."
The Early Christians on the Man to Whom the Lord Will Not Impute Sin
There is a passage in the writings of the early Christians that discusses this subject thoroughly.
Around A.D. 150, a man named Justin Martyr got in a discussion with a Jew named Trypho. Since Romans 4:7-8 is a quote from David, it’s a passage that the Jews knew about and believed in, too. They believed that the man to whom the Lord would not impute sin was any Jew that was circumcised, kept the Sabbath and feasts, and offered sacrifices.
They believed this was true even if that Jews lived in an otherwise unrighteous manner, cheating, drinking, and generally living a corrupt lifestyle.
Justin refutes this from the Scriptures. Here’s how he does it:
If they repent, all who wish for it can obtain mercy from God, and the Scripture foretells that they shall be blessed, saying, "Blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute sin."
That is, having repented of his sins, he may receive remission of them from God. It is not as you deceive yourselves, and some others who resemble you in this, who say that even though they are sinners, but know God, the Lord will not impute sin to them.
We have as proof of this the one fall of David … which was forgiven when he mourned and wept as described in the Scriptures. If even to such a man no remission was granted before repentance, and only when this great king, anointed one, and prophet mourned and conducted himself as described, then how can the impure and utterly abandoned, if they do not weep, do not mourn, and do not repent, entertain the hope that the Lord will not impute sin to them? (Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew, ch. 141)
The Scripturalness of the Early Christian Position
Perhaps you noticed that Justin accused the Jews of deceiving themselves in this matter. I’ve already pointed out that Paul tells us at least twice not to deceive ourselves about this.
John does so as well …
Little children, let no one deceive you. The one that practices righteousness is righteous just as he is righteous. (1 Jn. 3:7)
John apparently believes that there is some element of works in the blessedness of being one to whom the Lord will not impute sin. First he tells us that such a blessed person is one that walks in the light (1 Jn. 1:7) and now he tells us that such a blessed person is one that practices righteousness (1 Jn. 3:7).
How Can This Possibly Harmonize with Paul’s Statement That This Blessedness Is Apart from Works?
Note that it is not that John disagrees with Paul. Paul also tells us repeatedly—we’ve only covered a small percentage of the many verses from Paul’s letters addressing this—that there are consequences for sins that Christians commit.
How can this possibly harmonize with his statement that this blessedness is apart from works and given by the One who justifies the ungodly? (Rom. 4:6).
Well, that’s what I’ve been getting to this whole time. I believe the answer is critically important and immensely satisfying for those of us who have struggled with exactly that question for years.
My thanks to N. T. Wright, whose book ,What Saint Paul Really Said, brought brilliant, wonderful light on this matter.
But, since I’m already over 1200 words, it’s going to have to wait for tomorrow …