Now to the one who works, his pay is not credited due to grace but due to obligation. 4:5 But to the one who does not work, but believes in the one who declares the ungodly righteous, his faith is credited as righteousness.

Immediately upon the heels of the citation of the passage we are provided what can only be called an “inspired interpretation” of Genesis 15:6.  Interestingly, Paul will not return to the specific context of Genesis until verse nine, but each verse between three and nine is directly related to Paul’s understanding of what Genesis 15:6 is saying.  Before getting into the specifics of this vital passage, we should see what the original readers of the letter would have seen.  That is, there is a complete, 180° contrast between the person being described in verse four and the one in verse five.  This can be seen by placing the first few words of each verse in direct contrast to the other:

VerseGreek Text
Verse 4tw’/ de;     ejrgazomevnw/
Verse 5tw’/ de; mh; ejrgazomevnw
English Text
Verse 4But to the       working one
Verse 5But to the not working one

What is not always clear to the reader is that Paul purposefully uses the exact same participial phrase in the two verses, only in verse five he uses the direct negation thereof.  So it is plainly his intent to provide a black and white contrast between the two individuals presented in each verse.  And why is this important?  Because we find in these verses the clearest explication of what it means to work and, in contrast to that, to believe, in all of Paul’s writings.  The effort he puts into making that contrast as strong as possible answers many of the attempts by modern men to insert some kind of meritorious works into the doctrine of justification.

Now to the one who works  Paul uses a participle to describe the “working one.”  The illustration is drawn from the normal life of those who would be reading his letter.  A person who “works” is an employee, maybe in those days, an artisan, merchant, teacher.  The picture is of a person who engages in regular human activity so as to receive a reward, pay.  The normal koine Greek term for wage, misthos (misqo;”), is used by Paul when he says the “pay” is not “credited due to grace.”  He is speaking of the legal, necessary giving of pay to the employee who has worked for it.  When a person engages in this kind of work, the pay is not “credited due to grace,” i.e., as a gift (Paul uses his normal word for “grace” here, cavrin).  No employer walks up to an employee, pays them what is due, and says, “here is a gift.”  Such is not a gift because it was earned.  And that is exactly what Paul says when he says it is credited “due to obligation.”  Literally it is “according to what is owed” (kata; ojfeivlhma), a term often used to refer to that which is given in payment of a debt.  The “pay” is not “reckoned” or “imputed” according to grace but according to debt is the literal idea.  Part of the meaning of “working” is that it results in a debt being incurred.  This will become very important.

It should also be noted that just as Paul uses the theologically-rich term “grace” in this rather mundane, daily example of working and receiving pay, he also uses another of his favorite terms, reckon or impute (logivzetai).  The reason for that is close at hand: he intends to contrast this kind of working-for-reward with the means of justification in verse five.

We noted in 4:2 that Paul uses the simple phrase, “of works.”  We now see the definition of the works, even “works of law,” to which he refers.  The key element of “working” is not the standard by which one labors (i.e., Mosaic law, some other law).  As we have asserted, there is no higher standard than God’s law to which Paul could possibly refer us as to moral behavior.  The law is just and holy and good and it shows us our sin.  The key element of “working” then is the attitude and goal of the one doing the work.  The “working one” in 4:5 is seeking to gain something by the work that is done.  This becomes the contrast with verse 5.

But to the one who does not work  The phrase is defined in its own context.  There is no reason to be confused between this verse and such passages as Ephesians 2:10, for both are easily understood in their native contexts.  This phrase is the contrast to verse 4.  Whatever is inherent in the idea of “working” so that the result is debt (ojfeivlhma) is completely negated in verse five.  And why must this be understood?  Because Paul is defining what it means to have saving faith.  Upon giving the negative, “does not work,” he then gives the positive, “but believes.”  The polar opposite of working so as to create a situation of debt is believing.  There are few more important truths than this, for the vast majority of confusion and false teaching on the subject of justification misses this very thing!

The “believing” of which Paul speaks is, by the contrast he draws here, a belief that creates no debt, that brings no plea, that makes no offer or bargain.  It is the “empty hand of faith.”  It hides no bribe, makes no effort at earning or coercing anything from God.  It knows its bankruptcy and does not hide it.  All acts of obedience to a law performed so as to gain a right standing with God in any way, shape, or form, violate the definition of the faith that brings justification presented here.  This passage slams the door on any and all works-salvation schemes that attempt to pay lip-service to grace by saying it is necessary but insufficient outside of the addition of some level of human works.[1]  The faith that saves is a faith that clings in helpless dependence upon another: the God who justifies.

Exegetical commentaries agree on the intention of the apostle here.  Charles Hodge said,

But to him that worketh not, tw’/ de; mh; ejrgazomevnw/. That is, to him who has no works to plead as the ground of reward; pisteuvonti de; ejpi; k.t.l., but believeth upon, i.e. putting his trust upon. The faith which justifies is not mere assent, it is an act of trust. The believer confides upon God for jus­tification. He believes that God will justify him, although ungodly; for the object of the faith or confidence here expressed is oj dikaiw’n to;n ajsebh’, he who justifies the ungodly. Faith therefore is appropriating; it is an act of confidence in reference to our own acceptance with God.[2]

Likewise, John Murray focused upon the clear contrast and asserted,

The antithesis is therefore between the idea of compensation and that of grace—the worker has compensation in view, he who does not work must have regard to grace….The description given in verse 5, “him who justifies the un­godly” is intended to set off the munificence of the gospel of grace. The word “ungodly” is a strong one and shows the magnitude and extent of God’s grace; his justifying judgment is exercised not simply upon the unrighteous but upon the ungodly.[3]

And C.E.B. Cranfield added,

The sense intended by tw’/…mh; ejrgazomevnw/ here would seem to be to him who does no works which establish a claim on God’ or ‘to him who has no claim on God on the ground of works’, and, by contrast, tw’/…ejrgazomevnw/ in the previous verse would seem to mean ‘to him who does works which establish a claim on God’ (there being no’ such man, according to Paul, Jesus Christ alone excepted)….Calvin was of course right to observe that Paul has no intention of discouraging the doing of good works (p. 84). tw’/…mh; ejrgazomevnw/ does not imply that Abraham did no good works, but only that he did none which constituted a claim on God.[4]

The saving faith that is contrasted with works always has the same object: but believes in the one who declares the ungodly righteous.  God, the justifier of the ungodly, is the object of saving faith.  Just as Abraham believed Yahweh, so every person who will hear God’s declaration of right standing with him will do so only upon belief in Him and His promises.

But it is right here that many stumble, for the ones who are declared righteous are the ungodly.  The person whose mouth has yet to be closed, who has not yet come to fully understand their sin and its guilt, may not understand just how precious it is that Paul inserted those two words, “the ungodly,” at this point.  It is not the godly, the righteous, who need to hear about the God who justifies (as if such even exist outside of their own self-deception).  God justifies the ungodly.  Such an assertion runs directly counter to everything man’s religions teach.  Men believe themselves capable of cleaning themselves up, of doing good works so as to receive from God the sentence of justification.  One cannot help but think of these words from Roman Catholic writer Ludwig Ott:

The reason for the uncertainty of the state of grace lies in this that without a special revelation nobody can with certainty of faith know whether or not he has fulfilled all the conditions which are necessary for achieving justification.[5]

Paul’s response to such an assertion would be two-fold: first, the conditions necessary for achieving justification were accomplished in our place by Jesus Christ, who alone fulfilled the law perfectly.  Secondly, no person can fulfill conditions to “achieve” justification in the sense Ott is presenting it here.  The sole condition for the sinner to receive justification from the God who justifies sola fide, by a faith that is here contrasted in the strongest terms with any idea of merit or work.  And the only one who need look for this kind of justification is the one who knows himself to be ungodly, incapable of good in the sight of God.  Jonathan Edwards commented,

It is as much as if the apostle had said, “As for him who works, there is no need of any gracious reckoning or counting it for righteousness, and causing the reward to follow as if it were a righteousness; for if he has works, he has that which is a righteousness in itself, to which the reward properly belongs.”[6]

Modern religious movements have likewise faltered at this point.  Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, was so scandalized by the idea of God justifying the ungodly that in his Inspired Translation he completely rewrote the verse, and inserted a negation so that for his followers the object of faith is the God who does not justify the ungodly![7]


So even David himself speaks regarding the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:

NA27 Text:

6 kaqavper kai; Daui;d levgei to;n makarismo;n tou’ ajnqrwvpou w|/ oJ

qeo;” logivzetai dikaiosuvnhn cwri;” e[rgwn:

Paul is not here leaving Genesis 15:6 and Abraham.  He is simply bringing in further confirmation from a statement of David.  He is not shifting the focus to David, to David’s life, or anything of the kind.

The appeal to David and to the psalm which is here attributed to him is not, however, independent of that demonstration drawn from the case of Abraham. It is confirmatory or, to use Meyer’s expression, “accessory”.[8]

Instead, he is very specific in his understanding of the quotation he provides from the 32nd Psalm (Psalm 31 in the Septuagint).  He says David spoke of a particular kind of blessing (makarismo;n) upon a certain “man” (ajnqrwvpou).  He does not say this blessing was limited to, or even focused upon, David.  The use of “man” indicates a wider context than David, or even Abraham.  Instead, this is a blessing that belongs to all men and women to whom righteousness is imputed apart from, separate from, works.  This gives us yet another “inspired interpretation” of an Old Testament passage.  Paul gives us the proper understanding up front, so to speak: he quotes Psalm 32 solely to illustrate the imputation of righteousness apart from works (cwri;” e[rgwn), for this is supportive of the thesis he continues to demonstrate regarding the means by which Abraham himself was justified.  To attempt to go back into the life of David and undercut the Apostle’s own interpretation of these words by pointing to some actions David engaged in is to question Paul’s own understanding of the texts and his own authority as an apostle in this passage.

Surely this passage supports the previously demonstrated teaching that imputation does not subjectively change a person but instead treats them as if they are in possession of what is imputed to them.  Hodge commented,

The words are levgei to;n makarismo;n, utters the declaration of blessedness concerning the man, &c. whom God imputeth righteousness without works, that is, whom God regards and treats as righteous, although he is not in himself righteous. The meaning of this clause cannot be mistaken. ‘To impute sin,’ is to lay sin to the charge of any one, and to treat him accordingly, as is universally admitted; so ‘to impute righteousness,’ is to set righteousness to one’s account, and to treat him accordingly. This righteousness does not, of course, belong antecedently to those to whom it is imputed, for they are ungodly, and destitute of works. Here then is an imputation to men of what does not belong to them, and to which they have in themselves no claim. To impute righteousness is the apostle’s definition of the term to justify.  It is not making men inherently righteous, or morally pure, but it is regarding and treating them as just. This is done, not on the ground of personal character or works, but on the ground of the righteousness of Christ.[9]


7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered;
8 blessed is the one against whom the Lord does not count sin.”

NA27 Text:

7  makavrioi w|n ajfevqhsan aiJ ajnomivai kai; w|n ejpekaluvfqhsan aiJ aJmartivai:

8  makavrio” ajnh;r ˘ou| ouj mh; logivshtai kuvrio” aJmartivan.

Ú ˘ w|/ ?2 A C D2 F Y 33. 1881 ÷ � txt ?* B D* G 1506. 1739 pc

The quotation provided by Paul is directly from the Septuagint, word-for-word.  The triad of blessings are not upon three different men but upon the same “man” to which Paul refers.  Therefore, the three descriptions are to be taken together: the forgiveness of the lawless deeds is equivalent to the covering of sins. And if this is the case, then both of these are equivalent to the non-imputation of sins in verse 8.

John Murray, combining depth of scholarship with the passion of the believing theologian, saw the centrality of this section of Scripture to the definition of justification by faith.  His comments[10] are not only worthy of citation, but of close examination:

What David spoke of in terms of the non-imputation and forgiveness of sin Paul interprets more positively as the imputation of righteousness.

This is a vitally important observation: Paul defines the words of David as referring to the blessedness of the imputation of righteousness apart from works, but the only imputation spoken of in the citation from Psalm 32 is that of the non-imputation of sin (4:8).  Protestant exegetes have often pointed to the reality of “double-imputation,” that is, of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to the believer and the imputation of our sins to Christ, the necessary corollary to the non-imputation of sins to those who have faith in Jesus.

And the blessed man is not the man who has good works laid to his account but whose sins are not laid to his account. David’s religion, there­fore, was not one determined by the concept of good works but by that of the gracious remission of sin, and the blessedness, regarded as the epitome of divine favour, had no affinity with that secured by works of merit.

Murray is again referring to the Roman Catholic concept of doing good works in a state of grace with the result that these good works are meritorious in God’s sight.  He rightly denies this is Paul’s view, for the biblical view is wholly based upon the gracious remission of sins and the perfection of imputed righteousness, not inherent or “state of grace” righteousness.

When Paul speaks of God as “imputing righteousness” (vs. 6), he must be using this expression as synonymous with justification. Otherwise his argument would be invalid. For his thesis is justification by faith without works. Hence to “impute righteousness without works” is equivalent to justification without works….When Paul derives his positive doctrine of justification, in terms of the imputation of righteousness (vs. 6), from a declaration of David that is in terms of the remission and non-imputation of sin (vss. 6, 7) and therefore formally negative, he must have regarded justification as correlative with, if not as defined in terms of, remission of sin. This inference is conclusive against the Romish view that justification consists in the infusion of grace. Justification must be forensic, as remission itself is.

The last line in the above citation should be repeated.  If Murray is rightly following the argument of the Apostle, as he most assuredly is, the argument is indeed conclusive.  Paul has not moved to some other issue than justification by citing David’s words.  He is still speaking of justification, the imputation of righteousness apart from meritorious works.  Paul then is saying that the remission of sin and the non-imputation of sin of 4:5-8 is correlative with the doctrine of justification he is defending.  Therefore, since remission of sin is, beyond all dispute and question, a forensic declaration, so, too, must justification be a forensic declaration on the part of God.  No one can possibly deny that to remit sin is to speak of an action that requires a judge with the authority to pronounce sentence, and then to remit sentence.  So, if remission of sin is being seen as correlative with justification by the Apostle, it follows that justification is, as we have already proven, but now confirm beyond dispute, a forensic, legal declaration on the part of God the Father regarding the believer, based upon the work of another, the Lord Jesus Christ.

The appeal to David and to Psalm 32:1, 2, in addition to that said of Abraham, is for the purpose of demonstrating that what the Scripture conceives of as the epitome of blessing and felicity is not the reward of works but the bestowment of grace through faith. Blessedness consists in that which is illustrated by the remission of sins and not by that which falls into the category of reward according to merit.

Murray has touched upon the key difference between those who come to these passages with their traditions and systems of authority and those who come with a commitment to sola scriptura and a desire to hear only what is spoken by the Holy Spirit in the Scriptures.  Man’s religions focus upon man, man’s works, man’s merits, and limit God to the gracious “way-maker,” who works out a plan but then leaves it to the creature to succeed, or fail, as the case may be.  But the Apostle saw that such systems missed the heart and soul of what God has done in Christ.  The greatest blessing is not receiving sufficient grace so as to be able to do good works in a state of grace so as to receive, at least in part, a reward of eternal life.  The greatest blessing is to be forgiven of sin.

Who is the Blessed Man?

This brings us to a question that must be answered by every person who believes the Bible to be God’s Word.  Who is the blessed man of Romans 4:8?  It seems an obvious question.  The Apostle tells us the blessed man in 4:6 is the one to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works.  But verse eight, as we have seen, defines this in terms of non-imputation of sin.  So who is the blessed man?

The religions of men cannot answer this question.  Man’s religions, centered as they are upon man’s works and merits and will, must, as a result, lack a perfect Savior who can save in and of himself, without the aid of the creature.  Their systems, drawing from the nearly universal synergism of human religiosity, always make room for man’s success, or failure, in “doing things,” whether they be called sacraments, rituals, works, or good deeds, so that the final outcome of “salvation” is always in doubt.  And if these systems contain any kind of belief in a punishment after life, there must be some means of holding man accountable for the sins committed during life.  Without a perfect sin-bearer, the issue of unforgiven sin, rightly “imputed” to the one who committed it, must have resolution.

But it is just here that the question we are asking comes into full play.  Who is the blessed man to whom the Lord will not impute sin?  If a religion claims to follow the Bible and yet has no meaningful answer to this question, its error is immediately manifest.  But before we press the question home, there are two issues about the passage itself that must be addressed.

First, as was noted above, there is a textual variant in the underlying Greek text.  The Majority Text (and hence the KJV and NKJV) read, “to whom the Lord shall not impute sin,” following the reading of w|/, to whom.  The Nestle-Aland text, and hence modern translations such as the NASB and NIV, read “whose sin the Lord will not take into account.”  The NET, while following the Nestle-Aland text, in essence follows a middle road, interpreting the phrase in such a way as to render the variant meaningless, and truly, there is no real difference in the two readings, as far as the actual thrust of the passage goes.[11]

The second issue is how we should understand the phrase ouj mh; logivshtai kuvrio” aJmartivan, “the Lord will not impute sin.”  Commentaries, even the best, are almost silent in discussing this issue.  Often Old Testament citations are passed over unless there is a reason to go into some discussion of their text.  It is taken almost as a given that the writer uses the form of the Septuagint as a default text, and only if there is an alteration is much attention devoted to the grammar and syntax of the citation.  But at this point we wish to suggest that something important must be noted in the syntax of the passage.

ouj mh; logivshtai is an aorist subjunctive of strong denial, sometimes called the emphatic negation subjunctive.[12]  The aorist subjunctive is the strongest form of denial.  Given the base meaning of the subjunctive, the aorist subjunctive denies the possibility of a future event.  That is, it denies potentiality, saying something simply cannot and will not be.  The aorist subjunctive is used primarily in the sayings of Jesus (John 6:37, 10:28, 11:26) and in quotations from the Septuagint, such as here.  It is often soteriologically significant.  That is, Jesus twice denies He will ever fail in His work of salvation by using the aorist subjunctive (John 6:37, 10:28), and other passages such as Hebrews 13:5 fall into the same category.

Now if we take the classic meaning of the aorist subjunctive in this passage we have the nature of the blessing being defined as the denial of the possibility of the imputation of sin to the believer.  Now the immediate question that arises is, “Does this refer solely to past sins, so that what is being said is that God will not impute past sins to one who has been forgiven?”  Or, is there something more here?  Is the aorist subjunctive saying this blessedness is found in the non-imputation of sin ever?  That is, do we have warrant, in the grammar or in the context, to say that the aorist subjunctive is here referring to the denial of the possibility of there ever being imputation of sin?

On the basis of the strict grammar itself, the issue could not be decided, for the question is not about what the aorist subjunctive indicates, but it is about the meaning of the word “sin” and whether that is referring to past sin only or all a person’s sin.  In either case, that sin cannot, in any fashion, be imputed to the believer.

But there is indication in the passage that Paul has chosen this text from Psalm 32 specifically to make the very point that the believers sin en toto will never be imputed to him.  The signs that point to this conclusion are two: first, Paul ends his quotation in the middle of a verse in Psalm 32.  He chose what he cited for a reason, and surely he knew what the aorist subjunctive indicated.  Secondly, join this with the fact that we already know that Paul is interpreting the non-imputation of sin in 4:8 as the direct equivalent of the imputation of righteousness apart from works from 4:6, and the key fact is then brought into play.  Is the righteousness that is imputed to the believer one that is merely a “now” righteousness that can be undone by a single act of disobedience, or is it a perfect righteousness, the righteousness of Christ, that cannot be added to or diminished?  We have already seen that it is the righteousness of God, so it would follow, then, that if the imputation of this righteousness results in the perfect salvation of all those who receive it, then the corresponding non-imputation of sin would have to refer to all the sin of the individual, not just sins up to a certain point.  This becomes very clear in light of Paul’s stated belief that the Father made the sinless Son “sin in our place,” with the express purpose being that we would, as a result, be made “the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).  If Christ is made sin, the question is, what sin?  The only answer is the sin that is never imputed to the blessed man!

And so with these issues addressed, we ask the question again: who is the blessed man?  The blessed man in Paul’s context is the believer, the one who, having given up all hope of personal righteousness, has put his or her faith and trust in the God who justifies the ungodly.  This one is imputed a perfect righteousness, his or her sins having been borne substitutionarily by Christ on the cross.  This is the blessed man.


[1] Moo (Romans, 263) points out,

That God acts toward his creatures graciously — without compulsion or necessity — is one of Paul’s nonnegotiable theological axioms. He uses it here to show that the faith that gained righteousness for Abraham was a faith that excluded works. For many of us, accustomed by four centuries of Protestant theology to the Pauline “faith vs. works” contrast, this point might appear mundane. But it flew in the face of the dominant Jewish theology of the day, which joined faith and works closely together, resulting in a kind of synergism with respect to salvation.

[2] Hodge, Commentary on Romans, 113.

[3] Murray, Romans, 132-133.

[4] Cranfield, Romans, 1:232.

[5] Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (TAN, 1974), 262.  This may explain why Catholic commentator Fitzmeyer passes over verse 4 with barely three sentences, missing the vital importance of the contrast of verses 4 and 5 (Romans, 374).

[6] Jonathan Edwards, Justification by Faith Alone (Soli Deo Gloria, 2000), 3.

[7] This is consistent with his own writings.  For example, Moroni 10:32 in the Book of Mormon contains these words: “and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you.”

[8] Murray, Romans, 133.

[9] Hodge, Commentary on Romans, 115.

[10] The following citations are from Murray, Romans, 133-135.

[11] The LXX reads as the NA27 with ou|.  Some argue that the later manuscripts were attracted to the use of w|/ because it appears in verse 6, “to whom the God imputes righteousness apart from works.”  In either case, the meaning is clear.

[12] See the discussion in Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Zondervan, 1996), 468-469.


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