Commenting on this verse, Martin Luther says, “Righteousness is nothing else than believing God when He makes a promise.” The anti-intuitive nature of this statement struck me forcefully. You see, I am unconsciously inclined to think that my striving hard to do well is the kind of righteousness that pleases God. When I obey a particular law, do a good deed, or reject a temptation, then I have earned at least a small degree of God’s favor. But that is not how it works.
God definitely blesses our faith-inspired efforts, but such efforts are…well, based on faith—that is, confidence in God’s promise to pardon and accept me through Christ’s atoning work. If I attempt to somehow make myself more acceptable to God through my own efforts, I am far removed from true righteousness.
In the book of Romans, Paul quotes Genesis 15:6 to prove that if a person is rewarded for what he has done, he has basically received a payment—not a gift. In contrast, the Christian, just like Abraham, is one who “does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, [and] his faith is accounted for righteousness” (Rom. 4:5). The ungodly are considered righteous without doing any good works. How? By believing God when He makes a promise.
Paul’s next example of righteousness applies specifically to those who have not behaved righteously:
David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man to whom the LORD shall not impute sin” [Ps. 31:1-2] (Rom. 4:6-8).So, what do you call a habitual liar and adulterer who hears the gospel and believes its promises? Righteous. What do you call a hardened sinner on his deathbed who believes in the promise of the gospel? Righteous. What can a Christian call himself when he is made more aware of his sin and feels even less holy than he did the day before? Righteous.
God never intended that I produce a righteousness of my own. He is both the author and finisher of my faith (Heb. 12:2), which means He is the author and finisher of my righteousness. May I continue to exercise true righteousness by doing nothing more than “believing God when He makes a promise.”