“But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.” (Romans 4:5)
In the previous chapters of the Epistle to the Romans, the Apostle Paul established the truth that all humans are totally lost sinners, unable to do any work of righteousness that would make them acceptable before God. The Apostle established that man naturally does not even want or seek God. If a man at least seeks the true God or wants to obey Him, he will be a believer, a godly man. Note that many people may seek what they imagine to be God and not the true God (as Romans 1:18-32 explains), but this doesn’t mean that they seek God; on the contrary, this means that they refuse the true God and they want their own gods. Thus in Romans 4:5 Paul says that it is not a godly man that God justifies (because in that case no human would be justified, because no one is godly by nature), but He justifies the UNgodly by faith. So He doesn’t justify a man who is a believer naturally (for no one seeks God or is a true believer naturally), but He justifies the unbeliever ungodly man by faith. Here you notice of course that the faith of which the Apostle is talking is not something that a human may have naturally in himself, because we have seen that no one has it naturally, and that all humans are ungodly by nature. It is clear that the faith of which the Apostle is talking is something supernatural that God creates in man. Indeed, in another place in the same Epistle the Apostle explained that there is a special calling, a special drawing that precedes justification and that causes a man to be justified:
“Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.” (Romans 8:30)
This effectual calling, seen from the human side of the matter, is genuine saving faith. As soon as God creates this faith in the ungodly, he is justified before God by that faith. Actually, faith becomes a living faith as it receives Christ’s Righteousness counted for us or as ours through that faith. Without that Righteousness of Christ we cannot have a living faith, and we are ungodly. Did you notice that what matters in faith is the Object of faith (Christ and His Righteousness) which justifies the ungodly, and not faith itself (as if faith were a merit in man)? When the Apostle says that the faith of the ungodly is counted for righteousness, he actually means that what justifies the ungodly is Christ’s Righteousness on which ALONE the ungodly puts his faith or trust, and not a merit in the ungodly called faith, because the ungodly has no such merit in himself upon which he can put his trust in order to be justified. The ungodly cannot have faith in his faith in order to be justified; if he does, then he is not justified, and his faith is a false faith. The ungodly should have faith in Christ Alone. We understand this from the context of Romans 4:5, from the whole Epistle to the Romans, from the whole New Testament, and from the whole Bible. This doctrine is clear in God’s Word.
So man by nature is fallen in sin, dead in sin and totally separated from God, and he cannot have a good meritorious faith whereby he would be able to be justified before God; he is UNgodly. If he had this kind of meritorious faith, he would not be called ungodly, and he would not need the Righteousness of Christ to be counted for him by a faith supernaturally born in him by the work of the Spirit by that same Righteousness of Christ. The same moment God changes the will to receive Christ, at that very moment and by that very work of the Spirit by His Word man is born again and is justified without having any righteousness in himself, not even faith. We have seen that real saving faith is that work of God by which He justifies the ungodly. Thus God justifies not a believer by faith, but an ungodly by that faith which he creates in him by Christ. It is all of His Grace alone.
Thus man cannot boast by anything in himself, not even by the fact that he believed, because faith was not the product of his fallen nature called flesh, but the work of God Alone. None of us deserved God’s Grace by his faith, but God gave us His Grace in Jesus Christ freely as He created faith in us, i.e. as Christ entered into our hearts after His kind Spirit sovereignly convinced our wills by His sweet Word to open the door for the Beloved. And now also, after we believed, our faith grows by God’s Grace alone, as we receive grace upon grace from the fullness of Christ (see John 1:16), and not by any carnal effort from our old nature. Now also we cannot boast in anything but the cross; nothing in us! The fruits of righteousness, the life of sanctification, are wholly the fruit of the Spirit in and through us. We in ourselves are poor spiritually (see Matthew 5:3), before and after Salvation, and nothing good dwells in us, that is in our flesh (see Romans 7:18).
All this is very important, as this is the difference between real faith and false faith. The false believer has faith in his faith, while the true believer has faith in Christ Alone and relies on Christ’s Righteousness alone and on nothing in himself.