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God Who Justifies the Ungodly (1)

God Who Justifies the Ungodly (1)

by Martyn McGeown

Whom does God justify? To that question the apostle gives a twofold answer in Romans 3-4. In Romans 3:22 we read of “the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe.” In verse 26 the apostle describes God as “just and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.” In Romans 4:5 the apostle makes a startling statement: “But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.”

So on the one hand, God justifies the believer, the one who believes, who trusts in Jesus Christ, and appropriates the righteousness of Christ preached to him in the gospel. “With the heart man believeth unto righteousness” (Rom. 10:10). On the other hand, God justifies the ungodly. In the New Testament the word ungodly describes the wicked man. The ungodly is contrasted with the believer, the child of God. First Peter 4:18 asks, “And if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?” (see also 1 Tim. 1:9; 2 Peter 2:5, 3:7; Jude 4, 15). One Greek lexicon defines the ungodly as a person who is “destitute of reverential awe towards God, contemning God, impious” (Thayer, 79). Trench, in his Synonyms of the New Testament, writes about ungodliness, the noun which is derived from the adjective ungodly, “[It is] positive and active irreligion, and thus contemplated as a deliberate withholding from God of his dues of prayer and of service, a standing, so to speak, in battle array against him” (p. 242).

According to Romans 4:5 God is the one who “justifieth the ungodly.” How can that be? In fact, if that is so, does God not do what he views as abominable in human judges? “He that justifieth the wicked (ungodly), and he that condemneth the just, even they both are an abomination to the LORD” (Prov. 17:15). Ought not the just God condemn the ungodly, not justify him? Is the believer, then, who is justified (Rom. 3:26) also ungodly (Rom. 4:5)? Does the believer who is justified (Rom. 3:26) remain forever, or at least in this life, ungodly? Does the believer never become good? Is the believer, the justified believer, to be considered only as ungodly all his days and is he to identify himself as ungodly until the day that he dies? Is his deathbed confession, “I am ungodly, only ungodly”? Is his confession on the Last Day, when he stands before the Great White Throne, “I am ungodly; God, I hate thee; I am wicked, profane, and devoid of any piety or reverential awe toward thee”?

It is important to note that the apostle in Romans 4 is not discussing sanctification, which he reserves for chapter 6, but simply justification by faith alone from which all our works are excluded. Justification concerns only our legal status before the judge. Justification has nothing to do with our character. Justification does not change our moral condition. Justification is only a legal declaration, which is the apostle’s concern in Romans 4. 

When we stand before God as a defendant stands before a judge, we do not say, “God, I am godly.” Neither do we say, “I have done so many marvelous works which I would like to be taken into account when you make a judgment concerning me.” We simply say, “And enter not into judgment with thy servant: for in thy sight shall no man living be justified” (Ps. 143:2). We simply say, “God, merciful to me, [the] sinner” (Luke 18:13). Such a man, plagued by the memory of his sins and the sense of his present sinfulness, “[shall go] down to his house justified” (v. 14). The man who boasts of his works before God, and dares suggest or imply that God should receive him because of his works, “shall be abased” (v. 14), that is, condemned to everlasting damnation. 

The reason why the justified man “worketh not” (Rom. 4:5), that is, does not bring his works into the judgment to be justified on the basis of them, is that his works are not good enough. Indeed, before he is justified by faith alone, that is before he becomes a believer, he is ungodly, only ungodly, and all his works are wicked. “When we were in the flesh,” we read in Romans 7:5, “the motions of sin, which were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death.” The believer, however, who is no longer ungodly (he is sanctified), has works, too. Because he is a believer who has the Spirit, his works are good. They are good because they are performed by the grace of God and by the power of the Spirit, and they are sanctified by the grace of Jesus Christ. “These works, as they proceed from the good root of faith, are good and acceptable in the sight of God, forasmuch as they are all sanctified by His grace” (Belgic Confession, Art. 24). Nevertheless, although the believer’s works are good, they are not perfect. Good, but imperfect, works do not avail in justification. “They are of no account towards our justification” (Art. 24). We do not bring our works, even our best works, into the judgment as our plea before the Judge. We do not rely upon our works, whether in this life, on our deathbed, or on the Last Day. “They are of no account towards our justification.” 

Why not? Why are works done in faith, done in obedience to God’s law, and done to the glory of God—good works—of no account towards our justification, so much so that in justification we “work not,” but “believe”? “To him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly” (4:5). The reason is simple: our works do not pass the strict scrutiny of the Judge. Therefore, we do not—we dare not—bring our works before God in order to be justified on the basis of them. The Judge is interested in only one thing: perfect obedience to the Law, and since that requirement has not been met, he demands the infliction of the penalty upon the lawbreaker. That is the teaching of the Heidelberg Catechism, “The righteousness which can be approved of before the tribunal of God must be absolutely perfect, and in all respects conformable to the divine law” (A 62). It is also the teaching of the Belgic Confession: “And, verily, if we should appear before God relying on ourselves or any other creature, though ever so little, we should, alas! be consumed” (Art. 23). “Moreover, though we do good works, we do not found our salvation upon them; for we do no work but what is polluted by our flesh, and also punishable; and although we could perform such works, still the remembrance of one sin is sufficient to make God reject them” (Art. 24). 

In justification, then, we have no plea except the perfect obedience, sufferings, death, and righteousness of Jesus Christ. In justification, when we stand before the holy, righteous God, we say, “I am ungodly, but Christ is just and righteous. I have sinned, but Christ has been perfectly obedient. I am guilty, but Christ is innocent and he has made perfect satisfaction for my sins.” In justification we say, “My conscience [accuses] me that I have grossly transgressed all the commandments of God, and kept none of them, and [I] am still inclined to all evil” (Heidelberg Catechism, A 60). 

There is another reason why the apostle writes that God justifies the ungodly. It guards against the error that God first makes a man godly and then on the basis of that godliness he justifies him. Or to express it differently, it guards against the idea that God sanctifies a man and then justifies him and that justification is on the basis of sanctification. That is, in fact, the error of Roman Catholicism. Rome teaches that justification is God’s work not of declaring righteous, but of making righteous; or God’s work of declaring a sinner righteous because he has already made him righteous. “Justification,” says Rome in her Catechism of the Catholic Church, “conforms us to the righteousness of God who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy.” “No one,” says Rome, “can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity we can then merit for ourselves the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity and for the attainment of eternal life.” In other words, grace enables the believer to do good works, which merit. Rome, thus, confuses justification with sanctification, and then makes sanctification and its fruits, i.e., good works, the basis for justification, which means that justification is by works.

Not so, says the Reformed faith, quoting the apostle in Romans 4:5. God does not justify the man whom he has made godly; God justifies the ungodly. God justifies the man who does not work—who does not bring his works into justification—but believes in the God who justifies the ungodly, the God who is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

to be continued

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