GOD WHO JUSTIFIES THE UNGODLY
“But to him that WORKETH NOT,but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness” (Rom. 4:5). Can anything be more explicit? Can anything be more directly to the point? Salvation must be given gratuitously, that no flesh may glory in God’s presence. The “reward” of the man that “worketh,” the apostle says, is NOT of “grace,” but of “debt.” It therefore follows that works of NO kind whatever can give a title to the atonement of Christ or the favour of God.
Who are the ones that God justifies? A definite reply is given in Romans 4:5: “Him that justifieth the”—whom? the holy, the faithful, the fruitful? no, the very reverse: “Him that justifieth the ungodly.” What a strong, bold, and startling word is this! It becomes yet more emphatic when we observe what precedes: “But to him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly.” The subjects of justification, then, are viewed in themselves, apart from Christ, as not only destitute of a perfect righteousness, but as having no acceptable works to their account. They are denominated, and considered as ungodly when the sentence of justification is pronounced upon them. The mere sinner is the subject on which grace is magnified, toward which grace reigns in justification!
“To say, he who worketh not is justified through believing, is to say that his works, whatever they be, have no influence in his justification, nor hath God, in justifying him, any respect unto them. Wherefore he alone who worketh not, is the subject of justification, the person to be justified. That is, God considereth no man’s works, no man’s duties of obedience, in his justification; seeing we are justified freely by His grace” (John Owen). Those whom God, in His transcendent mercy, justifies, are not the obedient, but the disobedient; not those who have been loyal and loving subjects of His righteous government, but they who have stoutly defied Him and trampled His laws beneath their feet. Those whom God justifies are lost sinners, lying in a state of defection from Him, under a loss of original righteousness (in Adam) and by their own transgressions brought in guilty before His tribunal (Rom. 3:19). They are those who by character and conduct have no claim upon divine blessing, and deserve nought but unsparing judgment at God’s hand.
“Him that justifieth the ungodly.” It is deplorable to see how many able commentators have weakened the force of this by affirming that, while the subject of justification is “ungodly” up to the time of his justification, he is not so at the moment of justification itself. They argue that, inasmuch as the subject of justification is a believer at the moment of his justification and that believing presupposes regeneration—a work of divine grace wrought in the heart—he could not be designated “ungodly.” This seeming difficulty is at once removed by calling to mind that justification is entirely a law matter and not an experimental thing at all. In the sight of God’s law every one whom God justifies is “ungodly” until Christ’s righteousness is made over to him.
THE AWFUL SENTENCE “UNGODLY” RESTS AS TRULY UPON THE PUREST VIRGIN AS MUCH AS IT DOES UPON THE FOULEST PROSTITUTE UNTIL GOD IMPUTES CHRIST’S OBEDIENCE TO HER.
“Him that justifieth the ungodly.” These words cannot mean less than that God, in the act of justification, has no regard whatever to any thing good resting to the credit of the person He justifies. They declare, emphatically, that immediately prior to that divine act, God beholds the subject only as unrighteous, ungodly, wicked, so that no good, either in or by the person justified, can possibly be the ground on which or the reason for which He justifies him. This is further evident from the words “to him that worketh not”: that this includes not only works which the ceremonial law required, but all works of morality and godliness, appear from the fact that the same person who is said to “work not” is designated “ungodly.” Finally, seeing that the faith which belongs to justification is here said to be “counted for [or “unto”] righteousness,” it is clear that the person to whom “righteousness” is imputed, is destitute of righteousness in himself.
A parallel passage to the one which has just been before us is found in Isaiah 43. There we hear God saying, “I, even I, am He that blotteth out thy transgressions for Mine own sake, and will not remember thy sins” (v. 25). And to whom does God say this? To those who had sincerely endeavoured to please Him? To those who, though they had occasionally been overtaken in a fault, had, in the main, served Him faithfully? No, indeed; very far from it. Instead, in the immediate context we find Him saying to them, “But thou hast not called upon Me, O Jacob; but thou hast been weary of Me, O Israel. Thou hast bought Me no sweet cane with money, neither hast thou filled Me with the fat of thy sacrifices: but thou hast made Me to serve with thy sins, thou hast wearied Me with thine iniquities” (vv. 22, 24). They were, then, thoroughly “ungodly”; yet to them the Lord declared, “I, even I, am He that blotteth out thy transgressions”—why? Because of something good in them or from them? No, “for Mine own sake”!
Further confirmation of what has been before us in Romans 4:5 is found in both what immediately precedes and what follows. In verses 1-3 the case of Abraham is considered, and the proof given that he was not “justified by works,” but on the ground of righteousness being imputed to him on his believing. “Now if a person of such victorious faith, exalted piety, and amazing obedience as his was, did not obtain acceptance with God on account of his own duties, but by an imputed righteousness; who shall pretend to an interest in the heavenly blessing, in virtue of his own sincere endeavors, or pious performances?–performances not fit to be named, in comparison with those that adorned the conduct and character of Jehovah’s friend” (A. Booth).
Having shown that the father of all believers was regarded by the Lord as an “ungodly” person, having no good works to his credit at the moment of his justification, the Apostle next cited David’s description of the truly blessed man. “And how does the royal Psalmist describe him? To what does he attribute his acceptance with God? To an inherent, or to an imputed righteousness? Does he represent him as attaining the happy state, and as enjoying the precious privilege, in consequence of performing sincere obedience, and of keeping the law to the best of his power? No such thing. His words are, ‘Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin’ (vv. 7-9). The blessed man is here described as one who is, in himself, a polluted creature, and a guilty criminal. As one who, before grace made the difference, was on a level with the rest of mankind; equally unworthy, and equally wretched: and the sacred penman informs us that all his blessedness arises from an imputed righteousness” (A. Booth).
“Him that justifieth the ungodly.” Here is the very heart of the Gospel. Many have argued that God can only pronounce just, and treat as such, those who are inherently righteous; but if this was so, what good news would there be for sinful men? Enemies of the Truth insist that for God to pronounce just those whom His law condemns would be a judicial fiction. But Romans 4:5 makes known a divine miracle: something only God could have achieved. The miracle announced by the Gospel is that God comes to the ungodly with a mercy that is righteous, and in spite of all their depravity and rebellion, enables them through faith (on the ground of Christ’s righteousness) to enter into a new and blessed relation with Himself.
The Scriptures speak of mercy, but it is not mercy coming in to make up the deficiencies and forgive the slips of the virtuous, but mercy extended through Christ to the chief of sinners. The Gospel which proclaims mercy through the atonement of the Lord Jesus is distinguished from every religious system of man, by holding out salvation to the guiltiest of the human race, through faith in the blood of the Redeemer. God’s Son came into this world not only to save sinners, but even the chief of sinners, the worst of His enemies. Mercy is extended freely to the most violent and determined rebel. Here, and here only, is a refuge for the guilty. Is the trembling reader conscious that he is a great sinner, then that is the very reason why you should come to Christ: the greater your sins, the greater your need of the Saviour.
There are some who appear to think that Christ is a Physician who can cure only such patients as are not dangerously ill, that there are some cases so desperate as to be incurable, beyond His skill. What an affront to His power, what a denial of His sufficiency! Where can a more extreme case be found than that of the thief on the cross? He was at the very point of death, on the very brink of Hell! A guilty criminal, an incorrigible outlaw, justly condemned even by men. He had reviled the Saviour suffering by his side. Yet, at the end, he turned to Him and said, “Lord remember me.” Was his plea refused? Did the Physician of souls regard his as a hopeless case? No, blessed be His name, He at once responded “Today shalt thou be with Me in Paradise.” Only unbelief shuts the vilest out of Heaven.
“Him that justifieth the ungodly.” And how can the thrice holy God righteously do such a thing? Because “Christ died for the Ungodly” (Rom. 5:6). God’s righteous grace comes to us through the law-honouring, justice-satisfying, sin-atoning Work of the Lord Jesus! Here, then, is the very essence of the Gospel: the proclamation of God’s amazing grace, the declaration of divine bounty, altogether irrespective of human worth or merit. In the great Satisfaction of His Son, God has “brought near HIS righteousness” (Isa. 46:13). “We do not need to go up to Heaven for it; that would imply Christ had never come down. Nor do we need to go down to the depths of the earth for it; that would say Christ had never been buried and had never risen. It is near. We do not need to exert ourselves to bring it near, nor do anything to attract it towards us. It is near… The office of faith is not to work, but to cease working; not to do anything, but to own that all is done” (A. Bonar).
Faith is the one link between the sinner and the Saviour. Not faith as a work, which must be properly performed to qualify us for pardon. Not faith as a religious duty, which must be gone through according to certain rules in order to induce Christ to give us the benefits of His finished work. No, but faith simply extended as an empty hand, to receive everything from Christ for nothing. Reader, you may be the very “chief of sinners,” yet is your case not hopeless. You may have sinned against much light, great privileges, exceptional opportunities; you may have broken every one of the Ten Commandments in thought, word and deed; your body may be filled with disease from wickedness, your head white with the winter of old age; you may already have one foot in Hell; and yet even now, if you but take your place alongside of the dying thief, and trust in the divine efficacy of the precious blood of the Lamb, you shall be plucked as a brand from the burning. God “justifieth the ungodly.” Hallelujah! If He did not, the writer had been in Hell long ago.