This "article" first appeared as two blog posts on the RFPA's website. The author is Rev. M. McGeown, pastor of Providence PRC in Hudsonville, MI, author, and RFPA blog editor.
The God Who Justifies
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.
The man who is justified, the man who does not work for his justification, but believes in the God who justifies the ungodly, does not remain ungodly. After he is justified, he is no longer ungodly, for God begins to sanctify him, so that he is holy. Nevertheless, this holiness, which is always only a beginning, is never part of his justification before God.
Consider the following man described in the Form for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper (my paraphrase): “I am an idolater, I invoke deceased saints, angels or other creatures; I worship images; I am an enchanter, diviner, charmer, and I confide in such enchantments; I despise God, his Word, and the holy sacraments; I am a blasphemer; I raise discord, sects and mutiny in Church or State; I am a perjured person; I am disobedient to my parents and superiors; I am a murderer, contentious person, and I live in hatred and envy against my neighbours; I am an adulterer, whoremonger, drunkard, thief, usurer, robber, gamester, covetous, and I lead an offensive life.” Is that a description of the justified man—the ungodly man—who is acquitted and declared righteous in God’s judgment? Is that the believer who “worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly”? Certainly, that describes him by nature, according to his flesh. In 1 Corinthians 6 the apostle describes the members of the church in Corinth: “fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, effeminate, abusers of themselves with mankind, thieves, covetous, drunkards, revilers, extortioners” (vv. 9-10). That is what they were—former fornicators, former idolaters, former adulterers, etc. “And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God” (v. 11). One who is justified is no longer ungodly—he no longer lives in such sins. The reason for his justification is not that he no longer lives in such sins: the reason for his justification is the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ). His godly living (his no longer living in ungodliness) is the fruit of his justification. Certainly, he is still prone by nature to commit those sins. And sometimes he falls into such sins and when he does, he must repent. But he does not walk actively and persistently in all those sins. Of course, he does not—he is a believer! The idea that he would is abhorrent to him. In fact, the Catechism says that those who “continuing in their wicked and ungrateful lives, are not converted to God” “cannot be saved” (Q87) and “shall [not] inherit the kingdom of God” (A 87). If one does not inherit God’s kingdom, it must mean that he is also not justified. To the justified the King (Jesus) says, “Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt. 25:34). To the unjustified (the condemned) the fearful words are spoken, “Depart from ye, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels” (v. 41).
What, then? How can both be true, that God justifies the ungodly and yet the ungodly does not inherit the kingdom—he is not justified, but condemned? The answer is simple: whom God justifies, as ungodly, does not remain ungodly. As far as justification is concerned, he does not work, but he believes, and having believed, he begins to work out of gratitude for the salvation (the justification) that he has received.
Romans 4:5 is not the last word—in many ways it is only the beginning. A justified man becomes a sanctified man, but a man who is ungodly, and remains ungodly, and is never anything else but ungodly, is not—and never was—justified. He ought not flatter himself that he is justified, and if he does claim to be justified while living in ungodliness, he labors under a fatal delusion. In fact, such a man, if he is a member of a faithful church, should be under discipline.
And do not miss either the fact that the man who “worketh not” believes. The word “believeth” in verse 5 refers to the activity of believing. The apostle does not write, “But to him that worketh not, but is engrafted passively into Christ by a true faith.” We are engrafted passively into Christ by a true faith (the fruit of which is that we believe), but that is not what the text says and that is not Scripture’s emphasis. The text says, “but believeth on him,” which is an active participle, parallel to the “worketh not.” “To the one not working, but to the one believing upon the one justifying the ungodly” is the idea. “Believing upon” (the Greek preposition epi) is the activity of trusting. When we believe, we trust in Jesus Christ, the only Savior of sinners. The same thing is true of Romans 3:22: “The righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ [that is, faith in Jesus Christ] unto all and upon all them that believe [all believing ones].”
We can apply this to Abraham who is the apostle’s example in Romans 4:1-5. Abraham had works, even good works, but his works were not perfect. Abraham was not ungodly: he loved, worshiped, and trusted God. He built altars to God and prayed to him. Abraham was a believer; he acted in faith. In Genesis 12:4 Abraham departed from Ur of Chaldees in obedience to God’s word, something Hebrews 11:8 refers to as the obedience of faith: “By faith Abraham… obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went.” In Genesis 15:6, the passage to which the apostle refers in Romans 4:3, we read that “[Abraham] believed in the LORD and he counted it to him for righteousness” Clearly, Abraham was a believer in Genesis 12:4 when he obeyed God’s call, and clearly he was a believer throughout chapters 12-15, so that in Genesis 15:6 he was a believer, not an ungodly man, when God justified him. Indeed, Genesis 15:6 cannot be the first time that God justified him, nor was it the last time that God confirmed justification in Abraham’s consciousness. Every time that Abraham believed God’s promises concerning Jesus Christ, he received God’s justifying verdict, “Abraham, you are righteous before me.” In Genesis 15:5 God’s promise was “So shall thy seed be,” speaking not only of an innumerable seed, but specifically of Jesus Christ. Abraham believed that and God counted to him for righteousness.
It is, therefore, not true that Abraham did not work—he did work—but he did not work for justification. It is also not true that we do not work—we do work and we must work—but we do not work and we cannot work for justification. The apostle’s “worketh not” applies strictly to justification. It does not apply to the Christian life of the justified believer. Colossians 3:23 says, “And whatsoever ye do, do it (the verb is ergazomai, work; the same verb as in Romans 4:5) heartily as to the Lord, and not unto men.” The Bible would not have us to “work not” or to be idle, except in justification—there we “work not.” There we bring none of our works: there we simply believe.
When God justified Abraham, whether in Genesis 12:4, Genesis 15:6, or elsewhere, Abraham’s works were excluded. This does not mean that Abraham did not have any works (he did because he was a believer), but his works, being imperfect, defiled with sin, and non-meritorious were of no account in his justification before God. This is true of all human works, except the works of the man Christ Jesus, whose works were not the works of a mere man, but the works of the Son of God incarnate. His holy works merit with God—-they merit our salvation. But our works do not merit. Therefore, believers do good works, as the fruit of God’s grace, but they do not trust in their works when they enter the Judgment, for they know that their works will never avail them on that great day.
What, then, does justification mean, and how does God justify the sinner, who in himself is ungodly, and believes in God through Jesus Christ? To justify is to declare righteous, which means that the righteous Judge declares us to be in perfect harmony with, and in perfect conformity to, the standard, which is the law. Clearly, however, that is not true as far as our actual moral condition is concerned: we are sinful and imperfect. That applies only to our legal status: the Judge sees us as righteous.
Paul explains, “his faith is counted for righteousness” (Rom. 4:5). Emphatically, that does not mean that our act of believing—our faith—is the ground or basis of our justification. “Not that I am acceptable to God on account of the worthiness of my faith” (Heidelberg Catechism, A 61). “We do not mean that faith itself justifies us” (Belgic Confession, Art. 24). In verse 5 “faith” is shorthand for “the object of faith,” which is Jesus Christ. In the same chapter we read “God imputeth righteousness without works” (v. 6), that God “will not impute sin” (v. 7), and “that righteousness might be imputed unto them also” (v. 11). Jesus Christ—specifically, his righteousness—is imputed to us in justification. Not our faith, not our act of believing, but the object of faith, Jesus Christ and his righteousness, is the ground of our justification before God. “Faith” is used in the same way in Galatians 3. “But before faith came, we were kept under the law… But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster” (vv. 23, 25). The “faith” in Galatians 3 is the object of faith, namely, Jesus Christ: when he came, the Old Testament church was redeemed, as were we.
We are justified then as non-working, in ourselves ungodly sinners, when we believe in Jesus Christ: “But to him that worketh not, but believeth” (Rom. 4:5). “And by him all that believe are justified” (Acts 13:39). “We have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified” (Gal. 2:16). “Inasmuch as I embrace such benefit with a believing heart” (Heidelberg Catechism, A 60). “I cannot receive and apply the same to myself any other way than by faith only” (A 61). “Faith is only an instrument with which we embrace Christ our righteousness” (Belgic Confession, Art. 22). “The obedience of Christ crucified, which becomes ours when we believe in Him” (Art. 23). “By faith in Christ we are justified, even before we do good works” (Art. 24). “We would always be in doubt, tossed to and fro without any certainty, and our poor consciences continually vexed, if they relied not on the merits of the suffering and death of our Savior” (Art. 24).
In conclusion, the ground or basis of our justification is the righteousness of Jesus Christ—his perfect obedience to the law for us, his sufferings and death in our place. The instrument or God-given means by which we appropriate justification is faith, which is God’s gift to us. The fruit of justification is good works because the justified believer is also sanctified, so that he is no longer ungodly: he is no longer wicked, profane, and devoid of any piety or reverential awe toward God. Instead, being justified by faith alone without works, he is sanctified and brings forth fruit, much good fruit, to the glory of the God who justified him, even to the glory of the God who graciously justifies the ungodly.
Rev. Martyn McGeown (Larisa)
Pastorates: Missionary-pastor in Limerick, Ireland for the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church of Northern Ireland - 2010; Providence PRC (Hudsonville, MI), Sept. 2021Website: www.prca.org/current/news/churches/usa-canada/providence-prc-hudsonville-mi
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