In Romans 4:2-5, St. Paul comments on the extreme graciousness of God’s offer of redemption to people in terms that have relieved and thrilled the heart of many repentant sinners over the centuries:
“For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not toward God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” Now to him who works, the reward is not counted as grace, but as something owed. But to him who doesn’t work, but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness.”
In a nutshell, St. Paul is saying that God declared Abraham to be a just man, not on the basis of his good deeds or of his own morality, but rather on the simple basis of his trusting the promise of God. Paul is holding up Abraham as an example to modern day sinners, those of who are in just as much need of redemption as Abraham was. We too can be declared righteous in God’s sight, not based on attaining the standard of perfection that is required by a holy God, but rather by simply trusting in Christ, his atoning death, and his perfect obedience. Such faith is “accounted for righteousness.”
Much confusion surrounds the concept of God being “him who justifies the ungodly.” During the time of the Reformation, those opposed to the Reformers teachings argued that it was nonsensical to say that God would ever declare a man to be righteous unless the man actually was objectively righteous. Such a concept is difficult for the human mind, but it does seem to be precisely what Paul is getting at here. If God never declares a person to be righteous until he or she actually is, in their own character, righteous, then in what sense could it ever be said that God “justifies the ungodly”? From the Reformation viewpoint, God justifies (declares righteous) ungodly people when they place their trust in Christ. Then, afterward, God sanctifies (actually makes righteous) those people who have believed in Christ.
Martin Luther, contrary to popular misconception, didn’t deny that grace can be infused into man—he simply vehemently denied that such an infusion of grace was what Paul meant by “justification.” In terms of justification, God’s grace is a change in his disposition towards us; in terms of sanctification, grace is something God objectively gives to us to enable us to die to sin and conform to the image of Christ.
No Reformers that this writer is aware of taught that grace cannot be communicated to the totally depraved. They said, instead, that inherent or infused grace cannot be the ground cause of a person’s justification because if this were the case, salvation would originate ultimately in us, not in God.
The opponents of the Reformers said that their articulation of justification amounted to nothing more than a legal fiction, God acknowledging us to be something that we are, in fact, not–or “receiving a compliment for something you never did.”
However, this is not at all the Reformation doctrine. God doesn’t call guilty people innocent—when he calls believers innocent, this is because they are innocent, albeit not on the basis of their own righteousness, but rather on the basis of Christ’s righteousness credited to their account. If Bill Gates transferred $10 million to someone’s account tonight and then called that person a rich man, he would not be lying or calling that individual something that he is not. Based on Gates’ free act of generosity, the person would actually be a rich man, and his compliment would be accurate. However, just as it would be absurd for one to think of those riches as having originated in him, rather than in the generous giver, it would be wrong for the Christian to think that his own righteousness (filthy rags in God’s sight) is the basis of his being accepted before the Father—we have the righteousness of Christ credited to us and we are accepted on that basis.
Those who stand in opposition to Reformation theology are hard-pressed to explain what it means for God to “justify the ungodly” (Romans 4:5)? From the opposing point of view, God would never justify (declare righteous) a person who was ungodly—he would only declare a person godly when they had attained the status of actually being righteous and godly and not a minute before. In other words, in that worldview, it would be nonsensical to say, as Paul says, that God justifies the ungodly.
The Reformers’ opponents also said that for God to declare a sinful person to be not guilty, while they remained a guilty sinner, would be arbitrary, making their justification groundless. However, God’s declaring a believer righteous on the basis of Christ alone is far from arbitrary. God sees believers as righteous because the perfect obedience of his Son has been credited to their account. There was no intrinsic sinfulness in Christ when he hung on the cross, yet he “became sin for us” (2 Corinthians 5:21). God’s allowing Christ to become sin for us wasn’t arbitrary or groundless though—it was so that the divine swap could be made complete, that “we might become the righteousness of God in him.”
Again, when talking of sanctification, the Reformers and their opponents would have no variance. God giving us grace does mean he will make us holy. But God doesn’t wait until sinners become holy before he declares them just. He declares the ungodly to be justified (Romans 4:5) and then goes on to transform that ungodly person as time goes on. If only those who are actually, objectively holy are ever declared righteous by God, then what on earth did Paul mean by saying God justifies the ungodly?
Evangelicals, the theological heirs of the Reformation, believe that Paul’s words here should be taken at face value, making this news that really does sound “too good to be true.” God really will accept repentant sinners as his children and declare them to be righteous on the basis of Christ’s righteousness credited to their account. God really will declare them to be guilty, acknowledging that all of their sins were credited to Christ’s account and paid for fully on Calvary. Thank God for the gospel!