Justifying the Ungodly



Just and the Justifier 

James Montgomery Boice, in his book Awakening to God, recalls a polemical leaflet that was distributed by an atheistic organization several years earlier.

The tract contained biographical sketches of numerous Old Testament saints combined with a “lurid” description of their misdeeds. No effort was spared in depicting the ugliness of each transgression. For example, drawing on the accounts recorded in Genesis 12 and 20, concerning Abraham’s dealings with both Pharaoh and Abimelech in which he lied about Sarai’s identity so as to avoid the potential threat of these monarchs killing him in order to take his wife, the leaflet rightly points out that Abraham was a man, who, because of his own cowardice, willing sacrificed his wife’s honor just to save himself. And he didn’t do it just once, but twice! Yet, the atheists note, Abraham is touted as the “friend of God” in scripture. Such seemingly contradictory information provokes the writers to wonder, “What kind of a God is this who would have Abraham as a friend?”

But it wasn’t just the father of the Jewish nation who lacked the sufficient moral character necessary for divine fellowship, there was also his grandson Jacob, who is described in scripture as a cheat and a liar. Yet, shockingly, God refers to Himself as “the God of Jacob.”

Then there is Moses who was a murderer and a fugitive from justice and yet scripture says that God spoke face to face with him as a man speaks to his friend.

And of course, we can not leave out King David. The man who not only committed adultery with the wife of his most loyal subject, but having found no convenient way to hide the iniquity, had the soldier murdered, withdrawn from in battle, rather than confess his transgression. How in the world can the Bible refer to David as “a man after God’s own heart?”, the atheist puzzles, “What kind of God is this who could be pleased with a man like David?” Is not God just? Is He not holy? Is He not righteous?

Remarkably this tract, printed and distributed by atheists, presents the very foundations of the gospel more precisely and perspicuously than many preachers do.

The Profound Paradox 

The Almighty God, who is infinitely holy; who is too pure to tolerate evil; and who thus must punish the wicked, has been for millennia not only refusing to condemn certain sinful men and women, but has, in fact, been justifying them. As Paul says, He has been “passing over former sins…justifying the ungodly” (Rom 3:25, 4:5).

But such a paradox immediately begs the question of how a righteous God, who is “holy, holy, holy” can do such a thing. Upon what possible legal grounds can God rightly declare the guilty to be innocent (us) and the innocent to be guilty (Christ) [Prov 17:25]? Or, as Paul succinctly states it, how can God be “both just and the justifier” (Rom 3:26)?

This, it seems to me, is the central question of the gospel because it’s answer reveals not only the solution to man’s greatest dilemma (How will I escape the wrath to come?), but also the God who has provided it.

Thus Paul, in his gospel treatise (the book of Romans), spends the first eleven chapters unpacking the answer. And at the heart of that discourse is the doctrine of imputation. (1)

But before we can fully appreciate Paul’s teaching on this subject, we must first follow his reasoning through the first five chapters.

Law vs. Grace (2)

In the first two major sections of the epistle’s body (3), Paul sets before his audience (and us) two opposing systems of salvation: The law system, and the grace system.

Paul refers to these as the “law of works” and “the law of faith” in 3:27. (4)

Please note that the word “law” (νόμου) in this passage does not refer to a moral code, but has the more general sense of “rule” or “system”. (5) Thus, Paul here is speaking of the system of faith and the system of works. Or, stated more broadly, the system of grace versus the system of law.

This is also what Paul means in 6:14 when he says that we are no longer “under law, but under grace”.

Those of us who are Christians are no longer bound to the law system of salvation, but are now subject (set free!) to the grace system. Which is a good thing because the law system, according to Paul, is impotent to save us.

Impotence of the Law System

The apostle spends the first major section of his epistle examining the law system, stating his thesis in verses nineteen and twenty of chapter three:

Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through law comes knowledge of sin.

So why will no one be justified in God’s sight based upon works of law (i.e. on account of their own law keeping [6])? Paul’s reasoning consists of three premises which, if true, lead necessarily to law being void of salvific power.

First, every single human being is accountable to God’s law (we are all “under law” Paul says in verse 19). In other words, each person has been given a version of God’s moral law even if it is just the basics written on his heart. (7) Thus, we have “no excuse”, we are all accountable to God. (8)

Second, the law system of salvation requires perfect obedience. If you are going to be justified by law, you must keep it continuously (Rom. 2:6-11; cf. James 2:10-11). It is not the hearers of the law who are saved, after all, but the doers (Rom 2:13).

Third, no one is a doer, all are “under sin” (Rom 3:9).

All of us have gone astray from God’s law (there is no distinction!), no one seeks after God; we have all fallen short of His glory (Rom 3:9-20; 23).

Thus, because no one satisfies the strict demands of God’s law, we all deserve it’s penalty which is death (Rom 6:23). (9)

So, while there is nothing inherently wrong with law — it is perfect and holy and good — it is impotent to save because we fail to meet it’s strict requirements. (10)

Sufficiency of the Grace System

However, God is not only a consuming fire (Heb 12:29), He is also love (1 John 4:8); and out of His boundless love He has provided another way or system of salvation, the grace system.

And whereas the rules of the law system only allow for justification of the sinless, the grace system permits God to justify the wicked (Rom 4:5).

Indeed, this is the only way a sinner can be justified.

Paul first mentions this system in the transitional statement of the introduction (11), but it is not until the second major section that we begin to taste it’s sweetness. (12)

Rom 3:21-26
21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction:23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation to be received through faith in his blood. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

The purpose of this second section is to set forth the essence of grace as a way of salvation, a way provided by the love of God as an alternative to law


1. My understanding of imputation is not the same as Calvin’s. But, I also don’t reject the concept out of hand as many have done. This will be discussed in greater detail in a future episode.

2. My understanding of the relationship between grace salvation and law salvation has been significantly shaped by Jack Cottrell’s book Set Free: What the Bible Says About Grace, and Martin Luther’s Commentary on Galatians.

3. 1:18-3:20 and 3:21-5:21.

4. Rom 3:27: Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith.

5. The same way Paul uses it later in chapters 7 and 8 concerning ‘the law of sin and death’.

6. I understand Paul’s phrase ἔργων νόμου (“works of law”) to be referring to the keeping of one’s law code. We can have a separate discussion on this if you like.

7. Like Greeks (i.e. heathens) who have never heard special revelation (Rom 2:14-16).

8. If we had no law, our sin would be excused because where “there is no law, there is no transgression” (Rom 4:15).

9. Eternal death, what John calls the “second death” in the book of Revelation.

10. Law has many purposes, salvation has never been one of them (Gal 3:19-22).

11. 1:16-17.

12. 3:21-5:21.