The God Who Justifies the Ungodly

Romans 4 is an explosive passage of Scripture. It oozes good news. Romans 3 paints a bleak picture for us all. Paul tells us we are all rushing forward to one inescapable moment—-the day we stand before our Creator face to face. A day “appointed” according to the writer of Hebrews. A day of accountability for our every word, thought, action and motive.

This is a day that Paul tells us is terrifying—because left to ourselves there is no hope. Romans 3 states emphatically that no one is righteous, not even one—there no exceptions. You and I are in the same boat—and that boat is sinking rapidly. Apart from Christ all humanity stands condemned before God and hopeless before him as Judge.

This hopelessness is highlighted by the fact that we cannot through our own energy or activity make ourselves right with our Creator. We have broken his moral expectations and commands—and that we cannot repair. No amount of striving can change it. It is into this helplessness and hopelessness that Romans 4 speaks.

“For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness”

To the “none righteous” God provides a perfect righteousness through his Son Jesus Christ. His death and resurrection secure forgiveness and a right standing with the Father that comes to the one “who does not work” but rather believes and rests in his good work. This is good news.

God describes himself in an astonishing way in this passage. He puts a name tag on his chest that is unbelievable. He is the justifier of the ungodly, that’s who he is—this is his title, his name…it’s what he does! Ungodly is a term that denotes one who refuses to worship. God comes for this person—the sinner, the sick, the broken, the rebel.

In fact, there is only one type of individual who will be considered righteous in God’s courtroom—the one who is ungodly and does nothing, but receives God’s gift by faith! The only thing I contributed to my justification was my sin. My ungodliness is all I brought to the table. The God who Justifies the Ungodly is worthy of fierce loyalty and worship, there is none like him!

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Creation Apart from Works

We are dust. We must never forget our origins. Our existence is marvelous. We started from a clump of mud. God’s creative, forming, breathing energy was infused into the dirt as he fashioned a creature to bear his image—simply phenomenal. This is a cornerstone of our reality. Life and death, joy and sorrow are located at the intersection of the Creator-creature distinction.

It is no mistake that the first line of the Apostle’s Creed says, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth.” In this simple affirmation we confess our creatureliness and our Maker’s sovereignty. Martin Luther is wonderful in his comments from his small catechism on this phrase. He asks the question: what does this mean? He answers.

I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still preserves them; that He richly and daily provides me with food and clothing, home and family, property and goods, and all that I need to support this body and life; that He protects me from all danger, guards and keeps me from all evil; and all this purely out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me; for all which I am in duty bound to thank and praise, to serve and obey Him. This is most certainly true.

I love the way he frames God’s creative work as an act of “fatherly, divine goodness and mercy.” Our existence is without “any merit or worthiness in me.” I did not earn my existence. Creation is apart from works, it has nothing to do with me whatsoever—it is based purely on his good pleasure. Luther provocatively utilizes the language he often uses of justification to speak of creation. His point: creation and justification operate on the same principle, grace alone.

The posture of the creature is hands open to receive. The posture of the sinner is arms outstretched grasping at what is not ours. A posture we know all too well since the transgression of our first parents. Justification is about making us human again…it returns us to this receiving posture. God graces us with salvation apart from any merit of our own.

The Remedy for Fear

If there is one thing that should strike fear in a heart it is the certainty of divine judgment and the potential of eternal punishment. In a sane person every other fear bows to this great terror. Accountability in the face of omniscience and holiness is a sobering reality.

The gospel of God is tremendous news as it drives to the heart of this deep concern. Judgment day is ripped out of the future and brought into the present when Christ goes to the cross in our stead. The cross is the courtroom. The verdict is condemnation for Jesus and righteousness for us. This is the gospel. He was our substitute. Judgement has happened.

Love motivated this saving work. It is God’s love that dispels all fear and replaces it with joyful confidence. Hear what John says about the matter in his first letter.

“So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:16-19).

Fear is the prey of love. There is no peaceful co-existence between the two. Love attacks, fear runs. How mighty is the love of God! It assaults our fear and instills us with confidence for the day we fear most.

The love of God ensures that punishment is not in our future. His love is a static reality, it is fixed and unmoving. The cross stands as the objective reminder of God’s enduring love. Our grasp of that love, however, is often unstable and moving.

This is why John articulates the need to be “perfected” in our grasp of God’s love for us. The idea of perfection here is development, maturity or completion. As we grow into our grasp of God’s love in Christ our confidence also increases.

We must always distinguish between objective reality and our subjective experience. There is no condemnation present or future for those in Christ, judgement day has happened. That is a fixed reality, whether I feel like it or not.

I waiver in my faith. I doubt God’s promises. I question God’s love. My obedience is flawed. I do not always feel confident about judgement day. These are all part of my subjective experiences of faith. I waiver and how I feel about the gospel and judgement day moves. This does not change the settled reality, it simply speaks to my interaction with it.

The goal: move the subjective experience closer and closer to the objective reality. Confidence in coming day of judgement is an indicator that the objective and subjective are converging.

Falling Upward and Doing Nothing

Gerhard Forde was a Lutheran theologian that taught as a seminary professor for 40 years. He wrote some very insightful material on the doctrine of justification and the theology of the cross. He was a strong proponent of the radical grace of the gospel.

He understood the original sin to be a an upward lunge and grasp for divinity. He understood salvation to be the finished work of Christ applied to the person who does nothing but receives.

Here are a few great quotes from Forde.

“We must consider the fall and sin differently from the traditional scheme. The fall is really not what the word implies at all. It is not a downward plunge to some lower level in the great chain of being, some lower rung on the ladder of morality and freedom. Rather, it is an upward rebellion, an invasion of the realm of things ‘above,’ the usurping of divine prerogative. To retain traditional language, one would have to resort to an oxymoron and speak of an ‘upward fall.'”

“We are justified freely, for Christ’s sake, by faith, without the exertion of our own strength, gaining of merit, or doing of works. To the age old question, ‘What shall I do to be saved?’ the confessional answer is shocking: ‘Nothing! Just be still; shut up and listen for once in your life to what God the Almighty, creator and redeemer, is saying to his world and to you in the death and resurrection of his Son! Listen and believe!’

“Sanctification is simply the art of getting used to justification.”

“Christian growth is forgetting about yourself.”

The Gospel and Humor

What does the gospel have to do with humor. Tim Keller gives an insightful answer to this question in an article titled: The Gospel and Humor. Here is a portion of this article.

“Does the gospel have an effect on our sense of humor?” The answer has to be yes—but why and how? Your humor has a lot to do with how you regard yourself. Many people use humor to put down others, keep themselves in the driver’s seat in a conversation and setting, and remind the listeners of their superior vantage point. They use humor not to defuse tension and put people at ease, but to deliberately belittle the opposing view. Rather than showing respect and doing the hard work of true disagreement, they mock others’ points of view and dismiss them without actually engaging the argument.

Ultimately, sarcastic put-down humor is self-righteous —a form of self-justification— and that is what the gospel demolishes. When we grasp that we are un- worthy sinners saved by an infinitely costly grace, it destroys both our self-righteousness and our need to ridicule others. This is also true of self-directed ridicule. Some people constantly and bitterly mock themselves. At first it looks like a form of humility, or realism, but really it is just as self-absorbed as the other version. It is a sign of an inner discomfort with one’s self, a profound spiritual restlessness.

There is another kind of self-righteousness, however, that produces a person with little or no sense of humor. Moralistic persons often have no sense of irony, be- cause they take themselves too seriously or because they are too self-conscious and self-absorbed in their own struggles to be habitually joyful.

The gospel, however, creates a gentle sense of irony. Our doctrine of sin keeps us from being over-awed by anyone (especially ourselves) or shocked by any behavior. We find a lot to laugh at, starting with our own weaknesses. They don’t threaten us anymore, because our ultimate worth is not based on our record or performance. Our doctrine of grace and redemption also keeps us from seeing any situation as hopeless. This “ground note” of joy and peace makes humor spontaneous and natural.

In gospel-shaped humor, we don’t only poke fun at ourselves. We also can gently poke fun at others, espe- cially our friends, but it is always humor that takes the other seriously and ultimately builds them up as a show of affection. We are not to be “perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously— no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.”

So how do we get such a sense of humor? That’s the wrong question. The gospel doesn’t change us in a mechanical way. To give the gospel primacy in our lives is not always to logically infer a series of principles from it that we then “apply” to our lives. Recently I heard a sociologist say that, for the most part, the frameworks of meaning by which we navigate our lives are so deeply embedded in us that they operate “pre-reflectively.” They don’t exist only as a list of propositions and formulations, but also as themes, motives, attitudes, and values that are as affective and emotional as they are cognitive and intellectual. When we listen to the gospel preached, or meditate on it in the Scripture, we are driving it so deeply into our hearts, imaginations, and thinking that we begin to “live out” the gospel instinctively.

Original and Gifted Righteousness

Genesis 2:16-17

“And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.'”

Luther’s Commentary
“From this same original righteousness also it arose that Adam loved God and his works with all purity of affection; that he lived among the creatures of God in peace without any fear of death or any dread of disease, and that he enjoyed a body also the most obedient to the will of God, without any evil desires and utterly free from that impure lust, which we continually feel. So that a most beautiful and most certain picture of original righteousness may be portrayed from its entire contrast to that deep corruption, which we now feel throughout our whole nature…it is evident that original sin is the essential and entire loss and deprivation and absence of original righteousness; just as blindness is the privation or absence of sight.”
 
“God fulfils his original blessing pronounced upon male and female when he created them. And thus men, though in sin and with sin, generate and are generated. But this would not have been the case in paradise, had man continued in the innocency of his original creation. Children would have been born in original righteousness and rectitude. They would have known God immediately at their birth, without any instruction or admonition. They would have spoken of his holy name, praised him and given him thanks. But all these glorious things are now lost. Yet it is profitable to us to think upon them deeply, that we may hold fast some sense of the real state in which we now are; namely, under all the effects of original sin; and that we may rightly contemplate also the original condition of Adam, a state of perfect righteousness, which state we hope again to enjoy in all its blessedness at the ‘restitution of all things,’ Acts 3 :2.”
 
“Who is there, then, so stupid or so insane, who will after all conclude that a law was not given to Adam because he hears us affirm that Adam was a righteous man? For no other conclusion can follow than that the law, which was. made for the unrighteous, was not the law that was given to the righteous Adam; and on the converse it must follow that as a law was given to righteous Adam, that law was not the same as the law which was afterwards made for the unrighteous… the righteous man before sin and the righteous man after sin are each righteous, but in a different sense; that the one is righteous bv nature the other by new-creation and justification.”
 
Martin Luther. Luther on the Creation: A Critical and Devotional Commentary on Genesis [1-3] (Kindle Locations 3432-3545, 3608-3619).

Both Judge and Justifier

We had a really good conversation last week in one of the detention centers about justification. Justification is being declared righteous in God’s sight on account of Christ’s perfect life and death. I posed the question: who will stand as your Judge on the last day? Most answered the Father. In truth the Son is the one we will stand before in judgment (Matt 25: 31-34, Jn 5:22-23, Acts 10:42, 17:30-31, Rom 2:16). This should transform that final scene in our thinking. Our Judge is the one who has justified us already. This is the thrust of Romans 8:31-34. Who can accuse and who can condemn us when the one judging us is the one who died, rose, and intercedes for us now! Jesus is our judge, advocate, and righteousness on the last day. We can stand with confidence as that day draws near if we are trusting in the sufficiency of the work of Jesus (1 Jn 4:17-18).