LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–One of the most shocking, morally outrageous and utterly preposterous statements in the Bible occurs in Romans 4:5. Here, Paul instructs his readers that God, the possessor of infinite righteousness and the standard bearer of perfect justice, actually “justifies the ungodly.”
What! How can God justify (i.e., declare righteous) the ungodly (i.e., those who by nature, thought, word and deed are thoroughly unrighteous)?
As it stands, this phrase seems to represent a travesty of justice at the highest possible level. Allowing Stalin or Hitler or Pol Pot to stand before a court of international justice and be declared fully and totally innocent in the face of genocide and despicable war crimes would pale in comparison to the horrid betrayal of justice indicated by this phrase — perpetrated by none less than God the Almighty.
And the Baptist Faith and Message article on justification urges readers to embrace, not deny, this same apparent infinite injustice, when it affirms that “justification” is God’s “full acquittal” of “sinners.”
We realize on pondering this claim that while we might earlier have thought the “problem of evil” to be the major theological difficulty facing Christian theology, in fact the “problem of acquittal” threatens to bring the holiness, righteousness, justice and very moral nature of God and his ways cascading down the perilous cliffs of moral dissolution and anarchy.
But herein lies the gospel! While it would be entirely just for God to justify the righteous (of which, however, there is none — Romans 3:23), or to condemn the ungodly (which we all, without exception, deserve — Rom 6:23a; Galatians 3:10); in fact God has designed the means by which he can legally, morally and righteously justify the ungodly.
But our understanding of God’s uncompromising holiness and our own moral sensibilities require us to ask, “On what basis can he do this?” The Bible and this article of faith give three facets of this answer.
First, the ground of sinners’ justification is the “redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:24), or as our article puts it, God justifies “upon principles of his righteousness.” Romans 3:25-26 explains how this can be. In the shed blood of Christ, God “demonstrated his righteousness” because in his purposes he had passed over all sin previously committed.
But since God had passed over them, not judged them, he now in Christ satisfies his just demands against our sin by judging our sin in and through the substitutionary death of Christ. God, then, is just to justify sinners insofar as their sin is fully judged and paid for in his Son.
Second, the condition of sinners’ justification is repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. Since the sinner’s offense (sin) against God requires an infinite payment to an infinitely holy God, no amount of human works could ever satisfy God’s demands against us.
Salvation by works is laughable in light of the infinite weight of our guilt and the infinite payment required to remove it.
But, since God in his purposes has sent his Son to take the sinner’s place and pay the sinner’s penalty, God now requires only that the sinner put faith in Christ to receive the benefits of Christ’s payment, credited to him as righteousness (i.e., justification).
God, then, is just to justify sinners as they believe in Christ alone for their salvation, forsaking any pretense to works righteousness and turning from their sin as they flee gladly to Christ.
Third, the dual motivation of sinners’ justification is God’s abundant grace toward sinners and God’s longing to bring glory to his name through their salvation.
The sobering truth is this: God could be just, and only just, by requiring all sinners to pay the penalty of their own sin. If so, eternal, never-ending, conscious, despairing torment would rightly be meted out to all without exception and with no appeal nor basis for complaint.
But, Romans 3:26 tells us that God sought to be “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” That is, God chose to be just, but he chose a path of justice by which he would also be gracious, declaring us righteous by faith in Christ and his substitutionary death on our behalf.
Such grace yields endless glory to God. (“Where is the boasting?” Paul continues in Rom 3:27.) And such grace yields endless goodness to acquitted sinners.
Our goodness, God’s grace and God’s glory are inextricably tied together in this marvelously wise, just and merciful plan of salvation. Praise be to God alone!
Ware is senior associate dean of the school of theology and professor of Christian theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
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Full text of Article 4: Salvation
Salvation involves the redemption of the whole man, and is offered freely to all who accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, who by His own blood obtained eternal redemption for the believer. In its broadest sense salvation includes regeneration, justification, sanctification, and glorification. There is no salvation apart from personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord.
A. Regeneration, or the new birth, is a work of God’s grace whereby believers become new creatures in Christ Jesus. It is a change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit through conviction of sin, to which the sinner responds in repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Repentance and faith are inseparable experiences of grace.
Repentance is a genuine turning from sin toward God. Faith is the acceptance of Jesus Christ and commitment of the entire personality to Him as Lord and Saviour.
B. Justification is God’s gracious and full acquittal upon principles of His righteousness of all sinners who repent and believe in Christ. Justification brings the believer unto a relationship of peace and favor with God.
C. Sanctification is the experience, beginning in regeneration, by which the believer is set apart to God’s purposes, and is enabled to progress toward moral and spiritual maturity through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit dwelling in him. Growth in grace should continue throughout the regenerate person’s life.
D. Glorification is the culmination of salvation and is the final blessed and abiding state of the redeemed.
Genesis 3:15; Exodus 3:14-17; 6:2-8; Matthew 1:21; 4:17; 16:21-26; 27:22-28:6; Luke 1:68-69; 2:28-32; John 1:11-14,29; 3:3-21,36; 5:24; 10:9,28-29; 15:1-16; 17:17; Acts 2:21; 4:12; 15:11; 16:30-31; 17:30-31; 20:32; Romans 1:16-18; 2:4; 3:23-25; 4:3ff.; 5:8-10; 6:1-23; 8:1-18,29-39; 10:9-10,13; 13:11-14; 1 Corinthians 1:18,30; 6:19-20; 15:10; 2 Corinthians 5:17-20; Galatians 2:20; 3:13; 5:22-25; 6:15; Ephesians 1:7; 2:8-22; 4:11-16; Philippians 2:12-13; Colossians 1:9-22; 3:1ff.; 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24; 2 Timothy 1:12; Titus 2:11-14; Hebrews 2:1-3; 5:8-9; 9:24-28; 11:1-12:8,14; James 2:14-26; 1 Peter 1:2-23; 1 John 1:6-2:11; Revelation 3:20; 21:1-22:5.
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