God Justified the Ungodly
From Gospel Translations
By John Piper
About Assurance of Salvation
Part of the series God's Invincible Purpose: Foundations for Full Assurance
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus. Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On the principle of works? No, but on the principle of faith. For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart form works of law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of their faith and the uncircumcised through their faith. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law. What then shall we say about Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness." Now to one who works, his wages are not reckoned as a gift but as his due. And to one who does not work but trusts him who justified the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness. So also David pronounces a blessing upon the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works: "Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not reckon his sin."
The Vindication of God's Righteousness
Last week I tried to show that the deepest problem being solved by the death of Christ was the problem that God himself seemed to be unrighteous in passing over so many sins that deserved condemnation. The whole Old Testament is a testimony to the truth that God is "slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin" (Exodus 34:6–7).
And I said that we will never really feel this problem until we are God-centered in the way we think about sin and righteousness.
Sin (Romans 3:23) is not primarily a crime against man. It is a crime against God. "All have sinned and fall short of God's glory." Sinning is always a valuing of something in the world more than God. It's a belittling of his glory. It's a dishonoring of his name.
But God's righteousness is his commitment to do what is ultimately right—namely, to uphold the honor of his name and the worth of his glory. Righteousness is the opposite of sin. Sin belittles the worth of God by choosing against him; righteousness magnifies the worth of God by choosing for him.
Therefore when God just passes over sin and lets sinners go without just punishment, he seems to be unrighteous. He seems to be saying: the scorning of my worth is not significant; the belittling of my glory is unimportant; the dishonoring of my name doesn't matter. If that were true, God would be unrighteous. And we would be without hope.
But God did not let it be true. He put forward his Son, Jesus Christ, that through death he might demonstrate that God is righteous. The death of the Son of God is a declaration of the value that God places upon his glory, and the hatred that he has for sin, and the love that he has for sinners.
The Justification of the Ungodly
Another word for this passing over sin which made God look unrighteous is "justification"—the justification of the ungodly (Romans 4:5). That's what I want to talk about today. And not just the fact that God passed over sins done a long time ago, but that he passed over the sins of his people which we did yesterday and this morning and will do tomorrow.
Verse 26 says that when Jesus died, two things happened, not just one. "It [the death of Christ] was to prove that God himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus." God is shown to be just, and believers are justified.
Now I don't want to focus today on the subjective act of faith by which we receive justification. I want to focus on the objective work of God in justifying. Because I think that if we focus on this great work—on what God does rather than what we do—we will find the faith to receive it welling up in our hearts.
Let's look at four things that justification means for those who receive the gift through trust in Jesus.
1. Forgiven for All Our Sins
First, being justified means being forgiven for all our sins.
All Sin—Past, Present, and Future
Look at Romans 4:5–8 where Paul is unpacking the truth of justification by quoting the Old Testament.
5) To one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness. 6) So also David pronounces a blessing upon the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works: 7) "Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; 8) blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not reckon his sin."
This is right at the heart of justification. Cherish these three great phrases from verses 7–8: "iniquities are forgiven," "sins are covered," "the Lord does not reckon sin against us."
Notice that Paul does not limit forgiveness to the sins we did before we believed—as though your past sins are forgiven but your future is up for grabs. There is no limitation like that mentioned. The blessing of justification is that iniquities are forgiven and sins are covered and "the Lord will not reckon sin against us." It is stated in a very absolute and unqualified way.
Because Christ Bore Our Sin and Guilt
How can he do that? Romans 3:24 says that we are justified "through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus." That word "redemption" means freeing or releasing or loosing from some bondage or imprisonment. So the point is that when Jesus died for us, he freed us from the imprisonment of our sins. He broke the bonds of guilt that put us under condemnation.
Paul says in Galatians 3:13 that "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law having become a curse for us." Peter says (in 1 Peter 2:24), "Christ bore our sins in his body on the tree." Isaiah said, "The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all" (53:6).
So justification—the forgiveness of sins—comes to us because Christ bore our sin, bore our curse, bore our guilt, and so released us from condemnation. This is what it means that we are justified "through the redemption in Christ Jesus." We are released from their punishment because he bore their punishment.
Christ Only Suffered Once
And mark this: he only suffered once. He is not sacrificed again and again in the Lord's Supper or the Mass as though his first sacrifice were insufficient. Hebrews 9:26 says that "Christ appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself" (cf. Hebrews 7:27). And again it says in 9:12, "He entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption." This is utterly crucial in order to grasp the glory of what God did for us at the cross.
Do you see the connection between the once for all death of Christ and the totality of your sins and the sins of all God's people? It isn't some sins, or certain kinds of sins, or past sins only, but sins and sin absolutely that Christ put away for all his people.
So the forgiveness of justification is the forgiveness of all our sins past, present, and future. That's what happened when Christ died.
2. Reckoned Righteous with an Alien Righteousness
Being justified means being reckoned righteous with God's righteousness imputed to us, or counted as ours.
We are not merely forgiven and left with no standing before God. God not only sets aside our sin, but he also counts us as righteous and puts us in a right standing with himself. He gives us his own righteousness.
The Righteousness of God Through Faith in Jesus
Look at verses 21–22. Paul just said in verse 20 that no human could ever be justified by works of the law. You can never have a right standing with God on the basis of legalistic strivings. Then he says (to show how justification is attained), "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 faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe."
So even though no one can be justified by works of the law, there is a righteousness of God that you can have through faith in Jesus Christ. This is what I mean when I say being justified means being reckoned righteous. God's righteousness is counted as ours through faith.
When Jesus dies to demonstrate the righteousness of God, as we saw last week from verses 25–26, he makes that righteousness available as a gift for sinners. Had Christ not died to demonstrate that God is righteous in passing over sins, the only way the righteousness of God would have shown itself is by condemning us. But Christ did die. And so the righteousness of God is now not a condemnation but a gift of life to all who believe.
2 Corinthians 5:21
2 Corinthians 5:21 is one of the most breathtaking passages about this great gift of imputed righteousness. "For our sake he [God] made him [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God."
Christ knew no sin. He was a perfect man. He never sinned. He lived perfectly for the glory of God all his life and in his death. He was righteous. We, on the other hand have all sinned. We have belittled the glory of God. We are unrighteous.
But God, who chose us in Christ Jesus before the foundation of the world, ordained that there would be a magnificent exchange: He would make Christ to be sin—not a sinner, but sin—our sin, our guilt, our punishment, our alienation from God, our unrighteousness. And he would take the righteousness of God, that Christ had so awesomely vindicated, and make us bear it and wear it and own it the way Christ did our sin.
The point here is not that Christ becomes morally a sinner and we become morally righteous. The point is that Christ bears an alien sin and suffers for it, and we bear an alien righteousness and live by it.
Justification Precedes Sanctification
Be sure that you see the objective reality of this outside ourselves. This is not yet the reality of sanctification—the actual process of becoming morally righteous in the way we think and feel and live. That too is a gift (we will see it in three weeks). But it is based on this one. Before any of us can make true gospel progress in being righteous partially, we must believe that we are reckoned righteous totally. Or to put it another way, the only sin that you can overcome practically in the power of God is a forgiven sin. The great gift of justification precedes and enables the process of sanctification.
3. Loved by God and Treated with Grace
Being justified means being loved by God and treated with grace.
Christ Proves the Measure of God's Love for Us
If God did not love you, there would have been no problem to solve by the death of his Son. It was his love for you that made him pass over your sin and that made him look unrighteous. If he did not love you, he would have solved the sin problem simply by condemning us all to destruction. That would have vindicated his righteousness. But he didn't do that. And the reason is because he loves you.
This is most beautifully pictured in Romans 5:6–8.
While we were yet weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Why one will hardly die for a righteous man—though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.
What God is proving in the death of his Son is not only the truth of his righteousness, but also the measure of his love.
The Free Gift of God
In Romans 3:24 Paul says that we are justified "by his grace as a gift." The love of God for sinners overflows in gifts of grace—that is, gifts that come from God's bountiful kindness and not from our works or our worth.
The forgiveness of sins and the righteousness of God are free gifts. That means they cost us nothing because they cost Christ everything. They cannot be earned with works or inherited through parents or absorbed through sacraments. They are free, to be received by faith.
Romans 5:17 says it like this:
If, because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.
The forgiveness of sins and the righteousness of God are free gifts of grace that flow from the love of God.
Being justified means being forgiven, being reckoned righteous, and being loved by God.
4. Secured by God Forever
Finally, being justified means being secured by God forever.
This is the crowning blessing. Paul proclaims it in Romans 8:30. "Those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified."
If you are justified, you will be glorified. You will reach the glory of the age to come and live forever with God in joy and holiness. Why is this so sure?
It is sure because the effect of the death of God's Son is objective and real and definite and invincible for God's people. What it achieves it achieves forever. The effect of the blood of Christ is not fickle—Now saving and now losing and now saving and now losing.
This is the point of verse 32, "He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him?"—that is, will he not also glorify us! Yes! The same sacrifice that secures our justification secures our glorification.
If you stand justified this morning, you are beyond indictment and condemnation. Verse 33: "Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies." Do you see the point: if God has justified you through the death of his Son, no one—not in heaven or on earth or under the earth—no one can make a charge stick against you. You will be glorified.
Why? Because you are sinless? No. Because you are justified by the blood of Christ.