Justifying the “Ungodly”

In Romans 4:5, Paul identifies God as the one “who justifies the ungodly.”  Those who read this passage as an abstract discussion of the mechanics of justification will conclude that Paul is stressing the purely passive manner in which justification is received by morally unworthy people.  It does not come as a result of anything that someone does.

This is partially true.  Justification is indeed a gift from God and it can’t be earned by human achievement.

But that isn’t exactly Paul’s point here.

Paul is taking a sarcastic shot at the Jews’ prejudice against non-Jews—those “ungodly” ones.  He means to offend the Jewish Christians’ presumption that they have an inside track with God.

Paul intensifies his sarcasm in Rom. 5:6, where he notes that “while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.”  His rhetoric demands that Jewish Christians identify themselves alongside the non-Jewish Christians as those who are “helpless” and “ungodly.”

If they refuse this self-identification, they also refuse to identify themselves with the death of Christ, putting them outside the scope of salvation.

Paul is undermining the self-righteousness of any group of people who look at themselves as in any way superior to other people before God.

The rhetorical force of Paul’s words does not necessarily have to do with the mechanics of justification the way they were developed in subsequent centuries, especially in dogmatic debates regarding the workings of salvation with reference to the individual before God.

The rhetorical force of what Paul says has to do with relativizing all the groups in Rome, unifying them as both equally unworthy and equally loved by God.  Everyone must recognize their full membership in the “ungodly” group in order to be part of the “justified” group.

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9 responses to “Justifying the “Ungodly”

  • Andrew Gordon

    Similarly, Romans 5:8 has been coming up in our church recently but not in the way I feel it typically is used. Normally, we hear it taught, as you explained, in the “mechanics of justification.” But we keep trying to bring it up when anyone among us talks about how disgusted they are with an unsaved co-worker who is just living a “vile” life or with someone who is taking advantage of the welfare system, living off “my hard earned money.” It does two things. 1) It forces us to not look down on them with pride. Instead we develop a “Them is Us” mentality. That leads to the second. 2) It motivates us to look at the unsaved around us, especially the ones who seem unlovable, with a Christ-like love, trusting that Christ ONLY saves ungodly people. If he saved us, he can save them. The application for us is this: pray He will save them; show them Christ.

    • timgombis

      Andrew, this reminds me of the Josh Bales song, “Only the Sinner.” “Weak,” “sinner,” and “ungodly” are identities we need to own in order to own the identity “saved.” No room for arrogance!

  • Shane

    Hey Tim – great thoughts here! Thanks for sharing. What materials are you finding most helpful in teaching Romans?

    • timgombis

      Hey Shane, I’m using Frank Matera’s commentary, Stephen Westerholm’s book on Romans, and Katherine Grieb’s book. I wish I could say that I’ve found the perfect resource, but I think it’s still waiting to be written. Luke Timothy Johnson’s “commentary” (2001) is really good, too. I’m using all of these currently, but if I heard about something else out there that was really helpful, I’d jump at it.

  • Allen Browne

    Good point, Tim. How strange Paul’s view of God must have seemed to those who were familiar with Ex 23:7, “for I will not acquit the guilty.”

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