He Justifies the Ungodly…

  One of my favorite phrases that the apostle Paul wrote is found in Romans 4:5.  The NASB translates it like this: “…Him who justifies the ungodly….”  I like how W. G. T. Shedd commented on this aspect of justification.

The justification of the “ungodly” (Rom. 4:5; 5:6) includes both pardon and acceptance. Either alone would be an incomplete justification of the ungodly. In the case of a sinner, the law requires satisfaction for past disobedience and also perfect obedience. When a criminal has suffered the penalty affixed to his crime, he has done a part, but not all that the law requires of him. He still owes a perfect obedience to the law in addition to the endurance of the penalty. The law does not say to the transgressor: “If you will suffer the penalty, you need not render the obedience.” But it says: “You must both suffer the penalty and render the obedience.” Sin is under a double obligation; holiness is under only a single one. A guilty man owes both penalty and obedience; a holy angel owes only obedience.

Consequently, the justification of a sinner must not only deliver him from the penalty due to disobedience, but provide for him an equivalent to personal obedience. Whoever justifies the ungodly must lay a ground both for his delivery from hell and his entrance into heaven. In order to place a transgressor in a situation in which he is dikaios or right in every respect before the law, it is necessary to fulfill the law for him, both as penalty and precept. Hence the justification of a sinner comprises not only pardon, but a title to the reward of the righteous. The former is specially related to Christ’s passive righteousness, the latter to his active. Christ’s expiatory suffering delivers the believing sinner from the punishment which the law threatens, and Christ’s perfect obedience establishes for him a right to the reward which the law promises.

The right and title in both cases rest upon Christ’s vicarious agency. Because his divine substitute has suffered for him, the believer obtains release from a punishment which he merits; and because his divine substitute has obeyed for him, the believer obtains a reward which he does not merit.

 William Greenough Thayer Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, ed. Alan W. Gomes, 3rd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Pub., 2003), 793–794.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

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