Justification by Faith
by Rev. John Kennedy, D.D., of Dingwall
“To him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.” – Romans 4:5
SUCH is the great doctrine of the first part of this great epistle. All, both Jews and Gentiles, were proved to be sinners under a sentence of death. All, therefore, were shown to need justification, and the impossibility of attaining this blessing through the deeds of the law was conclusively established. Already under condemnation, and utterly unable, to any extent, to meet the claims of the law, how could “the ungodly” be justified by working out a righteousness of their own? Therefore justification, such as sets one free from condemnation and secures a right to everlasting life, must flow from the grace of God. From no other source can it come. But it cannot be, except on the ground of a righteousness which has magnified the law of God and fully met all the demands of divine justice. Such a righteousness only God could provide. And He did provide it, for He “sent forth His Son, made of a woman, made under the law” (Gal. 4:4), to yield to the law all it claims as obedience, and, by enduring the penalty of death, to satisfy all the demands of justice. Him “God,” in the gospel, “hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in His blood, to declare His righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; to declare, I say, at this time, His righteousness; that He might be just and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” (Rom.3:25-26). The righteousness thus provided by God, and with this design, is presented in Christ as a divine gift to all sinners to whom the gospel comes. It is only by faith that it can be received; and it is thus received by one who is “ungodly,” and who regards himself as such; and even the faith which receives the righteousness is as surely “the gift of God” as is the righteousness which it appropriates. Thus justification is all of grace. This is no new doctrine, for the Apostle proves that it is the doctrine of the Old Testament as surely as of the New. He shows this by what is told of Abraham’s justification, and by what is taught regarding it in the book of Psalms.
The question is asked, in the first verse of this chapter – “What shall we say then that Abraham our father, according to the flesh, hath found?” His justification that he was His friend; and to the mode in which he was justified must all instances of justification correspond. “If Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory” (v.2), for then he must have been justified, not as “ungodly,” but as godly. But no such ground of glorying had even “the father of the faithful,” for regarding him it is declared that he had no righteousness but that which is attained through faith – “Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness” (v.3). If so, then he owed his justification wholly to the grace of God, for “to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness” (vv.4,5).
In directing your attention to the teaching of this text, let us consider: I. The three things affirmed regarding him who is justified – that he is “ungodly,” that he “worketh not,” and that he “believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly;” and II. What his justification by God implies.
The Justified was “Ungodly”
If we regard this word as referring to his disposition towards God Himself rather than to his state in relation to His judicial authority, what he was as to his personal relation to God must underlie the description of his state of feeling towards Him, and must be taken into account when we think of what justification implies. He could not be justified by grace unless he were a lawbreaker under sentence of death. It was because of this he needed to be justified, and only as such could be justified to the effect of receiving a free and full remission of his sins. And when we think of his personal relation to the law of God, we must consider him as utterly incapable of meeting its claims – as capable only of transgressing it, as one who is under the reigning power of sin. To such a one it is utterly indispensable that he be supplied with a righteousness, wrought out by another, by which the law, dishonoured by him as its transgressor, has been magnified and made honourable. But if thus supplied with righteousness, then he owes to grace the blessing of an interest in God’s favour, and of being, in consequence, entitled to everlasting life.
But the word “ungodly,” if viewed as indicating the disposition towards God of him who is justified, tells us that there is no kindly feeling towards God within his soul, and nothing in his heart from which any true homage to God can flow. Instead of this being so, he is fully fraught with enmity to God. This God knows, and has it full before his mind, when He passes the act of justification in his favour. There can therefore be nothing in his disposition towards God to induce a favourable consideration of his state. All the outcome of his heart in action is dishonouring to God, and is an expression of enmity against Him.
But the word “ungodly” may be viewed as describing all he is in relation to this great “act of God’s free grace.” It represents him as a convicted transgressor, lying under the law’s curse, as a slave of sin, that will not cease from iniquity, and that must therefore, if not renewed, continue to be a lawbreaker, and as one who is an enemy to God, as well as one who deserves to be treated as an enemy by Him. Such is he who is justified, as he is in himself, in relation to the justifying act of God. Being such he is justified, and only as such could he be pardoned and accepted.
The Justified “Worketh not”
The second thing told us regarding him is, that he “worketh not.” This, of course, implies that there is no consideration of any works of his by God, as a ground, to any extent, of His action in justifying him, nor as an inducement to bestow the blessing which that action secures. He is viewed by God simply as he is, “ungodly,” and, as such, needing and not meriting the blessing, when He secures his being “in Christ,” and justifies him as “the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21).
But the words “worketh not,” taken in connection with the words which follow, teach us more than this. No man begins to believe till he has ceased to work, in order to the attainment of righteousness. Naturally, when affected to any extent by a sense of guilt exposing to death, men betake themselves to self-righteous labour, expecting thereby to win the favour of God, as well as to avert his wrath. While working thus, a man departs from the only foundation of acceptance with God. While endeavouring to establish his own “righteousness,” he will not submit to “the righteousness which is of God.” From all that working he must cease ere he “believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly.” Pursued by the law’s curse and the law’s claims at once, he discovers that he cannot possibly escape the one, nor meet with obedience the other. He therefore cannot work on in hope. He is constrained to give up the desperate task with which he charged himself, and to abandon all hope, and to cease from working at once. But it is only his hand that has been withdrawn, and that only because the coming of “the commandment” with power to his soul constrained him to do so. His heart goeth forth in its desire to be independent of grace and of God as before, but he dares not to cherish as an expectation what is the object of his desire. He knows now that to be independent of grace is to remain a “child of wrath” – an heir of hell. To cause his heart to cease from working requires another operation of the Holy Ghost than that which stopped his hand. Unless he is renewed in the spirit of his mind, never will he be disposed to be a debtor to Christ for righteousness, and to the grace which reigns through that “righteousness,” for pardon and acceptance.
The Justified “Believeth on Him that Justifieth the Ungodly”
The third thing told us regarding him who is justified is that he “believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly.” In directing attention to this let us consider (1) the object; and (2) the exercise of the faith, with which justification is connected.
(1.) The object towards whom faith is directed – “God who justifieth the ungodly.” While under a work of conviction the man well knew that it was with God he had to do. He knew that the sentence of death lying upon him was passed by God, as “the Judge of all.” He knew, too, that only He who passed, could cancel, or remove it. He knew, too, that he was entirely at the disposal of God, as Sovereign, and that death or life to him was an alternative of which He must dispose, who hath “mercy on whom He will have mercy, and whom He will He hardeneth” (Rom. 9:18). Hope towards Him who was His Judge and His Sovereign, alone could relieve him. He was thoroughly persuaded of this. But while knowing God only as His awful glory was revealed through the commandments and curse of the law, which he had broken, how could he have hope? He has ceased from hoping as surely as he has ceased from working. He has tried the only way to life in which his heart was disposed to move, and he met the sharp sword of justice aflame with the awful fire of divine wrath, and despair closed upon his heart, and he fainted in his utter helplessness, while he shivered all over, and all through, with the fear of death.
He has verily ceased from working, so far as any hopeful self-righteous labour is concerned, but much is required in order that he may begin to believe. There must be revealed to him another than himself – one quite apart from himself – whom God has provided as a Saviour to meet such a case as his. This is done, in his great time of need, by the Holy Spirit. His mind is enlightened to discover, in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ of God, who acted the part of Surety for the unjust, satisfying the justice, magnifying the law and glorifying the name of God, and thus working out a righteousness on the ground of which God may justify the ungodly. Renewing that sinner’s will, He caused his desire to go forth towards Christ, so that he now fain would “win Christ, and be found in Him” (Phil. 3:8,9). And, applying to his heart with power the call of God in the gospel, He persuaded and enabled him to “embrace Jesus Christ freely offered to us in the gospel.” Thus, and only thus, did he reach in faith the Christ of God and only through Him, as “the way, and the truth, the life,” can he ever come to God – only through the “new and living way” can he ever enter into the holiest – only “by Christ” can he “believe in God.”
(2.) But through Christ he “believeth on God that justifieth the ungodly.” No faith that reacheth not God, through Christ, the Mediator, can possibly relieve him. It is with Him, in the matter of justification, he has to do. “It is God that justifieth,” and unless I have hope that HE shall justify ME, of what avail is all hope besides?
But this faith is exercised “on God that justifieth,” and on Him as justifying “the ungodly.”
It bears on God as Justifier. The believer knew right well before that it was impossible for God to justify, unless the dishonoured law was magnified, and all the demands of His justice were satisfied by an exhaustive execution of the penalty of death. This truth, conviction of sin burnt deep into his understanding and conscience. There can therefore be no faith directed towards God, unless the soul discovers how God may justify a sinner. How He can do so, in consistency with all He is, and has said, and has done can only be discovered in the light which emanates from the cross of Christ. There is “His own Son” whom He hath set apart as His Lamb, having finished His work of obedience to the law during three and thirty years of His life as the “man of sorrows,” and having in His death exhausted the curse of “the law of works.” Infinitely precious is His obedience, as the obedience in human nature of Jehovah the Son of God, and infinitely precious His suffering in the flesh, as that of Him who is “God over all, blessed for ever.” It is as this is discerned that he discovers how God may justify – how, on the ground of Christ’s sufferings, He may pardon iniquity, and, on that of His obedience, may receive even a child of wrath into His favour. Yet it is only as he can lay hold of Christ by faith, and appropriate in Him His Surety righteousness, that he can look at all trustingly towards God, and have any hope of His favour. But resting in faith on the finished work of Christ, and discovering how God, acting on the ground of His righteousness, may be glorified in justifying a sinner, he begins to “believe on God.”
And his faith in God regards Him as One “that justifieth the ungodly.” If that were not true, there could be no hope for him. He is “ungodly,” and he knows that he is. Of this at any rate he is assured, and therefore he needs to learn regarding the grace of God to the ungodly, as surely as he must know that He is glorified in justifying. It is the measure in which both these are apprehended that he can “believe on God.”
That God justifieth “the ungodly” – or that they whom God justifieth are “ungodly” – is proved by the provision which God hath made for securing the blessing. His Son was given to be the Surety of the unjust. He was given to “put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself” (Heb. 7:26). If so, surely they were hell-deserving sinners for whom He was given. And think not of this gift as intended to meet the demands of His justice without thinking of it as an expression of His love. Imagine not that the care of God in providing a substitute tells only of His love of righteousness, and that pardon without atonement would be a more pronounced expression of His love to sinners. How exactly opposite to this is the truth. “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son” to be a Lamb for a sin-offering. This was the highest commendation of His love, and His love was thus first of all expressed in order that, through the slain Lamb, it might flow forth as saving grace towards all who were its objects.
The very act of justification implies that they who are justified are “ungodly,” because it secures a free pardon and acceptance in the righteousness of one whom God had given in order to work it out. Surely, then, those who are justified are, in relation to the act of God in justification, utterly “ungodly.”
And the call and promise of the gospel connect justification with the “ungodly.” They, as such, are called to receive this blessing, and all who, as such, receive it, are assured that it shall be theirs for ever. Contemplating the commendation of His love to those who were ungodly, and yielding to His call, he that came to Christ and found righteousness in Him, “believeth on God,” and begins to taste the sweetness of peace with Him.
What Justification Implies
It is an act of God securing that all on whom it bears are introduced into a state in which acceptance with God – an interest in His favour – is theirs for ever. Who can estimate the precious privilege of being in such a relation to God!
Let us inquire what must be involved in justification, in order that a sinner may attain to be at peace with God; and what secures the perpetuity of that blessing?
1. There can be no peace with God while sin is unpardoned. The liability to death caused by guilt, incurred through the transgression of the law, must be removed from the person of the sinner. Without this there can be no peace, for it is a divine sentence which has linked the guilty person and an accursed death together, and against all who are unforgiven “the face of God” must be “set.” You can have no peace with Him while He is against you, sinner. But against you he must be, till all your guilt is removed by a full pardon of all your sins; and this therefore must be involved in God’s act in justifying the ungodly.
2. But there must be more than this. An interest in God’s favour is indispensable, as well as the removal of all that exposed you to His wrath. One cannot be “at peace with Him” without this. But an interest in His favour you cannot have, unless there be placed to your account a righteousness, which has met the law’s claims, and has so met them that the law is magnified. But if such a righteousness is imputed to you, then God can accept you as righteous in His sight. This acceptance is the second element in the act of justification, and secures an interest in the favour of God. There is nothing now, connected with the name and government of God, to interpose between you and the friendly exercise, bearing on you, of the reign of the Most High.
The blessing, secured by the act of justification, endures for ever. If there was the removal of all that was known to God, as your guilt, and if you were accepted “as righteous in His sight,” this was done on the ground of an everlasting righteousness, and according to the behest of everlasting love. Christ merits, and grace desires, that it should be everlasting. And God purposed and promised that it should be so. Therefore, surely, everlasting it shall be.
I close by asking you a few questions suggested by this subject.
1. Have you ever had such a sense of sin as sent you earnestly to work? I ask this, because they are but few, who have been stirred out of the ease which is enjoyed by ignoring sin – by living “without the law.”
2. Have you ever ceased from working? Have you been constrained, by the pressure of the law’s claims to withdraw your hand, in hopelessness, from selfrighteous labour, and have you ever been willing to cease from working, that you might find rest through faith in Christ?
3. Have you ever truly believed on God? Remember it is not enough that you think you have this faith. If you are wise, you will seek to be assured of this on evidence that will be sustained by God. There is no lack of faith in the visible church, but even there true faith is rare.
4. What if you are not justified by God? How can you endure to have guilt lying upon you, to have God against you, and to have the devouring mouth of hell open just before you? O, friend, seek to take your place as an “ungodly” sinner, in the presence of God, appeal to His mercy through Jesus, and be not content to keep away from the open bosom of his love in Christ.
5. If you have been justified by faith, seek also to be justified by works, as one who professes to “believe on God that justifieth the ungodly.” You are a great debtor, and let this move you to be a true subject, living to the praise of the King to whose sovereign grace you owe all salvation, and to whose sovereign authority it is always dutiful to submit.