God's Word Faithfully Preached from the Pulpit

Justification Of The Ungodly (Romans 4:1-12 )


Preached by Rev. Paulo Vasquez | Zion Cornerstone Reformed Churches – Pasig


Dr. Miroslav Volf, a Croatian theologian, wrote an article for Christianity today in 2000 with a title of, “Love Your Heavenly Enemy.” I would like to share you the first few sentences of the introduction:

“When my Yale colleague Professor Carlos Eire visits his elderly mother, he often ends up as a resident theologian for a small Cuban-immigrant community of her friends. “Is it possible,” one woman asked him, “for Castro to convert on his deathbed and end up in heaven?””It is possible,” Professor Eire assured her. “This is what Christian faith is all about. Nobody is beyond the pale of redemption.””Well, if that were to happen,” said the woman, “then I would not want to be in heaven.” Karl Barth was once asked the antithesis of that Cuban expatriate’s question: “Is it true that one day in heaven we will see again our loved ones?” Barth responded with a chuckle, “Not only the loved ones!” The sting of the great theologian’s response—be ready to meet there even those whom you dislike.”

I would like to ask you a question: Does anyone of us here deserve heaven? Of course the answer is, “No one.” Many will be surprised because one day we’ll see heaven filled with ungodly people justified by God. For the world will say, “That is unfair!” but to those who have received and understand the Grace of God will say, “Hallelujah to the Lamb!”

Justification of Abraham

Prior to this chapter, The Apostle Paul argues that righteousness can only be obtained by faith in Christ, through the atoning work of Christ on the cross (Romans 3:22-25a), “22 [T]he righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” So all the recipients of this grace “have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” they are all ungodly. That is why it is right to treat these two important figures of the Old Testament mentioned in chapter 4, Abraham and David that they belong to this category, “godly.”

If you are a devoted and pious Jew, definitely you’ll get offended by this particular section of the letter because Paul indirectly calling Abraham as an ungodly, he is ungodly like anyone else in who live in this world (Rom.3:23) in verse 5. Abraham, the bragging rights of every Jew for he is their father in flesh then Paul would say that Abraham is ungodly? It is because of Jews’ misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the Scripture, they believe that their salvation is their rights because they are children of Abraham by flesh and they need to maintain it by obeying the Law. That’s how they understand God’s covenant with Abraham. But, No! Paul’s Letter to the Romans says that salvation is not anyone or particular group of people’s rights; it is a gift for all sinners chosen by God in Christ, including Abraham. And as saved people, no man can maintain his inclusion in the covenant of God by the work of his flesh for sinful man cannot perfectly obey God’s Law because the Law demands perfection.

Here, Paul speaks that the righteousness of Abraham comes from God, declared righteous, justified not according to his works. This is why Paul said that if his justification is through his works then he has something to boast. Paul used the OT, the Scripture, to explain this wonderful doctrine (Gen. 15:6 v.3), “ And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” Righteousness that is coming from God is not something invented by Paul or any other NT writers but it is in the Old Testament, in the Hebrew Scripture. It is in the unchanging redemption of God in history, from point A to point B. This makes our righteousness as gift from our God because we did not earn it, and so the righteousness received by Abraham is a gift to him. As Paul explained (v.4), “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.”

Justification of David

Justification and forgiveness are inseparable. The Apostle Paul mentions David as an example of a wicked man forgiven by God even though he acted ungodly thereafter. We all know that a forgiven man is man who repented, and repentance is not an experience that happened once in man’s life but as what like Martin Luther says in his first thesis (75 theses), “He (Jesus Christ) willed that the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” A forgiven hates daily the sins. When he falls into it he acknowledges that he has offended God and asks for God’s forgiveness. A justified man who commits sins can never change God’s declaration that he is righteous. Yes, we still commit sins because we are not yet perfected but we are on our way there that’s why our daily prayer is the prayer of the justified tax collector in Luke 18 (Parable of the Pharisee and The Tax Collector) “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.”

Paul quotes a portion on the song of David in Psalm 32, that David understands that righteousness comes from God and not from the works of man.

7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; 8 blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”

If Paul’s discussion on Abraham is telling his readers on how to be accepted by God, then the example of David is telling the “basis for continuing relationship with God.”1 Paul knows and David knows that no amount of sin we do can change God’s mind on the object of His justification. In the life of a man after God’s own heart, David, while he was still on the throne, he commits murder and adultery, yet God continually blesses him. It only shows that if the basis of maintaining one’s membership in the covenant of God is through man’s deeds or his obedience to the Law then who is desrving? None. Let us go back again in Romans 3:23, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” That’s why when David learned his sins through the rebuke of the Prophet Nathan on the death of Uriah and his adulterous relationship with Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, he immediately confessed, “I have sinned against the Lord (2 Samuel 12:13).” And he receives forgiveness.

Justification of Abraham’s Children

Again, Jews proudly say “We have Abraham as our father (See Mat. 3:9) as if being the children in the flesh of Abraham has guaranteed their standing before the Lord. Jesus said, “No!” and likewise Paul, that’s why the rhetoric questions of Paul here (4:9b-10a), “For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. 10 How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised?” And he answered in verse 10b, “It was not after, but before he was circumcised.” And Paul added (v.11a), “He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.” The outward circumcision of the flesh is only a sign of the spiritual reality experienced by Abraham, receiving the righteousness from God by faith. And to Jews, they should not be proud of being children of Abraham in the flesh for it merits nothing before our God who justifies.

The question now, who are the real children of Abraham? The following verses are another scandal for the Jews, “The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well,12 and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.” It is because the children of Abraham includes the uncircumcised, it means Abraham has Gentile children because the true children of Abraham are those who have the same faith as Abraham. Let us read further this chapter, in verse 16, “ 16 That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all.” And in Galatians 3:7, “ 7 Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.”

If justification of Abraham and justification of all those have faith is the same, it means that they have the same object of faith. Yes, believers from different generations have the same justification; have the same righteousness for it comes One God. That is when God sends his Son for our justification, none other the second person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ. This is what Paul was talking about prior this chapter, that we are “justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Rom. 3:24).” The object of Abraham’s faith, the object of David’s faith, the object of all believers’ faith, is Christ who shed blood on the cross. He is the ground of our assurance, his redeeming works on the cross. There in the cross we find forgiveness, so we the ungodly receive His righteousness by faith. If there is no shedding of blood of Christ on the cross, we’ll be all hopeless people. As what the author of Hebrews says, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of our sins.” That’s why the blood of Christ that shed on the cross is the ground of our justification.


God’s justification should never bear fruit of arrogance in us but humility. We are accepted by God to become members of his household when we are wicked, ungodly. Gracious act that no one deserves. In our condition, though we have received already the declaration of God that we are righteous by faith yet we are still sinners. We do not lose heart when we sin because we know that forgiveness is always available for us when we seek it. Nothing can change our status before God; nothing can revoke God’s declaration that we are righteous for our God is a Covenant-keeping God. He provides us assurance so we won’t lose our confidence as we walk, witness, and experience the evil in this fallen world, and he is Jesus Christ, the “guarantor of a better covenant (Heb.7:22).” It is not our obedience nor our good works but only the perfect obedience and works of Christ. And do not get it wrong because though our obedience or good works have no merits in our justification, we are still expected to be God’s obedient children. It springs out from our immeasurable gratitude to the Grace of God that came to us.

Now we can sing praises and thanksgiving to God because we know that He is God who justified the ungodly like Abraham, King David, like you and me. We can all agree and sing with John Newton that “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound, that save a wretched like me. And this grace will lead me home.”

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