In the book of Proverbs, the Holy Spirit through the pen of Solomon says, “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the Lord” (Prov. 17:15), yet in the book of Romans, the Holy Spirit through the pen of Paul says, “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness…” (Ro. 4:5).
Is this a contradiction? Has God abominated himself for justifying the wicked?
No, it’s gospel truth.
God’s justification of wicked sinners through the suffering death of his own perfect Son is something he delights in not something he abominates. He can do this and maintain his righteousness because in it he is “just and the justifier of those who believe” (Ro. 3:26). God is not ignoring justice by justifying the ungodly but upholding it through substitution.
God is not ignoring justice by justifying the ungodly but upholding it through substitution.
In the act of substitution at the crucifixion of Christ the righteous takes the place of the wicked and love and justice are simultaneously on display. Here is the epitome of love because, as Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (Jn. 15:13), and here is fulfilled justice because the penalty is being paid—just not by the guilty sinner—but by Jesus himself. Therefore the guilty aren’t getting off scot-free without any payment for their sinful crimes. This would be abominable and unholy, and would be something that God could never do and remain just. But God has justly condemned sin by treating the Savior as if he was sinful even though he isn’t, and he has justly justified the wicked by treating sinners as if they were righteous even though they aren’t. As John Stott put it, “Christ became sin with our sins, in order that we might become righteous with God’s righteousness” (Romans, 127).
The new status that God’s justification brings to sinners who believe is not the kind of justification that he abominates in the Old Testament. Doug Moo explains,
What is involved, of course, is a new application of the word “justify.” The OT texts refer to the declaration or recognition of an existing situation. But Paul has in mind a creative act, whereby the believer is freely given a new “status.” What is highlighted by the phrase is the nature of God–loving, freely giving, and incapable of being put under obligation to any human being. [The Epistle to the Romans, p. 264]
This “new application” of justification is not disgraceful and offensive to God but it is to us. The reason why so many find this scandalous is that as sinners we are hell-bent on refusing a God like this. We want a god who does not view us as utterly dependent on his grace. We want a god we can work for and not just believe in. We want a way we can increase our status before God by working on our own, instead of the only way to a perfect status through receiving God’s Son by faith. We want to put some of our do in his done. This is because we are idolaters.
We want to put some of our do in his done.
Another translation for the “ungodly” ones that God justifies is “one who ‘refuses to worship’” (Moo, 264, fn 49). The scandalous and beautiful gospel announces that Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, who deserves all worship, substitutes himself by taking the penalty of the ones who have refused to worship, and that Jesus’ perfectly righteous status is given to worship-refusers as their new status before God. What does this news do when it is received by faith? It transforms self-focused idolaters into Jesus-worshippers. Sin becomes abominable and Jesus becomes beautiful.
Whether you are a believer or an unbeliever you must renounce this tendency toward idolatry daily. The only kinds of sinners God justifies are believing ones not working ones. This offends us because it strips us of all bargaining power before God, but if received with humility becomes the best news one could ever hear.
No, God has not done something abominable through the work of Jesus. He has demonstrated astonishing grace and extravagant love: “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Ro. 5:3).