June 12, 2024

God Justifies the Ungodly

Sinclair Ferguson
God Justifies the Ungodly

We can never be more justified than when we came to faith in Jesus—nor any less—for it is Christ’s righteousness and not our own that makes us right in God’s sight. Today, Sinclair Ferguson displays the wonder of the gospel.


Welcome to Things Unseen today, especially if you’re new to the podcast. We spend a few minutes each weekday reflecting together on some aspect of the Christian faith that we hope will be helpful to us. And this week we’ve begun to think about some of the big words in the New Testament, big words that are used to help us understand what the Lord Jesus has done for us. Yesterday, we were thinking about the word propitiation. That’s a word that belongs to the temple and to the sacrifices that avert the wrath of God.

Today, I want us to move from the temple to the law court because in Jesus Christ we discover not only the propitiation for our sins, but we also discover that in Jesus Christ there is justification. That’s a huge and glorious subject—far too much to talk about in a few minutes. But let me underline a couple of things that I think are helpful to us about being counted righteous in God’s sight, which is what justification means.

The first is this: what the gospel teaches us is this staggering truth that God justifies those who in themselves are ungodly. As long as I think of myself as partly godly, or more or less godly, or just as godly as the next person, I’m never going to understand the gospel. And actually, I’m never going to be justified either.

Remember the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee, when Jesus asked the question, “Who went down from the temple justified, the tax collector or the Pharisee?” Every evangelical knows the answer: it’s the tax collector who was justified. But what if I retitled the parable as the tax collector and the evangelical? That would be a bit of a shock. But isn’t there still a tendency in many of us who are evangelicals to thank God that we are not like others, that there are all kinds of good things that we do, and even think, “I thank you God that I’m not like him”?

You see, the great spiritual physicians have always recognized how easy it is for us to fall back into thinking that we are justified because of our sanctification, to think that we are justified because, well, we’ve become the kind of person that God would justify. No, our real Christian joy rests in this, that it’s not the godly or the becoming godly that God justifies, but the ungodly.

Someone might say: “Well, that’s a dangerous doctrine to teach. Preach that, and people will say, ‘Well, if it’s the ungodly God justifies, we can live any way we please.’” But of course, that’s exactly the complaint that was leveled against Paul’s preaching of the doctrine of justification. And that’s why, you may remember, he showed how wrong that complaint is in his letter to the Romans.

The second thing I want to emphasize is this: justified, justification, being counted righteous because of Christ’s righteousness and not my own, takes place at the very beginning of the Christian life when we come to trust in Christ. And here’s what we need to know: because it’s Christ’s righteousness that is counted to us, that righteousness is perfect—it’s complete, it’s final, and it’s absolutely irreversible. And every true Christian is therefore justified from the beginning of their Christian life with the same righteousness of Jesus Christ.

Maybe I can bring out just how stunning this is in the following way. Imagine there are two listeners to today’s podcast. There’s Sarah Jones. Sarah’s seventy-five. She’s been a Christian since she was fifteen. She spent forty years serving as a nurse on the mission field, and now back home in her home church, she’s probably the most respected and loved and admired person in the whole church, bar absolutely none. And then there’s Sarah Smith. She just became a Christian three Sundays ago, and she too is fifteen. Listen to this: seventy-five-year-old sanctified Sarah Jones is no more justified than three-week-old, fifteen-year-old Sarah Smith. And Sarah Smith is no less justified than Sarah Jones.

Now, I suspect there can be two different responses to that statement. One is, “Yes, absolutely right.” And the other is: “There’s something about that that makes me feel uncomfortable. It can’t be right to see a girl of fifteen who’s just become a Christian can be as justified as a seventy-five-year-old saint.” Well, the truth is that the person who is justified by faith, who’s “clothed in righteousness divine” to borrow words from R.C. Sproul’s lovely hymn, can never be more justified than they were the moment they came to faith, because they’re not justified with their own righteousness; they’re justified with Christ’s righteousness. They can never add to that. And the wonderful news is that it’s not only perfect; it’s final, and it’s irreversible.

Yes, of course, there’s more to say—much more to say—about justification, but this is one thing that makes justification so wonderful, so liberating, so joy producing, so life-changing, and I hope you’re finding that to be true.