One of the most surprising and wonderful verses in the whole of Scripture has to be Romans 4:5.
Here Paul describes God as the one who ‘justifies the ungodly’. This description of God is wonderful. Here is good news! The person who has nothing to offer God, who ‘does not work’ but simply ‘believes’ in God, ungodly and wicked as they may be, is justified. The image is from the courtroom. You can imagine yourself there. You know that you are guilty. You know that you deserve a long prison sentence. As the judge passes sentence you fear the worst. And so when the verdict of ‘not guilty’ comes, you cannot help but feel utterly relieved. That, in a sense, is us before God. We deserve his condemnation, we deserve his wrath, we deserve to be cast into utter darkness forever but, wonderfully, God pronounces us righteous. However, not only is this description of God wonderful, it is surprising. It is surprising because God is here described as doing something that he explicitly told Israel not to do: ‘Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent and righteous, for I will not acquit the wicked’ (Exodus 23:7). In a widely used and early Greek translation of the Hebrew OT, the phrase in italics is very similar to what Paul says in Romans 4:5. God does the very thing he tells Israel not to! But it is not simply that God tells Israel not to do this, he later says through Solomon that ‘He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the LORD’ (Proverbs 17:15). So, Paul’s description of God as the one who ‘justifies the ungodly’ is striking in the context of the whole Bible. Why does and how can God do something that is so expressly forbidden in the OT?
On one level, the question of how and why God can do this when he explicitly condemns others who do the same thing, might be easy to answer. There are lots of things in Scripture that would be sinful for me to do, that it is perfectly good, right and proper for God to do: for example receive worship (Matthew 4:10) or take vengeance (Romans 12:10). These are perfectly right and proper for God to do even while they would be sinful for me to do. God as the sovereign creator of the universe is the only rightful recipient of worship (and knows that we will only be truly happy if we are worshipping him). Similarly, God is the only one who knows the end from the beginning, who knows all the facts pertaining to a particular matter and so it is right that only he should act in vengeance and so right a wrong.
However, the question of justifying the ungodly seems to fit in a different category. This seems to be God doing something that is objectively, morally wrong: He declares a person who demonstrably deserves to be condemned to be right in his sight. Of course, we could argue that God can simply do whatever he wants to. He is not beholden to anyone and can do what he pleases. Nevertheless, God works in ways that are in line with his character and, throughout the Bible, God is described as righteous. If anything is unrighteous, acquitting the guilty surely is. Is there an underlying logic that explains why and how God can rightly justify the ungodly? I think there is, and I think we see it if we examine the letter to the Romans where Paul speaks of ungodliness or the ungodly in a chain of 3 references which, read together, help us to understand how God can justify the ungodly and remain true to his character.
God’s Wrath Against Ungodliness
The first reference to ungodliness is in 1:18 where Paul begins to lay out the problem of all humanity that the gospel addresses. Here is the unsurprising description of God’s anger in response to all the ‘ungodliness and unrighteousness’ of humanity. It is true that, as he continues, Paul traverses some controversial territory – the universal availability of enough knowledge of God to render every human being ‘without excuse’ (1:20); human sins (including disordered sexual activity) as somehow the result of God’s wrathful ‘handing over’ of people to their own lusts (1:24; 26) and their depraved minds (1:28). However, his basic point that God’s response to ungodliness is one of wrath is unsurprising from the Bible as a whole.
God Justifies the Ungodly
The next reference to ungodliness is this surprising description of God as the one who justifies the ungodly in 4:5. Before we consider how we get from God’s wrath against ungodliness to God justifying the ungodly, it is worth briefly pointing out what Paul does and doesn’t mean here. Some have suggested that his reference to the ungodly here is primarily to Gentiles – those considered ungodly by Israel. And so God justifying the ungodly means God ‘bring[ing] into his family Gentiles who at present seemed totally outside of it’. However, not only is ‘bringing into God’s family’ a misconstrual of the meaning of justification, it is too narrow to understand the ungodly here to refer to Gentiles. Paul immediately goes on to point to David as an example of this sort of ungodly person who has righteousness counted to him even though he is guilty and has done nothing to earn God’s favour (4:6). Paul proves that this applies to David by quoting Psalm 32 in which David speaks of the blessing of ‘those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered’ and ‘the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin’ (4:7-8). David, an Israelite, experiences the blessing of sins forgiven and righteousness counted to him. These two aspects (sins forgiven and righteousness counted) neatly capture what Paul means by justification. As Calvin puts it, justification is ‘the acceptance with which God receives us into his favour as righteous’ people and it ‘consists in the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness’. Justification might be related to God bringing us into his people, but that does not mean that the two things are identical. There are a whole host of blessings that God bestows on us when we trust in Christ: justification, sanctification, adoption etc. It would be a mistake to overlook one of these and say that it was unimportant, but it would equally be a mistake to confuse them and collapse them into one another. Justification is inextricably related to, for example, sanctification but to confuse them is, as Calvin says in another place, to try and warm yourself by the sun’s light or to try and see by the sun’s warmth.
Christ Died for the Ungodly
But our question remains. How does God go from being angry with ungodliness to justifying the ungodly? The answer, in a nutshell, is given in Romans 5:6. Very simply, the God who expresses his wrath towards ungodliness can justify the ungodly because ‘Christ died for the ungodly’. We who trust in Christ, ungodly as we are, are justified by his blood (5:9) having received the ‘free gift of righteousness’ (5:18).
There is a lot of material in between 4:5 and 5:6, but at the heart of this section is Paul’s magisterial description of the atoning work of Christ. Paul tells his readers that God ‘put forward [Christ] as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith’ (3:25). The language of ‘propitiation’ is drawn from the OT and refers to a sacrifice which turns aside God’s wrath. Here, then, is the heart of why Paul can move from God’s wrath being revealed against ungodliness (1:18) to God justifying the ungodly (4:5) – Christ died as a propitiation. Whether or not Paul is specifically drawing on Isaiah 53, the theology of atonement is the same. As Isaiah puts it, the Servant was ‘pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed’ (53:5). The LORD laid on him ‘the iniquity of us all’ so that he was ‘stricken for the transgression of [the] people’ (53:8). This theology lies behind Paul’s description of Christ as a propitiation, and his propitiatory death is explicitly connected to the theme of ungodliness in Romans 5:6: ‘For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly’. Critically, far from God’s righteousness being called into question, Christ dying as a propitiation actually demonstrates God’s righteousness ‘so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus’ (Romans 3:26).
Conclusion: Good News for the Ungodly
Could there be any better news than this? Even though God is angry with the ungodliness of humanity (Romans 1:18), God justifies the ungodly (Romans 4:5). And he does this fairly and rightly because Christ died for the ungodly (Romans 5:6). This is surprising and wonderful news we can rejoice in and shout from the rooftops!
 All Bible quotations are from the ESV.
 N.T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 1004.
 Calvin, Institutes III.11.ii.
 Calvin, Institutes III.11.vi.