One of the most striking and comforting expressions in the Scriptures is that God justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5). Nonetheless, this statement creates a theological conundrum of sorts and has led in part some Reformed theologians, including puritans, to at least suggest if not advocate a subtle form of justification before faith. So what then is the problem? The issue pertains to the order of salvation, namely, the precise relationship between regeneration, faith and justification.
Placing regeneration and faith before justification, as the Reformed do, appears to be incompatible with the fact that God justifies the ungodly. For how can a regenerated, holy sinner who exercises sincere faith and repentance be viewed as ungodly? Yet, placing regeneration after justification has its own problems, chiefly, how can a sinner dead in sins turn to Christ in true faith and repentance?
John Owen suggests that a partial justification in heaven before faith, which he calls an “absolution in heaven,” could cut the Gordian knot of the justification of the ungodly (Works, 10:470). According to this scheme, justification is a process—likely a logical and not temporal one—that begins before faith with the sinner being absolved from guilt and punishment of sin, and ends in the conscience by faith whereupon the believer receives “a complete soul-freeing discharge” (Works, 10:471).
Matthew Mason proposes that Owen is making use of the Reformed distinction between active and passive justification (“John Owen’s Doctrine of Union with Christ in Relation to His Contributions to Seventeenth Century Debates Concerning Eternal Justification,” Ecclesia Reformanda
1.1 (2009): 62). Regardless, Louis Berkhof, albeit not in reference to Romans 4:5, argued for something similar to Owen by means of this distinction. Broadly speaking, active justification is God’s act or declaration as judge and passive justification is the communication of God’s declaration by the Holy Spirit to the sinner so that the sinner knows that he is justified. The former takes place in heaven and the latter in the sinner’s heart or conscience. The surprising move that Berkhof made is that he placed active justification of a particular sinner logically before faith (Systematic Theology
, 517). He also astonishingly said, albeit consistently, that passive justification is what the Bible normally means by justification by faith. Thus, Berkhof went even further than Owen by asserting without hesitation that the sinner is logically justified before he believes.
Although affirming a partial or whole justification before faith might help explain the justification of the ungodly, it does so at the expense of the biblical role of faith in justification. Justification occurs logically after a sinner believes. Herman Witsius is surely correct that justification “is of faith, and by faith, as Paul every where teacheth; and consequently the effect and fruit of faith, the result of regeneration and effectual calling" (Conciliatory or Irenical Animadversions on the Controversies Agitated in Britain, under the unhappy names of Antinomians and Neonomians, trans. Thomas Bell [Glasgow: W. Lang, 1807], 111). Thus, it is not logically prior to faith but “immediately, on his receiving Christ by faith, God declares in the court of heaven, that he is no longer under wrath, but under grace” (The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man, 1:417).
This is not to say that the term justification in its active sense cannot be used theologically to refer to acts that are temporally and logically prior to the actual justification of a particular sinner. Decretive justification is the decree to justify the elect. Virtual justification—also called general justification and fundamental justification— is a general justification of the elect pronounced at the resurrection (Rom. 4:25). Justification may also be used with reference to regeneration. Witsius, for example, is willing to admit that justification may be used in this way. Since all saving benefits, including regeneration and faith, are given to the sinner only on the basis of Christ’s satisfaction, a sinner can be said to be justified at regeneration in the sense that God declares him “to be one of those for whom Christ purchased a right to life, by virtue of which right he is now raised from spiritual death to life” (Conciliatory Animadversions, 111).
This use of justification at regeneration by Witsius, however, is different from Owen’s absolution in heaven or Berkhof’s use of active justification. The latter two refer to a partial or whole act of absolution/justification while Witsius only means a declaration or acknowledgment of the sinner’s right to absolution/justification. There is quite a difference between declaring someone is justified and declaring someone has to the right to be justified by virtue of Christ’s satisfaction. Moreover, Witsius is adamant that Scripture does not use the word justification in this sense and that the actual justification of a particular sinner takes place at the moment of faith.
Since faith logically precedes justification, Owen’s absolution in heaven and Berkhof’s use of the active/passive distinction are unacceptable. How then should we understand the Pauline statement that God justifies the ungodly? Anthony Burgess said that the common answer among divines is that “he that was ungodly, is, being justified, made godly also, though that godliness doe not justifie him” (A Vindication of the Morall Law and the Covenants, 34). [*Besides this common response, Burgess adds a second one that is found among some divines. The term “ungodly” refers to a believing sinner: “that ungodly there is meant of such, who are so in their nature considered, having not an absolute righteousness, yet at the same time beleevers, even as Abraham was…So then, the subject of justification is a sinner, yet a beleever.”] Samuel Rutherford provided the same answer to this problem. He wrote, “We grant, the Lord doth not justifie an ungodly man, as an ungodly man, and as voyd of faith for by order of nature, he is first a believer, and in Christ, and then he is justified, though there be no ordinary time between his ungodlinesse and his justification." Witsius followed suit as he said that “in this sense God is said to justify the ungodly, Rom. iv. 5.; him who is so in himself, and actually continues such till he is born again, when that faith is freely bestowed on him for which he is immediately justified” (The Economy of the Covenants, 1:416-417).
The puritans used Jesus’ healing miracles to further explain their answer. Jesus told John the Baptist’s disciples to tell John that the lame walk and the deaf hear (Matt. 11:5). But as Rutherford pointed out, “no man dreamed that the lame as lame remaining lame, does leap, and the dumb remaining dumb sing” (A Survey of the Spirituall Antichrist, 2:110-111). In other words, to say that the lame walk means that the person who was lame now walks. Similarly, to say that God justifies the ungodly is to say that God justifies a person who was ungodly, but who now is a regenerated believer.
The justification of the ungodly is by no means an unsolvable puzzle. You don’t have to sacrifice a Reformed understanding of the order of salvation in order to make sense of it. God indeed justifies the ungodly, even as he makes the blind see, the lame walk and the deaf hear.