What is the most surprising aspect of the Christian message? The answer to that is subjective and could be answered with a number of assessments. In fact, the gospel message is full of a number of facets that can be surprising because they are contrary to human understanding. As humans who desire to be independent and propelled only by our own actions and strength, we stumble across Romans 4:5 that sucks the air out of our natural inclinations.
In the course of reading one of Paul’s grandest theological books about salvation, Romans, readers are confronted with the following verse:
And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness. ~ Romans 4:5
He justifies the ungodly. . . if we let those words simmer briefly in our mind, they have the propensity to leave us stunned. Such words are contrary to our natural inclinations and mindset.
Two things capture a reader’s attention in this verse. First is the concept of undeserved merit. Our propensity is to find reward for those who deserve it, therefore we expect that we will also be rewarded based upon some sort of merit. Yet, the verse is explicit in that salvation is found for those who do nothing at all. Instead, the work of our justification is found not in our work, but in the Lord’s work. To see the wonders of the Lord, one must look no further than his or her own condition and see what God has done.
When considered deeply, the second aspect makes the first concept all the more profound. God justifies, but even more, he justifies the ungodly. The term ‘ungodly’ pierces the heart with a truth that condemns. More than referring to a person who is godless or lacks religion, to be ungodly is a severe condition indicating a person who is characterized by immoral behavior or even more, actively acts contrary to what the Fear of the Lord demands (1).
While eternal condemnation separated from the Lord is the future of all, he has provided for eternal serenity in his presence. That provision is made not for the best of people, but for the worst (which again, would be all of us). Paul’s words are words of hope and expectation. They compel intense meditation upon God’s plan, an intense commitment of faith, and an intense level of faith to a salvation that awaits in heaven.
(1) Spiros Zodhiates, The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2000), Entry #765.