In Romans 3 Paul made it very clear that ‘righteousness’ (that is, justification, acquittal) is entirely a gift of God’s free grace grounded in the atoning death of Christ. He has also made it very clear that because this justification is thus entirely unrelated to our personal innocence or merit no one who is so acquitted has any grounds for personal boasting.

This is offensive to our human hearts and minds, and Paul states it even more offensively in Romans 4:5 – that God justifies the wicked. God acquits sinners. God declares the guilty innocent. Paul points out that Abraham -

Was not justified by works (4:2-8),
Was not justified by circumcision (4:9-12),
Was not justified by law (4:13-15).

All that Abraham had was faith in God, and that faith was credited to him as righteousness (4:3). God credits righteousness (acquittal) to all who believe in him (4:5-8), regardless of their lack of personal legal innocence.

Martin Luther used the term simul justus et peccator to convey this concept: the Christian is a person who is at the same time justified and a sinner. But this glorious fact of legal acquittal by God while still a sinner stirs up criticism and antagonism. By one way or another people try to explain this phrase away, either by altering the concept of human sinfulness and inability, or changing the nature of justification from imputed righteousness in the sense of a legal status or standing to imparted righteousness in the sense of freedom from personal sinfulness.

Finney, representative of Protestant difficulty with Romans 4:5, states ‘But again, to the question, can man be justified while sin remains in him? Surely he cannot, either upon legal or gospel principles, unless the law be repealed. That he cannot be justified by the law, while there is a particle of sin in him, is too plain to need proof. But can he be pardoned and accepted, and then justified, in the gospel sense, while sin, any degree of sin, remains in him? Certainly not.’ (Lectures in Systematic Theology)

The Council of Trent, defining the Roman Catholic position, states: "If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema." "If any one saith, that, after the grace of Justification has been received, to every penitent sinner the guilt is remitted, and the debt of eternal punishment is blotted out in such wise, that there remains not any debt of temporal punishment to be discharged either in this world, or in the next in Purgatory, before the entrance to the kingdom of heaven can be opened (to him); let him be anathema." (Canons 9 & 30 – Canons on Justification)

Neither Finney nor the Council of Trent can accept Paul’s affirmation that a person is a ‘sinner’ and at the same time ‘justified’:

Finney gets around it by explaining that justification is applied only to those who have returned to full present obedience to the moral precepts, and by further stating that such a keeping of the law is possible for us, even for the natural, unredeemed man.

Trent, on the other hand, affirms that at baptism the unjust is actually made just, that is, the righteousness of Christ is imparted to the baptised person (so that he/she is made ‘just’, that is, made personally innocent), not imputed, credited, counted or reckoned just as the Scriptures state.

Yet the Scripture says clearly that there is no one who is righteous, that is ‘just’ [Romans 3:10]; Paul stated that he counted all of his ‘righteousness’ as ‘dung’ [Philippians 3:8]; and John explained to believers that if anyone says he has not sinned or that he has no sin, he is not only deceiving himself, but is also calling God a liar [1 John 1:8-10].

So, Paul says, God justifies the wicked. God declares sinners acquitted. It is ‘sinners’ whom Christ calls to repentance. It is sinners who need the eternal priesthood/advocacy of Christ [1 John 1:8-2:2]. If we do not continue to be sinners, if the application of the merits of Christ makes us actually just or righteous, then the continuing and eternal advocacy of Christ, the great High Priest, is meaningless and redundant. So also is the continuing application of mercy and grace to us on account of his death. Only sinners need an advocate/mediator in the presence of God. Only sinners need grace and mercy. These inventions of Finney and Trent, and many others like them, thrust us back onto our own merits, and force us to approach the throne of God as if it is still a throne of judgment, and not the throne of grace which the scripture says it is for all those who trust in Jesus Christ [Hebrews 4:14-16].

For a more detailed study on Romans 4:5, including Finney and Trent’s perspectives, see section B in this study.

© Rosemary Bardsley 2019