Wednesday, January 8, 2014

What did Paul mean by "ungodly" in Romans 4:5?

Some Protestants have told me the term "ungodly" in Romans 4:5 refers to moral failing in a general sense, and from here they argue that Paul's point is that Abraham was a rotten sinner when he was declared righteous in God's sight. I don't deny that 'generic ungodliness' is a possible meaning for this term, so the Protestant side isn't helped nor is the Catholic side harmed if this is granted. But I think an even stronger case can be made that "ungodly" in Romans 4:5 refers to being outside the Mosaic Covenant, a much narrower meaning. Here is the article where I show the context itself leads the fair and honest exegete to see "ungodly" best refers to the specific parameter of being outside the Mosaic Covenant. In this article, I want to look at the word itself, especially the way it's used elsewhere in the Bible.

The Greek adjective in Romans 4:5 is asebes and is found in 8 verses: Rom 4:5; 5:6; 1 Tim 1:9; 1 Pet 4:18; 2 Pet 2:5; 2 Pet 3:7; Jud 1:4; Jud 1:15. The noun appears in 6 verses: Rom 1:18; 11:26; 2 Tim 2:16; Titus 2:12; Jude 1:15; 1:18. I don't deny nor have I ever denied that the predominant usage here refers to something along the lines of 'generic ungodliness'. With that said, it is interesting to note that in various verses the term "ungodly" is mentioned along with other terms pertaining to sinful living, suggesting there is a distinction between "ungodly" and moral failing in a generic sense. For example, even though 1 Timothy 1:9 uses the term "ungodly" it also mentions "lawless," "disobedient," and even "sinner," in the same breath. This suggests some distinction. And 1 Peter 4:18 also mentions "ungodly" and "sinner" in the same breath, which again would suggest some distinction. Jude 1:15b speaks of "ungodly sinners," connecting two terms, most likely referring to generic ungodliness, but still suggesting a distinction. Romans 1:18 distinguishes between "ungodliness" and "unrighteousness," which is quite interesting given how these terms relate to justification in the later chapters. So whatever this distinction is, it is clear that asebes does not automatically entail a 'generic ungodliness'.

The Old Testament is harder to deal with because even though the term "ungodly" appears numerous times, almost always referring to sinful living, in the Mosaic dispensation this could especially refer to not living according to the Mosaic standards of law and worship. So while "ungodly" in Genesis 18:23 is long before Moses and circumcision (and thus likely 'generic ungodliness'), a text like Psalm 1:1-2, 4-6 is certainly about David having in mind the Mosaic Law as God's ideal standard. And related to this is Romans 11:26, which speaks of banishing "ungodliness" from Jacob, which is most likely referring to violating the Mosaic Law, especially given the context of Romans 11 is about the Jews versus Gentiles.

There is one more piece of evidence to consult, and that is the fact asebes is the negated form of the Greek word sebo, which basically means "religious" or "devout." This is worth exploring because in understanding the positive meaning of sebo can help give a better understanding of what the 'negated' meaning (asebes) refers to. This word is found in 10 verses in the New Testament, and in nearly every case it refers to the the specific worship of God according to Mosaic standards: Acts 13:43, 13:50, 16:14, 17:4, 17:17, 18:7, 18:13. Two men stand out as being "devout" in reference to the Mosaic standards, in fact being called 'very devout' (the Greek word eusebius, from which the Church Father Eusebius is named), namely Corneilus in Acts 10:2 and Ananias in Acts 22:12. This certainly does not refer to generic devotion to God, but rather it is very concerned with the fact the Jews did make a positive impact on their Gentile neighbors, bringing them knowledge of the true God and the Torah. So to 'negate' this notion would result in the notion of someone 'not devout according to Mosaic standards', and thus in a genuine way supporting the 'outside the Mosaic Law' thesis. 

From this brief look at the term itself, I would say the situation is by no means a simple open-and-shut in favor of what certain Protestants jump to conclude. The best case I could see them make is how Romans 5:6-8 seems to parallel "ungodly" to "sinner" (in an apparently generic sense),  and then say this is in proximity to Romans 4. Regardless, as I said earlier, it ultimately proves nothing against the Catholic position, for the more important Protestant claim that God declares someone righteous whom He knows is unrighteous is flatly unbiblical.


Michael Taylor said...


I think "ungodly" can refer to people outside the covenant. But, contrary to what you seem to be assuming, that would not exclude the moral sense of the word at all since it would have been commonly assumed that those outside of the covenant were also fundamentally immoral.

The sense of God justifying the ungodly is parallel to the idea of God raising to life those who were dead in their trespasses and sins. In other words, God acts unilaterally to take an undeserving sinner and turn him/her into a saint.

The idea of God acting in this way excludes both human cooperation and merit. We are simply not deserving of his mercy and grace and there is nothing intrinsic in us that causes God to be merciful toward us.

So even on the reading that sees "ungodly"as having covenantal overtones, there is still no argument against the fundamental Protestant understanding that God turns unrighteous people into righteous people by incorporating them into his Son who alone is perfectly righteous in himself.

Hymenaeus said...

I agree with Michael that "ungodly" being synonymous with "gentile" does not preclude a moral interpretation of "ungodly." St. Paul likes to play on different meanings of words in the same breath. To name one example, 2 Cor. 5:21 says, "For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him." Obviously, regardless of what reading you want to impose on the text, the word "sin" means something different in each occurrence. Even if "ungodly" primarily means gentile, one of the main points of Romans is that both Jew and gentile are equally under sin, Paul surely had the principle in mind that Jew and gentile are both equally "ungodly," if not with respect to Moses, with respect to Christ. On the other hand, it is important not to neglect the centrality of these Jew-gentile themes in Paul. I think you are absolutely right on the money that neglect of this is part of what gives rise to Protestant distortions of Paul's writings.

Hymenaeus said...


You said, "So even on the reading that sees "ungodly"as having covenantal overtones, there is still no argument against the fundamental Protestant understanding that God turns unrighteous people into righteous people by incorporating them into his Son who alone is perfectly righteous in himself."

I wonder if you misunderstood Nick's statement that the "Protestant claim that God declares someone righteous whom He knows is unrighteous is flatly unbiblical." He is not touching on any of the issues you brought up. In fact, what he is affirming is the idea that, as you say, "God turns unrighteous people into righteous people." What he is denying is the idea that God takes an unrighteous person, does not make him a righteous person but declares him righteous anyway. The difference is what you mean by "incorporating into Christ." Catholic Nick rejects the idea that salutary justification consists solely in the non-imputation of sin and the imputation of Christ's active obedience. Catholic Nick believes in something called "sanctifying grace."

Michael Taylor said...


Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think the Protestant focus on the non-imputation of Adam's guilt and the imputation of Christ's righteousness is limited to justification. But because Protestants distinguish sharply between justification and sanctification, the idea of growing in holiness or renewal or remediation of the harmful effects of sin simply don't come under the rubric of justification, whereas they do in Roman Catholicism where justification and sanctification are nearly identical concepts.

It is because both sides put different things under each umbrella term that the confusion arises. Roman Catholics tend to assume that Protestantism neglects or even denies that there is real (dare I say "substantial"?) change in the converted sinner, whereas Protestants tend to assume that Rome has no covenantal or juridical notion of justification at all, but rather that it is entirely an issues of substantial/ontological change.

En medio stat virtus (virtue lies somewhere in the middle.) In point of fact, much of the writings of the Reformers deal with our growth in holiness after having been incorporated into Christ. So there is real change going on in the sinner.

But we do remain simul justus et peccator. Rome seems to have rejected this language while affirming the intended truth behind the words. In fact we are righteous because we are "in Christ," and not because there is anything intrinsic in us that possesses or merits a declaration of righteousness. In other words, we are declared righteous not because of our intrinsic moral perfection, but in spite of it. But because Christ is morally perfect and we are "in Christ," only then can it be said that we are "righteous" in him.

It is also true that despite our having been incorporated into Christ, we continue to sin. That's what Luther was getting at when I used those words. We are saints and sinners at the same time. We are holy because of him who has set us apart. We are sinners because we are weak, human beings who are still in the process of moving from the "old creation" to the "new."

No matter what categories we uses, I do think both sides agree on at least this much.

Nick said...


I don't think you can argue that in this case the truth is somewhere in the middle, unless you want to suggest the historical Protestant position also has had it wrong all along (and not just Catholics).

Even if both sides are trying to say the same thing, that doesn't make a given theological explanation legitimate. For example, a Nestorian could say he's just trying to affirm Jesus is divine and human, but obviously the Nestorian's explanation is seriously flawed and so had to be condemned.

So even if you want to say both sides agree the Christian is in some way both righteous and sinner, that doesn't make the Protestant answer automatically legitimate/true/biblical. The 'Imputation Paradigm' that Protestants use as the primary grid for understanding salvation has some serious flaws both exegetically and systematically.

The main types of Protestant my post was directed at are people like Joey, who try to build an entire theology around a single verse, in this case Romans 4:5. He thinks that if he can make the passage say God is declaring an unrighteous person to be righteous then this demands we read Imputation into it so that God can have a legitimate basis to do this. But time and again I've shown him the corner he paints himself into when trying to argue that God is declaring an unrighteous man to be righteous. If "justify" is strictly understood to mean "declare legally righteous," then these are the only two ways 4:5 can be read:

(1) God declares legally righteous the legally unrighteous.


(2) God declares legally righteous the morally unrighteous.

It might already be apparent, but clearly both of these possible interpretations have problems. The first interpretation is a blatant contradiction. Even Joey doesn't believe this, but instead believes God declares righteous those who are legally righteous in virtue of Imputation. In other words, even in Reformed theology God is never declaring an unrighteous person to be righteous. The second interpretation is typical for those arguing 'simul iustus et peccator', but the problem here is that they've made Paul 'confuse' legal and moral righteousness in the same sentence. Really, it should be irrelevant if the person is morally unrighteous if Paul's focus is on legal unrighteousness. Paul would thus be confusing Justification and Sanctification, the very thing Protestants accuse Catholics of.

Michael Taylor said...


What I meant by "truth lies in the middle," was not that both sides have it wrong, but rather both sides tend to polarize the other side beyond what the other side is actually saying. I think this is in part due to the categories that we use.

If justification goes from point A....B for me and A...................B for you, then it could be that you will see my view as truncated compared to yours. But if I also have point B...........C, then perhaps the things that you feel are "missing," might be in that other category. I do believe something along these lines is going on with respect to justification and sanctification. Conversely, I may think you pack too much between A and B. But if I keep in mind that under the rubric of justification Rome distinguishes between its initial and ongoing aspects, then I find that the differences between us are not nearly as dramatic as is often portrayed.

For example, when you said in a previous com box that justification is "merely" imputation in Protestantism, that's clearly a misrepresentation. But it's not wrong to point out that imputation is the major emphasis in our understanding of the term. Likewise, it would be wrong to say that justification is simply Rome's word for sanctification, as if there were no juridical element at all to the doctrine. But clearly ontological change is the major key for Rome's understanding of justification. After all, Trent did not issue a separate document on sanctification; rather its document on justification includes what most Protestants would put under the rubric of sanctification.

Hope that clarifies things.

Joey Henry said...


I welcome the post. All I can say is follow where the evidence lead you. Now you know what 'asebe' means and treating it like it is merely a deregatory way of refering to 'gentiles' in the Pauline corpus (in fact in the entire NT) has no leg to stand on.

As for your oft repeated misrepresentation that I base my entire theology regarding imputation on a single verse, I would simply say that such misrepresentation will not help your case.

For those interested in my take of Romans 4:1-5, you may read:!!

For systematic approach of the concept of imputation see:!


Nick said...


To say my argument has no leg to stand on is merely brushing off the case I've made on multiple fronts. And until you actually interact with my arguments, you're not going to look good in front of other readers.

Here are the four arguments I've presented showing why "ungodly" in this context most logically refers to being "outside the covenant":

(1) The parallelism of the text is such that "justifies the ungodly" (4:5) is equivalent to "credits righteousness apart from works" (4:6) which is equivalent to "justifies apart from works of the law" (3:28). Thus, "ungodly" refers to the one "apart from works of the Law," which is someone outside the covenant.

(2) Galatians 2:15-16 Paul contrasts the Jews to "Gentile sinners" and in the same breath reaffirms we're justified apart from "works of the law". Why say "Gentile sinners" at all if Paul's simply saying everyone's a sinner? Clearly, it means the Jews saw the Gentiles as in a lower class. Paul could also have said "we are Jews and not UNGODLY Gentiles" and his meaning wouldn't change.

(3) It's an oversimplification to think "asebes" refers to sin in general and not some specific violation. It's plausible to view it as a negated form of "true worshiper," which in the NT means one who properly worships God as a Jew. This isn't stretching anything, it's simply an observation.

(4) Paul never shifts focus from Romans 3 to Romans 4. Many Protestants think Paul speaks in general in Rom 4:4-5, but there's no reason to think he has changed subjects from Rom 3:31 to Rom 4:9. The theme is Jew vs Gentile throughout, which is why I've written about how Protestants have no idea what to do with Romans 4:13-16. I've accused Protestants many times of ignoring Romans 4:9-24 because it doesn't fit their reading of Romans 4:1-8.

From what I recall, you have not interacted with a single one of these arguments. All you do is refer people to your post where you pontificate rather than exegete anything.

For those who are interested in real apologetics, they can see my link where I have gone over Joey's posts and showed they are mere pontifications HERE.

Joey Henry said...


Thanks for your response. I am not sure whether I should interact with the four points raised because it seems to me very inconsequential to the exegesis of 4:5. But, respectfully, for the sake of information:

1. I have no disagreement.
2. Galatians 2:15 has no bearing on the meaning of asebe. Further, to say that Jews are not from ethnon hamartoloi does not mean that Jews are not among the hamartoloi. Just read the entire passage to get Paul's point. Or, succintly, read Romans 3:9.
3. The meaning of a word is not derive from its root. Root fallacies is a common exegetical mistake. You need to look at the evidence of usage. Have you ever found asebe being used to refer to gentiles in entire NT corpus? Have found a single lexicon that defined it that way? Think about that for a moment before you defend an indefensible position.
4. Romans 4:13-16 has no bearing on the meaning of asebe. Further, I have read commenteries from fine scholars on Romans and it seems to me that exegesis of these verses have not been ommited. So to say that protestants have ignored these verses is simply a misrepresentation.

As for your piece addressing my responses as merely pontification, I'll let the readers decide about that.


Hymenaeus said...


Thanks for your gracious response. I appreciate your level-headed view. I agree that the greater part of the justification controversy is a verbal one. This was one of the driving problems during the Reformation. The Reformers insisted upon their own very specific language and rejected the Catholic formulations at the time without due consideration of shades of nuance and different respects of particular things. From my own reading, I don't think the rhetoric against Catholicism about "justification by faith alone" is correct, and I don't think the Reformed concept of justification can be meaningfully called "justification by faith alone" any more than the Catholic doctrine. If Catholics and Protestants could read each others writings with a less dogmatic mindset, I think the tenor of the conversation would change considerably.

That said, there are fundamental differences which are not merely a matter of language. One obvious example would be the Calvinist belief that justification logically implies election whereas Catholics believe that even the justified can fall from grace. Catholics and Protestants have enough common ground on the definition of justification for this to be an obvious contradiction.

Finally, when I said earlier that the Protestant doctrine of justification is merely "imputative," I don't think I'm incorrect because the so-called double imputation is all that is proper to the Protestant doctrine of "justification." At least that is the teaching of the Westminster Confession of Faith.

Hymenaeus said...

The verbal issue is also a real issue because words in this context are not arbitrary. They are regulated by Scripture and the teaching of the Church. It is a problem if Protestants assert that the biblical doctrine of justification is merely the forensic non-imputation of sin and imputation of Christ's alien righteousness, because even if what is lacking is grouped with sanctification, if the Bible uses the word "justification" in a broader sense than this, then the Protestant doctrine cannot be called biblical. I will pass over James, who says explicitly that justification is "not only by faith" (but also "by works"), and look at St. Paul's epistle to the Romans. It would be hard to hold that the word "justification" can be used with radically different meanings by the same author in the same passage without any obvious clarification on his part unless he does not ascribe the same meaning and significance to the word that Protestants do.

Look at Romans 4:25: [Christ] was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification. Where exactly does the Resurrection fit into the doctrine of justification? If "justification" has the narrow meaning asserted by Protestants, then Christ's Resurrection really isn't a cause of our justification. It has nothing to do with the imputation of Christ's active obedience to sinners or the imputation of sin to Christ. Most Protestant commentaries that I have seen on this verse seem to acknowledge this, interpreting this verse as merely stating that Christ's Resurrection is an assurance (not a cause) of our justification. If this is admitted, I think the whole historical Protestant side of the justification controversy falls flat on its face.

Barne's commentary on this verse is interesting (as it often is) because he appears to agree with my evaluation of this verse. "The word 'justification' here seems to be used in a large sense, to denote acceptance with God; including not merely the formal act by which God pardons sins, and by which we become reconciled to him, but also the completion of the work - the treatment of us as righteous, and raising us up to a state of glory."

wakawakwaka said...

just curious how do you respond to protestant claims that Clement of Rome taught sola fide?

as this fellow is claiming is he taking this outta contxt

Hymenaeus said...

Yes, Wakawakwaka, he is distorting the words of Clement. The reason for this is that the whole Protestant issue of "sola fide" is a red herring used to mask the foundation of all their heresies, which was the total rejection of the Church. Faced with anything taught by the Church that was disagreeable to them, they could simply say that they did not need to concern themselves with it because all they needed was faith (faith alone). Of course, this was an obvious falsehood because the Protestant sects all set up their own traditions and their own human authorities in opposition to the Church.

The Catholic Church has always taught that we are justified by faith. Even the expression "sola fide" was used by saints and has an orthodox sense, although it has been rightly seen by some as misleading if it were taken in a strict sense. The Council of Trent explicitly taught that justification was by grace, not merits, and by faith.

And whereas the Apostle saith, that man is justified by faith and freely, those words are to be understood in that sense which the perpetual consent of the Catholic Church hath held and expressed; to wit, that we are therefore said to be justified by faith, because faith is the beginning of human salvation, the foundation, and the root of all Justification; without which it is impossible to please God, and to come unto the fellowship of His sons: but we are therefore said to be justified freely, because that none of those things which precede justification-whether faith or works-merit the grace itself of justification. For, if it be a grace, it is not now by works, otherwise, as the same Apostle says, grace is no more grace. (Decree on Justification, Chapter 8)

The problem with the Protestant doctrine of sola fide (as opposed to the Catholic doctrine) is not that justification by faith was contrary to Catholic teaching, but that Protestants by their own insistence put it in opposition to whatever the Catholic Church taught and used it as a sufficient justification to sever themselves from the Church. Therefore, whatever it meant, it could not mean something orthodox because the Reformers themselves willfully precluded the extension of a charitable reading. Protestants put faith in opposition to works. They put grace in opposition to merit. The Catholic Church taught that salvation was by grace, but not in a way that excludes our participation in his salvation. The Catholic Church taught that we are justified not on the basis of our own merits, but not in a way that excludes meriting eternal salvation. The Protestants taught, on the contrary, that righteousness was totally alien to man, and, therefore, man's own experience could only be a dim reflection of an external reality. You can read up on the differences in Catholic and Protestant teachings on justification, but the point is that "sola fide" is a phrase designed to mislead and distract from the real issues. Lutherans can say that St. X says we are justified by faith and not by works in order to justify schism and their other false teachings, but it is just a distraction. The Catholic Church never taught anyone was justified by works (unless in a different, qualified sense) and the saints of the Catholic Church teaching justification by faith (or faith alone) does not vindicate the Protestant position nor injure the Catholic position.

Hymenaeus said...

So, when we look at Clement, we can see that the fact that when he says in Chapter 32 that we are not justified by works but by faith (notice he does not even use the expression "faith alone"), he does not mean it in a Protestant sense, but in the Catholic sense taught by St. Paul. First, lets play the game "Would Clement Have Said That If He Were Protestant?" Earlier in the epistle, in Chapter 30, he says,

Seeing, therefore, that we are the portion of the Holy One, let us do all those things which pertain to holiness, avoiding all evil-speaking, all abominable and impure embraces, together with all drunkenness, seeking after change, all abominable lusts, detestable adultery, and execrable pride. "For God," [says the Scripture], "resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble." Let us cleave, then, to those to whom grace has been given by God. Let us clothe ourselves with concord and humility, ever exercising self-control, standing far off from all whispering and evil-speaking, being justified by our works, and not our words.

If Clement believed that "justification" referred solely to God's forensic imputation of Christ's alien righteousness (or however you want to put it) and that we must say justification is "by faith alone," why would he immediately preceding his teaching that justifiaction is by faith say that we ought to be justified by our works? Obviously, at the very least, justification does not have a single strict meaning as Protestant exegetes claim.

Furthermore, if we read the entire letter (or at least the relevant portion), we can see that saying Clement is teaching "sola fide" is taking him out of context. The point of his statement where he says we are justified by faith is that we are not justified by ourselves apart from God. Immediately following, he says we cannot be slothful and cease from good works. Rather he urges his readers to "work the work of righteousness with our whole strength." To justify this, he argues,

The good servant receives the bread of his labour with confidence; the lazy and slothful cannot look his employer in the face. It is requisite, therefore, that we be prompt in the practice of well-doing; for of Him are all things. And thus He forewarns us: "Behold, the Lord [comes], and His reward is before His face, to render to every man according to his work."

So we must necessarily perform good works because, as a slothful employee ought not to expect to receive his wages, a slothful Christian will not receive his reward of salvation. If this is so, what was so important in the Protestant teaching of "justification by faith alone" that merited throwing off the Church and declaring that the pope was the "very Antichrist" and that he had hidden the Gospel. Furthermore, if St. Clememtn is such an authority, why did they do the opposite of what he taught when he said, "our sin will not be small, if we eject from the episcopate those who have blamelessly and holily fulfilled its duties?"