Isaiah is on the defensive. He hears a word from the Lord and he has to speak it. He does not disobey, nor does he contradict God. As a result, he gets scourged, beaten, and spat upon. But he can endure all this abuse from unrighteous Israel because the Lord is his helper. He has not been disgraced, he will not be put to shame, for “he who justified (dikaiōsas) me draws near” (Is. 50:8 LXX). On this basis he defies his opponents:
Look, the Lord helps me; who will harm me? Look, all of you will become old like a garment, and as it were a moth will devour you. (Is. 50:9 LXX)
In this painful conflict with a nation which mostly refuses to believe that his words are from God, Isaiah is confident nevertheless that he is in the right, that he is doing the right thing—that he is justified by God because he has been faithful in performing the task of a prophet.
This account of Isaiah’s struggle to stay true to his calling would appear, on the face of it, rather remote from the classical notion of Justification by Faith. I suggest, however, that it gives us a more useful model for understanding Paul’s argument in Romans than the Reformed rationalization of justification as a universal principal of salvation, and helps us to grasp instead the driving missional dynamic of New Testament thought.
There are three parts to the justification paradigm in the Isaiah passage:
1. The prophet is facing a difficult and distressing situation, which puts his trust in God to the test. In the eyes of most people around him he appears to be in the wrong.
2. He is justified because he does something: he remains faithful to his calling to speak as a prophet to Israel.
3. There is a strong public dimension to his justification, demonstrated in the fact that he is not disgraced, that he is not put to shame, and ultimately perhaps that his opponents will become old and moth-eaten.
Justification in the New Testament does not differ greatly from this simple paradigm, except that it is worked out on a much larger scale:
1. The community of God’s people faces a difficult and distressing situation—a coming day of the Lord or a day of God’s wrath. For national Israel this will mean judgment. For the prophetic churches of Jesus it will mean persecution, just as Isaiah was persecuted for speaking God’s word to Israel. The eventual outcome of this crisis will be that the God of Israel is glorified by the nations which formerly opposed his people. Justification presupposes eschatology.
2. Under these circumstances members of the community of God’s people are justified—or will be justified, since an eschatological dimension has been introduced—because they do something. They are doing the right thing, they will ultimately be found to be in the right because they have believed in the world-changing significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus. They will be justified by their faith in this event and all that it means for Israel and the nations.
They will not be justified by works of the Law because history has shown that the Law cannot produce righteousness. But the opposite to works of the Law is not doing nothing, or “faith” as some sort of minimalist existential response. Faith is not a matter of intellectual assent alone—any more than Isaiah’s belief in God’s word was a matter of intellectual assent alone. This was a faith concretely lived out and proclaimed by churches which communicated by their very existence the intention of Israel’s God to judge both his own people and the nations.
3. “Justification by faith” in Paul has in view not a final judgment of all humanity but the particular set of historical circumstances faced by the early churches. It answered the very practical and pressing question: Would the followers of Jesus be found to be in the right for having defied the leadership of Israel, for stubbornly predicting judgment on the nation, for having given up their absolute reliance on works of the Law, for sitting down to eat with Gentiles, for loving their enemies, for recklessly provoking Rome with their confession that Jesus and not Caesar is Lord. Would they be publicly vindicated for their radical, self-sacrificing belief that Israel’s God had raised his Son from the dead and given him the name which is above every name? No less than Isaiah they expected God to prove them right in the eyes of the watching world.
Having recovered this mission-in-history framework for understanding justification by re-reading Paul through a simple pragmatic lens provided by Isaiah, do we still need the Reformation doctrine? Possibly not.
Churches today are prophetic communities called—as Isaiah was called, as the early churches were called—to hear, proclaim and live out the word of the creator God in a culture that is disinclined to listen to us. We are justified—and perhaps will be justified—by our faithful obedience to this calling under difficult and sometimes distressing circumstances. That includes faith in the narrative of Jesus’ death and resurrection. It includes being put right with a holy God as a matter of gift rather than merit. But if it is limited to these things, we miss the real point. Justification by faith has to do with how we respond to a concrete vocation—in effect, how we do mission—in the here and now. The Reformed doctrine doesn’t get anywhere near this.
Are we right to contradict the dominant narratives of the Western world? Are we right to proclaim another king than Reason or the Market or Democracy or the state or Consumption or the Self? Are we right to distance ourselves from our culture? Are we right to opt out? This is what justification is about.
Finally, the paradigm suggests that we should be looking for vindication not in the hereafter but in this world, in the public domain. It doesn’t take much faith to say that everything will be put right in heaven. It takes faith to say that the people of the living God will somehow, at some point, be found to be in the right in the eyes of an unsympathetic, incredulous culture. I have little idea what that might mean, but it seems to be a proper inference from the scriptural model. In the end, God is glorified in the world when his people are glorified; he is vindicated when his people are vindicated; he is justified when his people are justified.