A missional understanding of justification by faith (by way of Isaiah)

Read time: 5 minutes

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.

peter wilkinson | Thu, 02/21/2013 - 13:43 | Permalink

I think justification by faith is rather more than this in the New Testament. As the word justification is part of the dikaioō/dikaiosynē group, we are looking at the transition from and fulfilment of the covenant history of the OT in the new covenant people.

In this sense, justification in its NT form is not simply about being found to be right in difficult and distressing circumstances, significant and important as that may be, but about the fulfilment of God’s purposes in the forming of the new covenant people, a new creation brought forward into the world from the final, complete new creation.

If I could find a simple way of putting that as a question, I would have done. It’s actually a statement, which invites rebuttal.

@peter wilkinson:

As always, a thoughful and challenging article Andrew.  I also enjoy the discussion between you and Peter. 

Our of curiosity, Peter, do you have a blog or website?

@George Mearns:

George — you have prodded my conscience. I have been in the process of setting up a blog for the last 2-3 years, without making much progress. It exasperates Andrew (a good friend, by the way) that I use his website to blog my own extended thoughts. I’ve been dreaming about setting up an interactive bible school type blog, which would invite discussion and thinking in and out of the box whilst working through the bible and key biblical approaches to interpretation. Thank you for being affirming about AP/PW discussion. I have got to the stage where I feel so guilty about constantly disagreeing with Andrew that I now try only to lob the occasional comment and then run for cover - as I have done for the last several days. The conversation that has arisen on this particular thread largely ignores, to me, the rather more overarching questions about righteousness; but then I could be missing the point entirely.

@peter wilkinson:

I agree. Both God and his people are finally justified in the eyes of the nations when his purposes are brought to completion. That’s what I meant when I said that justification presupposes eschatology, that the early churches “expected God to prove them right in the eyes of the watching world”; and I would agree that the proximate fulfilment draws on the prospect of a final renewal of all things. But it’s in the midst of the crisis, the difficult transition, that the terminology bites, so to speak. That’s when they need to know that they are in the right, justified in taking the course of action that they have taken.

George Mearns | Thu, 02/21/2013 - 15:48 | Permalink

Oops.  Should have made the comment here for Andrew.  Again, thanks for the thoughtful article.

Mark Nieweg | Fri, 02/22/2013 - 01:13 | Permalink


I’ve been thinking through the following passage in Micah 7:8-10 concerning Jerusalem’s judgment. With words like “defend my cause,” “justice on my behalf,” and “deliverance” being used at the very time of punishment, I was wondering how this angle would fit with what you say in your post. Here there is a confidence that God’s faithfulness in relationship to Jerusalem, even at a time of punishment, would prevail as God would “lead…out into the light.” Those gloating over it and saying “where is your God?” would be put to shame.

Seems this is almost parallel to the church’s vindication for its faithfulness towards Jesus in a time of trouble, but that it is not the object of judgment.


“My enemies, do not gloat over me!
Though I have fallen, I will get up.
Though I sit in darkness, the LORD will be my light.

“I must endure the LORD’s anger,
 for I have sinned against him.
But then he will defend my cause,
 and accomplish justice on my behalf.
He will lead me out into the light;
 I will experience firsthand his deliverance.

“When my enemies see this, they will be covered with shame.
They say to me, “Where is the LORD your God?”
I will gloat over them.
Then they will be trampled down like mud in the streets.”

@Mark Nieweg:

Seems this is almost parallel to the church’s vindication for its faithfulness towards Jesus in a time of trouble, but that it is not the object of judgment.

Mark, I would suggest that the parallel is closer than that. The first century church is not an independent entity. It is that part of a people under judgment that is being saved because at this time of crisis it has called on the name of the Lord. The church is repentant Israel, in process of renewal—Gentile believers have simply identified themselves with that community, having been convinced by the preaching of the apostles that the God who is doing this in his people is the true God.

Consider also 1 Peter 4:16-18:

Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And “If the righteous is scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”

The household of God is caught up in the judgment and experiences it as persecution. The wrath of God is somewhat indiscriminate, which is why Habakkuk 2:4 is important. How will the righteous live when all hell breaks out? They will live by faith, faithfulness, trust.

@Andrew Perriman:

Hi Andrew,

This statement of yours clarfies a lot for me:

“The first century church is not an independent entity. It is that part of a people under judgment that is being saved because at this time of crisis it has called on the name of the Lord.”

Little by little, what you are proposing is beginning to make sense to me. Thanks for the patient and persistent interaction with your commenters.


Doug Wilkinson | Fri, 02/22/2013 - 05:16 | Permalink

I think you pointed a devestating laser at the Reformed paradigm.  They are all about having personal righteousness assigned to them by God.  The narrative approach is all about being justified by God.  The problem, as N. T. Wright points out in “What Paul Really Said” is that righteousness and justification are the same Greek word, so only the translator decides which best fits in a passage.  Reformed theologians have made the crisis one of personal righteousness or “righteousification”, where I think the narrative is more often, though not always, about justification.  Keeping in mind that the translator could pick either term when translating dikaiosune depending on his theological bias, print out Romans 4, circle either justification or righteousness, and see how your choice of these two options terms makes sense of the passage:

Romans 4

What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh?  For if Abraham was (justified / made righteous) by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.  For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as (justification / righteousness).”  Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.  And to the one who does not work but believes in him who (justifies / makes righteous) the ungodly, his faith is counted as (justification / righteousness), just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts (justification / righteousness) apart from works:  “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”  Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as (justification / righteousness).  How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised.  He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the (justification / righteousness) that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that (justification / righteousness) would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.  For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the (justification / righteousness) of faith.  For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void.  For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.  That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.  In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.”  He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.  No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.  That is why his faith was “counted to him as (justification / righteousness).”  But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our (justification / righteousness)

Also see Galatians 3-4 for the same argument.