What was justification by faith?

This is a knee-jerk, end-of-the-week, dogmaphobic, book-promoting (see below) reaction to a post on justification on the Zondervan Academic site that came up today on my news feed. The post, called simply “What is justification?”, is an adaptation of material from an online course on Romans by Douglas Moo.

Moo gives a classic Reformed exposition of the doctrine. The fundamental human problem is that we are estranged from God by sin. Justification is God’s response to that problem. When people respond in faith to the message of the gospel, which is that Jesus died for their sins, God declares them innocent or righteous, even though in reality they are nothing of the sort.

What God does for us in justification is similar to what the judge does in a law court: He does not change the defendant by turning him or her into a new kind of person; rather, he declares the defendant innocent of the charges brought against him or her.

The assumption here is that Romans is essentially a complex, multifaceted theological statement, at the heart of which is the glorious and paramount doctrine of justification by faith. A universal solution to a universal problem.

But justification becomes an issue in Romans because “wrath” is an issue. Moo begins with Romans 1:17: ‘For in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”’ And then we jump to theological exposition.

Protestant theology has plucked the idea of justification by faith out of the historical narrative and sublimated it into a universal religious principle.

But Paul goes on to say in verse 18: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.”

Now “wrath” in scripture is not a term used for the final judgment. It always has in view acts of divine judgment—or putting right—in the course of history.

Job, for example, says:

Have you not asked those who travel the roads, and do you not accept their testimony that the evil man is spared in the day of calamity, that he is rescued in the day of wrath? (Job 21:29–30)

Or consider the words of the Psalmist:

Kill them not, lest my people forget; make them totter by your power and bring them down, O Lord, our shield! For the sin of their mouths, the words of their lips, let them be trapped in their pride. For the cursing and lies that they utter, consume them in wrath; consume them till they are no more, that they may know that God rules over Jacob to the ends of the earth. (Ps. 59:11–13)

Wrath is calamity, destruction, disorder, upheaval, and more often than not, war. When people see the outworking of the wrath of God, they will know—because history carries on—that God rules over Jacob.

So when Paul says, in effect to both Jews and Greeks, that they are storing up wrath for themselves “on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Rom. 2:5), he is speaking about a day in history when first the Jew and then the Greek will be judged. Not the Jew and the rest of humanity, but the Jew and the Greek.

Moreover, on this day God will “render to each one according to his works” (Rom. 2:6). A very different forensic image.

The real misconception regarding justification is not the one that Moo identifies—that we have sometimes made horizontal estrangement from other people more important than vertical estrangement from God.

It is that Protestant theology has plucked the idea of justification by faith out of the historical narrative and sublimated it, or evaporated it, into a universal religious principle.

Paul’s argument about justification is not purely soteriological. It is eschatological in a very Jewish sense.

The question is whether those Jews and Gentiles who believed in the gospel were justified, or would be justified, for having taken this extremely risky step of faith. Had they got it right? Would history prove them right?

It’s important to understand what Paul’s “gospel” was in Romans. It was not that Jesus had died for their sins. That was incidental. It was that God had raised Jesus from the dead and had given him the power and authority to judge and rule as Son of God and Lord (cf. Rom. 1:1-4). It was that régime change was underway. Sooner or later Jesus would rule over the nations (Rom. 15:12).

It’s a message about things happening in the course of history.

People were coming to believe in these new possibilities, but ahead lay a long period of suffering, opposition, persecution, even martyrdom. Ahead lay the chaos of the day of God’s wrath (cf. Rom. 13:11-13). Within a decade Nero would be burning Roman Christians in his garden and launching a war against the Jews.

The “doctrine” of justification in Romans, if we can call it that, addressed the fears and uncertainties and doubts that, sooner or later, were bound to beset the minds of those who had been convinced that Israel’s God had put the future in the hands of Jesus.

Paul writes: “since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1). Standard sermon fodder.

But look where the argument goes next:

Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Rom. 5:2–5)

Moo quotes this passage but misses the point.

Justification in Romans is not about all of us having to stand before the judgment seat of God, having had to put up with “life’s difficulties”. It is about Jewish and Gentile believers in the first few centuries having to endure suffering for the sake of the realistic hope that the people of God would inherit the world (cf. Rom. 4:13).

Justification by faith is history.

Having said that, we may still want to ask today whether, in the face of the growing hegemony of secular humanism, we will ultimately be justified for continuing to serve the living God, who raised his Son from the dead.

Philip Ledgerwood | Fri, 06/30/2017 - 20:10 | Permalink

Thanks, Andrew. Do you have any thoughts on at what point the -default- way of reading the Bible became viewing it as a collation of universal, timeless spiritual truths? Is it when our Greco-Roman theological forefathers were trying to make sense of it in their own contexts?

I find that, in discussions about these sorts of things, back of many of them is the assumption that something in the Bible by default should be understood to be some kind of universal declaration of truth that applies to everyone equally at all times and just so happened to crop up in a historical circumstance that may give us interesting background, but fundamentally does not impact the meaning.

It seems to me that people did not read the Bible, discover it was full of timeless spiritual truths, and then declare it to be a book of those things. It seems like the assumption about the sort of things the Bible talks about came first. But I’m not sure I could put my finger on when that began to be the case.

Philip Ledgerwood | Fri, 06/30/2017 - 20:11 | Permalink

P.S. I got to see a debate between Moo and N.T. Wright at the Evangelical Theological Society conference in America years ago. I don’t remember much of the content, now, but I do remember N.T. Wright making clawing motions in the air at Moo because he wanted the microphone back.

“God declares them innocent or righteous, even though in reality they are nothing of the sort.” And that’s the rub. It’s the imputation fraud. God is said to perpetrate a giant fiction (a whole set of fictions actually) whereby he declares things that are simply not the case. And that, it seems, is the only way that God can get away with taking ‘sinners’ as his people. Would that be ‘God that cannot lie’? Apparently so.


Would you consider reviewing Scott McKnight’s Reading Romans Backward?