The classic doctrine of justification is roughly that God declares righteous—and will declare righteous at the final judgment—the sinner who has faith in Jesus. There is nothing that we can do to make ourselves right with God—no works of any religious or moral “law”. The righteousness of Jesus may be transferred or “imputed” to us, but even then, it’s never really ours; it remains, in effect, on loan. Justification does not mean that we are right. It means that we have Christ’s rightness. This is how John Calvin defines justification:
Thus we simply interpret justification, as the acceptance with which God receives us into his favor as if we were righteous; and we say that this justification consists in the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ…. (Institutes III 11.2)
There you have it—straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, which is another way of saying that this is a matter of Reformed theology and not really what Paul was talking about. What our modern Protestant theologies have done is take an argument out of the New Testament story about Israel and the nations and rewrite it as an argument about the salvation of the individual.
So what happens when we put the argument back where it came from?
A preliminary and rather obvious point needs to be made first. [pullquote]Justification does not mean saying that someone is in the right when he or she is not.[/pullquote] It means saying that someone is in the right when his or her rightness or righteousness has been challenged or denied in some way. To give a simple example, God tells unrighteous Israel: “learn to do good; seek judgment; rescue the one who is wronged; defend the orphan, and do justice to (dikaiōsate) the widow” (Is. 1:17 LXX). The widow is not in the wrong but she is a victim of injustice. To do justice to her is to give her what is rightfully hers. We have a similar scenario—though the terminology is slightly different—in Jesus’ story of the widow who pesters the unrighteous judge: “Give me justice (ekdikēson) against my adversary” (Lk. 18:3).
Why Israel would not be justified by works of the Law
Justification becomes an issue in the New Testament because an eschatological crisis loomed on the horizon of history. No longer willing to overlook the centuries of pagan ignorance (Acts 17:30), the God of Israel was about to judge the ancient world—just as he had previously judged the Egyptians, the Assyrians and the Babylonians—and install his Son as ruler of the nations. But in order to judge the pagan world with integrity, God first needed to judge his own people (Rom. 3:5-6, 19), who had failed to set a standard or benchmark of righteousness for the nations. This meant a day of wrath or judgment first against the Jew, then against the Greek.
First century Jews might have expected to be declared righteous on the day of God’s wrath against the pagan world because they had the Mosaic Law, which marked them out as God’s chosen people. Paul’s argument against them, however, is that it is not enough to have the Law, they have to keep the Law; and because they have not kept the Law, the Law now condemns them to destruction. Jews would not, therefore, be justified by their works of the Law on the day of God’s wrath—nor would any Christian who was persuaded to accept circumcision, as Paul makes very clear in Galatians. On the contrary, they would find themselves worse off than many Gentiles who by instinct had fulfilled the requirements of the Law (Rom. 2:27).
So this is where the whole argument about the impossibility of justification by works of the Jewish Law fits in (eg. Gal. 3:7-14). It is not a universal problem. It is specifically the problem faced by first century Israel. If they had kept the commandments, they would have provided the benchmark of righteousness by which God would judge the nations—and they would have been, practically speaking, justified for their religious distinctiveness. They had not kept the commandments, they had brought the name of God into disrepute among the nations (Rom. 2:24), so they suffered the destruction of AD 70.
But if Israel would not be justified—would not be found to be in the right, would not be vindicated—by virtue of possessing the Law when God judged the ancient world, what had become of God’s promise to Abraham that his descendants would inherit this world (Rom. 4:6)?
The righteousness of God revealed apart from the Jewish Law
This has now become a question of the rightness or righteousness of God. The reputation of Israel’s God was at stake. How would God show himself to be trustworthy, true to his promise? How would God himself be justified?
The answer that Paul gives is that God had provided an alternative basis for the future life of his people apart from the Law of Moses, through the death and resurrection of Jesus:
But now the righteousness of God has been revealed apart from the Law… the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. (Rom. 3:21-22, my translation)
In his death and resurrection Jesus anticipated both the radical remaking of the people of God and the judgment of the pagan world. On the one hand, his death was an act of atonement for Israel’s sins (Rom. 3:24-25), and his resurrection pre-empted the future life of God’s people following judgment (Rom. 6:5-11). On the other hand, his death made possible the inclusion of the nations in this remade people of God (Eph. 2:11-22), and his resurrection was a sign that God had appointed him as the future judge and ruler of the nations (Acts 17:31).
Justification by faith(fulness)
Those who believed all this became the vanguard of the people of God in the age to come after judgment—after the remaking of the people of God, after the overthrow of the whole system of idolatrous imperialism. They were outposts of a new civilization under Israel’s God that was to be realized in the not too distant future.
But the position of these communities was extremely precarious. They had no concrete proof, no socially validated guarantees; they had only the promise of God, only the hope that they would be vindicated for the controversial step that they had taken, a hope undergirded by the experience of the Holy Spirit. They existed and survived by faith.
The “doctrine” of justification in the New Testament, therefore, answers the question, which is really a historical question: Would these outpost communities eventually be found to be in the right? Would they be vindicated? Would they inherit the nations? Would they be rewarded? Would history prove them to have been in the right all along?
There are two sides to this expectation.
The leaders of Israel in Jerusalem and most of diaspora Judaism—to Paul’s great chagrin—believed that they were badly, even blasphemously, mistaken. To the Greek-Roman world their rabid disloyalty to the gods was an atheism that threatened to corrupt and destabilize the empire. So the early Christians found themselves accused by the world of being in the wrong and suffered considerably as a consequence. But the doctrine of justification said that they were right to believe the promise of God—just as Abraham had been right to believe the promise of God—and would eventually, as communities of faith, be vindicated for having held to such a radical, world-changing conviction.
This is not a matter of abstract metaphysics. It has to do with the concrete experience of the early communities of Jews and Greeks who believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead. [pullquote]Justification by faith meant that sooner or later historical events would demonstrate that they had been right all along to believe in the promise of God and to act on the basis of that promise.[/pullquote]
Since, however, there was a real possibility that these communities would fail in their mission of bearing credible witness to the eschatological significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection through to the parousia, their rightness would be acknowledged not only by the world but also by the Lord. Those communities which had persevered in their trust in the God who raised his Son from the dead, which had worked out their own salvation with fear and trembling, which had walked consistently in the power of the Holy Spirit and not in the ways of the Gentiles, which had done good works, would be judged and rewarded. Those communities which had not done these things would be judged and punished with exclusion from the future of God’s people.
Are we justified in holding to our beliefs when our culture says we are wrong?
I would suggest, then, finally, that for believers today a “doctrine” of justification should address not the purely soteriological question of how we are saved in some absolute forensic and personal sense, but much more practical challenges regarding the identity and purpose of the church: Are we right to hold to our beliefs when secular culture is doing its best to persuade us that we are in the wrong? What sort of faithfulness is required if we are ever to be vindicated, shown to be in the right, for continuing to confess Jesus as Lord from the social and intellectual margins of the western world?
This is a great summary of justification from the narrative-historical perspective. Do you believe that, somewhere in the near future, we will reach a climactic point in history once again where God will vindicate the community of Christ as they stay faithful in their faith in Christ (similarly to what you believe in the trajectory towards what happened in the Roman empire under Constantine)? Or do you think it’s all headed towards the final phase that we read of at the end of Revelation?
That’s a big question! I am inclined to say yes. I think that there will be some sort of historical vindication of the western church for remaining faithful to its beliefs and associated practices in the face of powerful secularist oppposition. It won’t look like Christendom. It will be cultural—in the broadest sense—rather than political. It will probably draw more on the idea of Christ as the beginning of new creation, inasmuch as the challenges that humanity is creating for itself are increasingly global and ecological. It will have a lot to do with the quality and resilience of community and relational life. And the same challenge will be there to set a benchmark of righteousness against which the living and true God may perhaps “judge” an idolatrous secularism, as before he judged Babel, Egypt, Assyria, Babylon and Rome.
Don’t quote me though. Just speculating.
Great overview. Two thoughts/questions:
1) What was credited to Abraham by faith?
2) Somwhere in Romans it talks about being careful calling Abraham their father. Wasnt Abraham found “right” before he was circumcised? And if so, doesnt that make him “right” as a gentile? So calling Abraham your father means associating with a gentile “right” relationship which pre dates a circumcised “Israel” right relationship. I think? So was this what Paul was hinting at when he’s dealing with those who were proud of their circumcision, their “works” and boasting in Abraham? Careful all you proud anti gentile Judaizers, boasting in Abraham and “works/circumcision” is boasting in a gentile, the father of all.
Thanks for this…This article is as good as any I’ve seen on the topic. As much as I appreciate NT Wright’s work, this makes much more sense to me than the way I have heard/read him teach on justification. I read most of his book on the subject and got bogged down in all the greek exegisis.
It seems to me that this general perspective makes good sense of justification — even if one does not hold your exact position on the timing and meaning of the kingdom of God ( I really like your perspective on the matter, I’m just not totally convinced yet). We will be shown to be in the right at some point in the future, so we must persevere.
Putting the argument back where it came from should always take account of the covenant significance of the words “righteousness” and “justify” — both of which belong together, being part of the same contexts and word group in Hebrew and Greek, but tend to be prised apart and regarded separately because of the English translation into two different words.
This takes us back to Abraham and Genesis 15, which is where it all started, at least from the perspective of NT discussion. The key NT interpretive passages here are Galatians 3:6-8 and Romans 4 — both of which extend covenant inclusion to Gentiles as well as Jews, which is presented as the direct intention of the covenant as made with Abraham, never entirely lost sight of in Israel’s history, and now fulfilled in Jesus.
The perspective of the argument is always wider than survival beyond the impending crisis of the 1st century, from the point of view of the 1st century participants in the argument as well as ours. If you pursue the narrative by looking at the significance of God’s covenant arrangements, you come to a different place from the more limited understanding (as seen in its day) which you are promoting.
I was reviewing some of the various conversations we’ve had before on this subject, and I think the crucial issue is what exactly was understood by the NT writers in relation to what Jesus accomplished. There is never any disagreement that both Israel and Rome in the 1st century are included in the story as far as its practical outworking goes. The disagreement always seems to be about the wider significance of the narrative within which Israel and Rome are located, namely, the in-breaking in history then, as well as now, of new creation realities which confront old creation realities, with Israel and Rome as the standard bearers of the latter at that time. The personal impact of these realities in the lives of those who embraced them is always a central concern of the NT. as well as their political consequences in relation to the powers at that time.
There is therefore a direct connection between the kingdom, as in the gospel Jesus proclaimed, and new creation, which was being released through that proclamation in the person of Jesus himself. This always seems to me to be the focus of the picture, rather than narrowly the first century crisis with Jerusalem and Rome. To proclaim Jesus as the king of this kingdom was an offence to unbelieving Jews as well as treasonable to Rome (though the extra-political dimension is evident from the uncertainty about how Paul was to be tried by the Roman authorities following his detention by them).
Justification meant to be included in the new dispensation described, which always had the destiny of creation as its objective. There is a satisfying coherence of all the key terms in the argument, none of which should be kept in isolation from the other, as well as a coherence in the narrative, if the significance of justification is understood in this way.
(See comments in response to the arguments here, here, and here).
First of all, this was excellent work. I, just as many others, really really appreciate the way you bring out, using a more correct hermeneutic, what the Scriptures are really getting at. Seems like every time I read a new post of yours I walk away feeling like I found a breath of fresh air.
Are we right to hold to our beliefs when secular culture is doing its best to persuade us that we are in the wrong? What sort of faithfulness is required if we are ever to be vindicated, shown to be in the right, for continuing to confess Jesus as Lord from the social and intellectual margins of the western world?
Here is where we depart a bit. Of course we are right to hold to our beliefs. But, we are right because of what God has already done. We have already been vindicated via the 1st century believers having been vindicated. We are on the other side of redemptive/soteriological/eschatological history. How many times do you expect God to show himself to be trustworthy, true to his promise and/or justified? If God demonstarted it to the entire world in the 1st century who is left for him to show it to? Is God required to demonstrate his rightness to the world in every generation? And if there is a still future demonstation I think Doug Wilkinson asked a very good question:
don’t you think he will follow the modus operandi that he has always used by sending prophets who write scripture as warning before this happens? God has always placed a premium on warning people unambiguously. I don’t see anything in scripture as an unambiguous warning to a generation at least 2,000 years into the future. How will we authenticate these new prophets and such?
I have been reading through Justin Matryr’s dialog with Trypho lately. I was surprised to find such an early approach that is so similar to yours. If you haven’t read it or read it lately I think you’d be interested since he takes a similar basic approach and this is found very early in church writings.
Also, in Brondos’ “Fortress Introduction to Salvation and the Cross” he documents early atonement theory from Isaiah and Luke, and contrasts their approach (which sounds a lot like yours) with later Reformed definitions of terms like atonement and justification. I think you’ll find his work reinforces your conclusions.