Putting the Gospel back into Justification – Part 3

Posted: November 11, 2011 by J in Theology


What have we done? We’ve reconnected the doctrine of justification with the gospel story. Simple as that. Where does that leave us, theologically? A few suggestions.

Seen in this light, justification becomes a thoroughly Trinitarian act. One of the disturbing things about the classic evangelical exposition of ‘justfication’ is the relative absence of the Holy Spirit in the whole matter. Justification is seen as an act of God the Father, imputing righteousness to us for the sake of his Son. The Spirit has little role here. And since this is ‘the doctrine on which the church stands or falls’[1], ‘the hinge on which the whole faith turns,’[2] the result is a dangerously non-Trinitarian centre to modern evangelicalism. Once the doctrine of justification is restored to its proper place as an explanation of Jesus’ resurrection, however, all this changes. Justification is clearly seen as the work of the Father by his Spirit towards his Son, proclaiming over him the verdict of ‘life’. ‘He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the Spirit’ (1 Peter 3:18). Our justification is likewise understood to be our sharing in this positive verdict, when we are united to Christ and receive the new life of the Spirit in him.

The apostolic view of justification cuts through our evangelical debates about imputation. We need to remember that the imputing of righteousness is the act of a judge when he declares one party to be in the right; so then this imputation is equivalent to justification, simply another way of saying the same thing (Rom. 4:5-7). Every judge imputes righteousness (and guilt): that is his job. Everyone who believes that God is the judge, believes in imputation by definition. So much of our confusion over imputation comes because we lose sight of the meaning of the concept, and overplay the idea of abstract accounts into which ‘righteousness credit’ is placed by God. The forensic setting of the term is easily obscured in much of our justification talk.

But once it is grasped that imputing righteousness is a declarative act of the court, the question, whose righteousness is imputed, becomes a strange one. It is difficult to give the question any clear meaning in a judicial context. Righteousness is a status created by the court, it is the court’s righteousness if it is anyone’s. A more natural and helpful question, the one frequently asked in the New Testament, is whose justification? Who is the object of God’s justifying verdict? The apostles’ answer is, Christ. It is to Christ that God imputes righteousness. God declared him righteous because of his righteous life. Our justification is not a separate verdict given to us on the basis of some transfer of merit. It is simply our sharing in the one verdict given to Jesus at his resurrection. Righteousness is imputed to us because it was imputed to him. To put it another way, the only person justified on the basis of Christ’s righteousness was Christ himself. The apostles do not teach that we share his righteousness: they teach that we share his justification.

This Gospel-based view of justification also helps reveal the essential unity between Paul and Jesus on a central gospel issue. Paul’s teaching at this point is in no way a departure from that of the Gospels. Much modern scholarship is on entirely the wrong track here. On the contrary, Paul’s doctrine of justification, like all his teachings, is nothing but an explanation of the meaning of the gospel events – or, if you like, it is his working-out of the significance of his encounter with the risen Jesus on the Damascus road.[3]

In other words, we are left with one gospel, not two. For a long time we’ve put up with two gospels. One is a story about Jesus, including past, present and future elements. The other is a set of ideas, teachings, or propositions about salvation, which we derive from Paul’s epistles. The two have little overlap: they are very different sorts of thing. A narrative view of justification reunites these two, so we have just one gospel again. That’s enough gospels, don’t you think?

[1] Luther

[2] Calvin

[3] on which see Pannenburg, Jesus, God and Man

  1. Ben Hudson says:

    Nice series Jono.

    One question (and you may have talked about this, but I missed it)- in moving the focus of justification onto resurrection – which I think is a good move – is there any sense left in which the cross achieves our justification? (I’m thinking of how Paul can talk about being justified by his blood. Rom 5:9.)

    For what it’s worth, I have a little theory about imputation and union with Christ.

    It has become trendy to point out that Paul’s doctrine of union with Christ (by the Spirit) does the job of imputation, while being a better way to talk about justification. – ‘double imputation’, is particularly the target here, where there are two moves: Christ gets our sin and we get his righteousness.

    Wright will say that imputation is a theological dead end. Reformed guys like Gaffin or Bird (even Carson) will say that imputation is still a useful systematic category, it’s just not in the text, nor in the structure of Paul’s thought. And it has a bunch of problems, not least of which is the absence of resurrection – as you have pointed out. Usually it is just asserted, without being shown, that union can do the job of imputation.

    I reckon it helps to observe that Paul thinks about union with Christ in a ‘double’ sense. There are two moves to this union which pretty much mirror the moves of double imputation, without the problems.

    In several places, Paul talks about being united with Christ with two moves: in his death, and in his resurrection (e.g. Rom 6:1-11). Our sin is condemned in Jesus’ death. And Jesus’ resurrection is our justification.

    This, it seems to me, is the way to show how union with Christ is both better and can do the job. It highlights the importance of the whole gospel narrative for justification- both the cross and the resurrection, it’s grounded in Pauline texts and it clearly shows the point at which the old categories were really onto something as well as where they’re deficient.

    • Jonathan says:

      is there any sense left in which the cross achieves our justification? (I’m thinking of how Paul can talk about being justified by his blood. Rom 5:9.)

      hi Ben, thanks for a great comment. I think by ‘the cross’ you’re meaning Jesus’ death specifically. Yes, absolutely the cross achieves our justification. Just the way running the race achieves or earns the prize, but is not the same as receiving the prize.

      The way I read the NT, all the suffering is done at the cross, all the fruits of that faithful suffering are enjoyed in resurrection/justification. When Jesus suffered, he entrusted himself patiently to the one who judges justly. He cried out with cries and tears to the one who was able to rescue him. And he was heard because of his obedient submission. God gave him the verdict he appealed for: life. But it was the crying and suffering which made that the right verdict for God to give.

      The two – death and resurrection – are so organically connected that you couldn’t have one without the other. It’s natural enough too to speak of them both together, which is what Calvin thinks is often done in the NT – the one being included tacitly when the other is mentioned. What does he call it? synechdoche or something. I’m not sure if I go along with that all the way, but a phrase like ‘justified by his blood’ seems to be a good example of what Calvin is talking about.

  2. Dan W says:

    Jono, just for clarification…

    You said; ‘Righteousness is imputed to us because it was imputed to him.’
    And then; ‘The apostles do not teach that we share his righteousness: they teach that we share his justification.’

    So what’s the connection?

    • Jonathan says:

      Hi Dan, thanks for clarifying this. I’m not very confident that I’ve got the gist of your question however. I think you’re asking, how do these two statements go together? Perhaps they are sounding contradictory?

      So I’ll try answering that. Please correct me if I missed you.

      The imputing of righteousness is just another way of saying ‘justification’:

      justification = the imputing of righteousness.

      So the two statements I made are saying the same thing in different words:

      1. We are justified because he was. 2. We share his (status) of justification.

      I’m suggesting it’s not helpful to say we share Christ’s righteousness. It’s too ambiguous, lends itself to too much confusion and distortion. We share with him the judge’s verdict of ‘righteous’ (i.e. the court’s righteousness).

      Did that help at all?

      • Dan W says:

        Yep. That is helpful. If I’m hearing you right, you’re saying it’s better to think of us sharing in an event than in a quality. Because although the quality thing is true (righteousness imputed to us due to our sharing in Christ), that sort of talk can lead to distortion. [I’m thinking it often leads to talking about righteousness as a quantity that can be passed around.]

        Have I got you?


      • Jonathan says:


        That’s more-or-less what I mean, yes. Glad you’re so good at interpreting my ramblings.

        As for Jesus’ character quality of righteousness, I don’t know if imputation is a good term for us sharing in that. I don’t think that is primarily a *judicial* matter (although they’re all aspect of our union with Jesus!) . I’m not sure I’d want to introduce that issue under the heading of justification, except as a secondary or related matter. Just a question of which metaphors do which jobs for us.

        Though I’m open to be corrected on this!

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