Resurrecting the doctrine of Justification

Posted: August 6, 2013 by J in General

In Sydney lately we’ve been hearing some hoo-hah about the doctrine of justification, with our archbishop election and all that. It’s reminded me about how weak we are in this area, and how vulnerable to be attacked and confused about it.

Over the coming days I’ll post a three-part article on justification. I’ve set myself the modest goal of trying to salvage the doctrine out of the doldrums into which it’s fallen in my church scene. Here’s part one: the groundwork.


For a long time now the protestant doctrine of justification has been more-or-less detached from the gospel of Jesus. Without this mooring, it has been drifting off into the world of abstract ideas. It has become increasingly difficult to connect ‘justification’ to anything else at all, either in our Christian faith or in the real world.

In particular, the doctrine of justification has long been formulated apart from its proper foundation in the resurrection of Jesus. Without that foundation, it’s been getting increasingly wobbly. It’s time to restore the doctrine to its rightful place and origin in the story of Jesus. What follows is an outline of what a reconnected doctrine of justification would look like.


Jesus taught about justification. In the Gospels, Jesus describes the scene of God’s final judgement: the ‘righteous’ (same word as justified) are placed on the judge’s right, the place of justification, and the wicked on his left, the place of condemnation (Matthew 25:31-46). While the condemned ‘depart into fire’, the righteous inherit the life of the kingdom. Elsewhere, Jesus explains that this judgement will come through resurrection: either the ‘resurrection of life’ or the ‘resurrection of condemnation’ (John 5:29). ‘Life’ here is clearly a synonym for ‘justification’.

However, this resurrection-judgement can also be brought forward: in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector, the two come to pray at the temple. But the temple scene turns out to be a judgement scene: God justifies the despised one and rejects the Pharisee who judged him. This justification is described  as ‘raising up the one who exposed himself to shame (tapeinon)’ (Luke 18:14).

Jesus’ passion/resurrection story is itself a kind of extended judgement or court-room scene. He is acknowledged to be innocent (Mark 15:14) yet condemned to death, first by Israel and then by the nations (Mk 14:64; 15:15). His condemnation consists in this: that he must die in shame. Jesus had predicted this negative verdict in advance: ‘The Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn Him to death.’ However he predicted a final judgement scene in which his condemnation would be overturned through resurrection: ‘but he will be raised on the third day’ (Matt. 20: 18).

At his death, Jesus commits his cause into his hands of his Father, the final judge (Luke 23:46). As the innocent one he ‘entrusts himself to the one who judges justly’ (1 Peter 2:23). On the third day his ruined body is raised into new and glorious life by the Spirit. He has experienced the final judgement of which he taught: in his case, the verdict is vindication (justification) This verdict is experienced in resurrection, the ‘resurrection of life’.


When Jesus’ apostles later face the high court of Israel (Sanhedrin), they emphasise the forensic significance of Jesus’ resurrection: ‘You killed Jesus,’ they tell the court, ‘but God raised him to his right hand’ (Acts 5:30-31). In other words, the verdict of their human court has been reversed by the final authority. They had condemned Jesus but God vindicated him by resurrection. Jesus has played the part of the tax-collector from his own parable: he has exposed himself to the shame of the cross. But God has justified the despised one by raising him up. The one who judges justly has upheld the cause of his righteous, trusting Son.

The direct importance of Jesus’ resurrection for the first Jewish hearers is twofold: firstly he has become the King of Israel and giver of the eschatological Spirit (Acts 2). Second, they are thereby pronounced guilty of murdering God’s Messiah. An unexpected further result of Jesus’ resurrection, however, is that the apostles can announce good news. Entry is now available into the new life of the Spirit, and part of this renewal is acquittal from their sins (Acts 2:38). These blessings can be enjoyed through being joined to the crucified and risen Jesus in baptism: ‘baptism into the name of Jesus’. In other words, the Jerusalemites, standing condemned, can experience the same reversal of judgement that was given to Jesus. They can go down with him into the waters of judgment, and rise with him from condemnation into acquittal. In this way they are invited to share, through baptism, in the verdict Jesus received from his Father. They are offered justification from their sins.

STAY TUNED for PARTS 2 and 3…


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