PAUL’S VIEW of JUSTIFICATION
It was Paul’s encounter with the risen Jesus which led him to develop his distinctive teaching of justification by faith. Paul too understood Jesus’ resurrection as his justification:
Because the residents of Jerusalem and their leaders did not recognise him or understand the words of the prophets that are read every sabbath, they fulfilled those words by condemning him. Even though they found no cause for a sentence of death, they asked Pilate to have him killed. When they had carried out everything that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead.Acts 13: 27-30 (my italics)
Notice the contrast between condemnation and resurrection, as two sides of the coin of judgement. When condemnation is overturned, it is turned to resurrection.
Paul makes this justifying act of God the explicit basis on which justification is proclaimed to the nations. In his speech at Pisidian Antioch, having arrived at Jesus’ resurrection, Paul gives an extended explanation of it (13:30-37). This announcement of resurrection then becomes the grounds for his final announcement:
Let it be known to you therefore, my brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you; by this Jesus everyone who believes is justified from all those sins from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.
Acts 13:38-39 (my italics)
The ‘therefore’ here is key: since Jesus has been vindicated in resurrection, justification is therefore offered to the people through him.
Paul employs the same structure of thought in his epistles. In his letter to the Romans, he describes a very similar final judgement scene to that envisaged by Jesus. God the judge separates all mankind into two groups. ‘To those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, he will give eternal life… glory honour and peace’. For ‘the self-seeking…there will be wrath and fury’ (Rom 2:6-10). God’s judgement is righteous and true, ‘he shows no partiality’ (v.11).
It is within this framework of God’s justice that Paul explains the story of Jesus. The heart of that story, announced upfront, is that Jesus was ‘appointed Son of God in power…by his resurrection from the dead’ (Rom 1:4). Jesus receives God’s final judgement: ‘glory, honour and immortality.’ In thus vindicating the righteous Jesus, God himself is seen to be righteous, fulfilling his judicial promise that ‘the righteous one by faith will live’ (Rom. 1:17). The rightness of God’s judgement is revealed when he raises faithful Jesus back to life from the dead.
But Jesus’ story is not simply his own. For ‘he was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification’ (Rom 4:25). And so this same righteous judgement will now be shown to all who are united to Jesus through baptism and the Spirit: they too will be justified in resurrection (Rom 6:1-5; 8:9-11), raised with Christ. Those who had no hope of receiving the verdict of ‘glory’ or honour (= eternal life) from the judge (Rom 2:6-11; 3:23), now rejoice in precisely that hope of glory (Rom 5:2). They can have that hope because the reward now comes to them as a gift, found ‘in Christ’.
This justification through resurrection has actually already begun inwardly in believers: they already receive the favour and reward of the heavenly court (Rom. 5:1). They have been raised with Christ inwardly through faith (Rom 6:1-11, cf. Ephesians 2:5-6; 2 Corinthians 4:10-11, 16), to participate in the life of the age to come now (Romans 5:5, cf. Colossians 3:1-4). And they await the outward and public justification of the final resurrection, when there will be no room for condemnation (Romans 8:11, 34).
The upshot of all this is that for us Christians, our own justification is entirely dependent on Jesus’ resurrection: “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17). After his extended discussion of resurrection, Paul concludes:
Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God… (Romans 8:33-34).
The payoff of Jesus’ resurrection is all about our justification.
And so our faith, though it trusts in everything Jesus does and says, is particularly to be centred or focussed at this point: “if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9). “Righteousness will be credited to us who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Romans 4:24-25).
Paul and the other apostles tell this story over and over, always making it at the same time Jesus’ story and our story, as we are united to him: ‘Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to the justification of life for all’ (Romans 5:18). ‘In his great mercy he has given us new birth into the hope of life through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead’ (1 Peter 1:3).