Resurrecting Justification – conclusion

Posted: August 13, 2013 by J in Bible, Theology
Tags: , , , , , , , ,


What have we done? We’ve reconnected the doctrine of justification with the gospel story. Simple as that. Where does that leave us, theologically? What’s the payoff of this approach to justification? Does it help us practically? A few suggestions.

1. 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.

But once the doctrine of justification is restored to its proper place as an explanation of Jesus’ resurrection, 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 by the Spirit and receive the new life of the Spirit in him.

2. 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 courtroom imagery which gives meaning to the word, 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. Justification is not primarily a mercantile image.

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 need not be seen as a separate verdict given to us on the basis of some transfer of merit. It is simpler and closer to NT thought to speak of 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. So we can stop arguing about the details of imputation.

3. 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. That’s a big achievement. 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. dan says:

    Hey Jono, This is heaps helpful stuff. Reminding me of Gaffin goodness.

    A bit confused about your second point here though. I don’t share in Christ’s righteousness? But don’t I share in Christ?! Didn’t he live his righteous life for me? Am I making a category error?

    I think I know what you’re getting at when you say; ‘the only person justified on the basis of Christ’s righteousness was Christ himself’, but would it be possible for us to be justified if it weren’t for Christ’s righteousness? Perhaps that’s all getting a bit hypothetical. Maybe I just want to hear you say that we ‘benefit’ from his righteousness or something like that.


    • J says:

      Good questions to raise, Dan. Not easy to get clear in this area, so much mud in the water.

      Yes categories are involved. We’re talking justification which is a judicial business. Yes we share in Christ, yes we benefit from him, as I said: “Righteousness is imputed to us because it was imputed to him.” And yes, righteousness was imputed to him because he was a righteous man. So his righteousness leads to our justification, indirectly.

      But if we’re talking justification, that last consideration is a bit backgroundy. Justification is about judicial declarations. When the judge declares a person righteous, if you ask, whose righteousness was it? then yes I think that’s a category error. As I said “It is difficult to give the question any clear meaning in a judicial context”. It’s a bit like if a priest declares a couple ‘married’ then you ask, whose marriage is he imputing to them?

      There are other ways in which we benefit from Christ’s righteousness also. Jesus rewrote the story of mankind, put it back on the right track, and took it through to completion. His righteous or faithful life did all that. For us. He was a kind of prototype or leader of the new humanity. Now we share in his (righteous) life. But none of this is in the realm of justification.

      hope that helps a little. Feel free to come back at me!

  2. dan says:

    I won’t apologise for my ignorance, because you’re well aware of it; So you’re saying that ‘declaring’ and ‘imputing’ are the same thing? Is that the same for us (ie. the nature of what judges do) or is it just true of God because when he declares something it exists in reality?

  3. J says:

    In the realm of justification, they are very similar ideas. To justify is for the judge to declare or reckon righteous, rather than reckoning or finding sin. But judges don’t stop with the declaration, they give rewards or punishments accordingly. Reckoning righteous hints at the way the judge treats the person. It is an enacted judgement. In Jesus’ case he first reckoned sinful in the condemnation of his trial and cross: “‘And he was reckoned among the lawless” Luke 22:37. Then this verdict is overturned: he is reckoned righteous by being raised. In each case the declaration is not a bare statement: it is enacted.

  4. Ben Hudson says:

    Thanks for all this Jono. well put, I reckon.

    my only thought would be to say that the idea of imputed righteousness is an attempt to say something important about the justice or rightness of God justifying the ungodly. There is something about our union with Christ which makes God a just justifier.

    I would prefer to say that we have died with Christ (rather than speak of our sin imputed to him) and that we have been raised with Christ (rather than his righteousness imputed to us).

    • J says:

      Thanks Ben . Totally agree.

      Actually that scares me a little… 🙂

      Sent from my iPhone

      • Ben Hudson says:

        perhaps if I keep talking you’ll find something to object to 🙂

        When I noticed that the ‘double’ structure of the way Paul thinks about union with Christ (union in death & union in resurrection) very closely resembles the double structure of the doctrine of imputation that no one likes any more (imputation of sin & imputation of righteousness), it caused me to both appreciate the way the reformers put it even more, and at the same see the benefits of sticking to Paul’s categories.

      • J says:

        Context is everything! Were the Reformers improving on the previous view, or were they unhelpfully tampering with the NT approach?

        I suspect the former. In which case yes we should appreciate their achievement, even though standing on their shoulders we can see a bit further.

        Is that it?

  5. Ben Hudson says:

    I think that’s right Jono, especially when you consider how tightly Calvin held union and imputation together.

    ‘We are deprived of this utterly incomparable good [i.e. justification] until Christ is made ours. Therefore, that joining together of Head and members, that indwelling of Christ in our hearts—in short, that mystical union—are accorded by us the highest degree of importance, so that Christ, having been made ours, makes us sharers with him in the gifts with which he has been endowed. We do not, therefore, contemplate him outside ourselves from afar in order that his righteousness may be imputed to us but because we put on Christ and are engrafted into his body—in short, because he deigns to make us one with him. For this reason, we glory that we have fellowship of righteousness with him.’

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