Over the next few days I’m planning to post a three-part series 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. As a result, the doctrine finds it difficult to function in the lives of us believers. It seems to mainly function as a test of orthodoxy, rather than doing something for us in its own right. For ordinary Christians, who know they are orthodox, day to day the doctrine of justification can seem like a bit of an irrelevance.
In particular, this doctrine has long been formulated apart from its proper foundation in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Without that foundation, it’s been getting increasingly wobbly.
Rather than do an extensive critique of our current approach to ‘justification’, we’re going to attempt a restore and rebuild job. We want to outline what a reconnected doctrine of justification would look like. It’s time to restore the doctrine to its rightful place in the gospel of Jesus.
1. JUSTIFICATION in THE GOSPEL STORY
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: the ‘resurrection of life’ or the ‘resurrection of condemnation’ (John 5:29). In these phrases, ‘life’ is the opposite of ‘condemnation’ – i.e. it’s a synonym for ‘justification’. So justification is something that happens at the judgement, and is expressed in resurrection.
However, this resurrection-judgement event can also be brought forward: in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector, the two come to pray at the temple. 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) – a significant phrase for the gospel story.
The main event of judgement/justification in the gospel is Jesus’ passion/resurrection story. This is narrated as a kind of extended judgement or court-room scene. Jesus 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). Jesus expects to be justified through his death, in his resurrection.
After all has occurred as expected, 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). He throws himself on the justice of the highest court. And on the third day the definitive verdict is given: the human court’s ruling is overturned and Jesus 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. This verdict is experienced in resurrection, the ‘resurrection of life’. Which as we have seen above, is the resurrection of justification.
Jesus’ death and resurrection is the great judgement event of the gospel story, of the NT teaching. And in it, as we have seen, we find condemnation and justification.
2. THE EARLY APOSTOLIC GOSPEL: PETER
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 humiliation – the shame of the cross. And as in that parable, God has justified the despised one, raising him up. The one who judges justly has upheld the cause of his righteous, trusting Son. He has made him Lord and Christ.
The implication of this for the Sanhedrin, and for the people of Jerusalem, is that they have received a negative verdict from heaven’s court. They are pronounced guilty of murdering God’s Messiah.
However there is a twist to the story at this point. An unexpected further result of Jesus’ resurrection, is that the apostles can invite people to join in Jesus’ new resurrection life, including acquittal from sins (Acts 2:38). Even those guilty of murdering Messiah can be acquitted. These blessings can be enjoyed through being joined to the crucified and risen Jesus in baptism: ‘baptism into the name of Jesus’. Joined to him, the Jerusalemites can experience the same reversal of judgement that was given to Jesus: from condemnation to justification. They are invited to share in the verdict Jesus received from his Father.
STAY TUNED for PARTS 2 and 3…