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. In the apostle’s words:
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.
In other words, when Paul learned (on the road) that Jesus was alive again, the implications of that discovery turned his world upside-down. He had until then treated Jesus and his followers as a condemned sect, fit to be punished. But in that overwhelming encounter, Paul realised that he had got it all wrong: for God had given a different verdict. In raising Jesus, God had over-ruled the condemnation which the Sanhedrin had handed down, and replaced it with justification. No one really had to tell Paul anything much after that: the implications would have fallen on his mind like dominos in a chain, one after the other. Paul’s gospel message unfolded naturally and organically from that centre or core: the fact of Jesus’ resurrection. It was in that sense that his gospel was not taught him by man, but directly from God (Galatians 1). This Emmaus road encounter was the revelation moment for Paul.
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 and unfolded throughout Romans, 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 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).
In fact Paul makes this act of God, justifying Jesus, the explicit basis on which justification is proclaimed to the nations. In his speech at Pisidian Antioch, once Paul arrives at Jesus’ resurrection, he gives it an extended explanation (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 offered to the people through him.
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).
And so Paul’s faith, though it trusts in everything Jesus does and says, is particularly 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).
We could go so far as to say, based on this evidence, that the apostle Paul didn’t have any concept of justification apart from resurrection.