Putting the gospel back into justification – 3: Conclusions

Posted: February 3, 2014 by J in Bible, Church, Church history, Theology


What have we done? We’ve reconnected the doctrine of justification with the gospel story. Simple as that. Where does that leave us, theologically and practically? What have we gained? A few suggestions.

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. But where is the Spirit in all this? 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. Once the doctrine of justification is restored to its proper place as an explanation of Jesus’ resurrection, however, 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 faith and receive the new life of the Spirit in him.

Once the Spirit is reintroduced into justification, it becomes obvious that justification is an eschatological reality. For most evangelicals, justification is earned by Jesus, happens when you believe, and then is ratified or confirmed at the final judgement. But in light of what we have seen, this view needs serious restructuring. The justification we receive is that of Jesus, which he received 2000 years ago. And that was the final judgement. The last judgement was brought forward in time and occurred in the mid-flow of history, at the cross – complete with accompanying resurrection of the dead. In fact, the resurrection was the sign that the final judgement had come. Now we take part in that eschatological event. The final judgement becomes a living reality in our lives – both in condemnation and justification. With Jesus we die, and with Jesus we are raised to live anew in the Spirit. In justification we take part in the life of the age to come – now.

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 meaning of the concept, 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.

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 is not a separate verdict given to us on the basis of some transfer of merit. It is simply 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.

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. 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 seemed to have little overlap: they are different sorts of thing. As believers we’ve moved between the two, trying to keep a grip on both: an uncomfortable business. A narrative view of justification reunites these two, so we have just one gospel again. That’s enough gospels, don’t you think?
One last suggestion, just to annoy my evangelical brothers and sisters. 🙂
This study of justification calls into question the differences between protestant and ‘catholic’ on the issue. Once the doctrine is reconnected to the gospel and grounded where it belongs, in Jesus resurrection, how many of the traditional disagreements can stand up or remain relevant or even meaningful? It would be interesting to try and restate the points of contention in terms of resurrection, and see whether it can be done, or whether the whole thing simply – evaporates?
But that is for another post, another time.  🙂
[1] Luther

[2] Calvin

[3] on which see Pannenburg, Jesus, God and Man

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