Perspectives Resources

Navigating Justification: Conversing with Paul

Andy Johnson

Ever since the Reformation, the doctrine of justification has sparked lively conversation peppered with heated disagreements. During the last few decades the conversation has kicked into high gear in various venues. For example, Finnish Lutheran theologians have reinterpreted Luther’s understanding of justification placing more emphasis on participation in Christ, and the doctrine has been the subject of ecumenical discussions. In 1999, the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church ratified the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (which The United Methodist Church signed in 2006). In still another venue, Pauline scholars have been engaged in vigorous conversation about Paul’s understanding of justification. This essay focuses on the most recent contributions to that conversation with the intent of helping Catalyst readers navigate its often muddy (sometimes stormy!) waters.

Last year yielded a trio of important works on Paul’s understanding of justification: N.T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (InterVarsity Academic, 2009); M.J. Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology (Eerdmans, 2009); and D.A. Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (Eerdmans, 2009). Since each stands in varying degrees of tension with the “traditional” Protestant view of justification, I will begin with a brief review of it and then summarize the major emphases of each of the three works. I will then highlight some of their similarities and differences and conclude by pointing out some of their advantages over the traditional view.

The “Traditional” Protestant View of Justification

The traditional Protestant view of justification assumes that first-century Judaism was characterized by “legalistic works righteousness.” Jews kept the law and did “good works,” earning merits to be “righteous/justified” before God, and, thereby earn individual salvation. They either deluded themselves into thinking they had succeeded, becoming “self righteous” (granting themselves the status “righteous”), or their consciences were wracked with guilt because they knew they had not succeeded. Individual Gentiles, who innately knew what God required, shared a similar predicament. Hence, for the traditional view, a forensic (legal) framework for understanding justification became primary: God is a judge, and the individual’s guilt is the primary problem the gospel addresses. The gospel itself became essentially defined by Luther’s “new” (new in the 16th century!) understanding of the “righteousness of God” (dikaiosynē theou) in Rom 1:17 as righteousness from God. The good news is that God gracefully imputes a righteous status to guilty sinners based on Christ’s merits, pronouncing a final verdict of “not guilty” now through the sinner’s faith (pistis) in Christ. Faith (pistis) is understood as simple belief/trust, with Abraham’s faith in Romans 4 the paradigm of justifying faith.

One appropriates the saving event by trading simple belief/trust in Christ for the forgiveness of sins based on Christ’s penal sacrifice, thereby, receiving the status of “righteous/justified.” Hence, justification is usually understood as coterminous with “conversion,” but it is God’s declaration about the individual, not (at least not in traditional Reformed and Lutheran circles) their transformation—that is, their sanctification. Justification and sanctification must be clearly distinguished. Although the justified are expected to “do good works” out of gratitude, their works do not impact on their final judgment, which is determined solely by their trust/belief in Christ. Such a theological program is highly individualistic, making the church an addendum to salvation, Christ’s resurrection a footnote to his penal death, and ethics an afterthought to theology.

Most Protestants will recognize the basic contours of this description. However, some aspects of it may not fit every advocate of the traditional view of justification. For example, J. Piper, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, differs with some of the details in the description—note his idiosyncratic definition of the “righteousness of God”—, yet he continues to defend something like the traditional view against what he considers the “dangerous” claims of N.T. Wright (see Piper’s The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright [Crossway, 2007]). Wright’s riposte to Piper and those who hold the traditional Protestant view of justification is the first of the books we will examine.

N.T. Wright

In Justification, Wright attempts to summarize and clarify his previous publications on justification. Although associated with the New Perspective on Paul, Wright is primarily engaged in a debate within the Reformed household, with Piper and those with similar views occupying one wing and Wright another. In a nutshell, Wright affirms much of the theological structure of the traditional view in repeatedly maintaining that justification is God’s forensic declaration, not a transformation (91), thereby clearly distinguishing justification from sanctification. Although not the term’s primary meaning, justification includes God’s forgiveness of an individual’s sins based on Christ’s penal sacrifice (with “penal” carefully nuanced) and God declaring her/him “not guilty” in a law court setting based on faith alone.

Wright insists, however, that Paul’s larger framework for any such law court setting should be Israel’s covenant and its eschatological fulfillment (92-100). Accordingly, the driving question is not “How will God deal with my guilt and my inability to earn salvation?” Instead, the primary question is covenantal (and thus corporate) and eschatological: “How/when will God be faithful to his promises to redeem his covenant people, Israel, and rescue the whole creation?” (101). Justification, then, is God’s advance present (forensic) declaration of who has the status of membership in this covenant people now, in certain anticipation that they will be vindicated as members of the covenant people in God’s future judgment. This final vindication consists of God’s raising them from the dead in conjunction with God’s redeeming all creation.

This new status is not achieved by the “imputation” of God’s righteousness based on merits Jesus earned by obeying Torah, or even by his dying on the cross. For Wright, such an assertion is a category mistake based on a misunderstanding of Israel’s covenant theology as primarily “legalistic” in nature (232), and a misunderstanding of the phrase “righteousness of God” (dikaiosynē theou). That phrase refers not to an imputed status but to God’s covenant faithfulness embodied in his saving activity for Israel and the world. Still, Wright maintains that what the doctrine of imputation was trying to protect remains intact theologically and grounded in Paul. For Paul, it is not Jesus’ “righteousness” that is “reckoned” to believers. What is “reckoned” to believers is Jesus’ death and resurrection (232-33) after they have come to faith, and, therefore are participating in his story. Here, justification is not coterminous with conversion. Rather, “call” is Paul’s language for God initially bringing persons to faith. With “faith alone” now marking believers in Christ as God’s people, God’s declaration of their status as “righteous/justified” follows.

The sole present evidence of this new status is faith that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead. However, Wright is not always clear on whether this justifying faith (pistis) has in its very structure an element of fidelity/obedience. On the one hand, he seems to imply, in agreement with the traditional Protestant view, that it is simply belief/trust with “the faith of Abraham as the exact model for the faith of the Christian” (209). However, he also connects Messiah’s faithfulness with “the single badge of his people,” that is, “faith/faithfulness” (128). This ambiguity plays out in his view that God’s present verdict on the basis of faith alone gives assurance that God’s future verdict will match it because the Spirit enables obedience/faithfulness. (Is the latter an addendum to “faith alone” or constitutive of it?) In any case—and this is another major disagreement with Piper and the traditional view of justification—the result is that God’s final judgment will be “by works.” God’s final verdict “will truly reflect what people [freed and enabled by the Spirit] have actually done” (191-92).

Michael J. Gorman

In Inhabiting the Cruciform God, Gorman also affirms some aspects of the traditional view of justification. For him, justification is coterminous with conversion, and includes forgiveness of sins and a declaration of “not guilty” (though for him it is effective, not merely forensic). It is also based on faith (pistis) alone, though for Gorman pistis is redefined in participatory terms. Like Wright, his understanding of justification is deeply covenantal and corporate. He argues that Paul understood Israel and the whole world as covenantally dysfunctional, characterized by vertical (idolatry/asebeia) and horizontal (injustice/adikia) covenant violations (Rom 1:18)—a lack of fidelity to God and love for others. God has responded by revealing his own righteousness/covenant faithfulness (dikaiosynē, Rom 1:17) in Christ’s “obedience unto death.” This is Christ’s own act of fidelity to God (pistis), which is simultaneously an act of love for others. Hence, Christ’s death, his unified act of fidelity and love, is the quintessential act of covenant fulfillment, because of which God vindicates him in his resurrection. This unified act is the objective basis or means of justification, which Gorman defines as “the establishment or restoration of right covenantal relations—fidelity to God and love for neighbor—with the certain hope of acquittal/vindication on the day of judgment” (53; Gorman’s emphasis).

God justifies humans when they, moved and enabled by God’s Spirit, respond with a faith (pistis) that is christologically determined. That is, their response is not only belief/trust but also Christlike fidelity/loyalty to God. It is a grace-enabled, participatory response (expressed in baptism) by which one shares in Christ’s quintessential act of covenant fulfillment. Justifying faith, then, is being “co-crucified” with Christ and “raised to new life” (he stresses the passive verbs indicating God as the active subject). Believers thereby participate in Christ’s unified act of fidelity and love with the promise of ultimately sharing his resurrection. In short, justification is by “co-crucifixion.” Hence, Christ’s faithfulness unto death for the sake of others is both the objective basis for justification and its mode—the pattern for its divinely enabled, subjective human response (59).

With justification constituted by reconciliation and restoration of right covenantal relations with God and others, it is necessarily transformative and communal, creating a (missional) people who seek to enact the kind of restorative justice/love they have received from God. They have “believed into” Christ. They have been transferred by the Spirit from the sphere of the unjust/unjustified into Christ’s ecclesial body and have begun the process of replacing vertical (idolatry/asebeia) and horizontal (injustice/adikia) covenant violations with fidelity/faith (pistis) and just/loving actions (dikaiosynē/agapē). Hence the practice of “christologically informed, cruciform, justice…the absorption, rather than the infliction of injustice” is constitutive of justification (99).

On Gorman’s reading, then, justification and sanctification are two aspects of one movement whereby we, individually and corporately, are conformed by the Spirit to the faithful and loving Christ, the image of true humanity as well as the image of true divinity. To be justified is to participate in an ongoing process of christoformity, which in the end, is the process of theoformity. Justification, then, is “inhabiting the cruciform God”—in a word, theosis.

Douglas A. Campbell

Campbell’s The Deliverance of God is much longer than preceding treatments on justification, and it is much more polemical toward the traditional Protestant view of justification. As the book jacket claims, it is a “massive attack” on what Campbell calls “Justification theory,” which is essentially the traditional view outlined above. He argues that justification theory is internally inconsistent and theologically problematic, and that it relies on numerous exegetical “sins of omission” and “sins of commission” (338-39). His book attempts to expose these weaknesses (and his arguments are often very persuasive) and to sketch an alternative understanding of Paul’s soteriology. He focuses on Romans 1-4 (313-761), which he calls the “textual citadel” of justification theory, highlighting its exegetical weaknesses and offering a rereading of these key chapters. He argues that most of Romans 1:18-3:20 is not Paul’s own position but rather the “gospel” of a Jewish Christian teacher (or teachers), a message of strict soteriological dessert where a God of retributive justice gives humans what they deserve. Paul articulates this position only to reduce it to absurdity and juxtapose it to his own gospel. Campbell is convinced that his alternative understanding of Paul’s gospel stands or falls with this historical reconstruction (534). Such a radical rereading of 1:18-3:20 will not persuade most. However, I doubt that Campbell’s “forensic-liberative” alternative interpretation can only be maintained on the basis of that reconstruction. But this cannot be taken up here.

Campbell argues that Paul summarizes his own gospel in 3:21-26 (anticipating its fuller development in chapters 5-8) where the basal conception of God is one of “inherent benevolence,” not retributive justice. This inherent benevolence is enacted in “the deliverance of God” (his translation of dikaiosynē theou), God’s singular saving action of vindicating the faithful Son in the (Spirit’s) life-giving act of raising and enthroning him as Lord of the cosmos, thereby delivering captive creation from bondage. In this apocalyptic act, God invades human history, reveals humanity’s corporate enslavement to Sin and Death, and evokes human faith. Christ’s resurrection and enthronement as Lord, therefore, is the definitive revelation of salvation/deliverance. Hence, the good news Paul preaches is that “God [unconditionally] justifies the ungodly” (66), that is, God announces a (forensic) verdict of amnesty that delivers people from their old existence in Adam enslaved to Sin and Death, grafts them into Christ’s resurrection life, and thereby, and only then, effects faith in them “by both the Spirit and the word” (819). Justification is, therefore, inherently transformative and life-giving, leading Campbell to describe it as “forensic-liberative” (662).

Campbell insists that one does not appropriate faith in a pre-Christian state in order to be justified; faith is a post-Christian reality, a marker that a person is already justified/delivered. Such faith is analogous to Abraham’s sustained, enduring trust and echoes (not imitates!) the fidelity/faithfulness of Christ. Christians possess and exercise faith only because they participate in Christ’s faithful death/execution that terminates their enslaved sinful condition and ontologically transforms their fundamental lack of ethical efficacy. For Campbell, then, “Paul’s account of sanctification is the gospel” (934, his emphasis) and justification is constitutive of it. Although this is not his primary emphasis, Campbell suggests that participating in Christ’s death and resurrection is an introduction into the “divine condition/communion” (66, 927). Such participatory language is close to Gorman’s position that justification is theosis, a term that Campbell mentions favorably (211, 265).

Summary Comments

One might “map” the emphases of each of the approaches discussed above as follows:

  • Traditional View: Individual and Declarative
  • Wright: Declarative and Covenantal
  • Gorman: Covenantal and Participatory
  • Campbell: Participatory and Apocalyptic

This “map” (suggested to me by M. Gorman) is admittedly oversimplified. There is more overlap than it indicates (e.g., Gorman’s and Wright’s proposals are also “apocalyptic,” albeit not in the same way as Campbell’s). However, it accurately reflects the primary categories each proposal chooses to accent.

The three books have much in common that challenge the traditional Protestant view of justification, including their rejection of its view of first-century Judaism as “legalistic,” with individual guilt being the primary problem the gospel addresses. In connection with this, they reject Luther’s understanding of the “righteousness of God” (dikaiosynē theou), maintain that the disputed phrase “faith of/in Christ” (pistis Christou) in several key Pauline justification texts refers to the faithfulness of Christ, and hold that justifying faith is (more or less) christologically determined. Hence, such faith is a “thicker” reality than simple trust or belief, as in the traditional view. Faith includes belief, but also enduring trust in the face of suffering and active fidelity to God.

Much more could be said concerning their similarities, but highlighting some of their key differences might be more helpful for those trying to navigate the discussion. (1) For Wright and Gorman, covenantal categories are central, but for Campbell they are neither primary nor overt.

(2) For neither Wright nor Campbell is justification coterminous with conversion. Gorman, however, maintains that, while human appropriation of faith is always divinely initiated and enabled, justification and conversion take place when one appropriates that faith (i.e., is co-crucified with Christ and raised to new life). Campbell would categorically deny this, arguing that faith is always and only a post-Christian phenomenon.

Wright would seem to agree with Gorman that one will appropriate the faith to which God initially called them in conversion, not only as a marker of their justification but in order to be justified. However, since for Wright both faith and justification occur subsequent to one’s call/conversion, he might agree with Campbell that faith is a post-Christian phenomenon. He is not completely clear on this issue.

In any case, all three ultimately agree that God is the initiator of human faith.

(3) Perhaps the biggest difference between Wright’s proposal and those of Gorman and Campbell is that, for the latter two, justification is intrinsically transformative. Although Wright does not deny transformation, he denies that Paul uses justification language to refer to it and maintains that, for Paul, justification changes one’s status, not one’s nature. Hence, he makes a clear distinction between justification and sanctification, whereas for Gorman and Campbell, they are simply two aspects of one reality, neither chronologically nor qualitatively distinct.

In spite of these differences, all three proposals have advantages over the traditional Protestant view of justification. They offer more consistent readings of Paul as a whole. They (1) show more clearly how Paul’s understanding of justification is dependent on Jesus’ resurrection as well as his cross; (2) better account for the importance of the church for Paul, making Christ’s corporate body absolutely essential for individual justification rather than an addendum to it; (3) are better at holding theology and ethics together in that they all insist (in one form or another) that being a part of a justified people necessarily includes engaging in just actions; (4) cohere better with the synoptic Gospels’ call for fidelity to God and love for neighbor; and (5) fit more easily into an overall missional framework for biblical interpretation.

These proposals will definitely “stir the waters” of the conversation about justification, waters I hope this essay equips its readers to navigate better. Whether they will have lasting impact on the church or make the waters muddier is not yet clear. But my money is on the former. If these proposals are given a hearing in both high-level ecumenical discussions and local churches, the church will likely be nourished with helpful, fresh perspectives on the doctrine by which it stands or falls.

Posted Nov 01, 2010