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by Mark Horne

Copyright © 2004

According to N. T. Wright:

By “the gospel” Paul does not mean “justification by faith” itself. He means the announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus is Lord. To believe this message, to give believing allegiance to Jesus as Messiah and Lord, is to be justified in the present by faith (whether or not one has even heard of justification by faith). Justification by faith itself is a second-order doctrine: to believe it is both to have assurance (believing that one will be vindicated on the last day [Rom. 5.1-5]) and to know that one belongs in the single family of God, called to share table-fellowship without distinction with all other believers (Gal. 2.11-21). But one is not justified by faith by believing in justification by faith (this, I think, is what Newman thought Protestants believed), but by believing in Jesus.

At one time I found this perfectly obvious, but now I’m having second thoughts. According to the way the word is used here, justification has an individual and biographical reference. It refers that happens at some point in the personal history of an individual sinner who comes to believe the Gospel. To some extent (and I am not sure how to formulate it in a satisfactory way), Paul does use the terminology in this way.

And this is why it would appear to be a second-order doctrine to reformational Protestants like N. T. Wright, and myself [1]. After all, according to the Westminster Confession of Faith, “The justification of believers under the old testament was, in all these respects, one and the same with the justification of believers under the new testament [Gal. 3:9, 13-14; Rom. 4:6-8, 22-24; 10:6-13; Heb. 13:8].” This would incline one to believe that the Gospel as a new message could not possibly be about justification by faith. People were justified by faith before and after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.

However, we need our formulations to account for the fact that Paul speaks of justification as something new in history.

Paul writes to the Galatians:

Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. 22 But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.

Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.

I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God (3.21-4.7 [2]).

There is simply no way to explain this text if being “justified” is something that happened in exactly the same way before the coming of Christ and the sending of the Spirit on Pentecost as it does now. While there is no question that Abraham and others were counted as righteous only by faith, and that God’s crediting to them is a type of our full justification, there has to be something else going on.

Notice also that being justified, in Galatians, is closely identified with receiving the Spirit (Galatians 3.1-9). Abraham is a type of that justification, but he never received the blessing of the Spirit as we do now. It was not until Christ came and suffered the curse of the law that the blessing promised to Abraham was finally given.

Romans also shows much the same reference to history.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.

But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.

Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 5.6-21).

Here we have a shift in history. Once “we” were sinners but at a point in history Christ died for “us” so that we “have now been justified by his blood.” The two Adams are two ages. Once there was no justification (in the full sense that Paul means it) but now there is “righeousness” that reigns “in life.”

I am not prepared at all to unravel how all the texts work. However, I can make some obvious statements about the general principles involved in Paul’s thinking.

  1. While the legal status of “right with God” is one and the same before and after the coming and work of Christ, one must remember that justification is a declared verdict. While God forgave sins before Christ, he had not yet publicly declared that his people were righteous. In fact, we find that even God’s priestly people were treated in an alienating manner by God himself. They were invited to feast at the Tabernacle or Temple three times a year, but only if they kept their distance. Only priests could draw near in the sanctuary, in which case they could only be servants and were not permitted to relax and drink wine.

    Theologians typically deal with this by resorting to a dualism wherein the way God treated His people on earth does not matter because, in their souls (or whatever) God was reconciled to them. Everytime a believer drinks a glass of wine in Church as part of the public worship of God in His Presence, he demonstrates that his status with God is far superior to that of the average Mosaic believer. While full adoption was promised, and the certainty of the promise made it legitimate to speak of it as a present reality, the simple fact is that “it is evident that no one is justified before God in the law” (Galatians 3.11; literally).

  2. Daniel 7 is one place where we should expect “justification” to be an event that happens in history in relation to the people of God corporately considered. Daniel sees a vision of four beasts that are four empires in history. Then he sees “one like a son of man” who is given a kingdom. This is done before the throne of God, in heaven, in a courtroom setting. It is quite obvious to us that this is a prophcy of Jesus and his ascension after his death and resurrection–which is his vindication before God’s judgment seat. The Great Commission, for example, is premised on the fact that Daniel 7 has come true in Jesus–or is about to come true as soon as he ascends.

    However, for Daniel, this was not to be understood as a prophecy regarding a lone individual, but as the vindication of the people of God. Verse 22 gives the interpretation of the prophecy, that the saints would be persecuted by the beasts (especially the fourth one): “until the Ancient of Days came, and judgment was given for the saints of the Most High, and the time came when the saints possessed the kingdom.” This passing of judgment in a heavenly courtroom where God is passing sentence is a justification. Ultimately it was fulfilled in Jesus’ resurrection and ascension by the Spirit (First Timothy 3.16).

    Thus, in history the people of God were publicly justified or vindicated, and this was done representatively in Jesus Christ. His resurrection and ascension is the promised justification, not merely the basis for justifying various individuals. Individuals are justified by being joined to Christ the justified one.

  3. While one is either guilty or not guilty, justified or condemned, one must not forget the loss of privileges that may occur when one is both guilty and yet not condemned with the hope of future pardon. The old creation was condemned for sin and yet not fully condemned. Adam and Eve would have been fully condemned by being killed by God. Instead, God simply exiled them from his special presence in the Garden and provided them covering. He both made life hard for them and provided them with further life. God overlooked the sins committed until he could be both just and the justifier of sinners. Likewise, until Jesus was raised from the dead and bodily ascended to God’s right hand, no one had been fully justified. Sinners were given right standing by grace through faith, but they were still suffering from the effects of the curse on sin.
  4. Justification is a declared verdict. It not simply a new mental calculation in the mind of God that is later revealed. Jesus was justified by the Spirit (First Timothy 3.16) and we are justified when we are given the Spirit with saving faith (Galatians 3.5). Since our faith involves the revelation of the Gospel–the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ–our faith makes what was formerly the curse for sin into an assurance that we are being treated as God’s sons and made more like him (Romans 5.1-5; compare Hebrews 12.4ff). Thus, while justification is not an infusion nor a process, it is declared with the giving of the Spirit and faith as the official verdict that we are joined to Christ the righteous and vindicated one.

Hopefully, these provisional thoughts will provide some help to those working through Romans and Galatians and are trying to put together what has always been true (righteousness before God only by faith) and what is new with the Gospel (the justification that has occurred in the resurrection of Christ as a new verdict on him and his people whom he represents). It also seems to mean that Wright is somewhat wrong in saying that justification is a second-order doctrine. The Gospel, the declaration of the death and resurrection of Jesus, is a declaration of historic justification.

Justification is the Gospel.

Copyright © 2004

1. However, this does not mean I agree with Wright in all things, especially not where he diverges from some fundamentals of our Evangelical heritage. In my opinion, Wright has not thought through the doctrine of Scripture sufficiently. While I don’t want to war over a mere word, B. B. Warfield, whatever his weaknesses, did excellent research regarding the Apostolic understanding of the inspiration of Scripture. Wright ought to be an inerrantist whether he wants to use the term or not. Also, Wright’s view of women in ministry strikes me as quite non-pauline. Ironically, I think his perspective would be clearer on that issue if he was as influenced by Roman Catholic forms of thought as his critics like to imagine.

2. It seems quite likely that “faith” should be translated to refer to the “faithfulness” of Jesus throughout this text. Whatever one believes, it is obvious that when Paul writes that “now that faith has come” he is referring to something objective about the coming of Jesus.

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