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The Centrality of Justification


Copyright © 2003

Recent debates over whether or not, “justification is central” to Paul’s theology have reminded me of a sermon I once heard by a Presbyterian seminary student. This African American student challenged his audience on the sin of racism and the ways it might manifest itself among us. Like any good preacher who has to confront, he tried to give assurance as well. Presbyterians have great theology, he said, and specifically mentioned, if I recall correctly, our doctrines of salvation. But how, he asked, can such good theology be wed to such deficiency in Christian ethics? Ironically, I found myself questioning whether or not our theology was really so much better than our ethics or quite as unrelated to any ethical problems to which we may be prone.

Is justification “central” to the theology of the Apostle Paul? One of the problems with that question is that it is hard to pin down what is meant by “central”? If it means the same as “important” then obviously it is a central doctrine for him. But usually describing a doctrine as “central” means more than simply “important.”

One of the interesting things to do is to look at which of Paul’s letters actually discuss justification. Outside of Galatians and Romans, Paul mentions sinners being justified once in passing in First Corinthians (6.11) and once in Titus (3.7), but his discussions of the gospel, salvation, and the Christian life in Corinthians, Ephesians, Colossians, and Thessalonians don’t mention the word. This is despite the fact that Paul refers to the power of the Gospel in the life of the Thessalonians several times (First Thessalonians 1.5-2.16). Paul doesn’t use the word either when he is writing to the Philippians, but he uses a related word in Greek, “righteousness,” in a context that obviously denotes justification (3.1-16). Second Corinthians 3.9 should perhaps also count as a reference (“For if the ministry of condemnation has glory, much more does the ministry of righteousness abound in glory.”).

Paul seems to speak of justification when he is dealing either with Jews who insist that only circumcised Jews are the true people of God, or Christians who insist one must also be circumcised in order to be a full Christian (The reference in Second Corinthians skips circumcision but compares the Mosaic Covenant to the New Covenant). Since justification means to be “declared righteous” or “vindicated,” it is valuable to Paul in the middle of these debates. Paul makes it clear that all who believe the Gospel, only those who believe the Gospel, and only because they believe the Gospel, have right standing with God. The concept without the word can be seen in Jesus’ promise to the church of Philadelphia, which was in a struggle with the Jewish community in that region. “Behold, I will cause those of the synagogue of Satan, who say that they are Jews, and are not, but lie–behold, I will make them to come and bow down at your feet, and to know that I have loved you” (Revelation 3.9).

Of course, the word “justification” goes back to the Old Testament and is also used in the Gospels and the other letters in the New Testament. There are other ways we can take that word, and even Paul’s use of the word, and apply it in theology. But an application that is often overlooked, but one that would be close to Paul’s own use, is to think of the duty of Christians to accept one another and regard one another as brothers and sisters. Paul introduces his argument for justification by faith by telling the Galatians about how Peter “was not straightforward about the truth of the Gospel” (2.14) because he wouldn’t eat with uncircumcised believers. Likewise, after invoking justification as the answer to the judgment of God (Romans 2), Paul commands the Romans not to judge the weaker brother because “God has accepted him” (14.3). In this case Paul is commanding Gentile Christians not to judge the converted Jews in their congregation who still eat according to the Mosaic dietary regulations.

Justifications means that God has one people who all, without exception, are in good standing with him. Therefore, our present denominations obscure the truth of the Gospel. Despite present divisions and differences, we have to accept other believers. We need to encourage one another to grow together in the bond of love. Justification means we need to take the call to Church unity very seriously. It means that though we must have no fellowship with darkness, we must be careful about not excluding other Christians from our fellowship.

It also means that mono-racial churches in areas where there are Christians present from different races are displeasing to God. If Paul could have broken up the Roman Church into separate Jewish and Gentile congregations, none of the friction he addresses in Romans 14 would ever have caused a problem. On the contrary, Romans 14.1 commands them to invite one another over for dinner (See my sermon where I argue for that meaning).

Justification has always been of importance to Presbyterianism, central or not. But it has coincided with some amazing sins and blindnesses. Maybe revisiting Paul’s doctrine of justification might help us avoid such dissonance in the future.

Copyright © 2003

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