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Rounding Out the Traditional Doctrine of Justification


Copyright © 2003

Justification and the Church

The traditional Protestant doctrine of justification fails to fully hold together the soteriological (forgiveness of sins) and the ecclesiological (covenant membership). This is part of a larger problem, of course, namely, the dichotomizing of church and salvation. Biblically and confessionally, there is no ordinary possibility of salvation outside of the church (Acts 2:47; WCF 25.2). Salvation and the church are not related arbitrarily, as if God thought it would be a good idea to somehow get all those saved individuals together in one organization. Rather, incorporation into the church is integral to salvation precisely because salvation is the restoration and glorification of human community. By isolating justification from the church, we have dangerously constricted the scope of the biblical doctrine.

The corporate dimension of justification is seen in passages like Rom. 3:27ff and Gal. 2:10ff. In these contexts, Paul uses justification by faith to define the church over and against Judaizing distortions. Thus, it should be evident why N. T. Wright makes covenant membership central to his definition of justification. In the new age, one is not justified (e.g., one does not show forth covenant membership) by works of Torah, but by faith in Christ. The works of Torah vs. faith contrast in Paul is not between pure Pelagianism and Augustinianism, but covenant membership B.C. and covenant membership A.D. Justification, going this route, is still forensic, still rooted in union with Christ, and so forth. But it also has a corporate, social dimension that was missed in earlier formulations, largely because Luther was so driven by an individualistic question (which needed answering no doubt, but wasn’t really the same question that drove Paul’s epistles).

If Paul had simply gone around telling people salvation is by grace and justification is by faith, he would have gotten little argument in the synagogues. Gal. 2:15-16 indicate his Jewish opponents took this as common knowledge. They knew their ultimate vindication would not come through their own efforts at law-adherence (cf. Acts 13:39).

But Paul taught faith of a different sort — not expressed through circumcision and dietary regulations, but through confessing the crucified Jesus as promised messiah, through submitting to the covenant rite of baptism in the Triune name, and through practicing inclusive love that did not respect cultural and ethnic barriers. There is no faith/works tension in Paul; the tension is eschatological and ecclesiological.

Justification and Liberation

Another missing dimension of the traditional doctrine of justification has been pointed out by Peter Leithart and Don Garlington: namely, justification has a “follow through.” It’s forensic, but in the Bible, a judicial sentence always includes its execution. Justification is not merely a private mental action on the part of God; the verdict takes effect in the real world. For example, if two children are fighting over a toy, the parent who judges in a biblical manner will not only make a declaration that one child is in the right and the other in the wrong; he will act to restore the situation, to put things the way they really ought to be (e.g., giving the toy to its rightful owner). This is “justification.” The vindicated child will then be called to live out his calling in this new situation (“sanctification”).

So, when the Psalmist pleads for God to justify/vindicate him he’s asking for God pass a sentence in his favor in his divine courtroom, but also asking God to defeat his enemy. The judges in the book of Judges don’t merely pass sentences in Israel’s favor; they defeat their oppressors. They restore Israel to the land that is hers by promissory right and drive out the intruders. The story of Job is a story of justification as well. All through the book, Job asks for his day in court with God. At the end of the narrative, God declares Job righteous. But this is more than a bare legal verdict; it “follows through” to include the full restoration of Job’s family and wealth. It means his Satanic accusers have been silenced. Dan. 7 gives a symbolic, prophetic picture of this sort of justification. The saints are oppressed, but then exalted over their enemies.

Soteriologically, this means justification includes what John Murray called definitive sanctification. It includes our deliverance from sin. This explains Paul’s language in Rom. 6:7 (“freed” = “justified” in the Greek). To be justified is to be rectified in a comprehensive sense – not only legally, but definitively. Justification, in principle, includes the restoration of shalom in the full, robust, Hebraic fashion (cf. Rom. 5:1).

This broader “forensic plus” view of justification has precedent in the Reformed tradition, though it has been underappreciated. For example, in A Treatise on Sanctification: An Explication of Rom 6:1-8:4 by James Fraser (first published 1774; my reprint has a forward by Sinclair Ferguson), Fraser comments on Rom. 6:7:

He that is dead to sin, as here (ver. 7), is justified from sin; so delivered from the reign of sin as to penal effect, and hath the prospect of eternal life. Then he brings into view what I may call the practical dominion of sin . . . Now let us consider what respect the sinner’s being justified hath to this matter. It is plain, it is by justification he is brought from under the law and its curse; it is by justification he is brought under grace; it is by justification that he is brought into that state in which sin shall not have dominion over him, to hold him as a slave in its service.

We see then how much to the apostle’s main purpose is what he asserts here (ver. 7), that he who is justified is dead, viz. with Christ is justified from sin. It is a principle he improves to great account in the following discourse; and the mention of being justified is in this place exceedingly congruent and fit. It was against his doctrine of justification by grace through faith, and not by works, that the objection (ver. 1) was brought, as if it favoured men’s continuing in sin. In opposition to this, the apostle, by the principle he lays down here (ver. 7), and by what he derives from it in his following discourse, shows that justification through faith doth indeed deliver a man from sin, with respect to its legal reign and its practical dominion at once. How unreasonable then, to charge such a doctrine with favouring sin!

There is this advantage likewise by the explication given of ver. 7 that it gives to justification in that verse the precise meaning the word hath in all the apostle’s preceding discourse on the subject of justification.

Fraser then goes on to compare Paul’s usage of justification in Rom 6:7 to its usage in Acts 13:39. Basically, justification includes or is even synonymous with liberation. Again, it includes and is co-extensive with “definitive sanctification.” Justification is not only a legal verdict, but the creation of new situation.

Essentially, then, for Fraser justification does not promote licentiousness because justification includes deliverance from the reign of sin. Justification includes not only a transfer of Christ’s legal standing to believers, but also a transfer of the believer from the realm of sin’s reign to the kingdom of Christ, in which grace reigns through righteousness. Fraser was certainly not the only Puritan to read Rom. 6:7 in this “forensic plus” sort of way and this reading continues to be popular in some Reformed circles.

Isaiah, Augustine, and Cosmic Justification

But the doctrine of justification has a broader frame of reference than merely the individual. The prophetic promises concerning “righteousness” (e.g., Isa. 40-66) include the restoration of creation and the vindication of God’s purposes. In a sense, then, Augustine’s vision of cosmic justification (or rectification or liberaton) wasn’t necessarily off the mark, even though he failed to grasp the forensic core of the biblical doctrine of justification. His view has certain affinities with Isaiah’s doctrine of justification/righteousness (e.g., Isa. 40; 51), which ties together forgiveness, the new exodus, the new heavens and earth, and Israel’s peaceful restoration to her land (cf. Isa. 40-66). In the end, the gospel promises that what God did for the Jesus at Easter, and what he did for the believer at conversion/baptism, he will do for the whole world (cf. Rom. 8:17ff).

So it is critical for us to understand that justification includes victory, vindication, and liberation, and is connected tightly with Scripture’s restoration and new creation themes. As Leithart has suggested, our traditional ways of formulating justification are not wrong, they are merely too “thin;” we need to recover the full biblical “thickness” of this doctrine.

The “Thickness” of Biblical Justification: A Three-Layered Doctrine

To elaborate more fully how this works, we need to see the theological line that can be drawn from Jesus’ resurrection, to our justification, and back to God’s own vidincation.

First, Jesus’ resurrection was his justification (cf. 1 Tim. 3:16). On Easter morning, the Father reversed the sentence of condemnation passed against him in the courts of the Jews and Gentiles. The Father delivered him from the reign of death and the realm of sin. The resurrection was not merely a receipt that showed the Father accepted the cross as payment for sins. It was not just another miracle given for apologetic purposes. It was Jesus’ entrance into the promised new creation. It was his victory over his enemies. It was his exodus out of Sheol. It was his vindication.

But Jesus’ resurrection was also our justification as well. He was raised as our covenant representative. His vindication was our vindication. We are regarded as righteous by the Father because the verdict the Father passed over Jesus was passed over us as well. So long as we are in Christ by faith, we can no more be condemned than Jesus himself (cf. Rom. 8:1). The very Godhood of God demands our acquittal.

All this is to say, justification presupposes union with Christ. Calvin was fond of saying that all Christ did and suffered for humanity was of no advantage for us until we actually came into vital union with him by faith and the work of the Spirit. It is only because we are organically one with him that we come to share in the vindication he received on Easter morn. Just as he took our place on the cross, dying in our stead, so he stands in our place at his resurrection, receiving the Father’s justification and salvation on our behalf. What is true of him now becomes true of us. “The justification of Christians comes about through their association with the total ‘career’ of Christ, a just man fully vindicated by God. The association is possible because Christ was not simply one just man amongst many, but a man of universal significance, the ‘Last Adam,’ the patriarch of a new humanity.” Our justification is of a piece with Jesus’ justification; our vindication is simply an extension of his own vindication. The cross and resurrection, as eschatological events, marking the great divide of redemptive history and inaugurating the new aeon, span the passage of time. Their virtue and benefits are ever present to us by faith.

But the resurrection was not only Jesus’ justification and our justification; it was also God’s justification. The resurrection is the righteousness of God; it is the gospel. It is his salvation, his act of covenant keeping on behalf of the world. It is the sign that — appearances to the contrary — he is a God of his word. The resurrection is the ultimate proof that love and justice will prevail in the end. It is evidence that God is already restoring and reordering his creation so that human life becomes what he designed it to be. The resurrection means that grace reigns through life and the grave does not have the last word. In short, the resurrection is God’s answer to his critics, his nay-sayers, his accusers. It silences his adversaries and definitively establishes cosmic shalom.

Copyright © 2003


1. See Alister McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 23ff. McGrath writes:

Augustine’s political theology (i.e., his theology of iustitia, applied to the community) is of considerable inherent interest, and is also closely associated with his doctrine of justification . . . It is only within the city of God that the true divine justice, effected through justification, may be found . . . The idea of iustitia involved can approach that of a physical ordering of all things and is also reflected in a right ordering of human affairs, and of man’s relationship to his environment. For Augustine, iustitia is practically synonymous with the right ordering of human affairs in accordance with the will of God . . . iustitia is essentially the ordering of the world according to the order of being, itself as expression of the divine will . . .

The student of Augustine’s doctrine of justification can only admire the astonishing comprehensiveness of its scope . . . Augustine’s discussion of iustitia, effected only through man’s justification, demonstrates how the doctrine of justification encompasses the whole of Christian existence from the first moment of faith, through the increase in righteousness before God and man, to the final perfection of that righteousness in the eschatological city. Justification is about ‘being made just’ — and Augustine’s understanding of iustitia is so broad that this could be defined as ‘being made to live as God intends man to live, in every aspect of his existence,’ including his relationship with God, with his fellow men, and the relationship of his higher and lower self (on the neo-Platonic anthropological model favoured by Augustine). That iustitia possesses legal and moral overtones will thus be evident — but this must not be permitted to obscure its fundamental theological orientation. By justification, Augustine comes very close to understanding the restoration of the entire universe to its original order, established at creation . . .

2. The thoughts in this paragraph, including the quotation by Brendan Byrne in the middle, are drawn from Don Garlington’s Faith, Obedience, and Perseverance, 154.

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