A Justification Worldview

The issue for Alan Spence is that the Western world for a long, long time taught what I called last week a “justification worldview,” one in which humans are sinners and God is judge and those sinners are called to account before God in a grand final judgment. How they fair in that judgment determines their eternal destiny. Spence argues that was the Western world’s worldview from Augustine through Michelangelo. (Spence, Justification: A Guide for the Perplexed.)

The question he wants to ask is if the New Testament has the same worldview. So he turns to Jesus’ parables and to Romans.

What factors need to be at work in a “justification worldview”? Do you think those are the major factors at work in Jesus’ kingdom vision? In Paul’s theology?

In the parables of Jesus he finds a customary ambiguity about a number of elements, but the one clear element is that parables of Jesus routinely frame a story through a judgment, with Jesus (Son of Man) as the judge. He’s right — there is plenty of judgment in the parables of Jesus. Jesus and John also call to repentance and baptism, and that means they regularly warn about sin. The kingdom entails – begins with — “when the divine government of the one true king will be manifest on earth, the people of God will be vindicated openly and the unrighteous condemned” (20).

For Paul, he sketches Romans 1:18-3:20, and argues that what Paul does here is show that all people, Gentiles, the moralist, and the Jews stand condemned before God.

This leads to Spence to a conclusion that the New Testament has a justification worldview.

I have problems with his sketch in this chp and so I will detail them here:

1. Kingdom is decontextualized from Jesus’ world — there are so many other themes to bring up when the kingdom comes up, not the least of which is David and promise — into the justification worldview in order to prove the latter.

2. Judgment in Jesus for Spence has nothing to do with the real world of Jesus, namely, with the warnings of the judgment on Jerusalem Jesus predicted. Again, “judgment” for Spence means personal judgment at the end of time to determine one’s eternal status. He equates what Jesus says about judgment with judgment in his justification worldview, and it’s not that simple.

3. There is no grace whatsoever in this sketch of judgment in spite of his claim that Jesus’ warnings of judgment are set in the context of love and grace — and to describe Jesus’ view of judgment must mean he should do the same thing. In other words, judgment gains clarity if it is done the way Jesus does it — and Paul too.

4. He will get to the New Perspective, but it needs to be observed here that inclusion of Gentiles is not how Spence understands Rom 1:18-3:20, it is all about judgment against all — and inclusion has to be part of the picture to understand this.

5. We are far enough into the discussion to ask other questions: Where is “righteousness of God” as God’s saving righteousness? Where is righteousness as covenant faithfulness on God’s part? Is it fair to the last two generations of scholarship to ignore their gains?

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  • Scot:

    From your description it sounds like he tamed the parables of Jesus, ignoring their subversive aim: watch out you who are well-fed and who think you have it. And it sounds like he makes Jesus a teacher of personal guilt management instead of a prophet of the world to come breaking into the now.

  • scotmcknight


    I’m giving Spence the benefit of the doubt. He’s in search of the theme of judgment, and he assumes this means individual judgment for the purpose of final salvation, and so he sketches that kind of evidence. The parables do have lots of judgment; they are also powerfully subversive, as you observe. Spence could have explored the subversive nature of those judgment more, but he does bring in Sheep and Goats etc, though his sketch does not permit fuller discussion.

  • Though it’s common, it remains a serious assumption (one open to question) that the way Paul addresses the church in Rome is also the shape of his theology and the way he theologizes generally. I think it’s more reasonable to see Ephesians as the general shape of Paul’s theology, which has everything to do with Jesus’ resurrection, exaltation to cosmic lordship, salvation — no mention of justification. By the way, N. T. Wright and L. T. Johnson also note that Ephesians is more likely “Paul’s theology” — if we have it anywhere in the NT.

    In addition, just because there’s judgment in a context doesn’t vindicate the presence of “justification.” The apostles’ preaching in Acts has loads of judgment language, but it’s typically connected with the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, not justification.

    That justification is seen everywhere seems to me to be evidence of an interpretive matrix shaped by Western thought forms — like you say, a worldview. I’m going back through Aulen’s Christus Victor right now and seeing just how right he was!

  • Joe Canner

    Jesus’ most famous parables, The Prodigal Son and The Good Samaritan, involve someone who was suffering the consequence of their own sin or someone else’s sin and who was restored by a grand expression of grace. No judgment, no trial, no verdict, just grace.

    I guess the question is: did these parables become popular *because* they are more about grace than judgement, or is it because they are a more accurate representation of Jesus’ general attitude towards sinners, as compared to the judgment parables which are aimed at the self-righteous, hypocritical religious elite?

  • John W Frye

    When I read this synopsis of Spence’s view, I find myself asking the question: is it more in the heart of God to bless or to curse; to show grace or show wrath? I think it is biblically supportable that justice in the heart of God is expressed as *showing mercy* (Book of James). Does this do away with any judgment or condemnation? Of course not, but it does allow for something like “where sin abounded, grace abounded even more!”

  • Kyle

    This is slightly off topic, but it is about the rhetoric. Having spent considerable time in Asia, I get annoyed over the obsession of introspection about “western” thought. I do think it’s important to realize what kind of logic we use, don’t get me wrong. But, to state something as “western,” I think it is important to clearly state what is “eastern.” China has traditional ideas about God as judge. Also, the Chinese-Buddhism concept of God has a lot to do with judgement. I know that justification is essential and I also know that a lot more is going on as well in terms of kingdom breaking in and new life. However, I just have to say that rhetoric about “western” thought, while sometimes useful, gets way overplayed.

  • Jews and Gentiles are both condemned in Rom 1:18-3:20. They’re both included in judgment. That’s the logic that 3:23ff builds on. The “justification worldview” has it’s own very strong form of inclusiveness that some fail to recognize. If unity is what you want, a “justification worldview” can give it to you in spades, no?

  • Greg M


    I follow a lot of what you are saying but have questions about your critique in your point #1 – that Spence is decontextualizing kingdom from Jesus’ world. Spence’s definition of kingdom as “when the divine government of the one true king will be manifest on earth, the people of God will be vindicated openly and the unrighteous condemned” (20) sounds like a Jewish/OT definition of kingdom to me. Wouldn’t this be the kingdom perspective (at least as a starting point) of Jesus’ world too? Isn’t Spence’s definition given with David and promise in view, since the Davidic covenant and covenantal promises in general assume vindication and judgment? Perhaps I misunderstand your point there . . .

  • DRT

    I have typed a couple of pages that I now throw away on this topic and will only present my most radical thought, that I actually think holds water. I don’t expect anyone to agree with this.

    There are two things going on here, as there are two things going on in much of the bible. One is about our relationship to others; the other is about our relationship to god. At first blush we could think that judgment relates to both. But there is a little publicized path to getting toward truth.

    The question is judgment about what? Per Romans, and Jesus, we are all sinners. Are we being judged about that? It seems that we have a conflict there with grace and all and the idea is that we will only be judged based on belief, not action….sort of.

    And what about being part of god’s kingdom and following Jesus. I would say there is a much more obvious judgment that goes along with that.

    But the sin part is only known by what is in our heart. As Wright would say using Paul’s terms, the heart-searcher is the one who must determine that. I will also throw in here the references to sin against the Holy Sprit. A sin against the Holy Spirit is a sin against the true nature of our heart, a deliberate sin against the loud voice saying what we should be.

    So here is the point, judgment is about both aspects. Judgment is about saying whether we are following and participating in god’s kingdom, and judgment is also about searching our hearts to see where we fall on the good/bad scale. Certainly we all sin, all do actions that are not worthy, but the heart searcher will know the secrets of our motivations and tell the truth of what we are before god.

    Justification, as I understand it in protestant terms, is still either a preliminary Wrightian judgment or a final judgment on our acceptability. I think that only covers one of the two bases. That covers the base of whether you are following the kingdom.

    I still think there is a lot of mileage to be gained by pursuing the sin avenue. It is not sufficient to say that all sin so all are equal, that is simply not true. The heart searcher will know what the orientation, the centered set, the direction is true.

    Food for thought.

  • DRT

    Wow, that was pretty disjointed, but I hope I get some latitude in that it is thoughts.

    In summary, I think Spence’s thoughts are much too one dimensional. Part of the problem is the specific use of the word judgment. In my language, judgment is neither good nor bad, but I am pretty sure in Spence’s terms it is one. I also feel that it is mostly relating to the decision to follow as it shows up in a tangible way, where the actual situation is much more nuanced. Someone can be following god and not knowing it, or someone could think they are following an not be.

    Add to that the complexity that we may do right but have evil as the ultimate motive, and we have one heck of a complex situation.

    So in my words, judgement sorts all of that out and that is the nature of judgement that Jesus speaks of.

  • Sam

    @Greg M in comment #8
    I do not think Jesus view of the Kingdom is the same as the Jewish/OT view of his people in his day. Most of Jesus parables were about the Kingdom. If the Jewish view of the Kingdom was right, there would be no need for him to teach about the Kingdom. But the parables redefine what the Kingdom is about.

  • Greg M

    Sam (#11),

    Yes, I agree that Jesus uses the kingdom parables to challenge Jewish thinking about the kingdom. But I would not want to distance Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, too far from the original OT vision of God’s reign. So, with the parable of the wheat and the tares, for instance, Jesus explains that God’s judgment/vindication comes later, not that it disappears altogether.