Good Friday Thoughts on Justification

The apostle Paul connects justification to the death of Jesus in Romans 3:21-26 and to the resurrection in Romans 4:25 (texts after the jump). It is Good Friday, the day Christians ponder the death of Christ and the redemption we find in the gloom of Christ’s death on the cross.

Alan J. Spence sketches Calvin’s view of justification in his book Justification: A Guide for the Perplexed, and so Calvin’s view will shape our conversation today, and Calvin belongs to what I have been calling Spence’s justification worldview.

To begin with, Spence thinks it all begins with union with Christ. (Not all Calvin scholars agree with this as what Calvin thought.) In Christ, then, there is a twofold grace: we are declared acquitted, or cleared of our guilt, and we are sanctified. Justification is an act of God in acquittal. That is, the person is deemed righteous (though the person is not in fact righteous). So, in essence, justification is to be cleared of guilt.

Today is a good day to ponder the glory of Christ in union with whom we gain who he is and what he has done for us.

Faith is how this occurs (not a word here about repentance or baptism or confession). And faith is to acknowledge our sinfulness and unworthiness and the utter worthiness of Christ and his righteousness. Faith, then, is the agency — faith does not save (Christ does). Faith is bathed in or an element of humility before God.

So what of good works, one of the crucial areas of battle in the Reformation with the Catholic Church? Spence thinks Calvin’s better than Luther here, but both of them are expressing their ideas in the heat of battle. It is only a theoretical possibility that anyone obtains eternal life from works, and the only works accepted are those in those who have already been reconciled. Works are necessary but not the ground of salvation.

Spence then discusses the view of justification at Trent, and Spence says these things: (1) Trent does not permit the distinction between justification and sanctification; (2) justification is ongoing, and certainty/assurance are colossally important both to Luther and Calvin in such a way that this Trent view is unacceptable; (3) Trent is more optimistic about human ability to obey; (4) good works merit grace and therefore lead to justification;

3:21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26 he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

4:25 He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • gingoro

    I’m reading James right now in my daily devotions. As I read James he seems to be concerned that we demonstrate our faith by deeds of righteousness. He also says that faith without deeds is just an empty claim. As usual one needs to adopt a both and position rather than either or thus implying that we need to look at all of scripture and not just cherry pick what we like. Having said that, no where that I know of is works without faith even suggested.
    Dave W

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    I think I am starting to understand why this discussion gives me so many reservations.

    I think the problem is that the language of justification and righteousness is often used without specifying the domain under which they operate.

    For instance, if I beat my wife I am not going to be justified nor righteous in that action.

    The Calvinists (and others too…) certainly have a domain understood, but once the conversation goes beyond the nuanced definitions, the person in the pew is told they are justified and righteous. Given the definition of the Calvinist god, they can then righteously view condemnation and punishment as what they should be doing.

    We are justified and righteous insofar as what?. That seems to be the crux of the issue here. We are not carte blanche justified and righteous.

    I am believing that the context is one of whether we will be turned away from citizenship in the KoG or not. And citizenship requires us to behave as such (works). Remember, a citizen can be thrown in jail.

    Again, I think this gets messed up with the drastic scope of justification and it needs to be seen in its context.

  • http://www.gurrydesign.com/ Peter G.

    Speaking of union with Christ and justification, I just came across this gem from Luther: “Everyone who believes in Christ is righteous but not yet perfect. He has only begun the process of healing but is no longer declared guilty on account of the sin that still remains in him. This is because Christ, who has no sin in him, has united himself to the Christian and pleads for him wit the Father. Much sin still remains [in us], but it is not a cause of condemnation.” (First Lectures on Galatians)


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