If ?justify?Eis both a verdict (?this person is righteous?E and the carrying out of a sentence (?this person is delivered from slavery to Sin?E, then clearly justification cannot be based on anything that the righteous person does. Justification is purely by grace. So, the ?deliverdict?Econstruction of justification does not turn back from the central Protestant affirmation that justification is not based on any works that the believer has done. Justification as a ?deliverdict?Einstead is clearly the basis on which the believer is enabled to do good works. Thus, the deliverdict is not a reversion to a medieval Catholic notion of infused righteousness, which produces works that are the ground for justification. In fact, it says the opposite. Justification, both as our acceptance as righteous and as our deliverance from the tyranny of Sin and Death, is sola gratia . If justification includes our deliverance from Sin and Death, it is clearly not based on any righteous works we have done, since prior to our deliverance from Sin and Death we only produced sins that led to death.
Further, it is sola fide , in spades. Justification is by faith, Paul says, and not by the works of the law. If justification is both the declaration of our acceptance with the Father through Jesus the Son, and our deliverance from the power of Sin by the Spirit, then what Murray called our “definitive sanctification” is as much by faith as our justification.
Perhaps justification as “deliverdict” enables us to address a nagging question of Protestant soteriology: How do we avoid implying that justification by faith is virtually equivalent to “justification by an easy work.” If we go with one of the standard Protestant ordos, then faith precedes justification, for faith has to exist to receive the verdict of justification. But this means that justification is a declaration concerning someone who has begun to produce the fruits of the Spirit, the chief fruit being faith itself. This is what NT Wright says: Faith is the “badge” that marks us as justified. Wright is hardly violating the Reformed ordo here; rather, he is stating more clearly than most what is already implicit in most Reformed ordos. But if justification is a “deliverdict” then justification is truly justification of the ungodly, both the acceptance of the ungodly as righteous in Christ and the deliverance of the ungodly from his ungodliness. Since unbelief is the root of ungodliness, the “deliverdict” delivers from unbelief as well. On this construction, then, justification is prior to faith; justification (= no condemnation) impinges on human experience through the gift of the Spirit that delivers from the “law of sin and death” and enables faith (Rom 8:1-4). Justification takes the form of a vindicating resurrection, and thus gives birth to faith, rather than depending upon faith or responding to faith. Faith is not the “easier work” that makes us acceptable; faith is the fruit of our acceptance.
No doubt this all could be said more lucidly and more accurately, but even if it were perfectly formulated, there appear to be some problems (perhaps fatal): First, how can it be that we are justified prior to faith if justification comes by union with Christ and we are united to Christ by faith? It appears that faith is necessarily prior to justification. But perhaps this objection only registers so long as we remain within the problematics of the ordo . If justification is manifested in the gift of the Spirit, and if the Spirit is the agent of our union with Christ, then it appears that faith, justification, and union with Christ (and adoption, etc) all arise simultaneously, bestowed in the bestowal of the Spirit of Christ by the Father. This doesn’t satisfy me; it seems to weaken the instrumental force of Paul’s formulations ?Ejustification is BY faith.
Second, how do we fit Abram into this? Abram clearly had faith prior to his justification: He was a believer when he left Ur (as Heb 11 says), and he had been worshiping God and doing good works for some time prior to God’s declaration of justification in Genesis 15. If Abram is the paradigm of justification (as per Rom 4), then his experience raises a serious problem for my suggestion that faith is a fruit of justification. Perhaps here one could formulate a response along the lines of NT Wright (and others), who argue that Paul is not putting Abram before us as an examplar of an ordo salutis , but rather to explicate the unique historia salutis . If that’s the case, then the fact that Abram believed long before he was declared just does not provide a pattern for believers in general. Perhaps instead of Abram, we should be looking to Jesus as the model of justification: Though He too trusted His Father prior to His “vindication by the Spirit,” that vindication is the public act of justification. For those who are dead in sins and trespasses, our justification comes crashing in like a resurrection. (Of course, Abram’s example raises equal problems for popular versions of justification, which locate justification at the moment of conversion.)