According to Romans 6:7, justification is God’s liberating judgment that delivers the baptized from sin, death, and from the reign of injustice. By baptism, one is transferred from the realm of Adam to that of the Last Adam. As the latter half of Romans 6 teaches, the life of the justified is a life of justice. Having died in baptismal union with the death of Jesus, we are freed to offer the members of our bodies in a liturgy of justice, presenting our bodies as living sacrifices not to unrighteousness but to righteousness.
The narrative of justification embedded in Romans 6 resembles that of the Psalms (see my discussion here): David is oppressed by enemies; he calls on Yahweh to “judge” him favorably; Yahweh rescues David and destroys his enemies; Yahweh brings David into a place of joy and worship. Changing key: We are under the oppressive reign of sin and death; we call on the Lord to judge us favorably; He comes to us in baptism to deliver us from the fleshly realm of Adam and to bring us into the realm of Jesus’ righteousness. In Paul’s variations on Davidic themes, the king’s enemies are transposed into the oppressors, Sin and Death.
But Christians still have physical enemies. The Psalms are still literally operative. Christians still find ourselves attacked; we still cry out for deliverance and vindication (cf. Revelation 6:9–11). Liberation from sin implies liberation from sinful human enemies, enemies inspired by the Accuser who spread the reign of death. Justification means not only being liberated once-for-all from our deepest enemies, Sin and Death. Justification is also a promise of repeated deliverances from persecutors and enemies, and a promise of final deliverance from every opponent.
This is why Paul takes the charges of his enemies so seriously. They charge that he can’t be an apostle because he is constantly under threat of death. How can this be an apostle of the risen King when he suffers persecution and apparent failure? Paul doesn’t dismiss the charge. He doesn’t say that his life circumstances are irrelevant to his apostleship. He takes the charge seriously, because he knows that his apostleship has to have some real-life, empirical consequences. If Paul’s life history doesn’t reveal the kingship of Jesus announced in the gospel, if Paul the apostle isn’t vindicated over-against his enemies, then there’s reason to doubt the gospel itself.
Paul is very much in the condition of David, and of Jesus. He hopes for, and expects, repeated “justifications.” Because he has been liberated definitively from Sin and Death, he can hope that he will be liberated again and again from the agents of Sin and Death. Because he belongs to the king, he has confidence that the king will vindicate him, in real time, even if not in his lifetime.
At the same time, Paul redefines justification in the light of the cross. Paul insists that his cruciform life is his vindication. It might seem that his suffering is evidence against his claim to be an apostle of the risen Christ. But the Christ He serves is crucified and risen, and in the resurrection He shares His cross, His cruciform victory, with His disciples.
The fact that Paul suffers without being defeated; the fact that he is sorrowful yet always rejoicing, afflicted but never crushed, perplexed by not despairing, persecuted but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed; the fact that the dying of the apostles brings life to the church—all this vindicates Paul. Suffering in the Spirit is Paul’s ongoing justification in the Spirit, the ongoing proof that he has been justified from the realm of Sin and Death and is now an apostle proclaiming Jesus’ kingdom of life and righteousness.