One of the most important theological ideologies in Paul’s letter to the Romans is the concept of “justification by faith” (Rom. 3:28). Calvin would make the claim in his Institutes that “it is the principal ground on which religion must be supported” (Calvin, 3.11.1). While Moo doesn’t go as far as Calvin, he also supports the importance of “justification by faith by attributing it as a constant motif that runs throughout the letter in support of the theme of the Gospel” (Moo,55-57). But what does “justification by faith” mean? Can a person even be justified? If so, how does one obtain it? What is the time frame of justification? What does a person gain from being justified? Is there any assurance that we will be justified? In his letter to the Church at Rome, Paul teaches that believers are justified now through the belief that God is doing what He said He would do through the physical death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Justification is a judicial term meaning to pronounce, view as, and accept in correct standing. Biblical scholars have typically viewed justification as the pardoning of sins by the Grace of God. As Towns observes,
“Justification is the act whereby God declares a person righteous when that person accepts God’s word. Hence, justification teaches that a relationship between God and man can exist. Justification makes a person perfect in God’s sight. It is a declarative act of God. It is not that man becomes perfect, only that God has declared him righteous and therefore he stands perfect in the sight of God” (Towns,458).
Packer adds to this definition by noting,
“The justifying action of the Creator, who is the royal Judge of this world has both a sentimental and an executive or declarative aspect: God justifies, first, by reaching a verdict known and then by sovereign action makes his verdict known and secures to the person justified the rights that are now his due” (Packer,643)
In other words, according to both Packer and Towns, justification is the statement by which God pardons our sins which affront His Holy nature, and declares us blameless before him. While this definition is certainly part of what justification means, it is incomplete. It lacks the fullness to encompass the full scope of Paul’s use of the term in his letter to the Romans.
This is most clearly seen in Paul’s one man comparison in chapter 5 of Romans (5:12-20). The comparison Paul makes does not lend itself to the interpretation of God just pardoning our sins. Rather, the logic that Paul uses seems to go way beyond that to the complete reversal of sin. As I will argue in greater detail later, the Pauline view of justification seems to be that God declares that a person was never under condemnation, despite the reality of our past condemnation. If this is indeed the stance Paul takes, then justification is the process by which God declares a person as never being under condemnation since the foundation of the world, and secures the benefits of a communal relationship with God by which he or she becomes a citizen of the Kingdom of God.
Justification, however, is only half of the equation. It is “justification by faith;” therefore faith must also be defined. Paul defines faith as the “confidence in what we hope for and the assurance about what we do not see” (Heb. 11:1). As Guzik readily points out, faith is not a substitute for reason; nor is it in contradiction with it. As he says, “[I]t may go beyond reason” (Guzik, Loc.3332).
Faith, then, is the proof of things unable to be detected by physical senses that are assured to be true. This definition is vitally important to the understanding of the Pauline view of justification. In order to completely comprehend the depths of Paul’s ideologies, the two definitions of faith and justification must somehow mesh to form a complete picture. The Pauline doctrine of “justification by faith” would then be that the assurance of what we do not detect with our physical senses is the reasoning upon which God pronounces a person as never having been under condemnation since the beginning of the world and thereby is entitled to the benefits of citizenship within the Kingdom of God.
How does this definition help us understand Paul’s views on justification? It does this by defining what we are to have faith in. It’s not in Jesus on the cross that is just a belief based on reasoning from eyewitnesses. For the same reason, it can’t be the resurrection. If it were these things based on the definition that I have attempted to establish, any reasonable person would have to conclude that the apostles are not justified because they were witness to the crucifixion and resurrection; for it was a tangible, historic event. No, our justification comes by the faith in God’s ability to do what he said he would do. Paul would explain to the church at Corinth,
“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). In Paul’s view righteousness is not imputed to us, rather we are God’s righteousness because of our justification. In other words, we become the evidence that God will permanently do away with death (Rev 21:3-6). It is faith in Christ to do what He has said he will do that justifies us.
Paul lays out the basis for his ideology in a systematic way. He begins by arguing that both Jew and Gentile are deserving of the wrath God (Romans 1:18). He argues that the Gentiles are deserving of God’s wrath because even the creation reveals “God’s divine nature” even where there is no law (1:21). He then argues that the Jews are just as deserving. He points out, that even though the Jews had received the law from God, they were unable to keep the law; thereby earning a wrathful judgment (1:17-28). He sums it up by stating unequivocally, “[F]or all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23).
Paul, finally gets to the crux of his argument with two very profound truths. First of all the impact of Jesus must be greater than the impact of Adam. He states,
“Nor can the gift of God be compared with the result of one man’s (Adam) sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!” (5:16-17)
Adam did not have faith that God would allow him to die, even though God had declared it (Gen. 2:17). This, Paul states, condemned all men to experience death because of Adam. Paul argues that since sin and death entered to all men by this lack of faith, then Christ’s faith in the Father to resurrect him must bring life to all people (Rom. 5:18). The act that brought life resulted from the faith that was there. As Hooker observes,
“The scales are unevenly balanced because God has intervened: pressing down on the side of Christ: it is the grace of God and his gifts that are at work in Christ; the great reverse has come about because God gave up his son and raised him from the dead” (Hooker,93)
The second truth on which Paul basis his ideas on justification has been largely ignored by scholars. It is, in my opinion, the foundation on which the rest of his basis is set. Paul declares, “[B]ecause the one that has died has been freed from sin” (6:7). It is upon this truth, that Paul hangs his basis and the means for justification. As I have said before, justification is not merely God declaring us free of sin, it is the statement that we never were under condemnation since the begininng. God had already dealt with sin in Genesis when he declared that man would die. What Paul argues is that death justifies a person. The phrase in the original Greek literally translates to “For the one having died has been justified from sin.” God had already dealt with sin through death. Death justifies a sinner.
If this idea is true, it raises a crucial question: what is the need for justification by faith? The answer lies in what Paul meant by death. Moo and other writers put forth the idea that Paul is referring to death as being both of a spiritual and physical nature. Moo offers this explanation for the hypothesis in commentary on Romans 5:
“Paul seems to think of death as both physical and spiritual: separation from the body and estrangement from God. Both are the result of sin. That a physical element is present in death is evident from verses 13-14. But verses 18-19, where Paul replaces the death of verse 12 with “condemnation and being “made sinners” shows his focus on spiritual death” (Moo,181).
In other words, for Moo, justification is dealing with a spiritual death. However, this view does not answer the question of the need for justification. In reality, all it does is create a paradox. If as Paul claims, death justifies the sinner and death is spiritual, the minute a sin occurs the sinner is thereby justified from condemnation because of the estrangement from God. In other words sinning would instantly bring about justification because we would be dead spiritually.
However, if Paul has a physical death in view, then Paul would seem to be advocating a universal justification. This however, seems to fly in the face of “justification by faith.” If at death, human beings are justified by sin there would be no need of faith for justification. All that would be required would be simply to die. The penalty of sin is therefore paid, and all would be set right (Rom3:23).
So what does Paul intend for death to mean? The most likely meaning would be a physical death. The context, which will be discussed in greater detail in the discussion of means of justification, indicates a physical death. The statement in question is made after Paul discusses the ramifications of the death and crucifixion of Christ (Rom 5:5-6). It seems unreasonable that Jesus Christ, as both fully God and fully man, would be estranged from God (Col. 2:9). Beyond this, Paul’s use of the marriage analogy in chapter 7 makes it hard to come to the conclusion that Paul would be talking in terms of a spiritual death rather than a physical one. Paul uses the marriage metaphor to demonstrate that the woman is justified in remarriage through death. This would indicate that Paul thought of physical death as a basis for justification (Rom.7:1).
Means of Justification
The means of justification has recently become a hot topic of debate that revolves around two principle scholars, John Piper and N.T. Wright. For Piper, justification is by faith, through the imputation of righteousness, according to the traditions of the Reformers (Piper,17). Wright seems to hold to a justification by works view, albeit through the power of the Holy Spirit (Wright,148). In an ideal world one or the other of these views would be correct. Yet, in my opinion both are incorrect.
I will start with Wright’s assertion of justification by works. Wright says,
“This declaration, this vindication, occurs twice. It occurs in the future, as we have seen, on the basis of the entire life a person has led in the power of the Spirit—that is, it occurs on the basis of “works” in Paul’s redefined sense. And near the heart of Paul’s theology, it occurs in the present as an anticipation of that future verdict, when someone, responding in believing obedience to the call of the gospel, believes that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead” (Wright, 260)
The problem that inherently lies with Wright’s assertion is that Paul expressly writes that justification is by faith. He goes to great lengths and spends a considerable amount of time to explain this idea within his letters to the Romans. For Paul, works have no basis in the conversation of justification because works only serve to highlight our short comings and our inability to gain a right standing on our own. If works, even done by the power of the Holy Spirit, could justify us, then grace for a Christian would be rendered unnecessary.
Another problem Wright faces is the Holy Spirit’s role concerning justification. The Holy Spirit does not justify us. The use of the Holy Spirit is a right that occurs as a result of justification (Rom. 7:6). If this then is the case, then Wrights assertion that vindication comes from a life “led in the power of the spirit” must be concluded to be incorrect.
Piper vehemently objects to this view. Relying on the traditional reformation view he believes that justification comes about by the imputation of the obedience and righteousness of Christ to believers through faith (Piper,126). In other words, the works (obedience) of Christ are imputed to us at the time of baptism (faith). While this is a time honored tradition of doctrine, two problems are posed against taking such a stance.
First, the Bible never makes any claim that believers are imputed with the righteousness of God. The phrase is found nowhere in the letter to Rome or the rest of the Pauline letters. For, that matter one cannot find the doctrine expressly stated in any scripture. As Ladd points out, “Paul never expressly states that the righteousness of Christ is imputed to believers” (Ladd,491).
Although not expressly stated, Romans 4 seems to imply an imputed righteous by using the Greek word λογίζομαι (reckon or impute). Garlington claims that λογίζομαι can mean “to consider to be true.” He claims that the Hebrew word found in Genesis 15:6 has this meaning and thereby attaches this meaning to λογίζομαι since Paul’s use of the passage in Genesis appears in conjunction with the crediting of righteousness (Garlington,46-102).
Second, again despite the jargon and terms used, Piper’s view of imputation is basically justification by works. The idea that Christ’s obedience is imputed to us declares that His “works” are the means of justification. Paul’s contention in the book of Romans is that justification is by faith and not strict observance of the Torah. If this is the case, it poses an integral question: what was Christ’s obedient to? In Paul’s way of thinking, Christ was obedient to death (Phil. 2:8). Yet death came by the actions (works) of one man – Adam (Rom. 5:13). If Christ who did not earn death was obedient to death for our justification, then our justification came by works. This is strictly the antithesis of Pauline thought throughout the book of Romans.
In his letter Paul, argues that the emphasis of Christ’s death is to highlight the resurrection. It is through the resurrection that God has obligated himself to give us life. While this is important to the work of salvation, according to Piper’s progressive and separating view of justification, sanctification and regeneration, Christ’s obedience to death does not justify us. It rather obligates God to give us life as He gave life to Jesus. This obligation does not stem from anything other than God’s self-obligation as witnessed by Abraham (Gen 15:1-5).
So what is the means of justification? Bird is correct in asserting, “Paul’s argument aims to disclose that righteousness and law are to be understood in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection” (Bird, 264). It is from this point of view that the means of justification must be dealt with. In Romans 6, Paul argues that since believers are united in Christ’s death through baptism, then they are also united in his life (Rom. 6:1-6). He hinges this entire idea on this single premise: Physical death justifies a person (6:7). It does not matter whether the physical death is the non-believers; or Christ. Death justifies.
At this juncture, a very important distinction must be made. Justification through death does not equate to salvation. Physical death, alone, merely justifies by making a person in right standing to the law. It does not guarantee everlasting life. This is in complete contrast to justification by faith in which a believer is incorporated into Christ’s physical death and thereby incorporated into his life as well.
Wright is correct in presenting justification as occurring presently and futuristically. It may indeed occur twice with in an individual’s lifetime (Wright, 260). “Justification to the law” will certainly occur for every individual at the moment of their death in the future. However, it may occur immediately at the moment a person chooses to have faith that God will complete what He has obligated himself to do through His Son, Jesus Christ. This is the “justification by faith.”
It must necessarily be that justification by faith only applies to the living. This application ceases to be of any use upon a believer’s physical death. At that moment, “justification by faith” ends and “justification to the law” takes over. The idea that this is how Paul understood the time factor of justification can be seen in his letter to the Thessalonians. Here Paul declares,
“For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thess. 4:15-16).
The dead in Christ will rise first, because God must vindicate those who have died in faith as Christ died in faith. As Paul tells the Church at Rome, “And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you” (Rom. 8:11).
Paul’s assertion that the dead will rise first is in anticipation of the future vindication of the dead in Christ. It is through the justification by faith at the present that living believers will be changed (1 Cor. 15:52). It is this idea that Paul has in mind as he writes his letter to Rome.
“Justification to the law” has a solitary benefit. It assures that condemnation is not left hanging unfilled. It therefore appeases God’s holy and righteous nature. As Paul points out, “But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed” (Rom 2:5). As a Pharisee, Paul would have viewed the wrath of God as physical death occurring. “Justification to the law”, then appeases the condemnation of the law by fulfilling its requirements.
“Justification by faith” fulfills the requirement of law by incorporating a believer into Christ’s death and resurrection. While this is also true of “justification to the law;” it has the added benefit of providing for salvation. “Justification by faith” allows for the believer to live in pure freedom from the law because of the assurance of God’s will being fulfilled. Paul emphasis this point in his letter to the Romans.
“Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation” (5:9-11).
Paul’s point is that through “justification by faith” we have been spared condemnation, justly deserved, while we are still physically alive. Yet, through faith we are spared future condemnation since God has obligated himself to grant everlasting life to those who believe that He will do what He has promised to do. As Paul puts it, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…” (8:1).
Paul offers this assurance to those in Rome of their justification:
“[B]ecause through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit… For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (8:2-14-17).
In other words, Paul says that the mere fact that a believer has obtained the Holy Spirit at the time of their justification assures that they will receive the benefit of salvation. Indeed, this is not a new idea for Paul. Earlier in his pastoral career, he stated this very idea to the Galatian believers. He told them that the Holy Spirit was given as a proof of their salvation (Eph. 1:14). It is this Spirit that marks the “children of God” to receive their rightful benefits due them according to God’s self-obligation. It is the Spirit of God within a believer that assures the justification by faith.
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Garlington, Don. “Imputation or Union with Christ: A Response to John Piper.” Reformation & Revival Journal, (2003): 46-102.
Guzik, David. Commentary on Romans. Santa Barbara: (Enduring Word Media, 2012): Kindle Electronic Edition.
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Moo, Douglas J. The NIV Romans Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000.
Packer, J. I. “s. v. “Justification”.” In Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, edited by Walter A. Elwell. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House Company, 2001).
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Towns, Elmer L. Theology for Today. (Mason: Cengage Learning, 2008).
Wright, N. T. “New Perspectives on Paul.” In Justification in Perspective: Historical Developments and Contemporary Challenges, edited by Bruce L. McCormack, 243-264. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006).
—. Paul in Fresh Perspective. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008).
All Scripture References NIV unless otherwise noted.