Justification: What is it?


Resurrection of Christ (source)

Justification, in the proper sense of the word, is a covenantal — or to put it in the Reformational sense, legal — declaration of divine acquittal. It is God’s declaration: “found not guilty”. It is God’s vindication of the one lost in sin and death.

This concept of divine acquittal is found all throughout the scriptures. It is most dramatically found in the imprecatory Psalms. The Psalmist, under the oppression of his enemies, cries out for vindication, for the divine acquittal.

For instance, David prays in Psalm 109:

But you, O God my Lord,
    deal on my behalf for your name’s sake;
    because your steadfast love is good, deliver me!

He also prays in Psalm 26:

Vindicate me, O Lord,
    for I have walked in my integrity,
    and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering.
Prove me, O Lord, and try me;
    test my heart and my mind.

The context of these Psalms is oppression and guilt. David is asking to be judged not guilty. He is asking to be vindicated, justified before the evil oppressor.

What is more, Augustine rightly noted that these Psalms are ultimately about the Messiah, of whom David was a picture. David, although a man after God’s own heart, was not ultimately worthy of vindication. Thus, David spoke in the person of Christ. Christ is the ultimate oppressed one, under the guilt and shame of the world, crying out for vindication.

Paul says in 1 Timothy 3:16 of Christ:

Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.

What is this vindication in the Spirit? The word Paul uses dikiaou, justification. Christ himself was justified in the Spirit! Paul is saying that Christ himself was judged as righteous. But what does this mean?

It means that God saw him under the weight of condemnation, judged him as undeserving, and delivered him. Or, put another way, God acquitted him of the suffering he experienced on the cross, and “vindicated” him. What was this vindication? We get a hint from Romans 4 where Paul tells us that Christ died for our sins and raised for our justification. When Paul tells us that Christ was vindicated in the Spirit, he means that Christ was raised from the dead. Christ’s enemies judged him as guilty and killed him. God judged him as not guilty and raised him. He reversed the judgment of his enemies.

What this all means is that God’s vindication of Christ was not simply a bare acquittal, but a divine action. God’s judgment led to God’s deliverance. God’s judgement of “not guilty” led him to, as Peter says, “loose the pangs of death”, and free Christ from death. This means that God’s judgement and his action of resurrection is one divine action. God simultaneously judges and rescues.

This may seem irrelevant, but it is important to note the connection between God’s justification of Christ and his resurrection of Christ. The Reformation doctrine of justification has notoriously been labeled as a “legal fiction”. God acquits the guilty and leaves them as they are. Well, that’s not actually true! God’s judgement and impartation of new life are one and the same, one connected reality. And the reason for this is because God’s divine word is simultaneously his divine action.

Luther explains that God’s words are not bare declarations, but are “things very great and wonderful, which we see with our eyes and feel with our hands” (The Genius of Luther’s Theology, 42). The word is not intangible, but touchable, seeable, effective. And why? As Robert Kolb rightly says: God’s “word does what it says” (ibid, p43). Elsewhere Luther says that God’s Word “contains all the fullness of God” (Theology of Martin Luther, 353). When God communicates, he effects what he says. Robert Kolb cites Luther’s commentary on Genesis in which Luther rightly says that when God desires to create, he doesn’t do, but he speaks: “Whatever God wanted to create, he created when he spoke” (ibid, p 43). In other words, God’s Word is not like our words. Our words can merely describe reality, while God’s word creates reality!

This makes sense too when we think of the court room analogy. When a judge acquits someone of their crime, it doesn’t matter whether they are guilty or not: the person judged “not guilty” is thereby freed. The judge’s word is creative and effective. The prisoner is freed to go. Or, take for instance an umpire in a baseball game. If he says: “you’re out!”, it matters not whether you think he was correct or not, you’re out. His word creates reality.

Robert Kolb says this about justification:

Thus, there is no conflict between being declared righteous and being made righteous… The word [of God] does what it says. When God declares a person righteous, that person is actually righteous. The Word has brought about a new reality (ibid, p 43)

When God declares a sinner righteous “for the sake of Christ”, he is not speaking falsities: he is creating a new reality. As he created the world through his Word, he recreates the sinner through his Word.

Thus, God renders or judges us righteous and resurrects us, frees us from the domain of sin, makes us and constitutes us as new creatures. Properly, this divine judgement is a participation in Christ’s own vindication from the dead: God judges us in Christ and raises us above our oppressors and seats us in heavenly places with him.

6 thoughts on “Justification: What is it?

  1. As a Catholic I would say more or less the same thing happens when someone is baptized. Baptism is the sacrament of justification, and after someone is baptized, but before he has sinned again, we say that if he were to die at that moment, he would go straight to heaven, bypassing even purgatory let alone hell.

    But what happens after that, I suspect is where we part ways. You say God pronounces someone just at the moment of conversion, and that it’s not a fiction but really happens. But surely you don’t claim that he stays that way? That he really remains just, i.e. righteous and holy for the rest of his life?

    What happens then? Does God declare him just, thereby making him just, again and again, every time he sins? Or are his further transgressions simply ignored? But if that, then in allowing that person into heaven, he must be either declaring him just, as a fiction; or else covering over his sins like snow over a dung heap, not really transforming him from a dung heap but just pretending that’s not what he is.

    What am I missing?

    • That’s a good question. For Catholics, Sacramental confession is absolution that reconstitutes the fallen sinner. I suspect Luther would say that God does that throughout the Christian life: he forgives and reconstitutes every day. We repent and receive. Something like that?

    • So I know you’ll disagree with this, but there is an oft-quoted phrase by Luther that sanctification is nothing else than a return to baptism. Oswald Bayer says that metaphysical progress is not in Luther’s teaching: rather, it is a constant return to the gift bestowed in baptism. We get the fulness of life in God through baptism. Luther’s own understanding of baptism is of death and resurrection: there is a total break from the old Adamic reality and resurrection into the aeon of Christ’s advent.

      I guess I like that, except to say that Eucharistic worship is downplayed in that specific account. The Eucharist is the gift of Christ’s body and blood, and thus we grow in grace by reception.

      • We agree that baptism is a transition from death to new life in Christ (Rom. 6:4). I agree that we get “the fullness of life in God through baptism”, in the sense that it removes obstacles to that life and imparts that life, and from thenceforward you are saved. But it doesn’t instantly transform us into people who don’t sin anymore. I think that empirical observation verifies that Christians often make progress throughout their lives in learning to do good and avoid sin. And I agree with you that Eucharistic worship contributes to that progress.

        So I guess you and I are Catholics and Luther’s not. : )

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