Paul’s teaching on justification has been, to say the least, controversial throughout church history. Luther’s own departure, or rather excommunication, from the Roman Catholic Church is perhaps the most palpable example. He came to understand justification as a courtroom reality. Because Christ has suffered on our behalf, God declares us to be in the right, and thus we are acquitted and released from his wrath.
The Roman Catholic Church, in response to Luther’s articulation of salvation as declarative, wrote the decrees of the Council of Trent, which reinforced their teaching that justification is not legal or declarative, but is rather ontological and sanctifying. God’s salvation of the sinner is the filling of the soul with sanctifying grace, thus making man just interiorly, not exteriorly.
The Protestant-Catholic divide has not since eased, and both churches have since only made their stances more firm. What I want to do in this post is present a view that, perhaps, can avoid the controversies between traditions.
Before I go on to describe this view of justification, I do want to say that I’m borrowing from a number of Protestant as well as Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theologians who have done the groundwork for me. In this post I am borrowing particularly from theologians Peter Leithart an Jordan Cooper.
To begin my examination of Paul’s theology of justification, I want to look at Paul’s very first sermon, which comes from the book of Acts. We know that Luke wrote Acts, and also that he was influenced largely by Paul. He traveled with Paul for much of his missionary journey, and thus we should expect to find Pauline elements in his books.
Luke’s first recorded sermon by Paul is in Acts 13, and lucky for us, Paul preaches the gospel by using the term “justified”, or dikaioo. There is no doubt that the term is a forensic term. However, I do believe that by focusing on this sermon in Acts 13, we will better understand what Paul means when he uses the term elsewhere. Paul’s sermon involves several important elements: Christ is presented as the fulfillment of the promise of a new Davidic king, who will bring about an eternal kingdom (v. 22-23). God established Christ as King when he raised him up from the dead, never to see corruption again (v. 36). David himself died and saw corruption. But by his resurrection, Christ has overcome death and corruption, and therefore all who believe in him are thus “freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses” (v. 39). The ESV renders “justified” as “freed”. It is important to note that this is an interpretive jump: the word in Greek is justified (dikaioo), the same one that Paul uses in Romans and in Galatians.
The impulse to interpret dikaioo as freed however is justified (pun intended!). The reason is because the entire context of Paul’s sermon is deliverance or freedom from death and corruption: King David died along with everyone else; yet Christ, the true Davidic king, was raised, never to see corruption again. Therefore, everyone who believes in him is dikaioo from death. Paul’s use of dikaioo is thus liberative.
Peter Leithart agrees with me:
In Acts 13:38-39, he tells a Jewish audience that forgiveness comes through Jesus the Messiah, and that everyone who believes (pisteuo) is justified (dikaioo) from all the things that the law of Moses could not justify (dikaioo). It’s all there – justification by faith in contrast to justification by law – but it’s all sorted differently from what we (Protestants) expect. Paul’s point about the law is not about human efforts at law-keeping, but about the efficacy of the law itself as an agent of justification. What could not be done through the law of Moses is done by Jesus. Further, “justify” here does not refer to reckoning a sinner righteous. It is justification from (apo panton . . . dikaioutai), sensibly translated as “freed” in many English Bibles. Torah did not liberate from some “things”; Jesus does for those who trust Him. (source)
By using justify, Paul thus means to say that Jesus liberates, in contrast to the law which cannot. Reformed Christians should notice that there are elements from the common Reformed presentation of justification. For the Reformation understanding of justification, God is presented as Judge, and we are guilty sinners. Justification is thus commonly used as courtroom language. God, the righteous judge, justifies, or acquits us on the basis of Christ’s death. But here in Acts 13, justification is not presented in courtroom language, and God is not presented as judge. Rather, death is presented by Paul as the common enemy of all peoples; and to be justified means to be freed from the grip of sin and death through the resurrection of Christ from the dead (mind you, the emphasis is not Christ’s death, but his resurrection!!), something the law could could not accomplish.
What do we do with this? What I would suggest, and what Leithart suggests, is that dikaioo is Paul’s way of explaining that through Christ men can be freed from the bondage of sin, Satan, and death. Leithart explains:
In short, Paul is not dealing with the guilt of sin; the “picture” here is not the courtroom; Paul presents a scene of battle, or, better, he pictures the sinner an oppressed slave under the thumb of a harsh master. To be “justified” from “master sin” is to be delivered from his hand, from his lordship and mastery; in this context, to be justified from sin is to be liberated. (The Federal Vision, “Deliver Me, Oh God”, Kindle Locations 3499-3502)
Thus, justification does not picture God as the stern Judge who accuses us of wrongs done, but by the sacrifice of Jesus, acquits us of those wrongs done. God is rather the great liberator. He is the one who breaks the chains of sin’s bondage, who overthrow’s the Devil’s schemes, and who destroys the great enemy death. At this point my atonement theology becomes clear: Christ is the great victor over sin, Satan, and death. What Gustav Aulen has called Christus Victor, is in my opinion, the major thematic frame of atonement and salvation in the Bible.
Surprisingly enough, Lutheran scholarship has understood justification similarly as well. Jordan Cooper says this about justification:
For Lutheran theology, sanctification and justification have an intimate connection which cannot be severed. Sanctification is the effect of justification. It is not a separate benefit of union with Christ, but is the declarative reality of righteousness (in justification) becoming an effective intrinsic reality. Sanctification is thus the “working out” of justification.
Resurrection is thoroughly intertwined with the Pauline concept of sanctification, as it is with justification. In encouraging good works in the Christian life, Paul states, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom 8: 11). Sanctification is a result of the resurrecting act of God through the declarative act of justification.
(Cooper, Jordan, The Great Divide: A Lutheran Evaluation of Reformed Theology, Kindle Locations 4010-4016)
This is odd because, of course, Luther is the one who initially understood justification in declarative terms. But it is even more surprising because Cooper sounds an awful lot like John Henry Newman. Newman was an Anglican who converted to Roman Catholicism. For Newman, justification was a speech-act of God. Just like God’s Word caused the universe to come into being, God’s declarative Word makes the sinner righteous. Or, think of Christ calling Lazarus from the tomb. It was his word that rose him from the dead! Thus, justification is declarative, but it is also transformative. It is a great speech-act of deliverance by God from the powers of sin and death. Peter Leithart follows Newman’s thought by calling justification a “deliverdict”, a verdict that at once delivers.
Theologian Douglas Campbell has made a further insight that Paul wrote about justification by faith from prison. He was quite literally in bondage, under Rome’s tyranny, while he wrote about justification by faith. Would it not then make sense to understand justification as a liberative declaration over the great powers of evil? I think so! Something else to note is that Paul’s main salvation motif was the exodus, which, was liberation from slavery. Romans 6 comes to mind here.
In my next post I will explain the atonement in terms of victory and as liberative power. For now though, I’ve included a video below by Chris Tilling to further expound on justification as liberation. It’s a great little presentation, just 25 mins.