I recently wrote a post on justification, in which I said, in essence, that justification itself has transformative elements to it. It is a word of pardon which at once delivers from bondage to sin and death.
This comes from Paul’s gospel preaching in Acts 13:38-39, in which he says that by faith, one is “justified” from all the things from which the Mosaic law could not free. I noticed that most biblical translations usually translate the word justified as “freed”: “one is freed from all the things from which Moses could not free” (cf ESV). My conclusion was that the impulse was correct: God frees us from bondage through his creative word in justification. Or, his pronouncement effects what it says.
After reading the post again, I’m not quite convinced I went far enough into the forensic or courtroom imagery, and that I didn’t do justice to what I was meaning to say (go figure!).
So, I want to add another element here that I hope can be formatted or integrated with my previous post. I still hold to the former post, that salvation is a declarative-rescue from the effects of sin and death, but it is also true in scripture that what Christ accomplished in his death and resurrection is judicial in nature, or rather relates to man’s guilt before God. So I want to expand a bit here, borrowing from the Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran tradition.
I want to concentrate on one peculiar verse from Romans 4: Paul says in Romans 4:25 that Christ was “delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification”.
I want to notice a couple things here:
First, Christ was delivered over for our sins. Paul connects Christ’s death with our sin. But what does he mean to say by this connection? Very simply, the death of Christ was the mechanism which released mankind from its debt or offense of sin. This is why the Bible commonly calls the cross a sacrifice, an oblation, a holy offering to the Father, which operates as man’s way to forgiveness; or as Paul says in Ephesians 5:2, it was a “fragrant offering and sacrifice to God”, meant to compensate for the original sin and actual sins.
The Catechism of the Catholic church explains the death of Christ by saying this:
[Christ’s sacrifice is first] a gift from God the Father himself, for the Father handed his Son over to sinners in order to reconcile us with himself. At the same time it is an offering of the Son of God made man, who is freedom and love offered his life to his Father through the Holy Spirit in reparation for our disobedience. (paragraph 614)
His suffering was a self-gift, as self-offering, which, as the Catechism rightly states, “completes and surpasses all other sacrifices” found in the OT. It is offered to God the Father as a holy oblation of love.
The 39 Articles of the Anglican church explains his death this way: “[Christ came to] be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for all actual sins of men” (Article II); and also: “[Christ] came to be the Lamb without spot, who, by sacrifice of himself once made, should take away the sins of the world” (Article XV).
The whole point here is that Christ offered himself as a holy sacrifice to God in order to take away the offense of sin. This is properly the negative side of salvation: Christ’s death and suffering made reparation between God and man. (And, just by way of aside, it is this same sacrifice which God the Father looks to in order that he may continue forgiving us. We sin every day, and why does he continue to forgive? The cross! It is eternal in its effects.)
OK, but what I want to notice here (finally we come to the whole point of this post!!) is that while Paul attributes forgiveness of sin to the cross, he attributes justification to the resurrection. Did you notice? Paul tells us: Christ “was raised to life for our justification” (Rom 4:25). It is important to note this; usually when Protestant scholars search for a biblical-theological import or corollary for justification, it is the cross. However, Paul says justification is related to the resurrection!
What all of this means is that justification, at least from this verse, involves a a union with the resurrected Christ that communicates spiritual life. I would also argue that justification, at least from the fullness of Paul’s corpus, involves the negative aspect of the release of sin-debt. Justification, then, it may be argued, is simultaneously a pronouncement by God of “not guilty” (or “forgiven” or “not condemned”) and a gift of divine life through union with Christ. Or, put another way, justification is a pronouncement of “not guilty” which actualizes inner renewal through union with Christ.
Hence, we come to Peter Leithart’s definition of deliverdict: Justification is a pronouncement of forgiveness and a gift of new resurrection life. Or, it is a forensic pronouncement which effects a deliverance from death and condemnation. The Council of Trent says this of justification: “justification is not only a remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man”. John Henry Newman defined justification in terms of a declarative word which was transformative: “[God] declares a fact, and makes it a fact by declaring it. He imputes, not a name but a substantial Word, which, being ‘ingrafted in our own hearts, is able to save our souls” (Lectures on Justification, Lecture 3, Par 8). God’s pronouncement of forgiveness effects ontic renewal.
And actually, this makes sense when one considers the mechanism of Christ’s own resurrection. Christ’s resurrection is properly effected by God’s declaration of Jesus’ own innocence and righteousness. Christ was put to death as a sinner and wretch by the authorities, but God vindicated Christ by raising him from the dead over all authorities and kings. Thus, God’s own judgment of Christ’s innocence effected his resurrection from the dead. They are one and the same action from God.
Newman himself calls Jesus’ resurrection his justification. Newman explains this way:
Our Lord’s justification, as St. Paul terms it,…took place upon His resurrection… Christ differs from us in this, that He was the true and eternal Son, we sons only by adoption; He holy by nature, we made holy beyond nature; but He does not differ in His justification, which, simply considered, was what I have been showing ours to be, an open acknowledgment of Him by the Father as righteous and well beloved, yet not nominally such (God forbid) but really. St. Paul, who in one place says that Christ was “justified by the Spirit,” (see 1 Tim 3:16) explains himself elsewhere by saying that he was “declared to be the Son of God, with power, according to the Spirit of Holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.” (see Rom 1:4) (Lectures on Justification, lecture 3, par 7)
God’s word about Christ’s own righteousness effected his deliverance from death. Newman argues that it is the same as us: God’s pronouncement of forgiveness effects our union with Christ in his resurrection.
As we end, I want to look at one Lutheran scholar who has good insight on this issue. Jordan Cooper argues that Luther himself understood justification as both a forensic or declarative reality and as a ontological reality. Cooper says this:
Luther’s definition of justification contains two aspects: the legal and the effective. On the one hand, Luther confesses that we are imputed as entirely righteous through the alien righteousness of Jesus Christ, and on the other, he confesses that through the means of faith, we receive a new heart. (The Great Divide: A Lutheran Evaluation of Reformed Theology. Kindle Locations 3808-3810)
Jordan continues by saying that within the Lutheran tradition (at least for Luther), “imputation is the cause of sanctification and a renewed life” (Kindle loc 3813-14); and, “justification properly speaking is thus a legal declaration, but it is an effective declaration.” (Kindle loc 3827).
Cooper goes on to explain this principle in terms of God’s creative word:
To gain an understanding of the relationship between imputation and renewal, one need not go directly to Paul, but to the beginning of the Bible: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Gen 1: 3). God is a God who speaks. Not only does he speak, but he speaks with power. He does not speak descriptively, but as a divine potentate giving a command which is then brought into reality. Whereas human speech either describes, questions, or gives commands, God’s pronouncements enact what they proclaim. God says that it is so, and it is so. When God justifies the sinner, he is declared righteous and consequently is righteous. God’s word is a life-giving word and a creative word. As God declares the sinner to be justified, life is brought from death… (Kindle loc 3828-3834)
So then, justification is God’s word of forgiveness and acquittal which effects union with Christ in his resurrection.