An Experimental Framework for Justification

Justified. So we are as believers. We stand before God in some kind of right relationship. We know that this is done because of Jesus’ work for us. But the Bible can be a bit unclear on the details. As I mentioned in a recent post, both Catholic and Protestant views have strengths and weaknesses (though I obviously do land notably more Protestant myself), and I think the popular understandings of justification all miss at least a little something. My best insight was that justification does not have to have a completely uniform meaning. So I went to work trying to sort out what the Bible actually says about justification for my personal study, only to decide that what I came up with should become a blog post. Here, then, are the notes I made:

For now, I’m experimenting with a 3/4 distinction framework for understanding justification. At its most basic and common, justification involves rightness, a good standing in relation to God. This broader concept encompasses four subpoints, labeled J0-J3, all of which are to some degree bound up together. I do not expect to see all Scripture references to justification as falling neatly into these categories, for they necessarily will overlap, especially J0 and J1. The broad concepts are as follows:

J0: Ground zero justification. This is the finished work of Christ on our behalf as humanity. He lived, died, rose, and ascended to accomplish our rightness with God dramatically, forensically, and ontologically. He fulfilled the covenant for man so that man could be united with God. This justification is accomplished by Christ alone. It is a work of unilateral grace for our forgiveness and reconciliation, done once for all on behalf of all. By this justification we are saved.

J1: Initiation. This is the first subjective event of justification. It refers to the one event at which point an individual is reconciled to God through Christ, becoming righteous in Him before God and man. J1 can be subdivided into two moments.

J1.1: Union. The first moment of J1 justification is union with Christ, as the Spirit works to bring His life into us and make us one with Him. This ontological union is the fount of all our goodness, whether in the form of faith or works. It comes from the life of Christ we receive in union with Him. United with Christ also means that we share in His personal justification, appropriating the reality of J0.

J1.2: Declaration. The second moment of J1 justification is declaration, specifically God’s declaration that we are among His righteous ones (or in His righteous One). This declaration is made on the basis of faith, which is the firstfruits of J1.1 justification. Our faith becomes the first mark that we have become God’s children through Christ, and so we are declared as righteous.

J2: Identification. The second part of subjective justification, which continues throughout the life of the believer on earth, is identification. This is how God identifies who are His righteous ones (believers in Christ) before men, especially for the other righteous. Unlike in the OT, they are not identified by faithfulness to the Law, but by their faith and (unlike the prior dimensions of justification) their good deeds of love. Faith, however, remains the firstfruits, and both the believer’s faith and good works are still remembered to be the result of union with Christ, the personalized actualization of His life of faith/works.

J3: Final vindication. The third and final subjective part of justification, which occurs at final judgment, is our final vindication. This is the act whereby God gives His public verdict: righteous. This judgment is made in reference to the entire post-J1 life, though it is guaranteed by the J1 event. Because Christ grounds all of our faith and works through the Spirit, we will come out justified. This sentence is the last word on our eternal destiny, though it remains infallibly in accordance with the word God declares in J1.2.

 Following are my more in depth explanations of each point.

J0 Justification

J0 justification is the first and primary dimension of justification, though not necessarily the most discussed by the Biblical authors. Instead, it lies behind all parts of justification as their base and ground.

The essence of J0 justification is the finished work of Christ on our behalf. It is a work of free grace for our redemption (Rom. 3:24), causing our life by His own faithfulness to God (Rom. 3:26, Gal. 2:16) which counts also on our behalf, both anhypostatically an enhypostatically.

J0 justification is a work God began and indeed finished while we were yet ungodly sinners (Rom. 4:5, 5:8-10), before we had anything to offer God. It is completely gratuitous (Tit. 3:7), brought about solely by God’s salvific will toward mankind (1 Tim. 2:4, 4:10). We bring nothing to the table when it comes to this justifying righteousness, only God through Christ (Phil. 3:9).

While all of Christ’s person and life was directed towards our salvation, J0 justification centers primarily on the expiation of the Cross (Rom. 5:9) and the vindication of the Resurrection (Rom. 4:25). Because of what Jesus accomplished once-for-all as the high priest for all mankind (Heb. 9:28, 10:10), we are justified before God.

This justification consists of God’s stern, uncompromising judgment of human sin (Rom. 8:3) along with His gracious, saving acquittal of human sinners (Rom. 5:6-8, Zech. 3:4) in Jesus Himself. In this God saves the unrighteous through the vindication of His own righteousness (Rom. 3:4, cf Ps. 51:4).

J1 Justification

J1 justification refers to the initial salvation event in the believer’s life, when he goes from an unjustified sinner to a justified saint. This is considered the beginning of the life of faith, the conversion and spiritual birth. “Justification” is not, in fact, applicable to all the dimensions of this event, but only to two of them. These two dimensions are the component moments of the J1 justification event. (Moments, in this case, are meant to be taken in relation to logical, not temporal, order. The two moments of J1 justification are considered chronologically simultaneous but logically sequential.)

J1.1: Union

The first moment of J1 justification is union with Christ. When we hear the Gospel word in the power of the Holy Spirit (1 Thess. 1:5), God make us alive together with Christ (Eph. 2:5). The emphasis here is on with Christ, for at this moment we are incorporated into Christ and become one with Him through the Spirit. This event itself is not J1.1 justification, but what Paul refers to as our “call” (1 Cor. 1:26, Eph. 1:18, Eph. 4:4, 2 Tim. 1:9, 2 Pet. 1:10) and John as being “born again/from above” (John 3).

At our call/new birth when we become “in Christ,” we receive all of the spiritual benefits (Eph. 1:3) He has accomplished for us, including His J0 justification. What He achieved through His death and resurrection, we receive as well (Rom. 6:3-4). We become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Cor. 5:21). In this way we participate in J0 justification, for as Christ has been justified (1 Tim. 3:16) in God’s righteousness (Rom. 1:17) we are justified by Him (Gal. 2:16-17).

J1.2: Declaration

The second moment of J1 justification I call “declaration,” in reference to God’s word of justification that we are righteous (or among His righteous, or in His righteous One). The very first effect of the union with Christ at the time of J1.1 justification is faith (1 Cor. 12:9, Gal. 5:22 KJV, Eph. 2:8, Phil. 1:29). When the Spirit gives us new life, part of which includes J1.1 justification, we exhibit faith as the firstfruits. Thus we believe, which the NT writers usually assume is the beginning of our personal salvation.

On the basis of this faith (as opposed to works of the Law, Rom. 3:20), publicly recognizing our new righteousness from Christ, God justifies us, that is, He declares us as righteous, which we now are indeed (Rom. 3:28, 3:30,4:5, 5:1, Gal. 2:16-17). Faith alone is the basis for this justification, because it is the initial result of J1.1 union. Once we go from being one of the sinners to being one of the righteous (1 Cor. 6:11, transfered from the power of darkness to the kingdom of the Son, cf. Col. 1:13), we exhibit faith as proof and so God justifies us (declares us to be those who are right with Him).

This declaration is itself somewhat paradoxical, for in declaring us as righteous in Christ God also exposes us all as utterly sinful in ourselves (Rom. 3:9-19). For only is we are bankrupt in ourselves do we have any need of transition, any need of atonement. Only the sick need a doctor (Luke 5:31). So in Christ we are made righteous along with the exposure of our utter sinfulness.

As an important qualifier, faith in this case does not merit justification of any kind; it is not a requirement of goodness which we must meet for God to reward us with a right standing with Himself. We are justified (declared as righteous) because faith demonstrates that we have been united with Christ.

J2 Justification

After J1 justification and until J3 justification, we experience J2 justification, which is primarily from God and before other people. J2 justification is not a making or setting right, as some other aspects of justification involve, but a recognition of righteousness. J2 follows from J1.1 in that it is God’s continual work of identifying us as righteous people in Christ.

For the Jews of Paul’s time, J2 justification occurred by faithfully adhering to the Jewish Law, especially in the defining rite of circumcision. How do you know who God’s people are? According to the Jews, you look to their circumcision and their faithfulness to the Law in general (this theme as a major target of Paul’s polemics can be seen throughout Romans and Galatians, see Rom. 2). This is justification by works of Law/Torah: God’s righteous people are identified by doing the Law.

Scripture teaches clearly that we cannot be justified in any way by doing the Law (Rom. 3:20, 3:28, 9:32, Gal. 2:16, 3:10). Whether we trust in the Law as the basis or as the proof of our righteous standing with God, we are left hopeless, because when the Law is our measure “everyone who does not continue doing everything written in the book of the law is cursed” (see Deut. 27:26). Therefore, as we said before, no one can be justified in any of these senses by Law (Gal. 3:11).

On the other hand, while faith is clearly the primary mark of God’s people (Hab. 2:4, Rom. 3:28, Rom. 4:5, 2 Cor. 8:7), the righteous do also show visible signs of their identity, namely good deeds of love (John 13:35, 1 Cor. 13:13,2 Cor. 8:7, Gal. 5:6, 22-23, Eph. 3:17, Col. 1:4, 1 Thess. 1:3, 1 Jn. 3:14), especially caring for those in need (Matt. 25:35-36, Luke 3:11, Jas. 2:15-16, 1 Jn. 3:17-18). These good deeds identify us as righteous (again, remembering that we are only righteous in union with Christ, and not on our own, see John 15:5, Gal. 2:20) before all people, both for the unity of believers (enabling us to fulfill injunctions such as Gal. 6:10) and for God’s glory among unbelievers (Matt. 5:16). In this way we are J2 justified, that is, our status as just before God is made known.

James clearly speaks the most strongly on this matter, for he says that any faith we claim to have is dead and useless, unable to save (even perform its role in J1.1 justification), without the accompanying good deeds (Jas. 2:14, 17, 20). A bare belief in the facts of the Gospel doesn’t prove we are in Christ any more than it proves demons are (Jas. 2:19). SinceJ2 justification deals with this-wordly identification of the righteous, James can proclaim that we are justified by faith and works (Jas. 2:21-26) without impinging on the unique and complete work of Christ for our J0 and J1 justification, and without contradicting Paul.

J3 Justification

On the day of judgment we receive J3 justification, our final vindication. Having been made right with God on the basis of Jesus’ objective work for mankind in J0 justification, having appropriated this subjectively in J1 justification, and having been identified throughout our lives as God’s people in J2 justification, we finally receive our public verdict from God and before all people: righteous.

Now, there are two points to make about J3 justification. Firstly, our justified verdict at final judgment is guaranteed at our J1 justification event (Rom. 14:4, 1 Cor. 1:8, Phil. 1:6, 2 Tim. 1:12). When God declares us as righteous, as His righteous people, in J1 justification, He promises that His last day verdict will match. Therefore we are eternally secure from the first (John 6:39-40, John 17:12, Rom. 8:29-39, 2 Cor. 4:14, Jude 1:24).

Secondly and almost paradoxically, the declaration of righteousness we receive at J3 justification is made with reference to (or, to use NT language, “according to”) our works (Matt. 16:27, 2 Cor. 11:15, 2 Tim. 4:14, 1 Pet. 1:17,Rev. 2:23, 20:12-13). While, again, it is clearly maintained that our works flow from Christ’s life in us and not any goodness we achieve on our own (Gal. 2:20, esp. KJV), it remains the case that God will give us a verdict recognizing what we do and say (Ps. 62:12, Ezek. 18:30, Matt. 12:37, Rom. 2:5-10, 2 Cor. 5:10). In a way, we could say that at the final judgment will be be judged not for our own deeds but for those of Jesus living in us!

The connection between the two points made here about J3 justification is found in the Holy Spirit bringing Christ’s own life into the believer. All believers have the Spirit (Rom. 8:9, 1 Cor. 3:16, Gal. 4:6, Eph. 1:13, 2 Tim. 1:14), and He is the one by whom we are united to Christ, for He is the Spirit of Christ (Rom. 8:9, 1 Pet. 1:11). The Spirit, bringing Christ’s faithfulness into our lives personally, produces the fruit (Gal. 5:22-23) which fulfills the law of love (Rom. 13:10) to our vindication on judgment day (John 10:29, Rom. 14:4, Jude 1:24). So we can reiterate that our J3 justification is (1) assured at J1, (2) done according to our works, and (3) ultimately grounded in Christ’s life and work for us in J0.

[As an end note, I have drawn these thoughts from several disparate sources, namely classic Reformed theology, popular level Protestant apologetics, Martin Luther, Thomas Torrance, N. T. Wright, and some really cool blog which I don’t remember the name of. All working together seem to make better sense of the actual text of the Scriptures than anything I had heard before.]

An Experimental Framework for Justification

Faith and Works, Plus a Bar Fight

The Fight

A Catholic bishop and a Presbyterian preacher walk into a bar. Seeing that they were both teachers of Scripture, they began talking theology over drinks. The discussion soon got heated when they got to the topic of justification by faith. Before anyone knew what had happened, both men lay dead on the floor, beaten and bruised.

In an instant they found themselves before God. They were told by an angel to be patient while God prepares to declare their destinies. But they couldn’t control themselves and blurted out, “Who was right, Lord? Are we justified instantly by faith alone or progressively by faith and works?”

Immediately God responded, “Neither of you are justified by either faith or works, for in your dispute you’ve both proven not to be my children! Depart from me, you workers of iniquity, for I never knew you.”

Just-As-If-I’d Never Sinned

What is the point of this little story? Well, it doesn’t have much of one, I just wanted to start with a story, especially if I could use the classic bar setup. But it is related to the topic of this post, namely the relationship between faith, works, and justification.

From an average Protestant perspective, we have the doctrine of sola fide, aka justification by faith alone. In this account, while we start legally on the hook for our sin and guilty in God’s court, when we put our faith in Christ God immediately declares us righteous, giving us a not-guilty verdict and acquitting us of the charges against us. Thus we are saved from God’s wrath. From that point on our faith naturally produces works through the Spirit.

From a Catholic perspective (which I hope I am presenting accurately), justification is a state bound up with sanctification (becoming holy). When we become Christians, we start becoming sanctified and so also justified because God infuses us with grace that creates faith and works if we are willing to make use of it. As we make use of God’s grace provided through the Holy Spirit, we become more holy and therefore find ourselves increasingly in right standing before God. In most people, though, death comes before we are completely holy and completely justified, so we must undergo cleansing in Purgatory until the process is complete.

The Part Where I Define Stuff

What both of these positions have in common is underlying grace. For the usual Protestant view of sola fide, we can only be acquitted because Jesus takes our condemnation for us out of sheer, undeserved grace. We can’t earn His sacrifice, but merely say “yes” to it. Likewise for the Catholic, we can only be sanctified and justified by grace. All of our faith and works which justify us can be traced back to God’s grace provided through the Spirit.

Of course, it is important to consider what faith and works are to discuss this issue. We can’t think of faith as just plain belief, thinking something is true. After all, even the demons have that kind of faith, and they are doomed. Saving faith, according to James especially, is an active thing which demands to be made real through works. Without works, we are taught, faith is dead and useless, totally incapable of justifying anyone.

What are works, though? That depends what we’re talking about. Works can usually refer to three things: actions which are done in order to fulfill the Law, anything good anyone does at all, or the good things we do by the power of the Holy Spirit. The first kind is the mostly blatantly ruled out as having anything to do with justification. Paul goes on and on about how following the Law can’t fix anything. All Christians must categorically deny the possibility of being justified by keeping the Law to avoid falling under Paul’s stern condemnation of the Judaizers.

The other two kinds of works are where things get less clear cut. There is a difference between works we manufacture on our own to be good and works the Spirit creates in us. The former is clearly excluded from justification when Paul rules out all boasting in our own righteousness. If we are saved, we do not get credit. No one can say that he earned or performed his own way into a right standing with God, otherwise grace would no longer be grace.

On the other hand, there are the good deeds done because of the Holy Spirit living in us. Most Protestants would still deny that these have any role in our justification, even though they come solely by God’s grace. Proponents of something called the New Perspective on Paul would generally argue that these works do play into our final justification, but that even then we are promised this end when we believe. Catholics would include all these good works in the process of becoming holy, which is what carries our justification.

Speaking Different Languages

Much of the divide between Protestants and Catholics, but not all of it, on justification can be traced back to miscommunication regarding these three kinds of works. When the average Protestant hears the Catholic say we are justified by both faith and works, he assumes the first and/or second kind of works, so they hear “We are justified by faith and keeping the Law” or “we are justified by faith and our own efforts to do good.” When Catholics hear us claim that justification comes apart from works, many hear that people who live fruitless lives of clearly dead faith will be saved as long as they agree with the facts of the Gospel.

So when we understand faith as a living, active, life-changing kind of belief, the kind of trust in Jesus which bears fruit through the Holy Spirit, there are indeed many Catholics who would more or less agree that this faith alone justifies. Likewise, if we understand the works Catholics say contribute to justification as the good we do because of the Holy Spirit in us, caused entirely by grace, then while not all Protestants would agree, most would drop the charge of a “work your way to heaven” heresy.

Neither position is without its weaknesses, though. Sola fide will never quite feel snuffly fitting with James 2 (especially verse 24), and it actually does lead and has led many people to think that fruitless “Christians” are assured of salvation, or that believing facts and praying a prayer are enough. The Catholic view I think sometimes stumbles through Paul and lends itself to many abuses, such as legalism, self-righteousness, performance-based spirituality, and even superstition in combination with any ambiguous form of their sacramental theology.

Resetting the Focus: Grace is a Person, Not a Thing

I, personally, take a step back from the standard Protestant and Catholic views to focus on what—actually who—they have in common. We all agree that Jesus is the true cause of our salvation and that we owe it all to Him. When it comes to the issue of justification, Jesus already lived a life of perfect faith and perfect works in our place. He trusted the Father, did good deeds, kept the Law, and made all around flawless performance on our behalf. When we meet Him in the Gospel through the Holy Spirit, all we do is nothing. By simply not resisting Him, we are spiritually united to Him, with His own faith coming into our hearts and His own works flowing out through our hands. Christ Himself is the grace behind all faith and works we do. Jesus’ life flows into us through faith and out of us through works.

In this way, we receive both justification and sanctification from Jesus’ own innocent status and perfect holiness. In one moment we are united to Christ in faith and so become right with God and set apart for Him, while we spend the rest of our lives being transformed to live Christ’s right life before God and become purely holy all the way through.

I think if we keep Jesus the main thing, looking at it all through the light of His own person and work instead of impersonal versions of grace, faith, justification, and holiness, then we’re in good shape. While I do think sola fide, when given proper nuance and focus, is a superior way to speak of our right standing before God over the Catholic articulation, that is secondary to saying our salvation is all of Christ. In the end what matters is if we agree that we are accepted not because we are worthy in ourselves, but because of what Christ has done and still does for us, in us, and through us. Amen?

All are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

Romans 3:24

(I am aware, my more theologically minded readers, that I did not really interact with at least one other important view on justification, namely the New Perspective on Paul, especially as proposed by N. T. Wright. But this post is long enough as it is, and the NPP, while certainly important to this discussion, would not greatly affect what I have to say.)

Faith and Works, Plus a Bar Fight