Protestants in Crisis over Justification by Faith
Chapter 6 — The Need for an Eschatological Framework
Eschatology has recently become a major preoccupation among Christians. Forell has rightly pointed out that eschatology becomes utopianism when it is not informed by justification by faith. And justification by faith apart from eschatology becomes a dry, rationalistic abstraction.
The setting of Paul's doctrine of justification is not only covenantal history, but eschatology. Without eschatology, history has no meaning, because eschatology is the goal or end of history. It is the end of history which gives meaning to history.
The Old Testament is a journey of history toward the eschaton. But the New Testament proclaims that in the Christ event God has achieved His goal for human history. The end of the world has already taken place in Christ's resurrection from the dead. It is on this basis that the New Testament confidently expects the consummation—the final stage of the end of the world—to take place in the imminent Parousia of Christ.
The entire New Testament, therefore, is written from the perspective that the last days have arrived (Heb. 1:2; 9:26; Acts 2:16, 17; etc.).
Hebrews 1:2 (God) ...has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds;
Hebrews 9:26 He then would have had to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now, once at the end of the ages, He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.
Acts 2:16-17 "But this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: 17 'And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, That I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh;...
When Paul proclaims, "But now a righteousness from God... has been made known" (Rom. 3:21), that "now" is an eschatological "now." God has acted in the fullness of time to effect His eschatological salvation. God's judgment of the world is the center of eschatology throughout the Bible. Paul's thought in Romans is dominated by the overwhelming conviction that he stands at the dawning of judgment day and that the revelation of the righteous judgment of God is even now unfolding (Rom. 1:17, 18; 2:5) and will soon be consummated in the great day of wrath.
Romans 1:17-18 For in it (the gospel) the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, "He who through faith is righteous shall live." 18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth.
Romans 2:5 But in accordance with your hardness and your impenitent heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God,
Paul's preoccupation with justification in the book of Romans is not determined by his controversy with the Judaizers, as the critics of the Reformation doctrine maintain. There is no evidence that this controversy is the key to understanding Romans. The first three chapters make it abundantly clear that Paul's thought on justification is thoroughly determined by his thought on the judgment. Every other question fades into insignificance as he sees that man is now called to give an account of himself before the judgment bar of God. Paul is far more interested in meeting the accusations of the law of God than in answering the accusations of the Judaizers. Without doubt, therefore, his great concern in Romans is, What righteousness can we successfully plead against the judgment of God?
It also seems that Paul's thought in Romans is structured by the covenantal lawsuit of Deutero-Isaiah. As Richardson says:
The forensic metaphor of justification is based upon the picture of Yahweh as engaged in a lawsuit in a court of justice with his rebellious people (Isa. 1:18; 43:26; Hos. 4:1; 12:2; Mic. 6:2; etc.).1
Whereas Isaiah spoke of God's righteousness and salvation which was coming (Isa. 56:1), Paul announces that this day of judgment and deliverance has arrived. The opening chapters of Romans are therefore a great arraignment of Gentiles and Jews before the bar of divine judgment.
It is only in this eschatological setting of judgment that we are led to ask the right questions about our relationship to God. This matter of our justification before the judgment is now seen as life's most urgent question. All other questions—many of them quite trivial—fade into insignificance when we stand before God's tribunal and cry out, "Where can I find a righteousness to stand before the judgment of God?"
The detractors of forensic justification say that people in this century are not urgently asking how they might find a gracious God. They claim that the matter of justification before God is not as relevant to modern man as it was to sixteenth-century man. But those who preach the Word have the responsibility to preach in a way that will lead people to ask the right questions. This means that the gospel must be proclaimed in the setting of the eschatological judgment (Rev. 14:6, 7). This gospel is not only a preparation for the judgment. It is itself part of the unfolding of God's end-time judgment. The final judgment is even now mysteriously present in the proclamation of the gospel.
When the great judgment of the last days is seen as the setting of Paul's gospel, the arguments about justification are clarified. (1) Justification is the central issue of the Bible. It is central because it answers man's most urgent question by pointing him to that righteousness which alone can stand before God's face in judgment. (2) Justification is forensic. It is forensic because it is the acquitting verdict of the judgment on the sole grounds of what Christ has done and suffered.
1 Alan Richardson, art. "Salvation, Savior," The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, 4:173.