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Righteousness by Faith (Part 4)


In Paul, the concept of justification is both judicial and eschatological. Both of these meanings are basic to the apostolic message. Yet it is doubtful whether Paul's contemporaries grasped the full significance of the message of the great apostle. Certainly there is no evidence that the early Fathers understood the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith. Paul's judicial thought was reinterpreted in an experiential and moralistic way. His eschatological consciousness was lost altogether.

The Reformation began a recovery of the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith. We say "began a recovery" quite deliberately. The Reformers certainly recovered the judicial meaning of justification in Paul. This was revolutionary. But when Paul talks about justification, he not only means something judicial, but something eschatological as well. The Reformers did not recover the eschatological aspect of Paul's doctrine of justification. In this sense the Reformation of the sixteenth century was incomplete.

Yet before we today talk about going beyond the Reformers, we need to go back to what they recovered. The way forward is the way back. Only then can we be sure that we are building on the Reformation and not in place of the Reformation.

The following discussion falls quite naturally into two sections. In chapter seven we will review what the Reformation recovered: the judicial meaning of justification in Paul. In chapter eight we will hazard breaking some new ground: the relation of justification to eschatology.

Chapter 7 Justification in Paul: Its Judicial Meaning

The judicial meaning of justification in Paul has been so adequately argued and established by the Protestant Reformation that we will not here labor to prove what has already been so well proven. We will simply state the case and spend some time in looking at its far—reaching implications.

The words justify, justified and justification are what are known as forensic or judicial words. They belong to the language of courts of law. Paul, of course, is quite at home using such words, because he is by training a lawyer and a judge. In an overwhelming number of instances throughout the Bible, justify, justified and justification appear in the setting of a judgment scene where cases are tried according to law (see Deut. 25:1; Prov. 17:15; Rom. 2:6-16; 8:31-34; Ps. 143:2; Matt. 12:36-37). Justification is the opposite of condemnation (Deut. 25:1; Rom. 8:33). It is the judgment, declaration, verdict or sentence of the Judge. Although the verdict may lead to profound changes in the life of the person upon whom it is pronounced, justification itself is not a moral change in the person. It means to declare righteous and not to make righteous (subjectively).1

Justification which is by faith in Jesus changes our relation to God, but it is not in itself a change in our moral state. It is what God does for us and not what He does in us. It does not in itself constitute a change in us, but it constitutes a change in the way God regards us. It is by the imputation of Christ's righteousness to us and not by the infusion of His righteousness into us.

According to Paul, righteousness or justification by faith is God's method of saving sinners. It is not enough simply to say that God saves sinners by His grace. God is not only in the business of saving sinners, but He is in the business of saving them justly—that is, according to a way which is lawful and right. In the Bible, righteousness is everywhere laid down as a condition of salvation (see Rom. 1:16-17; 2:6-16; Matt. 19:17-20; Ps. 15; Ezek. 18). According to Paul's gospel, the sinner is saved by faith because by faith he receives the righteousness of God's provision, which entitles him to salvation. "He who by faith is righteous shall live [shall be saved]" (Rom. 1:17, RSV).

It is not as if Paul moves from faith to salvation like this:

Rather, Paul moves from faith to righteousness and then from righteousness to salvation:

The apostle's great accent, therefore, falls on that righteousness which acquires for us God's verdict of salvation. This righteousness is called "the righteousness of God" because His grace provides it. It is called "the righteousness of One" because it consists solely in the obedience and blood of Jesus Christ. Gospel preaching is preaching about the mighty acts (righteousness) of incarnate God. Saving faith means that we put our faith in this righteousness of Jesus, which honors God's law (Rom. 3:31) and by this means brings us salvation.

When the Reformers revived these Pauline concepts of judicial salvation, it meant that, in preaching the gospel, they proclaimed the historical doing and dying of Christ as the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes. Their attention was riveted on a righteousness outside of the believer, and their testimony was to the vicarious experience of the God-man and not to their own subjective experience. The Reformers took pains to exclude the new birth, sanctification or any internal change from the article of justification. They did not do this in order to depreciate the necessity of moral renewal. But they realized that an infinitely higher work was necessary to reconcile sinners to God. For the glory of Christ and for the comfort of troubled consciences, they knew that our salvation has to be grounded on an objective work—a righteousness completely outside the experience of the believer. If the judicial nature of justification by faith is lost, then salvation becomes identified, in one way or another, with the believer's own subjective experience.

    While in Luther and Calvin all the emphasis fell on the redemptive event that took place with Christ's death and resurrection, later under the influence of pietism, mysticism, and moralism, the emphasis shifted to the process of individual appropriation of the salvation given in Christ and to its mystical and moral effect in the life of believers. Accordingly, in the history of the interpretation of the epistles of Paul the center of gravity shifted more and more from the forensic to the pneumatic and ethical aspects of his preaching, and there arose an entirely different conception of the structures that lay at the foundation of this preaching.2

The Modern Religious Scene

For the most part, Paul's gospel about salvation by the righteousness of faith has no real place in modern preaching. It has even been said that the Reformers' passionate concern about justification by faith does not even make sense to modern man. It is not that talk about salvation is lacking. The modern evangelical would be horrified if it were to be suggested that he did not believe in salvation by grace. And here is the problem: he is so confident about his belief in salvation by grace that it does not occur to him that there may be a radical difference between the way he thinks about salvation and the way Paul and the Reformers thought about it. It is sobering to reflect on how the early Fathers, one generation removed from Paul, knew so little about justification by faith. Yet we are many generations removed from the Reformers. Unless the objective gospel is rediscovered afresh by every generation, it will surely be lost.

Paul and the Reformers who followed him thought of salvation principally in terms of justification by faith in an imputed righteousness. Modern evangelicalism thinks of salvation principally in terms of a new-birth experience. There is a marked difference in emphasis here. The center has shifted from that which is outside of man to that which is inside of man. This viewing of salvation chiefly in terms of a new-birth experience is more in harmony with classical Romanism than with genuine Protestantism. This is why good Romanists can look upon most modern forms of revivalism and Christian crusades with considerable favor—or in the words of Louis Bouyer, call them "a rediscovery of Catholicism."3

Why are we today so inclined to bypass salvation by the righteousness of faith and opt instead for salvation by an internal experience?

The doctrine of justification by faith deals with the legal aspects of salvation. But modern man does not think in legal categories. Anybody with a scant knowledge of the Christian religion knows that legalism is a bad and ugly thing. No one wants to be a legalist! But this antipathy toward legalism has rubbed off onto the law itself so that any great interest in the legal categories of biblical thought has been suspected of legalism. For instance, the liberals have attacked the Christian doctrine of the substitutionary atonement of Christ as a legalistic concept. (It is true that the substitutionary atonement is a legal atonement—an atonement designed to make satisfaction to the claims of the divine law.) Also, the idea of living strictly by what the Bible says has been branded as legalism. So in the place of an atonement which honors God's law (Rom. 3:31) and leads the believer to a kind of life which also seeks to honor God's law, we have the "moral influence" theory of atonement and a "Spirit" (situation) ethic—which in the final analysis is the most pitiful kind of legalism indeed.

The doctrine of justification by an imputed righteousness seems too abstract for modern man. It sounds too academic at best and too legal at worst. (Isn't legalism bad?) The thought goes something like this: "Let's leave the nit-picking theologians to argue about the legal niceties of salvation. That has no vital relevance to our concrete situation. People can't see how a righteousness in heaven can help them very much. The essence of Christianity is transformation. It is not a legal religion. Christ changes lives. That's the real cash value of the gospel. Here is religion which can be seen and felt. When Christ is invited into people's lives, it's for real; it's dynamic. Then they can witness to something real—to their new-found peace and happiness. What difference does some legal transaction called justification by faith make, or an abstract reckoning of righteousness to our account in heaven (celestial bookkeeping), when we have a real, tangible experience of Christ in the heart?"

It is perhaps ironical that this age, which is conspicuous for its vast technological progress, is also conspicuous for its shallow thinking about man. This sort of preaching, which bypasses justification by faith in favor of the "gospel" of the changed life, is woefully shallow. Its proponents may think they are making the gospel relevant to man's basic needs, but they are not. This whole approach to the Christian message is based on a twofold misunderstanding. It is based on a misunderstanding of God, and it is based on a misunderstanding of man.

The Misunderstanding of God

The God of Jesus and Paul is the God of the Old Testament. Righteousness is fundamental to His character and to all His dealings with men. Righteousness —uncompromising and perfect—is the condition of salvation. The law of God is an expression of His undeviating righteousness (Ps. 119). As Creator, Lawgiver and Judge, He makes His law known to man and expects them to walk in it. "The law must be fulfilled so that not a jot or tittle shall be lost, otherwise man will be condemned without hope."4 "Perfect obedience to the law is righteousness." "Righteousness consists in the observance of the law." "For the Lord promises nothing except to perfect keepers of His law."5

Let us make no mistake about it; the God of biblical revelation is the God of law. Law "is the way in which He administers His universe" (Morris).6 It is true that He hates and curses legalism, but we must not confuse legalism with that which is properly legal. Legalism is not legal but illegal. The law demands perfect righteousness, and when the legalist offers his imperfect obedience to the law, he insults its divine splendor.

The God of the Bible sees to it that the honor of His law is maintained at all costs—even at the cost of Calvary. He will not overlook sin, which is lack of respect for His law. Sin arouses God's anger, and He must take action against it. If God were easygoing enough to pass over sin, might He not also overlook righteousness? But He sees to it that we live in a universe where justice is done and all debts will eventually be paid.

God's governance of the universe is depicted to us in the Bible in legal categories. God relates to man by way of a covenant. Covenant is a legal conception. It spells out the terms of the God-man relationship, provides legal security, promises rewards for compliance with its terms, and sanctions against noncompliance. The legal terms of God's covenant are always carried out to the letter. God's righteousness is His undeviating fidelity to His covenant. Whatever God does, He will uphold the covenant and carry out all its promises and threats with immutable consistency.

As Judge, God is pledged to call all men to His judgment seat and judge them according to His impartial law (Rom. 2:6-16; James 2:10-12). Whatever He does will be lawful—according to law. This includes salvation itself. God does not save men by casting aside the stipulations of His covenant, but the law itself is honored in the way in which God saves the believing sinner (see Rom. 3:31). The propitiatory death of Jesus was a transaction related to the law of God. The word propitiation takes us back to the mercy seat or lid of the ark. On the Day of Atonement the blood of the sin offering was brought into the holy of holies and sprinkled on the lid of the ark, beneath which were the ten stipulations of the covenant. Even so did the blood of Jesus Christ make full satisfaction to the claims of the divine law on behalf of all who believe.

So God is not disinterested in His law. The great biblical words such as judge, judgment, covenant and righteousness should lead us to appreciate the genuine legal categories of biblical thought. And unless our thought follows these important legal categories, which are closely related to God's character and to all His dealings, there is no way that we can understand justification by faith. For justification is a great biblical word which belongs to these legal categories.

The modern scene has no time for law, and it has made for itself a god who does not care for law either. The current neglect of the biblical doctrine of justification by faith is based on a misunderstanding of God.

The Misunderstanding of Man

The failure of the modern scene to think in the legal categories of the Bible is also based on a misunderstanding of man. This is because our view of God determines our view of the creature who was made in the image of God.

As the creature of God, man is related to law (Rom. 3:19). Man cannot escape from the jurisdiction of law (the authority of God) any more than he can escape from his own creaturehood.

A serious reflection about human nature will show that human life is inextricably bound up with its relation to law. Every important human transaction is legal: business transactions, possession of property, citizenship, membership in various social groups. The most important intra-human transaction — marriage —is a legal arrangement. Love is not just based on a fluctuating human experience. Love is based on a legal covenant which guarantees security and reciprocal responsibility. True love must therefore be lawful, or it stands judged by a decent society as immoral.

Man's relationship with God is not just a matter of "falling in love with the Lord." The marriage covenant reflects the mode of the divine-human relationship. God's fellowship with man is based on a covenant which offers to the human party security and responsibility. Our union with God must be altogether a righteous union—a union which is lawful.

Then consider the phenomenon of the human conscience. This has rightly been called "the moral judiciary of the soul." The conscience is related to the moral law. It takes hold of the law and either excuses us or accuses us. The conscience will not be satisfied or appeased unless justice is done. A man may stop doing wrong, but the conscience will not be satisfied by transformation. Conscience demands that the law be satisfied. The sinner has no rest because he is at war with himself. The conscience will not let him forgive himself.

There is in the human heart a passion to be in the right. That is why we all tend to justify ourselves. If we had no great passion to be in the right, we would not make excuses for our wrong behavior, rationalize, project our guilt (blame others), and indulge in repression, regression, masochism (self-punishment) and compensation. People spend an enormous amount of time and effort trying to justify themselves. Life itself becomes an attempt to justify one's existence. Why do people fight, argue and compete with each other? These exercises are generally done to achieve justification. Psychologists and psychiatrists call it the need for acceptance—self—acceptance, acceptance before God, or acceptance before others. The Bible gives the true reason for this. Man was made in God's image, and the essence of God's image is righteousness. The sinner is bereft of righteousness, and he feels naked and insecure. Until the Spirit of grace reveals God's way of putting him right with the law (justification), the sinner has to go on trying to justify himself.

The need to be justified (in the right) is the most basic human need. This means that man's most essential problem is related to the law. It is legal. Sin is primarily a matter of guilt. That is why Jesus spoke of sin as a debt (Matt. 6:12; 18:23-35). Debt is a legal problem. No amount of inner transformation pays the debt. The gulf between God and man cannot be bridged by having Christ or the Spirit come into the sinner's heart. The sinner cannot climb to heaven by his sanctification—even if that sanctification is wrought in him by God. If sin were only a matter of pollution, and man's only need transformation, then we could dispense with Christ's reconciling act, His atoning blood, the Mediator of the covenant, and His intercession of righteousness at God's right hand. But these are the distinctive, objective realities of the Christian religion. If we dispense with the law and the legal categories of the Bible, we dispense with the gospel of salvation objectively accomplished.

To summarize: Justification which is by faith is a judicial transaction related to God's law and to the divine jurisprudence. Unless it is seen that God is a God of law and man is a creature of law, the doctrine of justification makes absolutely no sense. And that is precisely the situation in altogether too much of the current religious scene.

Paul's Perception of the Divine—Human Problem

The apostle Paul clearly perceives the fundamental problem of the divine-human relationship. He has the necessary background for the evangelical faith: the Old Testament with its demand for a righteousness which fulfills the covenantal stipulations. It is important to see how Paul takes up the gospel in the book of Romans. Let us look at his leading words: righteousness, righteous judgment, judgment, judge, wrath, condemnation, justify, guilt, law. These are all legal words—words which fit in so naturally with a covenantal religion.

Paul does not zero in on the fundamental human problem as if it were a matter of pollution and the need of transformation. (That, of course, is a problem; but we insist that it is not the fundamental problem.) The basic human need is not met by preaching, "Are you happy? Have you a sense of purpose? Do you want a radiant experience which will put zip into your life? Is your business failing? Is your mother-in-law getting you down? Are you bothered by the pimple on your nose?" (How petty is so much of this "relevant," problem-oriented preaching which offers an Alka-Seltzer Jesus in the heart to end all troubles!) The fundamental human problem is that man is on the wrong side of the law, and he is cursed and condemned for his life of rebellion and disrespect toward its authority. There is no hope of getting right with God unless the sinner gets right with the law. How can its inexorable demands for righteousness be met? How can the debt owed the holy law be liquidated? True preaching will arraign the sinner before the bar of divine judgment and show him his predicament before the law. That predicament is guilt, and there is one sentence for it: the wages of sin is death. Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin (Rom. 6:23; Heb. 9:22).

A way of salvation must be provided which will satisfy both divine and human justice. God's grace has provided the righteousness which His law demands. On the grounds of the propitiation made by Christ's blood, God can be just and the Justifier of the believing sinner (Rom. 3:24-26). This method of salvation honors the law (Rom. 3:31). It is the basis of a just and lasting peace between God and man. Christ's obedience to the law is legally reckoned (imputed) to the believing sinner. He stands before the law as one who has fulfilled all its demands. By this means the Judge can render His verdict that the sinner is righteous. This is a just verdict because it is according to law.

When the believing sinner realizes that God not only forgives him, but forgives him justly, his own conscience is "cleansed." The blood of Christ satisfies the human conscience. Justice has been done. The believing sinner has legally died with Christ (2 Cor. 5:14; Gal. 2:20). With this verdict of God's court, the sinner can silence the accusing of his conscience. He can forgive himself when he knows that God, who is greater than his heart, has forgiven him.

Some Further Implications

There are two further implications which arise from this message of salvation by the righteousness of faith:

1. It means that salvation is secured to us by that which has already happened, by that which is entirely outside the experience of the believer. If salvation is made to rest on the believer's moral renewal, he can never stand before God with an easy conscience. Once the subjective element is introduced as the ground of acceptance with God, the believer is thrown into the terrors of a gnawing uncertainty. If the degree to which the believer is transformed and lives in new obedience never satisfies his own ideal, how can it satisfy the divine ideal?

The gospel of the righteousness of faith hits the sinner in the center of his existence because it shows him that nothing in his own existence can give him standing before God. He must in faith flee from his own acts, even his good and valid acts of repentance and holiness, and hide himself in the faithfulness of Another. To be righteous by faith means self-renunciation at the deepest level of existence—for the deepest level is the need to be in the right. To be accepted because of what Another is and what Another has done is to find our justification wholly apart from our own strivings. This is freedom indeed. It does not mean that we no longer toil and work and strive to be as successful as possible. But it means that we do not have to do this to justify our existence and give ultimate meaning to life. Christ has justified our right to live, and He has given our life its ultimate meaning. Our labor may now be a labor of love, because it is not done from the ulterior motive of securing our justification. We work from justification, not to it.

2. If the law of God has been honored by the righteousness of faith, this must have profound ethical consequences in the lives of those who believe such a gospel. The same gospel which turns the sinner from his own righteousness to the righteousness of Another must also turn him from devising his own standard of conduct to the rule of life which Almighty God has decreed for all men. A salvation which honors God's law can only lead the believer in a kind of life which shows respect for the law of God. Justification by faith makes the law and the sinner friends (Rom. 8:7). If the church has become permissive in regard to sin, soft and flabby in regard to moral discipline, it is because she has neglected the doctrine of justification by faith. Where justification is exalted, so is the law of God—both as a schoolmaster to lead to Christ and as a rule of life for the believing community. Or to say this another way, justification is the mother of sanctification. The essential content of sanctification is a life gratefully submitted to the authority of God's law.

Justification is a judicial concept. A revival of the preaching of justification by faith is therefore possible only as there is a return to the legal categories of biblical revelation.



1 It is correct to say that justification means to make righteous in the judicial sense only.
2 Harman Ridderbos. Paul: An Outline of His Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), p. 14.
3 See Louis Bouyer, The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism (Cleveland: World, 1964), pp.186—197.
4 Luther's Works, American ed. (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press; St. Louis: Concordia, 1955—        ), Vol.31, pp.348—349.
5 John Calvin, Institutes, Bk. 3, chap. 17, sec. 7; Bk. 2, chap. 17, sec. 5; Bk. 3, chap. 17, sec. 1.
6 See Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, pp. 253~258, for an excellent section on the relation of God and His law.