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Righteousness by Faith (Part 4)

The Eschatological Meaning of Justification

The material principle of the Reformation was justification by faith. The Reformers rescued this as the chief article of the Christian religion when they recovered its judicial meaning. Never since the apostle Paul had this doctrine been taught with such clarity in the church. The church had confused the righteousness of faith and the regenerate life of the believer. It was this synthesis between righteousness by faith and sanctification which was the heart of the medieval system with all its abominable fruits. But Luther broke this synthesis. Justification was clearly distinguished from regeneration.

The Reformers showed that justification is being declared righteous, not being made righteous. It concerns what was done for us and not what is done in us. It is by an extrinsic righteousness imputed to us and not by an intrinsic righteousness infused into us.

The Reformation moreover affirmed the primacy, all-sufficiency and centrality of justification by faith: its primacy because the relational (legal) change takes precedence over the vital (moral) change: its all-sufficiency because it is a justification unto life eternal; its centrality because the glory of Christ's finished work is magnified and the comfort of troubled consciences is provided for in the preaching of forensic justification.

Protestantism has not always been successful in maintaining the primacy, all-sufficiency and centrality of justification by faith. The tendency has ever been to subordinate justification and to slip away from the objective focus of the Pauline gospel. The believer and his private experience have so often taken the spotlight from the awesome, infinite act of God in Jesus Christ.

As we have said, there is a need to go back to recover the great Reformation insight. But we must not only go back; we must also go forward. Justification is not only judicial; it is eschatological. The Reformation stopped short of a rounded-out eschatological consciousness. Because of this, the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith has been exposed to certain weaknesses—weaknesses which only time could highlight to us. We will point out two of these weaknesses.

1. It has often been said, especially in the Reformed stream of thought, that justification is a once-and-for-all, nonrepeatable act. This final act, it has been said, is followed by sanctification. We might diagram this as follows:

What inevitably happens in this way of viewing things is that justification becomes static. It becomes relegated (as far as the believing community is concerned) to a thing of the past. There is a tendency for it to become a warm memory. To be sure, it is something very relevant to begin the Christian life, but it slips away from the central place in the thinking of the existential moment. For all the strong points of Puritan theology, one has only to reflect on it in order to notice that sanctification tended to swallow up justification.

When this static justification is combined with a philosophical, rationalistic idea of election, as well as preoccupation with immortality of the soul, the great importance which the New Testament gives to eschatology begins to slip out of sight. It is even worse when this static justification is reduced to the more popular once-saved-always-saved-ism —which is Calvinism minus the perseverance of the saints. Here the biblical doctrine about the final judgment according to works is emptied of all meaning. In this line of thinking, the soul has received practically everything of significance quite apart from the final judgment and the last day. Such a loss of the Bible's emphasis on a final judgment according to works is often attended by disastrous ethical and moral consequences. In cutting much of the biblical tension between the now and the not yet, this type of theology cuts much of the tension of the biblical imperative to holiness.

2. Wesley did not like this aspect of Reformed thought, especially when the perseverance of the saints was shorn from it. Yet he did not opt for the Roman solution, which confounds justification with regeneration. He maintained the Reformation distinction between the righteousness of faith and sanctification. But Wesley weakened the Reformation doctrine of justification by reducing it to forgiveness for the sins of the past. Justification, said Wesley, does not mean being declared righteous on the grounds of Christ's having kept the law for us. It simply means forgiveness for past sins on account of Christ's meeting the penalty of the law for us. In Wesley's thought, this weakened version of justification was to be followed by the experience of sanctification.

It should be noted that sanctification here tends to be regarded as a higher stage of the soteriological process. Since justification is only forgiveness of past sins, final salvation awaits the future verdict of the judgment. What happens here is that there is a tendency to have the believer's final salvation rest on sanctification. We may diagram this scheme as illustrated at the lower right:

This Wesleyan scheme, as history has amply demonstrated, lends itself to perfectionism—some rather implicit, some quite explicit. (Wesley realized that his perfectionism was only possible on the premise of the dualism of mortal body and immortal soul.)

The line of thought in point one means that there is no real need of the advent—at least the believing community can get along quite well without thinking too much about it. As A. J. Gordon once put it, many think far more about their going than about Christ's coming. The rationalistic view of election and the dualistic view of man privatizes salvation and lends itself to an individual eschatology at death rather than a corporate one at Christ's coming.

The line of thought in point two really means that the believing community is never ready for the advent. If being ready is based on sanctification, no one is ever convinced that he is ready for the Lord to come. Some go all the way and make the coming of Christ dependent on the believing community's being spiritually perfected (that is, sinless). But instead of hastening Christ's coming, this sort of program can only delay it. Who would have the nerve to pray in confidence, "Come, Lord Jesus," if only the perfect could stand when He appeared? There are some people who spend all their spiritual pilgrimage listening to preachers pulverize them with the imperative of getting ready for Jesus to come. And the sad fact is that they are always "getting ready" rather than "being ready."

As to which is worst—having no need of the advent or not being ready for the advent—we must leave the reader to judge. But if we are to escape from the horns of this dilemma, we must come to grips with the eschatological meaning of justification by faith.

Eschatology and the New Testament

The Old Testament looks forward to God's promised salvation at "the end of the age." God's act of intervention—His arraignment of the world in judgment, attended by His wrath on the wicked, the resurrection of the just and the deliverance of His people—are all anticipated at the end of the world.

The New Testament shows us that the anticipated end of the world consists in two moments: the first and second comings of Christ. At the first coming of Christ the end of the world took place in principle. The Christ event is described as a last-day happening (Heb. 1:2; 9:26). In the Person of God's Messiah the kingdom of the future broke into history. In Him who was the new Head of the race, God arraigned the world in judgment and poured out His wrath against sin. By Him sin was put away at the end of the age (Heb. 9:26), death was abolished, and life and immortality were brought to light (2 Tim. 1:10). The long-looked-for act of salvation took place in the death and resurrection of Christ. All that God promised in the Old Testament by way of His eschatological salvation was fulfilled in Jesus Christ (Acts 13: 32-33; 2 Cor. 1:20). Eternal life—literally, the life of the age to come—was brought to us by Jesus Christ. All who believe are incorporated with Christ into the new eon; old things have passed away, and all things have become new (2 Cor. 5:17).

The New Testament community sees itself as living at the end of the age. The resurrection of Christ and the outpouring of the Spirit are signs that the final resurrection and the Spirit's final work of glorification of all of God's people will be the next event. The parousia will only mean the visible manifestation of what has already taken place in Christ, or the open manifestation of what every believer already enjoys by faith alone.

The church of the New Testament, which lives in the moment between the two advents, is an eschatological community. She stands on tiptoe, waiting eagerly for Christ's return. The appearing of antichrists (false teachers) and the waning love of others who depart from the faith are all seen as signs of the last hour. Christ, the great High Priest, has gone into the sanctuary, having made His final offering for sin; and the believers are like the Israelites waiting for the high priest to come out of the holy of holies to bless the waiting congregation with salvation (Heb. 9:28). The New Testament church, being an eschatological community, is a pilgrim community. In this world she has no abiding city, but she seeks one to come. Like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, she lives in tents. We find no record of the building of churches and institutions by the apostolic church. She had no time.

We need to understand that the books of the New Testament were written in this eschatological atmosphere. Many of the great words in Paul's Romans, for instance, are eschatological words—that is to say, they are words loaded with end-time significance. Salvation (Rom. 1:16) is what the prophets had promised at the end time (Isa. 25:9). It is the same with life, shall live and eternal life (Rom. 1:17; 5:10,18-21; 6:23; 8:10-12). The righteousness of God now revealed in the gospel is that eschatological saving act of God which the prophets had promised (Isa. 56:1: Rom. 1:17). The words judgment, righteous judgment of God, and wrath are obviously eschatological (see Rom. 2:3-16; 5:9). So also are glory of God, glorified, Spirit and redemption (Rom. 5:2; 823-30).

In the same way, we must consider what Paul means by justified and justification. These words are not only judicial (related to law), but eschatological (related to the end of the world). In a setting both judicial and eschatological, the apostle declares:

The doers of the law shall be justified . . . in the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel.—Rom. 2:13,16.

We may place a passage by Jesus alongside of the above:

But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.—Matt. 12:36-37.

It was the expectation of the pious Jew that at the end of the age there would be a judgment day. Then God would justify the righteous and condemn the wicked. Justification was what would take place for the people of God on the day of judgment. The passages cited above show that in a certain sense Paul and Jesus shared that expectation. Justification is eschatological. It is the verdict of acquittal and approval which is rendered on the day of judgment.

The Biblical Doctrine of Judgment

Before we look further into the Pauline meaning of justification, let us consider what the Bible teaches us about the judgment.

1. The Bible teaches that there will be a final judgment of all according to works. Many of the parables of Jesus tell us this in the plainest possible way. Paul, the apostle of justification by faith, says more about a final judgment according to works than does any other apostle. Romans 2 is a classical example and is not, as some more liberal scholars have suggested, a hangover from Paul's Judaistic training. Justification by faith alone and a final judgment according to works are not inimical. They go well together in Paul's theology.

All that men have done, including the lives of the righteous, must pass in review before God. Every secret thing will be brought into the judgment, whether good or evil (Eccl. 12:13-14). The Lord will not gloss over any piece of evidence. He will not hide the facts, even about His elect. The undeleted evidence will be brought to light. The standard of the judgment will be the law of God, the ten stipulations of the everlasting covenant (Rom. 2:13; James 2:10-12). The demand for righteousness will be rigorous and uncompromising. Those who have perfect righteousness will be justified; those who fall short will be condemned.

2. The New Testament teaches us that the judgment is imminent. The resurrection of Christ is the assurance of this (Acts 17:31). James reminds the believing community who are tempted to judge one another that "the Judge standeth before the door" (James 5:9). Peter could even say that "the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God" (1 Peter 4:17). Everywhere the "everlasting gospel" is announced, it declares, "The hour of His judgment is come" (Rev. 14:7).

If a person is to really appreciate what Paul means by his message of justification by faith, one must enter into the eschatological consciousness of the New Testament community and see himself standing in the very presence of God's final judgment. By faith he must enter this holy of holies and see himself before the ark of the testimony, as the Jews were summoned to meet with God on the day of Yom Kippur.

Justification: Future and Present

Justification, being the verdict of God's judgment seat, is yet future. Just as Paul can talk of "the hope of eternal life" and "the hope of salvation," so he can talk about "the hope of justification" which we yet wait for (Gal. 5:5). Hope pertains to what is future (Rom. 8:24-25). Paul waits for the crown of righteousness (justification) which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to him on the final day (2 Tim. 4:8). "The doers of the law [the righteous] shall be justified" (Rom. 2:13). This future (eschatological or final-judgment) dimension of justification is also evident in Romans 8:31-39. Says Shrenk:

    In the full sense a man is judicially acquitted and declared righteous only when the retributive sentence of the last judgment has been pronounced in his favour as regards the whole of his life's work. . . . [Romans] 8:33 . . . obviously refers to the last judgment.7
We have seen that the men of the Old Testament and the pious rabbis believed in this future justification on the day of judgment. Now we must see wherein Paul radically breaks from traditional Judaism. He grants that only the righteous will receive the verdict of life, but he shows that such righteousness is impossible by man's work. Paul declares, "He who through faith is righteous shall live" (Rom. 1:17, RSV). By faith the sinner accepts the vicarious, God-pleasing righteousness of Jesus and therein finds a righteousness with which the law is well pleased. But that is not all. On the grounds that the future has already taken place in Jesus, the believer may grasp the verdict of the final judgment in the now by faith. Faith possesses the future (H Heb. 11:1).
    The divine justification which was accomplished at the cross, which is now believed and which is a continuing gift in the present, is to be expected as a consummated and definitive acquittal in the Last Day.8

Justification is the verdict of the final judgment—God's ultimate verdict—possessed in the now by faith. The blessing is held only in faith, and it still hangs in hope. We must not destroy this tension between what is present in faith alone and what is future by empirical reality.

The Significance of Eschatological Justification

When justification is seen as God's eschatological (ultimate) verdict, it must always remain central. Justification is not a static event in our past experience. On the contrary, we are always moving toward it. Constantly we are reminded and we remind ourselves that we face the terrors of the great judgment. Faith anticipates and grasps in the now the verdict of acquittal so that we hasten toward that great day, crying, "Oh, happy judgment day!"

We repeat, Justification is not a thing that we pass and get behind us. As Barth rightly said, it is not like a filling station that we pass but once. As we hold to its eschatological implications, justification by faith can never become static but must remain the dynamic center of Christian existence, the continuous present. We are always sinners in our eyes, but we are always standing on God's justification and, perhaps more importantly, moving toward it. To be justified is a present-continuous miracle to the man who present-continuously believes, knowing that he who believes possesses all things, and he who does not believe possesses nothing. Such a life is only possible where the gospel of justification is continually heard and where God's verdict of acquittal is like those mercies which Jeremiah declared were new every morning—"great is Thy faithfulness" (Lam. 3:22-23).

Here is every reason for ample encouragement and no reason for presumption. The day when God will actually, irrevocably pronounce His decree is before us, and this summons us to keep the faith.

Since justification is God's ultimate verdict, it can never be superseded, never subordinated by sanctification. Since it is God's ultimate verdict of life eternal, it meets our deepest need—the need to be in the right before the judgment bar of God. And because faith holds God's ultimate verdict, it frees its possessor to a life of true sanctification. This holy living is not participated in to impress the Judge or to score some points to help secure one 5 ultimate acceptance. True holiness is possible because faith frees us from the ulterior motive of trying to earn the verdict of eternal life.

Conclusion: A Renaissance of Justification by Faith

If we are to witness a renaissance of the teaching of justification by faith in our day, it will not come from communities which are soft and flabby through lack of the stern discipline of hearing God's law. Neither will it come from those who have no vital interest in eschatology but who dream that the day of the Lord is a long way off. It will be spearheaded by a community which, for a background, has two essential features:

1. It will take God's law, the absolute moral imperatives, and the legal categories of the Bible with radical seriousness.

2. It will have an eschatological consciousness like that of the New Testament church—not an eschatological consciousness which is directed to Palestine and to weird and wonderful events dreamed up by prophetic prognosticators, but an eschatological consciousness directed to the ark of the covenant and to God's mercy seat in heaven (Heb. 8:1-2; Rev. 11:19).

(To be concluded)



7 G. Kittel, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964-1976), vol.2, pp.217-218.
8 Ibid., p.218.