Justification is one of the most prominent of Paul’s ten great metaphors and it’s also probably the best-known one as well. In this light, I think that I’ll try to move past an assumed understanding of justification by touching on three topics:
1) The pre-Pauline roots of justification
2) Baptism and justification
3) Works of the law and justification
Justification comes from Paul’s OT background. When Paul says that Christ has justified us, it means that Christ has brought it about that we stand before God’s judgment seat acquitted, that is, declared innocent, upright, or righteous depending on whose translation you’re using.
Justification Before Paul
Two passages are usually cited to suggest that the idea of justification existed before Paul’s formulation. The first is Rom 4:25, which is the culmination of Paul’s exposition of Abraham (not Christ!) as the example for our faith. Since Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness, so it is that
“[Uprightness] is also going to be credited to us who believe in him who was raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was
handed over for our trespasses and
raised for our justification.”
The second candidate is 1 Cor 6:11, once again the culmination of a line of reasoning, but this time about unchecked public behavior (inappropriate litigation, homosexuality, drunkenness, greed, etc.). Although the Corinthians “were once this kind” of people, they are not now:
But you were washed,
but you were sanctified,
but you were justified
in the name of the Lord Jesus and
in the Spirit of our God.
What these two expressions have in common is that they are most likely “traditional formulations.” They have something of a poetic quality—balance, rhythm, and a “pregnant” connection of ideas—suggesting that they were not composed for a prose argument but deliberately included as the final strokes in Paul’s arguments.
Obviously, this is not a scientific process and there is rarely universal agreement except in instances such as the opening verses of Romans or the first eighteen or so verses of the Fourth Gospel. But as these things go, in their subjective way, this is evidence that these ideas existed among Christians before Paul. Paul’s contribution to the matter seems to be the concept that all of this comes about through faith.
Baptism and Justification
The crux of the issue is this: if I am justified, I am acquitted of all sin. If I am already acquitted by faith, why do I need to be baptized for forgiveness of these sins? Associated with this basic question is another: Isn’t baptism just another “work?” And linked to that is the idea that baptism replaced circumcision.
First, Paul would never have considered baptism a “work of the law,” and he never uses it as a substitute for circumcision; faith is what he contrasts with the Law. More on this in the next section. Second, he never talks about forgiveness as an effect of the Christ-event. Finally, he does not self-identify as someone who baptizes with near the vigor that he presents himself as someone who preaches the gospel. What, then, are some of Paul’s ideas about baptism?
This brings us to the matter of Paul’s prepositions. There are four significant prepositions with Christ as their object. The first, dia (through), is the language of mediation. We have already covered it: all of God’s gifts, including resurrection, come “through Christ” as mediator.
The second is eis (into), which has the sense of “movement into.” Two verbs normally accompany this preposition: believe (pisteuein) and baptize (baptizein). To say that we are “baptized into Christ” is to express our movement toward him. This response is the beginning of the Christian condition of “in (en) Christ.” (A similar case can be made for “believe.”)
The most common use of “in Christ” is to express the close union between Christ and Christians. Just as all good things comes through Christ, so all good things we now have are available to us because we are “in Christ.” Thus 2 Cor 5:17 “if anyone is in Christ, that one is a new creature” (or: there is a new creation) with all that this state of affairs implies.
The fourth preposition is syn (with). This may occur alone or in compound verbs:
syn (with) or synmorphus (formed with)
Thus, we can be with Christ, we can be formed with Christ, grown together with him, heir with him, suffer with him, be crucified with him, be buried with him, be glorified with him, and live with him. By way of contrast, we are never said to be born with him, to be baptized with him, to be tempted with him, or the like.
We are now in a position to consider baptism and “with Christ” as a complement to being baptized “into Christ.” Consider Rom 6:4-5:
4 We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life. 5 For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection.
So the expression “with Christ” has the double sense of initiation and culmination. We begin our lives as Christians identified with Christ in the very act of God’s victory. We likewise are in association with Christ at its completion, in the final round of God’s mighty acts. In the meantime, we are “in Christ,” that is, we are heir to all the good things God has, in possession of some of it, and awaiting the rest in Christian hope.
You may also want to notice that the power of God that raised Christ is, in this instance, called “the glory of the Father.”
N.B. I have not exhausted Paul’s thoughts on this matter. To Paul, conversion was a complex transitional moment involving faith, justification, baptism, the Spirit and incorporation in Christ. More later. In the meantime, what I have written is good, but caveat lector.
Good Works and Justification
Time to deal with a fact: there are many instances of merit-based righteousness in the wider NT and when you get looking, there’s quite a bit in Paul, as well. Consider this little gem from 2 Cor 5:9-10
9 Therefore, we aspire to please him, whether we are at home or away. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive recompense, according to what he did in the body, whether good or evil.
Judgment seat metaphors are almost always merit-based. In fact, there’s a rather long article on merit-based righteousness in the TDNT, as well.
This sort of thing has led some folks to conclude that we are saved by both faith and works. To the best of my knowledge, there’s no support for this conflation. Although there are many instances of one or the other, there’s nothing coherent that supports having it both ways at the same time.
What to do, what to do? One particularly interesting approach would be to get the Wild Thangs to use up a few of their multiple mortal probations in a scientific study. Another would be to look more closely at Paul’s writing, and in particular at the impact of E. P. Sander’s study of 1st century Judaism as it relates to Paul.
Sanders pretty much revolutionized this area in the 90s. His conclusions and their implications, which are now widely accepted, are these:
1) Judaism was, in fact, a religion of grace. That is, Jews of the 1st century knew that it was not their ability to keep that Law that brought them salvation, but God’s grace.
2) Paul’s disagreement with them was not over this grace, but over precisely how one became a member of the group that was to receive salvation through this grace.
3) Paul’s judaizing opponents thought membership in this group came by what Paul calls “works of the law,” that is, the things that made Jews uniquely Jews. In this list would be circumcision, dietary laws, dress codes, and Sabbath observances.
4) Paul, arguing strongly from the position that God is one God, taught that membership in this community did not come through ethnic distinctions but through the faith in Christ that was equally available to all.
5) Those who insisted on circumcision, dietary restrictions, and the like were, in effect, insisting that Christ was insufficient. This, to Paul, simply would not do.
So what does all this mean for commandments, keeping the commandments, and the all that sort of stuff? Paul’s thought seems to be that we enter the group being saved by our faith. Once inside that group, God has given such commandments as he finds necessary and wise to order ourselves and our relationships with each other, with the wider world, and with him. These are commandments, not a pirate’s code, and obligatory, but keeping them is not what gains us that first, all-important entry. Hence, we have no reason to boast in anything but Christ Jesus.
And that is the gist of what’s behind Paul’s twin insistence that faith brings salvation but obedience to commandments is required. It also goes some distance in explaining why we remain obligated with respect to things like the Decalogue, but no longer worried about BLTs and Rabbi Tuck’s little guillotine.
And speaking of BLTs, I now have 36 baby tomatoes.