The Shape of Justification

(N.T. Wright, Bible Review, April 2001.  Reproduced by permission of the author.)

A misunderstood term has caused great confusion in understanding Paul, and it’s time to get it right.

Just before Christmas, Paul Barnett, an Australian bishop and a New Testament scholar, placed an article on his Web site entitled “Why Wright is Wrong.” (He has since toned it down to “Tom Wright and the New Perspective.”)  The question at stake is: What did Paul mean by “justification”?  This topic has again become a storm center, though perhaps not equally in all teacups[1].

There is no space to go through Barnett’s piece and take issue with it.  What I offer here, in an attempt to clarify the issues, is a brief account of how Paul’s statements on justification fit together.  It is vital to separate the past, present and future tenses of justification; when we do, the real issues emerge.

2. We begin with Paul’s view of the future.

(a) The one true God will finally judge the whole world; on that day, some will be found guilty, and others will be upheld (Romans 2:1-16).  God’s vindication of the latter on the last day is his act of final “justification” (Romans 2:13). The word carries overtones of a court of law.

(b) But not only a court of law.  Justification is part of Paul’s picture of the family God promised in his covenant with Abraham.  God’s judicial announcement on the last day in favor of certain people is also the declaration that they are part of the family promised to Abraham (Romans 4; see also Galatians 3).  This is why law-court imagery is appropriate: When God entered into a covenant with Abraham, the purpose was, and remains, to put the whole world to rights, to deal with sin and death.

(c) This double declaration (judicial and covenantal) will take the form of an event.  God’s people will be resurrected and will share the promised inheritance, the renewed creation (Romans 8).  This event, which from one point of view is the “justification” of God’s people (Romans 8:32-34), is from another their “salvation”: their rescue from the corruption of death, which for Paul is the result of sin.  The final resurrection is the ultimate rescue, which God promised from the beginning (Romans 4:18-25).

3. Moving back from future to past, God’s action in Jesus forms Paul’s template for this final justification.

(a) Jesus has been faithful, obedient to God’s saving purposes right up to death (Romans 5:12-21; Philippians 2:6-9).  God has now declared decisively that Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah, who encapsulates Israel’s destiny (Romans 1:3-5).

(b) Jesus’ resurrection was, for Paul, the proof that God really had dealt with sin (1 Corinthians 15:17).  With the faithful death of Jesus, God accomplished what had been promised to Abraham, and “what the law could not do” (Romans 8:3): For those who belong to the Messiah, there is “no condemnation” (Romans 8:1,31-39).

(c) The event which brought all this about was, of course, the resurrection of the crucified Jesus.

4. Justification in the present is based on God’s past accomplishment in the Messiah, and anticipates the future verdict. This present justification has exactly the same pattern.

(a) God vindicates in the present, in advance of the last day, all those who believe in Jesus as Messiah and Lord (Romans 3:21-31, 4:13-25, 10:9-13).  The law-court language indicates what is meant. “Justification” is not God’s act of changing the heart or character; Paul uses the verb “call,” the call that comes through the word and the Spirit, to denote that change.  “Justification” has a specific, and narrower, reference: It is God’s declaration that the person is now in the right, which confers on them the status of “righteous.”

(b) This present declaration unites all believers into a single people, the one family promised to Abraham (Galatians 2:14-3:29; Romans 3:27-4:17), the people whose sins have been dealt with and forgiven as part of the fulfilled promise of covenant renewal (Jeremiah 31:31-34).  Membership in this family cannot be played off against forgiveness of sins.  The two belong together.

(c) The event in the present that corresponds to Jesus’ death and resurrection in the past, and the resurrection of all believers in the future, is baptism into Christ (Galatians 3:26-29; Romans 6:2-11).  Baptism is not, as some have supposed, a “work” which one “performs” to earn God’s favor.  It is, for Paul, the sacrament of God’s free grace. Paul can speak of those who have believed and been baptized as already “saved,” albeit “in hope” (Romans 8:24).

Three outstanding matters remain.

1. The faith in question is faith in “the God who raised Jesus from the dead.” It comes about through the announcement of God’s word, the gospel, which works powerfully in the hearts of hearers, “calling” them to believe, or indeed (as Paul often puts it) to “obey” the gospel (Romans 1:16-17; 1 Thessalonians 1:3-5, 2:13; 2 Thessalonians 1:8). This faith looks backwards to what God has done in Christ; Christian faith relies on that, rather than on anything that is true of oneself.  For Paul, this meant refusing to regard the badges of Jewish law observance, “the works of the law,” as the decisive factor (Philippians 3:2-11).  And it looks forward to the final day.  This faith is the first sign of new God-given life, and therefore truly anticipates the final verdict (Philippians 1:6).

2. By “the gospel” Paul does not mean “justification by faith.”  He means the announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus is Lord.  To believe this message—to give believing allegiance to Jesus as Messiah and Lord—is to be justified in the present by faith (whether or not one has even heard of justification by faith).  Justification by faith is a second-order doctrine: To believe it is both to have assurance (believing that one will be vindicated on the last day [Romans 5:1-5]) and to know that one belongs in the single family of God, called to share table fellowship with all other believers without distinction (Galatians 2:11-21).  But one is not justified by faith by believing in justification by faith, but by believing in Jesus.

3. Justification is thus the declaration of God, the just judge, that someone has had their sins forgiven and that they are a member of the covenant family, the family of Abraham.  That is what the word means in Paul’s writings.  It doesn’t describe how people get into God’s forgiven family; it declares that they are in.  That may seem a small distinction, but it is vital.

The three tenses of justification have often been confused, causing some of the great problems of understanding Paul.  If we keep them both plainly distinguished and appropriately interrelated, clarity, and perhaps even agreement, might follow.  If justification is about belonging to a single family, it would be good if that family—and its friends—could try to agree about what it means.


(Webmaster’s note: A longer version of this article appears at http://www.thepaulpage.com/Shape.html)

[1] The article is at http://www.anglicanmediasydney.asn.au/pwb/ntwright_perspective.htm.  The relevant work of my own is chapter 7 of What Saint Paul Really Said (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997).

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