[K:NWTS 10/1 (May 1995) 10-16]
The doctrine of justification is not central to Paul's theology. It may be central to Luther's theology, but not to the theology of the apostle Paul. In fact, justification is not a forensic category in Paul. Forensic justification may be crucial to Luther's theology, but not to Paul's. Luther misread Paul in the light of his experience with post-medieval Catholicism. Catholicism of Luther's day urged the securing of God's favor by good works. Luther then read this Roman Catholic view back on to first century Judaism. But Luther completely misunderstood first century Judaism. First century Judaism was not a religion of meritorious works; rather it was a religion of grace and mercy from which good works flow. In fact, first century Judaism balanced grace and works as much as Luther himself wished to do. We must stop reading Paul with Lutheran glasses. We must stop seeing first century Judaism through reactionary sixteenth century Protestant binoculars.
Now that I have your attention, let me acknowledge that the preceding summary of Paul's doctrine of justification and Palestinian Judaism is not mine. It is the gist of a bombshell which burst upon New Testament studies in 1977 from the pen of Edwin P. Sanders. Sanders' revisionist crusade against the Lutheran doctrine of justification in Paul has been seconded and advanced by numerous scholarsmost notably James G. Dunn. Sanders and Dunn are unabashed in the revisionist interpretation of Paul. Paul's doctrine of justification is not primarily forensic. Paul's view of the "works of the law" in first century Judaism does not attribute Pelagianism to the Jewish system. Luther was, quite simply, wrong!
The Sanders thesis represents a paradigm shift in Pauline theology. To date (to my knowledge), no Reformed scholar has answered Sanders' reconstruction. I do not propose to fill that vacuum in twenty minutes.
The doctrine of justification is no barrier to joint Evangelical-Roman Catholic mission. In the face of a hostile post-modern world, Evangelicals and Catholics must unite in their common commitment to the gospel. Since Evangelicals and Catholics jointly confess justification by grace through faith because of Christ, surely that is sufficient common ground to declare an end to centuries of Protestant-Catholic polemics. Furthermore, if the polemics are no longer relevant, mutual proselytizing is inappropriate if not downright un-Christian. Evangelicals and Catholics should recognize one another as in a state of grace and put aside differences which keep us apart.
The preceding summary of Evangelical and Roman Catholic relations is not mine. It is the gist of a bombshell which burst upon the Protestant and Catholic world last spring in a document entitled "Evanglicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium." The document "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" represents a paradigm shift in Protestant-Catholic relations. The doctrine of justification has been defined in a Roman Catholic sense with the result that Evangelicals are signing a statement which repudiates the Reformation principle of sola fide.
We are being pressed by the radical revisionists in New Testament scholarship to redefine the Pauline doctrine of justification. We are being pressed by the radical pragmatists in conservative Catholic and Evangelical circles to redefine the Pauline doctrine of justification. We have been blindsided by the radical scholars of the left. Revisionist liberalism is ever kicking the traces in the interest of destroying the past for the progressively enlightened future. But we have been betrayed by the pragmatic scholars on the right. Evangelicalism, in its lust for cultural power and influence, has surrendered the heart of the Pauline theology to indifference and irrelevance. Perhaps modern Evangelicalism is as liberal, progressive and revisionist at heart as the radical New Testament scholars themselves.
The fatal flaw in both these approaches to justification is the failure to comprehend the centrality of Christ. Sanders and Dunn are majoring in the quest for historic Judaisminterestingly, that Judaism turns out to be amazingly similar to their own modern brand of Protestantism. The signers of Evangelicals and Catholics Together are majoring in Christian mission reduced to the lowest common denominatornamely cultural counter-attack. Both sides have de-emphasized Christ himself and particularly the eschatological aspect of Paul's doctrine of justification.
The eschatological aspect of Paul's doctrine of justification should not be construed as a threat to the forensic formulation essential to historic Protestantism. The eschatological aspect of justification does not supplant the forensicit deepens and enriches it. The forensic aspect has been classically associated with Christ's active and passive obedience, that is, his life and his death. The eschatological aspect is associated with Christ's vindication, that is, his resurrection. Paul's classic conjunction of justification and resurrection is found in our text Romans 4:25"[Jesus] was raised again for our justification." This dynamic of resurrection and justification is alluded to by the apostle in 1 Timothy 3:16 ("[Christ] was justified in the Spirit"), Romans 1:3-4 ("[Christ] was declared to be the Son of God with power by resurrection from the dead"). And Paul concretely identifies the life of the believer with the risen Christ in Romans 6:4 ("as Christ was raised from the dead . . . so too may we walk in newness of life"), Colossians 3:1, 2 ("if then you have been raised up with Christ, set your minds on things above"), Ephesians 2:4-5 ("God . . . because of his great love with which he loved us . . . made us alive together with Christ and raised us up together").
But specifically what does the resurrection of Christ have to do with our justification? It is easy for us to understand what the righteous life of Christ has to do with our justificationit is the righteousness which, when imputed to us, constitutes us right with God. And it is easy for us to understand what the bloody death of Christ has to do with our justificationit is the covering for our guilt whereby we are forgiven all our sins. But how does the resurrection of Christ account for our justification? The resurrection of Christ accounts for our justification because the resurrection of Christ was his justification. His story is our storyhis justification is our justification. What do I mean by the statement "Jesus was justified"?
Well perhaps we should begin with the condemnation of Jesus. Jesus was condemnedcondemned to bear the wages of sincondemned to the curse of the graveaccounted worthy of deathaccounted to be sin itself. And that means he descended into hellhe was separated from Godhe endured the wrath of the Fatherhe was judged "guilty".
But sin, and guilt and the grave could not hold him. The curse could not bind him. The final judgment of Jesus could not sustain the charge "guilty of condemnation." He roseJesus of Nazareth rose up from the graveGod did not leave his soul in hell. The resurrection of Jesus is the declaration that he is not guilty. The resurrection of Jesus is the declaration that he is righteous. The resurrection of Jesus is his justification. No more condemnation for Jesus of Nazarethno more death for Jesus of Nazarethno more curse for Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus has been justified by resurrection.
The last things fell upon Jesusdeath, condemnation, wrath. But Jesus lives! The eschatological realities fell upon Jesus—the grave, judgment, punishment. But Jesus is alive forevermore! The resurrection of Jesus is the display of the eschatological realities in advance of the consummation. The resurrection of Jesus is the moving forward of the end-time realities into the midst of time. He goes through the final judgment on the cross. He goes to the gravein the garden. He descends to the hellish torments of God's wrathin his agony. But his body is raised from the dead on Easter morning. His soul is released from God's wrath and reunited with his bodyon Easter morning. His body and soul stand before his friends and disciples declaring that the last judgment is past for him and he has been justified by the Father—all on Easter morning.
The eschatological has appeared in the Christological. Eschatological judgment is past—for Christ. Eschatological wrath is past—for Christ. Eschatological resurrection is past—for Christ. Eschatological justification is past—for Christ. The resurrection of Jesus is the eschatological declaration that he has been justified—justified once and for all! The resurrection of Jesus is his justification.
But Paul says in our text "he was raised for our justification." Do you see it? Do you see what Paul sees? Christ's justification is our justification. We are justified in his justification. When he was made sin, he was made sin for us. When he died, we died with him. When he entered into the judgment and was condemned, we were condemned with him. When he endured the wrath of God, he took that wrath in our place. And when he was acquitted by resurrection, we were acquitted. When he was declared not guilty by resurrection, we were declared not guilty. When he was raised up, we were raised up together with him. When he was justified—justified by resurrection—we were justified. The eschatological has appeared for usin the Christological. Eschatological death is past for us—Jesus paid it all. Eschatological judgment is past for us—Jesus endured it all. Eschatological wrath is past for us—Jesus bore it all. Eschatological righteousness is present for us—Jesus has it all. Eschatological forgiveness is present for us—Jesus gives it all. Eschatological life is present for us—Jesus lives it all.
Even now to those who are in Christ Jesus—no condemnation!
Even now to those who are in Christ Jesus—no more wrath!
Even now to those who are in Christ Jesus—no more death!
Even now to those who are in Christ Jesus—you are justified!
Even now to those who are in Christ Jesus—you are forgiven!
Even now to those who are in Christ Jesus—you have been raised from the dead!
Well then, why do we appear in the final judgment at Christ's second coming? Certainly not to jeopardize the eschatological character of his justification and our justification in him. Rather we will be, together with Christ, the justification of God, for we shall reveal that we are the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus on that great day.
He was raised for our justification—we have now been justified and
yet will be justified.
He was raised for our justificationwe have now been raised up and
yet will be raised up.
He was raised for our justification—we have now been seated in heavenly
places and yet will be seated in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.
It is precisely at this point—the eschatological character of justification that neither broad evangelicals, Roman Catholics or radicals like Sanders and Dunn grasp the unique character of the Pauline theology. In interpreting Paul through the grid of first century Judaism, the radicals fail to understand the unique role of the resurrection of the Son of Godfor you see it was a resurrected Christ that stopped Saul of Tarsus on the Damascus Road. In interpreting Paul through the grid of twentieth century pragmatism, broad Evangelicals and Catholics fail to understand the "once and for all", the eschatological character of Jesus' own justification by resurrection. What could any sinnereven one in a state of graceadd to it?!
We, upon whom the end of the age has come, we can follow neither deviation. For we know—even now—we know that Jesus was raised for our justification. And we know that He will yet raise us up justified to behold the face of his Father forever.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Charles W. Colson, "Evangelicals & Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium." First Things 43 (May 1994): 15-22.
James D. G. Dunn, "The New Perspective on Paul." Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library 65/2 (Spring 1983): 95-122.
______________, Christian Liberty. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1994.
______________, The Justice of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1994.
E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977.
___________, Paul, the Law and the Jewish People. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983.