Sunday, July 14, 2013

On Justification

Each generation in the Christian community must remember that the one coming behind them brings an empty plate of theology so to speak. That is to say that one of our duties in the Christian group is to catechize the ones behind us, chronologically speaking that is. This means that we must always be in the process of educating ourselves, and those whom the Lord brings into the Group. One of the doctrines that suffers from grave error, and yet remains cardinal in the Christian system of truth is that of justification.

Paul wrote in Romans 5:1, Δικαιωθέντες οὖν ἐκ πίστεως εἰρήνην ἔχομεν πρὸς τὸν θεὸν διὰ τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ. Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Contextually speaking, the connective “therefore,” points us back, but just how far. Scholars are not in agreement. Cranfield thinks it “gathers up the thought of 1:18-4:25.” He is not alone. Robert Mounce also sees it this way. There is little doubt that Paul’s line of thought up to this point is focused on man’s justification.

It is not at all obvious that the apostle is following a rigid scheme. But it is clear that he has concluded his basic account of justification and that he is now moving on to the consequences.[1] 

At the very opening of his argument, Paul points us to the truth that God’s righteousness is revealed in the gospel of Jesus Christ from faith to faith. From the start we not only witness Paul’s emphasis on justification, but we see his linkage of the act of justification with faith. Justification by faith, according to Paul is revealed in the gospel. We cannot help but ask if the gospel reveals the concept of “justification by faith” to us, if it was in fact hidden prior to the gospel. What we must grapple with is the act of justification, and how that act, which was wholly divine, relates to the act of believing.

What does it mean to be justified? Many young Christians cannot even begin to explain what it means. This is probably not their fault. Many churches have simply made it part of their culture to avoid doctrine altogether, in the name of drawing people in. Initially they were going to draw people in and then disciple them. Somehow, they got them in but forgot the discipleship part. What we are left with are many churches filled with many Christians who are not even able to articulate the most basic Christian dogmas. It also means that we have lots of work to do. While many churches have been busy building professional music and drama teams, youth programs, and lobbying politicians about everything from abortion to gay marriage to immigration, the members of the body have been dying of spiritual malnutrition.

The Greek word translated justify is δικαιόω. The root is dikē. At its root it means justice. The verb form means to engage in the act of justifying. In essence it means to clear someone of a transgression. It means to be found in the right, be free of charges. George Zimmerman was just justified of the charges against him in the Trayvon Martin incident. It means you are declared innocent by the legal authority under whose jurisdiction you fall.

The construction in Romans 5:1 has the word appearing as an aorist, passive participle, plural, nominative, masculine. Hence, the best way to render this form in English is “Having been justified.” The author’s focus is on the act as a whole without emphasis on a particular aspect. He moves from his argument for the fact of justification to the consequence of our state now that we are justified. Maybe it is better to say that Paul shifts his attention to the “now that” part of the argument. Now that you have been justified, what is the state?
It is the gospel of Christ, according to Rom. 1:17 that reveals God’s righteousness to us. The entire hinge of justification is the gospel. From what then do we need justification? Just as George Zimmerman was under charges, so too is all of humanity. Romans one informs us that all men pervert the gift of God’s revelational knowledge. In addition, Paul tells us in Rom. 2:11, there is no partiality with God. All men stand condemned regardless of their race or status. In Rom. 3:9 Paul asserts that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin. He then informs us that no one is righteous, no one understands, no one seeks God, there is no fear of God in humanity. All of humanity stands guilty, condemned before the perfectly holy God. Because God is holy, and righteous or just, sin cannot go without punishment. There is no imperfection in the divine court. Justice is rendered perfectly in each and every case. Each and every one of us have come up short of the divine moral standard according to Rom. 3:23. None of us can justify ourselves before God’s court, before the divine Lawgiver. We are all the same! That is not so easy to remember when we are looking at the failings of others and so easy to forget when we look in the mirror. We are wicked sinners and that is the nature of wicked sinners. We are guilty.

Paul’s declaration brings with it an amazing sound of hope. “Therefore, having been justified by faith.” What a mysterious thing to say! I touched on the implications of the aorist tense of this participle above. Now it is time to touch on its voice, and the significance that has on the meaning of this word. The participle is in the passive voice, meaning that the act of justifying is being performed on us. We do not have an active role in justification. How could we? George Zimmerman did nothing at his trial but watch the fate of his future being decided entirely by the court. In the same way, justification is a divine act that takes place in the divine court by the divine Lawgiver Himself. To be justified is to be declared innocent by the court. The doctrine of justification within the Christian religion is the view that God officially declares His elect to be just, innocent of the charges brought against them. And just as George Zimmerman has passive in the court’s decision, so too are Christians. We cannot act in our own behalf to be declared just. Only the court can make such a declaration. Only God’s court can declare the Christian just. This is the sense of the passive voice of the participle in Romans 5:1.

The doctrine of justification is entirely focused on the contribution of the divine. It takes man out of the equation. It is the business of the Father and the Son who is declared just. To be sure, no one deserves this declaration. We are all equally guilty and deserving of eternal damnation. Only a healthy understanding of God, His holiness and our sin can help a person understand this concept. If you have trouble with the idea that God condemns men who have never heard the gospel, it is simply due to the fact that your view of God, sin, and sinners is somehow missing key biblical elements.

When we misunderstand the nature of God’s holiness, we cannot help but misunderstand the nature of sin and the seriousness of our own rebellion. Moreover, when we misunderstand these things, we are surely going to misunderstand our own justification and the amazing grace that accompanies it. This misunderstanding leads men to utter folly in their preaching, evangelism, and apologetic.

It leads men to think that some men can be saved, redeemed apart from Christ, apart from gospel preaching. One famous apologist contends that the Indian worshipping the great spirit and doesn’t know anything else can be justified. He contends that God would be a monster if this were not true. Well, it isn’t true and so I suppose he things the God of Scripture is actually a monster. Justification comes only by faith. It is the gift of God and the instrument by which God accomplishes it is faith. Another leading apologist believes that Jesus is appearing to people in visions around the world where the gospel has not been proclaimed and that Jesus is actually preaching to people in these visions and people are becoming Christians as a result. This kind of thinking betrays a terrible understanding of the nature of God. In an attempt to protect God from charges of being unfair, these men destroy the beauty of God’s holiness and the profound depth of His love and grace to fallen humanity.

The doctrine of justification points us back to the nature of God. It lifts high for all to see His perfect holiness. As a result, it helps us appreciate the significance and serious of sin and rebellion. It helps us understand the hatred God has for sin due to the high cost He was willing to pay for our justification. That is another subject for another blog as we move through Romans 5:1-11. Praise God who has justified us and now we are continually at peace with Him. More to follow.

[1] Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1988), 217.

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