Tuesday, February 9

Justification: The Spring of Love

"Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."

"Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ."

Writing this essay is a burden, not a joyless one but a load nonetheless. I am expounding on a pivotal topic, nothing less than the center of true joy, and therefore an anchor for my soul in the troubled waters that cover this world. What I speak of can (kinda) be summed up in one word: justification. This is really many words in one, and to discern the meaning meant we must look at the context in which our word will be used. To save ink I will be plain: I am a Protestant, and that word on my lips most often means “a declaration that someone is righteous.” It is nothing less than the sole solution to our greatest need: our lack of righteousness or right standing before God. This was Martin Luther’s muse, his omnipresent light in the darkness. We shall meditate on this awhile.

Luther was a troubled man. Once caught in a lighting storm and fearing for his life, he promised St. Anne that if he lived through the ordeal monasticism would be his lifestyle. He kept his word, and only then did his real troubles begin. In his own words:
...in the monastery I did not think about women, money, or possessions; instead my heart trembled and fidgeted about whether God would bestow his grace on me...For I had strayed from faith and could not but imagine that I had angered God, whom in turn I had to appease by doing good works.
Luther believed in the reality of a perfect and just God who does not simply wink at sin...and he knew his own sinful heart too well. He understood that biblically speaking he was not right with God. And this nearly drove him over a cliff of insanity.

Luther was a gifted man. The consummate theologian, as he was reading through Romans in preparation for a series of university lectures on the epistle, chapter 1, verse 17 perplexed him and gained the full measure of his intellectual attention. “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” (Rom. 1:17) If the righteous will live by faith, what do the unrighteous live by? How can I be righteous? Luther found his answer. It proved not only the culmination of his study, but also the epiphany of his spiritual life. He describes the transformation:
At last meditating day and night, by the mercy of God, I...began to understand that the righteousness of God is that through which the righteous live by a gift of God, namely by faith...Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through the gates that had been flung open.
Luther was a new man.

And justification made him so. Therefore before we move to my actual thesis, we must mildly elaborate on the definition of justification shortly stated in the first paragraph. Thankfully, theologian Wayne Grudem has done some elaboration for me.
Just what is justification? We may define it as follows: Justification is an instantaneous legal act of God in which he (1) thinks of our sins as forgiven and Christ’s righteousness as belonging to us, and (2) declares us to be righteous in his sight.
Luther believed that this declaration happened by faith alone (the “alone” signifying the theological difference that eventually led to his split with Rome). “For faith alone and the efficacious use of the word of God, bring salvation.” Our works, however good, do not merit or gain salvation but flow out from it, Luther realized. To illustrate he quotes Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. “So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.” (Matt. 7:17-18) For Luther, the good tree is the justified person, and the fruit his works.

All that was to introduce the introduction. My sincere apologies.

"A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, subject to everyone." Martin Luther

One of Luther’s most important teachings, and one I will argue for, is this: A proper understanding of justification by faith alone leads the believer to turn away from himself to Christ, and to his fellow man in love. "God does not need our good works, our neighbor does," Luther would say.

Turning to Christ turns us away from self. The doctrine of justification gets us outside ourselves because true knowledge of it brings the realization that we are “justified by the merits of another, namely of Christ alone.” The merit, or righteousness, of Christ frees us from relying on self to obtain salvation, and this frees the believer from fearfully looking inward and constantly trying to ensure that enough merit is there to escape hell. And this righteousness is ours through union with Christ by faith. Our man Luther uses a powerful symbol for this: marriage. He illustrates:
The third incomparable grace of faith is this: that it unites the soul to Christ, as the wife to the husband, by which mystery, as the Apostle teaches, Christ and the soul are made one flesh. Now if they are one flesh, and if a true marriage-nay, by far the most perfect of marriages-is accomplished between them (for human marriages are but feeble types of this one great marriage), then it follows that all they have becomes theirs in common, as well good things as evil things; so that whatsoever Christ possesses, that the believing soul may take to itself and boast of as its own, and whatever belongs to the soul, that Christ claims as His.
When the soul sees that all its objective good is located in the person and work of Jesus, it tends to stop looking at itself to meet needs. This is by divine design. God wants us to look to him because he is “where the party’s at.” He is truly the only one who can satisfy our souls because he alone is infinite, not bound by time or space. “Turn to me and be saved, / all the ends of the earth! / For I am God, and there is no other.” (Isa. 45:22)

Turning to Christ turns us towards others. It is impossible to love God without also loving our neighbors. Or rather I should say that knowledge of God’s love in justification produces love for others because seeing the radical and free nature of that love sets us free from the solipsism of self-salvation so that we have the will and energy to love one another. The Apostle John writes:
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. (1 John 4:7-12)
I hope it is self-evident that the love St. John pictures brings reconciliation and healing to our broken world. If not self-evident, someone (not me) should journey to prove this love benefits individual and community alike. In this case, I am confident the choir has heard my preaching.

As a Protestant Christian, I feel compelled to proclaim the free gift of justification in Christ to call people away from themselves so they might be free to love others, having peace of mind that God is totally and completely for them in Jesus, as John Piper words it. This must be believed if there is to be true, spiritual liberty. If we are kept busy trying to placate God by our works, we will remain inward-looking beings who cannot enjoy the true freedom of loving someone freely and the empowerment brought by the knowledge that God sets us free for just such a purpose. It only seems appropriate to end with Luther exhorting us to trust Christ and give others out of our abundance in Him.
We give this rule: the good things which we have from God ought to flow from one to another and become common to all, so that every one of us may, as it were, put on his neighbor, and so behave towards him as if he were himself in his place.
He is not talking just about material things. May our hearts and our hands listen to Luther’s wisdom.

Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994. Print.

Luther, Martin. “Concerning Christian Liberty.” Around the World in One Semester: A Reader for College Freshman. Ed. Paul Tayyar, LeeAnne Langton. Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt Publishing Company, 2009. 101-117. Print.

Piper, John. The Legacy of Sovereign Joy: God’s Triumphant Grace in the Lives of Augustine, Luther, and Calvin. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2000. Print.

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001. Print.


  1. Matt,

    Justification is obviously a massive topic, and there is much that could be said here. That being said, I'd like to limit my comment to just a couple of points so that we can get the ball rolling for a fruitful discussion.

    A quick point before I begin: doctrine should be founded upon the scriptures, not upon what provides the greatest psychological benefit. I think you'd agree with this. I say this because your definition of justification seems to be grounded in the fact that it provides psychological benefit to men, in that it eases troubled consciences. This may be true, but that should not be the deciding factor in formulating doctrine. After all, universalism is a very appealing doctrine, and it could potentially provide even greater psychological benefit than justification by faith alone (i.e. salvation is determined even apart from faith). But it is unbiblical, and thus it is to be rejected.

    Wayne Grudem defines justification thusly:

    Justification is an instantaneous legal act of God in which he (1) thinks of our sins as forgiven and Christ’s righteousness as belonging to us, and (2) declares us to be righteous in his sight.

    Exegesis is like a science, in that it looks at the data (in this case, the biblical text) and formulates a theory that best explains the data. A theory of what justification means must account for as much as the biblical data as possible. The problem with the Protestant definition of justification (as given by Grudem above) is that while it may account for some of the biblical data, it does not account for all of it. If a better hypothesis as to the definition of justification that accounts for a greater number of the biblical passages can be formulated, it should be accepted.

    One such example for the weak explanatory power of the Protestant definition of justification is found in Romans 6:7: 'For one who has died has been [justified] from sin'. It is interesting to note that both the NIV and the ESV translate δεδικαίωται as 'freed' or 'set free' respectively. This is obviously the meaning of justification in the context, but the Protestant definition doesn't make any sense of it, so the word 'justified' wasn't used — although it should have been. The force of the passage is clear: those who have been united to Christ's death and resurrection in baptism have been liberated (justified) from sin to serve God in righteousness. The forgiveness of sin, the removal of the guilt of sin, or the imputation of Christ's righteousness is not what St Paul means by justification in this passage. Rather it is the power of sin that has been nullified in him who has been baptized.

    Another example is found in Romans 5:18,19: 'So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. For as through the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.' These two verses mirror each other, and must be understood together. Again, the Protestant definition of justification doesn't make sense here. The sin of Adam didn't merely result in the alteration of a legal status before God (i.e. guilt) — it subjected human nature to corruption, death, and the power of sin. Likewise, the righteousness/obedience of Christ didn't merely alter the legal status of human nature before God (i.e. not guilty) — it liberated human nature from corruption, death, and the power of sin. In other words, by the sin of Adam there is an ontological change in human nature (not merely a change in legal status), and likewise by the obedience/righteousness of Christ justification is wrought in human nature — an ontological change is effected.

    I'm off to Vespers. There are many more passages that I could bring up. I will comment later with my thoughts on Romans 8.

  2. Matt,

    My apologies for not getting back to you last night. Yes, I was at St Barnabas.

    Romans 8:1-4 provides another example for the weakness of the Protestant understanding of justification: 'Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.' St Paul's use of 'no condemnation' is tantamount to saying that Christians have been justified. This is evident in his juxtaposition of 'condemnation' and 'justification' in Romans 5:16-18. In Romans 5 it is evident that St Paul's use of 'condemnation' is not merely a reference to mankind's status of 'guilty' before the divine bar of justice. Instead, mankind's subjection to condemnation is a subjection to the 'reign of death', and with it, the power of sin. The act of justification that St Paul speaks of in Romans 8 then is an act of being freed from the 'body of death' (Romans 7:24) and the power of sin. Furthermore, by saying that Christ 'condemned sin in the flesh', obviously St Paul does not mean that Christ pronounced a 'guilty' verdict on sin. No, Christ destroyed the power of sin in His own flesh by his death on the cross. The baptized Christian — he who has been justified from sin — is then liberated from the bondage of sin and death and is free to fulfill the requirement of the Law. This is crucial: the baptized Christian is capable of fulfilling the Law — which St Paul later defines as love (Romans 13:10) — precisely because he is no longer subject to death, corruption, and the power of sin. Also, this is also somewhat peripheral, but it seems evident from Romans 8 that Christians are also capable of returning to living according to the flesh (v 13) and thus subjecting themselves again to the the Law of sin and death. The admonition from the Apostle is to live according to the Spirit, and in so doing be 'sons of God'.

    These passages, taken from Romans alone, are sufficient enough to show that the Protestant definition of justification lacks explanatory power. The Protestant definition may explain Romans 4, but if it cannot account for the further biblical data, it should be rejected.

  3. I will now state what I believe to be the Orthodox understanding of justification, which I believe accounts for more (if not all) of the biblical data. Righteousness/Justice is an energy (operation) of God, and thus it is uncreated (as opposed to both the Roman Catholic and Protestant understanding of the righteousness by which we are justified; in Catholic and Protestant theology, Christ's righteousness is merited; it is a created substance that is either infused or imputed depending on the theology). For the Orthodox, justice is fundamentally moral harmony, not the rendering of each man his due as is understood by both Roman Catholics and Protestants. God’s righteousness/justice is His faithfulness toward the world which He created, upholding it and ordering it. God's righteousness/justice toward the fallen world is then His ordering and delivering power which liberates it from its bondage to sin, corruption, and death. In this way God manifests His sovereign Lordship over creation — He rightly orders the fallen world, and in so doing vindicates His original purpose in creating. This vindication of the created order of things is ultimately what justification amounts to, and human persons participate in this justification through their faith and the works that come from faith. By participating in this justification, human persons are freed from their bondage to sin, corruption, and death, and moral order is restored. Thus, for human persons to be reckoned righteous, God looks at them and recognizes that they are in fact participating in His righteousness/justice by their 'faith working through love' (to use another Pauline phrase).

    Note: I am indebted to the inestimable Michael Garten for the above explication of justification.

  4. Let me first preface this by saying that the above post is an essay I wrote in response to a prompt that roughly said: "Pick a religious doctrine and explain why you think it is good for humanity." As a true blue Protestant, justification was the irresistible choice. (And yes, the pun was intended in the previous sentence.) My purpose was therefore not to defend the Protestant doctrine per se, but to explain it and then argue that love is a result of it's proper apprehension.

    Before I post my response to your arguments, I'd like to ask two questions:

    1. What about your understanding of justification would cause Paul's enemies to claim he was saying that we should sin so that grace may abound?

    2. What about your doctrine of justification makes Christ's death (not the Incarnation) necessary?

  5. Matt,

    1) The Orthodox position also makes sense of St Paul's rhetorical question 'Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?'. The logic of the question makes sense: if by the righteousness/obedience of Christ there resulted the 'justification of life to all men' (5:18), thereby vindicating God's purpose of creation by obliterating the power of sin and death and healing human nature, then one might then conclude that if previous sin had resulted in such a display of God's grace, then surely more sin would result in an even greater display of God's grace.

    It is important to note too that just because the power of sin and death has been destroyed, 'condemned in the flesh', that does not mean that human persons automatically do not sin. No, they must appropriate the Spirit and live by the Spirit. When St Paul says that the power of sin has been destroyed, he means that human persons are no longer forced to obey its demands as a slave obeys its master. As I alluded to above, it is evident in Romans (and Galatians) that St Paul believed that Christians, once personally freed in baptism, could return again to 'living according to the flesh' — that is, return to a life of bondage. 'Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.' (Galatians 6:7,8) St Paul, by saying 'do not be deceived', makes known that Christians can in fact be deceived, and warns the Galatians against it; sowing according to the flesh will reap corruption, and sowing according to the Spirit will reap eternal life.

    One need not adopt the Protestant definition of justification to make sense of St Paul's rhetorical question.

    2) I'm going to bed, so I'll have to get back to you on this one. In the meantime, you could go and read this:


    I don't know that I could add anything of substance to it.

  6. Matt,

    By the way, I could spin your question and ask you a similar question: What about your doctrine of justification makes Christ's resurrection (not His death) necessary, especially in light of Roman 4:25 ('raised because of our justification') and 1 Timothy 3:16 ('justified in the Spirit')? In what sense does Christ's resurrection contribute to our justification, if justification is understood as a legal transaction? Protestants have tried to say that Christ's resurrection is God's 'stamp of approval' on Christ's work on the cross, but this doesn't make much sense. St Paul seems to be implying that Christ's resurrection is essential to our justification. And tied to this, how is it that Christ Himself was justified? If justification is a legal transaction by which God imputes Christ's merited righteousness to the believing sinner, how is it that Christ was justified?

    The Orthodox understanding of justification carries the explanatory power, and the Protestant understanding does not.

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  8. If you understand justification as translating a Greek word that means "a declaration of righteousness" then those passages make perfect sense from the Protestant standpoint. Christ was declared to be righteous in his Resurrection, and his Resurrection-Ascension-Session are essential to our justification because he stands in the presence of God the Father on our behalf. Christ is justified (declared to be righteous) by something intrinsic to him, and we are by something extrinsic to us. Either way, the verdict is the same: "Righteous!"

    Your understanding of justification actually creates a bigger problem with those passages. If to be justified means to be infused with the divine energies, then how was Christ justified by his Resurrection? Was he in lack of the divine energies during his earthly ministry?

    "Wisdom is justified by all her children." Is wisdom made right by her offspring, or declared to be right?

    Unfortunately my response to your Romans arguments will have to tarry a bit longer. My apologies.

  9. Matt--

    There doesn't seem to be anything obviously necessary about Christ's resurrection in order for us to be declared righteous. Why couldn't God just declare us righteous without a resurrection?

    By what intrinsic feature of Christ is he declared righteous?

    Justification could have more than one sense. It is at least possible that the verb "to justify" can mean multiple things in Scripture. It could mean "declare to be righteous" in some places (as I think it does) and "to free from the power of sin and death" in other places. The idea of being constituted righteous by God's righteousness is not necessarily what the verb "to justify" means. That could be part of justification insofar as it could be the basis on which the declaration of righteousness is made, and the basis on which people can be freed from sin and death.

    Also, it is the humanity of Christ that is freed from the power of sin and death and empowered with God's righteousness in the resurrection. Christ's divinity was obviously not lacking in the energy of righteousness, but his humanity needed to access the divine power of righteousness that had been communicated to it in the incarnation.

    Actually it seems that the meaning is that wisdom is *vindicated* by her children; but this doesn't necessarily mean that her children specifically declare her to be correct.

    Regarding your second question to Drew, "What about your doctrine of justification makes Christ's death (not the Incarnation) necessary?":

    Each stage of human life had to be recapitulated--incorporated into Christ's uncreated immortality, love, righteousness, and incorruptibility, etc. If Christ had not died, He could not have made the power of God's immortality and justice permanently fixed within humanity. As such, there couldn't have been a secure liberation of human nature from the possibility of annihilation, permanent disembodiment, and the dominion of sin. Death would still have led to disembodiment, moral distance from God's goodness and grace, and eventually annihilation. Christ must recapitulate all things in heaven and on earth--death included--and incorruptibly inaugurate the final stage of human life: resurrection.

  10. I don't entertain proposals from anonymous commenters who don't read the article they're commenting on. Sorry, but your comments are going to be deleted.

  11. matthew, dont be like the catholics who delete anything they dont like.

  12. I reserve the right to delete anything I believe does not further the discussion. Notice there is plenty of disagreement in the comments section. The comments I deleted were anonymous trolling.

    And I know plenty of Catholic brothers who welcome disagreement and debate.

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