Justification: Identity Crisis

Derek Ouellette —  July 28, 2010 — Leave a comment

The appropriate place to begin if one is interested in understanding what N.T. Wright believes regarding Justification is to properly distinguish between the “biblical concept” of Justification, and the later church doctrine of Justification (sola fide). To this effect, Wright quotes Alister McGrath who is said to be arguably the world’s foremost scholar on the subject of the history of the doctrine of Justification:

“The concept of justification and the doctrine of justification must be carefully distinguished. The concept of justification is one of many employed within the Old and New Testament, particularly the Pauline corpus, to describe God’s saving action toward his people. It cannot lay claim to exhaust, nor adequately characterize in itself, the richness of the biblical understanding of salvation in Christ.” – Quoted in Wrights Justification: God’s Plan Paul’s Vision, p.79

I’ll break here as Wright does just to highlight the obvious of what McGrath is getting at. The idea (or notion or thought) of Justification in the scriptures is that it is one (and only one) aspect of the salvation process. Justification is not synonymous with salvation (Justification ≠ Soteriology). McGrath continues…

“The doctrine of justification has come to develop a meaning quite independent of its biblical origins, and concerns the means by which man’s relationship to God is established. The church has chosen to subsume its discussion of the reconciliation of man to God under the aegis of Justification, thereby giving the concept an emphasis quite absent from the New Testament. The ‘doctrine of Justification’ has come to bear a meaning within dogmatic theology which is quite independent of its Pauline origins.” – ibid, p.80

What McGrath seems to be saying is that we have a case of mistaken identity of which I am as guilty as anyone for perpetuating. I thought: “Justified by Faith” = “Saved by Faith”. And I was not alone. This case of mistaken identity is perpetuated almost every time the subject comes up in conversation. In chart format, the doctrine of Justification – if I understand McGrath correctly – is usually thought of like this:

Galatians 2:16 Ephesians 2:8
[We] know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ… (NIV) For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourself… [NIV]

So that just as we are “justified” by “faith in Jesus Christ” and not by observing the law in Galatians, we are “saved through faith” and “not from yourself” (or, “by our works”) in Ephesians. The doctrine of sola fide is thought of in such a way that Galatians 2:16 and Ephesians 2:8 are two different ways of saying the same thing and the terms used are interchangeable.

Galatians 2:16 Ephesians 2:8
“Justified” “Saved”
“Faith in Jesus Christ” “By Grace… through Faith”
“Not… by observing the Law” “Not from yourself”

So does this biblical support for sola fide (the doctrine of Justification) dislodge McGrath’s analyses? Does it support the view that the doctrine of sola fide accurately depicts the biblical concept of Justification despite McGrath? Well that depends on how Galatians 2:16 (and Romans 3:22) translates the phrase pistis Christou? (Yes, the old “pistis Christou” debate.) Here are your options:

Galatians 2:16 NIV Galatians 2:16 ISV
[We] know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. Yet we know that a person is not justified by the works of the law but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.

The difference between the New International Version and the International Standard Version in translating this passage is not something which someone can simply shrug their shoulders at. The difference is drastic and the message could not be more different. The NIV is teaching that we are justified by BELIEVING in Jesus Christ whereas the ISV is teaching that we are justified because of Jesus’ own FAITHFULNESS (i.e. “obedience” or “works”). The first (NIV) is teaching that we are not justified by works but by faith. (There is a dichotomy between “works and faith” in Justification.) The second (ISV) is teaching that we are not justified by our works but by Christ’ works. (There is no dichotomy between “works and faith” in Justification.) You can already see that there is more at stake here then just “justification”. Regardless, N.T. Wright affirms the ISV’s rendering over the NIV here:

“This theme makes it very likely, in my view, that when Paul speaks in Galatians and Romans of pistis Christou, he normally intends to denote the faithfulness of the Messiah to the purposes of God rather than the faith by which Jew and Gentile alike believe the gospel and so are marked out as God’s renewed people.” – Wright, Paul: In Perspective, p.47

So now a paradigm shift has taken place. Rather than viewing Galatians 2:16 as simply another way of saying the same thing as Ephesians 2:8, the two are no longer a match. The one (Galatians) teaches that you are Justified because of what Christ did for you on the cross (i.e. his “faithfulness” or “the faithfulness of Jesus Christ”) whereas the other (Ephesians) is teaching that you are saved by grace through faith (or “believing the gospel”). The chart format reflecting this new paradigm which confirms McGrath’s analysis and Wright’s understanding of Justification is this:

Galatians 2:16 ISV Philippians 2:5-8 ESV
Yet we know that a person is not justified by the works of the law but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.

(Also, Romans 3:22 ISV

God’s righteousness through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction.)

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.

And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

So what is the point? The point is that church doctrine has raised Justification up to be the center of Paul’s theology. It’s a categorical mistake with important implications. As Wright says:

“We find that [Justification], though it is indeed related closely to the whole theme of human salvation by God’s mercy and grace through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, does not denote that entire sequences of thought—so that to force it to do that is necessarily to invent all kinds of extra bells and whistles of which Paul was innocent—but rather denotes one specific aspect of or moment within that sequence of thought.” – Justification, p.87

In other words, the biblical concept of Justification is not central to Paul’s theology (as the church doctrine of sola fide has made it) and it is not synonymous with salvation. Rather the biblical concept of Justification nestles itself nicely within the broader Pauline category we have termed “Participation” or “Union with Christ” or simply: “in Christ”.

Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.