Sunday, July 1, 2012

Paul's View of Justification in the Book of Romans


This paper was originally published in 2010, during the pursuit of my undergraduate degree.
Introduction
Martin Luther once said that justification is the “doctrine on which the church stands or falls.”[1]This is certainly true and we should never underestimate the importance of this doctrine because it is the doctrine that answers the most fundamental of all religious questions: “How can a man or woman become right with God?”[2]Be that as it may, it is not the purpose of this paper to give a full exposition of the doctrine of justification. Rather, the sole purpose is to reveal what the apostle Paul taught about justification in his epistle to the Christians in Rome.

Definition of terms
There are two terms that must be defined at the outset of this study: justification and righteousness. It's not always easy to mark out the difference between these words because they share the same root word in both Greek (dikaios) and in Hebrew (tsedaqah).[3] Thus a proper understanding of justification must begin with a proper understanding of the biblical relationship between these two words. Since Paul draws so much from the Old Testament in the book of Romans, a proper understanding of these two terms must be grounded in their Old Testament meanings.

Righteousness has two basic meanings in the Old Testament. In some instances it is used in the sense of conforming to a particular norm.[4] Tamar, for example, was said to be more righteous than Judah, because Judah failed to fulfill his obligations as her father-in-law (Gen. 38:26). Likewise, David was said to be righteous when he refused to kill Saul (1 Sam. 24:17; 26:23). In this sense David was living up to the standards of the monarch-subject relationship whereas Judah had failed to conform to the norms of family relationships.[5] In this sense righteousness denotes being in a right standing with regards to a particular relationship.

However, the dominant image behind the word “righteousness” in the Old Testament is judicial or forensic in nature. As N.T. Wright points out, righteousness (tsedaqah), and its cognates, “have particular functions in relation to the setting of the lawcourt.”[6] When used in this sense it means “to declare righteous or to justify.”[7] Here it refers to the status that someone has when a court has found in his favor. Deuteronomy 25:1, for example, says, “When men have a dispute, they are to take it to court and the judges will decide the case, acquitting [justifying] the innocent and condemning the guilty” (NIV).[8]

The judge in this case does not make a judgment on the moral character of the person that is acquitted (justified). Rather, the judge simply declares that the person is not guilty of the accusation that has been made and is therefore deemed in right standing before the law. Of course, the law that is most often in view in the Old Testament is the Mosaic Law. Thus, the relationship between these two words can best be summed up this way: Justification, in the Old Testament, involved determining that an individual is innocent of the charges brought against them and then declaring what is true: that person is righteous, meaning they have fulfilled the law.[9]

Paul has the same forensic view of justification in the book of Romans. He uses the Greek word dikaioo fifteen times in Romans.[10] This Greek word means to declare righteous, or to vindicate, and essentially has a forensic connotation that denotes a sentence of acquittal.[11] But the key difference between the Old Testament and the book of Romans is that no one is righteous, meaning no one can fulfill the law (Rom. 3:10; 20) and Paul speaks of a righteousness that is available apart from the law (Rom 3:21). “This righteousness comes from God through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Rom. 3:22). And so when Paul says that a “man is justified by faith” (Rom. 3:28) we learn that, according to the book of Romans, justification can be defined as a judicial act of God whereby, on the basis of the atoning work of Christ, God declares the sinner absolved from sin, free of its penalty, and restored as righteous; that is, the sinner is put in a right relationship with God.[12]

The Need for Justification
Paul builds his case for the need of justification in the first three chapters of Romans. His thesis is simple: everyone is inherently opposed to God. Therefore no one has the ability to meet his righteous demands (Rom. 1:18-3:20). It does not matter if a person is Jewish or Gentile by birth, “there is no one righteous, not even one…” (Rom. 3:10). And so Paul builds a masterful case for the depravity of all mankind in the opening chapters of Romans. But he does more than that. Keeping in mind that justification is a judicial term; Paul builds his case much like a prosecuting attorney by showing that all men are guilty and without excuse.

He does this in three ways. First, he shows that all men have been given universal light. Those who have never had access to the Mosaic Law or to the gospel have nevertheless seen the light of God through creation and they have the law written on their hearts (Rom. 1:20; 2:15). Likewise, the rest of mankind has the additional light of special revelation, the Word of God (Rom. 2:12-29).[13] Secondly, as all men have been given universal light, so then all men are universally accountable. All men have been given a conscience; that is “an inbuilt recognition of good and evil and sense that God is just when he punished wrong doing” (Rom. 1:32; 2:14-15).[14]

Finally, all men are guilty. All have knowledge of God; all have the ability to decide between right and wrong; but all have failed to live up to what they know about God. All men are under sin, all have turned away from God, none are righteous, and no one seeks God (Rom. 3:9-18). “Therefore, no one will be declared righteous in his sight…” (Rom. 3:20). The case that Paul builds against mankind can best be summed up this way: the actions of fallen man “render him guilty and liable for punishment.”[15] All men are guilty before a Holy God and are in need of acquittal, for all men face the wrath of God (Rom. 1:18; 2:5).

Basis for Justification
Paul now moves on to show the basis by which justification has been made possible for fallen man. He says that men “are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood” (Rom. 3:24-25). The basis by which fallen man can be justified rests on the redemptive and sacrificial work of Jesus Christ. But also notice that the basis for justification originates with the grace of God, “justified freely by his grace” (3:24). Men cannot find any basis of their own by which they can be justified, rather its foundation is grounded in the grace of God. For it is by his own merciful grace that he presented Christ as a “sacrifice of atonement” (hilasterion).

“Sacrifice of atonement” (hilasterion) can also be translated to mean “propitiation,” which can be defined as “the turning away of wrath by an offering.”[16]Since Paul had just proved that all men are under the wrath of God (Rom. 1:18; 2:5,8) it is only natural that Paul has in mind the wrath of God here. The problem, however, is that hilasterion is used in the Septuagint twenty-one out of twenty-seven times in reference to the mercy seat of the Ark of the Covenant, the place where the sacrificial blood was poured on the Day of Atonement for the sins of national Israel.[17] In addition, the only other New Testament use of this word is also in reference to the mercy seat (Heb. 9:5).[18] Therefore, some scholars object to the notion of propitiation in this verse on the basis that, properly speaking, in the Old Testament practice of atonement God is never propitiated or appeased, rather it simply means “the removal of sin,” or expiation, as some translations suggest.[19]

But the very words of Paul and the context of the letter up to this point suggest that both propitiation and the removal, or forgiveness, of sins is indicated in these verses. Paul is saying that the Old Testament sacrifices really did not bring forgiveness.[20] They were never the basis for a right standing with God. They could not satisfy the wrath of God. Rather, God “patiently bore with the sins” that were committed under the Mosaic Law (Rom. 3: 25b). The Old Testament sacrifices simply foreshadowed the forgiveness of sins and the placating of the wrath of God that would come through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus.[21] It is this sacrifice that is the basis by which men can become justified before God.

The Means of Justification
In the preceding section Paul has made his case for the basis of justification through the atoning death of Jesus Christ. In his death God has made justification possible. But what is the means by which fallen man can become justified? Paul has already hinted at the answer to that question in various places. He opened the letter by stating that “faith” is the operating standard of the gospel (Rom 1:17) and that his mission is to “bring about the obedience that comes from faith” (1:5). In chapter three he established that the faith he speaks of means specifically faith in “Christ as the propitiatory offering for sin” (Rom. 3:21-26).[22] Now he concludes “that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law” (Rom. 3:28). Thus, the means of justification is quite simply faith, and more directly faith in the atoning work of Christ.

Paul moves to illustrate his point with a powerful Old Testament example in chapter four. The critical verse in this section is 4:3, where Paul quotes directly from Genesis 15:6; “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Paul actually quotes from this verse three times in chapter four and repeats the word “credited” eleven times, which leads some to conclude rightly that Romans four is an “extended exposition of Genesis 15:6.”[23] Paul uses this text because it focuses on the special relationship between God and Abraham, the great ancestor of Israel and the man whom many Jews regarded as “uniquely righteous.”[24] Indeed, if any man had reason to boast in his works it was Abraham (4:1-2). But men are not justified by their works, but by faith because Abraham, as “uniquely righteous” as he might have been, was not counted as righteous because of his works. Instead God counted Abraham as righteous because he “believed God” (4:3).

The task of Paul here is to deny any possibility that good works can play a part in becoming right with God. The word “counted” (Greek logizomai) that Paul quotes so many times in chapter four is uniquely suited to accomplish this goal. It is an accounting metaphor that is translated variously as “counted,” “reckoned,” or “credited.” Paul shows that the method of accounting that God uses is not the same as human contracts (4:4-5).[25] When men work for a wage their employer is obligated to pay, or “reward that work.” [26]But the method of accounting that God uses is different. For if God accepted any kind of work as a way to attain right standing with him then he would be obligated to pay whatever is earned, thus nullifying grace.

But Paul has already shown that the grace of God is at the very foundation of justification. God cannot be obligated to pay any man under any circumstance. That is why justification can only be by faith, because faith simply involves the humble acceptance of what God offers to give.[27]And what God offers is truly an amazing gift. He offers to credit to our account righteousness. “The words ‘it was credited to him’ were written not for him [Abraham] alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness- for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead” (Rom. 4:24). The idea behind the term “credit” is that something is reckoned to a person that does not inherently belong to him. In this case it is the righteousness of God, something that is totally foreign to human beings, which is “counted” or granted to us by the merciful grace of God.[28]

For Paul then, justification is made available by faith. When sinners respond to God by faith, then a transaction occurs whereby God credits the sinner with being in right standing with him. This righteousness has been made available to the entire world and it is effective for anyone who believes.

Benefits of Justification
Through the first four chapters of the book of Romans Paul has been arguing his case for the gospel that he preaches. He has argued that all people are guilty before God and are in need of salvation. He has also argued that the atoning death of Jesus Christ is the basis by which God has made available this much needed salvation. Finally, he has argued that it is by faith alone that man can lay hold of the atoning death of Christ and become justified. Having concluded his argument on justification Paul now changes tones as the book turns to chapter five, where Paul opens with three wonderful benefits that believers now have as a result of their justification. They have: “peace with God” (v.1); “access into the Grace” of God in which believers presently stand (v.2); and “the hope of the glory of God” (v.2).

The first benefit is “peace with God.” The moment a believer is justified they are no longer enemies with God. Before justification the sinner faces the wrath of God (Rom. 1:18; 2:5), but those who believe in Jesus Christ are justified and are no longer enemies with God. By contrast, justification brings reconciliation to God through the death of Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:9-10). Although justification is a judicial act, the result is nevertheless relational. Through Christ, God pardons believers of the sins they have committed and at the same time he also enters into an intimate relationship with them.[29]The result is that believers now enjoy the benefits of having a wonderful relationship with God.

The second benefit is that believers enjoy “access into this grace in which we stand” (5:2). Believers enter into this new relationship with God by his sovereign grace, not through any merit of their own. Paul paints a scene whereby Jesus Christ has achieved for the believer permanent access into the throne of God. The justified are ushered into the throne of God where they enjoy a permanent state of grace and security.[30] That is, believers have unending access to grace and will continue to stand in that grace until the final judgment.[31] Since believers stand in the grace of God they cannot fail to remain standing to the end.

The third benefit outlined at the beginning of chapter 5 is that believers can “rejoice in the hope of the glory of God” (Rom. 5:2). In an amazing transition, justification assures a future share in the glory of God to those who once scorned the glory of God (Rom. 1:21-23), and routinely fall short of it (Rom. 3:23).[32]The future aspect of this should not go unnoticed. The parallels of this passage in Romans 8 (verses 17, 18, 21, 30) reveal that the glory that is promised for the believer is a future reality and not a present possession.[33] Believers are at peace with God and have permanent access to the grace of God that will allow them to stand to the end. But the full promises of salvation are not consummated in this age. We await the wonderful future glorification in heaven, whereby we will finally be restored to the moral perfection and glory that Adam lost.[34]

Finally, we should note that when Paul speaks of the hope of future glorification, he means a sure confidence.[35] It does not mean that we hope for it in the sense that we hope it will come to pass. Those who have been justified are certain of this future restoration to the glory that Adam lost. Not only that, Paul tells us that believers will have a glory that surpasses that of Adam for we will be conformed to the likeness of Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:29).[36]

The Timing of Justification
Harking back to the accounting theme of Romans four, we should consider the declarative act of justification as a one-time transaction. Paul almost exclusively speaks of justification as a present reality stemming from a past action: “…a man is justified by faith…” (3:28); “…since we have been justified through faith…” (5:1); “…we have now been justified by his blood…” (5:9); “…it is with your heart that you believe and are justified” (10:10).

Not only does Paul speak of justification in the past tense, but he almost always speaks of it in relation to faith and belief. For Paul, faith results in right standing with God.[37] So then, justification happens the moment the sinner believes. This does not exclude the notion of a future declaration when we all stand before God in final judgment (Rom. 3:30; 14:10). But the future declaration will not change what has already been declared. Those who have put their faith in Christ have already been justified and they already know the verdict that will be pronounced on that day.

The Permanence of Justification
It is worth repeating that justification is a one-time transaction. As such, it will never be rescinded. When believers put their faith in Jesus Christ the condemnation that was due them is removed and they are placed into a new relationship with God through Jesus Christ. This new standing with God gives the believer an assurance of ultimate vindication. Paul has already described one of the benefits of justification to be the “the hope of the glory of God” (Rom.5:2). The hope that Paul speaks of is a sure confidence, “it will not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love for us” (Rom 5:5). He demonstrated his love for us in that; “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (5:8). Since God has sacrificed his own Son for us and we have been justified by his blood, “how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!” (5:9). But we have also been reconciled to God through the death of Christ, so “how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through this life!” (Rom 5:10).

In Romans 5: 9-10, Paul confirms that our present spiritual status is justified and reconciled to God and that our current spiritual status is the guarantee of eternal life.[38] Paul is looking back on the enormity of the situation. God, through justification, has already accomplished the most difficult task. He has reconciled believers, those who were once enemies to God, to himself through the gracious gift of the sacrificial death of his son Jesus Christ. Since God has done all of that, he will most certainly vindicate those he has justified.

Furthermore, while speaking about the infinite chain of events spanning from eternity past to the eternal future, Paul says, “those he justified, he also glorified” (Rom. 8:30).[39] Some find it odd that Paul would speak of glorification in the past tense. But we should not be confused. As already noted, the glorification that Paul speaks of here does not begin in this life. Instead, he is referring to the certainty of the eschatological completion of the work that God began on behalf of believers in eternity past. What God has begun will be finished. No one will fall away. In other words, Paul could not speak of glorification in the past tense “if there were a possibility of the believer becoming unjustified.”[40] Justification is a permanent status that guarantees believers in Christ a glorious future with our glorious God.

Conclusion
As previously noted, the doctrine of justification is critical to the life of the church. That it was critical to the apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans should also be clear. By and large the first four chapters of the letter focus on that most fundamental of religious questions: How can a man get right with God? Paul has shown that the only way fallen man can become right with God is by putting his complete faith and trust in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. This is done by faith alone, not by works and not through the Law of Moses. When the sinner puts his faith in Jesus Christ, God then considers the sinner righteous; that is, he is no longer an enemy with God but instead he is placed in right standing with God. The benefits of this transformation are enormous. Those who have been justified enjoy their new relationship with God which gives them the assurance of future glorification, when we will become transformed into the very likeness of Christ (Rom. 8:29).

BIBLIOGRAPHY
Akin, Daniel L., ed. A Theology For The Church. Nashville: B & H Publishing Group, 2007.
Allen, Kenneth W. "Justification by faith." Bibliotheca sacra 135, no. 538 (April 1, 1978): 109-116. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed December 11, 2010).
Boice, James Montgomery. Foundations of the Christian Faith. Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 1986
Carson, Donald A. "Why Trust a Cross? Reflections on Romans 3:21-26." Evangelical Review of Theology 28, no. 4 (October 2004): 345-362. Religion and Philosophy Collection, EBSCOhost (accessed December 11, 2010).
Dunn, James D.G. The Theology of Paul the Apostle. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1998.
Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. 2d ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2001.
Guthrie, D., and Motyer, J.A., eds. The New Bible Commentary: Revised. Grand Rapids :Eerdmans, 1970.
Hughes, R. Kent, Genesis: Beginning and Blessing (Wheaton IL: Crossway, 2004).
Moo, Douglas J. Encountering the Book of Romans. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002.
Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998.
Tenney, Merrill C., and J.D. Douglas, eds. New International Bible Dictionary, Zondervan’s Understand the Bible Reference Series. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987.
Vickers, Brian. Jesus’ Blood and Righteousness: Paul’s Theology of Imputation. Wheaton: Crossway, 2006.
Wright, N.T. Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 2009.

[1] Daniel L. Akin, ed., A Theology For The Church (Nashville: B & H Publishing, 2007), 745.
[2] James Montgomery Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 1986), 416.
[3] N.T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 2009), 88.

[4] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2001), 968.
[5] Ibid.

[6] Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 2009), 90.
[7] Erickson, Christian Theology, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2001), 968.
[8] Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 1986), 418. Boice adds the parenthetical translation “justifying.” Erickson says basically the same thing without adding the translation. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2001), 969.

[9] Erickson, Christian Theology, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2001), 968.
[10] James D.G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1998), 341.
[11] Akin, ed., A Theology For The Church (Nashville: B & H Publishing, 2007), 751.

[12] Merril C. Tenney and J.D. Douglas, eds., New International Bible Dictionary. Zondervan’s Understand the Bible Reference Series (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), 559.
[13] Kenneth W. Allen.1978. "Justification by faith." Bibliotheca sacra 135, no. 538: 109-116. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed December 6, 2010), 110.
[14] Douglas J. Moo, Encountering the Book of Romans (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002),62.
[15] Allen.1978. "Justification by faith." Bibliotheca sacra 135, no. 538: 109-116. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed December 6, 2010), 110.

[16] Allen.1978. "Justification by faith." Bibliotheca sacra 135, no. 538: 109-116. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed December 6, 2010), 111.
[17] Donald A. Carson 2004. "Why Trust a Cross? Reflections on Romans 3:21-26." Evangelical Review of Theology 28, no. 4: 345-362. Religion and Philosophy Collection, EBSCOhost (accessed December 11, 2010). 354.

[18] Ibid.
[19] Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1998), 214.
[20] Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 195.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Brian Vickers, Jesus’ Blood and Righteousness: Paul’s Theology of Imputation (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006), 91.
[23] R. Kent Hughes, Genesis: Beginning and Blessing (Wheaton IL: Crossway, 2004), 225.
[24] D. Guthrie and J.A.Motyer, eds. The New Bible Commentary: Revised (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970) p.1023.
[25] Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1998), 377.
[26] Moo, Encountering the Book of Romans (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002),91

[27] Ibid., 92.
[28] Schreiner, Romans. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 254.

[29] Moo, Encountering the Book of Romans (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002),103.
[30] Guthrie, The New Bible Commentary: Revised (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970) p.1024.
[31] Schreiner, Romans. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 254.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.
[35] Ibid., 255.
[36] Ibid.
[37] Ibid., 560.
[38] Moo, Encountering the Book of Romans (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002),103.
[39] Allen.1978. "Justification by faith." Bibliotheca sacra 135, no. 538: 109-116. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed December 6, 2010), 114.

[40] Allen.1978. "Justification by faith." Bibliotheca sacra 135, no. 538: 109-116. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed December 6, 2010), 114.

2 comments:

  1. Are you serious??

    Not only does Paul speak of justification in the past tense, but he almost always speaks of it in relation to faith and belief. For Paul, faith results in right standing with God.[37] So then, justification happens the moment the sinner believes. This does not exclude the notion of a future declaration when we all stand before God in final judgment (Rom. 3:30; 14:10). But the future declaration will not change what has already been declared. Those who have put their faith in Christ have already been justified and they already know the verdict that will be pronounced on that day.

    It IS excluding those who declare "Jesus is Lord" on the Day of The Lord. Or else EVERYONE would be saved? Are you saying that everyone gets saved or am I reading this wrong?

    ReplyDelete
  2. You are reading it wrong. That section is about the timing of justification--according to Paul we are justified the moment we confess Christ as Savior and Lord and we can have confidence of that fact even though we will not hear the verdict from God until we stand before him in judgment.

    ReplyDelete

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