Further Reflections on Justification

The book discussed here is N.T. Wright’s Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision.

I’ve had this book finished for a little while now, trying to figure out what to say about it.  Frankly, I’ll need to read it at least once more to get the message Wright presents.  I followed the argument easily when he was discussing letters I was familiar with (especially Galatians).  However, I’m not nearly well versed enough in Romans to follow his argument there, and it’s on Romans that the thrust of his argument lies.  Once I do some in depth study of Romans, especially some memorization, this book will make much more sense to me.

My own thinking has grown a lot through reading Wright.  I grew up with a fairly typical baptist/pentecostal/protestant understanding of salvation.  I was taught that we were saved through believing in Jesus, and not by doing good deeds. This happened by saying a prayer where I confessed my sins and stated that I believed in Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross and in his resurrection.  In believing this, I was saved from the just penalty of sin, namely eternal suffering in hell.  Later on, I learned a bit more.  There was a difference between positional righteousness and actual/practical righteousness.  We were positionally righteous because the Father looks at us and sees Jesus living in us, yet we still had to struggle with our flesh.  I had a hard time understanding this issue.  Luther’s simul justus et peccator (at the same time righteous and sinful) didn’t make much sense to me.  I didn’t understand justification very well.  How do we reconcile the fact that we’re “new creations” (2 Cor 5:17) with the fact that Christians very clearly can still sin?  After justification was sanctification, the process of becoming more like God, more holy and righteous.  This wasn’t necessary for final salvation, but was expected by God (which also didn’t make much sense).  I didn’t have any real concept of glorification.

What has been most helpful as I waded through this theological milieu has been a firmer understanding of eschatology.  More specifically, it was understanding the now/not-yet tension of Christianity.  Eschatology is the study of the last things.  Basically, I came to see that all of these big theological words (justification, salvation, sanctification, glorification) all need to be understood with the now/not-yet tension with which they’re discussed in the New Testament.  For instance, sanctification is usually thought of as a process which follows justification, not an event.  We are continually formed into Christ’s image as we pray, serve others, read scripture, etc.  However, Paul writes to the Corinthians with these words: “To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy…”  Here sanctification is an event which had already happened.  We see the same tension with salvation.  In Ephesians 2:8, we have been saved by faith.  In Philippians 3:20-21 we are eagerly awaiting a savior from heaven, the Lord Jesus Christ.  Romans tells us that those he justified, he also glorified.  The same verses in Philippians tell us that he will transform our lowly bodies and make them like his glorious one.

This brings us to what, in long terms, might be expressed as the eschatological tension of Christianity.  We live the uncomfortable tension between what God has done in Jesus (the dramatic defeat of sin and death and the inauguration of the New Creation),  and the final consummation (when God will finally be all in all, when he’ll wipe every tear from our eyes, and where sin and death will be judged finally and banished forever).  By faith, we eagerly wait and hope for that day.  This hope transforms how we live.  We still suffer in the flesh.  We long for the “putting of of our earthly tents” and for our “heavenly home” as Paul expresses in II Corinthians 5.  We feel the groanings of the present age.  We still see sin and death working hard around us, even in us.  However, as those who are presently seated with Christ in Heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6) we pray as Jesus taught us, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  We watch as God graciously gives us “down payments” on the age to come.  We see him transform lives, heal bodies, and restore communities.  We see him ease suffering, and do basically what Jesus did 2000 years ago in Palestine.

This post left its origins in justification and became much broader.  In a future post, I’ll bring it back to justification.  I’ll talk about how this eschatological tension affect the two justifications mentioned in Romans: the justification by faith and the justification according to works (Romans 2:6-11 and  Romans 3:28).


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