I took the scenic route in the last post, veering away from the topic of justification, going through my own development and growth. I looked especially at eschatology: the study of the last things. I discussed the now/not-yet tension we live in, and how understanding this has been tremendously helpful as I try to make sense of the New Testament. Now, I’ll try to apply this to justification, mostly rehashing what Wright says in his book.
Justification has usually been understood in Protestantism as more or less synonymous with salvation. It’s something which takes place when you place your faith in Christ’s death and resurrection. At this time, God declares us innocent from the charges of sin which have been made against us on the basis of Christ’s sacrifice for us. I’m not familiar with any “not-yet” aspect of justification in traditional Protestant thought.
What Wright argues is that justification has two parts: one part happens in the present, more or less as I’ve described in the last paragraph. (He takes issue with some of the specifics, mainly the Reformed notion of “imputation,” but leaves most of it intact) However, this is not the complete picture. Paul also speaks of a final justification in Romans 2, where those “by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he [God] will give eternal life” This “not-yet” justification will take place on the last day, and looks quite a bit like justification according to works. How does this fit in with the justification by faith Paul discusses later in Romans?
As mentioned previously, justification occurs in two parts. The first justification is by faith; this takes place in the present. This justification takes place when we trust in Christ for our ultimate vindication. When this happens, the Holy Spirit comes into our lives and empowers us to live lives in anticipation of the last day. He empowers us to persist in doing good, to seek glory, honor, and immortality, and to not do the evil things which incur judgment. Our justification by faith in the present anticipates the judgment on the final day; it is the “assurance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen” as the letter to the Hebrews states.
I haven’t worked out the details. I’m not sure how the Holy Spirit’s work within us interacts with the work of Jesus on the cross (I’m thinking the latter enables the former). I’m not sure how this outline of justification affects the perseverance of the saints (can we, or can we not lose our salvation?). I do, however, think that Wright offers a compelling view of justification. It’s deeply rooted in scripture, and has helped me make much more sense of both my experience and the scriptures. If you’re still curious, there’s plenty on his website to read, or you can just read the book. It’s quite good :-)