Martin Luther – “When the article of justification has fallen, everything has fallen. This is the chief article from which all other doctrines have flowed.”

John Calvin – “Justification is the main hinge on which religion turns.”

Dare we suggest that the majority of contemporary Christians do not have a clue as to the meaning of justification? Justification used to be a legal term, but its primary usage today is as a computer word-processing term, pertaining to the justification of margins; right justification, left justification, center justification, etc., the proper alignment of text. If we read that connotation of “justification” into Scripture we will obviously arrive at a different interpretation than did the theologians of yesteryear. Apart from the computer usage of “justification”, many would conceive of justification as self-justification, the attempt to justify one’s self, to conceal with apologies or excuses, to gloss over, to whitewash, to “cover-up.” We have a problem in understanding “justification” in English speaking culture today. Many New Testament translations have chosen to avoid the word “justification” altogether, and refer only to “righteousness.”

“Righteousness” has historically been cast into legal framework, carrying with it a sense of meritorious righteousness in response to the law. The Greeks considered themselves righteous in accord with social law, by being “civil”; The Romans considered themselves righteous in conformity to Roman law; Jewish thought regarded righteousness as conformity with God’s revealed law.

Paul’s primary emphasis is to establish that righteousness is not based on our performance of conformity to external legal criteria.

Righteousness is first and foremost, an attribute of God. God is the “Righteous Father” (Jn 17:25). Jesus is referred to as “Jesus Christ the righteous.” (I Jn 2:1). Righteousness is never an inherent attribute of man. Righteousness is always an expression of the divine activity in accord with the righteous character of God.

Righteousness is not something that we as mankind ever “own”, or possess, or manifest in and of ourselves. There is none righteous (Rom. 3:20). That is why Luther called it “alien righteousness.” Seebass -Dictionary of New Testament Theology – “It is not we who possess righteousness, but righteousness which possesses us.” Righteousness is personified in God in Christ.

Righteousness is not a result of man’s performance. Much of what Paul writes is a polemic against “righteousness according to the works of the Law.” Paul takes the concept of righteousness, the dynamic grace expression of God’s character of righteousness, and turns it against the legal conceptions of his day, specifically Judaistic legalism. Yet even in the apostolic fathers, righteousness has been cast in the context of a “new law”, a “Christian law”. By the fourth century with the amalgamation of the church with the Roman empire, the concepts of Roman law continued to “bleed” into Christian theology, to the extent that “righteousness” came to mean a “right standing” with the so-called divine Roman church, which could be purchased legally.

Martin Luther rightly and adamantly reacted to such a righteousness by works of church law, and the Protestant Reformation rallied around the theme of “justification by faith”. But the reformers (or their immediate followers) failed to kick over the whole underlying presupposition of legal, forensic, judicial basis of righteousness, insisting on merely “declared righteous”

The reformers, in their polemic protest against Roman Catholicism and their works righteousness according to “church law”, insisted on leaving no room for meritorious performance righteousness. Nothing man can do to be righteous; only on the basis of what Christ has done. So they had a very focused emphasis on the “finished work” of Christ ­ the historical, the theological, the legal and logical implications of what Christ did on our behalf vicariously. They did not want to allow for even a “crack” of possibility that man’s behavior had any merit before God in deeming a man righteous. Their teaching was Biblically solid. They were reacting against the Catholic doctrine of “infused graced” or “infused righteousness” which tended to make a Christian’s behavioral righteousness at least a secondary basis of being “right with God.” The reformers wanted no part of that- it smacked of “works.” So they emphasized what Christ did as us vicariously, and they emphasized what Christ did for us, redemptively, -but they backed off from clear explanation of what Scripture says about what Christ does in us and through us – and Protestant theology has followed their example for over 400 years.

Protestant theology, in general, has been paranoid that any discussion of behavioral righteousness in Christians will somehow lead back to “performance righteousness” ­ “works”! In fact, they have been as paranoid as Luther was of the book of James. They have over-protected the idea of the “alien-righteousness” of Christ, and thus rejected by their neglect the personal and behavioral implications of righteous living. The over-emphasis of judicial or forensic righteousness by Protestant theologians, has even caused some more recent Roman Catholic theologians to chide the Protestants, saying that if righteous behavior were ever exhibited in a protestant Christian, then some Protestant theologians would necessarily conclude that such was legalistic “works”.

So as not to unduly impinge upon the reformers of the 16th century: Luther – “Justification is the declaring righteous for His sake, which is followed by a real making righteous. …to reckon as righteous must not be understood as an opposition of ‘to make righteous’, for to be justified without merits in the sense of ‘to forgive’ is at the same time the beginning of a new life.” Calvin: “We dream not of a faith which is devoid of good works, nor of a justification which can exist without them. … You cannot possess Him (Christ) without being made a partaker of His sanctification; for Christ cannot be divided. Christ has been given to us for justification and for sanctification.”

T.F. Torrance – Theology in Reconstruction

“Justification is not only the forgiveness of sins, but the bestowal of a positive righteousness that derives from beyond us, and which we have through union with Christ. It is a perpetual living in Christ, from a centre and source beyond us. To be justified is to be lifted up above and beyond ourselves to live out of the risen and ascended Christ, and not out of ourselves.”

The experiential, behavioral factors of righteousness have been overlooked in mainline protestant theology. We have missed the dynamic of the righteous character of God being lived out in His people to His glory. It is imperative that we understand that Christians have been made righteous by the presence of Jesus Christ, the Righteous.

Robert D. Brinsmead – “The Dynamic, Ongoing Nature of Justification by Faith”; “Present Truth” periodical, 6/75 –

“Justification by faith is a dynamic, ongoing action in the divine-human relationship. This important concept is so completely foreign to most evangelical circles today… Most evangelicals think of justification by faith as a final, once-in-a-lifetime act. Justification is not static, it is dynamic and ongoing. As we constantly believe, God constantly justifies. Justification is no mere initiatory action in the soteriological process – no mere filling station along the way…”

T.F. Torrance – Space, Time and Resurrection

“When the Protestant doctrine of justification is formulated only in terms of forensic imputation of righteousness or the non-imputation of sins in such a way as to avoid saying that to justify is to “make righteous”, it is the resurrection that is being by-passed. …justification is empty and unreal, merely a judicial transaction, unless the doctrine of justification bears in its heart a relation of real union with Christ. Apart from such a union with Him through the power of His Spirit, Christ would remain, as it were, inert or idle. We require an active relation to Christ as our righteousness, an active and an actual sharing in His righteousness. This is possible only through the resurrection; – when we approach justification in this light we see that it is a creative event in which our regeneration or renewal is already included within it.”

What we need is a new reformation, which will take the subject of justification or righteousness all the way back to Biblical understanding. A complete restoration of the dynamic restorative process of righteousness by the Righteous One, Jesus Christ.


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