The term “justification” that is found in the writings of St. Paul does not have to do with ones conversion, but rather it is simply a word that Paul used to described how God’s Covenant people as a whole are justified in being the new people of God, the New Covenant people of God. One is justified for not partaking any longer with the Jews or any other religious group; he is no longer bound to the Old Covenant Law. It is really that simple! The term justification is more polemical to the Jews than it is a dogma-term that is to be used to describe a conversion or a sanctifying element in ones conversion.
We must recognize that there is a difference between the doctrine of justification via medieval scholasticism and the doctrine of justification according to St. Paul. One could easily blame the Reformers, such as Calvin and Luther, for capitalizing on the doctrine, but prior to them was the 13th century scholastics St. Duns Scotus and Thomas Aquinas. These four medieval men certainly gave scholastic momentum for the doctrine. Before them, St. Augustine as well as St. Ambrose were keen on using philosophy to promote certain doctrines but neither of them capitalized on the word “justification” like the medieval theologians.
Now here is where it gets sticky! Prior to the medieval period, salvation was described in terms of receiving Christ through baptism and repentance and moving from there into catechizing where one would become rooted in the faith and then become confirmed and begin to receive communion. Salvation was more about leaving one thing for another; not works based but “proof based.” As a person began to live the life within the Church and submit to her teachings and standards, that person became more and more widely recognized as a true and faithful Christian.
But then came scholasticism, where, in many ways, the Gospel changed from the good news about changing lives to the good news about changing thought. As time progressed through the ages much of the Church that was separated (Protestants, etc.) from the historic Church began to embrace a one time conversion scheme where they simply had to recite a “sinners prayer.”
Where did this sinner’s prayer notion come from? It came from the understanding that salvation itself is all wrapped up in one term and concept: Justification! Conversion began to be equated with the term justification, which became the dogma-term for God declaring an individual saved.
What modernism has done is taken these terms that St. Paul used in his writings and capitalized on them via scholasticism. So now the word justification becomes much more than just a word that St. Paul used a few times to help explain the situation of the Gospel, it becomes the sum of the Gospel itself. As Luther stated, justification is “the doctrine by which the church either stands or falls.” Calvin declared justification to be the “hinge of the Reformation.” The reason they were saying these things is because St. Paul’s word “justification” had been built up within the scholastic circles to become the all in all.
First of all, we need to remember that Jesus never used the term justification! Second, justification was not used by St. Paul as a propositional term. St. Paul did not even imply that we should use that term when evangelizing or teaching. Paul was using the term to ensure the Jews, and those associated with the Jews, that they were in the right place with God, covenantally speaking. Paul brought the Gospel into the law-court scenario so that the Gentiles could be comfortable becoming one with the Jews and that Jews could be confident that they could completely leave the part of Judaism they needed to leave to be one with the Gentiles.
St. Paul seemed to be paving a path for both Jew and Gentile. As an Evangelist, Paul’s writings were always written with the Jewish audience in mind, even when addressing the Gentiles. He did not use the term dogmatically for all situations. St. Paul was an evangelist, a polemicist. He said himself in his letter to the Corinthians that he “became all things to all people” in order to win the Jews over. In the book of Romans, where Paul uses the term, he is carefully mapping out, yes, a systematic theology, but for the particular situation at hand. The Jews were constantly interfering with the Gospel work within the Roman Empire and St. Paul, being called to heal this relational gap (1 Cor. 9:20), began writing his best proposition for the given problem.
So in one sense, St. Paul was the very first scholastic teacher. He used philosophy to promote the Gospel. But the philosophy that he used to heal the Jews to the Church and help the Church understand their relationship with the Jews is now, in our day, being used as a Church dogma to describe the Gospel itself. Many in the Church have taken the word out of context and are abusing it and even in some ways worshiping it!
When St. Paul says that we are justified by faith, he is not saying that we are to have an instantaneous experience by faith, he is saying that we justly reside within the New Covenant people of God. He says this because the Jews were uneasy about being a part of the Church because they thought they had to be a part of the Nation of Israel instead. The people that Paul was ministering to also thought that they were to maintain their covenantal status by their works, but St. Paul says in Romans, chapter 4, that our covenantal status is through faith; not that we practice ‘faithing’ but that God recognizes our faith as a mark of justice, a sign of the Covenant people. St. Paul is not giving a psychological solution that we should become converted through justification by faith; he is saying something completely different.
It is not justification that we are after, but it is Christ that we are after. A person can sit well with believing that justification is because of faith and still not become saved. To summarize what Bishop N.T. Wright says, Justification is not about how one gets into the Covenant, it is about how one is viewed by God within the Covenant.
Today’s debate on justification presupposes medieval thought. It does not take into consideration what the early church taught about salvation and ironically, it does not take into consideration the skill of philosophy and debate, the very thing that the doctrine was derived from: St. Paul’s philosophy (but not to be turned into something else). Again, Paul’s intent was for the term justification to heal Jews from their notions of covenantal standing, their personal issues that they had about the Gospel and its doctrine that insisted they leave one Covenant people for another.
What justification really is is the promise of the Covenant. In Romans, chapter 4, Paul begins by stating that not even Abraham was “justified” by works, but by faith. Paul goes on, beginning in verse 13, to describe what this justification is:
“It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. For if those who live by law are heirs, faith has no value and the promise is worthless, because law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression. Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.”He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed—the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.”
When St. Paul speaks of justification he is speaking of the promise of the Covenant people. He is not speaking of a conversion experience, a point at which God says, YOU ARE NOW JUSTIFIED. As mentioned earlier, Paul is communicating to all people – because of the Jewish notion that the New Covenant Church was not in the right – that the Church is in the right. He even goes as far as saying that Abraham was indeed in the right also, but he too was in the right by faith; not because he did a work of faith (that would mean that we are saved by works) but that he simply was reckoned as faithful. Abraham was a man of the faith, again, not intellectually and physiologically speaking but more literally speaking: Abraham was a man of faith! And to reiterate, Abraham was not faithing his way to heaven but God counted him as the faithful, a man whose path was a faithful one within the Covenant; loyal not to ceremonial works as many thought but a man loyal to works bathed in faith! St. Paul needed to make this clear to the Jews so that the Jews would recognize the patriots as the true fathers of Christianity.
So when one says we are saved by faith “alone” they are missing the point of faith. We are saved “through” faith, as Paul says, not “by” faith. There is a big difference. Take away the notion that salvation is something that goes on within your head and realize that salvation, in Pauline terms, is something that happens within the Covenant and that we must live a life of faith in Christ within this Covenant.
In Romans 5:9, Paul says that we are justified by Christ’s blood. So now we are somewhat out of the intellectual formula but more clearly within the covenantal formula, because the shedding of His blood is an historical event. It does not happen again when someone converts thus calling it the point of one’s experience of justification. His blood sacrifice created a New Covenant for people to be saved. So again, Paul is speaking covenantally. Paul is not saying that we all at one point in our life become justified. He is saying that within the kingdom of Christ one is justified and from there their life is worked out; their salvation is worked out by God (Philippians 2:12).
I think a question could arise out of all this, and that would be: “If St. Paul was referring to justification as God’s declaration of one being a covenant member, then is one justified when they are baptized since baptism initiates membership to the Covenant?” The following is an interesting article by Dr. Peter Liethart as he argues that, yes, one is justified when baptized. This does not equate to salvation but it does open the door to such.
“Does baptism justify? Justification is, of course, an act of God. But that puts the question differently without deflecting it: Does baptism declare a justification for the person baptized?
At least twice, Paul makes a direction connection between baptism and justification. Having reminded the Corinthians that they had been the kind of people who do not inherit the kingdom, he goes on to remind them that they are no longer such people: “but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of God” (6:11). Is Paul talking about water baptism when he refers to “washing” or to some spiritual and invisible washing? I believe the former; the phrase “in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” echoes the baptismal formula of Matthew 28 and Acts, and the reference to the Spirit also links with baptismal passages (Acts 2; 1 Cor 12:12-13). This whole passage is in fact embedded in a baptismal formula: “you were washed . . . in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Note too that Paul marks the shift from what the Corinthians “were” to what they “are” by a reference to their baptism. They have become different folk by being baptized. What, though, is the relationship between the baptism and sanctification and justification? The connection here is not absolutely clear, but I suggest that sanctification and justification are two implications of the event of baptism. The pagan Corinthians have been washed-sanctified-justified by their baptism into the name of Jesus and the concommitant action of the Spirit.
Romans 6:7 is another passage where Paul links baptism and justification. He who has died, Paul writes, is “justified from sin.” And when, in context, does one die? “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (vv. 3-4). Baptism into Christ means baptism into death; those who have been baptized have been crucified with Jesus; and those who are dead in and with Jesus have been justified from sin. Here, “justify” carries the connotation of deliverance from the power of sin. Through baptism, we die to our natural solidarity and society with Adam and brought into solidarity with and the society of Jesus.”