Friday, August 17, 2007

How Am I Made Right Before God?

Romans 4:4-6: "Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: 'Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.'"

The issue of Justification by Faith is, and always has been, a very central issue in the Christian church. While pretty much everyone (Catholics, Protestants, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, etc.) concurs that faith plays a role in justification, when it comes to the sufficiency of faith they differ radically. Most often, the history of religion has been filled with people trying to make "minor" additions to the equation by saying "Yes, Christ is in the equation, but we need to add [insert whatever: circumcision, baptism, restitutions, good deeds, alms, time in purgatory, etc.] to make it sufficient". However, from Galatians we lean that such additions are not "minor". If any one of those things enter into our perception of how we are made right with God, we are frustrating the grace God! ( Gal.2:21)

The Biblical position is that the only thing that can make us right before God is the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom.4:23-25, Eph.1:7, etc.). This means that when God judicially declares a believer righteous, the only basis for that declaration is Christ's finished work, which excludes works ( Rom.4:3-4, Rom.3:28, Rom.11:6). The believer clings to that work of Christ made on their behalf via faith and receives His righteousness because his own righteousness is futile in regard to justification (Phil.3:9 ). Our works are not what is under consideration when God graciously saves us--if they were we would be all destined to eternity in hell ( Rom.6:23). And even that faith that we have, according to the Bible, is an empty hand grasping on Christ's sacrifice. And, incidentally, even the faith is granted to the believer by God (Phil.1:29, Luk.7:5, Eph.2:8, John 6:28-29, etc.). We stand as the poor, weak beggar on the receiving end in every aspect of our salvation.

Salvation is God redeeming us from our lawlessness unto a new life and that new life can only come about by a decisive act of God (Titus 3:5). This is not to diminish good works. God's delight is that those who are saved through faith be zealous about good works ( Mat.5:16. Tit.2:7-14, Titus 3:14, etc.) . We are God's workmanship unto good works (Eph.2:10). But the good works flow from the regeneration and the faith, not the other way around. So it is that we say that the Bible teaches Sola Fide (a Latin term used to refer to Salvation by 'Faith Alone'). A theologian put it well when he once said: "We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone". This concept is supported by careful study of both Romans 4 and James 2 in their individual contexts.

Being justified by faith, we are not only liberated from the burden of trying to measure up to God's perfect standards with our filthy-rag works, but our hearts are changed as sons and daughters of the living God. We then should look for evidence of this lively faith. As the London Baptist Confession says of a believer's good works: "These good works, done in obedience to God's commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith; and by them believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God, whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto, that having their fruit unto holiness they may have the end eternal life."

Here are some quotes from the history of the church on the matter:

Jerome (347-420) on Romans 10:3: "God justifies by faith alone." (Deus ex sola fide justificat). In Epistolam Ad Romanos, Caput X, v. 3, PL 30:692D.

Chrysostom (349-407AD): The patriarch Abraham himself before receiving circumcision had been declared righteous on the score of faith alone: before circumcision, the text says, "Abraham believed God, and credit for it brought him to righteousness." Fathers of the Church, Vol. 82, Homilies on Genesis 18-45, 27.7

Ambrose (c. 339-97): "Therefore let no one boast of his works, because no one can be justified by his works; but he who is just receives it as a gift, because he is justified by the washing of regeneration. It is faith, therefore, which delivers us by the blood of Christ, because blessed is he whose sins are forgiven, and to whom pardon is granted." George Finch, A Sketch of the Romish Controversy (London: G. Norman, 1831), p. 220.

Augustine (354-430): "But what about the person who does no work (Rom 4:5)? Think here of some godless sinner, who has no good works to show. What of him or her? What if such a person comes to believe in God who justifies the impious? People like that are impious because they accomplish nothing good; they may seem to do good things, but their actions cannot truly be called good, because performed without faith. But when someone believes in him who justifies the impious, that faith is reckoned as justice to the believer, as David too declares that person blessed whom God has accepted and endowed with righteousness, independently of any righteous actions (Rom 4:5-6). What righteousness is this? The righteousness of faith, preceded by no good works, but with good works as its consequence." John E. Rotelle, O.S.A., ed., WSA, Part 1, Vol. 11, trans. Maria Boulding, O.S.B., Expositions of the Psalms 1-32, Exposition 2 of Psalm 31, ¡±7 (Hyde Park: New City Press, 2000), p. 370.

Martin Luther (1483-1546): "Therefore it is clear that, as the soul needs only the Word of God for its life and righteousness, so it is justified by faith alone and not any works; for if it could be justified by anything else, it would not need the Word, and consequently it would not need faith."

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758): "This is evident by these words — 'that justifieth the ungodly' (Rom 4:5), which cannot imply less than that God, in the act of justification, has no regard to anything in the person justified, as godliness or any goodness in him, but that immediately before this act, God beholds him only as an ungodly creature, so that godliness in the person to be justified is not so antecedent to his justification as to be the ground of it. When it is said that God justifies the ungodly, it is as absurd to suppose that our godliness, taken as some goodness in us, is the ground of our justification, as when it is said that Christ gave sight to the blind to suppose that sight was prior to, and the ground of, that act of mercy in Christ. Or as, if it should be said that such an one by his bounty has made a poor man rich, to suppose that it was the wealth of this poor man that was the ground of this bounty towards him, and was the price by which it was procured."

Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892): ". There is no means among men of justifying a man of an accusation which is laid against him, except by his being proved not guilty. Now, the wonder of wonders is, that we are proved guilty, and yet we are justified: the verdict has been brought in against us—guilty—and yet notwithstanding, we are justified. Can any earthly tribunal do that?"

Labels: , ,


Blogger AUSSIE said...

About 3 years ago I dropped into a black hole – four months of absolute terror. I wanted to end my life, but somehow [Holy Spirit], I reached out to a friend who took me to hospital. I had three visits [hospital] in four months – I actually thought I was in hell. I imagine I was going through some sort of metamorphosis [mental, physical & spiritual]. I had been seeing a therapist [1994] on a regular basis, up until this point in time. I actually thought I would be locked away – but the hospital staff was very supportive [I had no control over my process]. I was released from hospital 16th September 2004, but my fear, pain & shame had only subsided a little. I remember this particular morning waking up [home] & my process would start up again [fear, pain, & shame]. No one could help me, not even my therapist [I was terrified]. I asked Jesus Christ to have mercy on me & forgive me my sins. Slowly, all my fear has dissipated & I believe Jesus delivered me from my “psychological prison.” I am a practicing Catholic & the Holy Spirit is my friend & strength; every day since then has been a joy & blessing. I deserve to go to hell for the life I have led, but Jesus through His sacrifice on the cross, delivered me from my inequities. John 3: 8, John 15: 26, are verses I can relate to, organically. He’s a real person who is with me all the time. I have so much joy & peace in my life, today, after a childhood spent in orphanages . God LOVES me so much. Fear, pain, & shame, are no longer my constant companions. I just wanted to share my experience with you [Luke 8: 16 – 17].

12:01 PM  
Blogger Mark said...


Thank you for sharing your experiences!

Only Jesus Christ can lift us out of the abyss of our individual situations, and only He can give us meaning which allows us to truly soar above our own despair, problems, and fears. God's people are saved by the finished work of Christ alone, and in a living relationship with Christ we find deep meaning in life. We so easily look for deliverance in other things, but we need to look to Christ with our whole heart. He is mighty to deliver.

Thanks again for sharing what you've experienced.

1:40 PM  
Blogger Nick Steffen said...

I'm not sure that one should emphasize the distinctions between justification and sanctification to such an extent. Instead of saying that Jesus is the equation, therefore these other things (baptism, Lord's supper, works, etc...) aren't, why not simply that that SINCE Jesus is the equation, these other things are as well.

For example, you can start by saying that Jesus is the presence of God on earth (ie temple, tabernacle filling language) and that we are to be in him. Just as the temple/tabernacle were filled with the Holy Spirit, we are in him when the Holy Spirit fills us as the people of God. This marks us out as his, confirms our place among his people, justifies us before God, allows us to be part of the corporate body of Christ, etc... No mater what language we use, it must retain the tension we know between the here, where the Spirit is our downpayment, and the New Creation that lies ahead of us. The problem isn't with rite or ritual, with works or sacraments, but with our inability to see that the Christian life encompasses all of life, not just the bits. Even if justification and sanctification are not the same thing (and I don't believe they are), we must see them through each other, through the commisioning and life we have received from our King.

Maybe it's just me, but I haven't seen the doctrine talked about in these terms. More often it is used to encourage people who are failing or can't seem to see God as ever being pleased. The earlier gentleman nicely demonstrated the redemption that Jesus brings is life changing, bringing us out of our prisons (both concrete and metaphorical) by showing us that life is there to be lived, and any sort of dualistic separation of our inner selves from the real lives in which we reside just makes us smaller. Jesus points towards new life, not death.

I hope these ramblings make some sense.

2:19 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Hi Nick,

Thanks for the comments!!!

I feel that I know what you are saying, but my perception of it is still a bit murky.

Do you have a similar view of Justification as N.T. Wright? I've yet to read anything by him, though I hear that much of his work is quite brilliant. I get the feeling that I probably don't see eye to eye with him on the issue of justification.

I now proceed to type conceding that I probably don't understand all the nuances of your position.

Most of the things I described are essentially good things (circumcision, baptism, etc.).

And yet there is a context where a thing like circumcision becomes a curse. In general, you can have circumcision and Christ. But in particular in view of justification, you can either have Christ or you can have circumcision. No mingling. A little leaven leavens the whole lump. Paul is firm on this point.

Gal.5:2 - "..if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you"

Was he speaking against circumcision in general, or against circumcision "in the equation"? I hold the later given that he was clearly not against circumcision in and of itself.

So, as to what you have said about having Christ AND those other things in the equation of justification, I'd say NO. First of all, we will have all of Christ for justification or none of Christ. Secondly, in Jesus Christ these things don't avail anything in this matter anyways, "but only faith.." (Gal.5:6)

Though I know very little about some of the recent perspective shifts on Paul, but I do understand that the interpretation of Galatians is critical to this and there has been considerable effort to recontextualize Galtians.

In Christ we have all the fullness that you have mentioned. What you have said about being justified by being in Christ is correct. But it merely evades the question by taking it back one level. The thing in common to almost all new perspectives on Paul's writings (from what I've gleaned) is that they all shrink away about speaking plainly about legal, declarative, forensic justification. In my opinion, it doesn't do justice to the Biblical texts.

"The problem isn't with rite or ritual, with works or sacraments, but with our inability to see that the Christian life encompasses all of life, not just the bits."

When I say what I say about justification, I'm not saying there is a problem with rite or ritual. I'm saying that there is a problem with rite or ritual being seen in the equation of how one is justified. Almost all the things I listed can be done properly, flowing from the faith justified individual.

Thanks again for your comments. And I hope this response is semi-clear?

2:59 PM  
Blogger Nick Steffen said...


I'm not completely sure that the distinction you make coheres in my mind. Why should these things be separate in our minds?

You mentioned Galatians 5:2 as an example of Jesus being the sole thing in the equation of justification. But I don't think this either/or approach to circumcision is necessarily a result of their thinking they could earn their way but that circumcision is what made them part of the people of God. It also becomes nearly untenable to hold faith and works apart as you seem to when reading Gal 5:6 (a few verses later) saying that "the only thing that counts is faith working through love". Now I really don't know Galatians well enough to argue the specifics (because I'm not really sure how the structure of the book works), but I'm guessing that it has more to do with the communal formation of the people of God (what makes me one of the King's people).

At the same point (though I am probably moving in quite a NTW direction here), I don't believe that that approach destroys the legal or forensic approach to justification. In fact, I think it strengthens the forensic approach. After all, if faith marks us out as part of God's people, then this is the very image of justification, the very image of judgment. It is God distinguishing the sheep from the goats. It is about community and society, but it's also about judgment and declarative justice. It is about election.

The problem I have with the "traditional" understandings of Paul (and I'm not yet convinced that these views are traditional) is that they seem to operate completely within an internal sphere (marking that dualistic influence I mentioned earlier). As a strawman: "It's all about belief, not about ...[replace with something important that we don't necessarily like all that much]..." One whipping boy throughout the years has been baptism (ie is it really transformative?) when Romans 6 clearly implies more of a direct connection between Jesus' death/resurrection and our own (via baptism) than we typically set up with the approach I think I understand you to be meaning.

The attempts to show that works are necessary implications of our belief should be demonstration enough that these concepts are closer than we think, particularly when taking texts like Rom 2:13 into consideration. I'm obviously not saying that justification has little to do with faith, but simply that works have more to do with it than your either/or would seem to imply.

Then again, maybe we're talking past each other on some level here. If you want to talk more, go ahead and email me (I'm not all that good at checking comment fields). Peace.

1:22 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home