What Does Justification Have to do with the Gospel?
“I must stress again that the doctrine of justification by faith is not what Paul means by ‘the gospel’. It is implied by the gospel; when the gospel is proclaimed, people come to faith and so are regarded by God as members of his people. But ‘the gospel’ is not an account of how people get saved.”
—N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, pp. 132–33
There is a striking plausibility about saying that “justification by faith is not what Paul means by ‘the gospel.’” After all, as N.T. Wright elsewhere observes, we are not justified by believing in justification by faith but by believing in Jesus Christ.
How Luther-like this all sounds. Did he not affirm that the gospel is “entirely outside of us”?
Is this perhaps the longed-for antidote to evangelical individualism and a cure for subjectivism? Clearly Bishop Wright and others believe so. Elsewhere, Dr. Wright confesses the great relief he felt in discovering that we are not justified by believing in justification by faith.
But this already suggests that the plausibility of this perspective is scarcely matched by the reality. These words seem to describe an escape from the theological immaturity of an earlier evangelicalism. But having been reared at the same time in that same evangelicalism, I seriously question that such teaching ever existed in any serious form. This should make us reconsider the apparent plausibility of what is being said here. At the end of the day, it may turn out to be a sleight of hand — for several reasons. What follows are three of them.
First, there is a false dichotomy suggested in the notion that the gospel is not justification by faith but the latter is “implied” by the gospel. But this “either-or” way of thinking expresses the logical fallacy tertium non datur (if not A, then necessarily B). Thus, the gospel is Christ OR it is justification by faith.
This is falsely to abstract justification from Christ, the benefit (the implication of what Jesus did) from the Benefactor (the person of Jesus who has accomplished His work). But as Paul notes, Christ Himself is made righteousness for us (1 Cor. 1:30). Justification cannot be abstracted from Christ as if it were a “thing” apart from or added to Him. Christ Himself is our justification. We cannot have justification without Christ! Nor can we have Christ without justification! Insofar as this is true, we cannot say that Christ, not justification by faith, is the gospel.
Second and perhaps more surprisingly, given N.T. Wright’s extensive commentary on Romans, Paul himself provides us with what he calls “my gospel” (Rom. 2:16). But this gospel is saving power (1:16–17) — thus “being saved” is part of the gospel. In addition it includes not only Romans 1–3 but Romans 4–16 as well. More pointedly, it includes Romans 12–16. In technical language it includes not only kerygma (the proclamation of Christ and His work) but also didache (the application of that work in and to the life of the believer and the community).
Earlier, Paul believed that the distortion and falsifying of the gospel taking place in the Galatian church involved the application of redemption. Justification by grace alone, in Christ alone, through faith alone, is as much part of the gospel as Christ becoming a curse for us on the cross (Gal. 3:13).
Finally, unless we are familiar with the context of Wright’s words quoted above, we may not notice a further sleight of hand taking place.
In the statement “when the gospel is proclaimed, people come to faith and so are regarded by God as members of his people,” “justification” itself is being radically redefined. Here it no longer means “counted righteous in God’s sight although a guilty sinner in oneself.” It means “being regarded as members of His people.” Justification no longer belongs to the definition of the gospel as such, to pardon and acceptance, but refers to membership in the covenant community.
But this faces insurmountable problems. It is an eccentric understanding of Paul’s Greek terms. Were “justification” the antithesis of “alienation,” the argument might be more plausible. But “justification” is the antithesis of “condemnation.” Its primary thrust has to do with transgression, guilt, and punishment — relatedness to God’s holiness expressed in legal norms, not primarily relationship to the community.
Membership, therefore, is an implication of justification; it is not what justification means. That is why the gospel confession that “Jesus is Lord” (1 Cor. 12:3) must never be understood apart from the interpretation given it in 1 Corinthians 15:1–3 — that “Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the Scriptures.” This Paul specifically calls the gospel. It deals first and foremost with our sin, pollution, and guilt as the reasons for exclusion from the presence of God. Yes, justification is relational language. But it is no less forensic language for that reason — since it deals with our relationship to the holy Lord and Lawgiver!
It is right to be concerned that the objectivity of the gospel should never be swallowed up by subjectivity, or the church community destroyed by individuality. But the understanding of the gospel and of justification in Luther and Calvin, in Heidelberg and Westminster, provides all the necessary safeguards. The old wine is best. It satisfies both the requirements of biblical teaching and the deepest hunger of the awakened human heart.
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