Has the Church Misunderstood Justification?
by Guy Waters
“[Justification] was not so much about ‘getting in’, or indeed about ‘staying in’, as about ‘how you could tell who was in’. In standard Christian theological language, it wasn’t so much about soteriology as about ecclesiology; not so much about salvation as about the church.”
—N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 119
For all their differences concerning the doctrine of justification, Protestants and the Roman Catholic Church have agreed on this: justification fundamentally concerns the salvation of the sinner. To draw this observation is not, of course, to minimize the importance of the differences between Rome and Protestantism concerning justification. It is to stress, however, that the Protestant- Roman Catholic debate makes little sense unless one recognizes that both sides understand the Scriptures to teach that justification belongs primarily in the realm of salvation.
Imagine the shock of a prominent New Testament scholar and Protestant churchman declaring that Roman Catholics and Protestants alike have profoundly misunderstood the Bible’s teaching on justification. Justification in the present, N.T. Wright claims, is primarily about how you can tell who belongs to the church. It is not primarily about the salvation of the sinner. Wright, of course, is not saying that justification has nothing to do with the salvation of the sinner. It does. He is saying, however, that the church has missed what the Bible says is the heart of the doctrine: “how you can tell who is a member of the covenant family” (What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 122). Wright recognizes the ecumenical potential of his position. He claims that, if he is right, he has bridged a wide gap between Rome and Protestantism — on this point at least.
Wright believes that he has the Bible on his side. He points especially to the epistle of Paul to the Galatians. The question that drives Galatians, Wright argues, is how you define the people of God. Paul’s opponents, the Judaizers, argued that faith-plus-works define the Christian as a member of God’s people. In other words, circumcision is necessary to Christian identity. Paul, however, writes this letter to say that faith is sufficient as a badge of Christian membership. Circumcision is not necessary to Christian identity. This debate provides the background for “justification” in Galatians. When Paul says that a person is “not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal. 2:16), he is saying that a person is identified as part of the people of God by the badge of faith. He is not so identified by the badge of circumcision and other works required by the law of Moses.
To be sure, Wright advances a plausible case. On closer inspection, however, significant problems surface. Notice how Paul defines “works of the law” in Galatians 3. They are things that we do. In order to be justified by works of the law, one must “abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them” (3:10; see Deut. 27:26). Because we fail to keep this standard, we all have come under the Law’s curse (3:10; see also Gal. 5:3). We are justified through faith, however, because righteous Jesus “redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (3:11, 13). Justification concerns sinners being brought out from the L aw’s curse because of the curse-bearing death of Jesus.
Or, observe how Paul speaks about justification to the church in Rome. Sinners cannot be justified by the “works of the law” (Rom. 3:20). The law requires perfection (2:13). Since we are “under sin,” and “none is righteous, no, not one,” no sinner can meet the L aw’s perfect standard in order to be justified (3:9–10).
God justifies the sinner only because of the work of the one who is perfectly righteous — Jesus. “[We] are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (3:24–25; see also 5:9). We are declared righteous “by the one man’s obedience” (5:19). We are justified solely on the basis of the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, imputed to us and received through faith alone.
For Paul, then, justification fundamentally concerns salvation. It treats people as sinners under the curse of the L aw. It presents Jesus as the one who perfectly obeyed the L aw and has become a curse for sinners.
Thus, Wright is mistaken to say that justification in the present primarily concerns membership in the church. E ven so, there is a lesson for us to learn. The Bible teaches that justification is a powerful and compelling incentive for believers to live together in unity. Paul had to address a matter that had occasioned serious division in the church at Rome (see Rom. 14). How does Paul urge unity in the church? “Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (15:7). The way that Christ received you — an undeserving sinner shown the justifying grace of God in Christ — should set the pattern for your life with fellow believers in the church, especially when you face the bumps and challenges that inevitably come. At the end of the day, responding graciously to our differences and bearing offenses in love is the best test of how deeply the Bible’s teaching on justification has taken root in our lives.