Monday, October 22, 2007

Justification: an eschatological blessing

As most of you know, I have been studying the doctrine of justification recently. I began studying it in response to a recent stir generated by John Piper's new book The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright.

The more I've read about justification the more I realize how deep the rabbit hole goes. Justification has of course been a central doctrine of debate and research since the Protestant Reformation. As such there have been incredible number of books, articles, blog posts, etc., written from innumerable paradigms and perspectives regarding this doctrine. I feel like I've read most of them, but I know I have just scratched the surface. Despite the daunting nature of this task I actually feel like I've made good progress.

George Ladd and Ardel Caneday have been the most helpful because they have alerted me to the eschatological nature of justification - something about which I was completely unaware previously. This, of course, is not without controversy but I feel it is one point upon which the debate turns and therefore important to discuss.

In my mind one cannot understand justification without first understanding eschatology.

Eschatology comes from the Greek eschaton which means something like last things. Therefore eschatology is the study of the "last things." However, this this can be somewhat misleading because the "last things" aren't things like "the rapture" or the "second coming" as some may think. Rather the "last things" are things like "salvation," "redemption," and "the Holy Spirit." In other words, eschatology deals with ideas that we routinely discuss and are important to our day-to-day lives.

The reason we talk about "last things" right now is because of Jesus Christ. Jesus was an eschatological Messiah inaugurating an eschatological Kingdom meant to deliver an eschatological salvation. To explain this statement I must to introduce George Ladd.

For Ladd, eschatology is a central, unifying paradigm. If I understand him correctly, he sees it as the lens through which the Biblical writers viewed the world, and his arguments are so compelling I find it hard to disagree. His argument is wrapped around the "Kingdom of God" which was so loudly proclaimed in the Gospels. For Ladd, "the Kingdom" was synonymous not with a physical or political kingdom (although it has implications for such kingdoms) but rather the sovereign rule of God in Christ. It was the object of Old Testament promises. The reason that "the Kingdom" can be described as eschatological is because its arrival marked the end of "this age" and the beginning of "the age to come" during which all of God's covenant promises would be fulfilled (e.g. the wicked would be judged and God's people would be vindicated). Hear Ladd in his own words from his A Theology of the New Testament:

...the framework of Paul's entire theological thought is that of apocalyptic dualism of this age and the Age to Come. It is clear that this was no Pauline creation, for we find it emerging in Judaism in the first century; and the Synoptics represent it as providing the basic structure for Jesus' teachings.

However, we have seen that Paul as a Christian made a radical modification in this temporal dualism. Because of what God has done in Jesus' historic mission, the contrast between the two ages does not remain in tact. On the contrary, the redemptive blessings brought to humankind by Jesus' death and resurrection and the giving of the Holy spirit are eschatological events. This means that the Pauline eschatology is inseparable from Paul's theological thought as a whole.

The events of the eschatological consummation are not merely detached events lying in the future about which Paul speculates. They are rather redemptive events that have already begun to unfold within history. The blessings of the Age to Come no longer lie exclusively in the future; they have become objects of present experience. The death of Christ is an eschatological event. Because of Christ's death, the justified person stands already on the age-to-come side of the eschatological judgment, acquittal of all guilt. By virtue of the death of Christ, the believer has already been delivered from this present evil age (Gal. 1:4). He or she has been transferred from the rule of darkness and now knows the live of the Kingdom of Christ (Col. 1:13). In his cross, Christ has already defeated the powers of evil that have brought chaos into the world (Col. 2:14f).

The resurrection of Christ is an eschatological event. The first act of the eschatological resurrection has been separated from the eschatological consummation and has taken place in history. Christ has already abolished death and displayed the life and immortality of the Age to Come in an event that occurred within history (2 Tim. 1:10). Thus the light and the glory that belong to the Age to Come have already shone in this dark world in the person of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:6).

Because of these eschatological events, the believer lives the life of the new age. The very phrase describing the status of the believer, "in Christ," is an eschatological term. To be "in Christ" means to be in the new age and to experience its life and powers. "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come" (2 Cor. 5:17). Believers have already experienced death and resurrection (Rom. 6:3-4). They have even been raised with Christ and exalted to heaven (Eph. 2:6), sharing the resurrection and ascension life in their Lord...

...the new life of believers is an ambiguous experience, for they still live in the old age. They have been delivered from its power, yet they must still live out their lives in this age, although they are not to be conformed to its life but are to experience the renewing powers of the new age (Rom. 12:1-2)...

Therefore the transition from the sin and death of the old age to the life of the new age is as yet only partial, although it is real. All that the new age means cannot be experienced in the old age. It must pass away and give place to the Kingdom of God in the Age to Come when all that is mortal is swallowed up in life (2 Cor. 5:4). Thus believers live in a tension of experienced and anticipated eschatology. They are already in the Kingdom of Christ (Col. 1:13), but they await the coming of the the Kingdom of God (1 Cor. 15:50). They have already experienced the new life (2 Cor. 2:16), but they look forward to the inheritance of eternal life (Gal. 6:8). They have already been saved (Eph. 2:5), but they are still awaiting their salvation (Rom. 13:11). They have been raised into newness of life (Rom. 6:4), yet they long for the resurrection (2 Cor. 5:4).

I think it's safe to say that we live in an "already-but-not-yet" eschatological age. The time between Jesus' inauguration of the Kingdom and its final consummation when He returns once more.

With that broad introduction to eschatology out of the way let us focus on "justification" and its place in the eschatological puzzle. Here's more from Ladd:

One of the most important facts that will provide an understanding of the Pauline doctrine is that justification is an eschatological doctrine. We have seen that in Judaism people will be judged according to their works in the last judgment. God is the righteous lawgiver and judge; and it is only in the final judgment when God will render a judicial verdict upon each person that the individual's righteousness or unrighteousness will be finally determined. Only God, who has set the norm for human conduct, can determine whether a person has met that norm and is therefore righteous. The issue of the final judgment will either be a declaration of righteousness that will mean acquittal from all guilt, or a conviction of unrighteousness and subsequent condemnation. The essential meaning of justification, therefore, is forensic and involves acquittal by the righteous judge.

This eschatological significance of justification is seen in several uses of the word dikaioo. When Paul says, 'Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies; who is to condemn?' (Rom. 8:33,34), he is looking forward to the final judgment when God's verdict of acquittal cannot be set aside by anyone who would bring an accusation that might result in condemnation. When we read that it is not the hearers of the Law who in God's sight are righteous by only the doers of the Law who will be justified, we must look forward to the day of judgment when God will issue a verdict on the conduct of humankind in terms of obedience or disobedience to the Law (Rom. 2:13). The temporal orientation of he words 'by one man's obedience many will be made righteous' (Rom 5:19) is the future judgment when God will pronounce the verdict of righteousness on the many. The 'hope of righteousness' for which we wait is the judicial pronouncement of righteousness, i.e., the expectation of acquittal in the day of judgment (Gal. 5:5).


In the eschatological understanding of justification, as well as in its forensic aspect, the Pauline doctrine agrees with that of contemporary Jewish thought. However, there are several points at which the Pauline teaching is radically different from the Jewish concept; and one of the essential differences is that the future eschatological justification has already taken place. "Since therefore we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God" (Rom. 5:9). "Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God" (Rom 5:1). "You were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Cor. 6:11). In these instances the verb is in the aorist tense, expressing an act that has been accomplished. Through faith in Christ, on the ground of his shed blood, people have already been justified, acquitted of the guilt of sin, and therefore are delivered from condemnation. Here again we find a further illustration of the modification of he antithetical eschatological structure of biblical thought. Justification, which primarily means acquittal at the final judgment, has already taken place in the present. The eschatological judgment is no longer alone future; it has become a verdict in history. Justification, which belongs to the Age to Come and issues in the future salvation, has become a present reality inasmuch as the Age to Come has reached back into the present evil age to bring its soteric blessings to human beings. An essential element in salvation of the future age is the divine acquittal and the pronouncement of righteousness; this acquittal, justification, which consists of the divine absolution of sin, has already been affected by the death of Christ and may be received by faith here and now. The future judgment has thus become essentially a present experience. God in Christ has acquitted the believer; therefore he or she is certain of deliverance from the wrath of God (Rom 5:9) and no longer stands under condemnation (Rom. 8:1).

...Justification is one of the blessings of the inbreaking of the new age into the old. In Christ the future has become present; the eschatological judgment has in effect already taken place in history. As the eschatological Kingdom of God is present in history in the Synoptics, as the eschatological eternal life is present in Christ in John, as the eschatological resurrection has already begun in Jesus' resurrection, as the eschatological judgment has already occurred in principle in Christ, and God has acquitted his people.

Here Ladd describes the eschatological nature of justification and its "already" aspect. To discuss the "not yet" aspect I will interject thoughts from Ardel Caneday. Ardel and Tom Schreiner wrote The Race Set Before Us which is about perseverance (which includes justification). Ardel maintains a blog on which he posts articles related to topics he has covered in the book. Over a year ago now he began a series of posts (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 - be sure to read the comments too!) on the "now and not yet" aspect of justification (i.e. its eschatological nature). I will cut/paste the best from the series (which is quite a lot).

From Caneday's second post in his series:

Paul solemnly avows that when God judges, he will reward everyone according to their deeds.

To those who by persevering in a good work seek glory and honor and incorruptibility, he will give eternal life. But upon those who act out of selfish ambition and who disobey the truth and instead submit to unrighteousness, he will inflict wrath and anger. There will be tribulation and distress for every person who does what is evil, both the Jew first and also the Greek, but there will be glory and honor and peace to everyone who accomplishes what is good, both to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For there is no partiality with God (Rom 2:7-11).

Using two sets of designations–"eternal life" and "glory and honor and peace"–Paul affirms twice in this passage that God will reward perseverance in good deeds with "salvation." This causes no small dilemma for interpreters who want to avoid the notion that the apostle contradicts his own clear statement that "no flesh will be justified by the works of the law" (Rom 3:20). However, the dilemma is in the eye of the reader, for Paul plainly affirms that the principle of God’s impartial judgment is integral to his gospel, for he speaks of "the day when, according to my gospel, God shall judge the secrets of humans, through Christ Jesus" (Rom 2:16). So, "judgment according to one’s deeds" is not alien to his gospel but an essential element of it. Paul echoes the principle of Ezekiel 18, for both the apostle and the prophet insist that God is an impartial judge who will render his judgment in keeping with one’s deeds. Paul confronts the same problem Ezekiel faced: Israelites who possess the Law but fail to obey the Law. This is what Paul denounces in Romans 2. But in the midst of his prosecution of disobedient possessors of the Law, he reaffirms God’s thoroughly impartial principle of justice that holds out hope for all who do the things the Law requires, because "not the hearers of the Law are righteous before God, but the doers of the Law shall be declared righteous" (Rom 2:13). This is not a fictional offer that no one attains, nor is this salvation based upon one’s own works. Though it is true that he speaks of judgment and justification, here Paul is not speaking of the legal basis or ground of justification, for the basis is the obedience of Christ alone (Rom 5:12-19). Rather, he speaks of the kind of person whom God will justify in the Day of Judgment. It is the obedient, not the disobedient person. It is the doers of the Law, not the possessors of the Law. Who are these "doers of the Law"? At the close of chapter two Paul explains their identity. They are people who, though they may not even have the Law, do the things the Law requires. They are ones who, though perhaps not circumcised in the flesh, have hearts circumcised by the Spirit of God. Therefore, Paul succinctly summarizes his argument of Romans 2 by reiterating the principle of his gospel that the true Jew is not one who possesses the Law and who is circumcised in the flesh; but the true Jew is one who keeps the requirements of the Law from a heart circumcised by the Spirit. This person "will receive praise from God," which is another way of saying "will be justified" (Rom 2:13) or "will be reckoned as circumcision" (Rom 2:26).

Therefore, since he indicts unfaithful Israelites for failing to keep the Law which they possess by privilege from God, and since Paul orients his discussion to the eschatological Day of Judgment, his primary concern is to answer one question: "Who will be justified?" Like the prophet in Ezekiel 18:21-23, the apostle Paul answers that one who will be justified in the heavenly courtroom of God is the person who does what God requires. The promise of eternal life is conditional, but the condition must not be confused with the basis of one’s right standing before God. This is because Paul does not confuse the two. He makes it clear that God’s righteous judgment laid his wrath upon Christ Jesus in order that God might be just when he justifies all who belong to Jesus Christ (Rom 3:21-26). So, Paul does not answer the question “On what basis will one be justified?” until Romans 3:21ff. In Romans 2 Paul makes one thing clear: God’s promise of salvation is conditional. On the Day of Judgment God will award eternal life to those who persevere in good works (Rom 2:7, 10), because God does not justify hearers of the Law but doers of the Law (Rom 2:13). Praise from God belongs to all who keep the requirements of the Law, to all who obey from hearts circumcised by the Spirit (Rom 2:26, 29).

This is from his third post.

Always orienting his view of salvation eschatologically, that is toward the last day, Paul announces in his gospel that God has revealed his righteous judgment in the “present time” (Rom 3:21-26). God has already begun his good work in us (Phil 1:6), by calling us to believe “in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead” (Rom 4:24). God has brought the verdict of the Day of judgment forward, into the midst of redemptive history, for God has graciously revealed his righteousness through the gospel (Rom 1:17), which announces that God’s obedient son, Jesus Christ (Rom 5:19), has already appeared in the flesh (Rom 1:3f) and has already borne God’s wrath for us by becoming a sin offering on our behalf (Rom 8:3). Because God condemned his own Son in our place, he has already rendered his judgment, vindicating his own righteousness, so that he now justifies all who embrace Jesus Christ (Rom 3:26). Thus, God already gives the eschatological gift of righteousness in advance of the Day of judgment (Rom 5:17). Therefore, as far as the believer is concerned, the verdict of God’s judgment is already in, though the Day of judgment has not yet arrived. The verdict is acquittal (Rom 5:1; 8:1). This verdict is irrevocable for all whom God has called to believe (Rom 8:30), for because Christ Jesus died and was raised and now intercedes for us, God’s verdict is final; God will not hear any further charges against his chosen ones, for his verdict stands (Rom 8:34).

True as it is that Paul’s gospel announces that God’s judgment is already rendered in Christ at the cross, the apostle never relinquishes the Old Testament eschatological orientation toward the coming Day of judgment, for God’s Son has come and he will appear again to call everyone to judgment (Acts 17:31). For Paul, justification remains fundamentally the eschatological verdict of acquittal. For while God has already revealed his righteousness by subjecting his own Son to his wrath (Rom 3:25), God discloses his final justice at the present time only in the gospel which explains what God did in Jesus Christ on that dark and dreadful day of his death to save sinners. For while God presently reveals his wrath against human unrighteousness “from heaven” (Rom 1:18), that is from a distance and not as he will in the last day, he restrains his wrath in the present time as he patiently abides those who spurn his kindness. Those who snub God’s kindness accumulate wrath against them in preparation for the day of God’s wrath when he will reveal his righteous judgment (Rom 2:5; cf. 12:14-21) and will execute judgment in keeping with the secrets now concealed in human hearts (Rom 2:16).

We who believe in Jesus Christ receive God’s righteous verdict of forgiveness before the Day of judgment arrives, but not publicly as we will in the Day of judgment when his justice and wrath will come upon all who disobey the gospel and will also give us relief from our present afflictions (2 Thess 1:5-10). Though it is true that God has summoned us all to give account of ourselves (Rom 14:12), the Day of judgment has not yet arrived in which the eternal Judge will announce his verdict in keeping with our deeds, until that day, we now stand justified in God’s courtroom by faith only. By his Spirit whom he gives to all who believe, already God secretly speaks acquittal, life, peace, reconciliation, and adoption (Rom 5:1-11; 8:1-17). Therefore, Paul admonishes us who believe to fasten our gaze upon the Day of judgment in hope that we shall receive the promised salvation (Rom 2:6-10; 8:23-25; 13:11-14). For the Day of judgment is the day of salvation for all who believe. It is the day of redemption (Rom 8:23; Eph 1:14; 4:30). It is when our adoption as God’s children will be complete (Rom 8:23). It is the point of entrance into eternal life (Rom 2:7; 6:22; Gal 6:8). It is the day of salvation that has drawn closer than when we initially believed (Rom 13:11), the day when salvation will be ours (Phil 2:12; 1 Thess 5:8, 9) and when God will reveal our justification which we now have secretly by faith as he crowns us with justification, openly and publicly (2 Tim 4:8). For, while we already have received God’s justifying verdict by faith, by faith we yet await through the Spirit the hope of receiving this same verdict in that day (Gal 5:5).

Many of the rest of the posts elaborate on these ideas, but none in much depth aside from the seventh. The seventh includes forty theses which may be the subject of another post.

My concluding thoughts come from the article on justification from The Dictionary of Paul and His Letters:

How does justification relate to other Pauline soteriological terms? It is tempting to adopt a simplistic approach to the matter. For example, one could attempt to force justification, sanctification and salvation into a neat past-present-future framework as follows:

Justification: a past event, with present implications (sanctification)
Sanctification: a present event, dependent upon a past event (justification), which has future implications (salvation)
Salvation: a future event, already anticipated and partially experienced in the past event of justification and the present event of sanctification, and dependent upon them.

But this is inadequate. Justification has future as well as past, reference (Rom 2:13; 8:33; Gal5:4-5), and appears to relate to both the beginning of the Christian life and its final consummation. Similarly, sanctification can also refer to a past event (1 Cor 6:11) or a future event (1 Thess 5:23). And salvation is an exceptionally complex idea, embracing no simply a future event, but something which has happened in the past (Rom 8:24; 1 Cor 15:2) or which is taking place now (1 Cor 1:18).


Justification language appears in Paul both with reference to the inauguration of the life of faith and also its final consummation. It is a complex and all-embracing notion, that anticipates the verdict of the final judgment (Rom 8:30-34) by declaring in advance the verdict of ultimate acquittal. The believer's present justified Christian existence is thus an anticipation and advance participation of deliverance from the wrath to come, and an assurance in the present of the final eschatological verdict of acquittal (Rom 5:9-10).

I am presenting these ideas as the fruit of my research, though not necessarily as the conclusion of my research. Much discussion still needs to take place regarding these doctrines. Therefore, let us commence.

1 comment:

  1. I recently added a question on Caneday's second post (which I quoted in this post). Caneday responded with this. I thought it was very helpful and definitely relevant. Enjoy!