Justification, the doctrine of how we stand before God and our relationship with Him, is one of much discussion and focus these days. Whether it’s John Piper, NT Wright, or Michael Gorman, the doctrine of Justification gets much attention. If you are like me and are simple-minded and sort of slow at getting it then these debates and arguments about this vital and important doctrine can be confusing and mind-numbing. My friend Seraphim posted a debate over Justification between N.T. Wright and James White and it got my attention. I listened to it and had some questions to clarify where Wright and White fall on the issue of Justification. Seraphim so greatly summarizes their positions, along with Gorman’s, which he shares, in this response:
This is how I would frame it. In White’s view, Christ lived a life of perfect obedience. When we exercise faith in Christ, God counts our sins as punished in Christ’s person (satisfying the demands of retributive justice) and counts the deeds of Christ as if we had performed them. On the Last Day, God judges us not according to what we have done, but according to what Christ has done. Faith justifies, in his view, because of its “empty-handed” nature.
For Wright, Christ exercised faith in God from the beginning to the end, and because of this faith, He was resurrected and thereby vindicated as “in the right.” When we exercise faith, we are recognized as a member of the people of God because the Messiah had faith and the people of God is redefined around the Messiah. Because of our identification with the Messiah in faith, His status of “vindicated” is counted as ours. Throughout the Christian life, the Spirit drives us to produce good deeds, so that on the Last Day, God will really and truly say “well done” and welcome us into His new creation.
For Gorman (and for me), the faith of Jesus Christ is constituted precisely by His voluntary suffering unto death, leading unto resurrection. When we “suffer with Christ” we are “in the Messiah” and therefore a member of the covenant people. Justification therefore does more than “mark us out” for participation in the Messiah. Justification is actually constituted by theosis through participation in the crucified and raised Lord of Glory. All have sinned and lack the glory of God, and are made right by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Messiah Jesus, whom God set forth as a mercy seat of faithfulness by His blood. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, that He might be righteous and the one who makes right the one who has the faithfulness of Jesus.
Much of the debate comes down to how to exegete this verse: “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified” (Gal. 2:16 KJV). The KJV here renders it “justified by the faith of Christ”. Other translations will render it “justified by faith in Christ”.
To further break it down a little in my own words this verse comes into play in one of two ways basically:
1) It means that we do not need to do anything but have faith in Christ to be saved and have His righteousness imputed to us. This is what justifies us before God. Nothing else. It is not our righteousness, but His.
2) Christ was faithful to God and through His death, burial, and resurrection opened the door for us to participate in His sufferings and faithfulness to God thus those in Christ, who participate in His sufferings, death, burial, and resurrection, are thus counted as God’s faithful. We are in the Messiah and His faithfulness is ours. We are justified and brought into union with Him via death, burial, and resurrection.
N.T. Wright once said that at the heart of St. Paul’s writings is the Cross. This is the heart of the New Testament indeed. As Dr. White and N.T. Wright discussed in the debate, getting this right is very vital for those involved in ministry. Understanding this doctrine is vital to evangelizing and having a strong missiology. Those outside the Church look to us to understand what Jesus did on the Cross and what it means for us and our lives.
My friend Seraphim did go on to elaborate on Dr. White’s position a little as well:
White’s view is most certainly the weakest for a few reasons-
1. His understanding of why faith justifies (its empty handed nature) is nowhere found in the New Testament. It is simply a guess made on the basis of medieval Protestant theology.
2. His understanding of final justification is contradicted plainly by 2 Corinthians 5:10, Romans 2:6-8, and Romans 14:10-12. Nowhere does the New Testament ever say that final justification is made on anything other than the basis of the whole life lived. The central question is how we come to live that life. St. Paul’s answer is “in Christ, through the Spirit.”
3. White’s understanding of the Cross is totally disconnected from the theme of “suffering with Christ” which absolutely dominates the New Testament from top to bottom. In New Testament theology, Christ suffers with and for His people. In White’s theology, Christ suffers instead of His people. There is a massive difference, and White’s understanding hangs on one or two threads which themselves hang on the importation of Protestant theology into New Testament terms.”
Now, the debate around Justification is intense, deep, broad, and complex. This blog is to break down the views expressed by N.T. Wright and Dr. James White as well as where my Orthodox friend finds his agreement. This is not a thorough treatment of such a vastly important and importantly vast doctrine. Seraphim recommended Michael Gorman’s book “Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology” as a great introduction to how to frame this doctrine and begin to understand it. Gorman, despite not being Orthodox, frames the doctrine in a very Orthodox way.
It is important for us as Orthodox Christians to be aware of this doctrine, the views out there, and our how we articulate this to others, especially non-Orthodox. I for one do not like the way Dr. White and others like him frame this doctrine, so I have ordered Gorman’s book to begin studying up more on this immense subject! It is vital to a missional ethos for the Orthodox today to understand this.
But as N.T. Wright points out in the debate, we simply look to Jesus. We look at the Cross, what He did, Who He was, who we are, and what His work on the Cross means for our lives and in our lives.