When are we justified – and does it matter?

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In my talks on Romans 4 and 5 I mentioned something called The New Perspective on Paul, an approach to Pauline studies associated with EP Sanders, Tom Wright and James Dunn.  The NPP argues that we’ve misunderstood the Jewishness of Paul’s Gospel and therefore going right back to the reformers have misunderstood Paul’s teaching and that of his opponents. Far from being legalists who thought we were saved by keeping the Law, so the argument goes, the Jews in fact believed that they were members of God’s covenant people through election, an act of grace to the descendants of Abraham.  They were then to stay within the Covenant by keeping the terms of the Law.

Within that new understanding of Paul comes a new perspective on justification.  It is not only NPP theologians however who have had questions about the protestant and reformed teaching on justification. Here is historical theologian, Alistair McGrath.

“The doctrine of justification has come to mean something quite independent from its biblical origins, and concerns the means by which man’s relationship to God is established. The church has chosen to subsume its discussion of the reconciliation of man to God under the aegis of justification, thereby given the concept an emphasis quite absent from the New Testament.”[1]

Wright cites McGrath approvingly as the quote supports his own thesis that justification whilst important is not a first order doctrine central to the Gospel, it is not for him about how we get into the Kingdom of God but a descriptor that marks out those who are within God’s covenant people.  Justification is lawcourt language, it describes the action of vindicating the one who is successful in court.  It is the verdict over them.[2]

But when is that verdict declared? It is at the last day when Christ judges.  So, Wright takes us to Romans 2:13.[3] He observes that:

“The judgement of which Paul speaks in Romans 2:1-16 is of course the future judgement.”[4]

For Wright, then, Justification is the final day verdict but it has in effect been announced now, in advance of the final day over believers. They are declared vindicated, in the right. The advance verdict now is based on the certainty that we will be justified based on our works. We will be found to be righteous on the final day.

How is that possible?

“The answer has to do with the Spirit.” [5]

In other words, Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension, his defeat of evil as the representative of Israel made possible the coming of the Holy Spirit. Believers receive the promised Holy Spirit and so are able now to live pleasing and acceptable lives within the covenant and that is the basis of their justification.

Wright believes that his description of justification fits best with the text of Romans and Paul’s other letters. But does it? It is my contention that it does not. Why do I disagree here? Well, it all comes down to the argument that Paul makes in Romans 4. Paul’s question in Romans 4 was “When was Abraham declared righteous? When was he justified?”  In Romans 4, Paul insists that Abraham was declared righteous before, not after receiving the seal of circumcision.  Notice the words of Romans 4:11:

11 He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.

In other words, Abraham is declared righteous and it is from there on in that he enters into all that the covenant entails in terms of privileges and responsibilities. I can’t help but notice at this point the way in which Paul also describes our receiving of the Holy Spirit.

13 In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee[d] of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it,[e] to the praise of his glory.[6]

It is fascinating isn’t it that paedobaptists have often sought to link up circumcision with baptism. I have frequently argued that this is not how the NT joins up the covenants, rather, it focuses on OT outer circumcision being replaced by the inner circumcision of the heart.[7] However, we can push it further, the language of sealing, similar to the language used to describe Abraham’s circumcision is applied not to baptism but to the receiving of the Holy Spirit. Now, this to me suggests that justification is in some sense logically prior to the sealing of the Holy Spirit.[8]

Furthermore, we come to Romans 5:1-2 and we read:

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we[a] have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith[b] into this grace in which we stand, and we[c] rejoice[d] in hope of the glory of God.

Justification again is prior to the benefits of covenant membership, of peace with God and access to grace.  Note also, contra McGrath that Paul himself firmly relates justification to reconciliation.  Justification indeed is the prelude to receiving all that we have in Christ.

So, as I argued when teaching on Romans 4, justification is something we have received now. It is not just that the verdict has been delivered in advance but that we have to await the fulfilment of that verdict and somehow to justify our justification. We really are justified.

How does that happen? Well, I want to suggest that for those who are in Christ judgement day has been brought forward. We all face judgement. Our sin, our works will be judged. The choice is whether it will be on that day to come, when Christ returns as judge in which case we will face the due penalty for our sin. Or alternatively, whether it has already been judged on the day that Christ bore our judgement. If the latter, then we received our verdict in Christ. WE were, according to Romans 6:1-2, united with Christ in his death and resurrection.[9]  This means that Christ’s righteousness, his status of being in the right with his father, perfectly obedient and therefore vindicated is ours as well. You can if you like choose to use the term “imputed righteousness” if you like but it doesn’t matter too much, we share the verdict and status through that union with Christ.

This means that justification is significant and central to our salvation. It is in fact at the heart of Paul’s Gospel, the pinnacle of his argument in Romans 1-5!  The NPP unhelpful moves it off centre and in so doing diminishes it of its power. Justification, as we’ve seen in Romans is crucial to our assurance and security and provides the foundation and not just the motivation for our sanctification. We are not justified because we are in the covenant, we are in the covenant because we are justified. We don’t hope for justification, we have hope because of justification.


[1] A McGrath, cited in Tom Wright, God,s Plan and Paul’s Vision, 60.

[2] Wright, Justification, 69.

[3] See, Wright, Justification, 159 -168.

[4] Wright, Justification, 165.

[5] Wright, Justification, 165. C.f. Romans 8.

[6] Ephesians 1:13-14.

[7] I am inclined to suggest at this point that NPP theology operates within a paedobaptist framework. It is practically impossible to hold to a baptistic position and to NPP or vice versa (though a paedobaptist theology does not necessitate an acceptance of NPP).

[8] We are talking about things that in temporal terms happen at one and the same time and we note also that the Spirit is involved from the beginning in regeneration, bringing dead sinners to life.

[9] Note Wright recognises this and the importance of faith union meaning that his exegetical gymnastics are in my opinion unnecessary,