Justification and Imputation in Romans 5

Reformation Controversies (2):

Justification and Imputation in Romans 5


Gregg Strawbridge, Ph.D.




We are all dealing with the shock of a ravaging hurricane and with the fuller realization of the depravity of men as images of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast flood the airwaves. Randy Booth, moderator of the CREC, writes,


I had a profound experience tonight as a volunteer at our local evacuee shelter. I met two middle-aged Cajun brothers (Randy and Orry) and Orry's son (15-year old Corry), who were rescued by boat-helicopter-bus today after spending over three days in their attic and on their roof. They had evacuated Orry's wife and daughter and their 75 year-old father the day before Katrina hit. They said that after the levee broke the water rose from their feet to their chin in fifteen minutes. They believe thousands to be dead, having watched as the coast guard bundled the dead together and tied them to trees for later recovery. As they were rescued they had to shoot their (several) dogs and leave everything they owned behind (what little was left). They were sunburned and exhausted as they were delivered to the bridge near the Superdome and later put on a bus for Nacogdoches. As they entered the shelter, with air conditioning, food and army cots, one of the men said to me, "This is heaven" (I never would have thought to call it that)....I know I will go to bed tonight with a more grateful heart. Pray for the gospel to fill these voids in people's lives.


While we have hardly ever applied the word “refugees” to Americans, this is an apt word for the many thousands that have had to leave New Orleans and are displaced across the south.



Refugees in Rome - The Backdrop of the Book of Romans

In the first century there was a great displacement of another group, not on the basis of a natural disaster, but due to the seditious behavior this religious group, the Jews. We read of this in Acts 18:2.


[In Corinth Paul] found a certain Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla (because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to depart from Rome); and he came to them.


Apparently this was about A.D. 49. Suetonius says,


He banished from Rome all the Jews, who were continually making disturbances at the instigation of one Chrestus.[Section 25, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Caesar (The Life of Claudius) The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, C. Tranquillus Suetonius, trans. Alexander Thomson, R. Worthington, New York (1883)]


Some have thought “Chrestus” was really Christ. Many Christians in desiring to find extra-biblical statements about Christ, wish to include this. In favor of this view, it could be argued that “Chrestus” and “Christos” would have been pronounced the same in the Latin of that day. Also, one could imagine much unrest between Jews following Jesus, Gentile believers, and Jewish unbelievers, as is illustrated in Jerusalem and throughout Acts. (This is a few favored by N.T. Wright.)


On the other hand, one could argue that Luke would not have passed this over if it was on account of Jesus. Why would he not have said something like, “At that time Claudius commanded the riotous Jews to leave because of the word of the gospel.” Also it does not appear that Priscilla and Aquilla were even believers at their meeting of Paul. But because we have Luke, so lightly passing by it, one may doubt this is a reference to Jesus Christ. Moreover, since Suetonius is writing in the second century (ca 117 A.D.). It is unlikely that he would not have been clear on who this “Chrestus” was if it were Jesus Christ. By the time Suetonius wrote, a lot of water between Romans and Christians had gone under the bridge.


Perhaps a third alternative may have been that “Chrestus” may have been a reference to disputes about “christ” and not about Jesus of Nazareth, specifically. After all the NT clearly confirms that “christos” means “king” (anointed one). The hopes of a release from Rome are well documented in Jewish literature. Biblical and secular history also confirm that during the general period there were many “christs” (Mt. 24:24). A.T. Robertson notes that “At any rate Jews were unpopular in Rome for Tiberius had deported 4,000 to Sardinia. There were 20,000 Jews in Rome. Probably mainly those implicated in the riots actually left.” [Word Pictures, Acts 18:2]


While the circumstances of the expulsion of the Jews remain obscure, they were going back to Rome in Nero’s reign. During the first part of Nero’s reign, before his megalomania [killing Christians in 64 A.D.], he was quite humanitarian. Josephus explains that contemporary historians favorable to Nero were “careless with the truth,” while those hostile to him “shamelessly and recklessly reveled in lies” [Antiquities 20.154, cited here].


Nero's reign was heralded as the golden age by the Senate and many in the Roman world who, influenced by oracles and prophecies, were looking for the appearance of a divine savior. The 17 year old emperor, who had been tutored in the classics by the Stoic philosopher Seneca, set out to play the part. He banned capital punishment and public spectacles focused on bloodshed. He reduced taxes and gave slaves the right to file complaints against their masters. Unlike previous emperors he did not prosecute people under the laws against treason and freely pardoned prisoners who were arrested for sedition, including his own critics. To fill the entertainment void left by the absence of gladiators, he sponsored theater, athletics and poetry contests. And he gave the Senate greater freedom than at any time since before the rise of Julius Caesar. [from]


So the situation was that Nero’s reign hailed returning refugee Jews back to Rome and were integrating into the Roman church or congregations. Paul’s burden for his people is prominent in Romans and the very issues of integration of Jews and Gentiles are clear in Romans. NT Wright notes,


But with the death of Claudius in A.D. 54 and the accession of Nero, the Jews were allowed back. It doesn’t take much imagination to think how that might have affected the tiny Christian church. [Paul for Everyone, Romans: Part One, Louisville: WJK, 2004, p.8; hereafter PFER; [See also The New Testament and the People of God, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992, p. 354-55]


Hence we find replete references to Jews throughout Romans (“Jews” - Rom. 1:16; 2:9f, 17, 28f; 3:1, 9, 29; 9:24; 10:12; “Israel” Rom. 9:6, 27, 31; 10:1, 19, 21; 11:2, 7, 25f; “My people/His people” Rom. 9:25f; 10:21; 11:1f; 15:10). The most impassioned language of the apostle is in Romans 9:1-4.


I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, 2 that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh, 4 who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises.


As I argued in the earlier article, Paul’s concerns in Romans are not perfectly parallel to the controversies of Reformation soteriology. For example, Romans 3:28 is a powerful refrain for Reformation soteriology, “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.” But the next word is “or” [h] an eta in Greek. Verse 29, “Or is He the God of the Jews only? Is He not also the God of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also.” The connecting thought brings us back to the Jew/Gentile question.





I have contrasted two ways of conceiving of the work of Christ as they come to us in Protestant and Reformed circles.


(1) In the Merit view, God made a covenant of works with Adam (as a federal head of man) and required him to earn a righteousness by keeping (what would become) the 10 commandments. Israel failed to keep the Law and were thus exiled. Christ comes to fulfill the covenant of works with Adam and does so by keeping the Law and thus meriting a righteousness. Christ also became a substitutionary atonement to pay the penalty of sin for his people. Justification on this view requires the imputation of Christ’s obedience to the Law and his death. Our righteous standing in Christ depends upon the imputation of both the active obedience (Law-keeping) and passive obedience (substitutionary death) of Christ to us who receive it by faith.


(2) The Inheritance view, which is a better picture, in my view, is that Adam (as our federal head) was not to merit righteousness with God. He already had it as a son in the image of God. Yet, by his sin he lost his inheritance, plunging the world into sin. Hence, sin and death spread to all the world. God’s covenant with Abraham was to bring about a restoration to the world. Mysteriously this was to come about by Israel. It was mysteriously to come about by the Servant of the Lord (Is. 52-53). Jesus comes, not as Adam to merit righteousness by keeping the covenant of works, but as true Israel to fulfill this calling in His atoning death. By His resurrection He is granted full inheritance for He and all those He federally represents who then are united to Him by faith, Jews and Gentiles. It is specifically His death that procures a righteous standing. Romans 5:9 says, “Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him.”


Let me say that both of these (very simplified) presentations are within the Reformation and Evangelical, anti-Roman Catholic stream. Neither hold to the requirement of an earned righteousness of the believer for acceptance before God. It appears to me historically that the conception of the covenant of works did not express itself fully until the the 17th century. At least it is the case that it does not show up in an of the confessions of the 16thcentury. In Dr. Peter Lillback’s (President of Westminster Seminary) book on Calvin’s contribution to covenant theology, we find this statement,


The world was made for man, and this was his inheritance in grace, not his merit, but his to lose by sin....Calvin’s theology permits no merit in the prelapsarian context. [The Binding of God: Calvin’s Role in the Development of Covenant Theology (Grand Rapids: Paternoster/Baker,2001, p. 299)]


It bears repeating that the Catholic Encyclopedia affirms that “the reformation was mainly a struggle against the doctrine of merit.” The anti-merit theology of Calvin which is a response to the medieval legal Roman Catholic ideas, is one stream within Reformed thought that has gotten shallower, but has not dried up. The other stream of Reformation thought flowed down the mountain down another bend. It developed a deeper merit-theology, trumping the medieval view with a highest merit in Christ with a perfectionistic Covenant of Works as a chief feature. If my only options are the four-of-kind Jacks in Rome or four Kings with the Reformation meritists—the winning hand is obvious. But when you are playing Hearts all along, then neither is the right approach.


As I argued before Dr. Meredith Kline defends the Covenant of Works view. He argues in the Kingdom Prologue that the “works principle”of merit applied to Adam and the old covenant (Israel). Hence “heaven must be earned” and the Law was given to Israel for this purpose (or perhaps illustrative of that purpose). Only Christ by perfect obedience could earn/merit this, of course. Kline argues, He writes, “That decisive probationary accomplishment involved the obedient performance of a particular covenantal service, and accordingly it is characterized as ‘one act of righteousness’ (Rom 5:18).”


Now we are in a position to consider more carefully the claim that the “obedience” of Romans 5:19, “by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous” is consistent with the Covenant of Works concept. In theCarmen Christi (Phil. 2:5-11) we had a Background Person (Adam) and a

Background Prophecy (Suffering Servant). In Romans 5 (and before), we have a Foreground Person (Adam) and a Background Prophecy (Suffering Servant). Since there is no need to contest Adam (one man’s sin), let us consider several instances of literary and conceptual dependence between the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 and Christ’s work in Romans.


(1) Beginning in Romans 2:24 — “For ‘the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,’ as it is written” (NAS and citations hereafter) — is free quotation from the LXX of Isaiah 52:5. Here in Isaiah we have the theme of the restoration of Zion, when God will reign as king, or the kingdom of God. “Your God reigns! ...When the LORD restores Zion” (Is. 52:7-8). The transitional end of this passage is Isaiah 52:13, “Behold, My servant will prosper, He will be high and lifted up, and greatly exalted” (as in Phil. 2:5-11).


(2) The very concept of obedience as a Servant forms the background for “obedience” in Romans 5. The LXX has “just one who serves (douleu,wmany well; and he shall bear their sins” (Is. 53:11, Brenton’s trans.). Jesus is submissive to His father. “The LORD was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief; If He would render Himself as a guilt offering” (Is. 53:10). He “poured out Himself to death” (Is. 53:12, cf. Phil. 2:5-11).


(3) In the foundational description of Romans 4:25 Paul says, “[He] was delivered up because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification.” N.T. Wright observes, “Underneath Paul’s neat formula is another reference to the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53, the one who will ‘make many righteous, and bear their iniquities’ (53:11) [PFER, p. 79]. More specifically let me add that Paul uses the key term “Delivered up” from Isaiah 53:12. It is paradi,dwmi (paradidomi) which is found in LXX, “delivered because of their iniquities” (Is. 53:12). This is found not only here in Romans 4:25, but other key Pauline texts describing His cross-work :


            Romans 8:32 - “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all.”

            Galatians 2:20 - “Delivered Himself up for me.”

            Ephesians 5:32 - “Christ also loved you, and gave Himself up for us.”

            Ephesians 5:25 - “Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her.”


(4) Consider the use of the definite article with “many” – “the many.” The Greek word for “many” is common, polu,j (polus) (“many, much” etc.). It is used 21 in Romans. But it is striking with the definite article (“the many”)oi` polloi, (hoi polloi). While some translations make this smooth for English and leave out “the” — this usage shows a strong allusion to Isaiah 53:11-12. The Hebrew text has the article on “the many” (~yBi_r:l'(). The comparison is “the many” and “the transgressors”:


NAS Romans 5:15 But the free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many....19 For as through the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.


NAS Isaiah 53:11 As a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied; By His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, As He will bear their iniquities. 12 Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great, And He will divide the booty with the strong; Because He poured out Himself to death, And was numbered with the transgressors; Yet He Himself bore the sin of many, And interceded for the transgressors.


(5) Perhaps most importantly, only in Isaiah 53 does one find the combination of a righteous/just one bearing sin and justifying many (LXX has “justify” as in Paul, dikaio,w). This observation alone makes the case for me even more strongly than all the strands above. Paul insists that Messiah Jesus died “according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3). Romans chapters 3-5 expound the meaning of that death as Jesus being delivered up and bearing our sins so that we may be justified. This is the burden of Isaiah’s prophecy of the Servant.


I think the literary and theological relationship between Paul’s description of Jesus’ work and submission to His father in Romans and the Suffering Servant urge one away from a Covenant of Works obedience view. Jesus’ “one act of righteousness” does not at all sound like obedience to the Law as a Covenant of Works. It is in fact His submission to be poured out to death.


Whenever justification is connected to the work of Christ in Romans, the message is clear:


Romans 3:24 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus;


Romans 3:25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; 26 for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.


Romans 4:25 He who was delivered up because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification.


Romans 5:9 Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him.


Romans 5:18 So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men.


In every case, justification and Jesus, are focused upon His substitutionary death for those who believe.


Therefore, I think that Wright’s assessment of the Biblical sub-story of Romans is very elucidating.


Jesus acted as the embodiment of both God’s covenant faithfulness and of the faithful obedience which Israel (3.2) should have offered to God but failed to do. Here Paul is summing up what he said about the Messiah’s faithfulness in 3.22. His ‘uprightness’ (verse 18) and his ‘obedience’ (verse 19; compare Philippians 2.8) are ways of describing what Jesus did, supremely going to his death, in such a way as to bring out Paul’s belief that this was the climax of God’s saving plan. (PFER, p. 94)


Reformation Views on Justification


This theme of Christ’s death as the basis for justification is clear in the early Reformers. It has already been noted that there is no inclusion of the “works” character of the Adamic Covenant to the Reformed faith in 16thcentury. Thus the whole schema of Works = merit = Law = Christ’s active obedience has not been developed in that significant century. Again, no “covenant of works” is seen in the Confession of Basle (1532), The Book of Concord: The Lutheran Confessions of 1529-1580, Farel’s Genevan Confession (1536), Calvin’s French Confession (1559), Knox’s Scottish Confession (1560), Guido de Bres’ Belgic Confession (1561), Cranmer’s Thirty-Nine Articles (1562), Ursinus and Olevianus’s Heidelberg Catechism (1563), Bullinger’s Second Helvetic (1566), or the Continental Reformed Church’s Canon’s of Dordt (1518). Therefore the “Covenant of Works” and “active obedience” as law-keeping cannot be a proper test of Reformation orthodoxy.


Even more, the fact that the early Reformed symbols maintained justification as forgiveness by the death of Christ or His “passive obedience” alone should be informative. Two examples will suffice:



Farel’s Genevan Confession (1536): Therefore we acknowledge the things which are consequently given to us by God in Jesus Christ: first, that being in our own nature enemies of God and subjects of his wrath and judgment, we are reconciled with him and received again in grace through the intercession of Jesus Christ, so that by his righteousness and guiltlessness we have remission of our sins, and by the shedding of his blood we are cleansed and purified from all our stains.


Calvin’s French Confession 17-18 (1559): We believe that by the perfect sacrifice that the Lord Jesus offered on the cross, we are reconciled to God, and justified before; for we can not be acceptable to him, nor become partakers of the grace of adoption, except as he pardons [all] our sins, and blots them out. Thus we declare that through Jesus Christ we are cleansed and made perfect; by his death we are fully justified, and through him only can we be delivered from our iniquities and transgressions. 18 We believe that all our justification rests upon the remission of our sins, in which also is our only blessedness, as says David (Psa. 32:2). We therefore reject all other means of justification before God, and without claiming any virtue or merit, we rest simply in the obedience of Jesus Christ, which is imputed to us as much to blot out all our sins as to make us find grace and favor in the sight of God. And, in fact, we believe that in falling away from this foundation, however slightly, we could not find rest elsewhere, but should always be troubled. For as much as we are never at peace with God till we resolve to be loved in Jesus Christ, for of ourselves we are worthy of hatred.


Guido de Bres’ Belgic Confession (1561) 23: We believe that our salvation consists in the remission of our sins for Jesus Christ's sake, and that therein our righteousness before God is implied; as David and Paul teach us, declaring this to be the blessedness of man that God imputes righteousness to him apart from works. And the same apostle says that we are justified freely by his grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.



Active Obedience in the Westminster Standards


By the time we get to the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s succinct summary of Reformation dogma, one could read it as a kind of double imputation, (1) forgiveness by Christ’s sacrifice and (2) righteousness by His obedience to the Law. Though, it need not be read that way.


What is justification? A. Justification is an act of God's free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone. (WSC 33)


The Larger Catechism seems even more explicit:


What is justification? A. Justification is an act of God's free grace unto sinners,(1) in which he pardoneth all their sins, accepteth and accounteth their persons righteous in his sight;(2) not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them,(3) but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them,(4) and received by faith alone.(5) (WLC 70)


I left the indications of proof texts in this to make a point. The phrase, “the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ” is taken by many to mean “active and passive obedience.” But, the proof texts here is none other than Romans 5:17-19 for “perfect obedience” and Romans 4:6-8 for the rest (presumably, imputation). We have already seen that Romans 5:17ff does not teach “active obedience” in the sense of obeying the moral aspects of the Law.


Now consider, Romans 4:6-7:


Just as David also speaks of the blessing upon the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, And whose sins have been covered.”


In the language of Paul, “righteousness” (dikaiosu,nh) is “reckoned” or “imputed” or “credited/accounted”(logi,zomai) to one who has been forgiven or whose sins have been covered. Inasmuch as we use this part of Pauline theology to speak of “imputed righteousness” — we are still actual referring to a righteous declaration on the basis of forgiveness because of Christ’s sacrifice. Manifestly, this text is not telling us that forgiveness is not enough to be declared in the right with God and we also need a perfect obedience to the moral law accomplished by Christ. The same point could be made for Westminster Confession 8:5, 11:1, and 11:3.


WCF 8.5: The Lord Jesus, by His perfect obedience and sacrifice of Himself, which He, through the eternal Spirit, once offered up unto God, hath fully satisfied the justice of His Father;(1) and purchased, not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for all those whom the Father hath given unto Him.(2) (1)Rom. 5:19; Heb. 9:14,16; Heb. 10:14; Eph. 5:2; Rom. 3:25,26. (2)Dan. 9:24,26; Col. 1:19,20; Eph. 1:11,14; John 17:2; Heb. 9:12,15.


Therefore, I believe that Dr. Peter Wallace is correct in pointing out that some Westminster divines, namely, William Twisse, Richard Vines, and Thomas Gataker “did not believe that the active obedience of Christ was included in justification, claiming that this was a part of sanctification instead.”


After some debate, the Assembly decided to use simply the language of "the obedience and satisfaction" of Christ, which could be interpreted either way. Twisse, Vines, and Gataker would understand this to refer solely to the passive obedience of Christ, while the majority would understand it to include both the active and the passive obedience of Christ. [see Wallace’s article and note he references, Alexander F. Mitchell, The Westminster Assembly, (Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1897) 154-160; William S. Barker, Puritan Profiles (Mentor, 1999), 158, 178.]



Are there then any other Biblical texts which may prove an “active obedience” concept? I thought of Psalm 40:7 which is cited in Hebrews:


Then I said, "Behold, I come; In the scroll of the book it is written of me. I delight to do Your will, O my God, And Your law is within my heart.”


This could easily be such a text supporting “active obedience” except that it not taken this way by the writer of Hebrews.


Hebrews 10:7: Then I said, 'Behold, I have come -- In the volume of the book it is written of Me -- To do Your will, O God.' 8 Previously saying, "Sacrifice and offering, burnt offerings, and offerings for sin You did not desire, nor had pleasure in them" (which are offered according to the law), 9 then He said, "Behold, I have come to do Your will, O God." He takes away the first that He may establish the second. 10 By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.


This is seen to mean in light of Jesus redemption, “the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”



Sharpening Our Definition of Justification


This leads us to a sharper discussion of the meaning of justification. The verb “to justify” is Dikaio ( dikaio,w) and in Hebrew it is the tsadek root (qdc). The first Greek usage of this term in the LXX

is very interesting.


NKJ Genesis 38:26 So Judah acknowledged them and said, "She has been more righteous than I, because I did not give her to Shelah my son." And he never knew her again.


The LXX has it “Thamar is cleared” (dikaio,w). This is exactly the same in Genesis 44:16, “how shall we clear ourselves? (dikaio,w in the LXX).


Several other examples of the OT usage make the Jewish lawcourt the operative setting.


Deuteronomy 25:1 "If there is a dispute between men, and they come to court, that the judges may judge them, and they justify (dikaio,w) the righteous and condemn the wicked,


Exodus 23:7 Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty.


Deuteronomy 25:1 "If there is a dispute between men, and they come to court, that the judges may judge them, and they justify the righteous and condemn the wicked,


2 Samuel 15:4 Moreover Absalom would say, "Oh, that I were made judge in the land, and everyone who has any suit or cause would come to me; then I would give him justice."


1 Kings 8:32 (and 2Chr 6:23) "then hear in heaven, and act, and judge Your servants, condemning the wicked, bringing his way on his head, and justifying the righteous by giving him according to his righteousness.


That means the precise definition of “justification” focuses on the announcement or declaration. Hence, by saying justification is the forgiveness of sins, as has been the typical Reformation way of talking about actually conflates the ground of justification and the declaration of acquittal. If we read a more strict sense of this into the following verses, you can see this.


Romans 3:26 to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier [judge pronouncing acquittal] of the one who has faith in Jesus....28 Therefore we conclude that a man is justified [acquitted] by faith apart from the deeds of the law....30 since there is one God who will justify [acquit] the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.


Romans 4:5 But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies [pronounces acquittal of] the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness,


Romans 5:1 Therefore, having been justified [acquitted of guilt] by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,


Romans 5:9 Much more then, having now been justified [acquitted of guilt] by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him.


Romans 8:30 and whom He predestined, these He also called; and whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified [acquitted of guilt], these He also glorified.


Galatians 2:16 "knowing that a man is not justified [acquitted of guilt] by the works of the Law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified [acquitted of guilt] by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the Law no flesh shall be justified [acquitted of guilt].


Galatians 3:8 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify [acquit of guilt] the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, "In you all the nations shall be blessed.” ....11 But that no one is justified [acquitted of guilt] by the Law in the sight of God is evident, for "the just shall live by faith."...24 Therefore the Law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified [acquitted of guilt] by faith.



The Resurrection and Justification


These references make crystal clear the believer’s acquital because of our righteous standing due to Christ’s sacrifice. But there is another strain of Paul that is a bit enigmatic both to the “active/passive” scheme or even the “justification = forgiveness” scheme.


Romans 4:24: But also for us. It shall be imputed to us who believe in Him who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead, 25 who was delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification.


Here we have the connection of Jesus’ resurrection and justification. Perhaps the very first sermon of Paul also emphasizes this:


Acts 13:34 "And that He raised Him from the dead, no more to return to corruption, He has spoken thus: 'I will give you the sure mercies of David.' 35 "Therefore He also says in another Psalm: 'You will not allow Your Holy One to see corruption.' 36 "For David, after he had served his own generation by the will of God, fell asleep, was buried with his fathers, and saw corruption; 37 "but He whom God raised up saw no corruption. 38 "Therefore let it be known to you, brethren, that through this Man is preached to you the forgiveness of sins; 39 "and by Him everyone who believes is justified from all things from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses.


So here we have a piece of the puzzle out of place. Paul’s language here recorded by Luke and the “raised for our justification” don’t really fit nicely into our categories.


The faithful Jews of Jesus’ day held that the new covenant/return from exile themes in the prophets point to a glorious future for Israel. In the day when all the promises (e.g., Isaiah 40-55) are fulfilled, Israel will be vindicated (justified) before the world and Abraham’s promised blessing to all nations would be fulfilled. While this reading of the first century Jewish contexts depends a bit on extra-biblical Second Temple Judaism texts to know what themes they had on the tips of their tongues, but I think the echoes are clear enough in the NT itself to confirm the broad strokes.


The prophets combine themes which emerge and shine through the pages of the NT.


Ezekiel 36:23-27 23 "And I will vindicate the holiness of My great name which has been profaned among the nations, which you have profaned in their midst. Then the nations will know that I am the LORD," declares the Lord God, "when I prove Myself holy among you in their sight. 24 "For I will take you from the nations, gather you from all the lands, and bring you into your own land. 25 "Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. 26 "Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 "And I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances. 28 "And you will live in the land that I gave to your forefathers; so you will be My people, and I will be your God.


In this passage we have the vindication of YHWH, exile and restoration of Israel, baptism, new covenant/new birth, Spirit filling, and return from exile to the land. Then only a few verses later in chapter 37, we have one of the most striking prophecies in Scripture about resurrection (of some sort).

Ezekiel 37:3 And He said to me, "Son of man, can these bones live?"...11 Then He said to me, "Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel; behold, they say, 'Our bones are dried up, and our hope has perished. We are completely cut off.' 12 "Therefore prophesy, and say to them, 'Thus says the Lord God, "Behold, I will open your graves and cause you to come up out of your graves, My people; and I will bring you into the land of Israel. 13 "Then you will know that I am the LORD, when I have opened your graves and caused you to come up out of your graves, My people.


Most of these theme come to us in dialogues in the gospel. Think of John 3, with water and Spirit, etc. Jesus explicitly connects new covenant concepts with resurrection in the Bread of Life discourse. For a moment, let us take off our Calvinist/Arminian spectacles to listen as a first century Jew.


John 6:44 "No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day. 45 "It is written in the prophets, 'And they shall all be taught by God.' Therefore everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to Me.


The “last day” is eschate hemera (evsca,th| h`me,ra) and the connection to the quotation in Isaiah 54:13 is that the hope of a future when “In righteousness you shall be established” (Isaiah 54:14).


The theme of the vindication of God and the justification of Israel in the eschaton as an eschatological hope of first century Jews runs underneath several passages on the resurrection. Especially poignant here is Martha and Jesus at the grave of Lazarus.


John 11:23: Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again." 24 Martha said to Him, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day." 25 Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. 26 "And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?"


Martha believes, as did the party of the Pharisees (Acts 23:8), that the faithful will be raised to life on the last day. But Jesus now insists that in Himself, what is true of the end of history happens in the present. Jesus is not just a big talker here. He calls Lazarus from the tomb after he had already begun to decompose.


The apostles later got into trouble for “teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead” (evn tw/| VIhsou/ th.n avna,stasin th.n evk nekrw/n) (Acts 4:2). “In Jesus” is resurrection. What was to happen in the eschatos was now brought forward in middle of history.


While some of this has become of late controversial in evangelical and Reformed circles, in fact it was not always so. I have had the The New Dictionary of Theology in my library since its publication in 1988. This volume is edited by none other than noted evangelicals David F. Wright, Sinclair B. Ferguson, and J.I. Packer and published by IVP. In light of all this it has an amazingly prescient article on Justification which states the following:


JUSTIFICATION denotes, primarily, that action in the lawcourt whereby a judge upholds the case of one party in dispute before him (in the Hebrew lawcourt, where the image originates, all cases consist of an accuser and a defendant, there being no public prosecutor). Having heard the case, the judge finds in favour of one party, and thereby ‘justifies’ him: if he finds for the defendant, this action has the force of ‘acquittal’. The person justified is described as ‘just’, ‘righteous’ (on the terminology, see Righteousness), not as a description of moral character but as a statement of his status before the court (which will, ideally, be matched by character, but that is not the point).


Since this lawcourt imagery is used in Scripture to elucidate God’s dealings with Israel, his covenant people, ‘justification’ comes to denote God’s action in restoring the fortunes of Israel after she has been oppressed: it is as though Israel, or a faithful individual within Israel, is the innocent defendant in a trial (see Pss. 43:1; 135:14; Is. 50:8; Lk. 18:7), whose cause will be upheld by the righteous covenant God. As Israel’s troubles increase in the period after the exile, it becomes increasingly clear that what is needed is a final day of judgment, when God will right all wrongs, and vindicate his people, once and for all. This notion, which is closely correlated with the hope of resurrection (God’s vindication of Israel after her suffering) is staunchly upheld in the NT. [online here]


Incidently, this article was written by N.T. Wright. It apparently found favor in the eyes of Ferguson and Packer, then. Though today he seems to have fallen out of their favor on these matters.



Let me affirm then the following. It is only the work of Christ that makes us right with God. While it is true that Christ was fully and perfectly obedience to all the demands of righteousness and the Law, it is not this which plays the key role in our acceptance. His obedience to the Law and His submission to the Father made Him an acceptable sacrifice. He was a spotless lamb. But it is in being a sacrificial lamb that sin is taken away and righteousness is imputed. This accomplishment is focused on removing our guilty charge by Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice. We are acquitted because of our Messiah’s death and because of His resurrection we are certain of his eschatological verdict. All therefore who are united to Him by faith can rest in Jesus for their full acceptance.