Righteousness Justification and Imputation

Reformation Controversies (3):

Righteousness Justification and Imputation


Gregg Strawbridge, Ph.D.



Understanding and Context

If you stare closely at the dots in a newspaper photograph you may not see how the dots make sense in the photograph. Just so, in a literary setting, it is the context that brings meaning. It is the background allusions that fill in the rest of the picture and which turn isolated dots into a recognizable pattern of meaning. We have seen the need for knowing the background. This turns out to be quite necessary in understanding Philippians 2:5-11. There we saw the Background Person (Adam) and the Background Prophecy (Isaiah 53). In Romans 5 we learned that Adam is now in the Foreground and Isaiah’s Suffering Servant is still echoing in the Background.


There is a house I know of which was built without a second story. But apparently the owners wanted another room — upstairs. So they added a room sticking out of the pitched roof. In order to support the square room added to the slanted roof, they added steel poles underneath running to the ground, like pillars. This image similar to the way we sometimes treat the Bible in developing doctrine. The foundation of much of the NT is based on the OT concepts in a surprising turn of fulfillment. This should not be a controversial matter. But at some points, the OT concrete slab of Paul’s thought conflicts with the superstructure that the various Christian theological traditions has built upon Paul. The only connection seems to be some thin pillars planted outside the original foundation. One gets the idea that many Christian theologies project from the house of Scripture with the slimmest of support.


Now we as Reformed people would want to have Reformed Theology as a solid second floor to the house that perfectly matches the footprint of the house. But this is questionable. For example, Alister McGrath has written a detailed history of the theology of justification. Though committed to Reformation views, he makes the point that justification is just such a protruded room in the house of salvation.


The doctrine of justification has come to develop a meaning quite independent of 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 giving the concept an emphasis quite absent from the New Testament. The ‘doctrine of justification’ has come to bear a meaning within dogmatic theology which is quite independent of its Pauline origins. (Alister McGrath, Iustitia Dei: a History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, vol. 1; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986, p. 2.)


Moreover, we learn that though Reformed folks lay everything on this one term, “Justification was simply not a theological issue in the pre-Augustinian tradition” (ibid, 19).


The new perspective folks remind us that we can be sure that Paul was not writing to 16th century or 17th century Protestants, correcting Roman Catholic merit theology. But in line with a Protestant vision, perhaps there are many points of similarity. My argument would conclude with such similarities, but it must begin with the original setting of the NT. This goal of getting back to the foundation would not be controversial for Luther or Calvin, indeed they showed the way.


It has become more central to my thinking during this study that we cannot know the NT fully until we first seek to understand the sub-texts of NT – the background.


Part of the controversy these days arises from the controlling sub-texts that our Reformation fathers brought to the texts. For example, our father, Martin Luther asked, “How can I find a gracious God?” This was an important question to him and to many to this day. Would that all see a righteous Holy God ready to pour out wrath upon them for their own sin.


Even though I will show that Luther’s question is not Paul’s question, Luther’s exposition distills the proper response of grace in the face of Roman’s merit theology. In his classic Commentary on Galatians he says (on Chapter 2:16ff)


VERSE 16. Even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified.


The true way of becoming a Christian is to be justified by faith in Jesus Christ, and not by the works of the Law.


            We know that we must also teach good works, but they must be taught in their proper turn, when the discussion is concerning works and not the article of justification.


Here the question arises by what means are we justified? We answer with Paul, “By faith only in Christ are we pronounced righteous, and not by works.” Not that we reject good works. Far from it. But we will not allow ourselves to be removed from the anchorage of our salvation.


The Law is a good thing. But when the discussion is about justification, then is no time to drag in the Law. When we discuss justification we ought to speak of Christ and the benefits He has brought us.


Christ is no sheriff. He is “the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29.)


VERSE 16. That we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the Law.


We do not mean to say that the Law is bad. Only it is not able to justify us. To be at peace with God, we have need of a far better mediator than Moses or the Law. We must know that we are nothing. We must understand that we are merely beneficiaries and recipients of the treasures of Christ.


So far, the words of Paul were addressed to Peter. Now Paul turns to the Galatians and makes this summary statement:


VERSE 16. For by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.


By the term “flesh” Paul does not understand manifest vices. Such sins he usually calls by their proper names, as adultery, fornication, etc. By “flesh” Paul understands what Jesus meant in the third chapter of John, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh”. (John 3:6.) “Flesh” here means the whole nature of man, inclusive of reason and instincts. “This flesh,” says Paul, “is not justified by the works of the law.”


The papists do not believe this. They say, “A person who performs this good deed or that, deserves the forgiveness of his sins. A person who joins this or that holy order, has the promise of everlasting life.”


To me it is a miracle that the Church, so long surrounded by vicious sects, has been able to survive at all. God must have been able to call a few who in their failure to discover any good in themselves to cite against the wrath and judgment of God, simply took to the suffering and death of Christ, and were saved by this simple faith.


Nevertheless God has punished the contempt of the Gospel and of Christ on the part of the papists, by turning them over to a reprobate state of mind in which they reject the Gospel, and receive with gusto the abominable rules, ordinances, and traditions of men in preference to the Word of God, until they went so far as to forbid marriage. God punished them justly, because they blasphemed the only Son of God.


This is, then, our general conclusion: “By the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.”


Luther is right, we cannot merit righteousness. We can only depend upon the forgiveness “donated” by Christ. That is a beautiful truth. Faith is the way we receive this forgiveness and no amount of earning will be rewarded with it. Once again, upon reading Luther, the Catholic Encyclopedia is correct when it affirms that “the reformation was mainly a struggle against the doctrine of merit.” Luther keeps saying this, “With Paul we absolutely deny the possibility of self merit. God never yet gave to any person grace and everlasting life as a reward for merit.” He also makes clear that even perfection of the law will not obtain justification. Yet, Luther leaves the door open to a merit concept by his ad hoc point that only Christ is our merit.


What is Paul’s question, if it is not “finding a gracious God”? As N.T. Wright said in a recorded lecture, it is more like, “How can the gracious God be righteousness?” (Auburn Avenue lectures). That is, if Israel in the first century is unrighteous, the pagans rule the world, then how can the promises to Abraham through Israel ever be fulfilled? The answer is that what was to be true of Israel in the eschatological future when she is brought back to the land and raised from death, has now happened in Christ. So then the primary issue is grasping the biblical meaning of the righteousness of God.




The term “righteousness” which so prominent in Romans is the Greek word, dikaiosune. The use of this in the OT is quite revealing. The first use in the LXX is Genesis 15:6,


            And he believed in the LORD, and He accounted it to him for righteousness (dikaiosu,nh).”


Next, the second use is in Genesis 18:19,


For I have known him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him, that they keep the way of the LORD, to do righteousness and justice, that the LORD may bring to Abraham what He has spoken to him.


That is Abraham was called to be faithful and God would bring about the covenant promises. The indication is that the word is strongly correlated to covenant faithfulness and fulfillment. This theme becomes central for the “new covenant” prophesies. For example:


Isaiah 42:6 “I, the LORD, have called You in righteousness, And will hold Your hand; I will keep You and give You as a covenant to the people, As a light to the Gentiles, 7 To open blind eyes, To bring out prisoners from the prison, Those who sit in darkness from the prison house. 8 I am the LORD, that is My name; And My glory I will not give to another, Nor My praise to carved images. 9 Behold, the former things have come to pass, And new things I declare; Before they spring forth I tell you of them.” 10 Sing to the LORD a new song, And His praise from the ends of the earth, You who go down to the sea, and all that is in it, You coastlands and you inhabitants of them! 11 Let the wilderness and its cities lift up their voice, The villages that Kedar inhabits. Let the inhabitants of Sela sing, Let them shout from the top of the mountains.


Isaiah 45:13-14 13 I have raised him up in righteousness, And I will direct all his ways; He shall build My city And let My exiles go free, Not for price nor reward,” Says the LORD of hosts.


Isaiah 46:12 “Listen to Me, you stubborn-hearted, Who are far from righteousness: 13 I bring My righteousness near, it shall not be far off; My salvation shall not linger. And I will place salvation in Zion, For Israel My glory.


Isaiah 51:4 “ Listen to Me, My people; And give ear to Me, O My nation: For law will proceed from Me, And I will make My justice rest As a light of the peoples. 5 My righteousness is near, My salvation has gone forth, And My arms will judge the peoples; The coastlands will wait upon Me, And on My arm they will trust. 6 Lift up your eyes to the heavens, And look on the earth beneath. For the heavens will vanish away like smoke, The earth will grow old like a garment, And those who dwell in it will die in like manner; But My salvation will be forever, And My righteousness will not be abolished.


Isaiah 11:1-10 There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse, And a Branch shall grow out of his roots. 2 The Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon Him, The Spirit of wisdom and understanding, The Spirit of counsel and might, The Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD. 3 His delight is in the fear of the LORD, And He shall not judge by the sight of His eyes, Nor decide by the hearing of His ears; 4 But with righteousness He shall judge the poor, And decide with equity for the meek of the earth; He shall strike the earth with the rod of His mouth, And with the breath of His lips He shall slay the wicked. 5 Righteousness shall be the belt of His loins, And faithfulness the belt of His waist. 6 “ The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, The leopard shall lie down with the young goat, The calf and the young lion and the fatling together; And a little child shall lead them. 7 The cow and the bear shall graze; Their young ones shall lie down together; And the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8 The nursing child shall play by the cobra’s hole, And the weaned child shall put his hand in the viper’s den. 9 They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain, For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD As the waters cover the sea. 10 “ And in that day there shall be a Root of Jesse, Who shall stand as a banner to the people; For the Gentiles shall seek Him, And His resting place shall be glorious.”


Throughout Scripture, righteousness signifies covenant faithfulness rather than abstract merit to a moral code in the sky. It is used as the ground for God delivering His people.


Psalm 71:15 My mouth shall tell of Your righteousness And Your salvation all the day, For I do not know their limits. 16 I will go in the strength of the Lord GOD; I will make mention of Your righteousness, of Yours only. 17 O God, You have taught me from my youth; And to this day I declare Your wondrous works.


As I pointed out in the previous paper (Part 2), in Ezekiel 36-37, we find themes of vindication, restoration from exile 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 36:23 “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.


37:12 “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.14 “And I will put My Spirit within you, and you will come to life, and I will place you on your own land. Then you will know that I, the LORD, have spoken and done it,” declares the LORD.’”


Becoming familiar with these leads one to see that the book of Romans is fundamentally an unfolding of God’s covenant faithfulness to Israel in light of the work of Jesus and the gathering of the Gentiles by faith. It might not be too much to repeat this and expand it. Paul’s theological center is fundamentally an unfolding of God’s covenant faithfulness to Israel in light of the work of Jesus and the gathering of the Gentiles by faith.


The key notes then sound throughout Romans and the Pauline corpus. The new covenant people are identified as those who confess Jesus Christ as Lord. Justification is the acquittal of God’s people which was witnessed to by the prophets as an eschatological reality which is now made known in Christ. Christ is king and those who are represented by Him stand acquitted of their guilt. They are fully part of the covenant community which was previously only confirmed for those who bore the marks of the people of Israel.


Now we are to live in unity with all those who call on the name of the Lord. As the later chapters affirm, we are to accept one another for the sake of Christ. Therefore, such an acceptance is not an ornament to the tree or an embellishment to the sound. It is the very meat, the very heart and the very melody of the praise of God. God is blessing all nations through Abraham’s seed.


Romans 15:5 Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus; 6 that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. 7 Wherefore, accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God. 8 For I say that Christ has become a servant to the circumcision on behalf of the truth of God to confirm the promises given to the fathers, 9 and for the Gentiles to glorify God for His mercy; as it is written, “Therefore I will give praise to Thee among the Gentiles, And I will sing to Thy name.”