While working in our vegetarian restaurant in Boston when I was young, I was excited to encounter the author of a new book on justification. I sat at a table next to the evangelist and struck up a conversation with him. I asked what he thought about justification, and his response baffled me. He told me that justification was too difficult and complex for me to understand. He did not consider me worthy to hear his message. That lunch was extremely awkward, as my immediate inner response was to plead for an answer. Needless to say, the author’s response did not entice me to seek the answer by purchasing his book. The common theories and methods for describing the process of justification had become a puzzle for me at that time. I was not a terrified sinner plagued by guilt and seeking justification before a cosmic judge.
The author’s view of justification did not include an explanation relevant to me. I thus did not consider his theory truly gospel. How could I understand what justification really was? Where could I find an explanation that would reveal a more beautiful view of God’s inclusive love? Distorted views of justification and salvation are why so many struggle with how to view God and carry out His saving work in the world.
Reformer Martin Luther’s premise was right. Salvation is not based on anything we do (Romans 3:28). It is solely focused on what God does. All we must do is trust and depend on Him. That is a good teaching, but I learned from New Testament scholar James Dunn that Judaism has never assumed works-based salvation. The Jews did not seek to earn God’s favor, for Israel was already assured eternal salvation in the world to come. My quest for justification was not a quest for eternal salvation but for something else. The missing piece for me was the revelation of God as demonstrated by Jesus.
The language used to describe justification draws much from the language of law courts. The common Protestant explanation sets righteousness in a law-court theater, with God presiding as judge, giving humans what they deserve for breaking His law. According to justification theory, God knows that we can’t keep His law perfectly, so he provides an easier way for us to secure eternal salvation. The solution is to have faith in Jesus, so we will be treated as righteous.
I am glad to know that I have obtained a good legal standing with God. He no doubt makes the best possible case for me. He wins in court through His marvelous, unrelenting love, yet framing my relationship with God in legal terminology addresses neither the deepest yearnings of my heart nor the larger problems of the world. Human sin and evil can’t be alleviated by merely paying a price. The problems of human suffering and perplexity at God’s apparent absence in the world define the agony of that sin.
Being saved by conjuring up faith and choosing certain beliefs is not much different from being saved by personal effort. Only when we focus on the revelation of God in the life of Jesus can we see the correct view. Theological methods and courtroom theories can easily miss the truth about justification. The way Jesus lived and acted for us shows what God truly thinks about us. It reveals that He is the God who comes all the way down to us to—healing us, washing our dirty feet, suffering and weeping with us, laughing with us, dying with us, and rising for us to intercede on our behalf. I rub my eyes in utter amazement at the sublime beauty of God’s righteousness.
We need an explanation of justification that is more than legal acquittal, an understanding that speaks to moral questions and emphasizes the beauty of God’s love through Christ. Justification may seem to imply that faith is a perquisite for receiving all God does for us. However, faith is not something we cause but an experience we find ourselves responding to. New Testament scholar Sigve K. Tonstad explains justification by faith as God’s work of “right making” through “the faithfulness of Jesus Christ” (“Pistis Christou: Reading Paul in a New Paradigm,” AUSS 40.1, 2002, pp. 59). We are justified by the faith of Jesus (Galatians 2:16; Revelation 14:12). The faithfulness of Jesus becomes the key to understanding God’s saving mission in the world.
This does not mean that my personal faith is unimportant, for faith is part of my response and growth, but faith is never the basis for acceptance but rather the result of God’s kindness and acceptance. When we come to know God, we find ourselves responding with faith and living in fidelity. Faith includes allegiance; it’s an attitude of loyalty. Yet, faith also has a social context.
The center of the gospel is not a theory of justification but the beauty and appeal of God in the person of Jesus. The context of justification does not include a punishing God or one who metes out death sentences. It is not a contest between following God’s law and having faith. Instead, it is set within the truth about God’s beautiful character—a sin pardoning Redeemer and His way of doing right in the world. This understanding of justification highlights the great appeal of God’s love, making it crucial for the world.
Despite our failures, we can know that we are loved. We are assured of God’s acceptance by the faithfulness of Jesus; through this faithfulness, we can be certain of God’s love, achieving peace in knowing that we are secure (Romans 5:1–2). God wants us to rest in Him, so we can enter places that hurt in the world to share His transforming love.
Resting in the surety of God’s changeless love makes sense to me. Assured divine acceptance by the faithfulness of Jesus, I live under a guarantee of His unchanging love. The revelation of this matchless love leaves me speechless, yet how easily we can lose sight of Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith. We must behold the beauty of God’s character as revealed through Jesus. We are not saved by knowing the minimum content of faith or the process of justification but only by the person of Jesus. The theme must always be God’s action revealed by Jesus. Behold what manner of love—His matchless love made manifest in the faithfulness of Jesus.
In a sense, we all look for justification. We all have ideas about righteousness and justice, but what right-making actions does God take to save the world? His kind of justice and righteousness can address society’s pain, correcting racial distortions and prejudices to heal the world. They not only address our individual standing before God but reflect something transformative, inclining us to engage with the world.
This kind of justification is concerned not merely with individual righteousness but with communal righteousness. It is a corporate righteousness with a collective tone. When our understanding of justification includes redemptive and transformative justice, we can begin to follow God into places that are groaning in suffering (Romans 8:22). God’s right-making actively works to rectify political prejudice and racial distortions, so all nations can be part of His family. It aims to remedy social ills and assure equal justice for all people, who are created in the image of God and loved by Him. It also calls for compassion for all sentient beings, extending kindness and compassion to all groaning parts of creation.
Justification refers to God’s work of making all things right, and we are invited to participate. Instead of worrying about the mechanics of justification, we should emphasize God’s right-making actions through the faithfulness of Jesus. This faithfulness is redemptive. It’s transformative. It’s attractive. The faith of Jesus explains the gospel as it really is, revealing a much more believable and beautiful view of God that brings hope and compassion. Once we grasp the beauty of God’s infinite love, we can participate in transforming the world with Jesus.
Craig Ashton Jr.