The history of modern Western Christianity has largely turned on the definition of “justification” and it’s equivalent translations in the Pauline corpus. Consequently, whole theological systems within Protestantism have been built around theological propositions that are based upon a) definition of diakaiow and b) it’s relationship to faith/pistis. This tendency has only been highlighted and furthered by the historical-grammatical forms of Biblical criticism which attempts to formulate the meaning of justification by understanding the semantic content of the term. The assumption is we can understand the cognitive content of the term, we can then get a precise understanding of justification.
However, language is not just a semantic tool; it is also a pragmatic tool. It doesn’t just simply describe or prescribe; language is used to bring forth worlds into reality. J.L. Austin famously observed the difference between locution, illocution and perlocution in his speech-act theory. Whereas locution relates to the words we use and illocution to our intention in using those words, perlocution relates to the world our words create in other persons. For instance, when I performed a wedding and said “I now pronounce you husband and wife” which was also matched by my signing of the marriage certificate, I was symbolically and legally bringing the couple into a new world that would change and impact their future. OR, when I baptized an infant as I called for the parents and the congregation to help raise this child in faith as called this infant “our new brother/sister in Christ,” I was using my words to construct a new world for this infant, with the hopes that they would be brought up to know the love of God in Jesus Christ. In both cases, my words in a perlocutionary manner combined with my actions to bring forth the couple or an infant into a different world, which through the course of time and experience, they themselves would be different from what they were. In other words, my words and actions were changing the status of people in eyes of themselves, the law, the parents, the church, etc. with the hopeful result that these people would be formed, if not transformed, by the experiences that come of how people relate to them, the resources provided to them, etc.
I would contend that “justification” for Paul is the perlocutionary side of this change of status. Rather than attempting to describe justification as the forgiveness of one’s sin as in Protestant theology of the infusion of righteousness as in Catholicism, one can look to “justification” as the fundamental Word God speaks in Christ that changes the status of the person, such that they experience forgiveness and peace with God and they are given access to the Spirit in accordance to this change of status. As such, justification would be about changing the course of the believer’s life, changing the reality they experience such that these experiences transform them. If Paul envisions justification along the lens of a performative act changing one’s status, then all other definitions of justification are reductive, substituting one effect of the change of status for the change of status itself. It would be like saying that the wedding is simply about sex or the baptism is simply about bringing family together. Such thinking fundamentally degrades and limits what is happened in marriage and baptism. Likewise defining justification according to some specific benefit we experience or accept such as forgiveness of infusion of righteousness misses the point.
Justification as a performative change of status would cohere with the various statements that Paul makes. For instance, in discussing Abraham’s faith by which God reckoned righteousness to Abraham, Paul speaks of God in Romans 4:17 as the one “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” We find there the conjunction of action in the resurrection and the performative utterance of a creative word making something otherwise impossible real. Then in Romans 5:1-5, Paul outlines multiple different benefits of this change of status: 1) knowing one is at peace with God, 2) future expectations of sharing in God’s glory, which Romans 8:16 would reveal is based upon suffering with Jesus Christ, and thus 3) the confidence that suffering moves towards that future expectation we can look to. There, there we can see a distinction between status and benefits of said status.
Bringing this to a theological conclusion, in recognizing the conjunction of perlocutionary words and constitutive action, we can look at justification as the joint work of the Word of Christ and Action of the Spirit. Both God’s pronouncement in Christ and God’s bestowal of the Spirit acknowledge and create a fundamental change of status for the believer, that will enter them into a different way of experience that they would not have estranged from God, that will impact the direction their lives take and change the type of person they are, even if they are not aware of this from the starting point.
I remember many years ago, during my freshman year of college, I was attending a Christian leadership retreat that the Baptist Student Unions in the state of Mississippi had organized (I was Southern Baptist at the time). While there, I received a mental vision of being a leader of people (surprise, surprise! Imagine that a vision of leading at a leadership retreat) and it was at that point that my hearts was so deeply moved that I was moved to my first, clear feeling of repentance, wanting to avoid sin in my life, and my first time in having a clarity of trust in the love and power of God. I feel an experience of life and joy that I could only describe years later as a “heart strangely warmed” experience (little did the Baptists realize they had made me Wesleyan!). Without fully understanding at the time but looking back after the fact, I was put on a different path of life that has formed me into a distinctly different person than I was my freshman year, while having experiences that I could only describe as coming from God, and having to struggle with painful situations that defy and still defy my comprehension or my personal capacity. While I don’t call this the point I got “saved,” or even the point that I was “justified” by God because I had the beginnings of faith and repentance in the years prior, it was at this point that I can look back and say this is where I began to live out from a changed status that I believed God to have bestowed.
So, rather than attempting to obtain a definition of justification from determining some semantic understanding of the word and thereby derive a specific set of propositional statements about our experiences of justification, I would suggest justification for Paul is understood as part of a status-changing Word of Christ that is also joined with the act of giving of the Spirit. Thus, justification refers to what God does, not specifically what happens to us or how we benefit, and only from that point do we begin to explore the different realities that come into place.1 Perhaps then, the course of post-Reformation Western Christianity has been guided by focusing on the benefits we experience in justification and the disagreement that ensues from that rather than focusing on justification as a reference to the Divine act of changing believer’s status, which then operates in a multifunctional way within the course of our lives.
- As an aside, I would suggest this explain Paul’s focus on God’s action. Rather than it being an endorsement of some sort of monergism, Paul’s emphasis on God’s action is done so that we can not reduce anything that God says or does down to human action or understanding, even though our action and understanding may participate in what God is doing.