From Martin Luther onwards it has been a common view to see Paul’s discussion of justification pertains to a forensic status that people have before God. It evokes an image of a court-room, where a verdict is given that has the power to determine reward, or more generally, punishment. However, given the obvious sinfulness of people, it produces a contradiction or paradox: how can God be righteous if he justifies sinners by faith? Hence, a necessary explanation within this framing of justification is the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to our account so that Christ’s perfection is attributed to our account. But what underlies this framing of justification is the conceptualization of righteousness as moral perfection. To be righteous means one never sins; the existence of one sin means one is classified as a sinner.
This contrasts with the Catholic view of righteousness as infused. For Augustine,
The real difference between Catholicism and Protestantism roots in how one frames justification; is righteousness in terms of personality or perfection? But what if the problem is the association of morality with some moral code? This is a natural conclusion to draw; since righteousness is linked with the Law/Torah and works, clearly righteousness and justification relate to these things. Doesn’t that pertain to morality?
It doesn’t have to. Consider the idea of faithfulness in the context of a marriage. Do couples measure faithfulness to each other in terms of some moral code, such as don’t commit adultery, don’t lie, contribute your share to the relationship, etc.? Or, is faithfulness comprehended more so in the way the people love and are attentive to each other in such a way that leads them to not committing adultery, not lying to each other, helping each other, etc.? In other words, is marital faithfulness as matter of conformity to rules or a matter of responsive to each other? I would imagine most people would say ideally faithfulness should be a matter of the latter, rather than the former.
Let’s consider this as a way to understand righteousness and justification for Paul. Rather than righteousness being a moral character of a moral perfection, it is of a relational nature that determines how people respond to God. If that is the
This is essentially the point in James 2:18-26. Abraham is recognized as a “friend of God” and this corresponded to his willingness to offer Isaac. In a sense, one could say that God could trust Abraham as Abraham trusted God. Paul’s discussion of Abraham in Romans 4 is of a similar sort: Abraham remained faithful/trusting in God regarding the promise God made to Abraham regarding his descendants despite his advanced age and childlessness; Abraham’s faith wasn’t a fickle faith but he persevered in his trust in God. While they talk about different aspects of Abraham’s responsive to God, they both illustrate Abraham’s faith
Therefore, if this is a
But it should be clarified that this wouldn’t be a statement about a person’s own inner personality that makes them trustworthy to God. God’s justifying the ungodly is grace because it is God’s drawing close through His Son and in the pouring of His Spirit that
Hence, the contrast between faith and works of the Torah in Romans and Galatians pertains to the status of being recognized as faithful to God. One can have the Torah, hear it, and even do it, but one’s heart may not truly be one with God’s heart in what one is doing. This is Jesus’ implicit criticism of the Pharisees in the Sermon on the Mount. This is Paul’s criticism in Romans 2:17-29: people who were circumcised and instruct people in the ways of Torah still commit many sins, in hypocrisy to the judgment they launch outward at others. Why? Because the Torah was never given with the power to create a righteousness of heart, but rather it helps people to have the knowledge so as to recognize sin (Romans 3:20; 7:7).
To put this in more modern language, to the people who genuinely trust God, God trusts them with the power of the Spirit in conformity to Christ to make their desires to love God come to fruition. With a faith like Abraham’s, God recognizes the trajectory and