What if the doctrine of justification of faith was the right answer to the wrong problem?
The doctrine of justification of faith has often been presented as an evangelical doctrine answer the question: “How is it that I get righteous with God?” This way of framing the problem stems from how Martin Luther tried to obtain a status of righteousness through perfection of the monk lifestyle. This way of framing the problem is witnessed in John Wesley’s struggle with pursuits of holiness but feeling dejected as he thought of God as a wrathful being against sin. For Luther, it was like a seed that had been planted from Romans 1.17 that grew and grew to define a whole branch of Protestantism. For Wesley, it was like an epiphany that shift the course of his life and a second wave of holiness within Protestantism.
Beyond the Scriptural evidence for just an idea, I would suggest the impact that both Luther and Wesley had is evidence that they tapped into something. Depending on your perspective, you can explain this influence variously. But what if the reason for this influence was because it had a deep impact on people’s relationship to God, but that the doctrine is the right answer to the wrong problem.
What if the doctrine of justification by faith does answer the question: “How is it that I get righteous with God?” but rather, “How do I live righteously with God?” The difference is subtle, but yet significant.
For the former question, it leads to this type of evaluation: what is within my power to obtain a specific standing before God? If I do all these works, if I purge myself of all sin, if I commit myself to the deepest extent, God will find me to be on the right side. If I may suggest, this way of framing is rooted to a particular doctrine of sin that suggests God is condemning based upon specific actions we take; the the ultimate criteria of God’s judgment is the rightness or wrongness of what we do or. Sola fide comes in and says it isn’t about what you do, but what you believe about Jesus, that he died for our sins, that we are justified by his blood.
But what if Paul was answering the slightly different, latter question: “How do I live righteously with God?” Here, the focus is not on what one does to obtain a specific status with God, per se, but about what type of person God trusts and discloses Himself to?
Allow me to illustrate via an
For instance, marital advice suggests saying healthy relationships have 5 affirming expressions for every 1 negative expression. But say someone hears this and things “it is all about the ratio.” Imagine the difference between saying “I am proud of you” to a person who already feels pride is different from saying it to someone who feels dejected. Those words will be less meaningful and impactful to the prideful (and hence, why relationships with narcissists don’t worth) than it would be to the dejected. A formulaic approach to relationships might suggest the former is just as impactful as the latter. A person who is attentive to how a person feels, however, will recognize it is the latter when a person needs to feel affirmed. And as such relationships are generally experienced as a place for intimacy, care, and honesty, there are more opportunities and times where a spouse is seeking affirmation than there would be in other relationships. Perhaps the 5-to-1 ratio is more about people who are responsive to their spouse than it is about a formula.
So bring this back to the doctrine of justification. What if justification is Paul saying “The way one lives righteously with God is that you trust Him?” To be clear, while the Greek word for faith, πίστις, can have some
But it should be made clear that this is not merely a cognitive sense of taking in information. Consider a friend, an enemy, and stranger hear the exact same speech from a person, see the exact same actions, but the friend and enemy will construe the meaning very
In that case, the Pauline πίστις is a motivated listening that leads to action in accordance
If this is correct, then this perhaps sheds light on the contrast between the works of the Torah vs. the faith of Jesus Christ that Paul mentions in Romans and Galatians. Those who seek to be justified by Torah think, essentially, they have all they need to know to please God; they know what God expects, they know what God does, they have become “experts” about God. And they have arranged their lives according to their “expert” knowledge about God through Torah.
By contrast, πίστις is a state in which the person recognizes they must depend upon God’s guidance and leading because the Torah was never the full expression of all that is important to know about God. By faith, one seeks the what is ultimately good, that is, the righteousness of God, by learning from God who has made His goodness known, through the crucified Jesus Christ, whose πίστις defines our πίστις, and the Spirit, who raised Jesus from the dead.
Thus, the contrast between the works of Torah and and the faith of Jesus Christ is ultimately epistemic, but in a social or relational manner.
So if justification by faith was the right answer to the wrong question, why then did the doctrine have such an impact Luther and the Protestant Reformation and on Wesley and the Methodist revival? Because in faith, they abandoned false beliefs about sin that constrained them to see righteousness as about how one becomes righteous, even if they didn’t consciously recognize it as a change in their harmatiology. Rather than a God who is quick to anger because of sin, who is quick to find fault, quick to abandon, they discovered that God is not so. They didn’t come to that conclusion because they developed a really robust sense of sin in the Scriptures. They came to that conclusion because their understanding of faith freed them from such ignorance.
To be clear, I am not criticizing the idea that there is
For instance, nowhere does the Bible say by one sin, no matter how big or small we think it is, means you are guilty enough for God to send you to hell. This is a lie from the pits of hell, used to get people to “convert.” Nowhere does the Bible say only a select few get to go into eternal life and everyone else is going to burn for their sins. This is a lie from the pits of hell, use to get people to “believe and behave.” To be sure, if we can trust the Scriptures, then it is true sin can condemn a person and God will judge some to everlasting punishment, but any sin is a long ways away from some sin and some people is a long ways away from nearly everyone. There are immense hermeneutical problems supporting such problematic notions, such as thinking “death” in Romans 6.23 is about eternal punishment rather than the death operating in the present world marred by Adam’s sin.
Let me suggest what actually undergirds God’s judgment: the absolute lack of trustworthiness that becomes dangerous. It starts with Adam and
Then the Lord God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”— therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man
; andat the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.
This narrative reads as is the thought that possibility of humanity simultaneously possessing knowledge of good and evil and having immortality was an unspeakably terrible thing and thus God expels Adam and Eve from the source of life to prevent such a terrible state of affairs. As Paul says, through one man, sin entered into the world and death through sin; I would suggest the comment “death through sin” refers to the way in which God makes judgment against Adam’s sin: God could no longer trust humanity with their self-sufficient knowledge of what is good and evil and immortality, so God limited their life span by exclusion for God’s provision which ultimately amounted to a distancing from His presence.
God sends away not because they mess up and did wrong; God judges because the state of affairs
God’s judgment is about what type of people we are, not what type of things we did. As Paul writes in Romans 2.7-8 (NRSV):
to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.”
The criterion Paul mentions is a motivational one with behavioral consequence. Is someone seeking what is good or is something seeking what is for their own ambition? Similarly in Romans 2.15-16 (NRSV):
They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret parts1 of all.
Again, Paul states that Jesus judges based upon what rests within the person. In Romans 2, Paul does talk about a judgment of works, but it isn’t a judgment that is from the sum of all a person’s actions as if you can balance out good and bad
In this light, then, the Gospel of Jesus Christ addresses the problem of the heart: how shall we know the good to pursue and how will we become the type of people who pursue that good? The Gospel is the story of God doing both for us, but it is through a faith like Jesus that we learn from God and then God handles the rest by forming us into the pattern of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. We are not saved from a certain everlasting, eternal destruction by faith, but rather we are saved from the possibility of such. We can read Romans 5.9 as a statement of such an assurance from deliverance from that possibility (rather than that certainty) that is then later expressed more resolutely and very beautifully in Romans 8.31-39.
But, allow me to ask: what if the doctrine of justification has lost its power because the way it has been presented has been with the exaggerated narrative people have told about God’s wrath towards sin? That God judges them by the sum of all their behaviors, or rather all the negatives sums of every sin that can never be balanced out by good behaviors, but that then God decided to give a different route through faith in Jesus. What if people can not hear the doctrine of justification by faith because the real source of its impact in Wesley, Luther, and what followed to free people in their relationship to God by in effect working against their false understand about God’s anger has been concealed by a doctrine of sin used to control by getting people to convert and behave?
Allow me to conclude with this way of understanding the Biblical language of righteousness as an implication: there is a difference between rightness of behavior and the righteousness of heart. It is the righteousness of the heart that produces the right of behavior through learning and paying attention; one may fail and fall short at times, but the lack of rightness of
- The NRSV reads thoughts, but the word is not there and this becomes overly cognitive. The point of the word κρυπτὰ here is to talk about what is not seen by other people but is by Jesus; it isn’t a reference to some specific part of the mental life, but rather a reference to what is unknown by others.