Since the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, Christians have been divided over the doctrine of justification by faith. Controversies regarding this doctrine arose when Martin Luther criticized the Roman Catholic Church for teaching that it was necessary for Christians to earn or obtain God’s forgiveness by means of a variety of works, such as going to mass, receiving the sacraments, doing penance, purchasing indulgences, venerating relics, offering masses and prayers for the dead, adopting the monastic life, dedicating oneself to the priesthood, fulfilling numerous rites and observances, and submitting to the Church’s mandates and authority in other ways. All of these “works” served as means by which the Church maintained control and dominance over the lives of the faithful and obtained not only its vast economic wealth but also abundant human resources in the form of lives dedicated to the service of the Church. According to Luther, in effect the Church was selling salvation by offering God’s grace and the forgiveness of sins in exchange for the money, goods, property, bodies, and souls of the faithful.
In response to this situation, Luther looked to the epistles of the Apostle Paul to argue that salvation and the forgiveness of sins were given freely by God to all who merely received them by faith. It was not by performing the type of works just described that one came to be declared righteous or justified by God, but by trusting and depending on God’s grace not only for forgiveness but also for the new life of righteousness given through Christ. Luther looked especially to Paul’s epistles to the Romans and the Galatians in order to argue that believers were justified not by works but by faith alone.
While initially the discussions regarding works had to do with the type of works mentioned above, it was not long before the discussion came to focus on good works in general. Roman Catholic theologians criticized Luther and the Lutherans and Protestants in general for teaching that Christians did not need to do any type of good works in order to be saved, justified, and forgiven. From the Catholic perspective, such an idea implied that Christians could be saved simply by assenting to certain truths while at the same time making no effort to live in accordance with God’s will and simply persisting in their sinful life. Luther and the other Reformers responded by claiming that true faith in and of itself led Christians to do good works and live as God desired and commanded, yet from the Catholic perspective such an understanding of justification did not provide the basis necessary for demanding that believers do such works and obey God’s commandments.
Common to the teaching of both the Roman Catholic theologians and the Reformers was the idea that in his passion and death Christ had made satisfaction and atonement for human sins, thereby obtaining God’s forgiveness for sinful human beings. This understanding of Christ’s death was based on the idea that, due to God’s strict justice, holiness, and perfection, God could not forgive human beings their sins freely but instead had to exact the retribution or punishment that those sins deserved. Simply to forgive human beings their sins freely would be unjust, which by definition is impossible for God. Therefore, God’s Son had to become human and to suffer and die on a cross in order to pay the debt human beings owed to God or endure in their place the punishment to which they were subject on account of God’s justice. This interpretation of the manner in which human beings are saved through Christ’s death was based on ideas first put forward by St. Anselm of Canterbury at the end of the eleventh century. It was Anselm who had claimed that God’s perfect and inflexible justice did not allow for the free forgiveness of sins but required that human beings make satisfaction to God and his justice for their sins if they wished to be spared the punishment those sins deserved. In his death, Christ had fulfilled this requirement on behalf of human beings.
While Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians agreed in general terms on this understanding of Christ’s work, they remained at odds over the question of whether in his death Christ had made satisfaction and atonement for all human sins or only some. According to Roman Catholic teaching, Christ had made satisfaction and atonement for the original sin that the faithful inherit by nature and any sins that they commit prior to their baptism, yet it remained necessary for them to make satisfaction and atonement for the sins they committed subsequent to their baptism by means of penance and other works prescribed by the Church. The Reformers rejected such an idea as oppressive, since it continued to make the salvation of believers depend on their own works and their submission to the Church. In effect, believers had to earn their own salvation and forgiveness by continuing to submit obediently to the Church so as to do whatever the Church prescribed and commanded.
In response to this Roman Catholic view, the Reformers maintained that in his death Christ had made satisfaction and atonement for all human sins. Therefore, believers were freed entirely from having to do works to make satisfaction and atonement for their own sins. As the Roman Catholic theologians noted, however, the view of the Reformers was also highly problematic. If Christ had made satisfaction and atonement for all sins—past, present, and future—, could not believers now simply sin freely and do whatever they desired, knowing that no matter what sins they committed, those sins were already forgiven by virtue of Christ’s atoning death? The Protestant doctrine of justification seemed to give believers free license to sin as much as they wanted, since as long as they continued to have saving faith they could have full assurance that through Christ’s death they possessed the full forgiveness of all of their sins.
Both the Roman Catholic teaching and the teaching of the Reformers were therefore problematic. In addition to allowing the Church to continue to demand certain works of believers as a condition for their forgiveness and salvation, the Roman Catholic teaching left believers in perpetual uncertainty as to whether they had done sufficient works to merit God’s forgiveness. They were thus placed in a position in which they had to live with the constant burden of attempting to accumulate the amount of works necessary in order to attain God’s favor and their salvation. In contrast, while the Protestant doctrine supposedly allowed believers to have peace and assurance regarding their salvation, it seemed to offer no satisfactory answer to the question of why believers were not free to live in sin. While it was possible to maintain that they should not do so but should instead live as God commanded in order to manifest their faith and their gratitude for what God had done for them, the Protestant doctrine offered no basis for requiring or demanding that they refrain from sinning in order to dedicate themselves to doing good works, since it maintained that these things were not necessary for them to attain salvation and forgiveness.
The way in which many Protestants attempted to resolve this problem was to adopt what is in effect another form of the Roman Catholic doctrine, though they generally deny openly having done so. When we speak of being justified or declared righteous, we can distinguish between two different moments: an initial justification and a subsequent justification culminating with the final verdict that one receives at the end of one’s life or at the last judgment. According to this distinction, when a person comes to faith in Christ, that faith is accepted as righteousness and on that basis God justifies that person by declaring him or her to be righteous. Faith alone is sufficient for this initial justification. Subsequently, however, if the person who has been justified by faith continues to live in sin without repenting of that sin or seeking to avoid it, he or she falls back under God’s wrath and condemnation and is no longer accepted by God as righteous. In this way, even though in one sense the ongoing and final justification of believers does not depend on the works they do or fail to do but only on their faith, in another sense their ongoing and final justification does depend on their repenting of their sins and not falling willfully into a sinful lifestyle. If they fail to repent and instead practice sin freely, they lose their justification and salvation in spite of their faith. In that case, while initially believers are justified by faith alone, subsequently that faith must be accompanied by repentance and a God-pleasing lifestyle in order for them to remain justified.
Protestant theologians have attempted to get around these difficulties in many different ways, yet the fact that they have not been able to resolve them in a way that all find acceptable or attain any kind of definitive consensus on these questions suggests that they admit of no solution that is entirely satisfactory. A further problem arises when it is said that in his death Christ atoned for the sins of humanity as a whole. If that is the case, then supposedly he obtained forgiveness not only for believers but for unbelievers as well. Yet unless it is maintained that all people are saved and forgiven by God independently of whether they come to faith or how they live, if the death of Christ is regarded as fulfilling a condition necessary for human salvation, then a second condition must be added. In Protestant thought, of course, this condition is that they come to faith in Christ. This faith becomes the determining factor as to whether one is saved or not. If that is the case, however, the question arises as to why both Christ’s death and faith in Christ are necessary conditions for salvation. If God can save people simply on the basis of their faith, then why could God not always have saved people on the basis of their faith without requiring that his Son become human and die on a cross?
Furthermore, if those who do not come to faith are ultimately not saved, justified, or forgiven by God, what sense does it make to affirm that they were saved, justified, and forgiven by God when Christ died for them and for their sins? Either their failure to come to faith negates their salvation, justification, and forgiveness or else they were never actually saved, justified, and forgiven through Christ’s death in the first place. Such an understanding of Christ’s death also leads to the problem that God ends up receiving satisfaction or exacting punishment for the sins of unbelievers twice, since the punishment for their sins is inflicted once on Christ in his death and a second time on those unbelievers themselves when they are condemned to eternal punishment. This difficulty has led some Protestants to claim that Christ died only for the sins of believers, yet such a view raises other problems.
Generally, the answer to the question of why God requires not only faith but also the death of his Son in order to save and justify sinful human beings is that it would be unjust for God to leave their sins unpunished. Supposedly, this is impossible for God, since by nature God cannot act unjustly. While such an idea is problematic for a number of reasons, not least of these is the claim that what ultimately interests God and satisfies God’s justice is the punishment of sins rather than the transformation of sinners into people who practice love, justice, and righteousness. If God’s justice is satisfied and God’s wrath is appeased when human sin has been punished, prior to and independently of any change in the manner in which sinful human beings live, then such a change is not necessary or required in order for them to be saved, justified, and forgiven. If it were to be maintained that such a change is necessary or required in order for people to be saved, justified, and forgiven, then it would follow that Christ’s death was not sufficient for these things to happen and that salvation, justification, and forgiveness do depend on people living in the way that God commands. In that case, believers could never have assurance of their salvation, since they could never know if they had attained the level of righteousness and obedience necessary for them to be saved.
Traditionally, the reason that it is considered impossible for people to attain God’s acceptance and approval by living righteously is that God is perfect and therefore demands absolute perfection of any who wish to be declared righteous by him. Obviously, such perfection is beyond the reach of sinful human beings. The only human being capable of such perfection is Christ, due to the fact that he is divine. Supposedly, because in his life, passion, and death Christ rendered to God the perfect righteousness and obedience that God’s justice demands, God can now accept imperfect, sinful, unrighteous human beings as they are without demanding anything further from them, except for faith in Christ, of course. As a result of Christ’s death, therefore, God has been changed from a God who could not accept sinful human beings into one who can, without any type of change taking place in those human beings themselves.
Reconstructing the Biblical Understanding of Justification
As I have argued extensively throughout my work, all of these understandings of the biblical doctrine of justification are at odds with what we find in Scripture. In both the Old and New Testaments, for example, many individuals are said to be righteous and even blameless, even though they were of course not perfect or without sin. What distinguished the righteous from the unrighteous was not that the righteous did not sin but that they repented of their sin and constantly sought to live in accordance with God’s will. Neither in biblical or Jewish thought was it maintained that God demanded or expected that human beings live entirely without sin.
Furthermore, according to biblical thought, God commands people to practice justice and righteousness, not for God’s own sake but for theirs. Only if they live in love, justice, and righteousness can there be peace, harmony, well-being, and wholeness for all. If instead human beings practice injustice, oppression, and evil, they fill their own lives and those of others with pain and suffering. God’s demand that people refrain from evil, injustice, and oppression is therefore an expression of God’s love for them. God wants them to live in ways that make it possible for them and others to enjoy the life, happiness, and well-being that God desires for all out of love for them and to put away the ways of thinking, acting, and living that destroy life, happiness, and well-being. When God calls on people to repent and put away their unjust and destructive behavior, God does so out of pure grace and love, solely out of a concern for their well-being.
Throughout both the Old and New Testaments, God is said to judge people not on the basis of their faith but on the basis of their works. The reason for this is that, in biblical thought, in order for God to establish the type of world that God desires—that is, a world free from evil, injustice, oppression, and suffering—, God must judge people to distinguish those who are committed to living in ways that make such a world possible from those who are not. The determining factor, therefore, is not whether one is perfectly righteous or obedient to God’s will, but whether one is truly committed to living in the way God desires and commands for the good of all. It was this commitment to justice and righteousness that was thought to define the righteous in biblical thought. While the righteous were not perfect, they were committed to living as God desired out of love for all. This means that they did not want to practice evil, injustice, and oppression but only to do what was good, loving, and right, both for their own sake and for the sake of others. Of course, at times the righteous continued to fall into sinful and destructive behavior and act contrary to God’s will, yet when they did so they realized that they were doing harm to themselves and others and thus sought to put away such behavior and conform their lives once again to God’s will for good. Even if they were given a “license to sin,” they would not do so because they knew that sin destroyed their well-being and happiness rather than promoting it.
What God demanded and expected of all, therefore, was that they be committed to living in love, justice, and righteousness for their own good and that of others. In biblical thought, those who share this commitment are justified and declared righteous by God, since they are living in a way that is acceptable to God, in spite of the fact that they are not able to live free of sin. Those who do not share that commitment, however, are not justified or declared righteous by God, since the lack of such a commitment will inevitably lead to a way of life that destroys and undermines the well-being of all that constitutes God’s gracious will. The reason that in Scripture God is consistently said to judge people on the basis of their works is that those works reveal whether they are committed to living in accordance with the love, justice, and righteousness that God desires to see in all out of love for them. While those who share that commitment will not be perfect, their works will make that commitment evident. Conversely, the works of those who do not share that commitment will demonstrate that it is not present in them.
At the same time, however, the God we find in both the Old and New Testaments does not merely sit back passively and wait to see if people arrive at that commitment on their own. Rather, in Scripture God is presented as being constantly active to bring about that commitment in human beings out of love for them and a deep desire for their well-being and happiness. In Old Testament thought, God’s love took the form of giving Israel the Torah, which in Hebrew actually means “guidance” or “instruction” rather than “law.” That Torah is seen as a precious gift, precisely because it guides and directs those who learn and heed it in the way that they should go for their own good. However, when those who have received that guidance begin to go their own way rather than living in the way that God has prescribed out of a loving concern for their well-being and happiness, God does not simply sit by passively but instead attempts to bring them back to the way of life that is in their own best interest. One of the ways in which God seeks to accomplish that objective is by sending prophets to call the people to return to a way of life that will allow them and others to experience God’s wholeness and salvation. In biblical thought, when the people refuse to listen to those prophets, God may allow them to suffer the consequences of their sinfulness and injustice for a time or even seek to correct them by inflicting some type of suffering or hardship on them. Naturally, God is presented as wishing that it was not necessary to do this, just as parents who truly love their children wish that they never had to punish or correct them. Yet when the people begin to go astray and fall into behavior that is harmful to them and others, simply letting them persist in that behavior without seeking to correct them would involve giving up on them, abandoning them, and handing them over to a lifestyle would make it impossible for them to experience the well-being and happiness God desires for them.
The biblical writings, therefore, present God as being continually active in order to bring people to live in the way that God desires and commands for their own good out of love for them. Occasionally, when the people refuse to live in that way, God may abandon them to their own ways for a time in order to allow them to learn for themselves that it is not good for them to follow their own ways instead of the good ways of God that lead to life and wholeness. Yet even then God promises not to abandon definitively those who fall into destructive behavior but to continue to seek to bring them back to a way of life that will allow them to experience the well-being that God desires for them.
For this reason, in biblical thought it can be said that God not only demands and commands that people live in a way that allows them to enjoy God’s blessings of well-being and wholeness but also acts to bring about in them that way of life by pure grace. When they are brought to live in the way God desires and commands out of love for them, it is only because God has been active in their lives to enable them to live in that way. If they are transformed into people who no longer dedicate themselves to evil, sin, and injustice, it is due not to their own strength, wisdom, merits, or works, but purely and exclusively to the grace of God, who out of infinite love for them never gives up on the objective of bringing about in them that transformation for their own good and that of others. If the people come to be committed to living in ways that make it possible for them and others to experience the blessings of life, wholeness, and salvation that God desires for all, it is not because they have brought about in themselves that commitment, but only because God has been active in their lives to bring about that commitment in them by pure grace. Of course, they are not deserving of that grace or of God’s love, yet in spite of their sinfulness and unworthiness God mercifully insists on showering them with that grace and love in abundance.
Strictly speaking, therefore, in biblical thought what God calls on people to do is not to try harder, to be better, to put away their wrongdoing, or to change their life and their behavior. Rather, God calls on all people simply to look to God in faith to receive the new life that God gives by pure grace. For that reason, justification and salvation are by faith alone. True faith looks to God not only for forgiveness but also for the transformation necessary to become a new person who no longer lives in destructive ways but instead lives in ways that make wholeness and well-being possible. It is God who transforms people by pure grace rather than people who transform themselves, and therefore that transformation is only possible when they look to God alone in faith rather than to their own capacities or strength.
As I have explained in the Introduction to Rethinking Jesus’ Death elsewhere on this website, in New Testament thought God had sent Jesus not so that he might make satisfaction or atonement for the sins of human beings but that he might serve as God’s instrument for redeeming them from the sinful ways of life that destroy their well-being and happiness. For reasons mentioned in the writings of that section of my website, Jesus’ efforts to lay the basis for a community in which all might be brought to live in the way God desires led to conflict and opposition, and when in the face of that conflict and opposition Jesus refused to back down from those efforts, he was crucified by those who saw him as a threat to their interests. By remaining faithful all the way to his death to his God-given task of laying the foundation for such a community, he had made it possible for it now to exist. Had Jesus stopped dedicating himself to that task and objective in the face of the threat of a violent death, that community would never have become a reality through him. Much less would it have been a community whose primary characteristic would be the same type of love seen in Jesus himself, since had Jesus turned in on himself rather than loving others to the very end, he could hardly have expected to be Lord over a community of people who would follow him in loving others in the same way.
Of course, it was not Jesus but Paul who came to use the language of justification in order to define the gospel. Paul’s understanding of the gospel and his teaching regarding justification by faith grew out of his own experiences. According to the Book of Acts and Paul’s epistles, prior to his experience of the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, Paul had observed carefully and meticulously the Torah or Mosaic law. However, he had also come to be filled with anger and hatred toward his fellow Jews who had been brought to believe in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah or Christ. That anger and hatred were so great that Paul had even dedicated his time and energies to persecuting those Jewish believers in Christ actively, traveling long distances in an attempt to locate them and destroy their communities. As he was on the way to Damascus, however, the risen Jesus appeared to him and called on him to stop persecuting his followers and instead become his apostle. In that way, Paul not only came to faith in Christ but began to dedicate his life to pursuing the same objective that had been Jesus’ own, namely, bringing others to believe in Jesus as Lord so as to live under him in the way God desired out of love for all. The anger and hatred that had filled Paul’s heart were replaced by a profound love for God and others that allowed Paul to experience a joy and a peace that he had never known previously.
What had Paul done to deserve the kind of love, acceptance, compassion, and forgiveness that Jesus had shown to him? The only thing that his behavior had merited was censure and reproach. God and Jesus would have been fully justified if they had rejected Paul definitively by leaving him to continue in his destructive behavior and condemning him to endure the consequences of that behavior. Yet by pure grace, Jesus had manifested himself in Paul’s life and transformed him into a totally different person, a person fully committed to reaching out to others in love in the same way that Jesus had. If Paul had become a “new creation,” it was not because of his own efforts, merits, goodness, or strength, but only because of the mercy and unconditional love of God and Christ. God and Christ had accepted Paul, not because of who he was and how he had lived, but in spite of who he was and how he had lived, out of pure grace.
In Romans 5:17, Paul speaks of those who receive “the free gift of righteousness” through Christ. In traditional Protestant teaching, this free gift has been understood in terms of receiving a righteous standing before God in spite of one’s sins. In other words, the gift that believers receive is the forgiveness of their sins and God’s gracious declaration that they are accepted as righteous on account of Christ and his death. Supposedly, the basis for that forgiveness, acceptance, and justification is Christ’s atoning death as well as their faith in Christ and the efficacy of his death. To interpret Paul’s words in this way, however, is to misunderstand entirely what he is saying.
Instead, the “free gift of righteousness” of which Paul speaks should be understood as the new life of justice, righteousness, and love that God brings about in believers through Christ by pure grace out of love for them. Of course, together with this new life God also grants believers forgiveness and acceptance and declares them righteous. Yet the basis for this forgiveness, acceptance, and justification is not Christ’s death but the new life of righteousness that God brings about in believers by pure grace. They are justified or declared righteous by God, not because Christ’s death atoned for their sins, but because as long as they continue to cling to Christ in faith, God can be assured that they will become the righteous and loving people that God wants them to be for their own good, a people committed to living in ways that allow them and others to experience God’s blessings of life, wholeness, and salvation. Nothing but that could ever please God or satisfy God’s justice.
This is the understanding of justification that I present in the selections from my work that I share in this section of my website, titled Rethinking Justification by Faith. For those interested in reading more on this subject, I would recommend beginning with the selection titled “Paul and the Righteousness of Faith” from my most recent book, The Parting of the Gods: Paul and the Redefinition of Judaism. Paul’s teaching on justification by faith and its relation to his understanding of Christ’s death is discussed at greater length in “Justification and the Work of Christ in Paul’s Thought,” which is taken from my two-volume work Jesus’ Death in New Testament Thought. I have also included in this section of my website an article comparing the thought of Paul and Luther on this subject, titled “Did Paul Get Luther Right?,” and another article I published in 2004 on Luther’s understanding of justification: “Sola Fide and Luther’s Analytic Understanding of Justification: A Fresh Look at Some Old Questions.”
Before ending this introduction, I would like to stress a couple of other points with regard to Paul’s understanding of justification. First of all, when I affirm that the “free gift of righteousness” to which Paul refers in Romans 5:17 is not merely God’s gracious forgiveness but a new life of justice, righteousness, and love, I do not mean that such a life is somehow “infused” into believers so as to produce some type of mysterious or magical change in them. In traditional Roman Catholic thought, it has been common to speak of God “infusing” grace or righteousness (iustitia) into believers, as if grace, justice, or righteousness were some kind of invisible substance, energy, or power transmitted to believers so as to effect in and of itself their transformation. At times, the Holy Spirit has been understood in this way as well. According to such an understanding of justification, believers are transformed into righteous people by means of such an “infusion” and on that basis are declared righteous by God. I am convinced that such an idea is entirely foreign to Paul’s thought.
Many New Testament scholars have also attributed to Paul the idea that believers are transformed through some type of mystical or personal union with Christ or by participating in Christ or his death in a literal or ontological sense. As I argue in “Justification and the Work of Christ in Paul’s Thought,” I believe that these ideas have also wrongly been read back into Paul’s epistles. While Paul speaks of having died and been buried with Christ and being crucified with Christ, he never refers to believers participating in Christ’s death or crucifixion. Similarly, while he affirms that believers are “in Christ” and writes, “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20), there is no reason to understand his words in a literal or spatial sense, as if some type of union of Christ’s substance with that of believers such as Paul were involved.
Instead, in Paul’s thought, both the risen Christ and the Holy Spirit are active to transform the lives of believers by influencing the way that they think and live in a variety of ways and through many different means. Christ and his Spirit relate to believers not only directly but also through others within the context of the community of believers to which they belong. What brings about by pure grace the new way of thinking and living that comes to characterize believers is the proclamation of the gospel in both word and deed, as well as the love, support, and acceptance shown them within the community of believers. They are constantly built up and strengthened in their faith and love by means of their fellow believers, who use the gifts given them by God’s Spirit to fill their lives with God’s love and grace and to bring them to fill the lives of others with that same love and grace by means of their own gifts. Through everything that God has done in the past and continues to do in the present, God is constantly at work to bring about in believers as a free gift the new life of righteousness that enables them to experience the wholeness and well-being that God desires for all.
Finally, it might be thought that this manner of understanding the doctrine of justification leaves believers with uncertainty as to whether the transformation in their way of thinking and living is sufficient to be declared righteous by God. If it is that transformation rather than the death of Christ that constitutes the basis for their justification, then it might seem that their justification depends on the change that takes place in them. To think in these terms, however, would be mistaken.
While in Paul’s thought the transformation that takes place in the life of believers constitutes the basis upon which they are justified, it must be stressed that for Paul that transformation is not the work of believers themselves but the work of God, Christ, and God’s Spirit. Believers are called not to transform their lives but solely to look to God in faith and trust so that God can accomplish that transformation in them. Their justification thus does not depend on the degree of transformation or righteousness they attain but solely on their faith, because as long as they continue to look solely to God and to Christ in faith for the new life of righteousness that is God’s gift, God will be active to bring about that life in them. According to this understanding of justification, therefore, the justification of believers continues to be by grace alone and through faith alone. The difference between this interpretation of Paul’s teaching on justification and the traditional interpretations of his thought has to do solely with the object of faith: believers are called to place their confidence and trust, not in the efficacy of Christ’s atoning death, but in God’s promise that God will bring to its completion the good work that God has begun in them through Christ (Philippians 1:6). They can have full confidence that as long as they continue to look in faith to God and Christ rather than to their own works, merits, righteousness, or capacities, God will continue to accept them just as they are. And the reason why God accepts them as they are is that, by virtue of their relation to Christ as their Lord, God can be certain that Christ will remain active in their lives to transform them into the righteous persons God wants them to be for their own good out of love for them and all people.