Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Gospel of Justification?

A term that gets tossed around quite a lot in Reformed Evangelical circles is the, "The Gospel of Justification" (In fact, a book has recently been published with this very title, see Wayne C. Stumme, ed., Gospel of Justification in Christ: Where Does the Church Stand Today? [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006]). But I confess that I find this term misleading and unhelpful.

1. This is simply not the language of the NT. There are more common references to the "gospel of God" (Rom. 1.1; 15.16; 2 Cor. 11.7; 1 Thess. 2.8-9) and the "gospel of Christ" (Rom. 15.19; 1 Cor. 9.12; 2 Cor. 2.12; 9.13; 10.14; Gal. 1.7; Phil. 1.27; 1 Thess. 3.2). Surely it makes better sense to have the grammar of our faith permeated and nourished by the language of Scripture itself.

2. The Dik- word group (words for "righteousness" and "justify" etc) very rarely occur in proximity to euangelion ("gospel") or euangelizomai ("I preach the gospel"). In Rom. 1.17, Paul can say, "For in the it [i.e. the gospel] a righteousness of God is revealed". Note what Paul does not say. He does not advocate that the gospel is the righteousness of God, but he says that the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel. Furthermore, the dikaiosyne theou ("righteousness of God") is not a cipher for the imputation of the righteousness of Jesus Christ, but with its OT background it refers more properly to God's saving activity or to God's saving righteousness and is broader in scope than merely justification itself. Rom. 1.16-17 introduces all of Romans, chapters 1-16, and not merely Romans 1-4.

3. An additional problem is that the "gospel of justification" as I have heard it explicated seems to spend an incredible amount of time making sure that one has the correct understanding of imputation. Thus, the gospel of justification becomes in reality the gospel of imputation. Now I'm not trying to denigrate the idea of imputation, but I suspect that in such an emphasis Jesus becomes the presupposition for the gospel rather than its primary content.

4. Lastly, if the subject of the gospel is the object of faith, then it appears that some preachers and commentators are regarding jusitification and imputation as that which one must believe in order to be saved or justified. In which case, one is justified by believing in justification through imputation. But the gospel I find in the NT makes Jesus Christ the subject of the gospel and the object of faith. One is saved and justified, not by believing in justification and/or imputation, but by faith in Christ (e.g. Rom. 10.9-10). Jonathan Edwards warned against confusing doctrinal statements about justification with the article of justification itself (The Works of Jonathan Edwards [Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1974], 1.654).

5. Less we think that justification has no relationship to the gospel, far from it, justification by faith remains Paul's most coherent and robust theological expression of the gospel when the gospel is challenged by Torah-centred Jewish Christians who urge Gentiles to do the works of the law to either complete what is lacking in their faith or as a condition for eschatological vindication.


Nick Nowalk said...

"A condition for eschatological vindication"...somebody's been reading their Gathercole:)

Nate Mihelis said...


I think at the popular level a good deal of this sort of speech stems from the promulgation of Jerry Bridges' books. I'm not bashing Bridges, but his priority of imputation/justification in relation to the gospel is pretty explicit.

This is the sort of reformed theology that I initially cut my teeth on about 5 yrs back. Since then my understanding of both Gospel and Juatification has become (and is becoming more nuanced). Drawing from the npp, I've embraced the needed caution against one for one correpondence between Torah Centered Jewish Christians and 16th (or 20th)century Rome. What contemporary challenges would you suggest should be met head on with this "robust theological expression of the Gospel" (that's excellent language)?


Nate Mihelis said...

Apparently my spelling of Justification isn't nearly as nuanced as my articulation of the doctrine. Oooops... (blush)