Sunday Meditations: Justification

It was fun to drop in on my old Sunday School class this morning with the extra bonus that one of my favorite teachers of said class was up in the rotation this week, and as always, he did a great job with some really good ways of putting things.

The class is going through the book of Galatians, or as I refer to it, the Reader’s Digest version of Romans.  Needless to say, the concept of justification comes up a lot.

Whenever we look at these kinds of categories in letters that an apostle may have written to a church, one of the things we have to work on is allowing our modern categories and theological debates define the terms.

For example, in modern evangelical Christianity, a term like “justification” is more or less synonymous with “salvation,” and the primary referent for that in modern evangelicalism is being saved from Hell after you die.  If these are your categories, then the main point of the book of Galatians is basically the message, “Good works can’t get you to heaven.”  Couple that with some excesses of the medieval Catholic church and the consequent Reformation, and this reading is all but assured in contemporary Protestantism.

With this understanding in tow, Galatians then becomes a contrast between Judaism – a “works based” religion, and Christianity – a “faith based” religion.  In this understanding, you have this group of people (typically called “Judaizers,” which sounds like a science-fiction movie involving techno-rabbis) teaching the Galatians that they had to do good works to earn their salvation, which, not coincidentally, is also what Roman Catholicism is proclaimed to teach.  Galatians becomes a polemic both against Jews and Roman Catholics.  You can see why this is popular with Protestants.  All you have to do is cast Islam as a “works based” religion, and you have the Trifecta.

Although there is truth to be had in such a discussion about faith, works, and God – none of this resembles the world of the Galatians.  Galatians is preoccupied with the issue of justification – are the faithful people of God justified by keeping the Torah (Law), or are they justified by faith in what God has done in Jesus?

Christian theologians of any stripe will more or less agree that the idea of justification is a juridical one.  You have an accuser, an accused, and a judge who presides over the trial.  At the outcome of that trial, the judge will either condemn or justify the accused.  The accused will either be found to have acted righteously (faithfully) or acted wrongly.  Rewards and punishments are doled out accordingly.

This is all very true, but where we sometimes make our mistake is applying this model in the abstract and divorcing this from the actual historical experience of God’s people in the world.

The theme of two parties being at odds where the faithful are revealed by the judge through a trial is a common one in Israel’s history.  Noah is justified against the rest of the world in the Flood.  Israel is justified against Egypt by her deliverance, culminating in the Red Sea where Israel passes through, but Egypt is destroyed.  Job is justified against his friends by God rewarding his faithfulness.  Moses is justified against Korah by the ground swallowing up the rebels.  Israel is justified against enemy nations by defeating them in battle despite being smaller in number.  Jesus is justified over the Roman Empire, the Temple authorities, and the Law-imposed curse by being raised from the dead.

In all of these stories and more, you have the dynamic playing out.  There is a struggle/trial, and through it, God the judge will reveal who the faithful are and who the unfaithful are.  This declaration/revelation is called “justification.”  The faithful are saved and exalted; the unfaithful are destroyed or humbled.  Being part of the faithful people of God in the world means being part of a people that God justifies, and the most common outcome of this justification is salvation – God delivers from the struggle and its consequences – and often glorification – the increase of fortunes.

So, the issue in Galatians is not “how can an individual get to heaven,” but “what does it mean to be faithful Israel?”  What defines faithfulness?  What is it that puts you on the right side of God’s judgement over and against everyone else?  What is it that makes you the people that will emerge from the trial safely, whom God will declare faithful and rewarded, and what puts you in the group that God will declare to be in the wrong – the people He does not support?  Whose side is God on, are you on it, and how do you know before it’s too late?

Of course, to a first century Jew, that answer is very obvious.  You are a descendant of Abraham or a proselyte and you keep the Torah, along with everything that entails (Temple, circumcision, diet, etc.).  The people who do this faithfully are the people that God saves and rewards.  This is the Israel that consistently emerges on the other side of Israel’s many trials.

In fairness, this is not a terrible characterization of most of what we see in the Old Testament.  A zeal for obedience to the Torah is strongly associated with faith and fidelity to YHWH.  Being a Jew is typically metonymy for law-keeping, and being a Gentile is typically metonymy for being lawless.

But by the time we arrive at the first century AD, something terrible has happened.  Israel is suffering under the curse of the Torah because of infidelity.  They are ruled in their own land by Gentiles, and these Gentiles are not making life easy.  Under this state of affairs, the Israelites that have risen to the top are those in collusion with the curse.  They are also zealous about the Law, at least in its more religious aspects (they are not so great about the heart of the Law that addresses things like justice and mercy).  They are circumcised.  They drink water through a strainer so as not to swallow an unclean insect.  They ostracize both the Gentiles and those of Israel who are sinners to preserve the cleanliness that Torah requires.

And it is these people who are slated to fall in the coming judgement.

So, you see the problem.  You see the confusion.  We find ourselves in the strange position where those who are most militant about keeping Torah are also the most likely to find themselves on the wrong end of the trial, while those who are traditionally defined as being outside of the faithful turn out to be the very people being saved.

Has the universe broken?  Has everyone been transported to some Bizarro-world where the Torah-keepers are condemned by God while sinners and Gentiles are saved?

As these Gentiles and sinners begin to show up in the synagogues, professing new faith in Israel’s God, you can imagine the theological and practical issues this forces on the community of the faithful.  What do you do with Dicaeopolis over there eating his ham sandwich?  What do you do with Apollos over here who has not been circumcised and does not have the sign of the covenant?

Paul takes a particular church struggling with these issues in the form of a different gospel – to be justified by God, you must keep Torah.  Paul has no patience for this teaching.  No, it is not Torah-keeping that justifies and never was.  Keeping the Torah did not bring the Holy Spirit to Israel or the Gentiles.  The Torah brought a curse, not a blessing.  Abraham was judged faithful before he was circumcised.  What made Abraham faithful was his faith.  He trusted God and, as a result, faithfully performed what God asked.  Torah-keeping was a symptom of being faithful Israel, not a cause.

So, to these Gentile believers who have seen the promise come to Israel via the offspring of Abraham, Paul tells them to have Abraham’s faith.  It is through that trust in God and what He has done in Jesus that they will receive the promise given to Israel’s patriarch, and the crazy thing is, this reception of the promise in the form of the Holy Spirit had already happened to them.  This is what results in a lot of hair-pulling for Paul.  If you didn’t obtain the promise through keeping Torah, why do you want to return to it now that you have the Spirit?  What good could that possibly do?  He meets this mindset with the same amazement most of us express when someone wins the lottery and declares that they’re going back to work in the morning.

And Paul, being a good Jew, labors to show that this is not an innovation.  Even though Jew and Gentile being made into one faithful people is a radically new introduction into Israel’s history, Paul endeavors to show that faith has always defined the justified people of God, even before the Law came into being, thus opening the door to Jew and Gentile.

I find that in Galatians, and especially in Romans, if we reduce those books to descriptions of personal salvation from Hell that cannot be obtained by doing good works, then a lot of Paul’s arguments, objections, and examples seem weird or irrelevant.  We find ourselves wondering why he keeps bringing up Israel, the patriarchs, the promises, election, the Spirit.  He asks questions in his letters that we don’t ask.  He assumes we will have those questions if we’re following what he’s saying.  But we don’t, so we don’t.

In fact, we may find ourselves shooting ourselves in the foot, going out of our way to assure believers that they don’t need to obey or do good works.  But here’s the kicker.  Ol’ righteous-by-faith Abraham obeys God implicitly.  This is, in fact, how you know he has faith and prompts some of James’ outbursts to a different congregation laboring under different delusions.

I said all that to say this: terms like justification, righteousness, salvation, sanctification, election, etc. may be related, but they are distinct terms with distinct meanings, and if our goal is to understand the biblical letters on their own terms, we are well-served to temporarily suspend our own theological categories and controversies and examine what these things meant in the context of the historical, lived out experience of the people of God.