Justification and the Righteousness of God in the Pauline Corpus

Traditionally, dikaioumai, ‘to be justified’, has been understood in general as ‘to be put in right relation with God’. Arndt-Gingrich defines it: ‘to be acquitted, be pronounced and treated as righteous, and thereby become dikaios (righteous), receive the divine gift of dikaisunh(righteousness)’ (Cole, p. 80). It has to do with the individual sinner’s status before the holy God.

Dunn’s interpretation, however, is that ‘justification’ in Gal. 2.16 is ‘something Jewish’ and has to do with the covenant, to do with God’s chosen people. It is ‘God’s acknowledgement that someone is in the covenant’ (p.190), in particular, the acknowledgement that Gentile Christians, as Gentiles, are full members of the Elect (Gal. 3.28). Integral to the ‘people of the covenant’ is the fact of the corporate whole, the community. This interpretation comes from his understanding that ‘works of the law’ in Paul refers particularly, but not exclusively, to clean/unclean food regulations, circumcision and sabbath observance of the Law.

This essay is an attempt to examine whether Dunn’s radical interpretation holds in the extant letters of Paul. The obvious place to begin is of course Galatians, very likely Paul’s earliest letter where the word ‘justification’ is used.


In this letter Dunn’s thesis seems to be confirmed by five pieces of evidence. First is Paul’s lengthy exposition of the Abrahamic covenant in 3.6 through 4.7. Justification has to do with who are the ‘children (plural) of Abraham’ (3.7). Those who belong to Christ are ‘Abraham’s seed’ (collective singular; 3.29). Justification is to ‘receive the adoption of sons’ (plural; 4.5; cf. Rom. 9.4); to be ‘a son’ (collective singular) and therefore ‘an heir’ (collective singular; 4.7). In all these verses it is the corporate dimension (viz. the people of the covenant) that is dominant, not the individual.

Secondly, 3.26-28 is highly significant. 3.26 may be translated as ‘faith-children of God in the corporate whole that is the Body of Christ’ (Cole, p. 109). Also in 3.29a the literal ‘if ye be Christ’s’ may be paraphrased as ‘if you are part of Christ’s body’ (Cole, p. 111). Again the corporate dimension is implied.

Thirdly, 4.17, ‘They zealously affect you, but not well; yea, they would exclude you, that ye might affect them.’ We need to ask: from what exactly did the Judaisers try to exclude the Galatians? The answer, in light of the context, seems to be from the company of the Elect, from membership of God’s covenant people.

Fourthly, we have Paul’s exposition of the two covenants in 4.21-5.1. Christians, both Jew and Gentile, are children of the ‘Jerusalem which is above’ which is ‘free’ (4.26); children of ‘(the covenant of) promise’ (4.28); children of the ‘free (woman)’ (4.31). They are, as it were, children of the covenant of freedom, though Paul does not use the term.

Finally there is the existence of the ‘Israel of God’ (6.16). ‘Israel is the covenant name of the elect race’ (Martin, p. 142). Inasmuch as there is an ‘Israel after the flesh’. So there is an ‘Israel of God’ that is the true Israel, God’s truly chosen people, comprising both believing Jews and Gentiles.

Acknowledgment of membership in the covenant is, however, not all there is to Justification. It is admittedly the primary aspect in Galatians. The traditional understanding of Justification as sins forgiven, acquittal and a right status, although secondary in this epistle, is nonetheless an important and integral aspect (see esp. 3.5,8,11). Even Dunn talks of ‘God’s verdict of acquittal’ (p. 194). Luther was not wrong after all. The truth of this matter of Justification is not a question of either/or but of both/and and what is primary and what is secondary in the particular epistle considered.

Two other secondary aspects seem to be intrinsic to Justification: live unto God (2.19) and life (3.21). In 2.19 Paul says ‘live into God’ is the result of being ‘dead to the law’. This death is through faith-union with Christ in his death (2.20). And the Christian’s righteousness is also through Christ’s death — in fact, the purpose of his death (2.21b). Therefore ‘live unto God’ is the result of, or is tantamount to, possessing ‘righteousness’. And in 3.21, ‘life’ and ‘righteousness’ are virtually synonymous. So ‘life’ may be the foremost meaning of ‘justified’ in 3.24. ‘Life’ to Paul is, of course, more than life as such (i.e. merely biological). In other words, to be justified, to be righteous in God’s sight, to have ‘righteousness’ is to live unto God, is to have the true life.

1 Cor. 1.30

“But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption:”

If we understand ‘righteousness’ as covenant membership it does not seem to fit in with the other terms, viz., wisdom, sanctification and redemption. It fits in well, however, if we understand it as a judicial right standing. So if we interpret the clause as ‘When we have Christ we have wisdom, right standing, holiness and release from bondage (i.e. freedom from the world and sin and evil)’, it makes good sense. Righteousness here therefore would mean primarily God’s declaration, through faith-union with Christ, that we are ‘in the right’ (legal status). It does not, however, exclude the nuances of declaration of covenant membership and election.

1 Cor. 6.11

“And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.”

In view of the context of judges, law courts and the catalogue of sins (vv. 9,10) ‘justified’ would be the traditional understanding as forgiveness of sins, acquittal and ‘a right standing’.

2 Cor. 3.9

“For if the ministration of condemnation has glory, much more does the ministry of righteousness abound in glory.”

‘Righteousness’ here is contrasted with ‘condemnation’; the primary meaning therefore would be acquittal/right status.

2 Cor. 5.21

“For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.”

As the contrast is with ‘sin’ the ‘righteousness of God’ here would primarily, if not solely, mean the declaration of sins forgiven, acquittal and a righteous status. Alternatives such as ‘God’s covenant faithfulness’ and ‘covenant membership’ just do not fit in the context of the verse. The phrase therefore refers to God’s attribute rather than his activity.

Astounding as it may seem, Paul says we are declared as righteous as God! If humankind before the Fall was made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1.26,27) then the ‘righteousness of God’ given to the believer is but part of God’s programme of restoring humankind to the original condition of ‘divinity’.

The penal, substitutionary and vicarious nature of Christ’s death is quite clear in this verse.

Phil. 3.9

The third chapter this epistle begins with Paul exhorting the Philippians to rejoice in the all-sufficiency of Christ and to be wary of the concision, ten katatomen (3.1-2). It reminds us of those who would constrain the Galatian believers to be circumcised. These troublers of the Galatians Paul wished that they be ‘cut off,’ apokopsontai (Gal. 5.12), with the nuances that they be castrated or mutilated or like leeches be removed. In contrast, Paul assures the Philippians that they are the true circumcision, he peritome (3.3). They are the true ‘covenant people of God inheriting the promises made to ancient Israel’ (Martin, p. 138).

Likewise the recurrence of ‘flesh’ in 3.3-4 reminds us of the theological importance of the word in the Galatian epistle (esp. Gal. 2.16,20; 3.3; 4.23,29; 6.12). In Paul’s listing of his seven credentials for confidence in the flesh (3.5,6), Martin notes that four are his ‘possessions by involuntary heredity’ and the other three ‘by personal choice and conviction’. The latter corresponds to the nuance of human effort of ‘flesh’ while the former to the nuance of human relationship/physical descent (i.e. Jewish distinctiveness and exclusivity; see Dunn, p. 199).

Apparently the advocates of circumcision on Gentile Christians were pretty much active.

If Galatians was written from Corinth during Paul’s second missionary journey (Acts 18.1-18a) and after the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) c. 50 AD and Philippians during Paul’s imprisonment in Ephesus (Acts 19), c.57 AD, then the difference would be just six or seven years and the ‘concision’ party that Paul warns the Philippians about would be same people who ‘troubled’ the Galatians or of the same broad group. This may also explain why in both letters the emphasis is on ‘covenant membership’ in the doctrine of Justification.

In Phil. 3.9 Paul turns to ‘the future day of judgment’. What matters then is that he may be found ‘in him’, i.e., that he is united by faith to Christ. He contrasts ‘mine own righteousness, which is of the law’ with ‘that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith’. ‘Mine righteousness, which is of the Law’ seems to mean covenant righteousness, that righteousness which comes from covenantal faithfulness, from compliance with the statutes of the Law, both moral and ceremonial.

The righteousness of God defined here is, as it were, an ellipse, the foci of which is the faith of Christ and the faith of the believer.

How then are we to understand ‘the righteousness which is of God by faith’ in Phil. 3.9? We have noted the uncanny similarity of the context with that of Galatians, which epistle is primarily about covenant membership. Further we may note Paul’s strong emphasis that believers are ‘the circumcision’, God’s covenant people in verse 3. So very likely ‘righteousness’ here signifiesprimarily God’s declaration that Paul is a member of God’s elect, a member of God’s covenant people on Judgment Day, although this includes forgiveness of sins and the juridical declaration of ‘acquittal/being righteous’.

The qualifier ‘by faith’, epi te pistei, shows that this ‘righteous’ status is received through grateful belief. It is therefore a gift from God. Hence the rendering of modern translations of ek theou dikaiosunen as ‘righteousness from God’ is not far off the mark.

The KJV’s rendering, ‘of God’, however, has the advantage that this gift of righteousness originatesin the righteousness, that is, the covenant faithfulness, of God, and is at one with the righteous (ethical) nature of God himself.

Rom. 1.16,17

The gospel as set forth in these two verses is, as it were, two pieces of a three-piece Chinese treasure box. The outermost box is the gospel ‘concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord’ (Rom. 1.1,3). Inside this is the second: ‘the power of God unto salvation’ and the innermost box is ‘the righteousness of God’, that is, Justification. Contra N. T. Wright, therefore, the gospel is surely as much about Justification by faith as it is about his Son. In Romans, to say the least, Justification by faith is the heart of the gospel.

What does Paul mean by ‘the righteousness of God’? At face value it must mean the righteous (ethical) attribute of God. But how can this justify sinners? This puzzled and troubled the guilt-ridden Luther. ‘He could not understand why the apostle Paul talks of the “righteousness of God” as good news’ (Tomkins). He pondered day and night until he saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement “the just shall live by faith”. Then it dawned on him that it is ‘that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise’ (Shelley, p. 239).

If Luther had tried to understand the phrase as used in the Old Testament he would have arrived at the truth earlier. For in Isaiah (45.8-25; 55.6-13; 56.1; 61.10-11), Jeremiah (23.5-6; 33.15-16) and Daniel 9.16, ‘God’s righteousness is shown in making His people righteous…God must, by an inner necessity of His nature, do good to men: His “property is to have mercy and to forgive”’ (Dodd, p. 84). (Whist true, this has to be tempered by the absolute sovereignty of God, the seriousness and penalty of sin and his wrath toward sin.)

In Luther’s understanding, the core of the ‘righteousness of God’ is his grace and mercy toward the sinner. Justification would then mean primarily judicial declaration that the believer is ‘in the right’, is acquitted and has his sins forgiven. N. T. Wright contends, however, that the ‘righteousness of God’ in Romans refers to the ‘covenant-faithfulness of [Israel’s] God’ in which case Justification would mean primarily God’s declaration of ‘covenant membership’ of the believer. That is, it has ‘more to do with ecclesiology’. Contra Wright, however, if the ‘righteousness of God’ is the ‘power of God for salvation’ then the ‘righteousness of God’ has to do with soteriology and not ecclesiology. NEB also understands it as judicial/ethical, ‘God’s way of righting wrong’.

The emphasis in these two verses is on ‘faith’. Anticipating somewhat the interpretation in 3.21-23, ‘faith’ refers to both the faith of Christ and the faith of the believer. Surprisingly, the NEB margin is spot-on with its rendering of ‘from faith to faith’ as ‘It is based on faith (i.e. Christ’s faith) and addressed to faith (i.e. the believer’s faith)’ (NEB margin, parentheses mine).

Rom. 2.13

‘Justified’ here is in opposition to ‘have sinned’ and ‘be judged’ (v. 12), and in a context of ‘law’, ‘accusing or else excusing’ and the Day of Judgment (v. 14-16). It must therefore mean ‘to be judicially acquitted’, ‘in the right’.

Rom. 3.19-20

Paul’s teaching on the righteousness of God, justification and the Cross in Romans 3.19-26 is generally considered apart from its immediate context of 2.17-3.18. Romans 3.19-26, however, follows a lengthy critique of Jewish boasting and deeds of the law vis-à-vis Justification.

With verse 19 Paul reverts to the Law and the Jews. The Law tells the Jews that they are sinful ‘for by the law is the knowledge of sin’ (v. 20). With the Jews thus included in the company of sinners, ‘every mouth’ is ‘stopped and the whole world’ is ‘guilty before God’. From this Paul makes the very important assertion that ‘by the deeds of the law shall no flesh be justified in his sight’. This however is to state the truth negatively. He then proceeds to state it positively, but still in the context of the Law and the Jews.

Rom. 3.21-23

‘The righteousness of God’ (vv. 21,22): Morris’ definition seems to fit rather well in these two verses, ‘a right standing that comes from God and is the gift of God’ (p. 34). In view of the emphasis on sin in the preceding verses (1.18-3.20), summarized in 3.9, ‘both Jews and Greeks are all under sin’, and 3.23, ‘for all have sinned’, the righteousness of God as his covenant faithfulness to Israel is not at all prominent.

Paul begins with the thesis that the righteousness of God is choris, ‘without’, the law (v. 21a). Simon Gathercole observes that the New Perspective’s reading of this is problematic. It does not, as propounded by NP scholars, signify God’s acceptance of Gentiles. Rather, ‘Paul is declaring that both Jew and gentile must receive justification apart from works of the Law, because neither is in possession of such obedience. Paul parallels “apart from the Law” not with those who are “within the Law” (3.19) but with “through faith”: he contrasts the ways of receiving the righteousness of God, not who is receiving it.’

While Gathercole’s point is valid, nonetheless in view of the preceding context, especially verses 19 and 20 with the mention of ‘law’ and ‘the deeds of the law’, ‘without the law’ primarily parallels the ‘faith of Jesus Christ’, pisteos Iesou Christou (v. 22). Paul is thus contrasting primarily, but not exclusively, the bases or ‘grounds’ of the righteousness of God: i.e. the law/deeds of the law (v. 20) as opposed to the faith of Jesus Christ, rather than who is receiving it, in this matter of Justification.

Although ‘without the law’, the righteousness of God is ‘being witnessed by the law and the prophets’ (v. 21). Probably Paul means by this that the righteousness of God is both promised and expounded in ‘riddles’ and prophesied in the Old Testament Scripture (cf. Rom.1.2 and Acts 10.43).

So then, the ‘ground’ of the righteousness of God here in Romans confirms Phil. 3.9. It is an ellipse. The two foci are the ‘faith of Jesus Christ’ and all that ‘believe’. While Luther rightly emphasized the subjective ‘believe’ aspect, the New Perspective has helped remind us of the objective ‘faith of Jesus Christ’ aspect.

‘Unto all’, eis pantas, reinforces the interpretation of ‘the righteousness of God’ as primarily the grace of God which declares that believers are judicially ‘in the right’. KJV’s ‘and upon all’, however, is not in the DB/UBS Greek text.

In view of the preceding context of 1.16-3.20 and particularly 3.9, ‘both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin’, the ‘all’ of verses 22 and 23 must mean both Jews and Gentiles. Verse 22b, ‘for there is no difference’ must likewise mean ‘no difference between Jews and Gentiles, whereas these verses have been traditionally understood to mean ‘everyone’. It really amounts to the same thing but it is crucial for us to realize that for Paul, in the life and death matter of sin and Justification the Jews have no prerogative; neither Jews nor Gentiles are at an advantage. It is, as they say, a level playing field.

Rom. 3.24-26

In the preceding discourse of 1.18-3.20, the wrath of God against sin, God’s judgment of sin on the Day of Judgment and Jewish transgressions of the Law, are prominent. The traditional Protestant understanding of justification in this passage as forgiveness of sins (especially v. 25: ‘the remission of sins that are past’) and the forensic declaration of a right status/acquittal with regard to the individual is therefore correct. Thus the righteousness of God must surely mean primarily the righteous attribute of God and the grace of God which forgives/acquits and declares righteous the sinner rather than the New Perspective’s interpretation as God’s covenant faithfulness, although this is also meant in view of ‘the faith of God’ not made ‘without effect’ by ‘the unbelief of some’ Jews (v. 3.3).

Justification is a gift of God due to God’s mercy (‘freely by his grace’, v. 24). This reinforces the idea of a legal ‘right standing’. ‘That it is a gift points to a forensic activity. God gives the status of being “right”’ (Morris, p. 34).

Paul understands the Cross as ‘redemption’, apolutroseo. ‘Redemption means the paying of a price to set someone free (cf. 1 Cor. 6.20; 7.23).’ It highlights ‘the costly nature of our salvation’ (Morris, pp. 71,72).

He also understands it as hilasterion (v. 25). The KJV has translated the word correctly as ‘propitiation’. Most modern translations regrettably do not understand it as such. This propitiation of God’s wrath (1.18) is effected through the death of Christ (‘his blood’) and appropriated by sinners through faith. The death of Christ is therefore a propitiatory sacrifice.

Referring to the Jewish sacrificial cultus and ‘the forbearance of God’ (v. 25), F. F. Bruce says, ‘Until the coming of Christ some token “passing over” (paresis) of sins might have been conceded in the forbearance of God, but now (nuni de) with the coming of Christ, the true and perfect hilasterion had been set forth.’

Jesus’ coming and in particular, his death on the Cross (‘at this time’), is the eschatological fulfillment of the ages in which God has acted to ‘declare his righteousness: that he might be just and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus’ (v. 26). It is a time of the Crisis.

‘That he might be just and the justifier’, while declaring the grace aspect of his righteousness also shows forth his righteous attribute. Thus Morris writes, ‘when God saves, he saves in a way that accords with right.’ (p. 33), and ‘specifically we need to know that our penalty is paid and our acquittal brought about in a way that is right’ (p.71).

Paul says God’s righteousness is a declaration that he is ‘just and the justifier of him that believeth in Jesus’ (v. 26). In other words, the righteousness of God refers to both the righteous (ethical) attribute of God and his grace through which he forgives and imputes a righteous status to and on, the sinner. That both meanings are involved is also evident in the words Paul uses of God’s righteousness. The first is particularly emphasized in the word ‘declare’, endeixin (vv. 25,26) while both are equally stressed in the words ‘revealed’, apokalupetai (1.17) and ‘manifested’, pephanerotai(v. 21).

So, to know (in the heart) that God is righteous and justifies us sinners is to know his saving power (1.16) and to know Jesus Christ as Lord (1.4). This is the gospel. ‘The church stands or falls with Christ’ (D. Garlington). True, but it is in Justification that Christ and God’s saving power become ‘real’ and ‘powerful’ to us. Luther’s dictum is still correct: Justification is indeed articulus stantis vel cadentis ecclesiae.

Contra N.T. Wright, Justification by faith is therefore not a second-order doctrine. The ‘righteousness of God’ is to Paul the core of the gospel. ‘Gunther Bornkamm is an example of those who see justification by faith as central to Paul’s theology. He calls it “the basic theme in his theology”, and maintains that “his whole preaching, even when it says nothing expressly about justification, can be properly understood only when taken in closest connection with that doctrine and related to it”’ (Morris, p. 69 n. 39).

Rom. 3.27-31

From his exposition of the righteousness of God vis-à-vis God’s grace, the cross and faith, Paul asserts first, that ‘boasting’ is ‘excluded’. ‘Boasting’ refers primarily to the boasting of the Jew in 2.17-29: his ‘boast of God’ (2.17), his ‘boast of the law’ (2.23) and of circumcision (2.25-29); see Dunn (pp. 200,201). The NEB understands it as ‘human pride’ but this is quite off the mark.
It may, however, also include the boasting of ‘deeds of the law’ (3.20), implying works-righteousness. Simon Gathercole has shown that there is in first century Judaism ‘a firm belief in final vindication on the basis of works. Obedience leads to final justification (italics mine).’Also Charles L. Quarles posits that ‘Jews of the Diaspora with no access to the temple and sectarian Jews who had temporarily abandoned the temple sought atonement for sin through personal acts of righteousness rather than temple sacrifice. Motifs in Sirach suggest that even a leading scribe of Jerusalem, approximately 250 years before the destruction of the temple, substituted acts of righteousness for atoning rituals of the temple…When atonement for failure to observe the law is accomplished by compensatory acts of obedience to the law, works-righteousness, at least to some degree, seems unavoidable.’

What does Paul imply in the clause ‘boasting is excluded’? Most probably he implies that in this matter of Justification, ‘election’ as marked by possession of the Law, is of no moment at all; what is definitive is the law of faith, not the law of works. Instead of using the word ‘principle’ Paul uses the word law, nomos, because of the preeminent place the law holds in Jewish self-identity. The ‘law of works’ must therefore mean simply the ‘principle of the works of the Law’ and not the principle of generic works (i.e. religious and good works), as traditionally understood in Protestantism. In other words, where Justification is concerned, Jews have no advantage or prerogative over the Gentiles.

From this Paul draws the very important conclusion that ‘a man’, whether Jew or Gentile, ‘is justified by faith without the deeds of the law’ (v. 28). This reaffirms his assertions in verses 20-22: that deeds of the law cannot justify; that the righteousness of God is manifested without the law; and that it is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all them that believe.

With this very important conclusion Paul draws the corollary that the Gentiles will be justified as Gentiles. They do not need to become Jews through circumcision and observance of the works of the Law. This corollary is further supported by the fact that, first, if God is God of the Jews only it would mean there is another God of the Gentiles. God, however, is one. Secondly, God will justifyboth circumcised and uncircumcised by faith. (Incidentally, this verse teaches the future dimension of Justification; see Dunn, pp. 207,208.)

Rom. 4.1-25

In verse 5 God is described as ‘him that justifieth the ungodly’. In verses 7 and 8 the man whose ‘iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered’, ‘the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin’ is considered blessed. In verse 25 ‘justification’ is set in contrast to ‘offences’. Justification and righteousness would therefore primarily mean ‘forgiveness of sins’. In view of the oft-repeated occurrence of logizesthai (translated variously by the KJV as ‘counted’, ‘reckoned’ and ‘imputeth’) the ‘acquittal/a right status’ dimension of Justification would seem to be particularly dominant.

Rom. 5.1-21

In verse 2 ‘the glory of God’ would mean negatively ‘without sin’ (cf. 3.23). In verse 6 we read ‘Christ died for the ungodly’, and in verse 8 ‘while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us’. Justification, righteousness and righteous are set against offence, sin, judgment, condemnation and sinners in vv. 12-21. Clearly Justification is to be understood as acquittal and a right standing.

Rom. 8.1-39

In verse 10, righteousness is contrasted with sin. ‘Justifieth’ (v. 33) is likewise contrasted with ‘condemneth’ (v. 34). Very likely therefore the same nuance is to be attached to ‘justified’ in verse 30. Again a juridical right standing is meant in these verses.

Rom. 9.30-10.10

In this passage ‘righteousness’ appears eight times; ‘God’s righteousness’ and ‘the righteousness of God’ once each. The words are associated with ‘saved’ and its cognates in the immediate context of the ninth through the eleventh chapters (9.27; 10.1,9,10,13; 11.25). Perhaps the key to understand what Paul means by ‘saved’ and hence ‘righteousness/God’s righteousness’ is 11.26,27: ‘There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob: For this is my covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins’. If so, then it would mean the turning away of ‘ungodliness from Jacob’ and the taking away of ‘their sins’, that is, the forgiveness of sins.

Another important aspect of ‘righteousness/God’s righteousness’ from the immediate context would be membership of the true Israel (9.6). It means being the children of Abraham, children of God, the elect, and God’s beloved people (9.7,8,25,26).

Tit. 3.7

“That being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”

In view of the sins detailed in the preceding verse 3, the meaning of ‘justified’ here seems to be similar to that of 1 Cor. 6.11, that is acquittal/righteous status. Compare (a) Titus 3.3 with 1Cor. 6.9,10 and (b) ‘by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost’ of Titus 3.5 with ‘but ye were washed, but ye were justified in the name of our Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God’ of 1 Cor. 6.11.


In Galatians and Philippians it seems that covenant membership is the primary, but not exclusively so, meaning of Justification. In Corinthians and Titus the traditional understanding as ‘forgiveness of sins, acquittal and a right standing’ is primary, but again not exclusively so.

In Romans, however, both aspects are conspicuously present, though the traditional understanding seems to be more so. Although Paul’s exposition of Justification by faith in 3.19-26 deals primarily with forgiveness of sins/a right status, the very Jewish immediate context of the passage (i.e. 2.17-3.18 and 3.27-31) shows that Justification as covenant membership is at the back of his mind. Furthermore Justification as covenant membership and the righteousness of God as referring to his covenant faithfulness are particularly obvious in Romans 9 through 11.

Luther might not have understood Justification fully and he might have even misunderstood first century Judaism but he was instrumental in the Church’s recovery of the all-sufficiency of the faith of Christ and the faith of the believer. These were undermined by the Church of Rome which taught that faith had to be supplemented by good/religious works and the Church’s mediation through its priests, monks and saints.

Luther’s exclusive focus on the individual/’acquittal’ dimension of Justification has resulted in the Protestants’ neglect of the ‘covenant’ and other aspects. At the time, however, there were circumstances that called for such particular emphasis. Luther’s age was one where the Christian psyche was almost wholly community-magisterial dictated, leaving no room for the self. The other was the wrong teaching, as mentioned, of the R.C. Church.

Wright’s understanding that Justification by Faith is actually the great ecumenical doctrine rather than that which divides Protestants and Roman Catholics is therefore faulty. It is questionable whether Roman Catholics, theologically, are truly members of God’s people when they are not taught and therefore are not aware of sola fidei, solus Christus, sola gratia and soli Deo gloria.‘Calling upon the name of the Lord’ presumes faith and faith is more than mere credence of Church dogma or Creeds. Faith, says Luther, is ‘God’s work in us’. It is God himself enabling us to repent and humbly and gratefully accept God’s grace. Such a one will have the ‘patient continuance’ to do good, to ‘seek for glory and honor and immortality’ (what Wright calls, ‘the totality of a life lived’) and thus be justified on the Day of Judgment (Rom. 2.7).

Dunn and Wright have rediscovered the ‘covenant membership’ dimension of Justification. Wright, however, has soft-pedaled the ‘putting to rights’ (soteriological) component of Justification in favor of the ‘covenant membership’ (ecclesiological) component. Both aspects are present in Paul’s epistles examined above, though not equally so in each epistle.

Finally, if I may use another metaphor besides the ellipse in this essay, Justification is a gold coin. The traditional understanding as forgiveness of sins/acquittal/a right status is one side of the coin and covenant membership, the other. And on its milled edges are the words “live unto God’ and ‘life’.


F. F. Bruce, The Curse of the Law
R. A. Cole, Tyndale NT Commentary on Galatians (IVP/Eerdmans)
C.H. Dodd, The Meaning of Paul for Today (Collins)
J. D. G. Dunn, Jesus, Paul and the Law (Westminster/John Knox Press)
Don Garlington, Review of Simon J. Gathercole’s ‘Where is boasting? Early Jewish Soteriology and Paul’s Response in Romans 1-5’
Simon J. Gathercole, ”After the New Perspective: Works, Justification and Boasting in Early Judaism and Romans 1-5“, Ph.D thesis, Durham University
Ralph Martin, Tyndale NT Commentary on Philippians (IVP/Eerdmans)
Leon Morris, New Testament Theology (Zondervan)
NEB: New English Bible (Oxford/Cambridge)
Charles L. Quarles, ”The New Perspective and Means of Atonement in Jewish Literature of the Second Temple Period”
Bruce L. Shelley, Church History (Word Publishing)
Stephen Tomkins, A Short History of Christianity (Eerdmans)
Biblical quotations are from the King James Version.

I would like to thank elder Khor Tong Keng, M.A., M.Div. for his comment on Luther which I have incorporated into this essay.

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