This article was originally part of The Paul Page, a site dedicated to academic study of the apostle, with special focus on the work of N.T. Wright. Written by Wan Chee Keong.
Traditionally, justification has been understood as God’s once-for-all, forensic declaration that someone is ‘in the right.’ In spite of its shortcomings, ‘the new perspective on Paul’ has recovered other long-neglected facets of the doctrine. This has led to a richer and well-rounded theology of justification.
It has brought, first of all, awareness of the ‘covenantal’ facet of justification; secondly, the fact that there are ‘present’ and ‘future’ dimensions (besides the ‘once-for-all’ dimension); and thirdly, the ‘Jewishness’ of the forensic aspect.
1. The ‘covenantal’ facet of justification
a) For all their prerogatives (Rom. 3:2; 9:4,5), the unbelieving Jews were not justified. What then did they miss? These blessings in justification are in that portion of Romans dealing with the destiny ofIsrael according to the flesh (chs. 9-11).
Justification is a declaration that believers are members of the true Israel, the Elect, God’s Chosen People (9:6,25;11:7); they are the true children of Abraham (9:7, NEB, RSV, NIV); children of God (9:27, cf. 9:4); salvation is theirs (9:27; 10:1,10,13; 11:11,14,26); they have come into ‘riches much more’ (11:12); theirs is life from the dead (11:15); they have arrived ‘at law’ (9:31; 10:4), i.e., Christ, the ‘goal (telos)‘ of the law. Having arrived ‘at law’=’in Christ,’ they have attained a right status and holiness (in essence. See also 1 Cor. 1:30. For this understanding of ‘at law’ see Tim Gallant’s excellent essay, The Doers of the Law will be Justified).
We find roughly the same blessings set forth in the other two letters dealing with Justification: Galatians and Philippians.
b) Galatians: Justification encompasses freedom from bondage under the Law (2:4; 4:26; 5:1,13); freedom from the elemental things of the world (4:3,9); living to God (2:19); the blessing of Abraham = the gift of the Spirit (3:2,5,14; 4:6); the working of miracles by God (3:5); being sons of Abraham = children of promise (3:7,29; 4:28); life (3:11,12,21); an inheritance (3:18,29); being sons of God (3:26; 4:5-7); members of the ‘Israel of God,’ the truly Elect, Chosen People of God (6:16). The last is particularly highlighted by N.T. Wright.
c) Philippians: To be justified means becoming a member of the true circumcision (3:2), i.e., the true ‘covenant people of God inheriting all the promises made to ancient Israel’ (Ralph Martin, TNTC,p. 138. Cp. Rom. 2:28,29). It is to worship in the Spirit of God, which is true worship; it is to glory in Christ (3:3). It is the eschatological fulfillment of ‘the service’ of Romans 9:4.
2. The present and future dimensions of justification
In Galatians 2:16 the verb ‘justified’ occurs three times: the first time, in ‘the present tense’ which ‘can cover the whole process’; the second, in the aorist (a ‘once-for-all’ event or reference to the goal of the whole process, as in 2:17 — the point being that justification is by faith from start to finish); and the third, ‘in the future tense,’ i.e., ‘at the last judgment’ (cf. Dunn, Jesus, Paul, and the Law, p. 208). Of course the terms dikaiosunē (righteousness), dikaiosunē theou (righteousness of God), and dikaiow (justify) have different functions and different ranges of reference. But these functions and ranges overlap.
‘Righteousness’ is not only a status granted at conversion, but can also be used in reference to an ongoing status, or living relationship (as in Rom. 5:21), and to describe the end-point of the whole process (as in Rom. 6:16 and Gal. 5:5). ‘The righteousness of God’ is to be seen, therefore, as the outgoing power of grace which grants, sustains and finally secures that ‘righteousness,’ not just a once-for-all act. Nearly half the relevant Pauline uses are aorist and perfect tenses (i.e., justification is a ‘once-for-all’ declaration). But more than half are present and future tenses. To be sure, the present tenses could be taken as ‘timeless’ presents, but most of the future tenses are best taken as referring to future (=final) justification (on the day of judgment; Rom. 2:1; 3:20; Gal. 2:16; 5:4; Dunn, ibid., pp. 207, 208. See also R. Lusk’s The Tenses of Justification.
3. The ‘Jewishness’ of ‘legal right-standing’
Usually, no mention is made of which legal standard is referred to God’s gift of a forensic right-status. It is as if the legal datum is self-evident. That is not so. Different audiences/readers will have different data in their minds, depending on their background/environment. For Paul, however, there can only be one datum: the Mosaic Law. To him, this is the really true datum. For the Law is ‘the embodiment of knowledge and of the truth’ (Rom. 2:20). ‘So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good’ (Rom. 7:12), ‘the Law is spiritual’ (Rom. 7:14). Justification as ‘right-status’ is therefore Jewish through and through.