Over the last few days, I have been engaged in some rather lengthy and in-depth discussions of the concept of justification-by-faith with others, especially those from the Reformed tradition. As I have discussed this concept, I have come to the conclusion that the common conception of justification-by-faith, apart from works is a loaded and incorrect concept. In the following, I shall outline the objections which I have to this theology.

Per the standard explanation of justification-by-faith, humans are justified when they place their faith in Christ, hence justification by faith. As sinful humans cannot even be looked upon by a holy God, there must be a way by which humans are somehow changed from sinful to holy, from rejected to accepted of God. The doctrine of justification by faith advocates that this occurs through an imputation of righteousness. In this imputation, the righteousness of Christ, the only perfect human, is placed over or imputed to the one who has faith. Because of this imputation, God is now able to look down upon the sinner (who is still a sinner, BTW). However, instead of seeing sin, filth and wretchedness, God sees only the righteousness of Christ which literally clothes the one who has faith in the vicarious righteousness of Christ.

Conceptual problems aside (e.g., how ones righteousness can be imputed to another…), the doctrine of justification by faith leads to a disavowal of the necessity of good works, bad worksany works at all. Sure enough, those who affirm this theological idea will advocate that works are an outflowing of the righteousness of Christ that manifest phenomenologically in the life of the believer. However, these works are not necessary for justification, for the imputation of Christs righteousness is the grand act which has theological, causal and instrumental priority. This, of course, is why the notion of 11th hour death-bed conversions is so popular and has been pretty much the strategy of Protestant missional activity. After all, if one is justified on the basis of an abstract assent of faith and the equally abstract imputation of Christs righteousness, the whole of ones conduct in life-past as well as life-future is virtually a non-issue.

With this being said, I am a firm believer in the concept of justification by faith. However, I strongly deny the penal/forensic complexes which Protestant theology has tended to place upon it.
The following represents some of the thoughts which I have had over the last couple of days.

Incorrect Identification of Works

As already noted, the standard Protestant conception of justification by faith (JBF) eschews the role of works in justification. An oft cited passage used by proponents of the Protestant conception of justification by faith is Romans 3:28:

For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law… (NASB)
and Galatians 2:16:
…nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified. (NASB)

In both of these passages, Paul speaks directly to the causes of justification, and flatly contradicts any who would suggest that human persons are justified by the works of the Law. Rather, it is through faith in Christ that Paul teaches humans will be justified before God.

To proponents of JBF, these passages are key to their argument. Playing upon Pauls words, these protagonists, like Paul, assert that humans are justified not by works but by faith alone (sola fidei). However, if one looks at the Protestant argument, a devious twist of Pauls thinking emerges.

What is this twist?

As often happens with decontextualized interpretation, the crisis to which Paul was writing in both passages has been forgotten and alternative assumptions have been substituted in their place. As the JBF argument goes, humans are justified not by works but by faith. Okay. But what is meant by works? To the modern advocate of JBF, works are reductionistically equated with action. In other words, the works to which Paul is alluding, in the interpretation of the JBF-phyte, are unqualitatively equated with any doing whatsoever, meaning, intention and effort notwithstanding.
For the past 500 years, this assumption about Pauls meaning of works has dominated Protestant thinking. For those, like myself, who have grown up within the Protestant Church (or, more precisely, within one of its many splintered communities), the equation of works with actions (unqualitatively) is more natural than breathing. Although Protestants normally avoid cathechisms, the doctrine of works=actions has so enculturated the theological consciousness of its adherents that it is easier to think of denying the Triune nature of God than to think of questioning such an obvious equation. Nonetheless, as with all things, a critical assessment is required.

Is Paul really making the equation between works and actions? I would advocate that the answer is affirmatively no. Heres why:

If one looks at Pauls discussions of works, these same discussions always and without exception occur within a very particular theological context. What is this context? It is the continual crisis which the early church faced between its history in Judaism (and observance of the Mosaic Law) and the very Pauline spread of the Gospel to the Gentiles. The perennial question that faced the diversifying church was not so much what to do with the Gentiles, but rather what the church was to do with its Jewish-ness. In other words, what place would the ceremonial/ritual/symbolic cultus of the Jewish people have within the life and community of Christ-followers?

If we look at Pauls writings, one answer that was continually presented by the leadership of the church was that the Gentile believers should be proselytized to Judaism and its cultic observance of the Law of Moses (particularly, males must be circumcised and food rituals must be observed). This thinking was so prevalent and held sway over the leadership to such an extent that even Peterthe original pro-Gentile evangelistwas convinced to treat the Gentile believers in a different way (because they had not be proselytized to Judaismsee Galatians 2:11-21).

In opposition to this movement (and even to Peter), Paul denounced the Judaizers methods and theology. In direct contradiction of their beliefs, Paul assertively taught that it was not on the basis of the Mosaic Law that humans would be justified, but rather through becoming a follow of Christ (not a Jew). Therefore, as we approach Pauls teachings on works, this understanding must be the interpretive paradigm.

So if we take this perspective as the lens through which to understand Pauls teachings on works, what will our conclusion be? First of all, we will find that Paul, contrary to the assumptions of JBF, is not making a reductionistic equation between works and action. Rather, Pauls entire complex of argument against works is based upon his understanding of how the individual stands in relationship to the Law. To Paul, the works of the Law are not simply doing the Law. To stand in proper relationship to the Law was, for the Jew, much more than simply performing acts. Rather, to be rightly related to the Law was more related to what one was.

To the Jewish people, the act of circumcision was not like a tattoo that merely identified one as part of one group of people. Circumcision, in the most profound way possible, was seen as an ontology-altering act. By circumcision, the participant fully entered into the promises of Abraham and bound themselves indelibly to service to Yahweh.

With this deep, ontological understanding of circumcision, it is understandable why the early Christian Jews were so serious about the circumc
sion of converted Gentiles. Drawing upon their religious history, they reasoned that just as life with Yahweh required circumcision, so also must following Christthe son of Yahwehrequire the same.

In opposition to this, Paul calls into question the entire logic of the Judaizers, denying not only the necessity of circumcision of the flesh, but also of all other alignments (works) with the Mosaic Law. Yet, as mentioned before, Paul has in his sights not simply the actions of the Law. Rather, he is undermining the entire legitimacy of the Mosaic Law in relationship to the follower of Christ. Why does he do this?

To Paul, the fundamental problem with the Judaizers is not that theyre trying to get Gentile believers to do the Law as opposed to not doing the Law. This is not the issue to Paul at all. What Paul has in his sights is the exclusivity of righteousness that the Jewish Christians believed they had because of their identification with the Law. These believers, like the Pharisees, believed they were justified not simply because they kept the Law by actions, but rather because they were Jews (in relationship to the Law). It was their circumcision, their history and their tradition that formed their belief about their righteousness and was the impetus for compelling Gentile believers to become Jews.
Therefore, to Paul, the works of the Law are not actions in an unqualified sense. Rather, the works of the Law is the presumption that one is justified because of who one is in relationship to the Law of Moses. Paul himself notes that he used to struggle with this conception of righteousness. In Philippians 2:4-6, Paul notes:

…although I myself might have confidence even in the flesh. If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless.

According to Paul, he surpassed all in his righteousness. Yet of the things he listed, only one is related to doing the Lawall the others relate to his origin, upbringing and theology. In Pauls mind, his righteousness was based primarily upon who he was and only minimally upon what he did.

With these thoughts in mind, our perspective of Pauls teaching on works changes dramatically. Instead of uncritically equating works with actions,, we find that Paul is taking aim at a deeper, more fundamental issue: he is attacking the very foundation and exclusivity of those who believed themselves justified with God because of their identification with the Law of Moses. Paul is not saying that what one does is unimportant to justification; rather, he is saying that humans are not justified with God by becoming Jews. It is not, in Pauls thinking, the conversion to a particular moral/legal framework that provides the impetus of justification, but is rather identification with Christ through faith.

Obviously, this last statement, identification with Christ through faith, requires some serious unpacking. I shall direct my attention to this idea in my next post.