Justifying Justification by Faith

Let’s assume that integrating justification by faith into a comprehensive understanding of salvation would be a constructive and positive thing for Eastern theology to do. I can think of several reasons why. First, justification is an important theme in the New Testament, particularly in the epistles of the Apostle Paul. At the very least the Orthodox preacher must have an understanding of St Paul’s understanding of justification in order to preach these texts and to be able to correlate justification with other themes of salvation, such as regeneration, communion, adoption, and theosis. But more importantly, the preacher may discover that deep engagement with the Apostle will help him to proclaim the gospel more effectively. Second, here in North America Orthodoxy finds itself surrounded by people who have been raised in Protestant and evangelical households. Their understanding of the Christian faith has been shaped by the language of justification. Rather than encouraging them to simply jettison justification, they need to be shown how it is corrected and deepened in the theology and praxis of Orthodoxy. If Orthodoxy does not thoughtfully engage the task of integration, then it will inevitably give poor answers to the many questions put to it by non-Orthodox and Orthodox alike. Third, as formulated at the Reformation, the question of justification (how am I put right with the holy God? how may I know that God forgives and accepts me?) is a very human question. It’s not just a product of Western juridicism and pathology. The exegetical, theological, and spiritual struggles of the Reformers and their successors may well have something to offer to Orthodoxy.

In his book The Quest for Paul’s Gospel, Douglas Campbell examines the three dominant models for understanding the gospel according to the Apostle Paul: the justification by faith model (JF), the salvation history model (SH), and the pneumatological-participatory-martyrological-eschatological model (PPME—why didn’t an editor step in and say to Campbell, “please give this model a shorter name”? Jeesh).

The Justification by Faith Model

At the heart of the heart of JF is the transfer, mediated by the faith of the believer, from a state of condemnation to a state of forgiveness and forensic acceptance (salvation):

The first state is “legalism,” within which people try to work their way to heaven. It presupposes a judgment according to works and desert. But a sensitive conscience soon realizes that this scheme is hopeless and that, far from obtaining salvation, it only ensures one of a certain eventual fate of eternal damnation. Repeated transgressions make one liable to the just wrath of God, which will be experienced in full on the Day of Judgment. A state of anxiety and guilt therefore ensues. But this is a good thing because this phase is essentially preparatory; it is not an end in itself. At this point, the proclamation of the gospel must be greeted by great delight. If one only believes in the gospel then one is forgiven all one’s various sins and is transferred to a new state of salvation. One cannot but be interested, especially in view of one’s experience of the previous unsaved state, which resulted in guilt, anxiety and even terror. The transfer is effected, on God’s part, by a cunning piece of dual-entry accounting. The sinner’s transgressions are credited or imputed to Christ on the cross, and so dealt with there. And Christ’s perfect righteousness is credited to the sinner, clothing him/her with perfection (although some suggest that this second action is not strictly necessary). So God’s justice is satisfied but the human transgressor is not condemned and destroyed during the process. All that is needed for the transaction to take place is faith on the part of the individual. Faith is therefore the trigger or catalyst for appropriation of salvation by the individual. (p. 34)

JF is fundamentally juridical, forensic, and transactional: because of Christ’s saving work on the cross, the sinner is acquitted of his transgressions and declared to be justified—by faith or through the means of faith or on account of faith (various theories of faith are offered by JF advocates). In one form or another JF has dominated the theology and preaching of Protestantism. Thus the Augsburg Confession:

Also they teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight. (IV)

And the Westminster Confession:

Those whom God effectually calls, He also freely justifies; not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on Him and His righteousness by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God. (XI)

The Protestant teaching of justification by faith is typically coordinated, though not always, with a penal theory of Christ’s atoning work.

Back in the 60s Presbyterian pastor James Kennedy started an evangelistic program based on the justification model. The evangelist was instructed to confront the potential convert with this question “Suppose that you were to die today and stand before God and he were to say to you, ‘Why should I let you into my heaven?’ what would you say?” (Hint: there’s only one correct answer.)

The strength of the justification by faith model is that it gives straightforward instruction on what one must do to achieve salvation; but the salvation offered is juridical, restricted to the reversal of the divine condemnation. The model assumes that God himself, manifested in wrath and judgment against sinners, is the critical problem humanity faces. By Christ’s atoning death on the cross, received in faith, God ceases to be the problem and instead becomes the solution. And it’s all by grace, since God is the one who has provided the means by which he has reconciled himself to the ungodly. As John Piper puts it: “Justification is the moment or the event when you put your faith in Jesus Christ and at that moment God is no longer against you—he’s for you, and he counts you as acceptable, forgiven, righteous, obedient because of your union with Christ. You are perfectly acceptable to God and he is totally on your side.” We were once children of wrath, but now, by faith, we are justified.

Campbell identifies a number of theological and pastoral problems with JF, perhaps the most important being its misrepresentation of the character of God:

By orienting the model’s first phase to God’s retributive justice, the model in fact commits the entire theological programme to this basal understanding of the divine nature; if all else fails or does not unfold, God will still, at bottom, be retributively just. It follows from this that any different attributes—for example, mercy—must in effect be super-added to God’s existing nature. They are accidental or occasional qualities, while the divine justice lies beneath them permanently. Indeed, they can be exercised only if the requirements of divine justice have first been satisfied. So even divine love and grace can only operate within a just framework, if that can be provided. Moreover, any subsequent revelations cannot overthrow this basic insight into the divine nature; if they did, then the model itself would collapse. The model is locked in from the outset to this view of God. (p. 166)

Nor is Campbell persuaded by the counter-argument that the attributes of justice and mercy are reconciled at Calvary. The penal construal of atonement makes justice prior to mercy: the latter can only be displayed once the demands of justice are fulfilled.

Campbell also notes an unexpected consequence of the justification model. Intended to provide a solution to a conscience burdened by guilt and anxiety, the model can also generate anxiety because of the contractual significance accorded to faith: if you believe, you will be justified. But what does it mean to believe, and how does one know when one has fulfilled the condition of saving faith? The history of Puritanism witnesses to the problem of assurance that appears to be intrinsic to the JF model, a problem that is magnified a thousand-fold when the doctrine of absolute predestination is added into the mix. The conditional nature of salvation, Campbell explains, ultimately throws the sinner back on his own resources:

And even though the condition for Christian salvation has been reduced from full law-observance to faith—a generous reduction, it must be granted—this still looks forbidding to the deeply sinful person. Even faith is difficult, and on certain days, nigh on impossible. We are, at bottom, utterly dependent on the reliability of our own faithful activity in the JF model in order to be saved, and yet, as human beings, we fear that all our activity is, at bottom, unreliable. Hence the JF model creates a fundamental anxiety within its converts; they are radically insecure. And not a great deal of solace can be expected from the church. (p. 172)

Martin Luther found his own “non-Protestant” solution to the problem of assurance: do not look within yourself but rest instead on the promises of baptism (see “Why Luther is Not Quite Protestant” by Phillip Cary).

The exegetical foundation for the justification by faith model is actually slimmer than it might first appear, relying heavily, perhaps too heavily, on Romans 1-4, Galatians 2-3, and Philippians 3:7-11. This alone has led many scholars to question whether justification by faith is as central for the Apostle as the Reformation Churches have historically maintained. But when the exegetical weaknesses are combined with the theological flaws, a different paradigm for understanding the Apostle Paul seems called for. Campbell goes so far as to predict that the days of the JF model are numbered (p. 27). Scholars are just now beginning to fully understand the profound exegetical and theological flaws of the model.

The literature is vast, and I’ve been away from this subject for several years; but I would like to commend a collection of essays Rereading Paul Together. The two essays by Joseph Fitzmyer and John Reumann provide excellent biblical analyses of the justification by faith model, from Catholic and Lutheran perspectives; and the essay “Interpretations of Paul in the Early Church” by David Rylaarsdam is one of the best patristic surveys I have come across on this topic.

Next up: the salvation history model of the gospel.

(Go to “Israel and the Gospel According to St Paul”)

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9 Responses to Justifying Justification by Faith

  1. Rhonda says:

    This is going to be an interesting series, Father 🙂


    • I hope it will be, Rhonda. At the very least I hope it will encourage people to begin to re-read St Paul and some of the new scholarship that is being published.

      I realized that my preparation for my blog series on St Basil is going to take longer than I anticipated (I’m presently waiting for a couple books to arrive through ILL), so I thought I’d jump into an area that I used to think about a lot but which I haven’t really reflected upon much since I became Orthodox. And Campbell is probably one of the more provocative Pauline scholars around; hence I’m grateful for the opportunity to peruse a book that has been sitting on my shelf for a couple of years. Though I am no longer actively preaching, I’m trying to put myself into that imaginative position: “How would I now preach, say, the Epistle to the Romans?” A few days ago I listened to an Illumined Heart podcast with Fr Theodore Stylianopolous “The Legacy of St Paul.” I found it disappointing. It’s not easy to make Paul sound boring. 😉


  2. Rhonda says:

    St. Paul boring? :-0


  3. Nick says:

    I would imagine that many Reformed would take offense at the idea that JF prioritizes God’s retributive will. Perhaps they would point out that in the Biblical schema, fall comes before redemption. In other words, I’m guessing they would probably want to say that it’s merely a chronological prioritization, not an ontological or logical prioritization.


    • Good point, Nick. One might expand it by noting that it is God, out of love, who provides the sacrificial atonement. Perhaps Campbell would reply by noting that even so God needs to be propitiated; his justice must be satisfied before sinners can be absolved. And if sinners do not avail themselves of the provision offered in the gospel, then they will be judged according to their works and retributively punished. This would suggest that the attribute of justice (specifically retributive justice) is prior to his love. Campbell writes:

      The JF advocate might reply that these two qualities have been reconciled by Calvary. Because of the punishment accepted on our behalf by Christ on the cross, God can now forgive others and act graciously, while maintaining his justice.

      But I am not convinced by this argument. In fact, this understanding of Calvary accommodates divine grace and love to the demands of divine justice. Grace and love are made to fit the just parameters that the JF model has already set in place. Hence God’s fundamental attitude remains his justice. He has only been conditioned by the cross into a loving and forgiving posture. Outside of the fulfilment of those conditions–usually when they are not appropriated through preaching and faith–God remains merely just. The attributes of grace and love in the divine nature are not operative in those situations, consequently they remain accidental, temporary, and secondary.

      This problem is revealed especially clearly when we ask what a fundamentally gracious God has to do in order to deal with the sin of humanity. Such a God can presumably just forgive that sin, and then get on with the task of restoring humanity from Sin’s alienating ravages. There is no need to set up some elaborate mechanism whereby punishment is meted out on that sin appropriately but the sinner is not destroyed. Our understanding of the divine action through the cross would consequently be quite different from the scenario supplied by the JF model; the cross would be a fundamentally transformative, as against a punitive event. But the prospective JF model simply excludes this possibility. It does not allow the interpreter to place an essentially gracious or unconditional God at the heart of their soteriology. (The Quest for Paul’s Gospel, pp. 166-167)

      One might observe that St Thomas Aquinas, who did not hold a penal understanding of the atonement, acknowledged that God could have forgiven humanity without the cross.


      • Nick says:

        Thank you for the response! I look forward to seeing the direction this series takes. In particular, I’ll be interested to see where Tom Wright’s work on justification find its place in your thinking.


  4. philjames says:

    During my time in conservative Presbyterianism, I believed the fundamental verity that lay behind all of Reality was Law. It tied even God’s hands- that’s what the atonement was about. The Reformed are the most rigorous in working this out in their theories of limited atonement, but the teaching I received as a child in an IFB church assumed much the same thing.


  5. Pingback: Killing others as you desire them to kill you: how and why the Golden Rule hunts down and kills every man (part I) | theology like a child

  6. Nathan says:

    Father Kimel,

    I am doing a two part series starting today attempting to re-frame these issues of substitutionary atonement and God’s penal character: http://infanttheology.wordpress.com/2013/06/24/killing-others-as-you-desire-them-to-kill-you-how-and-why-the-golden-rule-hunts-down-and-kills-every-man-part-i/

    I hope you find it challenging. If you would like part II right away, I can post that here or email it to you (think I’d need your address though). Let me know.



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