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:

  1. 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 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 he may discover that deep engagement with the Apostle will help him to proclaim the gospel more effectively.
  2. Here in North America, Orthodoxy finds itself surrounded by people who have been raised in Protestant households. Their understanding of the Christian faith has been shaped by the language of justification. Rather than encouraging Protestant inquirers and converts to simply jettison this language, they need to be shown how it is deepened and corrected 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.
  3. As formulated at the Reformation, the questions justification by faith seeks to answer—how am I put right with the holy God? how may I know that God forgives and accepts me? what does it mean to say that God is love—are very human questions. They are not simply products 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.
  4. Exploration of the Reformation doctrine justification by faith will lead the Orthodox into a deeper, yet perhaps critical, appreciation of their own tradition. I’m thinking especially of the theology of St Cyril of Alexandria. In what sense, we may ask, does Orthodoxy teach that we are saved by grace?

In his book The Quest for Paul’s Gospel, Douglas Campbell examines the three dominant models for understanding the gospel according to St Paul:

  1. The justification by faith model (JF)
  2. The salvation history model (SH)
  3. The pneumatological-participatory-martyrological-eschatological model (PPME)

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). Underlying this model is the anxiety and terror of the believer standing before the Divine Judge. What works must I do to be forgiven?

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.1

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 have been advanced by JF proponents).2 By faith the sinner is set right with the Almighty Creator. 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. (Article 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. (Chap. XI)

The Protestant teaching of justification by faith is typically coordinated, though not always, with a penal theory of Christ’s atoning work. Believers are urged to put their trust in Christ and “his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world” (Book of Common Prayer). On the cross God the Son has paid the price due to human wickedness.

Back in the 1960s 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). Romans 10:9 is often quoted: “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

The strength of the justification by faith model is that it gives straightforward instruction on what one must do to achieve salvation (though the same might also be said for the justifica­tion by works model popularly attributed to Catholicism); 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, existentially appropriated 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 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.3

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 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.4

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.5

The exegetical foundation for the justification by faith model is actually slimmer than it might first appear, relying 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 defects are combined with the model’s theological weaknesses, 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.6 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 exegetical analyses  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.7

Next up: the salvation history model of the gospel.

(2 June 2013; rev.)


[1] Douglas A. Campbell, The Quest for Paul’s Gospel, p. 34.

[2] See Alister E. McGrath, Iustitia Dei.

[3] Campbell, p. 166.

[4] Ibid., p. 172.

[5] See Phillip Cary, The Meaning of Protestant Theology (especially Part 2), and his seminal essay “Why Luther is Not Quite Protestant.”

[6] Campbell, p. 27.

[7] In addition to Rereading Paul Together (ed. David E. Aune), see Justification (ed. Mark Husbands and Daniel J. Treier) and Justification: Five Views (ed. James K. Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy). For an exciting discussion by a Pentecostal theologian, see Frank D. Macchia, Justified in the Spirit. I would be remiss in not mentioning the important essay by Thomas F. Torrance: “Justification: Its Radical Nature and Place in Reformed Doctrine and Life,” Theology in Reconstruction, pp. 150-168. Building on the work of Karl Barth, Torrance offers a construal of justification grounded in the Word’s assumption and regeneration of human nature in Jesus Christ.

(Go to “Justified by Salvation History”)

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