Justification - Where We Stand

Justification is one of those loaded religious words that has come to mean different things to different groups over time. Reading N.T. Wright's discourse on the topic in his book Justification is like encountering a cosmic worldview of moving parts...

...all circling in harmony, including God's developing covenant with Israel, their eschatological hopes, Paul's belief in Jesus the Messiah, and evidence of the first fruits of a new creation! Wright intricately tethers Paul the Apostles's understanding of justification and salvation to the Old Testament stories and prophetic writings that formed the Jewish people. These are rich roots indeed. I have to confess though, it will take some time (a lifetime) to see how this map lies on our modern worldview. Like seeing a vista but then having to walk the paths to know the terrain.

That said, if I had to leave a few thoughts on what struck me en-route, I would want to include a couple of things. First, I liked encountering what seemed to be a bit of a different image of God appearing through the broad brush-strokes. Although I wouldn't have thought this prior, I think I imagine God to be a bit more remote than our Jewish forefathers. Paul the Apostle's God has solid descriptors: he is righteous and just. He is a God who can be trusted to seek out what is right, stand with the oppressed and stand against what is wrong (even though how this happens is beyond understanding). Paul's God acted in history, rescued his people and, although they were sinful and wayward, entered into covenant with them. Paul's God responded to the problem of sin, not with abandonment but commitment. This thread of an evolving covenant between God and his people weaves its way through the O.T. It's kind of a marvel to imagine a people formed by this dynamic relationship with God.

Secondly, I am glad to have gleaned some of the meaning around this simple word, justification. The word itself is a lawcourt term. Assuming God is the judge in the cosmic courtroom, where do we stand? A doctrine of justification was developed during the Reformation period in response to the question, "How can I, a sinner, be saved?" The quest for assurance of personal salvation to ensure a life-after in heaven has had quite an influence for several centuries. However, N. T. Wright along with other scholars suggests that this was not the central question for Paul the Apostle.

So what was Paul implying? He was writing during an interesting juncture. The Jewish people were living in uncertain times under Roman rule looking to God for deliverance. When would liberation come? Paul had been a zealous follower of Jewish laws and practices, perhaps in his mind preparing the way for God's future. Yet he came to understand God's action in the world in ways quite different than he had anticipated. God had found a way to deal with the sin and separation of not only Israel but the whole world. Through Jesus' alignment with God's will, and carrying out his purposes through suffering love, the burden of sin was broken. The inbreaking resurrection of Jesus was no less than a sign of the beginning of God's renewal of all of creation. Something new had begun and a new covenant with humanity had been formed. (I can only confess that how this works is a mystery to me.)

Speaking in these grand terms offered by Paul, I begin to hear again the swoosh of the large planetary model orbiting above my head. So where do we stand? We no longer need to stand upon our own merits (positive or negative). Whatever they are, they just fall short. Through God's action alone we are upheld and vindicated. Somehow, when we live here, through grace and daily struggle, we are not only vindicated but participate in the larger family of God, empowered by his Spirit "to live as genuine human beings". As Josh Garrels, a loved musician, once said, it is a "sorrowful plan", paid for at a great price, but in Paul the Apostles's experience, it was pressed-down-brimming-over with hope.

To read more of Verda's reflections on the book of Romans and on photography, visit her Catching A Glimpse blog.

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