This entry is the most crucial one that I have posted in response to Nick's question. It is, therefore, incumbant upon all who read to do so carefully, thoughtfully, and prayerfully. I am eager to be corrected biblically, if I have wandered afield in any regard. But, please understand, I expect any correction offered to be done in a manner commensurate with the gospel's call for Christian grace and to be done with demonstrable biblical evidence.
From my reading and conversations concerning justification, it seems to me that the principal root of most squabbles over justification, among those who care enough about the subject even to show passion, is the relationship between the two aspects of justification that many of us represent as already but not yet.
It is this relationship between the now and the not yet, though he does not express the matter this way, that John Piper endeavors to understand and to explain in the document, "What We Believe About the Five Points of Calvinism." In that document he says,
Nevertheless, we must also own up to the fact that our final salvation is made contingent upon the subsequent obedience which comes from faith. The way these two truths fit together is that we are justified on the basis of our first act of faith because God sees in it (like he can see the tree in an acorn) the embryo of a life of faith. This is why those who do not lead a life of faith with its inevitable obedience simply bear witness to the fact that their first act of faith was not genuine. . . .
The way we put together these crucial threads of Biblical truth is by saying that we are indeed justified on the basis of our first act of faith but not without reference to all the subsequent acts of faith which give rise to the obedience that God demands.
It is the relationship between the now and the not yet of justification that N. T. Wright also attempts to explain in his brief glossary entry that I cited in a previous posting:
Justification: God's declaration, from his position as judge of all the world, that someone is in the right, despite universal sin. This declaration will be made on the last day on the basis of an entire life (Romans 2:1-16), but is brought forward into the present on the basis of Jesus' achievement, because sin has been dealt with through the cross (Romans 3:21-4:25); the means of this present justification is simply faith. This means particularly, that Jews and Gentiles alike are full members of the family promised by God to Abraham (Galatians 3; Romans 4) (Mark for Everyone, pg. 233).
After devoting many years of consideration to the issue, long before I read anything that Tom Wright had written other than whatever portion he wrote of The Grace of God in the Gospel (1972), including my having written numerous pages on the subject that have never been read by anyone else, it seems to me that the way forward is along the lines similar to those that N. T. Wright has followed. As I have carefully and prayerfully examined the Scriptures, and particularly those portions that the apostle Paul wrote, the following seem to be evident propositions to which the biblical evidence compels me. There is a logical order to the propositions in my own way of thinking. Some may quibble about the order. Others may quibble with the way I express these propositions. Still others may quarrel with everything I say about the matter.
Justification is bound up with justice. Hence, justification, God's declaring sinners righteous, is integral to but not equated with Paul's expression--"the righteousness of God" (dikaiosunē theou; Romans 1:17; etc.). The expression "the righteousness of God" should be understood as "God's righteousness." As such, God's righteousness is at stake, and the gospel vindicates God, for in the gospel God is shown to be righteous in that he has kept his promises to the patriarchs (Romans 15:7ff) and that he remains righteous when he declares sinners righteous because his wrath has been satisfied in Jesus (Romans 3:23-26). Thus, the gospel's principal proclamation is about God's character not about setting humans right with God. This is why Paul says, "In the gospel God's righteousness is revealed" (Romans 1:17). God's character is vindicated in the gospel, and thus, the gospel is also good news for us because Christ Jesus does not only reveal that God is just but also that God is just to justify sinners.
Justification is one biblical imagery that is inextricably united with other biblical imageries, all of which represent their distinctive facets of the salvation God accomplishes in his Son, Jesus Christ.
Justification is fundamentally forensic or legal in nature, which is to say that justification is a biblical imagery that represents God's saving accomplishment in Christ Jesus in terms of the sentencing phase of the courtroom.
Justification derives its forensic or legal quality from the Last Day, the Day of Judgment.
Justification is fundamentally eschatological, which is to say that justification is God's Last Day verdict over everyone who is in Christ Jesus.
Justification, though fundamentally having to do with the Last Day, the Day of Judgment, is God's Last Day verdict brought forward in time by virtue of his Son's first advent and his own bearing of God's Last Day wrath upon the cross on behalf of all for whom he died.
Justification is God's Last Day gift to us now in Christ (Romans 5:12-19). By faith we lay hold of God's Last Day verdict in Christ now, for we trust God's revelation in Christ concerning his actions for us with reference to his own justness.
Since the establishment of our justification before God is in Christ Jesus alone and because we can do absolutely nothing to establish or add to our justification before God, Jesus, Paul, James and other preachers of the gospel are not timid to correlate our justification before God with our belief in Jesus Christ (Galatians 2:16), with our words (Matthew 12:36-37), with our being "doers" (Romans 2:13), with our deeds (James 2:24).
These are crucial propositions, I believe, that we need to grapple with in order to formulate a biblically acceptable doctrine of justification. These, I do not think, exhaust all that we need to ponder as we endeavor to put together into a thoughtful and integrated whole the elements of the biblical doctrine of justification. Nevertheless, I believe we have to begin, at least with these propositions.
I realize that in posting this, some will leap to preposterous conclusions. I learned long ago that false accusations are unavoidable, for there are always individuals who, because they are incapable of understanding complex ideas for any number of reasons, will not hold back but will immediately retaliate with wild accusations. May God give patience to us all as we struggle to articulate Scripturally sound expressions that apprehend the fullness and breadth and vastness of the precious teachings of the apostles and of Jesus concerning our justification before almighty God in Christ Jesus and on no other basis than what Christ has done on our behalf but first on behalf of God's own character.
I post this entry, then, with fear and trepidation, not on account of humans but on account of God.