Justification in Paul’s Letters

I thought I’d get around to a systematic look at justification, since it is a principle them in the Pauline letters.  Where and how often does Paul mentions justification?  The term “justified” occurs ten (1) times in Romans, six (1) times in Galatians, twice in Corinthians, and – ironically, three times in James’ Epistle.

This is not surprising, as Paul deals with the problem of integrating Jew and Gentile in the Roman and Galatian communities.   I noted in a previous post that the Galatian community, in particular, seemed to have trouble getting the two Christian groups to work together. In Galations 2:15-21, Paul mentions justification no less than five times:

We, who are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles, who know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.
But if, in seeking to be justified in Christ, we ourselves are found to be sinners, is Christ then a minister of sin? Of course not!
But if I am building up again those things that I tore down, then I show myself to be a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me.
I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.

I do try to pay attention to the text, like a good scholar would, and I think it’s worth mentioning that Paul uses a curious turn of phrase whenever he talks about justification.  That turn of phrase is: μὴ γένοιτό or “God forbid!” or “Let it not be so!” or “Of course not!” Curiously enough, this phrase occurs eight times in Romans and three times in Galatians.  Why the exclamatory qualification?  Paul does not want his audience to become too complacent living in accord with “the law” (not good) or in being “justified by faith” (good, but not the entire picture) without also living out the call to a Christian life.

Galatians 2:17
But if, in seeking to be justified in Christ, we ourselves are found to be sinners, is Christ then a minister of sin? Of course not!

Galatians 3:21
Is the law then opposed to the promises of God? Of course not!

Galatians 6:14
Shall I boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world? Of course not!

Romans 3:31
Are we then annulling the law by this faith? Of course not!

Romans 6:15
What then? Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? Of course not!

Romans 7:7
What then can we say? That the law is sin? Of course not!

Romans 9:14
What then are we to say? Is there injustice on the part of God? Of course not!

I am coming to appreciate Paul’s theology of justification, however, it requires a careful reading of Romans and Galatians to properly interpret his theology. Plus, we always have to corroborate the theology to make sure that it is consistent with the teaching in the Gospels. I think it is evident that, if Jesus used parabolic language, Paul liked to use hyperbolic language.

But we should not let that take away from Paul’s essential point. External obedience to the law, or rubric, is not salvific. God expects a fundamental acceptance of faith on the part of the believer.

Now, having said that, the various Christian confessions interpret Paul differently as to how “justification” fits into the process of individual salvation. Paul’s theology is qualified such that one cannot “claim” to be justified by faith while simultaneously “living” in sin. Catholics and Orthodox might argue that through growth in grace, one becomes both justified and saved. The Lutheran confession and some Anglicans would argue that one is justified first, and then one is capable of growth in grace. Some, though not all, Reformed Christians would argue that justification is an “event” that cannot be forfeited, since when one is “saved by Jesus Christ,” one cannot be “unsaved.”

I apologize for grossly over-simplifying the issue.  Ironically, there is language in Paul’s letters to defend all three theses. Which is why I endorse a careful, integrated reading of Paul on the subject of justification. Having said that, I am not an expert on Pauline theology, so feel free to comment, clarify and disagree.

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