Murder your Darlings : a footnote on justification

This is basically an out-of-control footnote in something I was writing – making the case for incorporated righteousness or union with Christ as the best way of thinking about justification by faith. It got edited out because it was too long and not central to what I was writing about.

As Stephen King the horror writer says, you have got to Murder Your Darlings when writing! I confess to finding that hard to do and so need a ruthless editor.

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Roman Catholic theology (The Council of Trent’s ‘Decree Concerning Justification’ is still the most authoritative pronouncement) teaches infused righteousness whereby justification is not participation in God’s or Jesus’ own righteousness but is an imparted gift of our own righteousness (through the sacrament of baptism). This righteousness grows with our cooperation with the Spirit in the form of good works. Justification is therefore an ongoing process that culminates in demonstrating sufficient righteousness for final salvation.

But this fails to take account of how in Paul, justification is based on God’s once-and-for-all declaration of Jesus as righteous and that believers share in that verdict by faith union in Christ. Trent does get right, however, Paul’s absolute expectation that initial justification will lead to a transformed life of holiness pleasing to God.

Within Reformed and Lutheran theology, imputation of Christ’s righteousness has been the dominant way of understanding justification. The idea is that believers are instantaneously ‘covered’ in righteousness that is not theirs but Christ’s. God ‘sees’ us through the ‘alien righteousness’ of Christ.

While right in affirming Christ’s righteousness and not our own, there are problems with this view. ‘Justification alone’ tends to be virtually equated with the gospel and salvation. Sanctification tends to be artificially defined as a subsequent distinct category from justification and a transformed life in the Spirit as merely a secondary consequence of prior justification. This fails to account for how justification has past, present and future elements and how the systematic distinction between justification and sanctification cannot be maintained through exegesis of Paul. The Bible does not distinguish in importance between our initial justification through faith-union in Christ and our subsequent life of righteousness through the empowering presence of the Spirit. Both are essential for salvation. Nor can the overly transactional and somewhat artificial notion of imputation as just described be found clearly in any text in the NT.

The idea of incorporated righteousness affirms that our righteousness is not our own, but Christ’s. It is by faith alone, and only due to God’s grace, that believers are declared righteous in Christ and are united in him through the Spirit. It also stresses union and relationship as the lens through which any sense of imputation needs to be viewed. His righteousness becomes ours as we have faith in Christ. Faith here is much more than mental assent, but a whole life lived in continuing union with the Lord that issues a transformed life.

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