Temporarily Ashamed to Be Reformed: Justification

In my doctor of divinity in puritan studies course, I wrote a paper on Justification in which I explored the relationship of works with Justification.

During this study I had a very disappointing experience with my Reformed brethren. I asked someone to whom I had (and still have) great respect and appreciation.

My question went something like this: the meaning of Justification in the bible is not univocal. It is generally accepted that James and Paul are using the word “justify” to refer to different realities, or at least different aspects of those realities.

I went on to say that the reformers were in a position where they wanted to lay out a specific articulation of a biblical word with a much wider and variegated meaning in its biblical context. So, when they say that man is justified by faith alone:

Do they mean that men are justified (in Paul’s sense of the word) by faith alone?
Do they mean that men are justified (in James’s sense of the word) by faith alone?
Do they mean that men are justified (as a comprehensive meaning) by faith alone?

#2 is blatantly absurd, see James 2:24. This does not mean that the doctrine of JBFA is wrong, it simply means that James is referring to a different kind of Justification; i.e. not the meaning that the Reformers assumed. This also means that #3 too is false. The way in which the Reformers used the word justify and justification, in order to work, had to assume a Pauline exclusivity.

If the goal was to teach a doctrine of Justification that was more comprehensive, and aimed at capturing the significance of the primary senses of Justification in the primary biblical contexts, then the phrase “justified by faith alone” I suggested, was very unwise.

The bible uses the word justify in a context where it is explicitly stated that men are not only justified by faith, but justified by works also. When elders and leaders lay out parameters of the meaning of a biblical word, they should not define the word in ways that flatly contradicts the way in which the word is used in other contexts, even though the word is used in different contexts with a different meaning.

For example: Though there is a sense in which God is not one, he is three, it would still be immature and unwise to say “God is not one.” This due obviously to the Scripture that does say God is one. You would have to add on to the phrase “person;” God is not one person, but three persons.

In reverse, and in the same sense, the word “alone” should not be added to justification in such exclusive and absolute terms. “Justification,” biblically, is not by faith alone. Now, I wholeheartedly agree that there is a narrow sense in which Justification is by faith alone; but that narrow sense doesn’t account for the whole.

Which leads to two possibilities: 1. Instead of removing the word “alone,” replace the word justification with what the Reformers meant by Justification. They could have said, “a person is declared righteous and simultaneously initiated into a relationship with God by faith alone in Christ alone.” 2. Keep the word Justification, but do so with respect to the wide range of biblical meanings, and so drop problem some words like “alone,” that suggest that the word “justify” can only mean one of its more nuanced possibilities.

When asking the thoughts of professors, and people that the professors pointed me to: I was basically told a lot of things, none of which came close to approximating a thoughtful answer that honestly engaged with my question. I was even told to find a new professor, because my views were too errant. A Rare day for me; for the first time I felt ashamed to be Reformed.

Reformed I am nonetheless.

On the subject of James, i found a wonderful article that treats James in a very thoughtful and enlightening way:

Remember the verses before the justification passage in James says, “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment” (NASB 2:12-13). This later phrase, katakauca◊tai e¶leoß kri÷sewß, “yet mercy triumphs over judgment” in the middle voice, is literally, “boasts against.”47 Perhaps a better sense is that “mercy prevails in judgment.” James calls believers to always temper judgments with mercy (v 13), not unlike Matthew 7.48 In effect,
James says mercy fulfills the law.49 Gathercole also agrees. “An eschatological perspective on the role of works might also clarify the position with regard to the soteriology of James 2 . . . Here the scene is eschatological judgment, as it frequently is in James (cf. Also 3:1, 6; 4:12; 5:17).”50

James is speaking of the eschatological judgment and salvation in the last day. Such themes are clear in the post-exillic prophecies cited above. Leon Morris observes in agreement with Douglas Moo that, “Paul uses justification of the initial step of becoming a Christian, James, like Matthew and others, uses it of final justification, the kind of justification we will see on Judgment Day.”52

James moves in his flow of thought from judgment to justification, just as does Paul (Rom. 2:13, then 3:20, etc.). James speaks of justification, not in some lesser sense than Paul. Justification is parallel to “saving” — “Can that faith save him?” (2:14). Surely James is emphatic that faith cannot be without obedience. He is just as emphatic that justification cannot be without works. But I hasten to add, this is “justification” not in the sense of initial, forensic declaration, but in the eschatological sense of “who is in” (cf Wright above). A living faith cannot exist without an expression of obedience to the royal law of love. Faith with “works” [sunerge,w James 2:22] is clear in the cases of Abraham/Rahab. But it is not self-righteousness or self-merit. Salvation is for prostitutes who trust God and for polytheistic pagans like the uncircumcised Abram. In both cases God is able to “justify the ungodly” (Rom. 4:5). James reproves people who claim to believe, but are disobedient, precisely because James’ view of justification is “who is in” not “how one gets in” and it is in reference to the eschatological justification/judgment event. Would Paul have said anything different? No. James refers to the same event as does Paul. Paul writes “the doers [poihtai.] of the law will be justified” (Rom. 2:13). James writes, “But be doers
[poihtai.] of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22).
[Gregg Strawbridge]

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