A few thoughts from recent readings on “justification”…

Below are a few casual thoughts I have after reading these two books:


Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Perspective. By Hans Kung.

I’m mostly reading in this area because I am interested in figuring out how to articulate how justification happens and this book gave me a good start, especially considering Barth’s Christocentricity on the topic. Essentially, Barth’s thoughts on the “how” of justification seem to be mostly revolved around a single person: Christ. Barth believes everything about our own justification derives from Christ’s own status and from the justification that resides in Him first and foremost. If I were to summarize Barth’s thoughts on justification mathematically,  I would put it as:

Christ’s eternal obedience in us = Our eternal gift of justified reconciliation

According to Barth, “Christ stands alone – yet he stands for all of us. Christ [somehow] lives in our place, for us, in our name.” (IV/1, 555) Christ becomes our Savior by gracing us with His self-judgment. Only by Christ revealing Himself can we see our own real history of salvation. Etc. I really liked all of that, but wondered (as others have) how still this justification gets applied IN us, not simply FOR us? Barth isn’t so worried about this because he sees the justification of humanity as an intrinsically alien justice. As Barth would say, humans are justified only as Christ is justified. But I’m still trying to figure out how to articulate a solution to the dilemma: If our justice has fully occurred in an Other, how is it applied to us? I do believe as Barth says, “He [Christ] is our man, we are IN Him, our present is HIS, the history of man is HIS history, He is the concrete event of the existence and reality of justified man in whom every man can recognise himself and every other man – recognise himself as truly justified.” (IV/1, 630) But HOW exactly has this happened?

We know justification happened because we have faith. This justification is a revelation that has made itself known to us as it was accomplished on the cross and proclaimed in the resurrection. For Barth, the closest thing he gets to on “how” includes his comments to the fact that this intrinsic change of justification on our end is a wonderful consequence of God’s initial promise. Barth’s process of justification amounts to a divine fiat: The Word both creates and reveals the actuality within us. Our experience of it is simply subjective and yet it shows us the truth of the matter. Our faith then, as humble participation in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, is the only truly representative response of a justified believer and thus is proof of Christ’s justification on our behalf.

Side note: if Barth is true, what does this mean for the universality of salvation? Barth doesn’t seem to distinguish between the “Christian man” and “all men.” I’m guessing this is on purpose. I’m not a universalist, and I don’t know if Barth ever explicitly said that he was, but it seems to me his arguments push us awful close. After all, if what is true of Christ’s relationship to the Father is also true of ALL of us ever since the creation of the world and especially since God made a covenant with humanity, how can we not understand salvation to be, in the end, universal to all people?

Perhaps my favorite part of the book was Kung’s clarification of the particular role of faith in justification. This is something I’ve been looking for, and need to think about more. We know that neither faith nor works merit the grace of justification, yet faith as submission remains a condition of justification and thus while there is no justification without faith, justification remains through it. As he says, God accomplishes everything, yet it does not follow that God accomplishes everything alone. Other highlights include Barth’s redefinition of “free will” (48) and also his combining “justice” and “grace” into the same concepts (55-56).



Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision. By N.T. Wright

I read the 2016 version with a new introduction and my mind was whirling after only the introduction. I’ve decided that in the next few years, I need to take a “N.T. Wright year.” I need to read him through-and-through. I’ve read some of his popular stuff but need to dig into his more foundational works. I have a similar problem as others, apparently. “For too long we have read Scripture with nineteenth-century eyes and sixteenth-century questions. It’s time to get back to reading with first-century eyes and twenty-first century questions.” (37) I want to do that. I needed to read this book because:

  1. I’m an American and thus tend to see “salvation” in primarily individual terms as if “the whole of Christian truth is all about me and my salvation” (23).
  2. I’m new to this topic and struggle to keep my thoughts on “justification” in their own Biblical contexts.

N.T. Wright is a strong corrective on both counts. As he notices, “We are not the center of the universe. God is not circling around us. We are circling around Him.” (23) Also, when N.T. Wright exegetes a passage – he does just that. He never exegetes a verse. His expression of justification is thus more canonical and historical than any others I’ve yet read. It isn’t surprising then that Wright presents justification more as a covenantal story than anything else. Even a single story:

“God had a single plan all along through which he intended to rescue the world and the human race, and that this single plan was centered upon the call of Israel, a call which Paul saw coming to fruition in Israel’s representative, the Messiah.” (35).

His textual centers of justification are, surprisingly, Genesis 15, Deuteronomy 27-30 and Daniel 9. He would show how if you want to understand justification, you have to understand how Paul connects with those central OT passages.

If Barth’s justification is effected via fiat, I would say Wright’s justification is through the Spirit as “glue.” Although similarly to Barth, Wright sees justification not so much as an action which transforms someone so much as a declaration which grants them a status (91). Justification is then for Wright a shocking acquittal (how often does a guilty person receive the ruling, “forgiven” in a law court?) accomplished through the power of the Spirit for the purpose of blessing the world.

Unfortunately, I didn’t feel like either read gave me any quick solutions for understanding how to articulate the how of justification. But this is probably better anyways. I guess I’ve still got lots more praying to do before I figure this all out.


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