“Justification and Justice: Good News and Good Works”


1.  “Does justification by grace through faith (God’s good news) call us to good works of justice?”

This question requires an affirmative answer but one with qualification, especially in light of the way both “justification” and “justice” are often understood today. The problem of a privatized understanding of justification and a secularized understanding of justice (identified below in question 2) are a modern development which cloud the intentions of the Reformers, who saw the hand of the sovereign God in all things in heaven and earth in ways we do not. Both Lutheran and Reformed articulations of the Pauline concept of justification by grace through faith carefully guarded the primacy and sovereignty of God as the actor in salvation. So, the Augsburg Confession, for instance, insists “we cannot obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God by our own merits, works, or satisfactions, but that we receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith, when we believe Christ suffered for us and that for his sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us.” (Augsburg Confession, Article IV).

Likewise, the Westminster Confession (and Savoy Declaration) state: “Those whom God effectually calleth he also freely justifieth; not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous: not for any thing ‘wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness, by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God.” (Westminster Confession, Chapter XI, I.) This is language which is confident in its assumption that the primal theological issue is salvation of sinful mortals before the holy God. That God was sovereign over nations and societies, as well as over persons, was also taken for granted. The Reformation Christian, Roman Catholic, as well as Protestant, was located in a Christian state, despite disagreement over the exact confessional nature of that state.

The “good works of justice” which flowed from justification were described in the Reformation Confessions under the category of sanctification as “good fruits” or “good works.” (Augsburg Confession, Article VI, “The New Obedience,” and Article XX, “Faith and Good Works”; Westminster Confession, Chapter XIII, “Of Sanctification” and Chapter XVI, “Of Good Works”) Here again, God’s sovereignty as the actor of salvation is carefully protected. “Faith should produce good fruits and good works  . . . but we should do them for God’s sake and not place our trust in them as if thereby to merit favor with God.” (Augsburg Confession, Article VI) “Their ability to do good works is not all of themselves, but wholly from the Spirit of Christ.” (Westminster Confession, Chapter XVL)

To the Reformers the doctrine of justification needed no justification, as it seems to today, against the charge that it led to a privatized faith. Rather it protected God’s sovereignty and initiative in the act of salvation and in the processes by which the salvation takes hold of people. That “good works and responsible service in the whole world” (Invitation to Action, p. 9, paragraph 6) were the fruits of justification was not questioned.

2. How does the atoning “work of Christ” inform out work?

The “lost chord” in modern mainline Christianity is atonement: the conviction from which the church was born and by which its life was fueled for centuries. Because of this loss the question of the proper relationship between justification and justice, between what God does and what we do, is the critical theological question for our time. In the modern period Christian faith has increasingly been understood as a religion of amelioration, rather than a religion of redemption. Thus understood, Christian faith is reduced to a series of ethical imperatives; guidelines for relationships of human being to human being, rather than of human beings to God.

Christians of an earlier time knew themselves the recipients of redemption by an act of a righteous God, so justice was, for them, the social righteousness demanded by the righteousness of God. For example, P. T. Forsyth (1848-1921) could write: “Righteousness is applied holiness,” and (quoting Wernle) “ … it is in the doctrine of justification that Christian theology and Christian ethic meet.” (The Christian Ethic of War, pp. V and 165)

When justice is wrenched from justification the church loses its way and finds itself running errands for society, rather than confronting that society with the grace and judgment of the cross of Jesus Christ. Where the cross is seen as a sign or symbol, even of high principles, rather than as an atoning act of the Holy God, the church will understand its primary charge to make like sacrifices on behalf of others. Jesus is then seen more as model and exemplar rather than as savior. But classical Christianity, in a variety of formulations, asserted that only God can save, that God doesn’t show something by the cross but does something on the cross. The cross is not an object lesson or demonstration, but a divine act of life which justifies sinful humanity before the holy God.

Certainly there can be disagreement on the theological articulation of the atonement, but can we question the fact of atonement itself and remain identifiably Christian? My “bridge-repair” suggestion is renewed attention to the Biblical conviction of the holiness of God and the sinfulness of humanity. The “work of Christ” might then have its ethical content restored, so often lost when we focus on the person of Christ using metaphysical categories. In theological terms this means Soteriology precedes and controls Christology.

3. How are Christ’s obedience and ours related?

The “Joint Statement on Justification” from the Lutheran-Reformed Dialogue (Invitation to Action, p. 9, items 2, 5, 6) offers these summary statements: “This gospel is the good news that for us and for our salvation God’s Son became human in Jesus the Christ, was crucified and raised from the dead. By his life, death and resurrection he took upon himself God’s judgment on human sin and proved God’s love for sinners, reconciling the entire world to God . . . This doctrine of justification continues to be a meassage of hope and of new life to persons alienated from our gracious God and from one another. Even though Christians who live by faith continue to sin, still in Christ our bondage to sin and death has been broken. By faith we already begin to participate in Christ’s victory over evil, the Holy Spirit actively working to direct our lives . . . As a community of servants of God we are called and enabled to do works of mercy and to labor for justice and peace among individuals and nations.”

Emilio Castro’s evocative book title “Sent Free” captures the dynamic relationship between justification and justice. We are not justified out of the world but for the world which God loves and for which Christ died. Of special importance today is a new understanding of humanity’s relationship to the created order in the light of the atoning work of Christ, which brings about “a new creation.” The World Council of Churches now identifies “The Integrity of Creation” as a concern along with “Peace and Justice.” These emphases properly recognize that the gospel has implications not only for individuals but for nations and societies as well. There are cosmic implications to the work of Christ, and justification must not be understood in a social vacuum.

But neither can justice take the place of justification at the center of the gospel. The ethical fundamentalism of some Liberationists resembles nothing so much as Biblical and confessional fundamentalism in its resistance to critical questions. To view the issue of inclusive language, to take one example, solely as a justice issue, without regard for substantive theological issues, is to mistake the complex for the simple and to risk the church’s teaching and witness. Another example where we have lost the proper relationship between justification and justice is this: Certain associations in the United Church of Christ are requiring candidates for ordination to document their commitment to justice issues. This is right-minded but wrong-headed. It puts the ethical cart before the theological horse. But a vacuum will be filled, and since the historic religion of redemption has given way to the religion of amelioration there is a certain logic to this new requirement. How uncouth it would seem today if a Church and Ministry Committee would inquire of a candidate, “Do you believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross for your sins?” Would a negative answer be outweighed by a dramatic commitment to peace and justice? Whose peace? Whose justice? Will volunteer work for “Right to Life” be accepted or rejected? On what grounds? Since we are not saved because of works, neither should we be ordained because of them?

Our works of justice must be eschatological and symbolic. We still bear the burden of a Constantinian conception of Christendom, when a sectarian and missionary model of the church more closely approximates our situation in the modern world. One mission instrumentality executive confessed: “We cannot deal with every social issue, but we look constantly to determine how we can make a difference.” (S. Rooks) This recognizes the proximate nature of all our good works, and expresses a proper Christian humility. Justice understood apart from justification can easily become functional atheism, losing sight of God’s primacy and sovereignty, which is what the doctrine of justification by grace through faith is meant to insure.

(I delivered this paper at the Seventh Craigville Theological Colloquy, Craigville, MA, July 16 – 20, 1990.)

(Photo:  R. L. Floyd, 2010)