Justification: A Paradigm Shift?

A Book Review, by Jack Cottrell

Richard K. Moore has written a book entitled Paul’s Concept of Justification: God’s Gift of a Right Relationship (Wipf & Stock, 2015; pb, 221pp.). Moore is associated with Vose Seminary (formerly Baptist Theological College of Western Australia). In 1978 he wrote a doctoral dissertation which he reworked and expanded into three volumes published as Rectification (‘Justification’) in Paul, in Historical Perspective, and in the English Bible (Edwin Mellen, 2002-2003; 1,372pp.). The present volume is a less technical and updated summary of that work.

Moore’s basic purpose is to examine how others have attempted to understand Paul’s teaching on the subject of justification, and to present his own version of that doctrine. His thesis is that this basic Biblical teaching has been mostly misunderstood throughout Christian history. The correct interpretation began to be seen in the nineteenth century but never caught on; thus the author takes it upon himself to make a definitive case for this one true and valid explanation once and for all.

In order to achieve this goal, Moore has made a detailed analysis of three sets of data. First and fundamentally, he has worked through the writings of the Apostle Paul on this subject, focusing mainly on Romans and Galatians. This involves much attention to the relevant Greek terminology, which means that some knowledge of Greek would be helpful for studying this book. Second, Moore gives a helpful historical survey of the doctrine of justification, identifying four general eras: the pre-Augustinian patristic era, the Middle Ages (Augustine to the Reformation), Protestantism from Luther onward, and the nineteenth century to today. Third, the author analyzes how the relevant Biblical terminology has been translated into the English language and especially how it appears in the large family of English versions and translations.

In his “Introduction” and third chapter, the author’s historical survey shows that three distinct views of the Pauline concept of justification developed in the post-patristic eras mentioned above. First, the Middle Ages saw the development of the realist view of justification, which became the Roman Catholic view that persists until today. Here justification is the work by which God makes a sinner increasingly righteous in a moral sense, in a life-long process that combines forgiveness and sanctification. Second, in the sixteenth century the Protestant Reformers (especially Luther’s protégé Melanchthon) formulated the forensic view of justification. This view says that God as Judge declares the sinner to be completely righteous at conversion, based on the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the sinner. The life-long sanctification process follows this and is distinct from it.

Moore rejects both of these views, declaring that the relevant Greek word family (dikaiosunē and cognates) has neither a moral nor a forensic sense. Regarding the second view, he likewise declares that there is no Biblical basis for the necessary idea of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness (50, 105-106). He also accepts the common criticism that justification (declaring righteous) based on such imputation is a “legal fiction” (100), where God is declaring the sinner to be something he is not. This has the result of impugning God’s very integrity (161-163).

So what is the true meaning of justification? Here Moore defends the third option, namely, the view that began in the nineteenth century but did not attract a large following. This is the idea that “to justify” (he prefers the verb “to rectify”) means “to bring into a right personal relationship with” someone. He explains it thus: “The verb dikaioun refers to God’s gracious act of bringing the ungodly . . . into a right relationship. The noun dikaiosunē refers to the right relationship [with God] which comes to us as God’s gift” (96). Rather than being understood as “righteousness,” the noun can be translated as “rightness.” And, “the ‘rightness’ involved is clearly a rightness of relationship,” namely, with God (97). Adopting this relatively new definition involves a “paradigm shift,” he says (162ff.).

There are several things I like about this book. For one thing, the brief historical survey of the doctrine is very helpful, especially the material about Melancthon (see chapter 3). Also, Moore’s analysis of the wide variety of English translations of the dikaiosunē family is quite interesting and enlightening. He shows how most of them favor the forensic view (see chapter 4). He laments that at the turn of the 21st century “none of the mainstream translations was making use of the relational approach” (162). Another thing I like is the focus on Paul’s letters to the Romans and Galatians, which of course is where most of the material on justification occurs. Unlike many, Moore gets the point that Paul is contrasting the two possible ways of being right with God: law and grace. Unfortunately, though, he seems to limit “law” to the Mosaic Law, or at most to the Pentateuch (to account for Paul’s many references to Abraham). See pp. 12, 101, 121, 142, 182.

The last thing about the book that I like is that Moore is right: neither of the traditional views—neither the Catholic “realist” view, nor the Protestant “forensic” view—is correct, as usually understood. Thus I agree that a “new” understanding of justification needs to be brought to the forefront and accepted as the Biblical (Pauline) view.

This is as far as I can go with Moore, however. Yes, I agree that the Catholic (realist) view must be rejected outright. And I agree that there is something wrong with the view that arose with the Protestant Reformation and that has become the accepted view among Evangelicals today. But I think Moore is wrong to reject the forensic idea completely and to try to substitute for it justification as a personal relationship with God. The relational view as Moore explains it is wrong. So what is the correct view, in my understanding? It is a kind of merging of the forensic and relational view. Justification indeed is a right relationship, but it is a right relationship to the law of God.

To understand justification (dikaioō, “to justify”), one must begin with the right understanding of the noun dikaiosunē, usually translated “righteousness.” In my book What the Bible Says About God the Redeemer (College Press, 1987; reprint, Wipf and Stock), I give a detailed study of “the righteousness of God” (chapter 4, pp. 175-243). Here I show from both OT and NT usage that the term “righteousness” basically means “conformity to the relevant norm.” When this is applied to human righteousness, the norm is the law of God (in the general sense, not just the Mosaic Law). In the discussion of salvation and justification, I conclude that “righteousness” means “satisfying the requirements of the law” (one’s relevant law code).

The problem with both the realist view and the forensic view is that this idea is usually understood as referring to the commandments of the law. I.e., in the Catholic (realist) view, one is “righteous” if he is morally upright in terms of obedience to the law’s commands. And in the Protestant (forensic) view, one is considered “righteous” if the righteousness of Christ (in terms of Christ’s perfect obedience) has been imputed to him. But these views actually have the same basic problem that Moore’s relational view has, namely, none of them can do justice to the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross.

This fundamental problem is quite obvious throughout Moore’s book. He mentions many times that Christ has died “to remove human sin” (11, 13-14), or that he has died “on behalf of the ungodly” (23). He speaks of “Christ’s sacrificial death for humanity’s sins” (102); he says that when Christ gave his life “as a reconciling sacrifice, God has addressed the issue of humanity’s sin once and for all” (109). “We were brought into a right relationship through Christ’s blood” (126). God can justify us—i.e., bring us into a right relationship with himself—“only because the sacrificial, reconciling work of Jesus Christ in his death has effectively dealt with human sin” (164). All this is true, but there is a problem: the author never explains HOW the cross accomplishes this! And the fact is, that once the forensic element is removed (see 14), the Biblical data about the cross become meaningless. Moore has to affirm a connection between the cross and justification, because this is a clear Biblical teaching (e.g., Rom. 5:9), but by eliminating the forensic (legal) element the nature of this connection is blank.

But here is the surprising fact: neither the Catholic “realist” view nor the traditional Protestant (so-called “forensic”) view does justice to the cross in connection with justification. In a sense, the Catholic view is better at this than the Protestant view. Catholic doctrine is clear that mortal sins can be forgiven only by the blood of Christ, but this is compromised by the teaching that one’s personal moral righteousness is also necessary for justification. In the usual Protestant view, however, the cross of Christ is marginalized with regard to justification by the usual insistence that the sinner is justified by the imputation of Christ’s active obedience—by his sinlessness, i.e., his obedience to the law’s commands—in his own life. This is why the justified sinner is “declared righteous,” i.e., because Christ’s perfect obedience has been imputed to his account, and thus the sinner himself is now regarded as sinless. My point is this: if this is true in any sense, there is really no need for the cross.

I will not try to explain this further here. For a fuller discussion, see my book, Set Free! What the Bible Says About Grace (College Press, 2009; 128-141).

So how can we come to a true Biblical understanding of justification? As noted above, by merging the forensic and the relational concepts. One simply cannot ignore the Biblical teaching that justification is a legal (forensic) concept. The act of justifying is something done by a judge in the context of a courtroom; it is the opposite of “to condemn” (see Deut. 25:1; Prov. 17:15; Isa. 5:23; Rom. 8:33-34). And here is where the relational element enters: to be justified means to stand in a right relationship with the law of God. (See my discussion of this in Set Free!, chapter 10, pp. 173-193.)

How is this different from the other views mentioned above? Because most attempts to define righteousness in terms of a relationship to God’s law focus on the commands of the law. This is the mistake. Justification has nothing to do with our relation to the law’s commands; it has to do rather with our relation to its penalty, i.e., condemnation to hell for eternity. When God the Judge justifies us, he does not declare us righteous by saying “Not guilty!” Rather, he says, “No penalty for you!” This is the essence of justification. See Romans 8:1.

Here is where the cross of Jesus enters the picture. The righteousness of God established by Jesus Christ IS imputed to us in the act of justification, but it is not Jesus’ satisfaction of the commands of the law that is so imputed. It is his satisfaction of the law’s demand for PENALTY, in the cross as redemption and propitiation (Rom. 3:24-26), that is imputed to us. On the cross Jesus was our substitute, taking on himself the equivalent of eternity of hell in our place, so that we can be treated as ones whose penalty has been paid. I.e., we are righteous in relation to the law’s penalty (see 2 Cor. 5:21). Thus, there is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1): “No penalty for you!”

Thus I agree with Moore that a “paradigm shift” is needed in regard to the doctrine of justification, but in my judgment his admirable attempt to fill this need has failed. I suggest we look in another direction, as described above.

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Justification: A Paradigm Shift? — 4 Comments

  1. “When God the Judge justifies us, he does not declare us righteous by saying “Not guilty!” Rather, he says, “No penalty for you!” This is the essence of justification.”

    So . . . a pardon rather than an acquittal?

    • Yes, something like this, but it is not an exact parallel. A pardon issued in a human court simply sets the penalty aside, whereas our justification through Christ does not. The penalty is still paid, but by a substitute. I think it can still be used as an illustration, though. The key is switching from having the Judge say “Not guilty” to saying “No penalty for you.” To make my point here, you could put the emphasis on the last word: “No penalty for YOU!”

  2. I agree with your paradigm shift. Except the verses in Romans 8 you use state that the condemnation is also dependent. Upon our walking in the Spirit, instead of the flesh. So that we are involved in a process of sanctification after our justification. Paul does require a lot of things to make us blameless.

    • I’m not sure what you mean when you say that Romans 8:1 (which is the verse I cite) states “that the condemnation is also dependent.” Or are you actually talking about FREEDOM from condemnation? And is your period in the wrong place? Are you asserting that freedom from condemnation is also dependent upon our walking in the Spirit, instead of the flesh? I don’t think that is Paul’s point here in this part of Romans 8. (That might be taken as a reversion to works salvation.) It is true that sanctification through the Spirit is intended to follow the reception of justification, and Paul begins to talk about this (walking according to the Spirit) at the end of v. 4. But this is not what he is talking about in vv. 2-3. In these verses Paul is contrasting two world systems. The first is the life system in which the Spirit of life operates and dominates; the second is the life system controlled by sin and death. Because of Christ the latter has been replaced by the former. The regulating principle that sin always brings death has been shattered by Christ’s propitiatory atonement. Thus there is therefore now no condemnation for me because through Christ and his new world order, my life is no longer governed by the rules of sin and death. Christ has broken the connection between sin and death. (See my commentary on Romans, where this is explained more fully.)

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