When I read the word “justification” in the Bible, I feel a strong religious impulse to turn it into some kind of voodoo, where I perform some incantation here on earth, and it re-arranges the furniture of heaven. Or in more Christian-ese terms, I do X, and as a result, God opens up his Excel spreadsheet, and he moves me from the “Damned” column to the “Saved” column, which means that after I die, he will send my soul to a nice (non-smoking) neighborhood.
The precise nature of “X” varies according to one’s upbringing (Pick one):
- Saying a prayer at a revival meeting
- Not sinning ever again
- Not doing “the really bad sins” ever again
- Going ‘down front’ at a Billy Graham crusade
- Really REALLY giving your life to Christ at Bible camp (preferably on a yearly basis)
- Going to church every Sunday
- Going to church AT LEAST on Christmas and Easter
- Believing in Jesus as my Lord and Savior
- Getting baptized
- Getting baptized the RIGHT way
- Voting Republican
- Voting Democrat
- Reading the Bible and/or praying every day
- Rounding all the bases of my church’s baseball-themed discipleship program
Now, I’m not saying it’s bad to do any of these things. I’ve probably done all of them, except for the “Never sinning again one” (with that one, I was just being a smartass). But do they cause “justification”? No, of course not. Papa’s opinion of me does not change according to the things I do. Papa’s actions toward me are not determined by my “works,” not even the work called “faith.” Faith/Belief in Jesus is a big deal, don’t get me wrong, but it does not change Papa; it changes ME. Papa has already settled on his eternal orientation toward me, which can be summed up as “John: I’m really quite fond of that boy, and I’m never going to leave nor forsake him.”
The meaning of “justification” becomes clearer as we look at its linguistic cousin — JUSTICE. Justice is the state of a society where things are right, where things relate rightly to other things, particularly where people relate to other people in ways that fit what people are. To justify is to “make just,” to move a situation from being “unjust” to “just.” To use N.T. Wright‘s phrasing, to justify is “to put things to rights.”
The gospel, as Jesus put it, is that “The kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1.15), which is another way of saying that God is moving our world from its current state of Injustice to a future state of Justice. He accomplishes this by JUSTIFYING the world, by righting its relationship with Papa. He did this by entering into the unjust world and sharing with the world his own right relationship with Papa. When Jesus touched a leper, he infected the leper with his own health. And when Jesus enters into the fallen world, he infected the world with his own unfallenness.
If you are a human being, you have been given a right relationship with Papa, which is to say you have been given justification. It’s a done deal. “It is finished,” as Jesus put it once. The degree to which you believe this is the degree to which it will affect your actions and your experience of life. If you think God is holding a grudge against you because you broke his rules, it is certainly going to affect how you live and how you treat people who break YOUR rules. Not a fun way to live, I’ve been there. But the good news is that the Holy Spirit lives forever with us and in us to tell us the truth about ourselves, “that we are God’s children” (Romans 8.16). The Holy Spirit is very skilled at his job, teaching us to believe the truth. And as I come to believe the truth and see the universe as it really is, I become more and more just in my relationship with the world
This, I think, is a better way of thinking about the journey called “justification.”
ABOUT THE SHACK BIBLE GLOSSARY:
One of the greatest Bible interpretation lessons I’ve learned is from THE PRINCESS BRIDE’s Inigo Montoya: “You keep using that word…I do not think it means what you think it means.” I believe in paying attention to where my definitions come from. And when it comes to certain Bible words and their definitions, I often find that they come from traditions of thought that I find less than brilliant. So my quest now is to define words afresh according to my assumption that the gospel is true. That in Jesus, Trinity and humanity have in fact been bound together forever. That our adoption into the Triune Life is the whole point of creation. That it has been accomplished by Jesus, and that the Holy Spirit lives in and among us to tell us the truth about God and ourselves and each other. And that we look to a day when the knowledge of the Lord will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. The Shack Bible Glossary is my ongoing attempt at re-defining key words in the light of the Gospel.