Think about the words “justified” and “justification” in two different contexts:
- We use these words in judgment of people’s actions, often taking into account the prior actions of other people:
Here, “justified” means morally acceptable and we apply it to both actions and people: my actions are justified; I am justified. And we can take this further and have “justification” stand for the whole human enterprise of figuring out what is right and wrong — social mores, social control if you like, and individual conscience.
- “Am I justified in doing this?”
- “Do his past actions justify my avoiding any further dealings with him?”
- “Is it right for us to sue them for all their worth? That is, are we justified in doing that?”
- Then there is “justified” and “justification” as Paul uses those terms in Romans and Galatians, which has to do with acceptance by God, which he says is attained by faith in Jesus and not by “works of the law.”
It may seem like just a quirk of the English language that the same words are used in these two contexts. But there is more to it than that. It is as we set these two contexts alongside each other that we understand what is happening in each of them and see that they are really the same. When we ask whether an action is “justified,” we are asking a theological question, that is, a God question. That it is the wrong question we learn by hearing that sinners are justified by faith in Jesus. We learn thereby that the desire for that first sort of justification is deadly poison. I will cut to the chase and thoroughly offend New Testament scholarship by referring to the collision of these two senses of “justified” in Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in the Temple (Luke 18:10-14): one man tells God why he is justified, but he is not; the other pleads for mercy, and he is justified.
We regard justification, in the “am I justified?” sense, as quite important. It is part of who we are. Pursuing it is much of what we do. It might be placed on some sort of Maslow scale of needs somewhere near behind food, air, and water. It is a need to consider oneself right, and it has to be understood ultimately as a rejection of God’s judgment and God’s grace. It is a constant attempt to substitute “justification” in the first sense for “justification” in the second sense, our righteousness for God’s (Romans 10:3).
William Stringfellow, a lawyer by the way, is particularly helpful on understanding this as he mentions many different ways in which we seek to fulfill this drive to be justified: bearing pain, good works, good words, “relevance,” churchly pageantry, or …
The pursuit of justification by any means — moralistic conduct, dogmatic conformity, charitable enterprise, daily work, or burnt offerings — is, in the biblical perspective, the essence of human vanity in its denial of God’s freedom to affirm life without contingency, dependency, or equivocation. Such notions of justification refute God’s capability of love….
Stringfellow is writing against the implied atheism of some liberal Protestantism, but what he says could be directed as easily against evangelicals, whether we think of conscious theological statements or the social mores of theologically informed or uninformed evangelicals (see another future post, “Ethics”). Stringfellow also sees the idea that God blesses the righteous (which has a very tenuous place in the Bible) as making wealth itself a measure of this false justification. The U.S.’s self-image as a nation (about which I may also post something some day) shown by its success to be justified shapes much of our political rhetoric and government policies. All this just illustrates the far reach of the drive for justification.
But, and here finally comes Ellul:
The worst possible injury is done to us…. We cannot appropriate either the virtue of righteousness or the glory of justifying ourselves (a glory that is so important that many tales and legends finally come to a climax in it, as the hero triumphs through a thousand tests and then at the last receives the supreme reward that he has won, [which] always corresponds to either absolute love or absolute purity, that is, the righteousness obtained at the cost of so many trials in a conquest that is strictly anti-Christian, the quest for the Grail and the Lancelot cycle being a mere parody of revelation). The declaration that we are justified by grace, by the sovereign love of God manifested in the death of Jesus, dispossesses us of something that we regard as essential, namely, that we should fashion our own righteousness.
Stringfellow is most accessible in A Keeper of the Word: Selected Writings of William Stringfellow, ed. Bill Wylie Kellerman (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994).
- “[W]ays in which we seek to fulfill this drive to be justified”: e.g., Stringfellow, Keeper of the Word, 65, 133, 138, 140, 164.
- “The pursuit of justification by any means”: Keeper of the Word, 65.
- “[I]mplied atheism of some liberal Protestantism”: see particularly Keeper of the Word, 138. This reminds me of Dostoevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor” (The Brothers Karamazov, book V, chapter 5), who is offended at Jesus’ return because the church has the work of human happiness well in hand.
- “[M]aking wealth a measure of justification”: Keeper of the Word, 245-50.
- “[T]he U.S.’s self-image as a nation shown by its success to be justified”: Keeper of the Word, 227-32.
- “The worst possible injury”: Jacques Ellul, The Subversion of Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 160.
- Sorry about the proleptic cross references.