Martin Luther forged his doctrine of justification by faith alone within the context of his struggles to reform Christendom.
By contrast, our age has often been described as ‘post-Christian.’ The world of Christendom that Luther presupposed no longer exists. What relevance does the doctrine of justification have for our time? I propose that the way the Apostle Paul spoke about justification within the context of his missionary preaching has particular relevance for our time.
Several decades ago in Paul’s Gospel and Mission, Arland Hultgren argued that Paul’s theology needs to be understood in terms of his apostolic call. Paul had a world-embracing mission to proclaim the gospel of God’s redemptive work in Jesus Christ to persons everywhere–Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free persons, and men and women. This apostolic call was grounded in two deeply held convictions:
1. Paul was convinced that the prophets’ eschatological promises concerning not only Israel, but also all “the nations”–that they too would know the Lord and participate in the Spirit’s messianic kingdom of peace and unity–had already been confirmed in God’s sending his Son, Jesus, to redeem the world. Nonetheless, although the promises in principle included all nations in their scope, a mission was needed so that all the nations could in fact participate in this new age of the Spirit, even now before Christ’s final return, when God would fully complete the “new creation” (Galatians 6:15) and be “everything” to “everyone” (1 Corinthians 15:28).1
2. Thus, in this era between Jesus’ resurrection and his final return, Paul was convinced that he had been commissioned as an apostle to usher in the first stage–the “first fruits”–of the gathering of all the nations into the Spirit’s messianic kingdom.
In relation to the first conviction, Paul spoke about justification in a theocentric and cosmic sense. God’s righteousness had been manifested “apart from the law” in the death and resurrection of Jesus (Romans 3:21-26) and was now effective, bringing “justification in life for all” (Romans 5:18). In relation to the second conviction, Paul spoke about justification in an anthropocentric and personal sense, drawing on the story of Abraham and the promise that in him all the nations would be blessed (Genesis 12:3, LXX). In the same way that Abraham accepted this promise “by faith”–apart from circumcision and observing the law–so all people who hear this promise and believe it has been confirmed in Jesus can enjoy (even now before the final parousia) the eschatological gift of justification (Romans 4:9-25; Galatians 3:6-18).
These two convictions and ways of speaking about justification continue to be relevant for our day. Indeed, the decline of Christendom presents Christian communities with the opportunity for retrieving the missionary impulse they had in the apostolic age. Like the early congregations Paul founded, we too have been called, gathered, and sent as the “first installments” of the Spirit’s messianic age. Our very “being” is defined by God’s mission in the world; we do not just “do” mission.2
As we enact this mission, we have no power except what we have been given: the gospel and the Spirit. We cannot have an “us/them way of thinking”3–whether in relation to unbelievers or even other believers–because God’s promise in Jesus is always a promise for all people: both good and bad (recall Paul’s first way of speaking about justification). Moreover, because those promises are always for all people, the communities they create are always open communities that continually welcome new people with the missionary proclamation of the eschatological gift that can be enjoyed even now by faith (recall Paul’s second way of speaking about justification).
Of course, as new people enter our communities, they will, in turn, transform our communities by their very presence (as the baptism of Cornelius’ household transformed not only Peter’s, but also the Jerusalem community’s self-understanding, see Acts 10 and Paul’s argument in Galatians). This means that we must continually discern anew how the universal promise in Jesus might best be enacted in each new particular context. We need to continually distinguish not only what is essential from what is peripheral to Christian belief and practice, but what are true and false uses of spiritual power (e.g., as Paul did with the Corinthians). In this process, there will continually be points of tension and conflict (on this side of the eschaton) as different types of sinful people, coming from diverse backgrounds, receive the Spirit’s eschatological gifts.
Thus, we need to hear “again and again” (as Luther would say) the missionary proclamation of the good news of what God’s saving righteousness in Jesus has done not only for all people, but also for us. We need to be reminded again and again that by faith we are a part of the Spirit’s new eschatological community–the “new creation,” the age to come (Galatians 6:15)–and that we live in the certainty that nothing in all creation, nor even in things to come, can separate us from God’s love in Jesus (Romans 8).
1Arland Hultgren, Paul’s Gospel and Mission (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985).
2Patrick Keifert, We Are Here Now: A New Missional Era (Eagle, ID: Allelon Publishing, 2006), 28-29.
3Arland Hultgren, Christ and His Benefits: Christology and Redemption in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), 203.