Making sense of 'justified by faith'
In the last couple of months various things have challenged me as to whether the particular nuances of my thoughts about 'justification by faith' are correct.
So I thought I'd sit down and start from what I'm sure of beyond doubt and work toward what I'm totally unsure of.
1. Every single description of the final eternal judgment of God in the undisputed Paulines is a judgment whose criteria is whether a person is good or evil. (This is in line with standard Jewish and early Christian beliefs)
2. The word Dikaiosune itself in Greek means primarily morality or virtue and is essentially moral rather than forensic.
3. Paul firmly believes in the moral transformation of the Christian. He believes that God provides the Spirit which works in Christians to transform them.
4. Paul's theology about what happens to Christians after conversion is therefore fairly straightforward. They receive the spirit, are sanctified, gain real moral righteousness, and achieve a positive final judgment as a result. (It is his theology of conversion, 'justified by faith' etc, that is the tricky part.)
5. The verb form Dikaioo seems to usually mean "to consider/declare/deem righteous", rather than to "make righteous" and so could be said to be forensic.
6. The word Pistis can mean a variety of things, but the ones most relevant to the NT are 'belief' in an idea, 'faithfulness' to a person, and 'perseverance'.
7. Pistis is most commonly used by Paul without an explicit object. When it has one it is most commonly God, and secondarily the controversial pistis christou passages.
8. According to Paul it is definitely good for Christians themselves to have 'faith'. (even the pistis-chrisou-is-subjective crowd thinks it's not just Christ who has faith)
9. Chronologically in a Christian's life we see the flow:
Hear the gospel -> faith -> sanctification -> final judgment
10. Paul suggests that the Galatians received the Spirit after hearing the message and coming to faith.
11. Perhaps the simplest theoretical framework to construct from all of this then is that people come to God in faith and he provides them with the Spirit which empowers their sanctification and leads to a positive final judgment.
The trouble is that while all this doesn't pin down the meaning of the phrase 'justified by faith'. Is it something that happens at the moment of conversion? Or does it mean "we are eventually justified, at the final judgment, as a result of processes that occur that begin with our faith and end with our justification"? That is really quite key to pinning down justification - is it a conversion event, an ongoing process, or an event at the final judgment? I have typically taken the second view, but now I wonder.
As far as 'faith' goes, I have tended to understand it as meaning 'faithfulness to Jesus' and interpret this as meaning means we faithfully follow Jesus' teachings and thus become righteous (ie justified through faithfulness). In support of this view is that sanctification and justification are linguistically synonymous in meaning, and we read in Acts that Christ told Paul to teach that Gentiles are "sanctified by faith in me" (implying that justified and sanctified can be swapped in that phrase). However equating 'faithful' to Jesus to mean 'the faithful following of Jesus' teachings' I have found to be a bit of a stretch. It's possible, but when talking to people about it, I've increasingly found that other people are not very happy to accept it as a natural reading.
I think it is not often enough thought about where Paul gets the very idea of 'faith' from. Why on earth does he (apparently arbitrarily) think 'faith' (whatever it is) is so important? From his vision of the risen Jesus? From the Abraham passage? A clear answer to that question would help in understanding what Paul thinks 'faith' means.
'Justified by faith' is not a particularly common phrase in the NT, residing mainly in just two of Paul's epistles. Unless we want to posit a massive split within early Christianity, we need to believe that whatever Paul was on about with his 'justified by faith' terminology was (if it was at all important) held by other NT writers and second century Christians who do not use such terms - and thus that the doctrine is translatable in to phrases and concepts that speak of neither justification nor faith.
Does 'justified' connect with forgiveness of sins? Or repentance? Why does Paul so rarely speak of the concept of 'repentance and forgiveness' so common in Judaism and elsewhere in the NT? Is justification by faith synonymous with that, or something different?