The Politics of Justification

The doctrine of justification is precious among Protestants. And it should be. The fact that God has declared our sins forgiven and that we have a righteous standing in the sight of God united to Christ is comforting and brings great joy. Unfortunately, the biblical teaching on justification is, many times, truncated. We have tended to see justification almost exclusively in individualistic terms. The reality is, however, that the biblical doctrine of justification has political ramifications.

Paul alludes to these political dimensions of justification when, opening a new section in his letter to the Roman church, he says, “Therefore being justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). We might not think much beyond the personal aspect of justification in this statement had not this letter been written into a Roman context. Beginning with Augustus Caesar, the promise of the Roman Empire was peace through justice. Rome would usher in justice to a region, sustaining that through her governance (in the way that she understood justice), and the result would be peace. The Caesars were the “Saviors” and “Lords” of the world who would be the purveyors of this justice and peace. Justification/Justice came under Roman lordship and the fruit was the Pax Romana.

The declaration of God concerning Christ in his resurrection was the reality of which the Roman Empire and her Caesars were a parody. What God did in raising Jesus from the dead was Jesus’ justification or vindication as the Son of God. This is what the early church confessed when they confessed that he was “vindicated by the Spirit” (1Timothy 3:16).

Among the various meanings of the Son of God in relation to Jesus, son of God in Scripture speaks of the one who is God’s appointed king. Psalm 2 teaches us: “Yet I have set my king on my holy hill of Zion. I will declare the decree: YHWH has said to me, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you.” God promised that David’s son would also be God’s son. This one would be king (2Samuel 7:14). Jesus, the seed of David, was that king who promised to usher in a kingdom of true righteousness and peace (cf. e.g., Isaiah 11:1-10).

The Gentiles and the Jews loudly rejected his right to the throne of the world by crucifying him, mocking him as king. But in rendering their verdict and carrying out their sentence, they sent Jesus to the highest court of the creation: before God the Father, the Judge who always judges justly. He reversed their verdict. In the resurrection-justification of Jesus, God the Father declared this one to be his son with power (Romans 1:4). To be declared to be the Son of God was nothing less than to be declared to be God’s appointed Lord of the world. Justification, among other things, is the bestowal of a crown.

The Romans had it right that peace could only come through justice, but they didn’t understand correctly what those words meant. Peace is the fruit of righteousness/justice (Isaiah 32:17). Paul explains in Romans 3:21–4.25 how God has brought justice to a world reeling under his hot displeasure. Through Christ’s death on the cross, justice has been done; the justice that is required to experience peace. Only in Christ is true justice found. Only in Christ are things the way they ought to be with God. Therefore, only in Christ is true peace experienced. In Christ Jesus things are as they should be between the world and God–justice–and, consequently, in Christ Jesus there is peace.

God’s justification of Jesus in the resurrection was the public–the political–declaration that the world is now under new management. God has reconciled all things to himself through Christ Jesus, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace through the blood of Christ’s cross (Colossians 1:20). All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus (Matthew 28:18). He is king. His justification-resurrection was the public, political announcement that this is the case.

Christ is our justification. That is, united to him by faith we are justified. Yes, that means our sins are forgiven. Yes, that means that we have a personal standing of righteous before God. But justification is not merely a personal life-preserver. It is a crown. To be justified in Christ is to be declared to be his true son. We have died and risen with Christ, and with him we are declared to be sons of God. This is a political statement. When God justifies people, declaring it through baptism (Romans 6), it is a public declaration to the world that these are the rightful kings and lords of the earth. These are God’s sons who need only ask and God will give them the nations for their inheritance (Psalm 2). These are the ones who lead the world into true justice by living according to Christ’s kingdom way. To be among them is to find peace.

The church–the family of the justified–exists in public. We are a political body. This doesn’t mean that we support certain candidates and put up yard signs. It doesn’t mean that we put out voter guides. Those things may be fine and even expressions of our responsibility to the world around us. But that is not what it means that the church is a political body. The church is the center of the kingdom of Christ on earth. We are a “holy nation” and a “kingdom of priests” (1Peter 2:9). We are the rulers of the world, seated with Christ in heavenly places (Ephesians 1:20-23; 2:6). Christ’s rule over the earth is expressed in and through us (Ephesians 1:22). We have our own system of justice with our own rulers and courts (1Corinthians 6:1ff.). We have our own military (Ephesians 6:10ff.). We are a nation within nations. A political system within political systems.

Being justified means that, as a body-politic, we demonstrate what it means to live justly and at peace. Because of who we are–kings of the earth–we are to lead this world in what it means to live under the lordship of Jesus. That begins by being who we are within our own nation. We are to resolve our own conflicts with one another. We are to treat one another with the love and respect owed to each. We are deal with the sin that would destroy righteousness and peace. We are to put on the whole armor of God, wield the sword of the Spirit from the pulpits, and wage war in prayer and self-giving to defeat the principalities and powers. We are to lead the world in learning how to die, taking up the cross, in order to be justified through resurrection by the Father.

Justification is a calling as much as it is a standing. We are called to be Christ’s body-politic in this world, living in the Pax Christi. Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with one another.

Bill Smith is Pastor of Community Presbyterian Church in Louisville, KY.