Justification, Deification and Faith

Justification, Deification and Faith

Justification is a topic that has been discussed and debated throughout the history of the Christian church since the time of Augustine, but most particularly from the period of the Reformation until today. There are different models used to illustrate the doctrines and widely differing opinions on those models. This is a complicated area because often we equate the right understanding of justification as the understanding of the entire gospel message. The message of the gospel is not merely the answer to ‘how are we justified?’, but justification does point us to the heart of it by showing us that it is through God’s mercy that we receive the new life given to us by him which we receive by faith that we in no way could ever earn.

A clear foundational structure for talking about justification can begin with this statement: “Justification is the act of the triune God by which Jesus Christ is bestowed on us, through the word and sacrament, to be our righteousness received by faith.”[1] There are several parts to this assertion and we must take them apart to understand what this means.

First, what do we mean when we say justification? What are we talking about? Justification is a legal term. To be justified is to have ones case judged to be the better. Another word for this better case is righteousness. It is similar to what we have in our civil court cases today in that it is not an individual or group versus a specific law or set of laws but rather versus another individual or group. The goal is not focused on whether or not a rule or law has been broken but instead on who has a better case, or we could say, who is more righteous, in particular a dispute in a given situation.

The Hebrew word for this goal is mishpat. Mishpat means to make things right and it “brings about a new situation in which the life can go on in a better way.”[2] Mishpat has four major components to it. First, it has a public context in that it is concerned with the relationships between individuals and/or groups. Second, it is concerned with judging a dispute between multiple persons with a transgression of one of those parties not merely a violation of a law. Third, it has a two-fold outcome of pronouncing a verdict on a past transgression and doing so in a manner that makes way for a good future. Fourth, it has a focus on the future by addressing wrongs for the sake of the good to come out of it.

In our culture, what we often identify as justice is actually vengeance. Revenge is concerned with the naming and addressing of wrongs for the sake of the wrongs, regardless of, or even with no concern for, the future. This understanding of justice impairs our definition of justification and it must be clear that this is not what is meant by mishpat. A significant difference lies in the specific emphasis on a view of and intent for the future that is found with mishpat and it is this understanding of justice that we are using when defining justification.

So, when we say that we are justified by the Triune God, we are saying that we have been judged by God as righteous. Of course, we know that this cannot be possible as things are, with the human state of sin that make us always guilty of injustice before God. Even if we can be judged as righteous or with the better case in a dispute with our neighbor, we can never stand in dispute with God as we are and be found righteous. If God creates and defines all that is, which includes both mishpat/righteousness and us, then how could we who are not God and are corrupted by sin, be declared the righteous party in a dispute with the maker of righteousness itself? If we, who are clearly not righteous, are declared so through no merit of our own, then how can this be a justice that prepares a way for good?

This brings us to our second area we need to look at in our framework of justification. This act of the Triune God of Justification is the act by which Christ is bestowed on us through the word and sacrament in order to be our righteousness. This bestowal of Christ by means the word and sacrament is a union with Christ. This union is both the method of justification and its goal as well.

Union with Christ, the formation of one single reality formed by us and God, is a difficult concept to get our minds around. Up until this point, we have emphasized our otherness from God, our not-Godness, in order to be clear in our understanding of God as our creator and us as his creature. At first, it feels completely contrary to what we have been stating up to this point. However, this union with Christ brings us to not merely to a place o f being looked upon as “ok” by God, as is frequently the perceived goal of justification, but to a new life lived in Christ.

There is much in scripture to help us with this. 1st Corinthians speaks of sinners being joined to Christ so that they form one body with him in that their bodies have become members of his body. Romans, Galatians and Ephesians all speak of Christ being in the believers. In other epistles, believers are said to be crucified, risen and exalted to the Father’s right hand in him. Christ’s words to his followers in John 15 speak of an inextricable connection between them as vines and branches. Jesus says that he remains in those who are in him.

Although how this union with Christ exists is largely beyond our human ability to conceive, we can begin to get our minds around the concept by using the union of humanity and divinity in the one person Jesus Christ as an analogy. This is usable as an analogy insofar as this unity between us and Christ is the same kind of union as the unity of divinity and humanity in the person of Christ. It is one concrete whole. The union is a reality and not a symbolic idea. Just as the two natures form one real person Jesus, the union of Jesus and the many people of faith forms one body to which all the parts belong as truly as all my toes, fingers, skin, eyes, etc belong to me. This belonging, this union, is greater even than belonging to our biological family. This single reality in which we are joined with Christ is the Church.

Next we look again to our statement that says that Christ is bestowed upon us, we are united with him, through word and sacrament and this is received by faith. Word and sacrament are the methods of this union and this is grasped by faith. What does all this mean?

The gospel, which is preached and enacted for us, comes externally to us to be grasped by us by faith. Significant in this is that Jesus, in the word and sacrament, comes to us, to our human level. It is not something we go out to seek on our own, nor is it something that comes about inside our individual spiritual world through some kind of internal search. It is not a special religious experience that defines this faith which does the grasping nor is it some kind of high level intellectual ascent that fully comprehends the totality of the meaning. Rather it is the simple, everyday, garden variety Christian faith that trusts in the gospel promise that is Jesus himself that encounters us in the word and sacrament.

This justifying act of being united with Christ through the external word and sacrament which is received by faith produces something more than appearing acceptable in the presence of God. It is this, and is still so much more! This justifying act of the triune God is an act of mishpat which means, as established earlier, more than making right but also making a right way into the future. Although it would be, in itself, not a bad thing to be merely made acceptable before God, it would not be an act of mishpat. This future God creates for us in his act of mishpat is our new life in Christ. The action of union with Christ is also our deification.

It is “through union with Christ by faith that the image of God begins to be renewed in fallen human beings.”[3] It is this imago Dei, the image of God, that was corrupted by original sin and our union with Christ begins to put this corruption to right.

Our deification takes the very real shape of crucifixion and resurrection. The “human act, the self-surrender of Jesus Christ to bitter death out of love and obedience to God, is the human act in which God’s purpose for humankind is achieved.”[4] When, in our baptism, we are crucified with Christ, and when we eat his body and blood at the table, he begins to renew that imago Dei. We are united to him and he lives in us and, as such, the process of deification is begun when we are encountered by Christ in the sacraments. In a real sense, we concretely are what we eat. We consume the body of Christ and we become the body of Christ.

All of this means that when one is a Christian, one is fundamentally, concretely something different. We often downplay this fundamental difference, or blatantly pretend it is not so, in our churches today by trying to make it seem like the Christian faith is just like any other life-path choice. In fact, it is not a life-path choice at all but rather an entire new life altogether given to us by God.

A concern or fear that many of us have in our modern world, where we all are encouraged to strive for an individualistic autonomy, is the vague notion of the loss of personal identity in the face of becoming one person, along with everyone else, with Jesus. The flaw here lies with the way in which we think of our identities. However, it is not our true selves we loose but the “everyday self, the working ego that we have formed through the action and interaction of our individuality with the world around us.”[5] Our true self is a gift from God rather than a personality we form from scratch on our own.

Ultimately, our real self is found as a member of the body of Christ to which we are united. This deification process which continues to grow in us and move us toward an ever fuller manifestation of the new life in Christ will finally be complete “when we are revealed with Christ in glory”[6].
[1] Yeago, typescript, pg 223
[2] Ibid, pg 215
[3] Ibid, pg 236
[4] Ibid, pg 237
[5] Ibid, pg 239
[6] Ibid, pg 240

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