Romans 8, Part 3: Justification and Resurrection

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The divine action of “justification” is frequently understood to refer to God causing an individual human person to be declared as righteous before God. Justification is an instantaneous one-time event in history that is a necessary precondition for the salvation of individuals. It absolves a person of their guilt by a transfer–grounded in Christ’s payment of the death penalty for the imputed human guilt of the elect on the cross–of the legal righteousness of Jesus earned through his meritorious obedience. Justification is thus a change in how God looks at an individual; or more technically, it is a change in the divine disposition toward an individual.

But is justification solely a change in God’s disposition toward a person? Or can justification refer to something else as well? Several verses indicate that in some contexts, a wider meaning can be operative:

Romans 4:25

…who was handed over to death for our trespasses but raised for our justification.

If justification just had to do with a change in God’s disposition, then clearly this would have nothing to do with the resurrection. It would solely be tied to the crucifixion, where (some say) Christ’s imputed righteousness made God’s attitude toward us change. Tying justification to the resurrection in a causal manner is strange. The verse seems to mean “When Jesus rose from the dead, He caused men to be justified”. Resurrection is not associated with the payment of a penalty or the transfer of a legal status by divine declaration. Rather it has to do with the reconstitution of a thing; it is re-ordering matter and re-uniting it with soul. What does the resurrection of Jesus cause, elsewhere in Scripture? In 1 Corinthians 15:22, it is the cause of mankind’s resurrection. Perhaps 1 Corinthians 15:22 and Romans 4:25 are referring to the same thing, such that justification just *is* resurrection.

Romans 6:7

For whoever has died is justified from sin.

The death referred to here is the mystical participation in Christ’s death through baptism. What is peculiar is that the sense in which a person is justified from sin is *being freed from sin’s domination*–not just a divine legal declaration about the status of a human being before God.

Romans 5:18-21

Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, graced abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Paul is clear in his Adam/Christ parallel and in his use of the words “all” and “the many” that every human being is justified by what Christ did. If justification is always equivalent to “acquittal”, then it seems to imply that all human beings are saved. But this is clearly denied elsewhere in Scripture. Paul connects very closely here the idea of justification and eternal life, and freedom from death’s power. He also uses the phrase “made righteous”–which is distinct from a mere legal declaration. It appears that justification in some way reconstitutes or changes human beings.

1 Timothy 3:16

He was revealed in the flesh, justified in the spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among Gentiles, believed in throughout the world, taken up in glory.

The justification/vindication of Jesus involved his resurrection by the power of the holy Spirit. Justification here is a synonym either for resurrection itself, or the direct effect of resurrection conferring on Jesus’ a cosmic vindication.

In these verses, justification has a number of peculiar features:

1. All men are justified.
2. The resurrection of Jesus causes justification.
3. Justification is associated with eternal life and freedom from death and the dominion of sin.
4. Justification involves a change in the inner constitution of a thing.

It does not seem like a stretch to say that the justification that is given to all men by Jesus’ resurrection is indeed the *same thing* as the resurrection of mankind caused by Jesus’ resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:22. In order to understand, the distinction that needs to be made is between person and nature. Justification is given to human nature, as distinct from particular persons or selves in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. When Jesus rises from the dead, human nature rises with Him; consequently all human beings are justified. Now let’s substitute the allegedly equivalent words: when Jesus is justified/vindicated, all human nature is justified/vindicated; consequently, all human beings are justified/vindicated. This certainly fits. But this does not mean that all human persons are justified/vindicated as individuals. Hence universalism is not entailed.

How can justification, linguistically, possibly refer to resurrection? That is a question for another time. For now, it is interesting to note that justification may be equivalent in some sense to resurrection.

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