Getting the WHOLE Picture of Justification

When it comes to the Bible, we sometimes get a partial idea of a subject stuck in our heads, and we end up ignoring the rest of what the Bible says about that subject.  We hold stubbornly to our partial view, thinking that this is the “faithful” way to think, but we don’t realize that our learning about it is incomplete.  I think this is what’s going on with the popular view of justification.  I think that many in our culture tend to look at the concept of justification in a way that is significantly different from the way that the writers of the New Testament looked at it.  So, indulge me if you will, as I set this up with a memory from my college days in the next paragraph:

When I studied World Music Cultures in college, the African professor told us something rather interesting. He said that here in the West, we have separate words for music and dance, and that we normally tend to view them as separate things. But it is not this way in every culture of the world, he said.  Many of them have just one word that describes both music and dance.  They don’t separate the two in their thinking, nor in their language. They have no concept of just sitting about listening to music and thinking about it, but not dancing. To them, music includes dance.  To us, that’s weird; to them, that’s normal.

I think there’s something of this sort going on with the way that we tend to see “justification” in our culture, as contrasted with the way it was seen by the New Testament authors (and by Yahweh). Justification is roughly defined as being right with God, or being made righteous in God’s eyes.  To many of us (but not all) justification is the result of God’s work, and not of our own. We separate it out from a person’s activities and deeds. But if you look closely at everything that the Bible texts say about justification, you’ll discover that their way of looking at justification wasn’t as narrow as ours.  That is—to draw a parallel with my music/dance story—they didn’t consider the music (or God’s work, by analogy) as being separate from the dance (the believer’s actions).

We can see this if we examine all the New Testament passages about justification.  But that’s not how many view the subject.  They get their view from considering only part of the evidence we have.  There are 30-something verses in the New Testament (ESV) that mention justification, and if we’re not careful, we’ll start to form an overgeneralized view of the subject from the first few passages we consider, instead of waiting until all the evidence is in view, and then settling on a definition for justification.

Let me demonstrate how this can work.  Let’s start by considering the following four passages only, and then we’ll see what conclusions one might tend to reach from that:

Romans 8:33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.

Romans 3:24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,

Romans 5:9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.

Titus 3:7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

If you cherry pick just these four from the 30-something verses about justification, you can get a view of justification as something that depends completely and only on God, his grace, and Jesus’ blood. And if you have that idea in mind, then you’re also apt to love the following one-liners about justification as well, for you see them as supporting your God-only view of justification:

Galatians 3:11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law

Galatians 5:4 You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.

Romans 3:23 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight,

Romans 3:28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.

Galatians 2:16 yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ,

Again, if a Bible student has already committed to a God-only view of justification, then the five passages above serve to bolster that view significantly, they tend to think.  They tend to see these passage as arguments against the idea that following that mean ol’ law (of Moses) ever had anything to do with being justified in God’s eyes.  They now have an either/or model in mind: It’s either justification or it’s following the Law. That is, it’s either the right view, or the wrong one. Or again, it’s either justification by God (the right view) or justification by your own work of following the Law (the wrong view). That’s the way people to size it up if they’re only considering what these 9 passages above say about justification.  (They also tend to make one more significant error, but I’ll talk about that later, so as not to muddy the waters just yet.)

In addition to the 9 one-liner passages above, however, there are 20-something other one-liners about justification in the New Testament.  These other passages reveal some other things that don’t really fit this oversimplified God-only view. Many read these passages, and even quote them to others, while not realizing that they don’t exactly fit their God-only model of justification–because they show that faith is required for justification to take place, and faith is not something God does; it’s something that the believer has to supply.

These passages, for example, continue as the passages above do to point out that justification does not come by the Law of Moses, but they also add some extra information about faith:

Romans 3:28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.

Galatians 2:16 yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.

Galatians 3:11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.”

I always find it interesting to watch when a person holding to the God-only model of justification comes across these verses that mention justification by faith.  Too few of them realize that this new information should cause them to reassess their God-only rule, opening up the door to the idea that there’s more involved in justification than just God doing something.  So now, with these verses in mind, they hold to both a God-only justification and a faith-only justification.  Logically speaking, of course, that just doesn’t work, since the word “only” is exclusive.  But there is a strong tendency in some Christians to oversimplify and overgeneralize the scriptures.  Indeed, oversimplification and overgeneralization are common cognitive errors, so the cognitive scientists tell us.  So it shouldn’t surprise us too much to see it happening in religion, too.  And we do!  For example, there is a strong bias afoot in modern Christianity that eternal life is “by grace alone” or “by faith alone” or “by Christ alone”, and so forth.  Many will say such tings, not realizing that they are violating logic by use of words like “alone” or “only” when they clearly point to more than one thing being necessary.

But that’s what they do.  So, without modifying their God-only view of justification, they also recite the faith passages above, being careful to single out that mean ol’ Law as a bad guy against which to remain ever vigilant.  And they continue on with these other favorites that highlight the link between justification and faith:

Romans 3:30 since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.

Romans 5:1 Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Romans 10:10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.

Galatians 3:8 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.”

Galatians 3:24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.

That brings us up to 17 verses about justification, which is roughly half of all there are in the New Testament, and the person who latched onto the God-only model of justification has generally accepted that faith is also part of it, but rarely realizes that they should amend their God-only view into a God-and-faith view of how justification works.  Further, they tend to add to it an anti-law view of justification, too.  Where they began this justification puzzle with only one piece (God-only), now they have a puzzle with three pieces to it:

  1. God-only
  2. Faith
  3. Anti-law

Even so, the continue to oversimplify it as mostly being a matter of what God does.

But is this all the scriptures have to say about it?


Before we go on to examine the other passages, this would be a good time to explain the popular error that I mentioned earlier.  We found 8 or 9 passages that make it rather clear that justification does not come by following the Law of Moses.  But many are not careful to let those passages say only what they say; instead, they expand this ruling out of the Law of Moses into a ruling out of all human deeds or works.  So, to make sure we’re not making the same error, let’s pause right here to take a careful look again at those passages we read above.  Do you find even a single instance in which any works other than the works of the Law of Moses were in view?

Galatians 3:11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law

Galatians 5:4 You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.

Romans 3:23 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight,

Romans 3:28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.

Galatians 2:16 yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ,

Romans 3:28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.

Galatians 2:16 yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.

Galatians 3:11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.”

In every instance, it was not works/deeds/actions in general that were in view, but quite specifically, works of the Law of Moses.  Even so, I have seen it again and again that people will take this information and apply this idea beyond what Paul wrote into something Paul would never have written.  They don’t just limit these “works” in view to the following of the Law of Moses, but they apply it to any human activities.  In so doing, they violate the rule:  “Do not go beyond what is written.” (1 Corinthians 4:6).

Because they make this cognitive error, then they find some of the other passages about justification to be quite unsettling and hard to explain.  They have this God-only view of justification, in which any human activity, if considered crucial for justification by the actor, is viewed as being an insult to God’s grace.  So, it really throws a wrench into their gears when they come across passages like these:

Matthew 12:37 for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.

Luke 18:13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’  14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

James 2:21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?

James 2:24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

James 2:25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?

These passages, of course, come from the same Bible as the other passages we have seen, but they really don’t fit with that popular God-only view of justification.  We’ve already seen that all the “by faith” passages don’t really fit that view, either, by the way.  But at least in those passages, one can pretend to find shelter in the idea that faith is such a minimal activity, as to be practically not a “work” or a “deed” at all.  That’s wrong, of course; it is a work; it is a thing that a person must do–but this is what many will tell themselves to try to ease the cognitive dissonance between their preferred God-only view and these verses that force them to include not only the works of God, but the faith of the human.  And many seem to manage OK, blurring over the difference between the God-only view and the faith-required view by minimizing the meaning of faith.  But then come these other passages about justification, which do serious violence to the God-only view.

For example, Jesus himself–the Messiah, Son of God, and God in the flesh–has people being justified by their own words (Matthew 12:37) and by humbling themselves before God (Luke 18:14)! Then James comes right out and tells his audience that Abraham was “justified by works“.  And if that weren’t enough, he goes so far as to crush this “faith alone” idea for justification with the explicit statement that “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

“Whoa, James!  Do you not understand the Biblical doctrine of justification by God alone?” someone might be tempted to respond!  How ironic, though, to assume that the problem lies with one of the Bible authors, rather than with one of the Bible readers!  Yes, we can be that blockheaded if we’re not careful!

Granted, it’s probably a little harder for most to question Jesus’s words than it is to question those of James, because Jesus is the boss, of course.  In my experience, however, they don’t really question Jesus’ statements on this so much as they simply ignore them.  His words don’t fit the predetermined God-only model of justification, so they simply ignore that information, and carry on as if they hadn’t stumbled across it.  They don’t want a view of justification that matches the view of Jesus and his apostles.  Rather, they want a view in which it’s all about what God does, and in which man’s good works play no role whatsoever.

I personally think it’s quite ironic that one might want to take a shot at James.  They will view his as not being a majority view, but the view “only one writer” who has some manner of bias against with their God-only view.  Of course, they fail to notice that their favorite justification passages were all written by only one writer:  Paul.  And I’ve already mentioned how they include the justification-by-faith idea into their God-only idea (even though that doesn’t really work).  But who wrote those justification-by-faith passages?  Ah, those come exclusively from Paul, too.  So, are we now pitting Bible authors against one another—and even against themselves?  Is that how we’re going to play this?

We could, indeed, try to set up these two passages as if contradicting one another:

Romans 3:28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.

James 2:24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

If you’re good at language and logic, it’s not very hard to see why these two are not contradictory.  Here are the reasons:

  1. Romans does not say “justified by faith alone“, but simply “justified by faith”.  Paul made no attempt to state that faith is the only factor in justification.
  2. James does not say that a person is not “justified by faith”.   Rather, he is much more specific, and says “not by faith alone.”  In other words, he is arguing against people who make the same sort of mistake that this article is about—those who oversimplify the matter by fixating on just one part of it, rather than understanding the whole of it.
  3. Romans says that this justification is “apart from the works of the law”.  Paul doesn’t say “apart from works”, but is very careful to add the extra information “of the law” so that we will know just what works he had in mind.
  4. James comes right out and says that a person is “justified by works”, but he does not say “justified by works of the law“.  He simply is not talking about the Law of Moses, but about human deeds in general.  And in his view, one ought not try to separate faith and works, as if they don’t go together (like music and dance go together in some African cultures).

Interpretation NeglectNevertheless, some will keep a view in which they pit James against Paul.  I think this is rather ignorant, of course, and again, it puts the reader in a spot where he’s assuming he knows more than the writers of scripture!  Rather than to do the cognitive work of rectifying James’ and Paul’s statements, the cognitive miser picks his interpretation of the one over his interpretation of the other.  (This is a case of Interpretation Neglect, as detailed in the meme shown here.)

Now, rather than to accuse Jesus and James of not knowing what they’re talking about, some will simply try to explain away these passages that don’t fit with their God-only view of justification.  But how can this be done?  We could try to blame it on bad translation, but the same Greek word for justification is used by all these writers, so there’s no argument to be made there.  What, then, shall we try next?  Shall we see whether we can claim that common usage of this Greek word did not demand that it had only a single definition every time it was used?  That is, that it simply meant something different when Jesus and James used it than it did when Paul used it?  I, for one, wouldn’t know how to go about demonstrating something like that; I don’t think it’s true.

So, maybe we should take the wider view, and bring all these factors into our model of justification:

  1. It’s something that God is involved in.
  2. It’s something that requires human faith.
  3. It’s something that requires human deeds, like self-humbling, good words, and acts of faith like Abraham’s and Rahab’s acts.
  4. It’s something that could not be attained merely by following the Law of Moses.
  5. “Works of the Law” are not the same as “works” in general.

If we take that view, it really helps us to get a better grasp on otherwise-puzzling passages like this one:

Revelation 3:2 Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God.  (Jesus to the church at Sardis)

If we take the whole biblical view of justification, the word “works” in this passage above won’t trigger us into thinking that Jesus is talking about “works of the law”.  And we won’t be any more bothered by the idea that someone’s “works are incomplete” than we would by the idea that their “faith is incomplete”.

And we wouldn’t be shaken by the following verse, wherein Jesus warns the Ephesians that they had better resume the good works they had once been doing:

Revelation 2:5 Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first.  If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.

Nor would we be shocked by the idea that Jesus would reward  people according to their works, as opposed to their faith alone, or alternatively, according to the sacrifice Jesus made on their behalf:

Revelation 3:23 And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works.

And this one wouldn’t ruffle any feathers, either—this idea that good works are what God had planned for the believer all along:

Ephesians 2:10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Nor would it rattle us that Jesus would judge us by what we do, rather than just by what we believe:

2 Corinthians 5:10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.

My View

God never had in mind a world in which humans would simply do as they were told, like slaves, robots, or reluctant employees.  Rather, he had a higher wish than that.  He wanted humans to be authentic and godly–like him.  He wanted them to want to be authentic and godly like him.  He wanted them to value what he values, to love what he loves–again, to be like him. He doesn’t want people too be like Cain—willing to go through with the outward act of sacrifice, but inauthentic on the inside. (And Cain was certainly inauthentic on the outside, too, as is plain when he murders Abel).  No, he wanted people that would bring the best of their sacrifices out of love and respect.  It’s the humans who do that that are right with God, or right in God’s eyes.  Justification is not some magical thing that God does to a person; it’s a view that God takes of a person when that person, by his own deliberate will, attains to the proper attitude about God.

The Law of Moses had not been given in order to make people be like God.  It wasn’t designed for that, and it didn’t work that way.  It did not make people authentic and godly.  Rather, it was just a placeholder of sorts for that time in history, and was to be replaced with the “Law of Christ” (1 Corinthians 9:21) once Jesus arrived.  And the Law of Christ was one in which the inner ways of a person were the priority.  The Law of Moses said not to commit adultery, which is most obviously an outward act.   But the Law of Christ dared to go beyond that, involving itself even with the inward practice of lust.

It is a cognitive error of the highest order to assume that Jesus does not care about our outward acts, and that those acts would play no role in the question of whether we are justified in God’s eyes or not.  Under the Law of Christ, they were directed thus:

Matthew 23:26 First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.

He did not say, “that you won’t have to clean the outside”, but that it also may be clean.  Jesus wanted both.  Too many believers, today, however, have got this mixed up, and think that Jesus has no serious concern about the believer’s deeds.  They’ve got justification all boiled down to the minimal requirement of whether one “has faith” in his heart or not.  Of course, “faith without works” would have been to the Bible writers like “music without dance” would be to some of those African cultures about which my professor told us.  In their minds, there was no such thing.

So, who knows better—them or us?

Call me crazy, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that they knew this subject better than does our modern, Western church culture.  God definitely cares about what we do, and he is the judge as to whether to grant us eternal life or not.  He is the one who finds our works either “complete” or “incomplete”.  (And thank God that this is up to him in his wisdom, and not to us!)  He is the one who has set these rules for who will not be allowed in his “Heavenly Jerusalem”, his “Holy City”:

Revelation 21:7 The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”

Let us notice that there are only two main types of people in view here:  1) those who “conquer”, and 2) everybody else.  And that everybody else includes “the faithless”.  Hmmm.  So, either you “conquer” or you are with “the faithless”.  Either you overcome sin and practice good deeds of your own, or you are left outside with “the faithless”.

This is the fuller view of how justification works, and it is in extreme contrast to the partial views detailed above.  This is one of the most controversial topics in Christianity today, with the majority opting for variations nearer the God-only end of the spectrum, and even going so far as to teach believers that they can still be faithful while not repenting of evil works, and without practicing and loving good works.

Of course, one can only read so many passages on justification before his God-only view of it passes from mere ignorance to sheer defiance of the whole truth.  And I fear that many live in such defiance, caring not one iota to have the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:26-27), but pretending that they’ll be able to get away with picking and choosing only the parts that they love.  This is rebellion, of course, and they pretend to “justify” it by twisting the scriptures into a message that neither Paul, Jesus, or James would ever have preached.

Just how many verses do you need to find that contradict your model of understanding before you go back to the drawing board to reevaluate that model?  And does God really expect you to correct yourself in this fashion, or is the idea that he might require that self-correction just another worldly idea from your past?

The ones who opt for the self-serving God-only view of justification will imagine a way to be justified without correcting themselves.  They will choose to believe that God will justify them in spite of themselves—all on account of Jesus’ sacrifice on their behalf.  But those who accept the whole teaching of scripture in this subject will correct themselves when scripture disagrees with them.  They are the ones who will humble themselves before God, while the others stand defiant, even twisting God’s own prophetic words in order to argue against him.  The latter are so inauthentic that they do not even want to understand.

And if I understand the Bible correctly, no such person as that will ever have any share in the Holy City.  So let’s correct our errors before we find ourselves hardened in them.  Let’s correct our view of justification so as to agree with the whole counsel of God.

To Be Fair

To be fair to the title of this post, I recognize that I, myself, may not have in mind the whole of the Bible’s teaching on this subject.  I trust, however, that the read sees where I am going here—toward a practice of considering all the information, as opposed to only a part of it.  If there is yet more for me to learn about justification, I’m quite interested in learning it, and am willing to correct my view accordingly.