People who take the trouble to think of themselves as “Protestant”—as heirs of the Reformation—are likely to be of the view that the doctrine of justification by faith sits right at the heart of their religious identity. But what sort of thing is “justification by faith”? What does it look like? What does it do? In an interview on the Gospel Coalition website Tom Schreiner provides a standard definition:

Justification by faith alone means that we stand in the right before God by faith instead of on the basis of our works. In the classical Protestant formulation of the doctrine, justification doesn’t mean make righteous, but rather declare righteous…. The righteousness of Christ is imputed to us by faith so that our forgiveness of sins and righteousness are gifts of God.

The doctrine explains how a person is saved. It has no real application outside of this basic existential requirement. It doesn’t connect with anything else out there in the world. We may suppose, as Schreiner does, that the fruit of justification by faith is to be found in good works. But Reformed theologians generally take great care not to allow practical outcomes to intrude upon and disturb a formula which has the cosmic simplicity of e=mc2. You don’t meddle with the formula—it’s a matter of eternal life or death.

But let’s consider a very different way of using the language of “justification by faith”. We might say, for example, that the outcome of the recent Labour Party leadership election in the UK has justified the belief of Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters that his nomination was not in vain. Or that the small number of Members of Parliament who expressed confidence in him at the start of the campaign can now claim to have been in the right. This means, among other things, that they are likely to be rewarded by Corbyn—for example, they may be given a post in the shadow cabinet. Their faith has put them in a good relationship with him.


They may now even believe that he can win the next general election, but they will have to wait another five years before that faith is publicly justified or vindicated… or not.

This is an example of justification by faith in the context of a public narrative. You put your faith in something, and it turns out you were right to do so. The personal relationship with the new leader is an important part of it, but it’s not the main point of the story. The main point is the historical outcome, and I would suggest that when Paul talks, in Romans 3-4, about Jews and Gentiles being justified by their faith, he has just this sort of concrete, public narrative in mind.

How would Israel inherit the world?

Let’s begin by taking a step back to look at the bigger picture. Jews at the time were subject to Gentile rule. Israel was under foreign occupation. For many this was an unacceptable state of affairs, and they looked forward to a day when God would judge Rome—as he had judged the Egyptians and the Babylonians back in the good old days—restore his people, and put them in charge of the nations. In the book of Jubilees (second century B.C.) God promises Jacob: “I shall give to your seed all of the land under heaven and they will rule in all nations as they have desired. And after this all of the earth will be gathered together and they will inherit it forever” (Jub. 32:19). The Jews expected to inherit the world.

But in Paul’s understanding it wasn’t as simple as that. The problem was Israel’s persistent sin, its failure to live up to the standards of the Law of God. If God was to judge the pagan world, he could not do so with integrity without first judging his own people, who should have provided the benchmark of righteousness in the ancient world. He had to put his own house in order first. So wrath against the Jew had to precede wrath against the Greek (Rom. 2:6-10). The Jews had not done the “works” required by the Law, therefore they were condemned by the Law, and that could mean only one thing—destruction (cf. Rom. 2:12-16; 4:15; 9:22).

So was this to be the end of the broad road for God’s people? No, because God had provided an alternative route forward, a narrow way that bypassed the Law and therefore escaped the condemnation to which Israel was subject (Rom. 3:21). He had put forward Jesus, whose death was an atonement for the sins of Israel, and who had been “declared to be the Son of God in power… by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 1:4). By his death Jesus had saved God’s people from a final destruction; by his resurrection he had attained a position of sovereignty at the right hand of God (cf. Eph. 2:20-21). That guaranteed the future.

But this alternative way remained a matter of faith. You either believed it or you didn’t. Many Jews didn’t. But Paul was quite confident that those who did believe that this was God’s solution to the crisis were justified in the present and, more importantly, would be justified when the day of God’s judgment came—against the Jew first, then against the Greek. At the end of the day they would be found to have backed the right horse.

Remarkably, a growing number of Gentiles believed the same thing—that the God of Israel had guaranteed the future of his people through the death and resurrection of Jesus, but that’s taking us beyond the scope of this article.

The faith of Abraham

This is where Abraham comes in. What does the scripture say? It says that “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (Rom. 4:3). What did Abraham believe?

Having declined to take the spoils of war from the defeated king of Sodom, he is told by God that his “reward shall be very great” (Gen. 14:22-23; 15:1). But what’s the point of God rewarding Abraham if he doesn’t have an heir—it will all go to a member of his household, Eliezer of Damascus? Abraham doesn’t have a future. So the word of the Lord comes to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir”; and his descendants will be as numerous as the stars of heaven (Gen. 15:4-5).

If Abraham has descendants, then his family will inherit the reward that God has promised him. What is the reward? God explains to him: “I am the God who brought you out of the country of the Chaldeans so as to give you this land to possess” (Gen. 15:7). The land is the reward.

So this is how it works. Abraham believes God’s promise that he will have descendants of his own. This belief or faith is “counted to him as righteousness” because it establishes the basis on which God can proceed with him. So the story moves on: Abraham learns that his offspring will be afflicted in Egypt for four hundred years, but God will “bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterwards they shall come out with great possessions”; and eventually they will enter the land (Gen. 15:8-16).

The new situation that has resulted from Abraham’s belief is then formally ratified in the covenant that the Lord makes with him: “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates…” (Gen. 15:18). Now they can get on with the rest of the story.

What do we learn from this?

What was the lesson of Abraham for Jews in the first century? It was that when the future was very uncertain, they should have faith in the extraordinary steps that God had taken to ensure that his people would inherit the world (Rom. 4:13). That belief would be “counted to them as righteousness” in the sense that it would provide the basis on which God could proceed in his purpose of establishing his own rule over the nations. And of course, when that day eventually came, they would find themselves publicly vindicated—shown to have been in the right—for having put their faith in Jesus, who died for the sins of his people and was raised for the sake of God’s kingdom.

What, finally, does this narrative approach to the doctrine teach us, two thousand years later? It seems to me that we are as uncertain about the future of God’s people—at least in the secular West—as Abraham was right back at the start or the Jews were in the first century. Belief does not happen in a historical vacuum, as though it’s just about God and me and Jesus. We believe—and act on that belief—as part of a continuing narrative, and when we believe that God still safeguards the future of his people, that faith is counted to us as righteousness. We know that we will be found to be in the right. The doctrine of justification by faith underpins the whole existence of the post-Christendom church.

Further reading

Tom Schreiner recommends Stephen Westerholm’s Justification Reconsidered: Rethinking a Pauline Theme (Eerdmans, 2013). You can also get a good defence of the traditional understanding of the doctrine from John Piper’s The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright (IVP, 2008), to which Wright responded vigorously with Justification – God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision (SPCK, 2009). I have blogged on the topic a few times—you could start here. Or have a look at my book on Romans, The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom (Wipf & Stock, 2010).

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I'm a theologian living in London. I blog here, write books, teach occasionally, hang out with a couple of Salt and Light churches, and lend my weight to Christian Associates, a church-planting organisation.

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