Justification and the New Perspective on Paul – Part 5: Justification as Eschatological Reality

The last post dealt with looking at justification as membership into God’s covenant people. It is not as much how someone gets in, but rather, declaring who actually is in or not. However, there is another layer to justification that has been greatly ignored, especially since the Reformation. This aspect of justification has to do with eschatology.

Many people don’t like to think of justification as an eschatological reality, because many people see justification solely as a present, legal action. God declares us righteous and clothes us with his own righteousness. However, the last post showed us that that view isn’t necessarily what St. Paul was actually trying to say. So, once that view is left behind, it makes it a little easier to be open to the idea of justification having to do with eschatology.

First, let’s remember the three major tenets of Jewish theology, especially in the first century. It was monotheism, election, and eschatology. Monotheism taught that there was one God, the God of Israel. Election taught that this one God has one chosen, holy group of people, Israel. Eschatology taught that this one God would vindicate his one chosen, holy group of people at the end of the age. In other words, God would claim victory over all of Israel’s enemies and make all things right, setting her up as his true people.

Christianity did not leave behind all of the tenets, but simply redefined them (as we saw in the second post). The one true God had now been revealed by Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. God’s one true, chosen, and holy people had now been reformed around Jesus, not a certain ethnicity or set of laws. Now, eschatology is being rethought as well. Jews knew that in the end, God was going to “justify” all things, i.e. he was going to make all things right. And, they knew that God’s chosen people were going to be declared in the right as well. But, the question that plagued Jews in the first century were this: how can we tell in the present who was going to be justified at the end of the age? How can we know now who is going to be a part of the people that God vindicates in the end? 

This was the eschatological aspect of justification that concerned Paul. Romans 8:18-25 paints a picture of the end of the age, when God would put all things right and restore the whole creation, including his children. However, we see a preview of that seen earlier in Romans, specifically in chapter 2. This is how it reads, in verses 6-16:

He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.

For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.

In the this passage, the big kicker is the verse that says that it is not the hearers of the law, but the doers of the Law who are justified! But, doesn’t this contradict Paul’s words later when he says that we are justified by faith apart from the Law? If thought of in the classic Reformation since, then yes. However, Paul is not speaking like that here. He is speaking in eschatological terms.

The Gentiles who do not have the law but do what it requires by nature are not, as some think, pagan Gentiles in perhaps a foreign country, having never heard the gospel before. Rather, N.T. Wright concludes that these Gentiles are indeed Christians who have had their heart transformed by the Holy Spirit. The law is written on their hearts. And this is so, even though they weren’t given the Law, as the Jews were! However, the Jews are going to be vindicated at the end of the age for simply having the Law. It’s a matter of actually doing what it says.

The way, therefore, that one can tell who will be a part of God’s people when he comes to vindicate them and set all things right is that they live according to the law. However, the law is radically redefined later on in Romans as being something that comes through the Spirit (Romans 8), not simply the Mosaic law. People who can do such are not only the Jews, who were given the law, but anyone who is transformed by the Spirit (Romans 12:1-2). That is why the doers of the law will be justified!

Note that this does not mean that we are saved by works. Justification and salvation are not the same thing. It is only by grace that we are saved and are enabled to do good works. However, we are set apart as God’s covenant people whom he will vindicate at the end of the age by what we do, not simply because we or our ancestors had the Law (as was the case with the Jews). One who truly has faith in Christ will live according to the law of the Spirit of life. At the end of the age, in the divine courtroom hearing, God’s people will be identified by their faith and the works that were produced by that faith.

Therefore, eschatology is a major facet of justification. It was a big deal for Jewish people in the first century, and thus a big deal to Paul as he began to reform Judaism around their recently crucified and resurrected Messiah. God had a people whom he was going to vindicate in the end, and justification was the answer to how they could tell who would be a part of that chosen people.

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