How is the resurrection of Christ linked to the idea of justification in the New Testament?
To answer this question, we must first explore the use and meaning of the term ‘justification’ in the New Testament. Confusion about this has provoked some of the fiercest controversies in the history of the church. The Protestant Reformation itself was fought over the issue of justification.
In all its complications, the unreconciled and unreconcilable difference in the debate came down to the question of whether our justification before God is grounded in the infusion of Christ’s righteousness into us, by which we become inherently righteous; or in the imputation, or reckoning, of Christ’s righteousness to us while we are still sinners.
The difference between these views makes all the difference in our understanding of the gospel and of how we are saved.
One of the problems that led to confusion was the meaning of the word ‘justification’. Our English word ‘justification’ is derived from the Latin justificare. The literal meaning of the Latin is ‘to make righteous’. The Latin Fathers of church history worked with the Latin text instead of the Greek text and were clearly influenced by it.
By contrast, the Greek word for ‘justification’, dikaiosune, carries the meaning of ‘to count, reckon, or declare righteous’. But this variance between the Latin and the Greek is not enough to explain the debates over justification. Within the Greek text itself, there seem to be some problems.
For example, Paul declares in Romans 3:28, ‘Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law’. Then James, in his epistle, writes, ‘Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar’ (2:21) and, ‘You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only’ (2:24).
On the surface, it appears that we have a clear contradiction between Paul and James. The problem is exacerbated when we realise that both use the same Greek word for justification and both use Abraham to prove their arguments.
But this problem can be resolved when we see that the verb ‘to justify’ and its noun form, ‘justification’, have shades of meaning in Greek. One of the meanings of the verb is ‘to vindicate’ or ‘to demonstrate’.
Jesus once said, ‘Wisdom is justified by all her children’ (Luke 7:35). He did not mean that wisdom has its sins remitted or is counted righteous by God by having children, but that a wise decision may be vindicated by its consequences.
James and Paul were addressing different questions. James was answering the question: ‘What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?’ (2:14). He understood that anyone can profess to have faith, but true faith is demonstrated as authentic by its consequent works. The claim of faith is vindicated (justified) by works.
Paul has Abraham justified in the theological sense in Genesis 15 before he does any works. James points to the vindication or demonstration of Abraham’s faith in obedience in Genesis 22.
The resurrection involves justification in both senses of the Greek term. First, the resurrection justifies Christ himself. Of course, he is not justified in the sense of having his sins remitted, because he had no sins; or in the sense of being declared righteous while still a sinner, or in the Latin sense of being ‘made righteous’. Rather, the resurrection serves as the vindication or demonstration of the truth of his claims about himself.
In his encounter with the philosophers at Athens, Paul declared: ‘Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because he has appointed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom he has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising him from the dead’ (Acts 17:30–31).
Here Paul points to the resurrection as an act by which the Father universally vindicates the authenticity of his Son. In this sense, Christ is justified before the whole world by his resurrection.
However, the New Testament also links Christ’s resurrection to our justification. Paul writes, ‘It shall be imputed to us who believe in Him who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was delivered up because of our offences, and was raised because of our justification’ (Romans 4:24–25).
It is clear that, in his atoning death, Christ suffered on our behalf, or for us. Likewise, his resurrection is seen not only as a vindication of or surety of himself, but as a surety of our justification.
Here justification does not refer to our vindication, but to the evidence that the atonement Jesus made was accepted by the Father. By vindicating Christ in his resurrection, the Father declared his acceptance of Jesus’ work on our behalf. Our justification in this theological sense rests on the imputed righteousness of Christ, so the reality of that transaction is linked to Christ’s resurrection.
Had Christ not been raised, we would have a mediator whose redeeming work in our behalf was not acceptable to God. However, Christ is risen indeed!
R. C. Sproul (1939-2017) was pastor of the Presbyterian Church in America and also founder of Ligonier Ministries. This article was first published in Tabletalkmagazine (see https://www.ligonier.org) and is used here by kind permission.