Do we really need to hang on to justification?

By: Dale M. Coulter
Friday, April 30th, 2010

Not too long ago, in his commentary on Galatians,  J. Louis Martin, proposed to change the way the Greek term behind justification is translated to rectification. I think this is an interesting proposal and one we should seriously consider. Here’s why:

Photo courtesy of Juergen Kurlvink

One of the perennial problems with understanding justification is that the English word family does not correspond well to the Greek word family. As anyone who reads the Greek NT soon discovers, all Greek terms connected to justification stem from the same root (dikaiosunē). To convey the meaning in English we rely on two families of terms: justification and righteousness. Justification derives from Latin and is closely connected to justice (justificatio, justificare, justus) while righteousness, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, stems from the Saxon term rihtwis. Rihtwis is a compound term from right and wise that means upright or in a right manner (think about the use of wise in otherwise). The move to two English sets of terms obscures the close connection between righteousness and being set right.

So, maybe it’s time to fix this little mishap and choose an English term that allows one to stay in the same linguistic family.

Here is how it would look:

  • Justification = Rectification
  • To justify = To rectify OR to set right
  • Righteousness = Rectitude

What makes rectification such a nice term is that it conveys the basic meaning of setting right. Thus justification/rectification involves God setting right what went wrong, which involves both a pronouncement and a transformation. It has the effect of holding both together. Given that historic Protestantism has held to the five solas, maybe we could use them as an initial test. Does rectification retain the original purpose of the solas?

  • Sola scriptura

If our theology should be grounded in scripture, then at least on the surface an attempt is being made to be more faithful to the words of scripture. The deeper issue is whether the new family of terms is more faithful to the intention, which is better answered by looking at the other solas.

  • Solus Christus

The new choice of terms does not seem to alter the idea that Christ alone set things right. Only Christ could defeat the powers of sin and death that were unleashed upon the world through the fall. Thus Christ becomes the ground of how God rectifies us because the divine pronouncement of forgiveness and acceptance into God’s household, as well as the “family resemblance” we take on by being set right within, occurs in and through his life, death, and resurrection. One might say that restoring order is setting things right and this is how the Son makes satisfaction to the Father in the power of the Spirit. But, and this seems even better, salvation is not reducible to a penalty paid on the cross (penal substitution). It is about a victory won through the entire fabric of Jesus’ ministry from birth to glorification, which is the final rectification, as Hebrews implies when it talks about Jesus offering himself in the heavenly tabernacle (Heb. 9:24; Heb. 10:12-14).

  • Sola gratia

Our own rectitude is a result of God setting us right, which begins by God declaring that we are part of his family. In fact, if N. T. Wright is correct, justification/rectification is the language of family and thus the flip side of the Abba cry uttered “in the Spirit” (Gal. 4:6). Is this not a gracious move on God’s part? In addition, it has the effect of retaining the twin ideas connected to grace: favor and gift. Divine favor extends through the work of the Son in rectifying the cosmos. We see this favor every time a person is healed, a demon exorcised, etc., all of which culminates in the restoring work of cross and resurrection. The presence of the kingdom is the favor of the King. How is this not by grace alone? Humans cannot heal themselves of incurable diseases, they cannot remove the presence of the demonic, and they certainly cannot make themselves members of God’s family. And yet, the Spirit is the divine gift of love who communicates the power of the life of the Risen Lord to us that internally rectifies. Only the Spirit can set us free from the law of sin and death. To be set right is to be pronounced right and accepted and to be made right. So, maybe by holding together favor and gift we preserve by grace alone. We must stop viewing salvation as some kind of economic transaction whereby payment is rendered for services given.

  • Sola fide

    Photo by David Paul Ohmer

This is the toughest of all. How is rectification by faith alone, given that the term includes being pronounced and made right? Could the answer reside in the movement of faith itself? Faith is an affective movement involving sight and trust. One sees the truth and comes to rest in it. Or rather, one sees Christ as the Truth and comes to rest in him. If the Spirit generates such a movement, then the faith that alone saves is never really alone, as many Protestant Reformers argued. In other words, the exercise of faith is itself the initial internal rectifying act of the Spirit. It is how the Spirit begins to make us right within. We, of course, must consent to such a movement, but we do not generate the affective movement of faith. So rectification is by the gift of faith alone because the acceptance into God’s family (being pronounced right) depends upon the internal re-ordering of our emotions and desires by the Spirit (being made right) that moves us toward Christ.

All of this is soli deo gloria (for the glory of God alone), but this God is the Triune God whose rectifying work sets all things right through the Father’s sending the Son and the Spirit into the world. Ultimately, it is shalom: peace with God, peace with ourselves, peace with creation, and peace with one another. In other words, rectification is about relational wholeness on every level. Maybe, just maybe, Jewett and Martin are on to something.  So I ask again, do we really need to hang on to justification? The next time you read through Paul, try replacing justification with rectification, justify with rectify, and righteousness with rectitude, and tell me if it works.

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Dale M. Coulter
This entry was posted by on Friday, April 30th, 2010 at 6:32 am and is filed under Biblical Studies, Church History, Renewal Studies, Spiritual Formation, Theology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

15 Responses to “Do we really need to hang on to justification?”

  1. Jeff Doles says:

    A big problem with “rectification,” I think, is that many people will not really know, or have only a vague sense of, what it means. It’s not very “grabby.”

    N. T. Wright speaks of justification, not as a catch-all term that gathers up for us all of God’s saving action of setting things right in us and the world, but as a law-court term in regard to covenant — a judgment that is rendered, a judicial finding that declares that we are, in regard to covenant obligation, “in the right” in Jesus the Messiah. It is only one way, out of many, of speaking about what God has done for us in salvation, though it has become the controlling metaphor for much of Protestant theology. I recommend Wright’s book, *Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision*. (Of course, all of this is part of the current controversy between the views of N. T. Wright and John Piper.)

    • Thanks Jeff for this post. I definitely like Wright’s perspective on this issue, which will no doubt make me suspect to some. I have not read his most recent attempt, but I did read his previous three books on Paul: Climax of the Covenant, What Paul Really Said, and Paul. In particular, I like the fact that he is trying to find a mediating position between what he calls participationist (those who emphasize the union motif) and juristic (those who emphasize the legal motif). I think we need to find a way to bring these together more closely, and Wright’s proposal has a lot going for it. This is what I liked about Martin’s translation of rectification. It has the same goal. However, I am wedded more to the goal of keeping the participationist and jurist models together than I am to the particular language with which to do it.

      I always enjoy reading your posts Jeff so thanks again.

  2. Jeff Doles says:

    In taking up Wright’s perspective, the crowd to whom you will be made suspect is the same crowd you wrote about last week : )

    But, I figure, “in for a penny, in for a pound.”

  3. You raise an important concern that should be addressed beyond the Lutheran and Catholic community. Luther, of course, speaks of “Rechtfertigung”–in a sense a completion or production (Fertigen) of righteousness (Recht). The important issue for him is that the term also implies an attribution (Zueignung) of righteousness both in terms of the distribution by God (grace) and the reception of the human person (faith). Rectification seems to emphasize the activity of God but not the attribution by faith. For Luther, the person is then “gerechtfertigt”. I hesitate to call this “rectified” in your terms, since it seem to imply a completion of the act as well as a “correction” of the human position before God. Rechtfertigung, although a noun, is more of a present continuous nominal verb emphasizing the continuing relationship of the reception of grace with the life of faith. Is the human position simply corrected or remedied or adjusted (all senses of to rectify)? Would the choice of rectification call up the idea of divine justice (Recht)? Of course, you are not a Lutheran, and neither am I. Using the German may not help here either. But even as Pentecostals, I think we can listen more closely to Luther’s fundamental concerns. A starting point would be to engage critically the Joint Declaration on Justification and see how this international document uses the term “justification” in a manner that arguably seems comfortable to Lutherans and Catholics. If they can live with it, can we?

    • Wolfgang,

      A very good point. Your questions hit on some of the weaknesses of the terms rectify and rectification. With respect to the first question about the human position simply corrected or adjusted, I think you would need to bring out the nuances in the verb to rectify as being both/and (set and made right), not either/or. In a sense, the work that this single family of terms does is to hold together justification and sanctification into a unified framework in a manner that retains the distinctions. This is what I take some Protestant Reformers were trying to do like Martin Bucer (another good German) with his concept of double justice. If we stick with the current use of two terms, the history of theology tells us that distinctions and nuances still need to be made.

      The second question is really the more difficult one. Does it call up the idea of justice? I guess it all depends upon how we understand justice. What made Martin’s proposal appealing to me initially was that Anselm uses rectitude and justice somewhat interchangeable because both concern restoration of order. Thus justice is about order and harmony, which is the point behind rendering to someone their due. To render someone their due requires that we understand something of their nature, i.e., where they fit in the created order and we must respect their place in the created order. So, I take justice to be concerned with right order (uprightness). Rectitude is related to justice in the sense of if we possess rectitude, for Anselm, we are just. Now, we would need to nuance that in the way I alluded to above in which you talk about being declared right before God because we are in God’s family and the process of being made right, but I think the case could be made.

      Finally, your call to look at the JDJ to see how we might preserve Luther’s concerns is helpful because I’m not sure what English terms we would use to get at the nuances in the German words you’ve given. We would need simply to say that it involved a continuous relationship, but I wonder if pneumatology might help here.

      In any case, you raise good questions that are pushing me for which I am thankful.

  4. Alex Brodine says:

    As I consider your recommendation of “rectify” over “justify”, I am somewhat troubled by the statement you chose to highlight under Sola Gratia: We must stop viewing salvation as some kind of economic transaction whereby payment is rendered for services given.

    Perhaps I am not following your line of thought, but do we really need to excommunicate one analogy of the gospel in order to highlight another? I am thinking of references like Acts 20:28 and 2 Corinthians 8:9 that spell out grace in very economic terms.

    • Alex,

      Thanks for your question. I probably should have offered more explanation after I wrote that line. I am not against the use of scriptural language like Jesus purchased my pardon with his blood. Scripture is the inspired Word of God, and it must define my life. With that said, part of the question for me is how to understand all of the different ways that scripture gets at what Christ did on the cross. So, how do I reconcile the passages you cite with Col. 2:15 or the gospels account of Jesus healing the sick, exorcising demons, or the idea of Jesus giving his life as a ransom (Mark 10:45)? The way I reconcile these passages is to say that Jesus conquered all the forces of darkness on the cross and in doing so he set me free from the power of sin and death. I would also say that Jesus made satisfaction for our sins by restoring order from the chaos we created. Thus, he purchased my salvation in the sense that he defeated death, hell, and the grave and liberated me from the “Egypt” of slavery to sin. This, strictly speaking, does not concern an economic transaction, but a victory over and a liberation from sin.

      Thanks again for your question and concern.

  5. Nick says:

    There is nothing new about that proposal, Paul himself says this very thing in Romans 5:9-10 where the parallel to “justified by His Blood” is “reconciled by His death.” Clearly, ‘rectified’ and ‘reconciled’ are equivalent notions in many ways.

    • Nick,

      Thanks for commenting Nick. I take the “nothing new” as a positive sign, since, as a Catholic, you would be interested in hanging on to tradition. I am a medievalist who has learned much from the scholastics and the twelfth-century theologians. As I mentioned in response to my colleague, Anselm himself uses the term rectitude as an approximate synonym for justice. Thus to have original justice as Anselm postulates (whom Thomas and Bonaventure follow, as well as others) is to possess rectitude. In the case of infants, this begins to happen, for Anselm, at baptism where the work of Christ makes its first connection to the individual. So, yes, nothing new.

    • In response to your blog, you could just follow the Latin entirely and say, just (iustus), justice (iustitia), justification (iustificatio), and to justify (iustificare). This would be fine with me as well.

  6. Alex Brodine says:

    I have been chewing on “rectify” since I read your post. It certainly functions well as a synonym for “justify” sometimes. I can understand the suggestion, since English word families work differently than Greek word families. However, I think one of the earlier responses is right in pointing out that while “rectify” speaks to the correction/restoration that God is bringing in creation, it fails to carry the sense of “defend” or “explain why it’s ok”.

    I ran into this in purely English usage situations like:

    “The CEO of Enron justified his actions saying…”

    Many instances in Romans can be read as “made right” or “rectified”:

    Romans 3:28 For we maintain that a man is made right/declared righteous/rectified by faith apart from works of the Law.

    However, when I think of what a sinner tries to do in his heart to “establish his own righteousness” (Rom 10:3), the word “rectify” does not seem to do it for me. I stand apart from Christ, and in English, I am attempting to justify myself and my actions. That attitude may lead me to try to rectify the situation myself, but I think they are not exactly the same thing.

    • Alex,

      Thanks for giving it a try. Part of the issue is the psychological impact of a word. The term justification and its verb to justify are embedded pretty deeply in Western consciousness. When you say, “it does not do it for me,” I take that as your way of registering a certain psychological reserve. The term rectify just does not strike you with the force that justify does, which is fair enough.

      You might think of justifying your actions as similar to saying to God that you can rectify yourself. In other words, when you try to justify yourself before God, you are really trying to convince God that somehow your actions make you right in his presence; that God should really say, “hey Alex, you’re OK in my book.” And isn’t this what many persons who want to claim that they basically live good lives are saying to God. “Hey God my actions really do make me right.” The sad part is that deep down they know that their actions actually do not make them right before God; they don’t rectify them. Whenever they face their failures squarely and honestly, they know they are not right and to claim to God that they are is just disingenuous. I think to rectify might help us a little in communicating that point. I’ll let you ponder that if you’re so inclined.

  7. Ovel Inad says:

    I believe when you need a dictionary to read the first paragraph of a blog post, you really wouldn’t want to continue, especially when you’re in a rush.