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
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.