Jesus, Justification, and Every Idle Word
One of the charges I have made here is that Protestants tend to want to avoid the gospels when discussing justification and rush ahead to Paul since, after all, “Jesus didn’t really deal with justification anyway” (this tendency is prevalent throughout the comments in the previous few threads here). I would like to adduce a passage in which Jesus did speak of justification explicitly, but before I do I think something needs to be cleared up.
When discussing this issue, we must beware of the word/concept exegetical fallacy, which says that every time a word is used its corresponding concept is in view, or, that unless a word is used its corresponding concept is not in view. For example, it is wrong to insist that if Jesus used the word dikaioo (justify), he must mean exactly what Paul meant when he used the same term. And likewise, it is wrong to insist that if Jesus did not use the word dikaioo, that therefore he wasn’t dealing with the concept of justification as Paul outlined it. How, then, do we determine which gospels passages are relevant for our discussion? My contention is that if the context of the term’s usage is sinners on the day of judgment, then all other things being equal, the passage is pertinent to the issue of justification whether the specific term “justify” is used or not (whereas a passage like this is not relevant since the term is being employed metaphorically and not soteriologically).
When our criteria are thus established, it becomes clear that Jesus dealt with the issue of justification — as in, sinners being saved from sin in this age and receiving eternal life in the age to come — a lot more frequently than Protestants often allow. Moreover, when Protestants claim that Jesus doesn’t address justification specifically (as they have regarding every single passage adduced here lately), they are defining the term in such a way as to exclude it from Jesus’ lexicon from the get-go. “Wait a minute,” we hear, “Jesus is just talking about sinners being saved and receiving eternal life on the last day, he’s not talking about a once-for-all forensic declaration of acquittal from the courtroom of heaven based upon the imputation of Christ’s active and passive obedience received through faith alone! So this text isn’t dealing with justification at all, which is why I’d like to direct your attention to what Paul says in Galatians…”
The problem with this approach is that it begs the question by assuming a prior definition of justification whose narrowness makes anything Jesus said extremely difficult to apply. But if we agree from the outset that our view of justification should be informed by all the relevant texts regardless of whether they contain the word “justification,” then lo and behold, we just may end up with a doctrine of salvation that is not only Pauline, but fully biblical because it is also Petrine, Johannine, and Christian.
That said, consider this statement from Jesus (which, incidentally, happens to be the first time the term “justify” is used in the New Testament in a soteriological context):
“Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:33-37).
A few things to note: (1) Prior to anything good done by a person, that person must be “made good”; (2) The context is sinners on the day of judgment; (3) Jesus refers to a future justification on that day; and (4) The criterion Jesus sets forth for justification, while surely not the only one, is not faith alone, but the words we utter.
Now, is it possible to understand this passage through Reformed, sola fide lenses? Of course. For example, we could say that Jesus’ use of “justified” in this passage, even though it is its first soteriological usage in the New Testament, is an exception to a Pauline rule that would emerge decades later, and thus should be eliminated from the group of texts that inform our doctrine of justification (along with James’s teaching on the subject). But wouldn’t a better and more faithful approach be to allow our definition of justification to be as broad as the biblical passages that actually use the term in a soteriological context? If we adopt this latter approach, we will conclude that justification is not a once-for-all event, but that there is indeed such a thing as future justification (which interestingly is what Paul had in mind the first time he used the word in Romans). And moreover, this event is not such that our works play no contributory role, but rather is something in which our works are intimately and causally involved (which virtually every passage in the New Testament about the final judgment attests to explicitly).
A proto-Protestant paradigm, therefore, is simply far less able to account for these words of Jesus than is one that reflects the basics of Catholic soteriology.