How We Are Justified: Our Understanding Depends on the Words We Use (Wed. June 30)

The word of the day is “imputed.”  How can we put the meaning of our salvation into words?  As God’s mercy is infinite, so his work of salvation is beyond human comprehension.  Today in our reading of Romans 4:13-25, we find Paul’s understanding of what the Lord has done for our salvation.  He writes, Abraham’s faith was “accounted to him for righteousness.  Now it was not written for his sake alone that it was imputed to him, but also for us.  It shall be imputed to us who believe in Him who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead…” (OSB vs. 22-24).

Today, we will study the words Paul uses to describe how we become righteous before God.  We will find that our justification is not merely external but a change of character in a new covenant relationship with God.

In our reading, Paul continues to assert that Abraham is the prime example of “righteousness by faith.”  He states that Abraham became the “father of faith” because his unwavering faith in God’s promise was “accounted” as righteousness (Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:3, Romans 4:22).

Understanding What Is Unknown by What Is Known

We usually take the word usage in our Bibles for granted and assume that our understanding of them is sufficient.  But we should be especially careful about the words used to describe our salvation in Christ.  They are metaphors that compare what we know to what we do not know, putting what we do not understand in terms of word pictures that we do comprehend.

Imputed” and “Justified” Are From a Latin Translation

The Orthodox Study Bible which uses the New King James Version translation.  This translation uses the words ”imputed” and “justified” to describe the gift of righteousness given to us by faith.  But these terms do not come from the Greek New Testament text.  They are derived from a Latin translation.  In  the Reformation era, the humanist Erasmus published a new Latin version of the Bible.  In that edition, he rendered the key passage, “Abraham’s faith was imputed (imputatum ) unto him for justice (iustitiam).”

The Protestant Reformers interpreted these words as metaphors that pictured the work of Christ in terms of a law court.  Thus, they taught that, before the divine judgment seat, all humans are sinful and deserve the just punishment of their affront to God’s holiness.  However, the Reformed explained that though human persons are deserving of God’s wrath, God does not charge (impute) those who have faith with their guilt in His tribunal.

Instead of declaring sinners guilty, God counts faith in the work of Christ as the defense against His righteous punishment.  Faith puts its trust in Christ who died in the believer’s place.  Therefore, for the sake of the sufferings and death of Christ, God declares His verdict:  those who believe in Christ are  “just” even though they are really guilty.

A Fundamental Divide

Here is the fundamental divide between many forms of Protestantism and Orthodoxy.  Both of these traditions believe that our standing before God (our “righteousness”) depends on God’s grace given in Jesus Christ.  However, the question is what does that divine grace received by faith actually do?  The words we use determine our fundamental understanding.  Does it merely declare those who believe to be righteous?  Or does it make them righteous?

Is  “justification” external or internal?   The Orthodox Study Bible notes that when God “accounts” us to be righteous he does not simply pronounce a courtroom verdict as the words “justify” and “impute” suggest.  He “makes” righteous and that “making” begins the process of the internal change of our character.

For Reflection

The Orthodox Study Bible comments that when believers are accounted righteous, “God’s righteousness is actually given to mankind by grace” (OSB comment on Romans 4:11, 12).  But this gift is not a one-time event.  Being “saved” is not a past event that happened at a certain time and place.  The Orthodox Study Bible states, “This righteousness transforms the whole person, internally and externally” (OSB comment on Romans 4:11,12).  Salvation is past, present, and future.  It is a process in which the grace of the Holy Spirit restores us to the image of God in which we were made.

The Faith That Justifies Enters into a Relationship

In summary, the faith that God counts for justification is not merely a belief in one’s acquittal.  It is a living, growing, and transforming relationship with God the Holy Trinity (see the OSB comment on Romans 3:6).  The more we grow in grace the more Christ lives in us and we live in Him.  And the more we are renewed in our relationship with Christ, the more we participate in our sanctification.  That is, we become holy by the power of the Holy Spirit working in us.

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