Letter from America
Where are we on justification by faith?
Josh Moody interviews Professor Douglas Moo on this important issue.
JM: Dr. Moo, would you explain to us (in 100 words or less!) what the current state of play is ‘theologically’ with regard to the issue of justification?
DM:The Reformers (and especially Luther) made ‘justification by faith alone’ the centrepiece in their understanding of the gospel. They insisted that justification was a forensic declaration that changed our status before God (and not our nature), that it was based on Christ’s work for us (rather than any kind of work ‘in’ us), and that human beings attain that status solely by means of their faith (and not by any ‘works’ of our own). Roman Catholic theologians have traditionally rejected these distinctions. In recent decades, we find more and more Protestant theologians who are also questioning the traditional Reformation distinctions. This has led other Protestant theologians to vigorously reassert the Reformation interpretation.
JM: How important do you think these debates are? In other words, are these relatively peripheral issues or are they central?
DM: I would place these debates somewhere between the centre and the periphery.
Justification, while not in my view the centre of Christian theology, or even soteriology, is a critical doctrine. In its Reformation formulation (which I essentially support), it magnifies God’s grace by insisting that sin is so deeply rooted in us that only a wholly divine work can rescue us.
And it is that utterly dependable work of God that gives us assurance for this life and for the next. It is important to recognise that many of the contemporary theologians who are suggesting new ways of looking at justification are motivated by a deep desire to interpret and proclaim the Bible accurately. The Reformers themselves insisted that reformation must not be a one-off event but that the church needs to be ‘always reforming’.
Our authority is the Bible, and not the Reformers. And some of the issues the revisionist interpreters are raising are issues that deserve a fresh look.
JM: What do you think is driving this discussion — is it academic, responding to shifts in contemporary culture, a concern for ecumenical dialogue, a concern about the current state of the evangelical church, or all of the above?
DM: All of the above. We are experiencing a ‘perfect storm’ of three converging movements that together have brought justification into the forefront of current theological debate. From the academic world, first, is the ‘New Perspective’, which features a new way of understanding Paul’s relationship to Judaism. Second is the growing concern for ecumenical agreement, leading both Protestants and Roman Catholics to re-think the doctrine and its importance. And third is the long-standing concern that an emphasis on justification by faith alone can undermine the importance of Christian obedience.
JM: For an average non-academic Christian who needed to articulate what the Bible teaches about justification as a ‘tweet’ what would you say?
DM: The Bible pictures all human beings as defendants in a courtroom: a courtroom in which God is the judge and our sins constitute the evidence against us. The judge weighs the evidence and finds every single one of us guilty of sin and announces that we, therefore, must be condemned. The marvellous news of justification is that God has himself provided for us the means of escaping that condemnation: by responding to his gracious initiative in faith, we become joined with Christ, who died for us and was raised for us. We become joined to Christ, who takes on himself the penalty for our sin and covers us with the ‘righteousness’ that we need to reverse the verdict of condemnation and receive the verdict of ‘justified’, ‘right’ with God. And because we have been joined to Christ, the holy one, and have in that union received the gift of God’s powerful holy Spirit, we, who have been justified, also find our lives transformed so that we love God and neighbour.
JM: Dr. Moo, what areas of study are you currently working on that readers of EN might like to hear about?
DM: As chair of the Committee on Bible Translation, I am deeply involved in revision work of the NIV Bible. A new NIV should be available at Easter time in 2011. I am also hard at work on a commentary on Paul’s letter to the Galatians.