By Jeff Bruce
Protestants have been justly criticized for understanding justification in a manner that trivializes Christian obedience. We should vigilantly guard against sundering justification from the ethical imperatives of Scripture. But how do we relate a robustly Protestant conception of justification to what we're actually supposed to be doing as Christians? The answer has to do (in part) with the relationship between justification and justice.
Justification is the contingent legal metaphor Paul employs to speak of one aspect of God's saving righteousness (cf. Michael Bird, The Saving Righteousness of God: Studies on Paul, Justification and the New Perpspective [Wipf & Stock/Paternoster: Eugene, Or/Milton Keyes, UK, 2007]; 17). It's a significant aspect, but it is an aspect. God's rectifying work has its end in making all things right. I explored these ideas in a post on Isaiah's use of righteousness language. God asserts righteousness through justifying his people (Is 45:25), but also through the establishment of justice (Is 1:21, 27; 5:7; 9:7; 11:4; 16:5; 26:9; 33:5; 59:9). Perhaps if we envisioned justification as an integral part of this larger plan, it would be easier to connect the doctrine to our mission of being salt and light to the earth.
The ripple effects of God's saving righteousness are first felt in the church. A clear implication of justification is that everyone who believes - irrespective of race, gender, class, etc. - is to be accepted within the family of God. Faith is the identity marker of the church, thus justification by faith undercuts prejudicial judgments. This is patent in St. Paul's epistles. The apostle to the Gentiles speaks of justification with an eye to the brouhahas besetting his fledgling congregations (cf. Gal 2-3; Rom 3, 15; implicit in Eph 2). Dietrich Bonhoeffer went so far as to say,
...the community of Christians springs solely from the Biblical and Reformation message of the justification of man through grace alone; this alone is the basis of Christians longing for one another.- Life Together (trans. John W. Doberstein: San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1954); 23.
When we experience God's welcome in Christ, we can extend acceptance to one another (Rom 15:7). Hence, the cure for the various "isms" that lead to unjust treatment in the church (not to mention the world) is found in the justifying verdict of God.