An incarnational view of justification by faith (whose faith justifies us?)

Kudos to the Experimental Theology blog for highlighting the work of Douglas Campbell (pictured right) in The Deliverance of God. Though Campbell's book is long, dense and expensive, it's an important trinitarian analysis of Paul's doctrine of justification.

Paul's thesis in Romans is summarized in 1:17: "For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written, 'The righteous will live by faith.'"  Here Paul is quoting Habakkuk 2:4: "See, he is puffed up; his desires are not upright - but the righteous will live by his faith."

Paul's point is often misunderstood by viewing the one referred to here as "the righteous" who will "live by faith" as you or me. That misunderstanding then leads to another, namely that we attain a state of being "righteous" through our faith in Jesus.This view leads on to a transactional theory of justification that says we give God our faith in Jesus, and in exchange, he credits to our "account" his righteousness.

Campbell asserts that Paul's argument is radically different than this popular (but erroneous) view. Paul's argument, says Campbell, is not transactional but incarnational (and thus centered fully on Jesus and his work, not on ours). The faith that justifies humanity, to which Paul refers, is the faith (better translated "faithfulness") of Jesus himself. He (not you or me) is "the righteous" (better translated "righteous one") who has faith. This reading is faithful to the Greek text and supported by Hebrews 10.37-39 where the "one who is coming" (i.e. Jesus) is linked to the same verse in Habakkuk that Paul cites in Romans 1.

Paul is declaring that Jesus Christ, the Righteous One, is alive (through his resurrection) because of his faithfulness (onto death on the cross) - and it is his faithful death and vindicating/re-creating resurrection life that justifies humanity. Note how this understanding aligns with what Paul says as he begins Romans:
"Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God—the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord" (Romans 1:1-4).
The gospel that Paul declares is not about our performance (including our "faith"). Rather, it is the stunning declaration of the shockingly good news that Jesus Christ, through his faithfulness unto death, vindicated by his bodily resurrection, is declared by God to be both Lord (God) and Christ (Messiah/Deliverer).

This great good news is for all. In Romans 5-8, Paul shows that all people are included in Jesus by virtue of who he is (the incarnate, crucified and risen God-man), and what he has done as the representative and substitute of all humanity. In short, what has happened to Jesus, has happened to us all. In Jesus, we all have died to sin - which means we all are forgiven and accepted by God. In Jesus, we all have risen to new life, and thus we all share his perfected/glorified humanity.

The invitation of the gospel is to open one's eyes (and heart) to embrace this stunning truth. When we do, everything changes, and we begin to participate in and thus enjoy the new life that is ours in Christ.

This is the gospel that Paul proclaims, and it is in light of this gospel, that justification must be understood.

If you'd like to learn more about Campbell's perspective, check out the the Experimental Theology blog. You can also listen to presentations from Campbell and other theologians debating his positions at Church Leadership Conversations (see the bottom of the Nov. 24, 2009 entry, and note that the audio quality of these recordings is very poor).