31 October 2007

justification in luke-acts

The 1992 volume Right with God: Justification in the Bible and World, edited by D.A. Carson (Baker Press), contains an interesting and helpful essay by Richard B. Gaffin of Westminster Theological Seminary, entitled "Justification in Luke-Acts" (106-125).

Given the importance of justification for several of Paul's epistles, the fact that Luke-Acts takes up about one quarter of the New Testament, and the traditional link between Luke and Paul, it is an intriguing question how Paul's doctrine of justification makes its way into Luke-Acts, if at all.

Gaffin notes at the outset that two extremes are to be avoided: [1] striving to set Paul and Luke in fundamental opposition just because there are differences and [2] reading Paul into Luke so that Luke is "Paulinized" in a way that does violence to his own theology and modes of expression.

As a further introduction, Gaffin suggests that two approaches to Luke-Acts could be taken on the matter of justification. On one hand, one could commence "an exegetical survey of the relatively few passages where justification/righteousness language occurs," and from there consider other related ideas. On the other hand, one could begin with the overall narrative arc of Luke-Acts, identifying major themes and then "considering whether these theme involve elements that bear on the idea of justification," placing specific references within the wider context (108).

Gaffin opts for the second approach.

The focus of Gaffin's presentation of Luke-Acts is upon the role of the Spirit. The main point of his analysis is that the Spirit of God is the Spirit who, in and through Jesus Christ, brings the kingdom of God in salvation and judgment: a baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire. As the one anointed with the Spirit at his baptism, Jesus undergoes the baptism of the cross, submitting to judgment, but is also raised to new eschatological life by that same Spirit.

Pentecost is of a piece with Jesus' death and resurrection. When he pours our his Spirit upon the disciples, they "are not consumed like chaff by the 'fiery pneuma' because [Jesus], the baptizer, has already been been baptized for them" (111). Jesus had already exhausted the destructive aspect of the spiritual fire in his death and resurrection and thus only the messianic blessings of the Spirit remain.

The Spirit at Pentecost, then, is "totally saving" and "manifestly gracious" in his baptizing of the church (111).

Gaffin summarizes the implications for justification within Luke-Acts in the following way:
Pentecost, then, is the de facto justification of the church. Along with Christ's resurrection and ascension...it is a declaration, in effect, of the church's righteous standing before God. Pentecost is not only the efficacious empowering of the church for kingdom service (it is that, to be sure), but is also the effective demonstration that the church is no longer subject to God's wrath. The eschatological life of the Spirit poured out on the church at Pentecost seals its acquittal and the definitive removal of it guilt...The Spirit of Pentecost is the Spirit of justification. (112)
From this quotation, it would seem that in Gaffin's interpretation of Luke-Acts justification is first and foremost a forensic event that marks out the true covenant community as God's forgiven eschatological people and thus is as much ecclesiological as it is soteriological.

After this discussion of the Spirit and Pentecost, Gaffin goes on to examine various texts within Luke-Acts that speak of the "forgiveness of sins." Though Gaffin touches upon the ministry of John the Baptizer and the Lord's Prayer, he focuses in upon the two instances in which Jesus declares sins forgiven: the healing of the paralytic (Lk 4) and the woman who wept at Jesus' feet (Lk 7).

Gaffin notes that in both instances, while "remission is sovereign and gracious (it is not even sought, at least not explicitly)" it is nonetheless not granted apart from faith. In both the case of the paralytic and the woman, Jesus is said to see their faith. Thus, Gaffin notes, "Their faith was visible, embodied in and inseparable from the actions they took" (115).

We can note in this context, then, that justifying faith is one that is seen by God in our actions by which we respond to his grace. One might say that while faith is the sole instrumental cause of justification, God grants justification in response to a faith that is expressed in our actions, as genuinely Protestant theology has always maintained.

As Gaffin later notes, "in Luke-Acts faith/repentance/conversion all refer to the decisive movement away from sinning and self-reliance towards God." But repentance as metanoia is "hardly a bare mental act. It engages the whole person and does not exist in isolation, apart from specific concrete manifestations" (116).

Gaffin also draws attention to the larger narrative within which Jesus pronounces sins to be forgiven, in particular, the "broader context of Jesus' table fellowship and other ongoing associations with sinners" as a manifestation of the salvation he brings, relativizing the distinction between "righteous" and "sinner" (116). Table fellowship itself reveals the character of justification within Luke-Acts. Gaffin writes,
Given the cultural-religious circumstances, Jesus' table fellowship with "sinners" itself shows vividly that acceptance with God and acquittal in the forum of his judgment is not based on righteous conduct, no matter how scrupulous, but on God's unmerited mercy, mediated through commitment to Jesus and his word. (117)
Though Gaffin does not pursue the issue, it would be interesting to trace this line of thought out in connection with Paul's comments on justification and table fellowship in Galatians. If table fellowship is itself a declaration of God's acceptance and acquittal of sinners, then it is evident why Paul might think that refusal of such fellowship over the issue of circumcision would undermine the reality of justification.

The first mention of forgiveness in Acts is from Peter's sermon at Pentecost, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." The connection between repentance, faith, forgiveness, and baptism looks back to John's baptism, but now brought to eschatological fulfillment in the exalted Christ.

As Gaffin notes, the Spirit here is not to be understood as "an independent, presumably even subsequent, addition to forgiveness but as integrally and inseparably connected." That is to say, the event of Pentecost itself demonstrates that 'those who are justified are those who are Spirit-baptized' (120).

In light of this, the offer of Peter to the crowd, offered in the tangible event of baptism, "is not an individual experience of power such as they have just been observing in Peter and the others...Rather he offers inclusion into the church as the Spirit-baptized people of God, so that they share individually in what is true of that community corporately" - the justifying seal of the Spirit (120).

Gaffin concludes with a brief discussion of the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. He readily admits that "there is nothing wrong with what the Pharisee prays. It is a prayer of thanksgiving to God for the thoroughly commendable deeds enumerated." Indeed, as Gaffin notes, the Pharisee's prayer "can even be said to reflect a certain theology of grace" (124).

The problem with the prayer is, instead, what is missing from it: a humble confession of his own sin and guilt that acknowledges that he, the Pharisee, is like this tax collector. Rather than this, we find the Pharisee setting himself apart in a self-regarding confidence from which he looks down upon in contempt upon the tax collector.

The larger context is one of righteous status and God's eschatological verdict. In the final judgment, who will be found righteous before God and justified? As Gaffin notes, "in terms of contemporary Jewish socio-religious categories" it is the Pharisee who would be assumed to be righteous (123). By justifying themselves in the "eyes of men" they assume that they have justified themselves in the sight of God. This is the assumption that Jesus challenges: "What is highly valued among men is detestable in God's sight."

Jesus' challenge, then, is one of who is righteous in God's eyes. As Gaffin notes "the tax collector, in abandoning himself to the forgiving mercy of God, exemplifies the humility of faith." Moreover, God's forgiving mercy in eschatological judgment shows that justification is "present deliverance from the eschatological wrath of God, a verdict, already rendered, of acquittal and right standing in the final judgment" (124), bringing the final verdict into the present.