Forming Faith Blog

Justification and Covenant (May 26, 2019)

A statue of Lady Justice. In terms of covenant, justification has a different look.
Churchy Language

I was raised in the church. I have a master’s degree in church history and theology. But I must admit, I have a hard time when I come across deep theological language in Scripture. There is more involved here for me, but one of the problems I have is that many church people are familiar enough with important theological terms (justification, righteousness, grace, etc.) to nod along when we use them but have a lot of trouble defining them. This became obvious to me when I sat down to write materials to help kids understand the liturgy in worship. In that case, I learned that even the term “worship” is difficult to nail down (it doesn’t help that there are several Hebrew and several Greek words all translated “worship” in our English Bibles).

Justification Jargon

One of these churchy words that I have trouble with is “justification.” (It doesn’t help that the same Greek root (dikaios) is used for justification and righteousness.) I see a problem with the fact that there is a LOT of theological baggage (I mean “meaning”) that has grown around “justification” in the past two thousand years, specifically in the western, Protestant church.

What Did Paul Mean?

This is one of my struggles with Paul’s letters, and the Letter to the Romans in particular. Justification is a critical concept here. It cannot be denied that the term has a lot of theological weight to it for Paul. But, what did Paul, a well-educated Jew who was smacked in the head with the good news about Jesus, mean with this word?

This is one of the things I like about the author and Anglican bishop N.T. Wright. He tries to set the New Testament firmly in its Jewish roots, to read the New Testament writings as a first-century Jew might.

Covenant

From what I understand from Wright on justification, it’s more about God’s covenant, than my personal sinfulness as we often talk about in Protestant thought (though it’s about that, too). A covenant is like a contract, but it is immersed within a relationship. A contract is a cold and impersonal, while a covenant is by nature personal. The most common modern covenant is marriage. There are promises made by each spouse, but it’s about more than fulfilling one’s duty, honoring the agreement. It’s about loyalty, love, and belonging.

God’s Covenants

The primary covenant in the Hebrew Bible is the Sinai Covenant, made by God and the people of Israel at Mt. Sinai when God gave the Torah and the people agreed to live by it. The Torah wasn’t supposed to be an impersonal contract, but instructions on living in relationship with God and each other (namely, by loving). The covenant created a people, a covenant community. In this context, “to justify” means that in a dispute, a judge declares which party is following the covenant agreement (Torah). That party is “righteous” or acting within the covenant, being a part of the covenant community.

Here, the covenant community is defined by the Torah with this community’s specific boundaries set by that charter. The people within the community are those to whom the Torah was given (the Jews) and those outside the community were those to whom the Torah was not given (everyone else, the Gentiles).

The New Covenant

In Jesus, God made a radical change in the covenant. Now, the covenant community was not centered around and bound by the Torah but centered around Jesus who liked to hang out with those on the margins of the community (tax collectors, sex workers, etc.). A trusting relationship with (i.e. faith in) Jesus was a trusting relationship with God, and therefore it was Jesus who defined the community (kingdom of God).

Back to Romans

Paul’s argument here (my understanding of N.T. Wright’s explanation) is that since the covenant community is no longer defined by the Torah, it is now available to anyone and everyone. We are “justified” (made a member in good standing in the covenant community) not through the Torah but in relationship with Jesus. We are justified by faith in the One who died and rose again.

Belonging

I do not want to claim to know any of this well (so please leave a comment (polite of course) below if you disagree), but, with this definition, I see justification is not as much about a judgment of personal worthiness but about belonging. And, the “belongingness” (relationship, reconciliation) is a gift from God. God pulls us into a relationship flooded with love. Here, drowning within the love of God, we find peace and hope, and the strength to love others.

Peace and Hope

We can rest in peace with the knowledge that we are a part of God’s family (kingdom, covenant community) based on who Jesus is and what Jesus has done, not on who we are or what we have done. Looking to the future, we can rest in hope for a continuation of this family/kingdom/community to which we belong forever, no matter what happens to and around us.

We can find examples of peace, hope, and reconciliation throughout Scripture. In our free activity this week “Gifts of God’s Grace” participants of all ages, in all settings, can find stories and passages that highlight peace, hope, and reconciliation. This activity is from our Living the Word: Cross+Gen Worship product, which can also be purchased by the single worship guide (lesson)!

In Christ,

-Gregory Rawn (Publisher)

Year 2 (2019-2020) products have launched. Check out the announcement blog post for more details. All products are ready to order, and you can see which product quarters are available for immediate download on our Release Dates web page.

For more great ideas on how to engage participants of all ages in the story of God’s love, check out our complete Living the Word series for elementary students, youth, adults, and intergenerational settings!

Be sure to download our free Narrative Lectionary 2019-2020 Planning Tool, NL Readings Overview, and Scope & Sequence.