How Justification Transforms Boasting

In these posts on Romans, I’ve been claiming that Paul wrote the letter not as a work of abstract theology, but as a pastoral letter to unify the divided church(es) in Rome.

Paul argues in Rom. 1:18-3:20 that all the Roman Christians (Jew and non-Jew) were united in condemnation, and that all (Jew and non-Jew) are united in justification (Rom. 3:21-31).  Further, Abraham is “the father of us all” (Romans 4).

And I wrote yesterday that for Paul justification is a new location on the cosmic map.  The Roman Christians are no longer located in a cosmic location called “Adam,” a realm in which Sin reigns and serves the purposes of Death.

God has done something powerful to their community, transferring them through their union with Christ into this new realm called “the grace gift” (or, “this grace,” or “the gift”), and elsewhere called “in Christ.”  Christ rules in this realm and its very environment is God’s life-giving Spirit.  This notion of two cosmic realms with opposing dynamics has loads of interpretive payoff for Romans, and is also huge pastorally (we’ll get to some of that later).

For today, I want to note how justification transforms the Roman Christians’ boasting.

Paul had previously said that the boasting of one group over another group in Rome was eliminated through a proper reading of the Law (Rom. 3:27) and a clear understanding of justification by faith (3:21-31).

“Boasting” that fosters division, should be eliminated from the Roman church(es).  That sort of boasting—or, glorying in one group’s identity over-against another group—serves the purposes of the cosmic powers of Sin and Death, destroying the community.  Such boasting is “Adam”-oriented behavior, and it stirs up the corrosive dynamics of that realm.

But boasting isn’t completely eliminated in the realm of grace.  It is transformed.

Paul uses the Greek verb for “boasting” in Rom. 5:2, 3, and 11—the verb that is related to the noun “boasting” in Rom. 3:27.  Some translations render it “exult,” “glory,” or “rejoice.”  The NIV and CEB do a pretty good job of relating how justification’s boast transforms the previous perverted boasting.

The boasting that belongs to the new realm unites the community.  It is for all the people of God—Jews and gentiles—since they share together in justification.

Since this realm is headed for ultimate transformation and final salvation, the community that belongs together in this realm can “boast in hope of the glory of God” (v. 2).

And they can also boast in their current trouble (v. 3).  Because this realm is animated by and pervaded by God’s Spirit, even current stresses and difficulties are transformed.  God is at work in this realm to transform current troubles into fuel for perseverance, generating even stronger hope in God’s future transformation of all things. (vv. 3-5).

And finally, the community can together “boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation” (v. 11).

Paul conceives of things apocalyptically—that is, he interprets earthly situations in terms of heavenly realities.  He sees the two realms up and running and he wants the Roman Christians to inhabit more effectively the realm of “this grace” in order to draw on its unifying and renewing dynamics.

Rather than boasting in ways that further the developing divisions, they can boast (or, “glory” or, “rejoice”) in ways that celebrate the common identity of all those in Christ and empower them together in the hope of God’s glorious future.

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3 responses to “How Justification Transforms Boasting

  • Andrew

    I’ve been exploring NT Wright’s take on justification. His Justification is an exegetical tour de force, and his response, public and published, to Piper gently exposes the weakness in the traditional Reformed take on Justification.

    I’m starting to sense that Wright is causing something of a reformation with the Reformation.

    How does this observation apply to your post?

    Comments such as “Paul had previously said that the boasting of one group over another group in Rome was eliminated through a proper reading of the Law (Rom. 3:27) and a clear understanding of justification by faith (3:21-31).” will have to been seen in light of Romans 4 and not simply proof-texted (as NT Wright has aptly shown the typical Reformed theology of folks like Piper, is apt to do).

    Accordingly, Justification by works cannot be see as Paul’s foil, the antithesis of his thought, rather as evidence of Justification by faith precisely in fulfilment of the covenant. Vs. such as [Rom 3:21-31] are part of this wider claim that the model is for justification is Abraham’s relationship to God (from [Gen 15]). (Even Piper’s supporters are saying his characterization of Reformed theology being used critiquing Wright is disappointingly void of any covenant sense).

    Another benefit (from a pastoral point of view) about Wrights views is that it clearly exposes the problem of constantly ‘spiritualise’ (makes figurative) what Paul intended to be understood literally. This is a much higher view of scripture. Accordingly Paul couldn’t have conceived of things apocalyptically. Rather than interpreting earthly situations in terms of heavenly realities, Paul interpreted earthly situations in terms of the actualization of God’s earthly covenant promises; so earthly realities restored and re-realized.

    Rather than airy-fairy nebulous notions such as ‘heavenly realities’ which any exegete can interpret subjectively, he dealt with more literal things such as ‘covenant promises’ (realized and unrealized) which any (competent) exegete can explicitly see in prior scripture.

    I’m starting to see the brilliance of Wright’s work with respect to understanding Roman’s treatment of Justification.

    • timgombis

      Thanks, Andrew — I would agree that Wright’s work on this score is spot on. It seems to me that so many of his critics either don’t get what he’s saying (e.g., Piper, others), or are nit-picking at this or that paragraph of a larger work, or a preposition here or there that’s out of place.

      I wish I could be confident that his work would cause a reformation among Reformed exegetes, but the “always reforming” part has escaped the notice of far too many!

  • Andrew

    My guess is that that people can’t see that as Wright shifts focus of justification from being about ‘me and my salvation’ to ‘God and God’s big plan’ we aren’t left with a justification devoid of a basis in grace. Somewhere I encountered the idea that (the Reformed idea of) Justification being entirely focusing on Soteriology is as unbiblical (and bankrupt) as Justification being entirely focused on the ekklesia.

    Wright’s work nicely synthesises the two so that actual ecclesiastical membership and ‘present’ justification are effectively indistinguishable being one and the same (according to Paul). Many of the knee-jerk reactions to Wright (including Piper’s) don’t appreciate that such a justification, where there exists a soteriological relationship with ekklesiastical membership, grace is still an act of God (or as Wright would say God’s covenant faithfulness). This is still ‘Grace Alone’.

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