“Being justified by faith, we have peace with God…” I recently had a conversation with some people who followed a protestant Christian tradition. They wanted to know about this “justification” and how it fit into our Orthodox faith. The difficulty with this conversation is that they had already decided what this meant and so tried to interpret the Orthodox faith in their own context and by doing so found that it did not fit their criteria of truth. For them, “justification” was all about being pardoned of “original sin” and being excused of the guilt of Adam’s sin. This, however, is a narrow definition of “justification” and therefore only applies if one accepts the whole legalistic notion of redemption. But there is so much more to our salvation than just being found “innocent”.
While this notion of being pardoned and no longer carrying the guilt of sin has a place within our salvation, it is only a small part of a much larger picture. Justification has a wider meaning that opens many more spiritual doors for us. Let us therefore look at this idea of justification from a much wider perspective. Justification does not simply mean having some reasonable excuse for our actions – it speaks more basically to being properly adjusted to a fixed point or to some anchor. For example when we write, we are accustomed to justifying our words according to a fixed left margin. Lined writing paper often has a vertical line printed down the left side that defines the margin and we always use that line as a starting point for our writing. While the right side of the paper has some variation in length where the lines end, every line always begins in the same place on the left side. We say that our writing is “justified” on the left margin. On a computer it is simple to change justification to the right side so that every line begins in a different place on the left side, but they always end in the same place on the right side – this is being justified on the right margin. One can also justify on the center of the paper so that each line is the same length on either side of the middle of the paper – it is “centered” so to speak. These examples of “justification” that are familiar to us all point out the common feature – there is always a single fixed point and the words are arranged in a specific relation to that fixed point. They are oriented to that fixed point and aligned with it in a particular way. We can apply this idea to our spiritual lives as well.
The Apostle says that we are “justified by faith” and that as a result of this we are “at peace with God”. Faith then is the agent by which we are “justified” – just as the computer program moves our letters around to make them properly oriented to the edge or center of the paper, so faith is what moves us to be properly oriented. To what then are we oriented? What is the “fixed point” to which we are “justified”? That fixed point is God and so when we have the true faith, we are correctly oriented towards God – we are “justified”. This justification brings us into a place of “peace with God” – that is, rather than being out of harmony with God or being at odds with the will of God, we are now properly aligned with God.
What then is the benefit of this alignment – this “justification”? The Apostle goes on to say that since we are “justified by faith” we now have “access by faith into this grace wherein we stand”. It is the application of grace to our being that saves us. Grace is the energy of God which is poured out upon us and which, when properly applied, works to transform us into the likeness of Jesus Christ. By grace, we are saved and it is our justification (our proper orientation to God) that gives us access to this grace. Where before we were surrounded by grace (for it is by the power of God that the existence of creation itself is maintained), because of our sins we were not properly oriented (justified) to make use of the grace for our salvation. When we turn from our sinful ways and submit to God’s love then we are led by faith in God – that is by believing all that God has said. Since then it is our faith that “justifies” us – that is, orients us towards God – it is obviously necessary that our faith is correct and true. Otherwise we will be improperly aligned and no longer “justified” in relation to God, thereby cutting off our access to grace.
How is it then that having access to grace is beneficial to us? The Apostle continues saying that because of this grace, to which we are now properly oriented, we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. This we see clearly, for now, as grace begins to work in us for our salvation, we can see that we are headed towards sharing in the glory of God. The Apostle further says that we also “glory in tribulations” which seems to be somewhat at odds with our justification. If we are in the proper alignment with God and if grace is now working in us, why do we have to face tribulation and difficulty. Everything should be just fine now that we are with God, so where does tribulation fit in? Our justification is only the beginning of our salvation. Having set us so that we have access to the grace in which we stand, now that grace begins to work in us in a number of ways, reforming and reshaping us into the likeness of Christ. One of the tools by which grace reshapes us is that of tribulation, or difficulty. Tribulation is only to be expected when we turn away from the mainstream of the world and realign ourselves with God. While we are no longer contrary to God, we are now contrary to the world and it is this that produces “tribulation”. The fallen and sinful world flows one ways and seeks to drag everything else along with it. When we no longer “go with the flow”, so to speak, we are now subject to coming up against the forces of the world which surround us. These conflicts with the world are the source of the tribulations that we encounter.
But we rejoice in these tribulations for God, in His infinite wisdom and love, uses them to our benefit. Tribulations produce patience, which in turn produces experience which produces hope and so we learn to see our tribulations as part of the process of our salvation. When we, with faith, trust God and His providence, then we learn not to jump to fix things ourselves, but rather to wait patiently and see what He will do. Once we see how He has overcome the world – and in particular the tribulations that come to us from the world – and not only how He has overcome the world but how He turns it to our benefit, then we gain experience upon which to base our hope that God will not abandon us and that He is working in us constantly to transform us into His image and likeness. This is how tribulation brings patience which brings experience which results in our increased hope. This hope born of experience now reinforces and strengthens the hope brought by our faith and trust in God and we know that we will share in His glory.
By our faith – that is, by our correct belief and trust in God – we are “justified” – that is, we are properly reoriented and realigned in our relationship with God. This justification gives us access now to the grace of God that has always surrounded us, but which, while we were yet sinners, was unable to affect us. Having access to that grace we place our hope in God and that hope is reinforced and fortified and amplified by our experience of the working of grace in us. That working of grace takes even the tribulations and difficulties of this life and transforms them into the tools by which we ourselves are transformed into the image and likeness of God. In each and every moment, our hope in God increases and we know with ever greater certainty that we will share in the glory of God and participate in the life of His heavenly kingdom.