Justification and Judgment Day: Part 3, Is Justification Proleptic?

In the first post of this series I described how most Christians believe that justification is "bolted" or "superglued" onto judgment. 

The fancy way theologians describe the issue is that justification functions proleptically.

Time for a definition. "Proleptic" means "applied retroactively." In the typical view, justification is understood to be a forensic term, a declaration of "not guilty" before a court of law. Thus, when a Christian is justified by faith in Christ we stand before God's Judgment Seat and are declared, "innocent," "righteous," and "not guilty." This declaration of innocence at Judgment Day is applied proleptically, backwards in time. Because of your declaration of innocence on Judgment Day you stand innocent and justified today. We live today knowing that a future vindication awaits us before the Judgment Seat of God. 

In his book Judgment and Justification in Early Judaism and the Apostle Paul, Chris VanLandingham seeks to challenge this proleptic understanding of justification. According to VanLandingham, justification is about the past, not the future. If so, justification doesn't have anything to do with the future judgment. The two, justification and judgment, become decoupled. 

Of course, that's stated too strongly. Justification most definitely has a lot do with future judgment. Justification is vital, critical, and necessary, but not absolutely determinative, not "bulletproof" to use a word from a prior post. The best way to say it, then, is that justification is a necessary but not sufficient condition of being declared righteous at the judgment. 

In one sense, we sort of already know this. As mentioned in Part 1, readers of the Bible have long been aware that there are texts which warn about the justified falling away from grace. And if you ponder it, that possibility doesn't make a ton of sense if we think of justification working proleptically. I mean, it can work that way, but it's an odd, unnatural, and convoluted way of thinking about the situation. If justification is a future verdict of innocence that you can lose today, what's the point of having that verdict so far in the future? Doesn't it make a whole lot more sense to see this verdict as we normally would, as a forgiveness for past sins with the expectation, upon exiting the courtroom, to live a rehabilitated life going forward? And doesn't that image explain a whole lot of what Paul sounds like? Today you have been justified, forgiven, set free. You're walking out of the courtroom an innocent man or woman. In biblical language, you've been "redeemed," a price has been paid to get you out of jail. And now, in light of this verdict and freedom, a free gift of grace, you are to live a rehabilitated life. Endure. Hold fast. Persevere. Run the race. Fight the good fight. Do not return to your former, wicked ways. Because if you, do you'll find yourself back before the Judge and found guilty. 

Now I ask you, doesn't that sound a whole lot like Paul? Consider some selected texts:

May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones. (1 Thess 3.12-13) 

It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister. The Lord will punish all those who commit such sins, as we told you and warned you before. For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. (1 Thess 4.3-7) 

May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it. (1 Thess 5.23-24) 

For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames. (1 Cor 3.11-15) 

So when you are assembled and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord. (1 Cor 5.4-5) 

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. (1 Cor 9.24-27) 

For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea...Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness...These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! (1 Cor 10.1,5,11-12) 

For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. (2 Cor 5.10) 

Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test? (2 Cor 13.5)

The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Gal 5.19-21)

Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. (Gal 6.7-9)

In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness. For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace. (Rom 6.11-14)

The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God. (Rom 8.6-8)

Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live. (Rom 8.12-13)

I'll confess, the reading of Paul sketched above, when we consider texts like these, feels a whole lot more natural and normal, a ton less contorted than how we typically read Paul. 

If you remove the proleptic reading of justification a whole lot of Paul becomes clear, simple and transparent. Generations upon generations of debate about faith and works, justification and sanctification, the perseverance of the saints--on and on--all vanish with simple, clear, obvious reading: By grace through faith you have been declared innocent to live a rehabilitated life. Devote yourself to this new life--stay clean, sober, holy, and watchful--and the Lord will reward you when he returns. Even more, you are not alone in fighting this good fight and running this long race. We have each other and the Holy Spirit. You will not be tempted beyond what you can handle. And the power of God, if you lean upon him, will give you the strength to stand on the last day. 

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