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Performative Justification in Paul

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Posted by Andrew Hollingsworth , 28 May 2020

In this extract from his article in the latest edition of Churchman, Andrew Hollingsworth examines Paul's teaching on justification in the light of speech-act theory.

Galatians 2
The earliest instance of Paul mentioning the theme of justification is in his letter to the churches at Galatia. Paul has written to the Galatians as a result of their turning to a different gospel than the one he delivered to them (Gal 1:6–7) [1]. Wright comments, “The question at Antioch (2:10–14) concerned table-fellowship: were believing Jews to eat with believing Gentiles or not?... the context indicates well enough that these themes are to do with membership in the people of Israel’s God; in other words, they were ‘covenantal.’”[2]  The fact that Cephas abandoned fellowship with the Gentiles in order to dine with the Jews evidenced division among those en Christo. This was a major problem because one of the implications of the gospel was that God had been faithful to his promise to Abraham to give him a single family through which the entire world, all the nations, would be blessed. This family was to be a united family not a divided one. Paul explicitly claims that Cephas’s behaviour was inconsistent with the gospel (Gal 2:14). Paul states, “But when I saw that he was not walking consistently according to the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of everyone, ‘If you, being a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew then how can you compel all the Gentiles to Judaize?’” (Gal 2:14). This is the context in which Paul discusses justification. Paul claims,

“For we are Jews by nature and not Gentile sinners, but we all know that a man is not declared in the right according to works from the law but through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah, and we ourselves have trusted in Jesus the Messiah so that we might be declared in the right because of the faithfulness of the Messiah and not because of works from the Law, because no flesh will be declared in the right from works from the law (Gal 2:15–16, italics mine).”

Paul stresses that it is not by the works from the law that one is declared to be in the right but through the faithfulness of the Messiah in whom one has trusted. Trusting in the faithfulness of the Messiah does not create a transformation of moral character in this passage; rather, it results in their being declared in the right, which in this context equals inclusion into the family of God. The Messiah’s faithfulness has resulted in the justification of those who believe in him, not circumcision or ethnic identity. In this scenario, justification seems to be closely connected with adoption.
Speech act theory can prove useful in further explicating this concept of justification. Justification is a pronouncement of right standing. Being a pronouncement, justification falls into the contemporary category of performative utterance. More specifically, justification is a verdictive as well as an exercitive. Again, “verdictives consist in the delivering of a finding, official or unofficial, upon evidence or reasons as to value or fact, so far as these are distinguishable. A verdictive is a judicial act as distinct from legislative or executive acts, which are both exercitives.”[3]  Exercitives, like verdictives, are carried out by those who have the authority to do so. Exercitives are forms of exercising the power, or authority, of the speaker. Hence, a state governor can pardon a criminal but a jury cannot. Through his pronouncement of right standing on the believer, God has done something, namely, he has included, or adopted, the believer into his family. Upon declaring the believer righteous, God welcomes them into his family, i.e. adoption. The basis of this adoption is the same as that for justification, namely union with Christ. As Wolfhart Pannenberg comments, the Spirit, in response to the believer’s faith, unites them to Christ, and they thus participate in his filial relationship to the Father.[4]  As a result of this pronouncement, there has been a change of forensic as well as familial status. Through his utterance God has effected a new state of affairs, namely, the believer’s adoption into a new family. Prior to being declared in the right as a result of faith, the individual is in the wrong or outside the family of God. It is through God declaring them in the right that the believer is adopted into the covenant family. God is not merely describing a state of affairs concerning the individual; rather, he is effecting a new state of affairs, namely adoption. This is why Paul goes on to reference Abraham in chapter three.

Abraham is not simply an example of someone who had faith in God and was pronounced to be in right standing, though this is true as well. Paul states, “Just as Abraham trusted God and it was counted to him as right standing, so also you know that those who are of faith are children of Abraham” (Gal 3:6–7). In this passage, Paul explicitly shows that the theme of justification is connected with God’s promise to give Abraham a single family through whom the world would be blessed. To be declared in the right is inseparable from adoption into Abraham’s family. Abraham is not merely a useful illustration in Paul’s argument. Abraham is one of the central components of Paul’s argument. Since those who are pronounced to be in right standing are the family of Abraham through whom God will bless the world, there can be no factions in this family. This must be a united family.

Speech act theory helps one to see the performative power in God’s pronouncement. In the context of Galatians, this utterance makes the believer to be in right standing and it makes the believer a member of God’s family.

Romans 3 and 5
Perhaps the most famous Pauline passage concerning justification is Romans 3. So far in this letter, Paul has been showing how all mankind, Jew and Gentile alike, are under the curse of sin. Paul, in the first two chapters of Romans, shows that no one can be in right standing with God because of “works of the law.” Though all humanity has come under the curse of sin, God sought to redeem humanity through the family of Abraham, Israel, who was destined to be a blessing to the world. Israel, however, capitulates into the same sin as the world has, namely idolatry. One cannot be redeemed from the curse of sin by simply following the prescriptions of the law. Paul states, “For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal” (Rom 2:28–29 NRSV). What makes someone a true Jew, a true member of Abraham’s family, is a matter of the heart not the flesh.

Paul goes on to argue that though the Jews ultimately failed at their covenant vocation, God has remained faithful to the promise to Abraham nonetheless (Rom 3:1–8). Paul writes, “But if our lack of covenant faithfulness confirms the covenant faithfulness of God, then what will we say? ... But if the truthfulness of God abounds in his glory in my untruthfulness, then why am I still being judged as a sinner?” (Rom 3:5–7). As a result, both Jew and Gentile remain under sin and neither has an advantage over the other to be part of God’s people, for there is no man or woman who remained in their covenant faithfulness to God. Thus, Paul writes,

But now the covenant faithfulness of God has been made known without the law and is testified to by the law and the prophets; the covenant faithfulness of God [is made known] through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah for all those who believe. For there is no difference, for all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. They are all freely pronounced in right standing by his grace through the redemption that is in Jesus the Messiah, whom God put forth as a mercy seat through his faithfulness, by his blood, to evidence his covenant faithfulness through overlooking, in his divine forbearance, those sins previously committed as an evidence of his covenant faithfulness in the present time so that he is in the right and he declares those who are of the faithfulness of Jesus in right standing (Rom 3:21–26).

Paul argues that it is God’s covenant faithfulness that serves as the basis for his justification of those who have faith in Jesus, and this covenant faithfulness is revealed in the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah. As Paul has shown in Rom 1–2, all have fallen short of God’s design and capitulated into sin, namely idolatry. As a result, none is in right standing with God, and simply following prescriptions from the law cannot make one in right standing with God. As noted above in my exegesis of Galatians, this concept of right standing is intimately connected with membership in the covenant family of God. If one is not in right standing then they do not belong to the family of God. God does not pronounce one in right standing or as a member of his family by works of the law; rather, this pronouncement is grounded in the faithfulness of the Messiah himself. Richard Longenecker comments, “In effect, what appears most likely is that Paul used pistis tou Christou (and its cognate forms) to signal the historical basis for the Christian gospel—that is, to highlight the fact that the Christian proclamation of “good news” in this time of the eschatological “now” is founded historically on the perfect response of obedience and faithfulness that Jesus, the Son, offered to God, the Father, both actively in his life and passively in his death.”[5]

A person participates in this righteousness through placing their faith in the Messiah’s faithfulness. This is the ground for justification.

Again, Speech act theory proves useful here. Because of a person’s faith in the faithfulness of Jesus, they are pronounced in the right. When God makes this pronouncement, he changes the forensic and familial status of the believer, what Austin calls an exercitive. Whereas Paul, in Galatians, was more concerned that God had pronounced Gentiles in right standing, in Romans, he seems to be more concerned with how God has pronounced them in right standing. God is able to make this pronouncement because of the faithfulness of the Messiah. Whereas Jews and Gentiles alike had been unfaithful and capitulated into idolatry, the Messiah remained faithful in his covenant vocation, revealing the covenant faithfulness of God. As a result, God pronounces those who have faith in the faithfulness of the Messiah in right standing. Again, this pronouncement does not merely describe a state of affairs, but it effects a new one, namely a change in forensic and familial status. This is what leads Paul, again, to discuss the justification of Abraham. Like in Galatians, Abraham does not function simply as a useful illustration for Paul’s argument; rather, he is part of the central content of Paul’s argument. As in Romans 3, Paul emphasises that this declaration of right standing is a free gift (Rom 3:24; 4:4–5).

This pronouncement of right standing carries another implication. Paul writes, “Therefore, having been pronounced in the right because of faith, we have peace with God through our Lord, Jesus the Messiah” (Rom 5:1).  Not only does God’s pronouncement of righteousness effect new states of affairs concerning forensic and familial statuses, it also ends a hostile relationship between the individual and God and enacts a peaceful one in its place. This is the thrust of Romans 5. Whereas before the individual was counted an enemy of God, because of this pronouncement of God, they intrinsically have peace with him and their status changes to that of friend. The speech act of justification effects shalom between God and the believer.

1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture translations are my own.
2. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 966.
3. Austin, How To Do Things With Words, 153.
4. Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, 3.235-36.
5. Longenecker, Romans, 413.

Dr. Andrew Hollingsworth is Adjunct Professor of Christian Studies at Brewton-Parker College, and Editor-in-Chief at Trinityhaus Center for Christian Thought.

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