Become What Thou Art

I have enjoyed teaching New Testament Theology this last week. Even though I was feeling sick that week, I did not feel sick while I was teaching.. Biblical Theology and Pastoral (iterative) Theology are my two favorite theologies. I can understand why people like Systematic Theology— but for me, I likes the enlivenment of close proximity to revelation (for Biblical Theology) or ministry (for Practical Theology). Right or wrong, I find Systematic Theology a bit dusty.

We were going through Ladd’s book, “A Theology of the New Testament.” (Yes, I now there are newer books… but since my specialty is missions, not theology, I figured it best to go with a tried and true classic.)


I had always been told that the term “justification” is a legal (or forensic) term. As such, to be justified, God recognizes that we deserve a declaration of GUILTY, but because of the act of Christ, we are declared NOT GUILTY. In essence it is an act of fiction. Justification then leads to us being declared righteous. If righteousness means sinlessness, then this declaration of righteousness is also an act of fiction.

Nothing wrong with a little fiction, even a double fiction, but I appreciated Ladd’s take on it, as well as the work of McGrath in Dictionary of Paul and his Letters (DPL). The Greek term for justify and righteousness has the same root– linking them together. That is not so important except that it is doubtful that one should separate the two– righteousness is directly related to being justified. But of more importance is that Paul was connecting righteousness with the Old Testament (Hebrew) concept of Righteousness. This might be doubted by those who believe that Paul created the concept of justification out of nothing. But for those of us who see Paul as working in the tandem with the teachings of Jesus and the Old Testament prophets, this should be obvious. And since Paul uses OT imagery/illustrations such as Abraham, Adam, and quoting Habakkuk to reinforce his views, to understand Paul’s view of justification and righteousness, we should look backwards.

McGrath in DPL (page 518) suggests the Hebrew term (tsedeq) for righteousness translates better as “rightness” or conforming to expected norms (as opposed to sinless perfection). Add to that Peter Stuhlmacher (Revisiting Paul’s Doctrine of Justification (2001)) who notes righteousness in the Old Testament indicates “that justification results from an action of God whereby an individual is set in a right relationship with God.” (p. 19-20) Stuhlmacher finds a number of references in Paul’s writings that indicate that this is exactly what Paul is talking about, righteousness as a concept understood in relational terms.. That is:

Justification means to declare righteous

Righteousness means to have a right relationship with God

“God does not treat a sinner as though he were righteous; he is in fact righteous. Through Christ he has entered into a new relationship with God and is in fact righteous in terms of this relationship.” (Ladd, 445)

This relational view makes sense of a lot. In the Bible we are told to be righteous, yet also told that we already are righteous. In other words, we are called to be what we already are. We are in a right relationship with God because of Christ… now we are live according to that relationship. Paul says that we are saved… children of God, while telling us to work out our salvation. It is also consistent with Paul’s view of the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit indwells us and sanctifies us… but in our failings we are not told to ask for more filling of the Holy Spirit. Rather, we are to conform ourselves to the Spirit– the Spirit we already have. Bultmann’s quote well describes Paul’s ethics, and his view of justification/righteousness for Christians: “Become what thou art.”

“Become what thou art” is far different with Bultmann than with how Nietzsche used the phrase. In Christ, we are declared righteous.  This is a statement of fact, not fiction since we now have a right relationship with God. Now we are called to live out that reality… becoming what we (through the work of Christ) already are.




One thought on “Become What Thou Art

  1. Pingback: Three “Already, but not Yet” Quotes – MMM — Munson Mission Musings

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s