James Jordan has argued that the Scriptures teach two resurrections and justifications. The final justification is a justification that includes the person’s works and is only possible once the first justification has taken place. We cannot do any good works until the initial justification has taken place. In support of this notion Jordan cites Numbers 19. In Numbers 19, when a person has become contaminated through contact with a corpse, they go through two stages of purification. They are purified on the third day and on the seventh day their purification is completed with a final purification and baptism (quite possibly the ‘baptism for the dead’ referred to in 1 Corinthians 15; certainly the most likely contender in my estimation).
Most contemporary Christians would believe that such a passage is far too obscure to play any role in our doctrine of justification and that Paul’s theology never could have been informed by such a thing. This is the natural response for Protestants, who have very little time for liturgy. The assumption is that the ‘Bible’ is the only place where God’s revelation of saving truths is to be found. There are a number of problems with this notion. Chief among them is the fact that what we call the ‘Bible’ is a relatively recent creation. The people of God of previous ages encountered the Scriptures in the form of liturgical performance not as we do, by reading words off the pages of our mass-produced, privately-owned Bibles. It should not surprise us that, approaching the Scriptures as they do, most modern Christians make little sense out of it.
Once we appreciate this, we will need to reweight the significance of different parts of the Scriptures. The book of Leviticus, for example, is one of the most important books in the OT canon. Obscure as it may seem to us, the book of Leviticus shaped the daily worship of Israel. You will not really understand books like Romans until you have grasped something of the message of Leviticus.
Numbers 19 is a good example of a text that seems insignificant to us, but would have been many times more significant to an Israelite. In a time of higher mortality, when death was not something that took place away from the context of life in modern hospital wards, people would be far more likely to come into contact with corpses. The Israelite who came in contact with a corpse would have to go through the week long ritual of Numbers 19. Living out such a biblical text for a week’s period of time at a moment that was most probably one of profound personal transition following the death of a friend or relative would likely cause Numbers 19 to leave a far deeper impression on your consciousness than it does for the modern reader of the book of Numbers. One would not regard Numbers 19 as an obscure text.
Numbers 19 presents us with a baptismal resurrection. The person who has become unclean through contact with a corpse is separated from the realm of fellowship with God and is symbolically dead as a consequence of his contact with the dead body. They are only restored to the life of fellowship with God through a baptism.
Jordan insists that the ‘resurrection’ of the third day, whilst analogous to the ‘resurrection’ of the seventh day, is a distinct event. It does not ‘participate’ in the resurrection of the seventh day. The third day justification is not a case of the seventh day justification being brought forward into the present. Nor, for that matter, is the seventh day justification merely a reiteration, recognition or validation of the third day justification.
Jordan argues that Jesus’ original hearers would have heard the background of Numbers 19 when Jesus claimed that He would be raised on the third day. They would not have believed that there was only one resurrection awaiting them in the future (or, if they did, they shouldn’t have). Rather, they would have expected two resurrections, an initial one and a later final and consummative one. The NT teaching of two resurrections in such places as John 5 and Revelation 20 was not, therefore, a theological novelty (whilst Jordan does not believe that the first resurrection in these passages refers to quite the same thing, they can be seen as evidence for his basic point). There is an initial resurrection, followed by a later, final resurrection.
The pattern of two justifications is something that Jordan does not merely see in Numbers 19. One can also see this pattern in the sacrifices of Israel as the tribute/memorial offering, in which human works can be presented to and accepted by God on the basis of the earlier sacrifices. One can see it in Christian worship in the relationship between Baptism, which is initial justification, and the Eucharist, which foreshadows final justification in which our works are taken into account (symbolically presented to God in the bringing forward of the bread and the wine and own offerings in the offertory).
Jordan contrasts his position to that of N.T. Wright, claiming that Wright shares the same error as most Reformed approaches, which presume that justification is one event. Whilst most Reformed approaches see final justification merely as a reiteration of present justification, Wright errs by seeing present justification as being based on the bringing forward of future justification through the work of Christ. As Wright argues, what the Jews had expected to take place at the end of history had taken place in the middle of history in the case of one Person.
I have yet to be convinced that Jordan’s position is as far removed from Wright’s position as he generally presents it to be. Jordan claims that Wright holds to only one justification and that he holds to two, the first apart from works and the second including the person with all of his works. Jordan presents Wright as holding to a position in which God plays games with time, by bringing the future into the present.
I believe that this a misleading way to portray Wright’s position. Wright’s position is rather that the single future event of justification has taken place ahead of time in the case of one Person. There is no monkeying with time here. On the basis of this ‘bringing forward’ of the event of justification we can enjoy a present justification on the basis of faith, the positive verdict corresponding with a later verdict on the last day that will be delivered on the basis of the whole life lived.
The point where Wright might seem to be suggesting that God is tinkering with time is better understood as a claim that the future event is already present in principle — or in embryo — in the case of Jesus Christ and that we participate in an event that awaits us in the future as we are united to Jesus Christ. There is a single event of justification, which has different stages to it. There are not ultimately two separate justifications, but two phases of the one justification. This, it seems to me, is perfectly biblical as well. If justification is to be seen in the event of the resurrection of the dead, then it seems that we have to acknowledge that we are talking about a single event with different stages, not two separate events. Christ is the firstfruits of the event, which for us largely awaits us in the future. This future event is truly anticipated as we are united to Christ in Baptism. I think that Wright is correct to hold that there is ultimately only one justification, with plurality to be found within it. I also believe that his claim that the end of history has taken place in the middle of history is essentially true, provided that we add the proper qualifications and do not presume a meddling with time on God’s part.
On the other hand, it seems to me that Jordan is perfectly right to claim that there are plenty of OT reasons to argue that justification was not regarded as a single event awaiting Israel at one point at the end of history (although I would like to see some evidence from extra-canonical Second Temple Jewish texts that people actually held what Jordan argues is the OT position). A plurality of phases to the one justification was not a surprising development of OT belief in the NT, but was anticipated in many and varied ways in the OT text. Wright is wrong to see a two-stage justification as a teaching peculiar to the NT.
The weight of Wright’s understanding of justification is placed on a single event of justification, which, surprisingly (in the light of Christ’s resurrection), has two separate phases. The weight of common Reformed understandings of justification seems to be placed on a single event of justification that takes place by faith on the basis of the death and resurrection of Christ and will be reiterated in the future. Wright disagrees with such a position in its failure to give proper weight to a future justification on the basis of the whole life lived as essential to the single event of justification.
I believe that Wright would take issue with Jordan’s position in other ways. I imagine that he would argue that Jordan detaches the two phases of justification too sharply. Rather than seeing the future justification as already having occurred in principle but yet to be fully realized in our cases, Jordan’s position sometimes seems to present justification in the present as an event to which a future event must be added. It is the idea of future justification as the addition of a new justification separate from the present justification that Wright would take issue with. Future justification for Wright is rather the consummation of the single event that is already present in embryo through the resurrection of Christ. It is a distinct phase of the single event, but the event itself cannot be split into two events.
I believe that both Jordan and Wright have important things to teach us here. I believe that Jordan’s treatment of OT evidence is helpful and can serve to counteract some of the weaknesses of Wright’s position on that front. Jordan’s position is also useful in counteracting the weak view of the final judgment in relation to justification that one finds in many Reformed contexts. Whilst I believe that his stress on two events of justification goes a little too far, the idea of justification having two distinct — albeit closely interrelated — phases is very helpful and can help to balance Wright out a bit.
On the other hand, I think that Wright is correct to teach the unity of justification. Present justification by faith is an accurate anticipation of future justification according to works and is in many senses a bringing forward of the final verdict. Although the fullness of the event of resurrection and justification await us in the future, this will involve conforming to what has already become true of Christ. For that reason, the resurrection of the ‘seventh day’ is already anticipated in the resurrection of the ‘third day’. Wright also clearly distinguishes present justification from final justification, even whilst closely interrelating them.
I think that some questions remain for Wright’s position, that could be helped by some of the emphases that one find in Jordan. Wright helpfully sees the future verdict of final justification as being present in the vindication of Christ in His resurrection. Jordan does not like any “already/not yet” approach to understanding redemptive history that would suggest that the future comes into the present in Christ, or anything like that. “Already/not yet” for Jordan is understood in terms of a linear timeline in which the future breaking into the present has little place.
I do not share Jordan’s position on this matter and believe that a purely linear account of redemptive history is insufficient. However, I believe that a linear approach to redemptive history is an essential perspective that must be retained and is too easily neglected. Without denying that the future has in some sense arrived in the present, we can see redemptive history as a continuing progression with stages that have yet to take place.
However, and this point is crucial, redemptive history can truly be viewed, not so much a progression beyond Christ’s resurrection, as a progression into Christ’s resurrection (I am not sure that Wright does justice to this either). This is where the “already/not yet” approach has so much to offer us. History is cyclical as well as linear. History is taken up in the resurrected Christ. What awaits us in the future is a full entry into something that has already taken place. This full entry will involve new redemptive historical events, but there is an important sense in which these events are not events that involve any progression beyond what has already taken place in Christ. It is this point that Jordan fails to do full justice to, whilst presenting us with the oft-forgotten perspective in which redemptive history involves a genuine progression beyond the resurrection.