In Christian theology, justification is God's act making a sinner righteous before Him by His grace, received through the faith given to the person by God, for Christ's sake, because of his life, death, and resurrection. Because the meaning of the term is subject to dispute among Christians, simple definitions should be taken with a grain of salt.
Considerable sectarian controversy exists as to its nature and definition. These controversies include:
- Whether justification is an ongoing process in addition to an immediate change in the person or if it is a change in a person's state before God followed by Sanctification;
- The relationship between justification and religious law; whether justification is merely "forensic", a legal declaration that a sinner is now righteous before God for Christ's sake, or more;
- The relationship of justification to sanctification, the process whereby sinners become more righteous and are enabled by the Holy Spirit to live lives more pleasing to God; and
- The relationship of justification to atonement, the expiation of sins.
The Orthodox Doctrine of Justification
Eastern Christianity, including both Eastern Orthodoxy and Oriental Orthodoxy, does not emphasize justification to nearly the same extent as does either Roman Catholicism or Protestantism --so much so that it often has no separate treatment in Eastern theological works. The Greek term for justification (δικαιοσυνη, dikaiosunee) is not understood by most Eastern theologians to mean simply being pardoned of one's sins. This justice is understood as applying not only to justice, but also to the concepts of righteousness, virtue, and morality.
The Catholic Doctrine of Justification
To Catholics, justification is "a translation, from that state wherein man is born a child of the first Adam, to the state of grace, and of the adoption of the sons of God, through the second Adam, Jesus Christ, our Savior" (Council of Trent, Decree on Justification chapter 4), including the transforming of a sinner from the state of unrighteousness to the state of holiness. Sonship, becoming a child of God, is the overarching theme.
Essential Catholic Teaching on Justification
Without God, a person is dead (Eph. 2:5), and there's absolutely nothing --not works, not faith, not anything-- a dead person can do to make himself alive (Council of Trent, Decree on Justification chapter 8). A dead person cannot be a cause in his own regeneration (Council of Trent, Decree on Justification chapter 7). Unfortunately for humans, this is the state into which they are born, in Adam, deprived of grace and spiritual life (Council of Trent, Decree on Original Sin, Decree on Justification chapter 1).
However, when the Father gratuitously recreates a person in Christ (2Cor. 5:17-18), gives him supernatural life by "the Spirit of sonship" (Rom. 8:15-17), and gives him faith, hope, and charity (the virtues of 1Cor. 13:13), He can empower that person with His grace to do anything (Council of Trent, Decree on Justification). After all "all things are possible with God" (Mk. 10:27) and "nothing will be impossible to you" (Mt. 17:20). Jesus promised "you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you" (Acts 1:18). To what purpose? "We have received grace... to bring about the obedience of faith" (Rom. 1:5; also known as "faith working in love" in Gal. 5:6, which Paul calls "good works" in Eph. 2:10). The Lord says "My grace is sufficient for you" (2Cor. 12:9), and we answer "by the grace of God I am what I am" (1Cor 15:10), a child of God the Father (1Jn. 3:1).
God the Father really does have both the love and the power to completely transform men, in Christ and by the Holy Spirit, into beloved children.
That is the essential teaching in a nutshell.
Creation and Salvation: A Family Affair
Christians believe that the one true God --the Creator of all things, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob-- is an eternal divine Family, the holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit give themselves completely to each other in an eternal communion of love. This truth was revealed to men when Jesus Christ, God the Son, assumed a human nature and lived among us.
When God created the heavens and the earth, not of necessity but of God's gracious generosity and love, God created people in God's Own image, male and female. The first parents of humanity, commonly known as Adam and Eve, were created in the image of the life-giving Trinity, having a supernatural capacity for interpersonal communion and love. They were created to reflect God's inner life, the self-giving love of the holy Trinity, and thus give glory to God.
But the first parents of the human family chose, through sin, to spurn the love and vocation which God had so generously given them. The first parents became runaways, and as a consequence their children are also deprived of home and inheritance, interpersonal communion and self-giving love. Humans are aliens to the life they were created to lead, spiritually dead.
The most holy Trinity, not desiring that humans should persist in this state of spiritual deprivation, has graciously chosen to save people from their sin and death. Even more, God has chosen to give humans new life and transform them into members of the divine Family, to share in the interpersonal communion of the Trinity. This is the good news we have received from the Apostles: the eternal Father graciously transforms men, in Jesus Christ His eternal Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit, into His own beloved sons and daughters. The powerful life-giving love of the holy Trinity knows no bounds.
It is essential to understand creation and salvation in incarnational, familial, and Trinitarian terms. The Incarnation and the Trinity are the central doctrines of the Christian Faith - we cannot be true to Christ's revelation without them.
Four Points Explaining a Catholic Vision of Justification
1. Original Sin
Catholics believe that the first sin of humanity's original parents (known as Adam & Eve) has caused dire consequences for all humans. Newborns have not committed any personal sins, but they are born spiritually dead, lacking the grace and holiness God intended human persons to have. This consequence of the first sin is called "original sin" and the spiritually dead state is sometimes called "in Adam."
As long as a person is spiritually dead, he can do nothing spiritually beneficial. He may have a kind of faith in God and even do good works, but it ultimately does him no good. He is dead, powerless, helpless. There is nothing humans can do to save themselves from this state worse than death. Unless God does something to make humans spiritually alive, they will end up in hell. Human persons can only be saved by God the Father in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.
2. Initial Justification
To remedy #1, God the Father makes people alive in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. (This is called "regeneration," "rebirth," being "born from above," "born of God," etc.) Incorporated into Jesus Christ, the only Son of God by nature, humans truly become children of God by grace. As new members of Jesus' body, Christians are infused with his righteousness and holiness, which remove and dispel all sin and make them totally spotless and pure. (This is often called "initial justification" and "initial sanctification.") Filled with the gift of the God's Holy Spirit, who dwells within Christians as members of Christ, they are given the supernatural gifts of justifying faith, hope, and love, gifts which infinitely surpass their natural human powers.
As the state of spiritual death was called "in Adam," the state of the regenerate children of God is called "in Christ." In Christ, as members of his Body, Christians participate in his death and resurrection. Those made alive by the Spirit are also said to be "in sanctifying grace."
Those who have been regenerated and justified by God are his children, pure and holy. They have been saved by God's grace and are being saved by God's grace. They are made ready by God for heaven. If someone were to die immediately after his regeneration and justification, like the thief on the cross, heaven is where he would be.
While Catholics can and do use legal or "forensic" terms to describe justification, they do not think the legal terms encompass the whole reality. Catholics do believe that God "declares" people righteous, but do not think this language goes far enough. Catholics believe that God actually makes people righteous, infusing them with the righteousness of Christ, when he declares them righteous. Christians were once guilty, but now they are truly innocent.
Here's an analogy to illustrate. Imagine a really dirty homeless man lying on the street. The imputation-only view of justification is like covering the dirty man with dazzlingly clean clothes, making him appear cleaner though he's still quite dirty. The infusion view is like taking the man, giving him a good scrubbing in the bath, and giving him clean clothes to wear. He doesn't just look cleaner, he is cleaner.
Catholics believe that a person actually begins Christian life spotless in Jesus Christ.
3. Progressive Justification
Once Christians have been born again, born from above, as children of God the Father in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, they can mature and grow by and in God's grace. Living children grow. Empowered by the gift of the Holy Spirit dwelling within, Christians actually exercise the justifying faith, hope, and love that each was given when he was regenerated. This action may be called "the obedience of faith" or "faith working in love." When a Christian exercises these gifts, God rewards him according to his promises. If he does not personally exercise these gifts by the power of the Spirit, he does not grow. The growth in righteousness and holiness that Christians experience through justifying faith, hope, and love, by the power of God's grace, is called "progressive justification" and "progressive sanctification."
If a Christian is already pure, though, how does he grow in righteousness? Not qualitatively, since Christians have already been thoroughly purified in Christ, but (for lack of a better word) "quantitatively." It's a different dimension of righteousness.
Here is an analogy that may help. Imagine that you have a 6oz glass of sparkling pure water. It's impossible to improve your glass of water qualitatively, to make the water any purer. But suppose another person swaps your 6oz glass full of pure water for a 12oz glass full of pure water. Your glass of water has not improved qualitatively, but quantitatively: it has a greater capacity for pure water.
This is what progressive justification is like. As a Christian grows and matures in Christ, empowered by the grace of the Holy Spirit, he has a greater and greater capacity for Christ's righteousness and holiness.
Some do not recognize this "quantitative" dimension of justification or sanctification. "If we are already pure," they ask, "how can we grow?" This leads to bad misunderstandings of Catholicism. People who do not understand frequently ask questions like "how many good works do you have to do to get into heaven?" This question does not make sense to a Catholic. The regenerate man living in Christ through faith by the power of the Holy Spirit is already pure and righteous, already being saved, already on his way to heaven. His good works, empowered by grace, increase his capacity to receive God's life, not his purity.
4. The Possibility of Mortal Sin
If Christians, empowered by the grace of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, do not personally exercise the gifts of justifying faith, hope, and love, they do not grow and mature in Christ. If they are not growing and maturing in Christ, Christians atrophy. If this atrophy persists, they are being unfaithful to the grace of God, spurning the grace of God, committing spiritual suicide. Catholics do believe it is possible to spurn the grace of God for sin and become, in Paul's words, "worse than an unbeliever." But fallen Christians may be saved if, by the grace of God, they repent and are reconciled. God is generous Love, and wants to save us even more than we ourselves want to be saved.
The problem of sola fide.
All Christians --Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox-- agree that humans can only be saved by God the Father in Jesus Christ by the gracious power of the Holy Spirit. Human persons can only be saved by grace, and they can only be saved in Jesus Christ and that there is no other way.
Since the Reformation, Protestants have used the phrase "justification by faith alone." What does it mean? Do Catholics believe in justification by faith alone?
Catholics believe there are many problems with claiming people are "justified by faith alone." Perhaps the biggest is the fact that the formula does not actually appear in scripture, except in one verse which says people are "not justified by faith alone" (James 2:24). Another problem with the formula is that different Protestants mean different things by it. For Luther, the phrase meant only our faith in Christ, and faith by itself, justifies, but not because it is a work. But for Calvin, it meant something different: that people are only justified through faith, but not a faith that is alone; only if a man has the faith given by God can he be justified. So Protestants don't really agree about the meaning of "justification by faith alone," even though almost all of them use the phrase.
And Catholics? Catholics can and do agree with the "justification by faith alone" formula according to the Calvinist meaning above. The just shall live by faith; without faith it is impossible to please God. Personal faith is necessary for salvation. It is only the Lutheran usage which may cause problems.
Even so, Catholics and some Lutherans believe that they have found much agreement on the subject of justification (see "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification" by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church, also linked below). Other Lutherans, especially Confessional Lutherans, maintain that this agreement fails to properly define the meaning of faith, sin and other essential terms and thus do not agree with the Lutheran World Federation's agreement.
The Protestant Doctrine of Justification
Protestants believe that justification by faith alone is the chief goal of Scripture, and that any and every other view of justification serves only to condemn the believer. They believe that Christianity is absolutely integral with the central message of Genesis, which continues and never changes throughout Scripture. That message is that Abraham was justified, accounted as righteous by God, by his faith. This was in advance of the crucifixion, which was to make saving faith possible. After the crucifixion and resurrection, Paul was able to write: 'What does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was imputed to him as righteousness."' Protestants believe that mankind can be accounted righteous before God, but by one means only, which is faith.
It is not possible to mix works with faith in the context of justification. As soon as one believes that one needs, or can do good works to earn justification, one loses saving faith. That is because of what one puts faith in, the atoning work of a perfect sacrifice, i.e. Christ's death on the cross. By deeming works necessary we deem Christ imperfect (see Romans 3:22-25). The term 'faith alone' is theologically unnecessary, and is used only because of the erroneous beliefs of those who think that faith can be augmented with works in order to justify.
No sacrament or any church ritual is at all relevant in this matter; full justification takes place at the moment a sinner admits sin and trusts in the sacrifice of Christ who took the punishment for that sin. Sanctification is what follows as a result of gratitude for justification already completed; it must never be confused with justification. Justification is the precursor, pre-requisite and efficient cause of sanctification. The author of Hebrews wrote: 'How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, purify our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!' (Heb 9:14). The approach of some is that good works are in some way meritorious. They are not; they are mankind's duty (see Micah 6:8 and Luke 17:7-10). In this context there is no such thing as a good work.
No-one can be saved by works, because just one sin is sufficient to exclude a person from God's presence and send him or her to everlasting punishment for sin. 'Whoever keeps the whole law but stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it' (James 2:10). The only truly righteous acts that exist are those done by faith: 'All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our 'righteous' acts are as filthy clothes' (Isaiah 64:6). For the believer, 'everything that does not come from faith is sin'. (Rom 14:23)
All of a person's sins must be treated as having never been committed if God is to accept him or her. No amount of good works can ever compensate. God in Christ provided a solution by sacrifice of Himself for the sins of the whole world. Those who believe that He did this, and behave with gratitude for his sacrifice, are accounted righteous, justified, by God. Those who do not accept Christ's sacrifice, because they do not believe that they are sinners deserving punishment, or because they do not wish to live lives of gratitude for His sacrifice, are condemned because they refuse Christ's offer of salvation. Mere head belief that Christ died to pay for sins is not faith that justifies. It was that nominal faith that James referred to in his letter (chapter 2), not real faith, which would not have earned James' rebuke.
The justified soul can say with Paul, 'not having a righteousness of my own that comes from keeping the law [by works], but that which is through faith in Christ' (Philippians 3:9).
Background of the Protestant Understanding
- Medieval Catholicism
Martin Luther & the Lutheran school of thought
The Doctrine of Justification is the North Star of Lutheran theology. It is often referred to as the articulus stantis vel cadentis ecclesiae, or, "the article [of faith] by which the church stands or falls." It is thus not one of many teachings of the Church which work together, but rather the lynchpin which holds the entire body of doctrine together.
In order to understand how Luther believes that faith alone saves, one must realize what Martin Luther considered faith to be. Faith, unlike what Luther believes is the common misinterpretation, was not a mere "intellectual assent" to Church doctrines because this did not actually touch one's heart. In fact, he would consider this to be what Paul calls the "faith of demons" which merely acknowledges the existence of God. Luther writes, "Faith is a living, bold trust in God's grace, so certain of God's favor that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it."  To him, faith is seen as "God's work in us" that both receives God's grace and by its very presence does good works. Luther continues, "It doesn't stop to ask if good works ought to be done, but before anyone asks, it already has done them and continues to do them without ceasing." In fact, it cannot help but do them because of the abundance of God's grace given for Christ's sake. It is for this reason Luther also believes justification and sanctification to be essentially the same thing.
Following this line of thought, one can argue that Luther considered the Roman Catholic interpretation to be in error because it would presume that man adds his works to God's grace. Instead of this, Luther believed that faith is God's work alone and therefore cannot be worked because it is God's gift. It would be like suggesting a beggar earns the coin a gracious passerby gives them. It was for this reason, he formulated the doctrine of justification on faith alone and did not include works. Luther considered Christ's merit alone to be sufficient and denied that believers could add to that merit by performing acts of charity.
John Calvin & the Calvinist school of thought
John Wesley & the Methodist school of thought
- Official Common Statement of the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church
- Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church
- Annex to the Official Common Statement by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church
- Salvation: Grace, Justification, and Synergy by the Lutheran-Orthodox Joint Commission
- Justification at WikiChristian
- Justification Article from Catholic Encyclopedia
- Catholics United for the Faith article "It 'Works' for Me: The Church's Teaching on Justification"
- Justification & Salvation links at Dave Armstrong's "Biblical Evidence for Catholicism" site
- Salvation articles on James Akin's "Nazareth Resource Library" site
- Saint Paul Center for Biblical Theology
- Articles by Stephen K. Ray
- Catholic Answers tracts
- Apology of the Augsburg Confession Article IV: Of Justification by Philip Melanchthon
- Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord Article III: Concerning the Righteousness of Faith before God
- LCMS FAQ: Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification
- Luther's definition of faith
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