Justification (theology)

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General Definition

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 (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.

See also: Orthodox Christianity, Theosis

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 His gracious generosity and love, He created men in His 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 bad 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 Chirst, they are given the supernatural gifts of justifying faith, hope, and love, gifts which infinitely surpass our 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 Christians is already pure, though, how does he grow in righteousness? Not qualitatively, since Christians 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. There is no other way. Everyone agrees about this.

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, and faith by itself, justifies. 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 (http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/chrstuni/documents/rc_pc_chrstuni_doc_31101999_cath-luth-joint-declaration_en.html), also linked below).

(The 1910 Catholic Encyclopedia article on Justification elaborates the ideas presented here, but includes more technical language and some terminology no longer current in Catholic theology. (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08573a.htm))

The Protestant Doctrine of Justification

Background of the Protestant Understanding

  • Medieval Catholicism
  • Precursors

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.

[more to come]

John Calvin & the Calvinist school of thought

John Wesley & the Methodist school of thought

Other ideas

Printed Resources

Bibliography for Justification (theology)

External links








This article incorporates text from the public domain Catholic Encyclopedia.de:Rechtfertigungslehre sv:Rättfärdiggörelse


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