The Nature of Justification

The doctrine of justification serves as the fundamental issue dividing Christian traditions, particularly Protestantism and Catholicism. What rests on this question is not only the Christian’s current status before God but also the implications for how the Christian ought to live and why. While this doctrine encompasses a broad range of questions, the three main areas justification speaks to include the nature of faith and righteousness, the work of God, and the work of the believer. Both Protestant and Catholic camps appeal to Scripture in order to support their differing notions of justification, and both groups attempt to account for how it speaks of these three issues. 

The apostle Paul speaks about justification more so than any other New Testament writer, so it is largely from Paul’s letters that Protestants and Catholics argue for their respective views. He maintained a firm conviction that justification before God came only as a result of Christ’s work on the cross and that righteousness as well was something the believer received passively rather than actively seized for herself. For example, in Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he highlights Christ as head over all creation and the one who, “reconciled [you] in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him” (Col 1:22) (1). According to Paul, the sole agent of justification is God the Father acting through Christ which is so because of Christ’s death on the cross (Col 2:14), and this justification is the believer’s redemption before God in Christ which Paul stipulates as the forgiveness of sins (Rom 3:24-26, Eph 1:7, Col 1:14).

In other words, there are three simultaneous events which transpire upon a believer coming to faith in Christ: justification, redemption, and forgiveness. From the perspective of Paul, one cannot divide these events into a distinct chronology because they are mutually entailing. A believer cannot be justified without being redeemed, and if a believer is redeemed her sins are necessarily forgiven.

In speaking of justification, Paul often employs the passive voice of certain Greek verbs in order to illustrate what has happened to believers. For example, in Colossians 2, Paul tells his readers that they have been filled (peplērōmenoi), have been rooted (errizōmenoi), and are being built up (epoikodomoumenoi) in Christ, and they have been established (bebaioumenoi) in the faith (v. 7). Further, Paul tells them they were circumcised (perietmēthēte) with Christ’s circumcision, have been buried (syntaphentes) with him, and were also raised (synēgerthēte) with him through faith (vv. 11-12).

The passive verbs in verses 11 and 12 are also aorist in form which means they signify a completed past action. This entails that the believer’s redemption which Paul illustrates via Christ’s death and resurrection is definite and final. The assumed agent of these actions is God through Christ who made the believers alive and had forgiven them of all their trespasses (v. 13). God actively brings about deliverance and justification in the believer’s life by uniting her with Christ, and the believer need only receive him. In fact, the only active verbs Paul attributes to the believers themselves in this section are receiving (parelabete) Christ, walking (peripateite) in him, and abounding (perisseuontes) in thanksgiving (Col 2:6-7). The implication is the believer cannot justify herself, but she must receive Christ and walk in the faith which Paul identifies as living a life of thanksgiving to God for his already completed work. 

According to Paul, the way in which the believer receives this justification is by God’s favor, or grace, attained through faith (pistis) which is measured out by God from believer to believer (Rom 12:3). The meaning of faith as the New Testament uses it varies based on the context, but it is akin to trust, fidelity, or believing loyalty. In other words, the Christian is cleaved to Christ and made one with him in his death and resurrection (Rom 6:3-5). The act of justification is one done by grace as purely a gift from God (Rom 3:24). The Christian cannot claim her justification over God on the basis of merit; rather, she can only have it because God offers it wholly on the basis of Christ’s merit (Eph 2:8-9). In doing so, the believer receives God’s favor, and Christ receives the believer’s sin and so atones for it (2 Cor 5:21). This process is not mechanistic nor is it systematic in the sense of obligation or merit; rather, the act of justification and the process of sanctification is akin to relational terms as the believer is brought into God’s covenant family and made more like him (Mark 3:31-35, Rom 4, Eph 2:19, Gal 3:28-29; Lev 20:26, 1 Pet 1:16).

Scripture repudiates the notion that a person can earn her way into God’s covenant family by way of merit and so have something to claim from him. Paul argues that such a scenario is not possible because death has a claim on humanity because all humans have sinned (Rom 3:23, 5:12). Therefore, the only option humanity has is to be shown mercy, and this, Paul argues, is exactly what God has done in Christ. God put forward Christ to be a propitiation for sin by his blood, and then when Jesus is received by faith, God justifies the believer having passed over her sin (Rom 3:23-26). In this way, Paul also rejects the notion that justification is an ongoing process to be conflated with sanctification. While he strongly emphasizes that believers must live appropriately in accordance with their received identity in Christ (Eph 4:1, Phil 1:27), at no point does he equate this kind of living with increasing justification. To say that justification can increase is to imply that Christ’s justification the believer initially receives upon coming to faith is somehow deficient or not enough to make sinners right with God and so must be supplemented with works, a concept foreign to Paul’s theology (Rom 3:20).

The divide between the Protestant and Catholic interpretations of Paul and the larger corpus of Scripture can be largely summarized by their differing views of justification. The official stance of the Roman Catholic Church as stated in the Council of Trent (1545-1563) is that, “Having, therefore, been thus justified… [believers], through the observance of the commandments of God and of the Church, faith cooperating with good works, increase in that justice received through the grace of Christ and are further justified” (2). The Catholic view understands faith as initiating the justification process with the necessity of works in conjunction with it in order to reach full righteousness before God.

Therefore, faith absent of charity or hope is of no effect (3). Faith serves as preparatory for the believer to receive justification. The believer voluntarily receives the grace and gifts God infuses into her provided through means such as the sacraments. With this comes remission of sins and the sanctification and renewal of the inward person to create the habit of faith working through hope and love (4). However, these habits and means of grace do not serve to provide certainty for the believer as she cannot guarantee she will not sin as to lose grace or be restored via penance to proper standing (5). Further, although the believer must accumulate righteousness by means of faith and works, the justification infused in her by God is still based upon Christ’s merit; therefore, faith and merit gain Christ’s merit (6), and part of this faith (or perhaps merit) includes believing the Council’s authoritative declaration on justification without which no one can be justified (7).

Contrary to the Catholic understanding of justification, Martin Luther argued for the finality of Christ’s righteousness justifying the believer by grace through faith alone in him.  His view responded to certain Catholic theologians who held that good work before grace could obtain merit of congruity (grace earned by a person via good works which moves her towards salvation) and that the work performed after grace could obtain merit of condignity (further grace earned also by good works and the sacraments to advance in justification) and thus eternal life (8). Luther argued, “[W]hoever is found having this faith in the Christ who is grasped in the heart, him God accounts as righteous. This is the means and merit by which we obtain the forgiveness of sins and righteousness” (9).

According to Luther, faith alone justifies the Christian because she takes hold of and possesses Christ who forms and trains faith and who is the form of faith (10). As a result, Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the Christian by God, and the Christian is then someone who does not have her sin imputed to her or held against her in any way. Because the righteousness the Christian receives comes exclusively from Christ through faith and not merit on the believer’s part, the righteousness the believer receives is alien to her in that she plays no role in acquiring it. Therefore, because the believer has laid hold of Christ by faith and has become righteous, she ought to go and love God and her neighbor (11). Christ’s righteousness frees the Christian from having to keep the letter of the law and so she is not subject to anything. This reality the believer experiences in Christ must first be claimed before any conversation of works and love begins (12).

In addition to Luther’s critiques of the Catholic view on justification, John Calvin argued for the believer’s righteousness in Christ on similar terms. The righteousness the believer receives cannot be due to any merit on the believer’s part but rather is completely given by God. Calvin believed, “[J]ustified by faith is he who, excluded from the righteousness of works, grasps the righteousness of Christ through faith, and clothed in it, appears in God’s sight not as a sinner but as a righteous man.” On these terms, Calvin equates justification with simply the acceptance with which God receives believers into his favor as righteous.

Entailed in this acceptance is repentance, the remission of sins, and the imputation of Christ’s own righteousness to the Christian (13). This is only possible by faith because of how Calvin defines it. According to him, faith is, “a knowledge of God’s will toward [believers], perceived from his Word” (14). Faith rests upon knowledge rather than ignorance and it is out of this knowledge received by the Word that the believer is motivated to trust in and lay hold of God’s promises in Christ to be reconciled to him. Therefore, having been justified before God in Christ through knowledge of God’s will, Calvin argued the Christian undergoes the change of turning one’s life to God by repentance in faith and so gains three types of freedom (15).

The first is that believers’ consciences rise above and beyond the law in seeking assurance of their justification before God. In other words, the Christian is free to seek godliness and sanctification having been freed from maintaining law-based righteousness (16). Secondly, having been freed from the law’s yoke, the Christian willingly obeys God’s will because the sway of perpetual dread due to sin has been removed in Christ. As long as a person remains under the law, she will act more as a servant assigned a task who is afraid of appearing before the master until the work is done. Contrarily, a son or daughter receives far more generosity by virtue of the relationship the child has with the father (17). Finally, the Christian is not bound by any religious obligation preventing her from an otherwise indifferent thing such as eating meat or drinking alcohol; however, Calvin does stipulate that as free people, believers should use God’s gifts for the purpose for which he gave them. Namely, the Christian should use the freedom arising from her justification to edify her neighbor (18).

“Then they said to him, ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent'” (John 6:28-29).


(1): All Bible verses are from the English Standard Version.

(2): Council of Trent, Session 6 (13 January 1547), Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, trans. by H. L. Schroeder (St. Louis: B. Herder Book Co., 1941): 29-46, quoted in John C. Olin, A Reformation Debate: John Calvin and Jacopo Sadoleto (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1976), 123.

(3): Ibid., 120-121.

(4): Ibid., 118-120.

(5): Ibid., 126.

(6): Ibid., 130.

(7): Ibid., 131.

(8): Martin Luther, “Lectures on Galatians” (1535), in Luther’s Works vol. 26, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House), 124.

(9): Ibid., 132.

(10): Ibid., 130.

(11): Ibid., 133.

(12): Ibid., 134, 138.

(13): John Calvin, Calvin’s Institutes, ed. Donald K. McKim (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001),76, 93, 97.

(14): Ibid., 67.

(15): Ibid., 77.

(16): Ibid., 104.

(17): Ibid., 104-105.

(18): Ibid., 105.

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