justification by works

Justification (theology)

In Christian theology, justification is God's act of declaring or making a sinner righteous before God. Justification, from the Greek δικαιόω (dikaioō), "to declare/make righteous", is a word occurring in the books of Romans, Galatians, Titus, and James, among other places; the root noun δικαιοσ,-η,-ον righteous occurs throughout both Old and New Testaments. The concept of justification occurs also in many Old and New Testament books.

The extent, means, and scope of justification are areas of significant debate. Broadly speaking, Catholics and Orthodox Christians distinguish between initial justification—which occurs in baptism—and final justification, accomplished after a lifetime of striving to do God's will. Protestants believe that justification is a singular act in which God declares an unrighteous individual to be righteous because of the work of Jesus. Justification is granted to all who have faith, but even that is viewed as a gift from God (compare ).

Justification is seen by Protestants as being the theological fault line that divided Roman Catholic from Protestant during the Reformation, although Catholics emphasise the alleged Protestant rejection of apostolic succession, and the alleged rejection of Holy Tradition (and Catholic Church magisterium) in the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura.

Biblical data

Old Testament

The Old Testament stressed the need for righteousness and opened up the possibility of cleansing from sin. The early church saw the Mosaic Law as creating an impossibly high standard of righteousness which left the individual in need of cleansing. The prophets spoke of the need for cleansing from sin. The sacrifices required in Leviticus also spoke to the need for cleansing from sin. However, the prophets were clear that the sacrifices of themselves did not accomplish cleansing. Hence, the early church understood the sacrifices to be figurative of the sacrifice of Jesus.


Justification by faith
Jesus used the idea of ransom, or redemption when referring to his work on earth. Christ's death and resurrection (triumph over satan and death) provides justification for believers before God. His righteousness becomes theirs, and his death becomes an offering to God in their place, to pay for all of their sins. Thus justification is by faith alone - not through good deeds - and is a gift from God through Christ.

Romans 4:25 [Jesus Christ] was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification. Romans 4:25 Christ's resurrection provides justification
Romans 3:22-25 This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. Romans 3:20-26 Rightousness through Christ alone

Faith plus works
James 2:24 "You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone." Some misuse this verse by taking the verse out of context. Reading James 2:24 with the surrounding verses, it is apparent that the point being made is that what one believes modifies one's actions - thus true faith in God results in a desire to follow his instruction to love one another, and thus would result in good deeds.

James 2:15-18 Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, "You have faith; I have deeds." Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. James 2:15-26 Faith and works

D. Kennedy explains this verse clearly:

“...James is dealing with people who profess to be Christians, and yet they don't evidence the reality of their faith by their works [deeds]. Over, and over again... people will say they have faith and they don't have works, and James is saying that real faith always produces works as a result... The question is, 'A man may say that he has faith, but will that faith justify him?' If it is just a 'said' faith”—no, it won't!” Justification by faith - what about James 2:24?

Concerning the need for righteousness, Jesus says "I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven." - this is possible by accepting the salvation of Christ. His righteousness (rightness and purity before God, as Christ never committed any sins) is transferred to believers when they seek the forgiveness that Christ purchased for them on the cross. Concerning his own death and speaking at the Last Supper, he says, ". . .this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. He also speaks often of forgiveness of sins.


It was Paul who developed the term justification in the theology of the church. Justification is a major theme of the epistles to the Romans and to the Galatians in the New Testament, and is also given treatment in many other epistles. In Romans, Paul develops justification by first speaking of God's just wrath at sin (Rom. 1:18 - 3:20). Justification is then presented as the solution for God's wrath. One is said to be 'justified by faith apart from works of the Law.' Further, Paul writes of sin and justification in terms of two men, Adam and Christ. Through Adam, sin came into the world; through Jesus, righteousness came into the world, bringing justification. In this connection, Paul speaks of Adam's sin being 'imputed' or 'accounted' and speaks of justification as acting in analogy to sin. In chapter 8, Paul connects justification with predestination and glorification. He further states that those who are justified cannot be separated from the love of Christ. Several of these passages are central in the debate between Roman Catholics, and the various streams of Protestantism (there is no common understanding of Justification among Protestant denominations), who understand them in quite different ways. In Galatians, Paul emphatically rejects justification by works of the Law, a rejection sparked apparently by a controversy concerning the necessity of circumcision for salvation.

Other New Testament writers

The Epistle to the Hebrews also takes up the theme of justification, declaring that Jesus' death is superior to the Old Testament sacrifices in that it takes away sin once for all (Heb. 10). In Hebrews, faith in Jesus' sacrifice includes steadfast perseverance. James discusses justification briefly but significantly, declaring that a faith that is apart from works cannot be a justifying faith, because faith is made perfect or completed by works. Indeed, works are required for justification because "man is justified by works, and not by faith alone, though the sense of the word justified in this passage is disputed.. The writer of James emphasizes the Jewish belief that faith and deeds go together. Faith without works is counterfeit. The faith must produce good fruit as a sign lest it become the occasion for self-justification. In James faith refers to sound theology: In Paul it is trust in Jesus and communion with him (The New Oxford Annotated Bible, p. 1471). The positions are complementary, not opposed.

Early church and justification

After the apostolic era, the concept of justification was secondary to issues such as martyrdom. Justification as a concept is mentioned in the works of early church fathers and in the sermons of John Chrysostom), but it is not developed until Augustine's conflict with Pelagius.

Pelagius taught that one became righteous through the exertion of one's will to follow the example of Jesus' life. Over against this, Augustine taught that we are justified by God , as a work of His grace . Augustine took great pains in his anti-Pelagian works to refute the notion that our works could serve as the proper basis for our justification. The church affirmed most of Augustine's teachings and rejected all of those of Pelagius.

Hence, in the early church, justification was a work of God leading to righteousness, and saving us from God's wrath; but few of the controversial questions mentioned above were addressed in any detail, save that justification definitely requires the work of God in us. However, the language used in describing justification would encompass the modern terms of both "justification" and "sanctification.

Views of different traditions

Christian traditions answer questions about the nature, function and meaning of justification quite differently. These issues include: Is justification an event occurring instantaneously or is it as an ongoing process? Is justification effected by divine action alone (monergism), by divine and human action together (synergism) or by human action? Is justification permanent or can it be lost? What is the relationship of justification to sanctification, the process whereby sinners become righteous and are enabled by the Holy Spirit to live lives pleasing to God?

Tradition Process
Permanence Justification
Roman Catholic Process Synergism Can be lost via mortal sin Part of the same process
Lutheran Event Divine monergism Can be lost via loss of faith Separate from and prior to sanctification
Methodist Event Synergism Can be lost Dependent upon continued sanctification
Orthodox Process Synergism Can be lost via mortal sin Part of the same process of theosis
Reformed Event Divine monergism Cannot be lost Both are a result of union with Christ

Roman Catholic views

After the East-West Schism in 1054, the doctrine of the atonement continued to develop in the West. The contributions of Anselm and Thomas Aquinas had a strong influence on the present-day Roman Catholic doctrine of justification. To Roman 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" , including the transforming of a sinner from the state of unrighteousness to the state of holiness. This transformation is made possible by accessing the merit of Christ, made available in the atonement, through faith and the sacraments .

In Roman Catholic theology, all are born in a state of original sin, meaning that both the guilt and sin nature of Adam are inherited by all. Following Augustine, the Roman Catholic church asserts that people are unable to make themselves righteous; instead, they require "justification."

Roman Catholic theology holds that God's righteousness is infused into the sinner when he or she partakes of the sacrament of baptism, combined with faith. This is termed initial justification or "being cleansed of sin", the entrance into the Christian life. As the individual then progresses in his Christian life, he continues to receive God's grace both directly through the Holy Spirit as well as through the sacraments. This has the effect of combatting sin in the individual's life, causing him to become more righteous both in heart and in action. This is progressive justification, or "being made righteous." It is also the case, according to Robert Sungenis, that God views those who are in the process of being justified through the lens of grace, so that He sees them as beloved children despite their sin .

At the final judgment, the individual's works will then be evaluated . At that time, those who are righteous will be shown to be so. This is the "final justification."

Orthodox views

Eastern Christianity, including both Eastern Orthodoxy and Oriental Orthodoxy, tends to de-emphasize justification compared to Roman Catholicism or Protestantism — so much so that justification often has no separate treatment in Eastern theological works. The Greek term for justification (δικαιωσις, dikaiōsis) 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. In large part, this de-emphasis on justification is historical. First, the doctrine of the atonement developed differently in the East and the West. The Eastern church sees humanity as inheriting the disease of sin from Adam, but not his guilt; hence, there is no need in Eastern theology for any forensic justification. Second, the Reformation was the catalyst for extremes in precision regarding justification; however, the Eastern and Western churches had already divided long prior to that event.

The Orthodox see salvation as a process of theosis, in which the individual is united to Christ and the life of Christ is reproduced within him. Thus, in one sense, justification is an aspect of theosis.. However, it is also the case that those who are baptized into the church and experience Chrismation are considered to be cleansed of sin. Hence, the Orthodox concept of justification cannot be reconciled to Protestant concepts, while it is not considered as being in disagreement to Roman Catholic concepts. In the words of one Orthodox Bishop:

Justification is a word used in the Scriptures to mean that in Christ we are forgiven and actually made righteous in our living. Justification is not a once-for-all, instantaneous pronouncement guaranteeing eternal salvation, regardless of how wickedly a person might live from that point on. Neither is it merely a legal declaration that an unrighteous person is righteous. Rather, justification is a living, dynamic, day-to-day reality for the one who follows Christ. The Christian actively pursues a righteous life in the grace and power of God granted to all who continue to believe in Him.

Lutheran views

"This one and firm rock, which we call the doctrine of justification," insisted Martin Luther, "is the chief article of the whole Christian doctrine, which comprehends the understanding of all godliness." He also called this doctrine the articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae ("article of the standing and falling of the church"): "…if this article stands, the Church stands; if it falls, the Church falls. Lutherans follow Luther in this when they call this doctrine "the material principle" of theology in relation to the Bible, which is "the formal principle." They believe justification by grace through faith in Christ's righteousness alone is the gospel, the core of the Christian faith around which all other Christian doctrines are centered and based.

Luther came to understand justification as entirely God's work. When God's righteousness is mentioned in the gospel, it is God's action of declaring righteous the unrighteous sinner who has faith in Jesus Christ. The righteousness by which the person is justified (declared righteous) is not his own (theologically, proper righteousness) but that of another, Christ, (alien righteousness). "That is why faith alone makes someone just and fulfills the law," said Luther. "Faith is that which brings the Holy Spirit through the merits of Christ". Thus faith, for Luther, is a gift from God, and ". . .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." This faith grasps Christ's righteousness and appropriates it for the believer.

Traditionally, Lutherans have taught forensic (or legal) justification, a divine verdict of acquittal pronounced on the believing sinner. God declares the sinner to be "not guilty" because Christ has taken his place, living a perfect life according to God's law and suffering for his sins. For Lutherans justification is in no way dependent upon the thoughts, words, and deeds of those justified through faith in Christ. The new obedience that the justified sinner renders to God through sanctification follows justification as a consequence, but is not part of justification.

For Lutherans, justification provides the power by which Christians can grow in holiness. Such improvement comes about in the believer only after he has become a new creation in Christ. This improvement is not completed in this life: Christians are always "saint and sinner at the same time" (simul iustus et peccator) — saints because they are holy in God's eyes, for Christ's sake, and do works that please Him; sinners because they continue to sin until death.

Anglican views

The eleventh article of the Thirty-Nine Articles makes clear that Anglicans believe that justification cannot be earned ("We are accounted righteous before God... not for our own works or deservings") and therefore the Anglicanism of the authors of the Thirty-Nine Articles is, on this issue, fully Protestant.

High Church (Anglo-Catholics) Anglicans often follow Orthodoxy and Rome in believing both man and God are involved in justification. "Justtification has an objective and a subjective aspect. The objective is the act of God in Christ restoring the covenant and opening it to all people. The subjective aspect is faith, trust in the divine factor, acceptance of divine mercy. Apart from the presence of the subjective aspect there is no justification. People are not justified apart from their knowledge or against their will...God forgives and accepts sinners as they are into the divine fellowship, and that these sinners are in fact changed by their trust in the divine mercy." (Theological Questions, Thomas, C. Owen, pp. 81-82, sometime Fiske Professor of Systematic Theology, Episcopal Divinity School, Cambridge, MA). Justification, the establishment of a relationship with God through Christ, and sanctification go hand in hand.

Reformed views

Calvin's understanding of justification was in substantial agreement with Luther's. However, he expanded it by emphasizing that justification is a part of one's union with Christ. His theological center was different from Luther's, and his terminology was more systematic. The center of Calvin's soteriology was our Union with Christ (Inst., III.xi.10). For Calvin, one is united to Christ by faith, and all of the benefits of Christ come from being united to him. Therefore, anyone who is justified will also receive all of the benefits of salvation, including sanctification. Thus, while Calvin agreed in substance with the "simultaneously saint and sinner" formulation (Inst. III.xiii), he was more definite in asserting that the result of being justified is a consequent sanctification (III.xiv.19; III.xvi). Calvin also used more definite language than Luther, spelling out the exchange notion of imputed righteousness: that the good works that Jesus did in his life (collectively referred to as the active obedience of Christ) are imputed to his people, while their sins were imputed to him on the cross.

For Calvin, Adam and Jesus functioned as federal heads, or legal representatives, meaning that each one represented his people through his actions (II.i.8). When Adam sinned, all of Adam's people were accounted to have sinned at that moment. When Jesus achieved righteousness, all of his people were accounted to be righteous at that moment. In this way Calvin attempted to simultaneously solve the problems of original sin, justification, and atonement.

Some of the technical details of this union with Christ are tied into Calvin's understanding of the atonement and of predestination.

One outcome of Calvin's change in center over against Luther was that he saw justification as a permanent feature of being connected to Christ: since, for Calvin, people are attached to Christ monergistically, it is therefore impossible for them to lose justification if indeed they were once justified. This idea was expressed by the Synod of Dort as the "perseverance of the saint."

In recent times, two controversies have arisen in the Reformed churches over justification. The first concerns the teaching of "final justification" by Norman Shepherd; the second is the exact relationship of justification, sanctification, and church membership, which is part of a larger controversy concerning the Federal Vision.

Methodist views

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was heavily influenced by the thoughts of Jacob Arminius and the Governmental theory of atonement. Hence, he held that God's work in us consisted of Prevenient grace, which undoes the effects of sin sufficiently that we may then freely choose to believe. An individual's act of faith then results in becoming part of the body of Christ, which allows one to appropriate Christ's atonement for oneself, erasing the guilt of sin. According to the Articles of Religion in the Book of Discipline of the Methodist Church:

We are accounted righteous before God only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, by faith, and not for our own works or deservings. Wherefore, that we are justified by faith only is a most wholesome doctrine, and very full of comfort.
However, once the individual has been so justified, one must then continue in the new life given; if one fails to persevere and in fact falls away from God in total unbelief, the attachment to Christ — and with it, justification — may be lost.

Other views

Universalism became a significant minority view in the 18th century, popularized by thinkers such as John Murray (not to be confused with John Murray the Scottish Reformed theologian). Universalism holds that Christ's death on the cross has entirely paid for the sin of humanity; hence, God's wrath is satisfied towards all. Different varieties of universalism then go in different directions. Liberal Unitarian Universalism holds that many different religions all lead to God. Others teach that God's love is sufficient to cover for sins, thus embracing some form of the moral influence theory of Peter Abelard. For many universalists, justification is an event entirely in the past, accomplished on the cross; or else it is unnecessary altogether.

Interactions between various doctrines

Sola fide

Luther's reformulation of justification introduced the phrase sola fide, or by faith alone. That phrase has been one of the uniting factors among various Protestant denominations; despite the wide variety of doctrines and practices among Protestants, they all agree that one is saved (often meaning "justified") by faith alone.

Roman Catholics from the Diet of Worms and Council of Trent until the present day (e.g., Sungenis) have criticized this phrase on several grounds. First and foremost, it appears to them to indicate that one can be justified without any actual change of life. Hence the strong language of Trent: If any one saith, that men are justified, either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ, or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost, and is inherent in them; or even that the grace, whereby we are justified, is only the favour of God; let him be anathema .

Second, Roman Catholics point out that the only use of the formula "faith alone" (sola fide) is in James 2:24, which appears to deny the sola fide concept: "You see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone." Hence, they claim that Scripture upholds their rejection of sola fide justification.

Third, Roman Catholics claim that the term sola fide has many different subtleties of meaning among different groups of Protestants. They maintain that these differences cast doubt on the coherence of the concept of sola fide.

Within Protestantism, there is debate as to how strongly sanctification is tied to justification. Thus, in modern times, the "Lordship Salvation" controversy between some faculty at Dallas Seminary (Charles Ryrie and Zane C. Hodges) and others (John F. MacArthur and R.C. Sproul) has resulted in serious thinking on this question: can one be justified without any evidence of sanctification whatsoever?

(It should be noted that this question, however important, is a misunderstanding of the Lordship Salvation controversy. The proposition that all genuine born again people will do some good works is common ground, since grace advocates Wilkin, Ryrie and Hodges have all concurred that they will. [see, Wilkin, “Are Good Works Inevitable?” Grace in Focus, February 1990, Ryrie, So Great Salvation, and Hodges, "We Believe in: Assurance of Salvation" The Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society, 1990] In the Lordship debate, the question is: can true believers commit 'apostasy'?)

Looking at this controversy from the outside, Roman Catholics claim that "justification by faith alone" does not have a coherent meaning.

Protestants meanwhile hold tenaciously to the sola fide formula, charging that without it, the Christian is led down a path that is inevitably Pelagian and Judaizing. They charge that the abuses Luther saw were a logical outworking of a Roman Catholic system that includes good works as a necessary condition for justification. They respond to the argument from James 2:24 (above) by asserting that the passage in question refers to demonstrating one's justification before men, rather than achieving justification before God.

Despite these differences, some Roman Catholics and Lutherans believe that they have found much agreement on the subject of justification. 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 support the Lutheran World Federation's agreement. Likewise, Catholics affirming the real and serious differences between the decrees of the Council of Trent and the normative Lutheran documents collected in the 1580 Book of Concord equally reject the 1999 "Joint Declaration" as fatally flawed. In July of 2006 the World Methodist Council, representing 70 million Wesleyan Christians, including The United Methodist Church, "signed on" to the Joint Declaration on Justification between Roman Catholics and the Lutheran World Federation.

Anglican bishop N.T. Wright has written extensively on the topic of justification, see also New Perspective on Paul. His views are troubling to many evangelicals, and have sparked some debate. Those concerned with his view of justification worry that he marginalizes the importance of the penal substitutionary transaction that takes place at salvation. Defenders of Wright respond by saying that, while the bishop acknowledges advocacy of penal substitution in many biblical texts, he does not see its application in scriptures other evangelicals might. Proponents of Wright's view of justification warn detractors to "read him well" before criticizing his theology forthright.


See also

External links



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