Word of the Week: Justification

Often, when we think about the doctrine of salvation, we mean the specific aspect of salvation called justification.

Justification is the aspect of salvation where we are declared righteous by God.

The doctrine of justification was seminal to Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther struggled regarding salvation for years. He sought to be justified (made right with God) through his works. This is the basic teaching of the Roman Catholic Church and was certainly Luther’s primary understanding prior to his conversion. For Roman Catholics, the works that justify are the sacraments (Baptism, Confirmation, Penance, Eucharist, etc.) By participating in these sacraments, the good Catholic is supposed to be justified, that is made right with God. Luther’s problem was that he was a consistent confessor of his sins and an effective participant in these sacraments, yet had not experienced salvation. He had no peace or assurance that he had been forgiven.

Luther’s turning point (and indeed the significant turning point in the Protestant Reformation) was Habakkuk 2:4 quoted in Romans 1:17, “The just shall live by faith.” Like a lightning bolt, Luther understood. One could not be justified by works or good deeds. Rather, justification came by faith alone.

Justification by faith alone initiated the Reformation emphasis of the five solas. Salvation is through Christ alone, by grace alone, in faith alone, from Scripture alone, for the glory of God alone.

Paul details the doctrine of justification further in Romans 3.

20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Romans 3:20-26, emphasis mine.

Justification comes by God through Christ’s work on the cross. Justification was earned by Christ. It is a gift of grace to the believer. It is received by faith.

You might ask, “Why doesn’t God just unilaterally forgive sin? Why did God need to go through the terrible judgment of the cross and judge our sin through Christ?”

Think about God as a Judge. He will one day judge every person who has walked planet earth. Could he just wipe away sin? I guess he could, but what kind of judge would he be if he just wiped away our sins? Consider a court of law. Imagine if a murderer were facing a judge. The murderer was evidentially and admittedly guilty of the crime. There was no challenging his guilt; he was guilty of his crime. But when standing before the judge, the judge pronounced him innocent and let him walk away. The judge said something like this, “The evidence is here. I’ve seen it. I choose to ignore the evidence and the guilt. I pronounce you innocent. You may go your way.” What confidence could we have in that judge or that judicial system? This is not what it means to be justified before God.

God, the Father, our Judge, has seen our sin and wickedness—with perfect clarity. Our guilt and sin are against God. He’s the One who has judged us guilty. But then God does something unique and wonderful. In the midst of his indescribable holiness, in the depth of our sinful depravity, in the truth and justice of our sinful guilt, God the Father does justify us (declare us right before him). He is able to do so, not because he unilaterally declares us innocent, but because he sent Jesus to take our place. Jesus’ death on the cross was God’s judgment on sin. As such, God did punish sin. He punished Christ for our sin. So when God declares us justified, he does so on the basis of Christ’s death on the cross that paid the penalty for our sin.

Justification is an act of God through Jesus Christ. It is a gift of grace, not merited by our works, but solely by Christ’s works. It is received by faith alone in Jesus Christ.

Justification motivates us to receive the glorious gift of salvation by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9; Romans 3:24-25). If you haven’t received the gift of salvation, consider trusting in Jesus Christ today.

Justification provides us ample reason to praise God. Your salvation is not by your own deeds or from your own goodness. It is a gracious gift of God that reveals the unfathomable depth of God’s mercy and grace.

10 thoughts on “Word of the Week: Justification

  1. The Reformers taught that through faith alone we are counted or declared as righteous. This means we remain unrighteous and only use perfect righteousness of Christ imputed on us. Luther expressed this concept in Latin as “simul iustus et peccator” or “justified and sinner at the same time”. When we die, instead of looking at our unrighteousness, God will look at that perfect righteousness of Christ and based on that He will let us enter heaven.

    My questions for you:
    1. Ezekiel 18:20 says ‘the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself”. How do you reconcile this verse with imputed righteousness of Christ?
    2. Ezekiel 33:12 says “the righteous shall not be able to live by his righteousness when he sins”. How do you reconcile this verse with “simul iustus et peccator”?
    3. The phrase “justified by faith” appears four times in NT (Romans 3:28, 5:1, Galatians 2:16 and 3:24). Inspired by the Holy Spirit, if Paul intended that justification is by faith alone, then he would write those verses in Greek passive perfect tense. Unlike that of English, Greek perfect tense implies that the action described by the verb (to justify) was completed in the past with continuing result to the present or the person remains justified ever since. However Paul wrote those verses in Greek aorist tense (Rom. 5:1, Gal 2:16 and 3:24) and Greek present tense (Rom 3;28) – both do not imply that justification is one time event and is by faith alone.

    To correct your understanding of Catholic teaching: Following Scripture Catholics believe that God saves us through faith (Eph. 2:8) and through Sanctification (2 Thes. 2:13) or salvation, and therefore justification, is an on-going process. Through on-going justification we are made righteous through Christ as Scripture says in Rom. 5:19 “through Christ we are made righteous”. Scripture says that the righteous shall go to eternal life (Mat. 25:46) – they are righteous because they did acts that makes them righteous as defined in 1 John 3:7. It is NOT salvation by works because our ability to do them comes and is only possible by grace through Christ as apart from Him we can do nothing (John 15:5). As stated in Ezekiel 33:12 we lose our righteous state through sinning and that is why Christ gave the authority to the Church to forgive sins (John 20:21-23), which comes to us as Sacrament of Reconciliation, through which our sins are forgiven and put us back in our righteous state. Catholics also believe in Baptism for forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38) and so did Luther and Calvin.

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    1. First of all, thank you for reading and commenting. Based on your WordPress handle, it appears you are Roman Catholic. I appreciate your questions as well as some of your clarifications regarding Catholicism.

      Yes, the Reformers taught that we are justified and sinners at the same time. This is Paul’s point in the book of Romans as he defines the gospel. We are justified (chapter 3) and given peace with God (chapter 5) and alive to God (chapter 6), but also continue to struggle in our sanctification (chapter 7). Thank goodness for Romans 8:1 where those who are in Christ no longer fear condemnation.

      For your questions 1 and 2 from Ezekiel, I do not believe they are in need of reconciling with the imputed righteousness of Christ. Ezekiel was writing from an Old Testament perspective. While salvation in the Old Testament was still by grace (see Exodus 20:1-2 where redemption came before Law), there was an expectation of obedience to the Law. God demanded righteousness. Jesus did not change God’s expectation of righteousness (see Matthew 5:17-20). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus made the Law more difficult, not less. He added inward motivation (lust and anger) to outward behavior (adultery and murder), making the standards of the Law more stringent, not less. I do not believe that God has ever expected anything less than absolute perfection from those who would be his people. This is why the doctrine of justification is so important. Paul explained in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God.” I believe the gospel teaches that God transfers his righteousness to us in the aspect of salvation that is justification. To summarize your questions from Ezekiel. God demands righteousness from us. If we try to be righteous on our own, then God will let us stand in our own righteousness before him. The problem here is that our righteousness is insufficient. Our only hope is to stand in the imputed righteousness of Christ that happens at justification.

      For question 3, yes the Greek perfect indicates a past action that continues through to the present. The perfect tense implies that a past action has been completed but that the results of the action continue. The aorist tense is used to indicate an action at one point in time. You are correct in noting the tenses used for the four times justified by faith is used (aorist for Rom. 5:1; Gal. 2:16, 3:24 and present for Rom. 3:28). But you failed to note that in each of the four uses, the verb is passive. It has been referred to as the divine passive. To be justified is not something that we do ourselves, but that God does to us. When used with the aorist tense, the passive voice does indicate that an event (in this case being justified) is a one time event that occurred in the past. This is strikingly clear in Galatians 2:16. Paul states that we are not justified by works of the law (this is the same tense and voice as used later in the verse. But Paul argues “so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” The verb have believed is an active, aorist, indicative. Thus, the believer’s part in experiencing justification is belief, not works. I believe Paul is clear that justification is by faith and is a one time event that God accomplishes for us.

      Thank you for clarifying Catholic teaching on this subject of salvation. It appears that the primary distinction that you and I will have regards justification. We do not believe justification is an ongoing process, but a once in time event. Our part in justification is belief, not behavior. If justification is by more than faith alone, righteous acts (Mt. 25:46; 1 John 3:7; Eph. 2:10), then how does that not indicate salvation comes by works? This is the classic Reformation tension point. If I have to keep my salvation in the process of ongoing justification, then my works are part of the salvation process. This is untenable. Furthermore, there is no doubt that the church can forgive sins, but it does not follow that forgiving sins in this sense is justifying sinners. This is a great leap. Luther’s own testimony acknowledged confession after confession and absolution after absolution during his time as a monk. He viewed his confession (the use of John 20:21-23 above) as a work. Yet conversion did not come until he realized that justification is an act of God received by faith. Then Luther had peace. I concur that Luther and Calvin baptized infants as do many denominations. While I respect Luther and Calvin for many of their theological positions, I would disagree with pedobaptism. If viewed as a sacrament (means of grace), then it suggests that salvation comes by a work, not grace alone. As a baptist, we hold to believer’s baptism as a testimony that occurs post-conversion, not a means of receiving salvation. It does not follow from Acts 2:38 that baptism cleanses sin. Repentance and faith are associated over and over again as the response to the gospel (Mark 1:15; Rom. 10:9-10; Eph. 2:8-9). Baptism is the outward testimony of the inward conversion.

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      1. Thank you for allowing me to leave a comment and for your response.

        You wrote that Ezekiel wrote from OT perspective. Is it applicable to Ezekiel only or to any other books of OT? Does it mean we can ignore Ezekiel? Ezekiel 18:21 – 22, 24 summarize what God expect from us in terms of righteousness and wickedness. Even it is written in OT, God does not change (Malachi 3:6).

        God is our Father. A good human father will not ask his son to do something, which he is fully aware his son cannot do, and then punish him for not being able to do it. For example, suppose a father asked his son to produce a beautiful painting while he knows that his son is not good in painting. The only way his son to avoid his wrath is by accepting free service from a professional painter, a.k.a. Christ, who put His beautiful painting on top of the son’s poor one; then it will meet the father’s judgment.

        2 Cor 5:21 says “we might become righteousness of God” but imputation concept of Reformers implies we use external or alien righteousness of Christ covering our unrighteousness. They are not the same.

        Catholics do NOT believe we try to become righteous on our own – this is common caricature. Our righteousness comes from God through Christ. Scripture defines a righteous person as the one who does what is right (1 John 3:7). This is possible only by grace through Christ as apart from Him we can do nothing (John 15:5). We fail from time to time and lose our righteousness through sinning (Ezekiel 33:12); moved and enabled by grace we repent and ask God’s forgiveness – if we repent, all our unrighteousness will be forgotten (Ezekiel 18:22) and return our righteous state. This sounds complicated – but did Jesus remind us to choose the narrow gate where the way is hard but leading to life (Mat. 7:13-14)?

        Catholics do NOT believe we justify ourselves – our justification comes from grace of God. Neither do we believe we are justified by works of the Law. According to Scripture God saves us through faith (Eph 2:8) and through Sanctification (2 Thes. 2:13). This means salvation is on-going process and is not by faith alone. While salvation is on-going process and is work of God, we are not simply passive. Greek verb “sunergo”, that means “to work together”, appears in NT (one of them is in Rom 8:28). In Phil 2:12-13, Paul told us to work out our salvation with tremble and fear, for God is at work in us.

        As about Greek tenses, you wrote: (1) divine passive, (2) passive aorist tense indicates one-time event in the past. Can you provide me with statement from any NT Greek Reference that support both? In 1 Cor 6:11, the verb “sanctified” is in passive aorist tense – does it make sanctification a one-time event in the past? Greek has passive perfect tense to precisely describes completed action in the past with continuing result to the present, why Paul did not use it? The same passive perfect tense appears many times in NT like “it is finished or accomplished” (John 19:30), “it is written” etc.

        I already answered your question in my first comment: If justification is by more than faith alone, righteous acts (Mt. 25:46; 1 John 3:7; Eph. 2:10), then how does that not indicate salvation comes by works? To repeat: It is NOT salvation or justification by works because our ability to do righteous acts comes from and is only possible by grace through Christ, as apart from Him we can do nothing (John 15:5).

        Scripture nowhere says “Baptism is the outward testimony of the inward conversion”. It says through Baptism we might walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:4).

        Thank you again for giving me a chance to have discussion with you. We do not have to agree with each other and I do respect your belief, even though I disagree with it.

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      2. I truly appreciate the dialogue, even though it’s in a reply forum. Your clarifications regarding Catholicism are helpful. I will try to reply to your questions, though I anticipate we will leave our discussion in a place of disagreement.

        When I noted that Ezekiel is from an Old Testament perspective, I meant that our understanding of and application of salvation as personal conversion was not fully consummated until Christ and the cross. Old Testament believers were justified by faith (Abraham in Romans 4:1-5). However, the fulfilled understanding of personal conversion and salvation is not fully described until the New Testament. We build from the foundation of the Old Testament, but clarify it through the lens of the New Testament.

        The foundation of our disagreement regarding salvation stems from God’s righteous expectations preached in the Old Testament and further expounded in the New. You write,
        “God is our Father. A good human father will not ask his son to do something, which he is fully aware his son cannot do, and then punish him for not being able to do it. For example, suppose a father asked his son to produce a beautiful painting while he knows that his son is not good in painting. The only way his son to avoid his wrath is by accepting free service from a professional painter, a.k.a. Christ, who put His beautiful painting on top of the son’s poor one; then it will meet the father’s judgment.”
        I believe God has asked us to do something we are not capable of doing. God does not expect of us goodness. He expects of us perfection. Jesus stated that our righteousness must exceed the Pharisees (Matthew 5:20) and that we must be perfect (Matthew 5:48). The Old Testament Law was not a means to relationship with God. Rather, it was a way of life from relationship with God. No Old Testament saint is a saint by keeping the Law. Rather, faith is the key in the Old and the New. Because we are born sinners (Romans 3:11-18; 5:12-14), we are unable to match God’s standard of perfection. Further, this is why Paul describes our condition prior to salvation as being “dead in our sins” (Eph. 2:1). The solution is not to do better works, but to be made alive in Christ (Eph. 2:5).

        It appears to me that our point of disagreement hinges on our differing views of total depravity. I believe we are completely sinful (not as sinful as we could be, but sinful through the whole person). In this view, we are unable to obey God’s laws and fulfill his expectations. We need his work of grace prior to faith and repentance. We need to be made alive, the doctrine of regeneration.

        I don’t understand the distinction you are making between imputed righteousness and 2 Cor. 5:21. Of course the righteousness is not our own. It is the righteousness of Christ (alien if you will), that God grants us out of grace. My hope of salvation is built upon the righteousness of Christ, not my own.

        Thank you for the two paragraphs beginning with “Catholics do NOT believe.” Here is where I believe the difference to be between our positions. I hold justification to be a one time event. For example, I have been justified by Christ. If I have been justified by Christ, and it is one time event in the past, I cannot lose that righteousness (see your quote “We fail from time to time and lose our righteousness through sinning (Ezekiel 33:12); moved and enabled by grace we repent and ask God’s forgiveness – if we repent, all our unrighteousness will be forgotten (Ezekiel 18:22) and return our righteous state.”) It appears to me that you conflate justification and sanctification. Justification and sanctification are two different aspects of salvation. Here’s the way I would formulate the doctrines. Justification-we have been saved (a one time event). Sanctification-we are being saved (the process beginning at conversion whereby God makes us holy). Sanctification is where I believe our partnership with God works itself out in salvation. We do participate with God in him making us holy. You’ve cited references that I would agree with.

        You wrote, “This means salvation is on-going process and is not by faith alone.” I believe this is because you make justification a process rather than a one time event. This is where I’m confused regarding Catholicism, salvation, and works. If salvation is not by faith alone, then how is salvation not dependent somewhat on works?

        Regarding your paragraph on tenses, I’m not sure I understand what you’re asking. The reason it is called the divine passive is because God is the one who justifies. We are the subject being acted upon with the verb being passive. God is  active. As for 1 Cor. 6:11, it is not surprising that “sanctified” in this text is in the aorist passive tense. The other two verbs “washed,” and “justified” are as well. Paul’s emphasis is on the washing away and making holy of sinners. Having used “sanctified” in this way in this text does not indicate that it is not a process in other texts. The distinction I make (as discussed above) is that justification is an event, not a process.

        Regarding my comment about baptism, I was adapting a theological emphasis to the practice of baptism. If salvation comes by faith (see the thief on the cross who was not baptized), then baptism is symbolic. It appears in Romans 6 that Paul uses baptism in this symbolic language. It is vital for what it represents, not for what it imparts. I recognize we will likely disagree on this point. Baptism for many is a sacrament, and for my tradition is an ordinance. Baptism, at its very least, pictures the new life we’ve been given in Christ (Paul’s language in Romans 6). We were buried with Christ in our sin, raised to new life in Christ through his resurrection. Baptism as immersion symbolizes the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ and the death, burial, and resurrection of the new believer. Thus, in my tradition, baptism is for believers and it testifies outwardly (as a witness which is how baptism was practiced by John the Baptist, Jesus’ disciples, and New Testament converts), to what has already occurred inwardly (justification). It affirms association with a new faith and represents the beginning point of a new life (sanctification).

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      3. First, I need to clarify that Catholics do not conflate justification with sanctification. Scripture is crystal clear in saying that Sanctification is part of salvation when it says “Salvation through Sanctification” in 2 Thes. 2:13. Thus, Scripture does not teach salvation by faith alone. If salvation includes both faith and sanctification, then justification must also include both, not just by faith alone. Scripture makes it clear through using Greek tenses when it says we are justified by faith. I am not NT Greek expert but I read the following from:

        The aorist tense has often been mishandled by both scholars and preachers. Aorist verbs too frequently are said to denote once-for-all action when the text has no such intention. (Mounce, W.D.: Basics of Biblical Greek Grammar, page 202).

        Mounce, who is a Protestant, does not mention “divine passive”; neither does he write passive aorist tense with indicative mood implies one-time event in the past. Remember “justified by faith” also appears in passive present tense (Rom. 8:28) which certainly does not imply one-time action in the past. Thus, based on NT, justification is NOT one-time event and is NOT by faith alone. Salvation is the work of God (1 Thes 5:23, 2 Thes 2:13) but in Rom 8:30 when Paul wrote what is known order of salvation, sanctification is missing. Certainly, Paul did not forget what he wrote what he wrote in Thessalonian. The only way is “justified” in Rom 8:30 also includes “sanctified”. In 1 Cor 6:11 Paul placed “justified” after, not before “sanctified”.

        You wrote that you believe God has asked us to do something we are not capable of doing. Will you do that to your children? If No, then why would God do so? God is our heavenly Father, not our tyrant. If God does not expect us to become righteous or it is impossible for us to be one, why does Scripture tell us how to become righteous in 1 John 3:7: He who does what is right is righteous? The Bible names a number of persons as righteous: Noah, Daniel, Job (Ezekiel 14:14), Joseph (Matthew 1:19), Elizabeth and Zechariah (Luke 1:6), Abel (Hebrews 11:4) and even Lot (2 Peter 2:7). Scripture says through Christ we are made righteous (Rom. 5:19). In fact Scripture nowhere says through Christ we are counted as righteous as understood by the Reformers. It does say that faith is counted as righteousness but it never says Abraham was counted as righteous. To have faith is one of “to do what is right” that makes us righteous according to 1 John 3:7.

        It seems to me you belong to Reformed Baptist based on what you wrote. Catholics agree that we need God’s grace that will move and enable us both to believe and to obey His commandments. By ourselves we can do nothing.

        2 Cor 5:21 says we become righteousness of God but in imputed righteousness concept, you do not become righteous.

        Why keep on asking the same question: If salvation is not by faith alone, then how is salvation not dependent somewhat on works? Repeated answer: our abilities to have faith and to obey His Commandments comes from and are only possible by grace. Protestants love saying “we enter heaven based on what Christ did on the cross, accepted by faith alone, and not based on anything we do”. Catholics, on the other hand, will say: “we enter heaven based on what Christ did on the cross AND what He has done in us, i.e. He transforms us from unrighteous state to righteous one. It is His work, not ours, that makes us righteous. We do cooperate with grace – the Greek verb “sunergo” that means “to work together”, and from which English word “synergy” comes from appears in NT, for example in Rom. 8:28.

        The thief on the cross was not able to undergo Baptism but this is not his fault. So it does not prove that Baptism is just optional.

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      4. The benefit of this conversation has been the clarifications of our differing views. As a reformed Baptist, I do not believe we are capable (in and of ourselves) to meet God’s standards of perfection and righteousness. That is why we need Christ. That is also why Paul describes that justification is “by grace as a gift” (Rom. 3:23). This is also why God invites us to believe the gospel. Faith is not a work, but rather a response to God’s invitation for salvation. In Ephesians 2:8-9, grace and faith are both gifts from God.

        We disagree on justification and sanctification, and it appears our disagreement is at an impasse. I firmly believe salvation is a gift to be received through faith alone. In my view any other construction creates the possibility to misconstrue the gospel.

        The gospel is the good news which says that God is holy, we are sinful, and Christ came to be our Savior. When we trust in Christ alone, God declares us righteous and saves us. If my salvation depends in any way on what I do or how I participate in righteousness, then my salvation is uncertain. This is because I remain a sinner. But if my salvation depends solely on the work of Christ, then my salvation is certain. This is the hope of the gospel.

        I want to say thank you for your comments. While we don’t agree, you have been respectful and helpful for my understanding of Catholic theology. Grace and Peace to you.

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