Justification (theology)

This article is about the theological concept. For other uses, see Justification.
The Harrowing of Hell as depicted by Fra Angelico

Justification, in Christian theology, is God's act of removing the guilt and penalty of sin while at the same time declaring a sinner righteous through Christ's atoning sacrifice. In Protestantism, righteousness from God is viewed as being credited to the sinner's account through faith alone, without works.

The means of justification is a area of significant difference between Catholics/Eastern Orthodox and Protestants. Broadly speaking, Catholic and Orthodox Christians distinguish between initial justification, which in their view occurs at baptism, and permanent justification, accomplished after a lifetime of striving to do God's will. Most Protestants believe that justification is a singular act in which God declares an unrighteous individual to be righteous, an act made possible because Christ was legally "made sin" while on the cross (2 Cor 5:21). Justification is granted to all who exercise faith, and that is viewed as a gift from God (unmerited favour) by Lutherans and Calvinists, who use Eph 2:8, as well as Acts 16:14 and Phil 1:29 to support that belief. Catholics and Eastern Orthodox use James 2:14-26, Galatians 5:19-21 and Matthew 19:17 to support their belief that justification is kept through avoiding grave sins. Justification is seen by Protestants as being the theological fault line that divided Catholic from Protestant during the Protestant Reformation.[1]

Biblical references

New Testament

Jesus used the idea of ransom, or redemption when referring to his work on earth (Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45). Christ's death and resurrection (triumph over Satan and death) provide 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. According to Protestants this justification is by faith alone - not through good deeds - and is a gift from God through Christ. According to Catholics and Eastern Orthodox justification is a free gift but is received through baptism initially and through the sacrament of reconciliation if justification is lost through grave sin.

Verses for salvation by faith alone

but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.
This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

Verses for salvation by baptism and avoiding serious sin[2][3]

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Jesus replied, '... If you would enter life, keep the commandments... "You shall not murder", "You shall not commit adultery", "You shall not steal", "You shall not give false testimony"'...
Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.
Mark 16:16 (emphasis added)

Faith plus works

You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone ... But faith without works is dead.

In the context of 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.

The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ), signed by both the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church on 31 October 1999, clearly stated that "consensus in basic truths of the doctrine of justification exists between Lutherans and Catholics." [4] In Roman Catholic and Lutheran doctrines, as expressed under section 4.7 no.37, "we confess together that good works - a Christian life lived in faith, hope and love - follow justification and are its fruits. When the justified live in Christ and act in the grace they receive, they bring forth, in biblical terms, good fruit. Since Christians struggle against sin their entire lives, this consequence of justification is also for them an obligation they must fulfill. Thus both Jesus and the apostolic Scriptures admonish Christians to bring forth the works of love."

The declaration states that several theological views on justification held by Lutherans and Catholics, though not apparently similar to each other, are in fact explaining the same "basic truths of the doctrine of justification" at different angles.

An example can be cited from section 4.7 no. 38-39, "when Catholics affirm the 'meritorious' character of good works, they wish to say that, according to the biblical witness, a reward in heaven is promised to these works. Their intention is to emphasize the responsibility of persons for their actions, not to contest the character of those works as gifts, or far less to deny that justification always remains the unmerited gift of grace," in comparison with "the concept of a preservation of grace and a growth in grace and faith is also held by Lutherans. They do emphasize that righteousness as acceptance by God and sharing in the righteousness of Christ is always complete. At the same time, they state that there can be growth in its effects in Christian living. When they view the good works of Christians as the fruits and signs of justification and not as one's own 'merits', they nevertheless also understand eternal life in accord with the New Testament as unmerited 'reward' in the sense of the fulfillment of God's promise to the believer."

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.

D. James Kennedy explains this verse:

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![5]


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.[6] 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" (Matthew 26:28; see also: Luke 2:76-77; John 1:29; John 3). He also speaks often of forgiveness of sins (e.g., Luke 5:17-26).

A righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees would be the kind of righteousness that results in clearly seeing the needs of one's neighbor, and responding with love and mercy—not turning away—as illustrated in the Parable of the Good Samaritan.[7] Samaritans did not hold the same faith belief system as the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus' time, nor had Samaritans 'professed' a faith in salvation of Jesus, yet Jesus says the one who has mercy will inherit eternal life. Without even knowing Christ, the Samaritan was a believer, saved by grace, as evidenced by the fruit of love and mercy. Clearly, the scribes and Pharisees were not doing God's will nor sharing in the life of God in the Parable of the Good Samaritan because they lacked the fruit of mercy. In this parable Jesus teaches that seeing and responding to the needs of the Least is a righteousness which exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees.

Similarly, in Matt 25: 31-46 Jesus addresses those whose righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, those who respond with love upon seeing the needs of the poor, sick, stranger and prisoner: "Come, you who are blessed by my father, take your inheritance which has been prepared for you since the beginning of time...." In this passage, the sheep are separated from the goats,[8] those who share in the life of God, and those who do not. In this passage, the mercy shown to the poor, sick, stranger and prisoner does not flow from the sheep in order 'to boast' which is the usual resistance to 'good works.' Good works done without love means nothing.[9] Jesus did NOT intend humanity to trust in a doctrine of justification that was void of mercy and good works; he intended humanity to realize that justification is effected by the work of divine love, and he calls us, then, to share in that love. The Kingdom of God is in your midst.[10]

A 'claim' of faith in Christ is no sure sign of justification, nor is a 'claim' of faith in Christ a sign that one's righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. By their fruit you will know them. (Matt 7:16). Living by Christ's spirit with divine love as one's goal, method and purpose is to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees who followed the law with good intention but whose fruit was not indiscriminate, gratuitous, unself-conscious, spontaneous love and mercy, especially for the Least.


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 (Romans 1:18-3:20). Justification is then presented as the solution for God's wrath (Romans 3:21-26, Romans 5:1). One is said to be 'justified by faith apart from works of the Law' (Romans 3:28). Further, Paul writes of sin and justification in terms of two men, Adam and Christ (Romans 5). Through Adam, sin came into the world bringing death; through Jesus, righteousness came into the world, bringing justification unto life (Romans 5:15-17). In this connection, Paul speaks of Adam's sin being 'imputed' or 'accounted' (Greek ελλογειται) and speaks of justification as acting in analogy to sin (Romans 5:13; Romans 5:18). In chapter 8, Paul connects justification with predestination and glorification (Romans 8:30). He further states that those who are justified cannot be separated from the love of Christ (Romans 8:33-39). Several of these passages are central in the debate between Roman Catholics, and the various streams of Protestantism (while there is broad agreement on justification by faith, there is no complete doctrinal uniformity on justification among all Protestant denominations), who can 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 (Galatians 2:16, Galatians 5:4; see also Romans 5:1-12 and Council of Jerusalem).

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 (Hebrews 10). In Hebrews, faith in Jesus' sacrifice includes steadfast perseverance (Hebrews 10:19-23, Hebrews 12:1). 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 (James 2, especially James 2:22). Indeed, works are required for justification because "man is justified by works, and not by faith alone" (James 2:24), though the sense of the word justified in this passage is disputed.[11] The writer of James emphasizes the Jewish belief that faith and deeds go together. However, in James, it is possible that justification is referring to how believers are to behave as believers, not how an unbeliever becomes a believer (i.e., salvation).[12] Faith without works is counterfeit. The faith must produce good fruit as a sign lest it become the occasion for self-justification.

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[13] 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[14] that we are justified by God,[15] as a work of his grace.[16] 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. Following an appeal from Augustine, Pope Innocent I condemned Pelagius. The accused heretic wrote an appeal of his own, declaring his innocence, which was duly accepted by Innocent's successor, Pope Zosimus. However, the Council of Carthage in 418 again renounced Pelagius with papal approval.

Comparison of 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 Distinct from and prior to sanctification
Methodist Event Synergism Can be lost via loss of faith Dependent upon continued sanctification
Orthodox Process Synergism Can be lost via mortal sin Part of the same process (theosis)
Reformed/Calvinist Event Divine monergism Cannot be lost Both are a result of union with Christ

Anglican / Episcopal

Anglicans, particularly High Church Anglo-Catholics, often follow Catholicism and Orthodoxy in believing both man and God are involved in justification. "Justification 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."[17] Justification, the establishment of a relationship with God through Christ, and sanctification go hand in hand. In historic Anglicanism, the eleventh article of the Thirty-Nine Articles made it clear that justification cannot be earned, "We are accounted righteous before God... not for our own works or deservings".[18]

However, certain Anglican and Episcopalian theologians (especially Anglo-Catholics) argue for a faith characterized by faithfulness, where good works and the Sacraments play an important role in the life of the Christian believer. (see New Perspective on Paul)


John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was heavily influenced by the thought of Dutch Reformed theologian Jacob Arminius and Hugo Grotius' governmental theory of the 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.[19] 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.[20]

However, once the individual has been so justified, one must then continue in the new life given; if one fails to persevere in the faith and in fact falls away from God in total unbelief, the attachment to Christ — and with it, justification — may be lost.[21]

Eastern Orthodoxy

Eastern Christianity, including both Eastern Orthodoxy and Oriental Orthodoxy, tends to de-emphasize justification compared to Catholicism or Protestantism, subsuming it within other words such as "sanctification" or "theosis" — so much so that justification often has no separate treatment in Eastern theological works. The Greek term for justification (δικαίωσις, dikaiōsis) is not understood by most Eastern theologians to mean simply being pardoned of one's sins. In large part, this de-emphasis on justification is historical. 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.[22]

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.[23] However, it is also the case that those who are baptized into the church and experience Chrismation are considered to be cleansed of sin.[24] Hence, the Orthodox concept of justification cannot be reconciled to Protestant concepts, while it is in partial agreement with some 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.[25]

"The Holy Spirit effects the vocation, the illumination, the conversion, the justification, the rebirth in Baptism and the sanctification in the Church..."[26]


From 1510 to 1520, Luther lectured on the Psalms, the books of Hebrews, Romans, and Galatians. As he studied these portions of the Bible, he came to view the use of terms such as penance and righteousness by the Catholic Church in new ways. He became convinced that the church was corrupt in their ways and had lost sight of what he saw as several of the central truths of Christianity, the most important of which, for Luther, was the doctrine of justificationGod's act of declaring a sinner righteousby faith alone through God's grace. He began to teach that salvation or redemption is a gift of God's grace, attainable only through faith in Jesus.[27]

"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."[28] 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."[29] 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."[30] They believe justification by grace alone through faith alone 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 the work of God. 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.[31] 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".[32] 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."[33] This faith grasps Christ's righteousness and appropriates it for the believer. He explained his concept of "justification" in the Smalcald Articles:

The first and chief article is this: Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins and was raised again for our justification (Romans 3:24-25). He alone is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29), and God has laid on Him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:6). All have sinned and are justified freely, without their own works and merits, by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in His blood (Romans 3:23-25). This is necessary to believe. This cannot be otherwise acquired or grasped by any work, law or merit. Therefore, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us ... Nothing of this article can be yielded or surrendered, even though heaven and earth and everything else falls (Mark 13:31).[34]

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 alone 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.[35]

Lutherans believe that individuals receive this gift of salvation through faith alone.[36] Saving faith is the knowledge of,[37] acceptance of,[38] and trust[39] in the promise of the Gospel.[40] Even faith itself is seen as a gift of God, created in the hearts of Christians[41] by the work of the Holy Spirit through the Word[42] and Baptism.[43] Faith is seen as an instrument that receives the gift of salvation, not something that causes salvation.[41] Thus, Lutherans reject the "decision theology" which is common among modern evangelicals.

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)[44]—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.


Main article: Imputed righteousness

John Calvin's understanding of justification was in substantial agreement with Martin Luther's. Calvin expanded this understanding by emphasizing that justification is a part of one's union with Christ. The center of Calvin's soteriology was Union with Christ.[45] 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,[46] he was more definite in asserting that the result of being justified is a consequent sanctification.[47] 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.[48] 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.

Catholic Church

Main article: Infused righteousness

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",[49] 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.[50] The Catholic Church teaches that "faith without works is dead"[51][52] and that works perfect faith.[53]

In Catholic theology, all are born in a state of original sin, meaning that the sinful nature of Adam is inherited by all. Following Augustine, the Catholic Church asserts that people are unable to make themselves righteous; instead, they require justification.[54] Catholic theology holds that the sacrament of baptism, which is closely connected to faith, "purifies, justifies and sanctifies" the sinner; in this sacrament, the sinner is "freed from sin".[55][56] This is termed initial justification or "being cleansed of sin", the entrance into the Christian life. Catholics use Mark 16:16, John 3:5, and Acts 2:38 to support this view in justification by baptism.

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 combating sin in the individual's life, causing him to become more righteous both in heart and in action. If one falls into mortal sin they lose justification and it can be gained back through the sacrament of confession.[57]

At the Final Judgment, the individual's works will then be evaluated.[58] At that time, those who are righteous will be shown to be so. This is the permanent justification.

In the Council of Trent, which Catholics believe to be infallible, the Catholic Church declared in the VII session in canon IV that, "If any one saith, that the sacraments of the New Law are not necessary unto salvation, but superfluous; and that, without them, or without the desire thereof, men obtain of God, through faith alone, the grace of justification;-though all (the sacraments) are not indeed necessary for every individual; let him be anathema (excommunicated)."[59]

The New Church (Emanuel Swedenborg)

According to the doctrine of The New Church, as explained by Emanuel Swedenborg, the doctrine of justification by faith alone is a false belief, which forms the foundation of much of Protestant theology. Man must of his own volition justify himself, and yet believe that justification comes from God only. Not only must man believe in God, but must love God with all his strength, and his neighbor as himself.[60] Inasmuch as man obeys God's commandment to love others, so God conjoins himself to man, and man to God. It is from this that man's belief becomes a living and saving belief.[61] It is by means of faith from charity, that a man is reformed and justified, and this is done as if from himself, and this proceeds from the Divine Truth which flows in from the Holy Spirit.[62] Man is of the will and understanding, and he is saved when both are brought into accordance with God's will. "Believing in the Lord is not merely acknowledging Him but also doing His commandments; for simply acknowledging Him is solely a matter of thought, arising from somewhat of the understanding; but doing His commandments is also a matter of acknowledgment from the will. Man's mind consists of understanding and will; and as the understanding deals with thinking and the will with doing, so when man's acknowledgment is merely from the thought of the understanding he comes to the Lord with only half of his mind; but when there is doing he comes with all of it; and this is to believe."[63]


Universalism became a significant minority view in the 18th century, popularized by thinkers such as John Murray (the American, not the Scot). Universalism holds that Christ's death on the cross has entirely atoned for the sin of humanity; hence, God's wrath is or will be satisfied for all people. Conservative and liberal varieties of universalism then point in different directions. Pluralistic Unitarian Universalism asserts 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 some universalists, justification either was accomplished once and for all in the crucifixion, or is altogether unnecessary.

A range of so-called 'New Perspectives on Paul', represented by Protestant scholars such as E.P. Sanders, N.T. Wright, and James Dunn, have given rise to a re-thinking of the historical Protestant understanding of justification. Proponents of this view argue that Paul's letters have too often been read through the lens of the Protestant reformation rather than in the context of first-century Second Temple Judaism, and therefore impose a religion of legalism on their understanding of Pharisaism. This view has been strongly criticized by a number of Reformed ministers and theologians including John Piper, D.A. Carson, and Sinclair Ferguson.

Interactions between various doctrines

Sola fide

Main article: 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.

Catholics from the Diet of Worms and Council of Trent until the present day (e.g., Sungenis) have criticized this phrase on several grounds. One criticism is that 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."[64]


"If any one saith, that the sacraments of the New Law are not necessary unto salvation, but superfluous; and that, without them, or without the desire thereof, men obtain of God, through faith alone, the grace of justification;-though all (the sacraments) are not indeed necessary for every individual; let him be anathema (excommunicated)."[65]

Second, Catholics point out that the only use of the formula "faith alone" (sola fide) in the Bible 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." In addition, there is the passage (in for example, Matthew 25:31-46) describing Christ's judgment at the end of time. The just, those who are to enter into the Kingdom, are separated from those who are to go into everlasting punishment, on the basis of their actions in life:

'Come, ye blessed of my Father, possess you the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink; I was a stranger, and you took me in..

Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire.. for I was hungry, and you gave me not to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me not to drink..

And these shall go into everlasting punishment: but the just, into life everlasting.'

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, Roman Catholics and most Lutherans as represented by most of the Lutheran councils worldwide that agreed with the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ), 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 "JDDJ" as fatally flawed.[66] In July 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[67] (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

Further reading


  1. For example, Kurt Aland, A History of Christianity, vol. 2, trans. James Schaaf (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986) p. 13-14.
  2. Salvation.
  3. "Baptism". Scripture Catholic.
  4. "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification". Vatican.va. Retrieved 2012-11-07.
  5. (D. James Kennedy in “Irreconcilable Differences,” a roundtable discussion and television broadcast, Ft. Lauderdale FL, 1995) Justification by faith - what about James 2:24?
  6. However the righteousness being discussed here is that only attained by accepting the salvation of Jesus, rather than that of good deeds as some have mistakenly claimed (Matthew 5:20).
  7. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+10%3A25-37&version=NIV
  8. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+25%3A31-46&version=NIV
  9. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Corinthians+13%3A3&version=NIV
  10. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+17%3A20-21&version=NIV
  11. Catholics and others take it in its most common sense, whereas Protestants believe that that sense introduces a contradiction with Paul and so take the meaning in James to be "proved right" as in Matthew 11:19. Some also point to the difference between the episodes in the life of Abraham referenced by Paul and James. In Romans 4 Paul refers to Abraham's being counted righteous by faith in God's promise in Genesis 15, whereas James talks about Abraham's being "justified" in a sense more like "vindicated" in his faithful willingness to offer Isaac on the altar later in Genesis 22.
  12. Justified in the Spirit, Macchia, Frank D 2010, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids. pp.211-215
  13. Clement of Rome, To the Corinthians 32.4
  14. St. Augustin. "Anti-Pelegian writings". online at Calvin college
  15. St. Augustin. "Sin is from Natural Descent, as Righteousness is from Regeneration". Anti-Pelegian writings.
  16. St. Augustin. "The Will of Man Requires the Help of God". Anti-Pelegian writings.
  17. Theological Questions (1983), Thomas, C. Owen, pp. 81-82, sometime Fiske Professor of Systematic Theology, Episcopal Divinity School, Cambridge, MA)
  18. Thirty-Nine Articles
  19. John Wesley: Sermon 5: Justification by Faith
  20. The United Methodist Church: The Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church - Article IX—Of the Justification of Man
  21. Sermon redirection
  22. Orthodox Church in America, online doctrine. "Redemption".; Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America web site "The Dogmatic Tradition of the Orthodox Church".
  23. Bishop Dmitri, Orthodox Christian Teaching, (Syosset, New York: Orthodox Church of America, 1983), p. 77.
  24. George Mastrantonis (1996). "The Fundamental Teachings of the Eastern Orthodox Church". Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. Archived from the original on 22 February 2007.
  25. Holy Trinity Orthodox Mission, Bishop Alexander (editor), "The Orthodox Church".
  26. The Road to Unity: The agreed statements of the joint Old Catholic - Orthodox Theological Commissions IV/2 October 7, 1983.
  27. Wriedt, Markus. "Luther's Theology," in The Cambridge Companion to Luther. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003, 88–94.
  28. Selected passages from Martin Luther, "Commentary on Galatians (1538)" as translated in Herbert J. A. Bouman, "The Doctrine of Justification in the Lutheran Confessions," Concordia Theological Monthly 26 (November 1955) No. 11:801.
  29. In XV Psalmos graduum 1532-33; WA 40/III.352.3
  30. Herbert J. A. Bouman, "The Doctrine of Justification in the Lutheran Confessions", 801-802.
  31. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut Lehmann, eds., Luther's Works, 55 vols. (St. Louis and Philadelphia: Concordia Publishing House and Fortress Press, 1955-1986), 34:337
  32. Martin Luther's Definition of Faith
  33. Preface to Romans
  34. Luther, Martin. "The Smalcald Articles," in Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2005, 289, Part two, Article 1.
  35. Herbert J. A. Bouman, "The Doctrine of Justification in the Lutheran Confessions", 805.
  36. Augsburg Confession, Article 4, "Of Justification"
  37. John 17:3, Luke 1:77,Galatians 4:9, Philippians 3:8, and 1 Timothy 2:4 refer to faith in terms of knowledge.
  38. John 5:46 refers to acceptance of the truth of Christ's teaching, while John 3:36 notes the rejection of his teaching.
  39. John 3:16,36, Galatians 2:16, Romans 4:20-25, 2 Timothy 1:12 speak of trust, confidence, and belief in Christ. John 3:18 notes belief in the name of Christ, and Mark 1:15 notes belief in the gospel.
  40. Engelder, T.E.W., Popular Symbolics. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1934. pp. 54-5, Part XIV. "Sin"
  41. 1 2 Ps. 51:10, Engelder, T.E.W., Popular Symbolics. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1934, p.57 Part XV. "Conversion", paragraph 78.
  42. John 17:20, Rom. 10:17, Engelder, T.E.W., Popular Symbolics. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1934, p.101 Part XXV. "The Church", paragraph 141.
  43. Titus 3:5, Engelder, T.E.W., Popular Symbolics. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1934, p.87 Part XXIII. "Baptism", paragraph 118.
  44. “daily we sin, daily we are justified” from the Disputation Concerning Justification (1536) ISBN 0-8006-0334-6
  45. Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. III.xi.10.
  46. Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. III.xiii.
  47. Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. III.xiv.19; III.xvi.
  48. Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. II.i.8.
  49. Council of Trent, "Decree on Justification" chapter 4
  50. "Decree on Justification", chap. 7
  51. James 2:26.
  52. Catechism of the Catholic Church No. 1815. The Vatican.
  53. James 2:22.
  54. Council of Trent, "Decree on Original Sin," ch. 1, 7, 8.
  55. "The sacrament of Baptism". Catechism of the Catholic Church. Retrieved January 19, 2010.
  56. 1 Peter 3:21.
  57. Catechism of the Catholic Church No. 1446. The Vatican. Christ instituted the sacrament of Penance for all sinful members of his Church: above all for those who, since Baptism, have fallen into grave sin, and have thus lost their baptismal grace and wounded ecclesial communion. It is to them that the sacrament of Penance offers a new possibility to convert and to recover the grace of justification. The Fathers of the Church present this sacrament as "the second plank [of salvation] after the shipwreck which is the loss of grace."
  58. Mt. 25
  59. "The Council of Trent Session 7".
  60. Swedenborg, Emanuel. The True Christian Religion, containing the Universal Theology of the New Church, 1771. Trans. by John Ager, 1910, n. 71.
  61. Swedenborg, Emanuel. The True Christian Religion, containing the Universal Theology of the New Church, 1771. Trans. by John Ager, 1910, n. 74.
  62. Swedenborg, Emanuel. The True Christian Religion, containing the Universal Theology of the New Church, 1771. Trans. by John Ager, 1910, n. 142, 150.
  63. Swedenborg, Emanuel. The True Christian Religion, containing the Universal Theology of the New Church, 1771. Trans. by John Ager, 1910, n. 151.
  64. trent: complete
  65. "The Council of Trent Session 7 canon IV".
  66. Cf., e.g., C. J. Malloy, Engrafted into Christ: A Critique of the Joint Declaration (New York: P. Lang, 2005)
  67. See N.T. Wright, "The Shape of Justification" on The Paul Page; "Justification: The Biblical Basis and its Relevance for Contemporary Evangelicalism" on N.T. Wright Page
  68. Origen and the history of justification: the legacy of Origen's commentary ... - Thomas P. Scheck, Joseph T. Lienhard - Google Books. Books.google.com. Retrieved 2012-11-07.

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