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The Christian Meaning Of Justification

Updated on January 2, 2017

The root meaning of the word justice in the Old Testament is probably that of conformity with a rule. When referring to men in their relations with God, justice (in the Douai Bible; righteousness in the King James and Revised Standard version) meant obedience to God; by metonymy it was extended to include glory and prosperity (Deuteronomy 24:13; Proverbs 11:4 ff.). When referring to God, justice designated the divine chastisement of the guilty and the freeing of the innocent (Isaiah 5:16). A more developed notion of the term included the goodness and mercy of God, and concretely the word referred to the divine blessing given in view of the Covenant (Isaiah 45:22-26).

This Old Testament concept of justice expressed a visible manifestation of God in His relations with men. Divine justice was regarded as affective rather than intellectual—that is, efficacious, involving a decision and its realization. In the Septuagint, however, the Greek vocabulary tended to introduce into the contexts of the Old Testament the concept of impassive and intellectual justice, and the interpretations of rabbinic Judaism emphasized the legal aspects of justice: observance of the law established man in the state of justice before God.

When Judaizing Christians, leaning toward the rabbinic interpretation, spoke of the Christian life in terms of justice and fidelity to the law, St. Paul adopted their terminology in his rebuttal of their doctrine. Against the doctrine ot justification by the works of the law, he stressed the role of faith in justification and the link between justification and the redemption of Jesus Christ (Galatians 2:15-16). He explained the state of justice (righteousness) as a gift of the salvific mercy of God freely bestowed on man (Romans 4:3-8).

The interpretation of Pauline teaching on justification has been the issue of a continuing debate between Protestants and Roman Catholics. Both agree that the justification of man is initiated and completed by God, that the redemptive activity of Jesus Christ is the factor in view of which God forgives man's sins, and that man's faith is indispensable for justification. The basic and important differences between the two doctrines concern the value of man's activity before justification, the nature and function of justifying faith, and the nature of the state of justice or righteousness itself.

Protestant Doctrine

The Lutheran doctrine of justification was formulated in Article 4 of the Augsburg Confession: "Men cannot be justified before God by their own powers, merits, or works; but are justified freely for Christ's sake through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor and their sins forgiven for Christ's sake, who by His death hath satisfied for our sins." This doctrine excludes from justification all merit and activity by man without faith. Thus Article 4 of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession states: "Since a contempt for God and a doubting of the word of God, of His threats and promises inheres in human nature, men really sin even when they perform good acts without the Holy Spirit, since they do these things with an ungodly heart according to the statement: Whatever is not from faith is a sin." Within the Protestant doctrine man is justified when he apprehends the righteousness of Christ the Saviour through faith or confidence in the divine promise of the remission of sins. The Apology makes this clear: "Therefore it is by faith alone that we arrive at the remission of sins when we lift up our hearts with confidence in the mercy promised on account of Christ . . ." (Art. 4). The state of justice into which man passes is explained in the sense that God "graciously embraces us in 'Christ and holds us acceptable, by attributing to us his accepted righteousness as if it were our own, and by not imputing our sins to us" (John Calvin in Catechism of the Church of Geneva). This justification takes place outside man, and no change is made within him; it consists in a divine judgment by which man's sins are not imputed to him and the righteousness of Christ is imputed to him.

Roman Catholic Doctrine

The Catholic doctrine of justification was definitively formulated on January 13, 1547, at the 6th session of the Council of Trent. The council ascribed the initiation of the process of justification to "God's call, a call which they did not merit." This call is made through actual grace, with which man should cooperate. Thus aroused and aided by divine grace, man can prepare for justification by a series of acts. The first of these is faith, declared to be the beginning of salvation and necessary for justification; this faith is described as an assent to truths divinely revealed and promised. It is followed by other acts, such as hope and sorrow for sin, and the series is concluded by the resolution to receive baptism, begin a new life, and observe the commandments of God. The council stressed the positive aspect of the Catholic doctrine: "Justification ... is not only the remission of sin but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man through the voluntary reception of grace and the gifts."

This sanctification of man comes through the infusion of sanctifying grace or "the justice of God, not by which He Himself is just, but that by which He makes us just." The effect of this sanctifying grace is that "we are renewed in the spirit of our mind and we are not only considered to be just but we are truly called just and we are just, each one receiving his own justice. ..." This justification, then, takes place within man by the infusion of a positive and permanent principle of sanctification by God. The instrument used by God to effect the remission of sins and the sanctification of man is baptism; and if initial justice be lost through serious sin, men can be justified again "when, awakened by God, they make the effort to regain through the sacrament of Penance and by the merit of Christ the grace they have lost."


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    • Theologian profile image

      Theologian 8 years ago

      Thank you for this epistle Timothy :D

      I've had a quick glance and I'm looking forward to reading what you've written. I've got a feeling it shall be more than once.

    • Timothy Donnelly profile image

      Timothy Donnelly 8 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Thank you for this informative Hub, Theologian. No doubt, it is a very difficult subject to address (due to the implications that may be wrongly construed). Nonetheless, it is worthy of generating a compelling thread.

      I can see you have wisely, and academically, presented a clinical account. What I would like you to allow me to bring forward is one of more a pragmatic, individual perspective. Of course, I offer this viewpoint without any accusatory insinuation towards anyone.

      SINCE the ONE TIME crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the only sacrifice now necessary for man to evoke the Grace of God, through the Atonement of Christ, is a broken heart and a contrite spirit.

      We are then able to feel the Pre-eminent Grace of God CONTINUE to MOVE US towards repentance and a remission of our sins. (Note that our resistance to the Holy Spirit by virtue of our power of agency [ergo, pride] will effectively stop this humbling process.)

      We then willingly, with an honest attitude of newfound joy, bring forth fruits meet for repentance. (Noting here, restitution does not cancel or justify sin.)

      Our broken heart, due to our spirit humbly surrendering our will to His, thus manifests a contrite spirit.

      Along with the petition of OUR OWN prayers, this process sues for the advocacy of our Saviour, and thus, by and through His merits we are forgiven for the sins for which we have repented (IF we too have forgiven) - but we must stay repented, or our previous sins return to our account. God will not be mocked.

      Hereby, we can see that it is the Justification of the Lord which clears us of our sin, and NOT something that we have legalistically, or by means of counsellor votes in a Pharasitical convention conjured up to satisfy our own guilty consciences. Is this not so? Dare I say it? The convention of Justification is false - consider the possibility that it has been crafted with convenience - point blank. Blasphemy? Please read on, remembering that God is not the author of confusion.

      Of course, we must not forget that the organized church metes out justice to its members in a canonical ordained nature to its sinning members, according to its tenets; but that imposed penance (or means to reparation) ALONE IS NOT to be justified as forgiveness of sin, or by extension, licence to sin, God forbid.

      I now quote Isaiah. 57: 15 “For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.” The convention of Justification, Rabbinical or Christian, does not compel one to be humble, broken-hearted, or contrite.

      In summary, I shall STRESS that we are NOT JUSTIFIED to break any commandment originating from our God, whether received directly from Him, or by way of one of His servants (prophets), it is the same.

      Let me end with two promises and two warnings of the Lord:

      The last sacrifice has been made, and God will not justify or temp us to do evil: James 1: 13 “Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man:”

      Nor will God subject us with any temptation we are unable to bear (vis-a-vis self-justification): 1 Cor. 10: 13 “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.”

      GOD FORBID WE AS INDIVIDUALS OR AS ORGANIZATIONS JUSTIFY SIN (evil), towards ourselves or toward others. We must rather, trust God to help us extricate the good from the evil (aka gardening labours), and guard our defences abundantly (aka duties of a shepherd), circumcising our hearts, praying always, and holding every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.

      Eph. 5: 15 “See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise”.

      Eph. 4: 26 “Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath:”