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JUSTIFICATION . Christianity teaches that the ministry of Jesus Christ has established the conditions necessary for human beings to live in communion with God, both in the present and in eternity. The doctrine of atonement refers to the objective basis for this communion (i.e., how God's action in Christ makes such communion possible for humankind in general). By contrast, the doctrine of justification refers to its subjective basis (i.e., how this possibility is actualized in and for individual human beings). The justified person is one who has realized the possibility of communion with God established by Christ. The one who has not been justified has somehow failed to do so, and thus persists in the state of alienation or estrangement from God that Jesus was sent to overcome.

Overall Place of the Concept in Christianity

The topic of justification has assumed particular importance in the history of Christian thought owing to internal disagreements over the way in which individuals appropriate the benefits of Christ's work for themselves. Although all sides have confessed the priority of God's grace in sending Jesus in the first place, consensus on the degree to which this gracious initiative needs to be complemented by some separate human action has been harder to achieve. The question at issue in these debates may be stated fairly easily. Granted that the aim of Christ's ministry was a transformation of the relationship between God and humankind, and granted that the concept of relationship implies the active participation of both parties, what are the respective roles of God and human beings in effecting justification?

Two concerns have tended to shape the ways in which Christians have attempted to answer this question. On the one hand, there has been a desire to minimize any talk of human activity with respect to justification in order to stress God's graciousness as the founder and guarantor of this relationship. On the other hand, there has been just as strong a desire to emphasize human activity as a means of avoiding any suggestion that God's graciousness undermines the freedom and responsibility of human beings as active participants in this relationship. Different groups' positions on justification can be interpreted for the most part as the result of an inclination to regard one or the other of these concerns as the more theologically pressing.

Biblical Roots of the Concept

Justification is one of many terms used in the New Testament to refer to the transformation of humanity's relationship to God as effected by Christ. Other terms draw on the imagery of healing (salvation ), economics (redemption ), and warfare (ransom ), all of which suggest rescue or release from captivity to some alien power. By contrast, justification is a legal metaphor that connotes the vindication of an accused party before a judge and, more specifically, acquittal from self-incurred guilt. In biblical perspective, to be justified is to be reestablished in right relationship with God in spite of having violated that relationship: "Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the one against whom the Lord will not reckon sin" (Rom. 4: 78, quoting Ps. 32: 12).

The language of justification reflects Christianity's roots in Judaism and, more specifically, the Jewish belief in God's covenant with the people of Israel. In ancient Judaism covenant was understood as a formal relationship, solemnly agreed between two parties, in which each has certain responsibilities to the other. For Israel, fidelity to its covenant with God was a matter of obedience to the law: the commandments, ordinances, and statutes given by God to Israel on Mount Sinai. These commandments structured common life by laying out the people's obligations to God and each other. God had promised to reward the keeping of the law with prosperity, but threatened those who broke it with judgment and punishment (see, e.g., Deut. 28).

The apostle Paul is the New Testament writer who deals most explicitly with the theme of justification. The language of justification is most prominent in his correspondence with the churches at Galatia (c. 54 ce) and Rome (c. 58 ce), though it is present in other letters as well. The key Greek terms relating to this concept in the Pauline corpus are the verb dikaioun (normally translated as "to justify") and its nominal and adjectival cognates dikaiosune and dikaios (normally translated as "righteousness" and "righteous," respectively).

In Galatians, Paul is arguing with a competing group of Christian missionaries who teach that Gentile Christians need to observe the Jewish law in order to be justified. Against this position, Paul maintains that the law does not justify. He breaks the conceptual link between justification and keeping the law by arguing that the covenant with Israel was established with God's promise to bless the descendants of Abraham, more than four hundred years before the giving of the law. The example of Abraham shows that the basis of justification is not keeping the law, but simply God's promiseand thus a matter of grace rather than works (Gal. 3: 1718).

The letter to the Romans lacks the polemical context of Galatians and provides a more detailed development of Paul's views. He argues that all people, Jews and Gentiles, have violated the law and therefore stand under God's judgment (Rom. 3: 9, 23). It follows that justification cannot come by fulfilling the demands of the law; rather, people "are justified by [God's] grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus" (3: 24). Once again, justification is the result of divine gift, rather than of human achievement (4: 6; 11: 56). Just as Abraham was justified by his faith in God's promises long before the law was given (4: 35), so now the basis for life in covenant with God is faith in Christ, through whom the justification obtained by Abraham has been made available to all peoples (4: 1112).

Justification in Early Christian Theology

Though Paul's letters quickly acquired canonical status within the early church, his views on justification do not appear to have been accepted with great enthusiasm. The theme of justification is largely absent from the later, pseudo-Pauline letters that would eventually be included in the New Testament (though, see Tit. 3: 7), and still other biblical writers directly challenge the idea of justification by faith apart from works (Jas. 2: 14, 2224). In short, it appears that while the memory of Paul was revered, his writings were seen as potentially dangerous (2 Pet. 3: 1516), presumably because his emphasis on grace over works was seen as undermining ethical rigor in the church (a charge that Paul himself explicitly rejects in Rom. 3: 8 and 6: 12).

The general eclipse of Paul's teaching on justification within the church only increased in the first centuries after his death. The concern over a legalistic understandings of justification that had prompted Paul's letter to the Galatians evaporated with the rapid disappearance of a distinct Jewish presence within the church. Furthermore, in response to Gnostic Christians (who were understood to teach a kind of determinism with respect to human destiny), the leading theologians of the church's first centuries were anxious to stress the role of the human will in justification rather than echo Paul's emphasis on grace apart from works. This perspective, which stresses the way in which the incarnation renews the capacities of fallen human nature, remains dominant in the Eastern Orthodox churches to the present day.

It was not until the Pelagian controversy in the fifth century that justification again emerged as a central theme in Christian theology. Pelagius (died c. 420) was a British ascetic who wanted to instill greater ethical rigor into what he saw as a church that imperial patronage had rendered morally flaccid. To this end, he emphasized human beings' responsibility for their status before God: though he taught that divine grace was the ultimate source of human freedom, he insisted that justification depended upon the individual's use of that freedom and thus was finally a matter of human achievement.

Pelagius and his followers were opposed by Augustine of Hippo (354430), who maintained that their position undermined the unmerited and gracious character of justification. In defending what he saw as clear Pauline teaching, Augustine challenged Pelagius's account of human freedom by defining a distinctly Western doctrine of original sin. Augustine argued that Adam's fall had corrupted not only his own will, but also that of his descendants in such a way that rendered human beings incapable of turning to God by their own power. The freedom of the will that Pelagius championed was therefore illusory. According to Augustine, human beings were justified exclusively by God's free gift of grace and not by their own efforts, to the extent that human salvation and damnation alike were determined exclusively by God's decree (the doctrine of double predestination).

Developments in the Medieval Period

Though Pelagianism was officially condemned at the Councils of Carthage in 418 and Ephesus in 431, Augustine's views did not win unconditional support. The Greek-speaking churches of the East did not accept his denial of free will. In the Latin-speaking West, the fifth and sixth centuries saw the rise of a so-called "semi-Pelagian" position that sought to strike more of a balance between human responsibility and divine grace than Augustine seemed to allow, arguing that freedom of the will had not been so damaged by the fall as to preclude all human initiative in the process of justification. Though semi-Pelagianism, too, was eventually condemned at the Second Council of Orange in 529, Western theology continued to be marked by debates over the relationship between human freedom and divine grace in justification throughout the medieval period.

The fifth-century condemnations of Pelagianism excluded any overt teaching of justification by works from subsequent Catholic theology. At the same time, the desire not to undermine the integrity of human beings as responsible agents before God tended to push many theologians away from Augustine's strict predestinarianism. Furthermore, the emergence in Western Europe of the careful distinctions of Scholastic theology in tandem with an increasingly intricate penitential practice led to an increasing understanding of God's righteousness as an impartial justice that could be satisfied only through individual human beings' acquisition of merit. Consequently, the degree to which human beings could be said to acquire merit before God without succumbing to Pelagianism became a central issue in medieval accounts of justification.

Gabriel Biel (c. 14251495) sought to avoid a crudely Pelagian account of justification by works while also leaving room for human initiative. He argued that while a person's deeds apart from grace are always objectively worthless (i.e., without merit) before God, God had determined for Christ's sake to reward with grace those who do their best (facere quod in se est ) as though their deeds were meritorious. This theory seemed both to exclude justification by works (since it was acknowledged that human works had no objective merit), and to allow that human beings could dispose themselves for the receipt of justifying grace by their own natural powers.

Biel by no means represented the consensus position among his contemporaries. Many important theologians (especially members of the Dominican and Augustinian orders) rejected outright the idea that a person could ever be said to merit grace, even in the highly attenuated sense specified by Biel. Still, the "modern school" (via moderna ) of which Biel was a representative was influential in many quarters, including the faculty of the University of Erfurt, where the German reformer Martin Luther (14831546) received his theological training.

The Role of the Concept in the Reformation and Protestantism

Luther soon began to have doubts about Biel's account of justification. His worries were at once theological and existential: Biel had taught that justification was conditional on doing one's best, but how was the individual to know if she or he had truly fulfilled this condition? Though Biel had conceived "doing one's best" as a minimal requirement, Luther, acutely conscious of his own sin, found he could never be sure that he had done even that much. After a thorough study of Paul, he eventually concluded that Biel's account was wrong: justification did not depend on humans meeting any prior condition.

Though Luther would go on to substantiate his claims by reference to Augustine's anti-Pelagian writings, his views on justification were in many ways quite distinct from those of Augustine and medieval Augustinians. Augustine had seen justification as the product of the divine gift of grace. Against the Pelagian claim that human beings could fulfill the commandments by an exercise of the will, Augustine had insisted that the will of fallen human beings was corrupted and could be healed only by a gift of grace that turned it to God. In short, for Augustine, God's grace justified human beings by giving them the capacity to be in right relationship with God.

By contrast, Luther denied that right relationship with God had anything to do with human capacities, whether in their natural state (as Pelagius had held) or as transformed by grace (as Augustine had argued). To suggest they did, he insisted, would cause human beings to look to themselves for evidence of their justification in a way that would lead either to arrogant presumption or crushing doubt regarding their status before God. Instead, Luther read Paul as teaching that the righteousness by which human beings were justified was Christ's rather than their own. It was therefore an "alien righteousness" (iustitia aliena ) that remained always external to the justified (extra nos ).

In arguing that justification consisted in God's ascribing Christ's righteousness to the individual (i.e., a matter of relation) rather than some objective change within the human being (i.e., matter of ontology), Luther concluded that even after being justified, the human being remained always also a sinner (simul iustus et peccator ). As developed especially by Luther's colleague Philip Melanchthon (14971560), this emphasis on the externality of grace led to the specifically Protestant concept of "forensic justification." According to this interpretation of the doctrine, justification was best conceived along the lines of acquittal in a court of law (forum in Latin): to be justified was not a matter of being made (let alone of making oneself) righteous, but rather of being declared righteous by God.

Perhaps the most obvious mark distinguishing Protestant treatment of justification from that of classical Augustinianism is the role of faith. Where Augustine had defended justification by grace, Luther spoke of justification by grace through faith (Eph. 2: 8), or, still more succinctly, of justification by faith alone (sola fide ). Because justification was rooted in God's promise to be gracious to humanity for Christ's sake, to be justified was nothing else than to have faith or believe in that promise as addressed to oneself. Importantly, the point of sola fide was not to make faith a condition of justification (as though faith were itself a meritorious work that earned God's favor), but rather to re-enforce the principle that trust was to be placed in Christ rather than oneself. For this reason, justification by faith alone has been characterized by Lutherans in particular as the article by which the church stands or falls (articulus stantis vel cadentis ecclesiae ).

Role in Subsequent Theological Discussion

Though widely accepted by other Protestant reformers, including especially John Calvin (15091564), Luther's doctrine of justification was rejected by the Catholic magisterium at the Council of Trent (15451563). In its "Decree on Justification," the Council affirmed the priority of grace against both Pelagianism and the theology of Biel, but also taught that human beings actively cooperated in their own justification. Faith given by God was affirmed as the beginning of justification, but the idea of justification by faith alone and the associated teaching that grace was imputed rather than imparted were explicitly condemned. If Luther was worried that Catholic emphasis on human cooperation undermined trust in God as the sole source of salvation, Catholics charged that the Lutheran sola fide failed to honor God's creation of human beings as free and responsible agents.

Without seeking to minimize the differences between Protestant and Catholic positions on justification, it may be noted that representatives of the two traditions in the Reformation era frame the doctrine in very different ways. The Tridentine emphasis on faith as the beginning of justification is rooted in a vision of justification as a temporally extended process that includes the human growth in relationship with God. By contrast, Protestant emphasis on justification as a unilateral declaration of forgiveness led to a sharp distinction between divine action and human response. The latter (termed sanctification ) was important, but was to be clearly distinguished from the question of human status before God (justification proper).

In the wake of the Second Vatican Council (19631965), dialogue between Protestant (especially Lutheran) and Catholic theologians has seen increasing convergence on the doctrine of justification. In 1997 representatives of the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation issued the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification that reported a consensus on the basic truths in the doctrine and declared the mutual condemnations of the sixteenth century no longer applicable. Although this document has not met with universal approval within either communion, it does indicate a decisive move away from the intellectual hostility that marked Catholic and Protestant discussion of this topic from the Reformation period through the early twentieth century.

See Also

Atonement, article on Christian Concepts; Free Will and Predestination, article on Christian Concepts; Grace; Incarnation; Merit, article on Christian Concepts; Redemption; Soteriology.


The Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (Grand Rapids, Mich., 2000) is an accessible and even-handed introduction to the basic issues in the history of Western debate on this topic. For a critical response to this document from the Protestant perspective (and also a paradigmatic exposition of the traditional Lutheran view), see Eberhard Jüngel, Justification: The Heart of the Christian Faith, 3d. ed. (Edinburgh, 2001). Prominent Catholic studies of the question from an ecumenical perspective include Hans Küng, Justification (New York, 1964), and Otto H. Pesch, Theologie der Rechtfertigung bei Martin Luther und Thomas von Aquin (Mainz, Germany, 1967). An excellent introduction to Luther's thought is Paul Althaus's The Theology of Martin Luther (Philadelphia, 1966), especially pp. 224250. Detailed studies of justification from a Catholic perspective include Bernard J. F. Lonergan, S.J., Grace and Freedom (New York, 1971), and Bernard Welte, Heilsverständnis (Freiburg, Germany, 1966). The most comprehensive historical survey of the topic in English is Alister E. McGrath's Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, 2 vols. (Cambridge, U.K., 1986). For a survey of developments in the modern period, see Boniface Willems, "Soteriologie von der Reformation bis zur Gegenwart," in Handbuch der Dogmengeschichte, edited by Michael Schmaus, Alois Grillmeier, and Leo Scheffczyk, vol. 3, fasc. 2c (Freiburg, Germany, 1972).

Ian A. McFarland (2005)

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