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The doctrine of God's justification of the sinner is treated under five headings: 1. In the Scriptures, 2. In Classical Theology, 3. In the Sixteenth Century, 4. From Trent to Vatican II, 5. After Vatican II.


In the Old Testament. The word for justification has a juridical and forensic connotation. The verb ādaq means "to be just" or "to be not guilty" in the juridical sense. The causative form hidîq means "to justify," and this usually intends the obtaining of justice for one unjustly accused, justification as vindication. This justification whereby the accused is declared innocent before the tribunal is supposed to conform to reality as far as the judge can decide. In Dt 25.1, for example, two men litigate before the law and "a decision is handed down to them acquitting the innocent party and condemning the guilty party." It is strictly enjoined, however, "The innocent and the just you shall not put to death, nor shall you acquit [justify] the guilty" (Ex 23.7). Quite often the main value of this external juridical justification is seen as a vindication of interior innocence before God, and it is God who has requited this innocence by the judge's decree [Ps 25 (26).1; 34 (35). 2324] In the Septuagint (LXX) δικαιóω is used for hidîq of the Hebrew OT, and the meaning changes slightly. The emphasis of the Hebrew word was rather negative or, better, liberative in that it denoted the juridical declaration of forensic, though presumably factual, innocence; but the Greek term meant "to give justice," either of acquittal for the innocent or of condemnation for the guilty.

The use of hidîq in Is 53.11 deserves special attention: "Through his suffering, my Servant shall justify many, and their guilt he shall bear." This is explained in the next verse: "And he shall take away the sins of many, and win pardon for their offenses." The Servant is not merely a judge who declares "the many" juridically acquitted before a human tribunal. By his suffering he obtains pardon and remission of their sins before God; and so he "justifies" them in reality. Otherwise the justification would be a declaration of innocence without foundation in fact, which is always a heinous crime in the OT. This is a unique use of hidîq, for the general OT usage reserves the term for the actually innocent; here it is used for the action whereby sinners are rendered innocent by pardon. The Servant alone can do this, since God accepts his atonement as having redemptive and justifying value. There is a similar case in Dn 12.3: "But the wise shall shine brightly like the splendor of the firmament, and those who lead the many to justice shall be like the stars forever." Here the wise men have taught sinners how to live justly before God and so have brought them to forgiveness of their sins in God's sight, that is, to justification.

The recovered Hebrew text of Sir 42.12 is to be translated as: "But of these things be not ashamed lest you sin through human respect of the law of the Most High and his precepts or of the judgment, so as to justify him who is guilty." The Greek δικαι[symbol omitted]σαι τòν σεβ[symbol omitted], might be taken, in the neutrality of the Greek δικαιóω ("acquit" or "condemn"), as meaning, "to condemn the wicked." But the Hebrew le hadîq rāšā means that one must not fear man so as to justify an evil man by acquittal. Thus, in the OT it is always wrong "to justify" (hidîq ) the guilty, to declare them innocent, unless they have become just before God. Only God can do this. Any declaration of justification that does not conform to inner reality is sinful and must never be done by a human judge, as of course it is never done by the divine Judge.

In Jesus Christ's Teaching. As it is reported in the NT, the early preaching of Jesus, especially to the group of the disciples, stressed the difference between the δικαιοσύνη (justification) of the Pharisees and that which the disciples were to have. In Matthew ch. 57 the theme of the initial section, immediately after the exordium of the Beatitudes, is conveyed in the words, "unless your justice exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven" (5.20). Justice has a wide sense in this context and is almost equivalent to holiness. It is not restricted to the precise passage from sin to holiness; it rather denotes a mode of life in union with God. There follow five examples from the Mosaic Law, and Jesus's interpretation is contrasted with the customary one on murder (5.2126), adultery (5.2728), oaths (5.3337), revenge (5.3842), and love (5.4348). The justice that will belong to the approaching kingdom must be spiritual, interior, and based on God's forgiving love.

The second section follows the same pattern. The theme appears in Mt 6.1: "Take heed not to do your good [δικαιοσύνη] before men, in order to be seen by them; otherwise you shall have no reward with your Father in heaven." This is developed with regard to three basic works of piety, alms (6.24), prayer (6.56), and fasting (6.1618). Rather than the idea of justification (6.2, 5, 16) or holiness that the Pharisees are said to demand, Jesus requires an interior bond between the believer and God, not an external manifestation that others would see. In this context the term "justice" is used in a wide sense that does not evoke a juridical statement of innocence but a life of innocence or holiness that is led before God. No doubt the declarative idea is still present, for one should presume that God pronounces the innocent holy and guiltless before the divine tribunal.

The same theme appears more clearly in Lk 16.15: "You are they who declare themselves just [οδιικαιο[symbol omitted]ντες αυτος] in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts." In Luke 18 the Pharisee proclaims himself innocent before the divine tribunal: "O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of men" (18.11), while the publican simply prays: "O God, be merciful to me a sinner!" (18.13). But the publican "went down to his home justified rather than the other" (18.14). This parable throws light on the statement of Jesus: "I have come not to call the just, but sinners" (Mk 2.17b; Mt9.13b). It is not for those who consider themselves justified, but for those who need justification that Jesus has come. Already in the life and preaching of Jesus there was a clash with the Pharisees on justification, at least on the practical rather than the theoretical level. In a similar polemical situation, St. Paul will explore the implications of this teaching more theoretically.

The Doctrine of Paul. In order to understand the Pauline understanding of justification it is necessary to appreciate the anti-Pharisaic polemic within which it was forged and to take careful note of the precise meaning that the term came to have in the controversy.

Originally the law of moses had been given to Israel in the framework of a covenantal relationship with Adonai, their God. Suzerainty treaties in the Near East of Mosaic times formulated the obligations of vassal states to their imperial overlord in terms of a reciprocal bond created by some anterior action of the latter upon them. Such a format was used for the Ten Commandments and thence for all the cases that flew logically from them. This meant that Adonai proclaimed a covenant with the Israelites, who then were given a new being, that of "my people," based on a mutual commitment between them and God. The divine law was seen as a formulation and specification of Israel's being as the people of God (Ex 19.1-6; Lv 19.2).

In Pharisaic thought, however, the covenant basis came to be obscured by an expanding system of laws and prescriptions. As a result the mass of Mosaic legislation took on the appearance of a burden, an obligation forced upon the people from outside. The faithful, exact, and minute fulfillment of these many prescriptions tended to become the basis for union with God, the cause rather than the effect of relationship with Adonai. Instead of fidelity to obligation being a result of God's grasping the existence of Israel, fidelity appeared to be the cause of Israel's grasping of God, the means becoming the end, and the effect the cause.

In order to combat the delusion that one can be just and holy by exact fulfillment of Torah, Paul drew attention to the precise moment when one passes from the state of sin to that of holiness before God. He understood the Pharisees' teaching from within since be had been formally trained in their schools. In Phil 3.6 he states: "as regards the justice of the Law, I was blameless." That is, in light of the Pharisaic norm that justification arises from a flawless fulfillment of all the law's requirements, he was perfect. In such a perspective we really accomplish our own justification, if at least God has given us the necessary legal precepts. Paul repeatedly refers to this as justification "in" or "from" or "by" the Law and/or its works (Gal 2.21; Rom 3.20; 8.3: 10.5; 11.31). Since, however, Paul's thought developed under the influence of his growing theological acumen in the vicissitudes of his apostolic mission, his ideas can be followed in chronological sequence.

Decision at Jerusalem. Peter had baptized the centurion Cornelius, who had not accepted the obligations of Torah. He had done so at the command of the Holy Spirit (Acts 10.111.18). On his first missionary journey, Paul also made many Gentile converts (Acts 13.12, 48). The question of the value of the Mosaic Law for Christians was then inevitably raised. There were converted Pharisees who regarded circumcision and the whole Torah as necessary to Christian life (Acts 15.1, 5). The conclusion reached at Jerusalem, however, was that the Gentiles could not be bound by the Mosaic Law as necessary to salvation because salvation comes through Christ alone (Acts 15.612; Gal 2.116).

Controversy at Antioch. The decree of Acts 15.1329 may have been sent by James to antioch at some later date than the first decision in Acts 15.112, since Paul behaved in his churches as if it did not exist (1 Cor 5.18; 8.113). It may have been a special concession to the churches of Syria, intended to enable Jews and Gentiles to live and eat together, and to intermarry. In any case it seems to have provided the occasion of the disagreement between Paul and Peter at Antioch (Gal2.1121). Paul used the incident to give a clear formulation of his position: "We know that one is not justified by the works of the Law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ. Hence we also believe in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the Law, because by the works of the Law no one will be justified" (Gal 2.16). Justification cannot be at the same time by the works of the Law and by faith in Christ. Paul argues that Peter has already committed himself to the latter belief, in keeping with Acts 1011 and 15, and his action in Antioch belies it. By faith in Christ the believers receive a new existence, a new life, and it is in virtue of this new being that they should act (Gal 2.2021). The statement in Galatians may have been more clearly expressed at the time of its recall than in its first formulation, but already in Antioch Paul realized that justification by the works of the Law is radically opposed to justification by immersion in the dying and rising of Christ.

Galatians and Romans. The controversy over justification reaches a climax in these Epistles. Although the date of Galatians is disputed, the closeness of its theme and language to those of Romans makes it likely that both were written in the same period toward the end of Paul's third missionary journey. Galatians was composed to offset the action of some Judaeo-Christians who came to the churches of Galatia and argued for the continuing value of the Mosaic Law and accordingly of justification through the works of the Law (Gal 3.16). It is plausible that the problems that had come to a head in Galatia and that Paul had dealt with vehemently and rather personally led him to bring attention to the question in a formal letter. Romans was then composed to explain the conclusions he had reached and to present them to the intended sphere of his future activity (Rom 15.2233). In this explanation the controversy moved to a deeper level as Paul argued that there was, is, and can be only one way of justification, the gratuitous gift of divine forgiveness offered in Christ and received in faith and baptism. The works of the Law never effected justification, which is always by faith in the promises of God, whether these concern the Messiah to come or the One who has come. The way of justification in Christ is firmly rooted in the OT, which, Paul argues, his opponentsJudaeo-Christians who bring justification by works of the Law into the communities led by Paulhave not understood, any more than they have understood the teaching of Christ. Sharpened by this controversy, Paul's thought has turned to the first moment when the sinner is made just. Is this moment brought about by the works of the unjustified in obedience to Torah? or by an act of faith, the humble acceptance of the gratuitous gift of divine mercy, forgiveness, and life? Paul's demonstration hinges on three antitheses.

(1) Adam and Christ. The basic antithesis does not appear in the more pointed polemic of Galatians, but in the fuller exposition of Romans. Scripture and human experience show that before the coming of Christ both pagans (Rom 1.1832) and Jews (2.13, 20) were sinners before God; the entire world lacked and longed for justification. It is only from the "justice of God" (3.21, 22, 25, 26a), that is, from God's fidelity to the covenantal promise of salvific deliverance, that the believer is justified. The key phrase is in 3.26b: "so that [God] might be just [δίκαιον] and justifying [δικαιο[symbol omitted]ντα] the one who believes in Christ." Justification precedes any consideration of how the justified live out their life and salvation, united with the risen Lord, in anticipation of their bodily resurrection. This justification is based exclusively on God's fidelity to the promises; it is purely gratuitous and cannot be gained by human works. Though foretold in the OT it cannot be obtained by the works of the Law or by any works (3.2122). Received in faith, it is no mere intellectual assent to a set of propositions, but a commitment of one's entire being to the centrality of the death and resurrection of Christ in God's salvific plan (3.2324). Only by such an act of faith related to baptism (see Gal 3.2629; Rom 6.35; Col 2.12 and cf. Gal2.1620 with Rom 6.39) is one brought from sin to justice and holiness.

In order to offset the view of justice obtained through the works of the Law, Paul used the term "justification" to denote precisely the transition from sinner to saint. Adam's sin brought sin into the world for all his descendants, who then compounded it by their personal sins. Reversely, Christ brought justice. Having received it in baptismal faith, the justified believers now live a life that is not their own but that of the risen Lord. With Adam as with Christ, Paul does not envisage only the moment of fall or of justification, but also the entire realm and life of sin or salvation that ensue from that moment (Rom5.121). Both justification and salvation are purely gratuitous gifts, the former by faith alone, the latter as the believer's entire life lived in the risen Lord. It is the worksin-Christ of the justified that concern Paul in the second section of almost all his letters. The Adam-Christ parallel is also developed in 1 Cor 15.4549 (earlier than Romans) and in Eph 4.2224. The antithesis makes it clear that the gift of justification is the beginning of the life of salvation, the climax of which will be bodily resurrection in Christ (Phil 2.611; 3.2021).

(2) Abraham and Christ. In Gal 3.618, 29; 4.2131 and Rom 4.125; 9.69, Paul uses the example of Abraham to show that the only justification ever offered, even in the OT, was by faith, whether in the Christ to come or in the Christ who has come. There never was a way of justification by legal works. The core of the argument is the citation of Gn 15.6 in Gal 3.6 and Rom 4.3: "Abraham believed the Lord, who credited the act to him as justice [ες δικαιοσύνην]." The primary transition, the moment of justification (of the aorist λογίσθη in Gn 15.6 with the aorist δικαιωθέντες in Rom 5.1 that denotes the instant of baptismal faith), was not achieved by works of the Law, for the Law was not given until much later (Gal 3.1518), or indeed by any one of Abraham's works (Rom 4.15). Abraham was justified by God's gratuitous promise, which he only had to believe.

According to Paul, Abraham's example was already seen in the OT as the model for all future justification. In Gal 3.8 Paul cites Gn 12.3; 18.18 in the LXX version ("In you shall all the nations of the earth be blessed") rather than in the original Hebrew ("In you shall all the nations of the earth invoke blessings on one another," that is, by saying, "May you be as blessed as Abraham"). The citation is seen as a prophecy that eventually the Gentiles will receive the blessing of justification after the manner of Abraham, by faith-acceptance. This line of thought is further developed in Rom 4.1822. Abraham believed the angel's prophecy that new life would come from his and Sara's old bodies; and Christians believe that just as God brought Jesus from the dead to glorified life, so they will themselves be raised from death in sin to life in grace. A second point emerges in Rom 4.912. Abraham received the promise and was justified by faith before submitting to ritual circumcision. He was therefore justified while in uncircumcision, as in Gn 17. (This tradition of the Pentateuchal priestly writers is more recent than the Yahwist tradition of Gn 15 that relates to the same event). Here again Abraham's case shows that the Gentiles can be justified in uncircumcision, without the works of the Law. In summary, the OT itself knows only of justification by faith, the acceptance of God's free gift. And this is what God promised to extend to all humankind through a unique descendant of Abraham (Gal3.1518).

(3) Moses and Christ. In Gal 3.1929 and more fully in Rom 4.1316; 7.123 Paul examines the relationship of the Mosaic Law and its works to justification by faith. Torah was originally given by God as part of a covenant framework, and its precepts were the specification and objective statement of the relation between "your God" and "my people," by virtue of which those who had been freed from egypt by the divine will were made God's own people. However, the Mosaic Law that Paul knew, however divine, holy, and sacred, was not the divine gift that had fed the prophetic zeal. Shorn of its covenantal basis, the Law had turned into an intolerable burden imposed on human liberty from without, by external pressure and compulsion. The Law of God, so conceived and practiced, strengthens Paul's thesis. Far from producing justification, which it could never do in any case, the Mosaic Law, as Paul knew it and as much of Israel's past could show, had occasioned a disobedience that imprisoned Israel under the wrath of God. Now, however, the way of escape was opened. In the gift of God in Christ Jesus, the disciples receive in baptismal faith a justification that brings them to a new being in union with the risen Lord (Col 14). And such "justification into life" (δικαίωσιν ζω[symbol omitted]ς, Rom 5.18) gives the justified a continuing holiness in union with the Lord (Rom 8).

The Epistle of James. At first glance the teaching of the Epistle of James seems diametrically opposed to the view of justification that is explained in Galatians and Romans. Paul states, "But we know that man is not justified [δικαιο[symbol omitted]ται] by the works of the Law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ" (Gal 2.16), and again, "For we reckon that one is justified by faith independently of the works of the Law" (Rom 3.28). James, however, says: "You see that by works one is justified [δικαιο[symbol omitted]ται], and not by faith only" (Jas 2.24). While the vocabulary is exactly the same"justified," "works," "faith"the statements seem to be clear contradictions. Even the OT example used by Paul to support his thesis of justification by faith alone is adduced by James to show that justification is by faith and works. Paul had cited Abraham as witness, using Gn 15.6 in both Gal 3.6 and Rom 4.3. In Jas2.2123, however, the author takes the same Gn 15.6 as a prelude to Gn 22, so that Abraham's faith in the promised posterity is "made perfect" by his obedient willingness to sacrifice Isaac, in whose descendants the promises should come to fulfillment. Actually, however, the very argument from Abraham clarifies the quite different meanings that Paul and James give to the same vocabulary.

The teaching of Paul may at times have been deliberately abused as an excuse for license rather than as a mandate for the liberty of the children of God. His teaching on the Parousia (see 2 Pt 3.16), and, more to the point, his teaching on justification seems to have led some to conclude that life after justification could be lived in any manner whatever. In 1 Cor 6.12, "all things are permissible" reads like the slogan of such an attitude, taken up by Paul in order to reject it. In Rom 3.8 and 6.1, Paul speaks of those who calumniate his teaching in such a manner. James may well be writing specifically against people who were using Paul's oral catechesis as an excuse for sin or indifference. Freed from the Mosaic Law, justified by baptismal faith, they no longer recognized any obligations. Paul, however, taught that the justified must live a life consonant with union with the risen Lord.

James, in this perspective, is not talking of the "works of the Law," an expression the Epistle never uses. Instead he insists on the works one must do after baptismal justification lest justification become a lie. Justification then designates the entire life rather than merely the initial moment when one has received the gift of divine life. James is interested in the works of the justified Christian, like charity (Jas 2.1417), and he makes exactly the same point as 1 Jn 3.1618: "Let us not love in word, neither with the tongue, but in deed and truth." This was also what Paul intended by "faith which works through charity" (Gal 5.6).

There is thus no fundamental contradiction between Paul and James. Were it not for their use of the same vocabulary in differing senses the question might never have arisen. When James says, "Of his own will he has begotten us by the word of truth, that we might be, as it were, the first-fruits of his creatures" (Jas 1.18) his teaching converges with that of Paul. When both are read in conjunction against the OT background of the term "justification" the Biblical doctrine appears in its fullness. No human forensic tribunal can justify a person who is guilty before it, for this would be a perversion of justice. The presumption is always that a tribunal justifies a person falsely accused, who is thus proclaimed not guilty (OT). But even the OT knows that things are quite different with God, who is able to "justify" the guilty when the divine sentence forgives their sins. Such a divine action brings about an inner change in being for the person concerned, or else the Judge of all the world would have acted unjustly (cf. Is 53.412).

Paul works in a situation of anti-Pharisaic polemic. He argues that the justification whereby God declares a sinner holy is not effected by human fidelity to the prescriptions of Torah. The sinner is justified only by the gratuitous gift of divine forgiveness. On the one hand, Paul stresses quite forcefully that thereafter the justified person lives a life of love in the risen Lord. Justification and salvation are free divine gifts, as are life and holiness. The moment of justification is by faith alone, and the life in Christ that follows is by faith that works through Christ's charity. On the other hand, James is in a different polemical situation as, most likely, he argues against a libertarian interpretation of Paul's teachings. Faith is not a dead act of mere lip service. It must be lived out as Christian, otherwise of course it was not there from the beginning, and there was merely an exterior semblance of it.

Bibliography: g. klein, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 6 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 195763) 5: 825828. a. descamps and l. cerfaux, Dictionnaire de la Bible, suppl. ed., ed. l. pirot et al. (Paris) 4:14171510. b. r. lemonyer, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 190350) 8.2:204377. g. e. mendenhall, Law and Covenant in Israel and the Ancient Near East (Pittsburgh 1955). s. dupont, Les Béatitudes. 1. Le problème littéraire: Les deux versions du Sermon sur la montagne et les Béatitudes (Louvain 1958). h. kÜng, Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Reflection, tr. t. collins et al. (New York 1964). j. reumann, Righteousness in the New Testament, with Responses by Joseph A. Fitzmyer and Jerome D. Quinn (Philadelphia 1982).

[d. m. crossan/

g. h. tavard]


In the present context "classical theology" designates the theology of the patristic and medieval periods, chiefly in the West, with the understanding that the Eastern and Oriental Churches went through a distinct development while the Western Church struggled with the implications of the theology of St. augustine. Briefly, justification is understood to be a gift from God, conveyed in faith and baptism, by which the faithful are moved from the state of injustice or sinfulness called original sin, eventually compounded by personal sins, to a state of justice or righteousness in God's eyes. While Eastern Christianity did not emphasize justification but drew attention to its fulfillment in sanctification and deification, Western Christianity explored the passage from sin to justice, along with its moral implications for the Christian life. To see the meaning of this doctrine in its proper context one ought (1) to locate it in the Christian message, (2) to sketch its historical development and show the main influences that went into its making, (3) to expound the doctrine of the scholastics and the theological explanation of it, mainly according to the mind and principles of Thomas Aquinas.

Setting of the Doctrine in the Christian Message. The Christian kerygma is centered on the Good News that salvation is offered in Christ to all human persons. The Word Incarnate became the Redeemer through his life, passion, death, and resurrection, bringing the forgiveness of sins to fallen humanity, and restoring the life of grace which anticipates the glory of heaven. Justification is the application of Christ's redemption to the individual believer.

Accordingly, the doctrine of justification presupposes the revelation of the fall. All men and women, Jesus and Mary excepted, are burdened with an inherited sinfulness when they come into this world. The universal reign of sin, the result of both original and personal sin, makes them incapable of being naturally just in the eyes of the Creator. Human sinfulness entails the forfeiture of the life of grace and a congenital weakness, called concupiscence, in seeking and doing what is right. Since no human person is just by nature and his personal efforts, justification must be God's gift. Christ's overcoming of the Fall opens the way to justification. By his earthly life, passion, death, and resurrection, Jesus took away the sins of the world and restored the original justice lost by the fall. The redemption of humanity, however, still has to be applied to particular persons as their personal redemption through the forgiveness of their sins and the undeserved gift of grace. Justification is the opening of this process. It is inseparable from Jesus Christ the Redeemer and from the Holy Spirit, the Sanctifier.

Christ's redemptive mission continues in and through the Church, which may be understood analogically as the primary sacrament of Christ. The Church fulfills its mission by preaching the gospel, administering the sacraments, whose primary minister is Christ himself, and generally leading the faithful in the way of holiness.

Infants can be saved and receive grace and glory through baptism, without their personal involvement. Morally adult persons, however, are not saved without their consent. Justification requires true conversion, so that adults must freely ask for baptism. When they fall again into personal sin they can be forgiven when, sinful and repentant, they meet again with Christ and God in contrition, normally by way of the sacrament of Reconciliation. In justification Creator and creature, God's grace and the human will, are one. The restoration of the sinner through justification, however, is not completed in this life. The gifts that are constitutive of the life of grace are restored, but not all of those which, like the gift of "integrity," could facilitate and stabilize it. Concupiscence remains. As it restores the life of grace, justification is a beginning. Sanctification, however, is imperfect and always precarious since it can be undone by mortal sin. It is at the same time perfectible, capable of growth in grace. Only at the consummation of redemption at the Second Coming of Christ, in the Parousia at the end of time, will all the lost gifts be restored. The fulfillment of justice and holiness is for the next world, when grace is changed into glory.

Historical Development before St. Augustine. The idea of and even the term "justification" originated with St. Augustine. Later on the medieval scholastics speculated about their meaning and implications.

Before Augustine elements of the doctrine of justification are found primarily in the catechesis and liturgy of Christian initiation, in which baptism is prominent, and secondarily in the penitential discipline. Even before explicit awareness of the fallen state was expressed in the doctrine of original sin in the controversies provoked by Pelagianism early in the fifth century, the beginning of Christian life through the sacraments of initiation was commonly seen under the two aspects of forgiveness of sin and participation in the life of Christ.

The Greek Fathers emphasized the second aspect as they explained θειοπιίησις, deification, but they were aware that baptism remits sin. The Latins, without overlooking the new life in Christ which begins in Baptism, focused attention on the forgiveness of sin. While the Greeks spoke of the indwelling Spirit, or the Logos of God, or the Holy Trinity as the source of divinization, more than of the transformation that the indwelling brings about, the Latins did the reverse. They paid more attention to the human transformation than to the divine indwelling, to the effect than to the cause. They concentrated on the state following baptism, as contrasted with the state that preceded it, more than on the mode of passage from sin to faith and justice.

As the early Fathers of the Church understood it, the human condition steers a middle course between the Manichean view of matter and flesh as evil, and the Stoics' belief that there is by nature a spark of the divine in all human persons. Even though sin is now forgiven, sharing in the divine nature is not a natural datum but a pure gift of God.

Augustine and Pelagianism. The occasion for the bishop of Hippo to formulate the doctrine of justification came in his reaction to Pelagius's denial of the absolute need of the grace of Christ to be good and to do the right thing. Pelagius, a fashionable spiritual director in the city of Rome, taught that the soul is so endowed with free will that it is perfectly able to do what is good by itself. The asceticism he promoted denied fundamental sin and the absolute need for grace. His followers blamed the influence of Manicheeism for the doctrine of original sin. Each person, they maintained, is good and able to persevere in justice thanks to a good use of God's gifts through the free will.

Against this overt naturalism Augustine reaffirmed the absolute need of Christ's grace for redemption. Humans are born in sin and cannot be just unless they are justified by the grace of Christ. Justification is not only the forgiveness of sin. It is also a shield against future sin. Yet justifying grace does not remove all the consequences of the fall of Adam. Concupiscence remains after baptism, if no longer as guilt, at least as a tendency to exclusive self-love: transit reatu remanet actu. Justification requires a human consent that is itself enabled by God's grace. No human person left to the resources of nature can do anything that is not affected by inordinate self-love, which inevitably vitiates all thoughts and actions. Even those that seem to be virtuous need to be purified by healing grace. This sort of working with God may be summed up as having a living faith, the sort of faith that inspires hope and charity, all of which is God's gift.

In Augustine's mind, as in that of his contemporaries, justifying grace is grace taken as a whole, without the later distinctions between actual and habitual grace. The reason for its necessity derives primarily from the fallen state of humankind. Grace has both a healing and an elevating function that Augustine, like the Greeks, also spoke of as divinization, though this aspect of grace was hardly prominent in the course of the anti-Pelagian polemics. At the time, the distinction between the natural and the supernatural was not explicit, so that Augustine envisaged the human condition as it is, in its actual existence. When he affirmed human working with grace he was satisfied that grace restores the will to the perfection it had before sin, and he made no attempt to show how grace and free will can share a common action. Lastly, keeping the grain of truth contained in Manicheeism, Augustine was not blind to the disorder of concupiscence that remains after baptism. This Augustinian teaching on justification in facto esse rather than in fieri, in its achieved reality rather than in its becoming, was the first systematic Western formulation of the Christian condition after baptism. It was to have a far-reaching influence on later Latin theology.

The most important element in the doctrine, decisive for all further development, is that righteousness is God's gift. It is a sharing in the justice of God, justice and mercy being one when God saves those who deserve to be condemned. The gratuity of salvation is central. All initiative in the process of justification comes from God alone. When, as in the writings of the monk John Cassian, remnants of Pelagianism, later called Semi-Pelagianism, suggested that at times God's grace awaits a sinner's positive gesture toward justification, Augustine objected that the beginning of faith, including the very assent of the mind to the message of salvation, is, no less than any subsequent growth and maintenance or perseverance of justification, totally God's gift and grace.

Augustine's influence in the West was decisive in shaping its doctrine on justification, with its negative stress on the remission of sin, its positive stress on the total gratuity of God's gift, and also, echoing Augustine's view of the consequences of the Fall, on the precariousness of human holiness. It should be noted, however, that decrees of Council II of Orange (529) against the Semi-Pelagians were mostly unknown to medieval theologians between the ninth century, when Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims quoted them in the predestinarian controversy against Gottschalk, and the sixteenth century, when they were incorporated in the canonical collection of Peter Crabbe in 1538. St. Thomas himself did not know this council, even when in his later works he distinguished between the position of Pelagius and that of his followers.

In any case the influence of Augustine has been considerably less in the Christian East than in the West. The Greek Fathers after Augustine remained reluctant to call sin a state that is independent of the personal will, and they continued to stress the doctrine of divinization.

Scholastic Theology. The transition from the patristic to the scholastic theology of justification took from the eighth to the twelfth century. It brought about the predominance of a very different mentality in the formulation of doctrine. The Fathers' pastoral and practical approach made way for a speculative and academic one. The main problem before the schools related to the connection between the negative and the positive sides of justification, between the forgiveness of sin and the infusion of grace. Is this connection merely factual, known from revelation and tradition? Or is it necessary in the first place? Investigation of this problem led the scholastics to study not merely the state of justification in contrast with the state of sin, but also the very process that leads from the one to the other. This study was facilitated by the use of Aristotelian philosophy and the gradual elaboration of various concepts regarding sin and grace such as act, habit, change, mutation in the light of formal and material causality. The question thus became: How and why does the habitual state or habit of sin give way to the state or the habit of grace?

The several schools that took up the problem were generally marked by either intellectualism or voluntarism. The first is characteristic of the thought of St. thomas aquinas. In the realism of his theory of intellectual knowledge, which he regarded as valid even when bearing on supernatural realities, he applied the general metaphysics of mutation to the changeover from sin to grace, which he then identified as the expelling of one form by the infusion of a new one. He thus could see an organic and necessary correlation between remission of sin and infusion of grace and, in another aspect, between God's action and the human response. In this perspective justification involves both the negative and the positive aspects, as well as divine and human actions. It is a complex event that is wrought by God and accepted by the sinner, in which habitual sin is expelled from the soul by the infusion of the new form that is grace. Other questions regarding the degree of grace infused or the persistence of concupiscence Thomas explained in a similar way, not merely in light of God's disposition but also from the point of view of the human reception of grace. This disposition, in his mind, is expressed in the very nature of divine causality: Scientia Dei causa rerum. The theology of justification thus moves to the objective or ontological level. This basic trust in the realism of our intellectual knowledge of supernatural realities sets theology a new task as the fides quaerens intellectum of St. Anselm functions in light of the synthesis of Augustinianism and Aristotelian metaphysics that is St. Thomas's achievement.

The other trend, voluntarism, was favored in the Franciscan School. It was based on Bonaventure's determination that Goodness (bonum ) rather than Being (esse ) is the primary name of God. The forgiveness of sin and the infusion of grace are connected by the will, that is, the goodness of God. Yet they are not identical and they need not coincide. As John Duns Scotus reflected that the connection is not due to the contradiction between sin and grace, but simply to God's will, he identified grace and charity, which must be one when given to the sinner as they are one in God. Habitual sin was then seen as an orientation to punishment (ordinatio ad poenam ), and grace as a sanctifying power that is given when the sinner is accepted by God (acceptatio Dei ). Consequently, the organic structure of justification appeared in another light than in the theology of Thomas Aquinas. Since God's will is the cause of all that is (voluntas Dei causa rerum ), it is also the sole reason for the correlation of the remission of sin and the infusion of grace.

william of ockham took one further step. He not only saw God's decree as the only reason for the connection between the negative and the positive aspects of justification. Because he denied the capacity of the human intellect to know reality as it is, he attributed a merely nominal value to concepts, including the theological notions of justice and justification. He then logically concluded that God could have decreed otherwise. By absolute divine power (de potentia absoluta ) grace could have been given without sins being forgiven, although it is not so given in the actual order of creation and redemption (de potentia ordinata ). The distinction of these two divine powers and the ensuing orders became a fundamental principle of nominalist theology.

Such a voluntarism was not compatible with the organic concept of justification that Thomas Aquinas had elaborated or with the realism of the Thomist conception of grace. If human concepts cannot be relied upon to express supernatural realities truly, though imperfectly, God's will, which is the reason why things are what they are, can be known only by revelation. In this case the human intellect cannot be trusted to know the truth, a situation that brought about a gradual shift of attention from ontology to psychology in theological circles. The basic question became, not "what is reality?" but, "what do we think of it?" The data of tradition, in this perspective, needs to be supported by the evidence of experience. Thus the nominalist theology of justification and grace opened the way to the notion that justification of the sinner is a purely forensic act of God, decreed indeed by the divine will, yet totally external to the person. In this case one could logically entertain the thought that God not only could, but would proclaim the sinner just without necessarily abolishing the sin. This became in the sixteenth century one of the basic problems of the Reformation.


The Reformers. The Protestant theology of justification has a twofold origin in the life and teaching of Martin luther (ca.14831546). Negatively, it derives from his experience of sinfulness and of the ineffectiveness of the ascetical practices in his life as an Augustinian friar. Positively, it is the fruit of his discovery that the justice of God to which St. Paul refers is not a sentence of condemnation, but the merciful justice by which God forgives and declares the sinner just. Faith in Christ, and not the works of the law or anyone's personal works, justifies from sin. The main points of doctrine in the Lutheran theology of justification corresponded to Luther's personal experience. Human efforts, words, and works are of no avail. Only the grace of God made known through Christ justifies and saves. Christ covers the sinner with his own justice, which is then imputed to the sinner. Since justification comes entirely from God and not from anything that is human, one may say that the justified sinner remains fundamentally sinful, even when, as they should, the believers do follow Christ in performing works of holiness. These works are the fruit of divine grace and have no merit of their own.

When Luther turned to the medieval doctrine of justification in the form that nominalism had given it, he simply had to repudiate what was belied by his experience and by his understanding of the Pauline teaching. Neither good works nor merits are the way to justification. It is an illusion to think that the human person is able freely to cooperate with God at any moment of the process of salvation. Luther did not repudiate medieval theology as a whole. He even found conceptions that were germane to his own in the writings of the Rhineland mystics, notably Johannes Tauler and the anonymous author of the book to which he gave the title Theologia deutsch. From the standpoint of ecclesiology, justification, because it is the key to salvation, is the article where the Church stands and falls (articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae ). From the standpoint of morality and the proper Christian behavior, it does not change what sinners remain in themselves because of the resilience of concupiscence after forgiveness. The sinner is nonetheless seen by God as just, because included by faith in the very justice of Christ, thus being at the same time just and sinful (simul justus et peccator ). From the standpoint of methodology, justification is the principle of discernment between truly Christian and Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian systems of salvation.

This basic understanding of justification was incorporated by Melanchthon in article four of the Confession of Augsburg (1531): "Men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ's sake through faith." In keeping with this the Formula of Concord in 1581 declared: "Nevertheless they [the faithful] through faith on account of the obedience of Christ are pronounced good and just and reputed as such, even though by reason of their corrupt nature they are sinners to this point and so remain as long as they bear this mortal body" (Solida Declaratio, 3.16; Die Bekenntnisschriften der evangelisch-lutherischen Kirche 921).

When John calvin composed his Institutio christianae religionis (five editions, each longer than the previous one, from 1536 to 1559), he systematized the Lutheran doctrine of justification in his own original way. While he tied together justification and election, he also balanced the power of grace with the necessity of good works in proof of justification. However, the central doctrine of his systematic theology is, rather than justification, the interior testimony of the Spirit who assists the faithful when they read the Scriptures. In addition, the doctrine of justification was increasingly absorbed in Calvin's conviction that all humans, when they are created, are destined to heaven or to hell by a divine decree (double predestination), which is nonetheless just for being antecedent to their creation.

Similar doctrines of justification had also been formulated, in partial dependence on Luther, by Ulrich Zwingli in Zurich and Martin Bucer in Strasbourg. Heinrich Bullinger, Zwingli's successor in Zurich, endorsed Calvinist formulations in the Second Helvetic Confession (1566). The doctrines that were passed on to most of the later Reformed Churches, however, had been hardened by the Synod of Dort (16171618), where the dominant accent was placed on predestination and the invincibility of grace.

The Council of Trent. The Council of trent, called to respond to the Protestant Reformation, formulated the Catholic doctrine of justification at its sixth session (1547). The decree De justificatione impii (DS 152083) is in two parts. The first part explains the doctrine in 16 chapters. Thirty-three canons condemn various doctrines that may or may not have been taught as such by the Reformers, not one of whom is named in the conciliar texts.

The Tridentine decree set the problem of justification in a broad Trinitarian and sacramental context, even as it made use of Aristotelian categories of causality. It identified the final cause of justification as the glory of God and of Christ, and the life eternal to be given to the justified. The efficient cause is God's gracious mercy. The meritorious cause is Our Lord Jesus Christ, who redeemed the faithful through the passion and the cross. The instrumental cause is baptism, the sacrament of faith, received in fact or in desire (DS 1529; cf. DS 1524), along with the sacrament of penance, also received in fact or in desire for the recovery of grace lost by post-baptismal personal sin (DS 1542; decree De sacramento paenitentiae, session XIV, 1551, DS 1677). The formal cause is the justice of God by which he makes us just (DS 1529). The Trinitarian aspect of justification is thus indicated, though not explained at length. The Father, the Word of God, and the Holy Spirit have a role in it (DS 152530). Justification creates a new relation or union with God the Father, with Christ, and with the Holy Spirit. This is called God's indwelling in the soul.

The decree on justification essentially sums up and reformulates the doctrine of the preceding centuries, particularly that of the councils of Carthage against Pelagianism and of Orange against Semi-Pelagianism. Nothing substantial has in fact been added to the Church's teaching since Trent, except for what a better understanding of Martin Luther's teaching made possible after the Second Vatican Council. Justification implies a real remission of sins (DS 1528) and not merely their nonimputation (cf. DS 1561), although concupiscence persists after baptism (cf. DS 1515). It brings about an interior renewal that is the fruit of grace and divine gifts (DS 1528), even if this origin cannot be detected at the psychological level (cf. DS 1533, 156265). It implies the sinner's voluntary acceptance of the divine grace and gifts (DS 1528). This assent to God is the fruit of prevenient grace, so that one may truly speak of a preparation for justification (DS 1526).

The immediate context of justification is no other than the universal redemption wrought by Christ, who came to reconcile creation with God, and whose grace when applied to individual believers justifies them in the eyes of God (DS 152123). The initiative comes from God's grace and not from human free will, although it does require human assent (DS 152427). Along with Semi-Pelagianism this rules out deterministic views for which divine grace would be totally irresistible (DS 1554). That justification "is not only the remission of sins but also a sanctification and an interior renovation by the willing reception of grace and gifts" (DS 1528) implies three dogmatic principles, regarding the remission of sins, sanctification, and the acceptance of grace.

Remission of Sins. For the Council of Trent whatever is truly and properly sin is taken away rather than merely brushed over or not imputed to the guilty (DS 1515). Redemption in Christ entails liberation from sin (DS 1522) when it is applied to the faithful as their justification (DS 1523). This does not mean that concupiscence has disappeared. As was said in the decree of session V on original sin (1546), concupiscence remains after baptism, "to be struggled against, though it has no power over those who do not consent to it and who, by the grace of Jesus Christ, strenuously resist it" (DS 1515). While it is not sin properly so called, it comes from sin and inclines to it. Thus the council affirmed the reality of the remission of sin in baptism, while it also recognized the imperfection of the baptized as long as concupiscence has not been stifled.

Sanctification. The Christian is made interiorly holy and is renewed through a willing reception of the divine grace and gifts (DS 1528) by which the faithful are consecrated to God and know themselves to be a new creation. In justification they are reborn and receive justifying grace (DS 1523). Grace and charity, infused in the soul, inhere in it (DS 1561). "The only formal cause [of justification] is the justice of God, not that by which God is just, but by which God makes us just so that when endowed with it we are renewed by God in the spirit of our mind" (DS 1529). Such a formula undoubtedly implied that justification is not purely forensic and that it does bring about a true change in the justified: "Not only are we held to be, but we are truly called and are just." Thus sanctifying grace is received as a gift that is intended to be permanent and places the faithful in the state of grace.

As it referred to the only formal cause of justification, the Tridentine decree implicitly excluded the notion of "double righteousness." That justification is the fruit of two formal causesGod's justice imputed to the believer and a human justice based on good workshad been proposed in 1542 at the Regensburg Colloquy and agreed upon by Melanchthon and Cardinal Gasparo Contarini, though it was immediately rejected by both Luther and Pope paul iii. It was put before the Council of Trent by Cardinal Seripando. The council, however, did not accept it. Instead, it held that the imputation of God's justice, which is also the application of the merits of Christ, takes place in the gift of faith, hope, and love to the baptized. Through the merits of Christ's Passion, the justification of the impious unites them to Jesus Christ, through whom they receive the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love (DS 1530; 1561). The council considered grace and love to be inseparable, although it did not decide whether they are distinct or identical, so as not to favor either of two opinions that were held at the time by Catholic theologians. The interior renewal, "whereby from unjust one becomes just, and from enemy friend" (DS 1528), includes the reception of grace along with faith, hope, and love as gifts from God through the merits of Christ.

Free Acceptance. The reception of God's grace and gifts is not forced upon sinners (DS 1528). It is accepted in a free personal movement toward God in living faith (DS 1531), a faith that is manifest in hope and in love (DS 1530). Repentance is cited among the acts that dispose to justification (DS 1526). It is active in the process and at the moment of justification (cf. DS 1559). It is necessary to those who fall into sin after justification (DS 1542), and there is no remission of personal sins after baptism without penance and contrition. Thus the teaching of Trent implies repentance as one element in the sinner's willing reception of God's grace and gifts.

Related Conciliar Teachings. Regarding the gift of justice in justification the conciliar decree added several other points that are not without importance. First, grace is granted in varying degrees to various persons, depending on the Holy Spirit's good pleasure and each person's dispositions (DS 1529). This teaching on the inequality of grace sets aside the error of Pelagius and of some of the Protestants who claimed equal justice for all. Second, justice or grace is capable of increasing and is intended to increase as the faithful strive for perfection and make their way toward holiness. It grows in proportion with the good works that the just do when, by God's grace, they keep the commandments (DS 1535, 1574, 1582). Third, against what they took to be "the vain confidence of the heretics," the Tridentine bishops denied that the fact of one's own justification could be a point of faith: "No one can know with the certainty of faith, which cannot admit of error, that one has obtained God's grace" (DS 1533; cf. 1562). They did not, however, exclude the possibility of a moral certitude of being in grace, as was maintained in Scotist theology. Fourth, Trent rejected the absolute predestination of the elect and a predestination of others to evil (DS 1540, 156567), as also the possibility, outside of a private revelation, of having an antecedent certainty of one's final perseverance (DS 1541).

It should be noted, although this did not affect the substance of what they taught, that the council fathers assumed that as they preserved the old notion of merit their doctrine differed substantially from the Lutheran teaching that justification is by faith alone. Likewise, as they affirmed that grace can be lost, and is actually lost by every mortal sin and not only by infidelity (DS 1544,1572), they thought that they contradicted the belief, held by some of the "Spiritual Reformers," that once it is given by God, justice cannot be lost again.


The Tridentine decree on justification considerably influenced later Catholic theology, being used as the central bulwark against what the theologians of the Counter-Reformation identified as the errors of the Reformers. This influence led to a rehabilitation of the realist trend in the organic concept of justification that had been developed in Thomism, although Scotist ideas were not systematically ignored. A typical example in this regard is Suarez's notion of the physical, though not metaphysical, incompossibility of the state of sin and the state of grace. Suarez toned down Thomist realism without disregarding it altogether. The Tridentine teaching further determined two emphases in the subsequent theology of justification. Its description of the interior renewal of the soul invited keeping the Aristotelian image of grace as a form that inheres in the soul. Its teaching on the voluntary acceptance of grace led to a pastoral insistence on the free cooperation of the faithful with grace. The point of debate in Catholic theology, however, shifted from habitual or sanctifying grace to actual grace. There were heated discussions between followers of the Dominican Dominic Bañez (15281604) and of the Jesuit Luis de Molina (15351600) regarding the nature of actual grace and the relations between free will and grace in human action.

The reaction to the Reformation led to exaggerations. Because they saw created grace as a form in the soul some authors tended to treat it as a thing and to overlook its essentially relative character, constant dependence on uncreated grace, the Holy Spirit. Moreover, a emphasis on free cooperation focused undue attention on human merit and led to giving a disproportionate importance to actual grace over sanctifying grace and uncreated grace. When they were not engaged in polemics with one another or against the Reformers and the theologians of Protestant Orthodoxy, the Catholic theologians of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries generally restated the Tridentine teaching in light of the classical commentators of Thomas Aquinas, although some, following Suarez, incorporated various aspects of the Scotist perspective in their syntheses. In any case, apologetic and polemic concerns with Protestantism led them to stress the lifelong process of sanctification rather than its beginning in justification, and to focus the theology of justification on the passage from sin to grace.

Protestant Scholasticism. In the Protestant schools of the seventeenth century theological reflection became somewhat distant from the religious experience of the great Reformers. The writings of Luther were treated as source books that needed to be exegeted rationally in light of the inter-Lutheran agreement embodied in the Formula of Concord (1581). In this process many theologians turned to Aristotelian categories and logical tools in spite of Luther's misgivings about philosophy. The theology of justification tended to become a theory of conversion, one theme among many, rather than the very heart of thought and piety and the key to theology. The various aspects of the experience of justification repentance and faith, sense of unworthiness and evidence of divine filiation followed one another instead of coalescing. The nine-volume Loci theologici of Johann Gerhard (15821637) represents the acme of Lutheran orthodoxy. Like their counterparts in Roman Catholicism these theologians sought out Scripture and tradition for arguments that could lead, with the help of rational logic, to a systematic understanding of doctrine. Similar systems were built up by Reformed theologians, who found their chief inspiration in Calvin's Institutio christianae religionis and their doctrinal standards in the Calvinist Confessions, especially the Second Helvetic Confession (1566) and the Westminster Confession (1646), and often also in the decisions of the Synod of Dort.

Pietism and Revivalism. In reaction to the rather dry intellectualism of Protestant orthodoxy, the rise of Pietism brought about a renewal of the theology of justification. Already in the sixteenth century the spiritual Reformers, many of them Anabaptists, understood faith to be an interior illumination coming from the Spirit. In England George Fox (16241691) and the Quakers carried this to an extreme that rendered the Church superfluous for those attentive to the Inner Light in their heart. Under the influence of Philip spener (16351705) in Germany, a drastic shift took place in systematic theology. The emphasis came to be placed on faith experienced as an overwhelming moment of conversion rather than on the dialectic of sin and righteousness. With Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf (17001760) and the Moravian communities, religion became a mystical experience in which fear is absorbed in the assurance of salvation. Conversion was taken to be a complete transformation manifested in warm fervor. The theology of justification amounted to a description of the personal experience of conversion and rebirth. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, similar pietistic emphases led, in the American colonies, to the enthusiastic revivals of the Connecticut valley, which in turn, through the Holiness movement of the nineteenth century, inspired a Pentecostal turnabout in communities where the centrality of Scripture gave way to that of the interior Spirit outwardly manifested.

The Wesleyan Reaction. The theology of justification that was developed in the seventeenth century by the Caroline divines of the Church of England incorporated many ideas from the Catholic tradition. The exclusivity of faith (sola fides ) that had been at the heart of the Reformation was delicately balanced by the conviction that, as Augustine had observed, God does not save sinners against their will. In this case faith is a divine gift that needs so to be accepted as to act as a condition of justification. There thus crept into English theology a strong emphasis on the human work that is involved in the process of justification, sanctification, and salvation. In the eighteenth century, however, the philosophy of deism and the spread of varieties of Arianism in some sections of the Church of England had the effect of stifling the fruits of Caroline theology in many areas of the British Isles. A reaction, largely inspired by continental pietism, led to a powerful Evangelical movement, as may be seen in the life of John wesley (17031791), the initiator of Methodism.

Wesley, who had turned to piety as a student in Oxford and had visited the Moravien societies in Germany, found that his work as an Anglican priest, especially in the years he spent in Georgia, was largely a failure. He suddenly discovered the cause of this failure on May 24, 1738, at Aldersgate in London, when he found what had hitherto been missing in his life and ministry. As he listened to a lecture on the Epistle to the Romans he "found his heart strangely warmed" and underwent a profound conversion. As Wesley described it in his diary, this conversion was focused on a sense of personal salvation: "I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for my salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death." Until this moment Wesley's work had been unknowingly self-centered. From that time on it was Christ-centered, and inseparably tied to a search for perfection on the model of biblical holiness. This implied a recovery of the centrality of justification by faith alone. But it also introduced a personal assurance of salvation in the theology of justification. What has been called "the Wesleyan reaction" in the evolution of Protestantism was indeed a restoration of justification by faith, without any condition on the human side, yet with an added dimension of awareness that had not been featured in the theologies of Luther or Calvin. By the same token, Wesley brought the necessity of good works back to the center, not indeed as conditions of salvation, but as necessary manifestations of effective justification. From this arose a new focus on moral conversion in Christian life and pastoral guidance, which became a feature of the Evangelical movements and revivals of the nineteenth century.

Schleiermacher and Liberal Protestantism. In the history of the Protestant Churches, the Wesleyan and Evangelical movements had to struggle with another fruit of the eighteenth century: the liberal Protestantism that grew out of the philosophy of the Enlightenment and in which the theology of justification lost its centrality. In 1799, as he defended religion against its "cultured despisers," Friedrich Schleiermacher (17681834) identified it with an intuitive sense of total dependence on a transcendent principle that believers call God. In light of this basic human experience he presented the Christian doctrines, in 1821 (The Christian Faith ), as so many aspects of the human dependence on God as this is revealed in Jesus Christ. Faith is the Christian religious consciousness. It sees the historical Christ as the highest exemplification of total dependence on God. In this perspective justification is examined as the "second theorem" that explains and explores the "doctrine of regeneration"(109). Following conversion, which is the "first theorem" (108), it implies the forgiveness of sins and recognition of the converted as a child of God. Thus entering into living fellowship with Christ in his "kingly office," the believer is in a changed relation to God. This new Christian self-consciousness implies awareness of "the communication of the Spirit" (121).

As it was inspired by, but often went beyond, Schleiermacher, much of Protestant theology in the later nineteenth century took a turn toward a "liberalism" that was in danger of dilution into a sort of religious rationalism. The Christian message could then hardly be distinguished from the promotion of a humanist morality at the service of human progress and civilization. The Reformation doctrine of justification could hardly survive in such a context.

Neo-Orthodoxy. Liberal theology inevitably provoked reactions, and eventually a rehabilitation of the theology of justification. Albrecht Ritschl (18221889) was the first to attempt to restate the doctrine of justification by faith alone in its traditional sense, though without restoring it to the central place it had with Martin Luther. In his "dialectical" or existential theology, Søren kierkegaard (181355) reemphasized both the centrality of the Word and the paradoxical character of the faith that justifies. Following World War I, the Swiss theologian Karl barth (18861968), in the second edition of his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (1921), formulated a powerful restatement of the theology of justification, which he brought back to centrality in his multivolume Church Dogmatics (19321967). He particularly insisted on the ties between justification and the work of Christ. The sola fides that is the means of justification implies solus Christus as the agent. It is the doctrine of Christ, and not only justification by faith alone, that is the articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae. As was shown, among others, by Hans Urs von Balthasar and Hans Küng, Barth's theology of justification is in close agreement with the Catholic tradition at its best. Barth's reflection comes near to the Catholic conviction on the ineffectiveness of all human effort unaided by grace.

The Neo-Scholastic Theology of Justification. Catholic theology in the twentieth century did not particularly stress the doctrine of justification. In light of the neo-scholasticism that had been advocated by leo xiii and inserted in canon law as the official theology of seminaries (1917 CIC, canon 1366 2), the standard view was focused, on the one hand, on an interpretation of the Tridentine decree that overstressed its anti-Protestant bias and, on the other, on a systematic reading of the Summa theologiae of Thomas Aquinas (I II, q.113) that tended to ignore its historical conditioning.

In this neo-scholastic perspective, justification includes true remission of sins and removal of the state of sin, that is, the original sin that is made worse by the habitus created by repetitions of sinful actions. God does not consider a person just without making that person just, for it is God's knowledge of reality that causes it to be. Habitual sin is a permanent and guilty turning away from God as the supernatural goal of the creature. Its removal requires a reorientation to God, a voluntary deprivation or permanent rejection of the obstacles that impede the human striving for God. Since this cannot be done without grace and the accompanying gifts, the cessation or removal of sin implies the restoration of grace and gifts that will enable the sinner's reconversion to God. As God alone gives grace, so God alone forgives sin. The infusion of grace and gifts therefore means that a sinner recovers an habitual orientation to God as supernatural and final end. By grace, through faith, in hope and in love, the Christian effectively looks to God for salvation. Striving toward this supernatural end is the fruit of a dynamic principle that has its origin in God's gift and its setting in human nature, thus raising the human person to super-natural dignity.

The grace and gifts bestowed in justification activate the soul and its faculties in their obediential potency before God's action. Endowed with this deifying dynamism the sinner is just according to God's salvific will. Whether seen negatively as remission of sins or positively as infusion of grace, conversion implies free cooperation and a personal relationship with God that is necessarily voluntary. Removal of sin and reception of grace require the turning away from sin that is called repentance (contrition when it is total, attrition when incomplete), and a free turning to God in living faith, that is, faith with hope and charity. This voluntary cooperation in justification entails an awareness of moving away from sin and turning to God.

Justification is thus seen as the instantaneous changeover of a repentant sinner who is moved by God from sin to grace. As God forgives sin and infuses grace, the believer feels contrition and accedes to grace in faith, hope, and love (S.T. III, q.113, a.1; a.78). That the change in justification happens in an instant, however gradual and slow may have been its preparation, follows from the Aristotelian principle that the loss of one form is the gain of another (corruptio unius est generatio alterius ). The cessation of the state of sin is the inception of the state of grace, and vice versa (S.T. III, q.113, a.7).

This analysis raises questions regarding the relations (1) between God's action and human cooperation, (2) between the forgiveness of sin and the infusion of grace as two aspects of a single divine act, and (3) between the components of human cooperation: contrition and faith with hope and charity. The solution, again, comes from the mutual priority and causality that scholastic philosophy identified as the law of every real change or mutation. In the line of formal causality the introduction of a new form determines, or causes, or is prior to, the cessation of the previous form. In the line of dispositive or material causality, however, the cessation of the previous form causes, or is prior to, the introduction of the new form. A new form is gained because a previous one is lost, and conversely a previous form is lost because a new one is gained. Sin is remitted because grace is infused, and grace is infused because sin is remitted, "because" expressing formal and dispositive causality, not efficient causality.

(1) God's Action and Human Cooperation. God is the mover and the repenting sinner is being moved, but as a free being that moves itself, that is, not without willing cooperation. The infusion of grace is prior to the human response and causes it by way of formal causality. Inversely, human free cooperation or voluntary reception is prior to the infusion of grace in the line of dispositive or material causality. Being the last disposition for grace, the acceptance of it causes the infusion of grace by making its reception possible. God's action and human cooperation condition one another in different ways; they do not hinder or oppose one another. The reception of grace presupposes a receptive soul, disposed for grace, this disposition being itself caused by grace itself.

(2) Remission of Sin and Infusion of Grace. That sin is forgiven because grace is infused, and grace infused because sin is forgiven, shows the metaphysical impossibility of separating the forgiveness of sin and the infusion of grace. It would be self-contradictory for God to infuse grace without forgiving sin, or to forgive sin without infusing grace. This seems to preclude a merely declarative, imputative, or forensic justification. It also excludes the incompossibility of sin and grace, as though God could de potentia absoluta (but does not de potentia ordinata ) give grace while sin remains, or forgive sin without giving grace.

(3) Contrition and Faith with Charity. Perfect contrition exists when repentance is totally inspired by faith enlivened by the pure love of God. As such it is the final disposition of a repentant sinner for the gift of grace. Love for God in turn causes repentance to be true contrition. Contrition is perfect because of love, while as ultimate disposition it makes God's gift of love possible. Contrition and love condition one another; and this mutual conditioning enables them to coexist at the instant of justification. That contrition perfected by charity constitutes the human cooperation with God in justification implies that it is the only one way to be effectively ready for the infusion of grace, both in and outside the sacrament. Since there can be only one ultimate disposition for one form, only contrition is the sinner's final disposition for grace. The difference between sacramental and extra-sacramental justification is accidental, regarding only the manner in which this ultimate disposition comes about.

Whence a trend in modern sacramental theology that so requires proper dispositions in the recipient of grace that it no longer accepts what used to be the common opinion, namely, that the sacrament makes up for imperfect dispositions.

Three systematic conclusions seem to follow that were generally accepted in the last decades before Vatican Council II:

(1) Justification is always relatively imperfect since grace is normally given while concupiscence remains. Were grace infused in the human soul by virtue of a natural disposition without free acceptance by each person, it would entail the restoration of natural, prelapsarian integrity. Because of the persistent attraction of evil it is possible for the just to lose grace, and morally impossible to remain in sanctifying grace and avoid all grave sin without the help of actual grace.

(2) Since the acceptance of the divine grace and gifts is indispensable to justification, a justified sinner may, by virtue of his awareness of repentance, faith, hope, and love, be also aware of grace received. There is normally, however, no direct evidence of the supernatural aspect of these dispositions and of grace itself, though the analysis of psychological dispositions may well show signs of the passage from sin to grace. One such sign is true contrition, which entails the effective resolution to abstain from sin. These signs may be sufficient to provide a moral certitude of being in the state of grace.

(3) The Council of Trent affirmed that justification entails relationships with God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit (DS 1525, 15291531) that are called in spiritual writings the indwelling of the Holy Trinity in the soul of the just. Since created grace and its gifts flow from uncreated grace, the indwelling Three Persons are directly involved in justification. Although the scholastic perspective points to created grace as the only formal cause and the only form of justification, uncreated grace, the Holy Spirit, may be likened to a "quasi-form" as the soul's indwelling Guest.

Pastoral Implications. Pastoral theology cannot be indifferent to the doctrine on justification, especially in the Thomist understanding that became standard in neoscholasticism.

Since a kind of cooperation with justifying grace is irreplaceable, sincerity and genuineness in religious practice are imperative. Without repentance perfected by charity, which includes faith and hope, no justification and no genuine religious life are possible. Whether one is justified by God in or outside the reception of a sacrament there is no substitute for the change of heart that bears fruit under grace. Thomism identifies this change of heart with contrition perfected by love. Sacramental grace, especially in the sacraments of initiation and of reconciliation, contributes to this contrition. This has inspired the insistence of contemporary moral theology and pastoral practice on the sacramental life.

The remains of concupiscence in the justified entail that it is not possible to live in grace without struggle and watchfulness. Unless they are assisted by healing grace, the justified are unable to remain in the state of grace. Because this help is always offered by God they can indeed persevere. Distrust of self, however, should go along with trust in God's never-failing grace, thus creating a spiritual equilibrium that is not always easy to obtain or maintain.

Since classical thomism finds an ontological change in the process of justification, some psychological repercussions of it may be perceived. Nevertheless the forgiveness of sin and the infusion of grace cannot be identified with the psychoanalytical resolution of a guilt complex and its attending peace of soul. Therapeutic methods are helpful in their own line, yet foreign to metaphysics and still more to the remission of sin by the pure gift of divine grace. While psychoanalysis may eventually free a person for a willing response to grace, it is no substitute for the theological return to God that is justifying grace.


Neither Vatican I nor Vatican II had occasion to debate the doctrine of justification. Vatican II, however, created conditions in which Catholic theologians could take a new look at the doctrine of the Reformers, especially in the context of the bilateral dialogues with Lutherans and with Anglicans that were started in the wake of the council. Despite the anti-Protestant interpretation of the Tridentine decree that prevailed through the Counter-Reformation, a better knowledge of Luther by Catholic scholars in the mid-twentieth century and the ecumenical impetus coming from John XXIII opened what turned out to be unexpected possibilities for the overcoming of traditional polemics. It was in fact already apparent in theology on the eve of Vatican II that there was a convergence between Martin Luther's view of the Christian as simul justus et peccator and the Catholic teaching that concupiscence remains in the justified. What the Protestant view calls sinfulness in the justified bears some similarity to the inclination to evil that Catholic theology names concupiscence. Likewise, the Protestant idea that the justified relate to Christ and God in a trustful faith that initiates a conversion of life does not contradict the Catholic idea that created grace structures the state of the justified as a complex of new relationships with the Three divine Persons. It is because these relationships are real that created grace is needed to give them an objective setting in human life. Thus it was possible even before the ecumenical opening of Vatican II to present the Catholic doctrine on justification in a perspective that was closer to the position of the Reformers than had been the case in the heyday of the Counter-Reformation.

The bilateral dialogues that started in 1965 between Lutherans and Catholics paid attention early to the question of justification and to the frequent assumption that there is a contradiction between the Catholic and the Lutheran notions. Already in 1972 the International Joint Lutheran/Roman Catholic Commission noted in its statement, "The Gospel and the Church," that "a farreaching agreement on the doctrine of justification appears possible." Both sides had to take account of the modern context of the question. Modern culture born of the Enlightenment, the french revolution, and the industrial and technological advances of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries requires a new language and, to a large extent, a new method for the presentation of the Christian faith and its theology. In 1963 the Lutheran World Federation meeting in Helsinki had found itself unable to arrive at a consensus on the contemporary meaning of justification. Its concluding document, Justification Today, recognized that modern culture is more concerned with the global meaning and conditions of life than with Luther's original questions, how to find a gracious God and how to be just in God's eyes. It reaffirmed the centrality of justification for Christian faith, while admitting the urgency of new expressions of the doctrine that would be attuned to the emerging theologies of Africa and of Asia.

Lutheran reflection in the last decades before the third millennium tended to go in two general directions. On the one side, some authors presented justification in light of an existential hermeneutics, often influenced by the Systematic Theology of Paul Tillich. Justification is then seen as the divine response to the conundrum of sinful existence. On the other side, others, who remained closer to Luther and the confessional books, saw justification as a passage from death to life which ought to act as a "metaprinciple" behind all Christian affirmations and actions, and in the light of which all Christian institutions and theologies should be assessed. Among Catholics the multiplication of unbiased studies on Martin Luther and a better knowledge of the sixth session of the Council of Trent gave rise to a new appreciation of the Reformer's intents and actions.

The effect of these developments was keenly felt when the official dialogues began to deal at length with the problem of justification. In 1983, "Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue" in the United States issued a common statement on the topic. This document and the supporting material describe the situation between the churches in and after the sixteenth century, and survey the convergence of thought that is manifest in recent developments. Its concluding "declaration" (nn. 161164) attempts to do justice both to Luther's central insight and to the decrees of Trent. It amounts to a modern formulation of the doctrine of justification. In this text "the gospel" is identified with the proclamation of "God's creative graciousness offered to us and to everyone for healing and reconciliation." It is an "undeserved gift which is granted and made known in faith." Furthermore, justification is acknowledged to be the heart of Christian life and the critical principle for all theology and life in the Church.

In 1987, the second commission of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Consultation (ARCIC-II) issued an agreed statement, "Salvation in the Church," in which justification was set in the broad context of the traditional theology of salvation. No difference was found between the Catholic and the Anglican doctrines. Furthermore, in 1985 unofficial consultations that took place in Germany reached the conclusion that the anathemas of the Council of Trent against the doctrines of the Lutheran Reformation, especially in regard to justification by faith, have become for the most part obsolete, and that many of them in any case had condemned doctrines that were not those of the Lutheran Reformation. The question was pursued by an ad hoc study group of nine Catholic theologians, who presented their report to the Holy See in 1994. This in turn led to a largely unexpected ecumenical breakthrough, in the form of an agreement between the Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity concerning the Tridentine canons on justification. The text of this agreement was finalized in 1997 after extensive consultations in the Lutheran and Catholic churches. In the city of Augsburg on Aug. 31, 1999, officials of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and of the Catholic Church (Cardinal Edward Cassidy and several bishops) signed a statement that supported the "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification." The text declared:

Consensus in basic truths of the doctrine of justification exists between Lutherans and Catholics. The earlier mutual doctrinalcondemnations do not apply to the teaching of the dialogue partners as presented in the Joint Declaration. Lutherans and Catholics will continue their efforts ecumenically in their common witness to interpret the message of justification in language relevant for human beings today, and with reference both to individual and social concerns of our times.

This solemn agreement, the first of its kind in the history of the ecumenical movement, is limited to the understanding of justification by faith. Neither does it answer all the questions raised reciprocally by Protestants and Catholics since the Reformation; nor does it speak for all Lutherans since there are some Lutheran churches that remain outside the LWF. In addition, a few churches of the LWF have not approved the text, and a number of theologians in Germany have even protested against it. Nonetheless, the document and its signing have two major theological consequences. First, the theologies of justification that developed during the Counter-Reformation and in neo-scholasticism have become untenable in the Catholic Church, at least insofar as they involve a misunderstanding of some basic Lutheran tenets. Second, Catholic theology is now committed to making a common effort with Lutheran theologians to work out together the implications of the "Joint Declaration" for the life of the churches.

Bibliography: j. riviÈre, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al. (Paris 190350) 8:20422227. a. vacant et al, ed. Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, 15 v. (Paris 190350) Tables générales 2:278296. h. rockert, Die Rechtfertigungslehre auf dem Tridentinischen Konzil (Bonn 1925). m. piette, John Wesley in the Evolution of Protestantism (New York 1937). w. cannon, The Theology of John Wesley, with Special Reference to the Doctrine of Justification (Nashville 1946). w. dettloff, Die Lehre von der acceptatio divina bei I. D. Scotus (Werl 1954). h. kÜng, Rechtfertigung: Die Lehre Karl Barths und eine katholische Besinnung (Einsiedeln 1957) bibliog. 288304. j. olazaran, Documentos inéditos Tridentinos sobre la justificacion (Madrid 1957). k. rahner, Schriften zur Theologie (Einsiedeln 19541962) 4:237271. o. e. borgen, ed., John Wesley. An Autobiographical Sketch of the Man and His Thought, Chiefly from His Letters (Leiden 1966). b. hÄgglund, The Background of Luther's Doctrine of Justification in Late Medieval Theology (Philadelphia 1971). g. h. tavard, Justification: An Ecumenical Study (New York 1983). h. g. anderson, t. a. murphy, j. a. burgess, eds., Justification by Faith: Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue VII (Minneapolis 1985). a. e. mcgrath, Justitia Dei. A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, 2 v. (Cambridge 1986). h. meyer and g. gassmann, eds., Rechtfertigung im Oekumenischen Dialog (Frankfurt-am-Main 1987). arcic-ii, Salvation and the Church (London 1987). Justification by Grace through Faith. Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. Study Resources for Congregations and Parishes (Ottawa 1999).

[g. h. tavard/

p. de letter]


views updated May 29 2018


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)


views updated May 11 2018

Justification. In Christian theology, God's act in redeeming men and women from a state of sin, and discounting its deserved effect. How this act is conceived is a matter of fundamental difference between traditional Catholic and Protestant theology.

Catholic and Protestant theologies have now approached each other ecumenically. Protestant views, however insistent on God's unconditional acceptance of sinners, do not necessarily tend to a disregard of good works (antinomianism) and of holiness. Catholic views, although based on God's justice and the rewards and punishment which must accompany it, do not deny that merit itself may be a gift of God.


views updated Jun 08 2018


A sufficient or acceptable excuse or explanation made in court for an act that is otherwise unlawful; the showing of an adequate reason, in court, why a defendant committed the offense for which he or she is accused that would serve to relieve the defendant of liability.

A legal excuse for the performance or nonperformance of a particular act that is the basis for exemption from guilt. A classic example is the excuse ofself-defenseoffered as justification for the commission of a murder.