Justification is one of the most important doctrines of the Christian faith – it is the means by which we are saved by Christ and absolved of our sins. It represents the most vital and selfless act Jesus could have done for us – the sacrifice of his blood in order to impute our sins and gain passage to Heaven. There are many different ideas of what justification means, and what constitutes being justified – whether it is by faith or by works. Protestants and Roman Catholics have very different ideas on what constitutes justification; it is one of the primary reasons the church split occurred. In this paper, the idea of justification will be defined, as well as its relationship to faith and works; the differences between Catholic and Protestant ideas of justification will be detailed and applied to the doctrine of Christian salvation and life.
DEFINITION OF JUSTIFICATION
Justification is defined as the “legal act where God declares the sinner to be innocent of his or her sins” (Slick, 2011). It is important to realize that the sinner has still sinned, he is just declared to be sinless. Once he is declared to be righteous, he is justified before God. The justification occurs as a result of Jesus’ blood being shed – “having now been justified by His blood” (Romans 5:9). Those who have faith in God are all granted justification; despite this blanket pardon for earthly sins, it is viewed as a unique gift by many Christians, one that helps to define them as spiritual beings and agents of Christ.
EXPLANATION OF RELATIONSHIP OF FAITH AND WORKS IN JUSTIFICATION
James 2:24-26 states that “You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone…But faith without works is dead.” There is a distinct difference between believing in God, and doing something with what God grants you in His grace. Faith is the means by which a person believes in God, while works constitute the man’s actions in his earthly life. Works done by a justified Christian are informed by their faith and modified by it. In short, as God instructed us to love one another, this translates to performing good deeds. By doing good works, we are maintaining our faith in Him and His plan by following it. Therefore, the two things are intertwined – faith and works (Moo, 2000).
A good Christian cannot have one without the other – to perform good deeds without faith carries no favor with God, and faith without works means nothing at all to Him. Works are a consequence of faith, a result of justification; the fruits of justification are a good Christian life that is full of faith and deeds performed for one’s fellow man. As stated in James 2:15-18, works are a necessary means of expressing and following one’s faith:
“Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, "You have faith; I have deeds." Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.” (James 2:15-18)
Understanding the difference between faith and works is what separates true Christians from those who merely believe in God (Moo, 2000). They may feel sanctified or saved, but they are not, unless they are following the doctrines of the Church and fulfilling their responsibilities to other men and women. Faith is most certainly the primary component (if not the sole component) of justification; works happen as a consequence of being justified and following God’s word, not as an attempt to sweeten the deal for Him, or to make up for previous sins as if paying back an account.
COMPARE ROMAN CATHOLIC WITH PROTESTANT JUSTIFICATION
Roman Catholics and Protestants have very different ideas as to what constitutes justification. According to the Roman Catholic tradition, justification is an ongoing process that must be continually renewed in order to provide salvation to those who seek it. Roman Catholics believe that justification is created by the synergistic action of man and God, working together to achieve this state. Justification can be lost by the committing of grave, mortal sins, and sanctification and justification are all a part of the exact same process (Lane, 2006).
The Council of Trent defined justification as “a translation, from that state wherein man is born a child of the first Adam, to the state of grace, and of the adoption of the sons of God, through the second Adam, Jesus Christ, our Savior”; effectively, a man is transformed into holiness from unrighteousness and sin. Because of the idea of original sin, a Catholic is always in a constant state of sin; they must continually justify themselves in order to be absolved. A Catholic continually receives God’s grace through the sacraments and the Holy Spirit Himself, providing a progressive justification that never truly ends. It is up to the Catholic to maintain stewardship over this process for himself. In this way, the Catholic interpretation involves justification by works – they will never truly merit the grace of God, and as a result they must continually attempt to earn their justification through their deeds (Lane, 2006).
Protestants, on the other hand, have a much more hands-off perspective on justification. Justification for them is a one-time event that allows them to permanently achieve salvation before God. Divine monergism is typically the primary force at work, where divine action is the only factor in granting justification to the Protestant. Justification can be lost when someone loses their faith, and sanctification is a wholly different process, separate from justification (which has to occur first in order for it to be achieved) (Lane, 2006).
Protestants believe that the act of justification is a gift granted to all under God’s grace, as long as they have faith in Christ. In simpler terms, one does not have to feel a constant sense of guilt as with the Catholics, and perpetually re-justify oneself; the first act of justification is enough, as long as one has faith in Christ (Robbins, 2011. There is no human element to justification; God is entirely in charge of it, faith being the person’s primary method of ensuring justification. Faith, to Protestants, is just the means of receiving salvation, not the salvation itself; there is no real decision to become faithful, it just happens. Protestants merely accept the idea of their continual sinning, as they believe their faith in Christ will be enough to absolve them their sins and offer them passage to Heaven, which is their real goal. Protestants, unlike Catholics, carry justification by faith – they already believe that God has saved them, and so good works are a consequence of living freely as a saved person, but that it garners them no additional merit with God (Lane, 2006).
SIGNIFICANCE OF DOCTRINE OF JUSTIFICATION IN CHRISTIAN SALVATION AND LIFE
Simply put, the doctrine of justification is the instrument by which God saves Christians. As Christians, we are all sinners; we commit both conscious and unconscious acts that are not in keeping with God’s will, and for that we have the need for justification. Salvation is simply not possible without justification, as one’s sins must be accounted for to gain passage into Heaven. Otherwise, regardless of the kind of life one leads, they will end up in Hell. It is the most important role in the saving of Christians (Husbands & Trieir, 2004).
Knowing that one is justified, regardless of their opinion or particular tradition, plays a substantial role in Christian life as well. The declaration of a man to be righteous by God grants Him the freedom to offer whatever spiritual blessings he wishes to upon the justified man. This, in turn, permits God to perform His self-given duty to save man, while still maintaining His own sense of righteousness. To bless someone who is not justified would be a sin God Himself would commit; therefore, to become justified is to legitimately receive God’s blessings into your own life (Husbands & Trieir, 2004).
In conclusion, there are many different ideas of what justification means, and the responsibilities of a Christian who receives it. For Protestants, it means that the faith they present in Christ is what saves them, and doing good deeds is a byproduct of living the life of a good Christian. Catholics, on the other hand, feel they need to continually pay God back for their justification as if they will lose it, making works a much more important part of the transaction. Catholics tend to meet God halfway when receiving their justification, carrying some of the burden for Him, while Protestants trust that justification is already received.
Applying the ideas of justification into my own life, I find myself realizing that the things I do around my community, for my family, and elsewhere have often been the result of me “making things up” to God. I am so thankful for my justification and salvation in His eyes, so much so that I often feel that I have to do my part. Looking back on what I have learned about justification, I need to trust that justification by faith is sufficient. I can still perform good works, but I no longer need to feel constrained by the idea that, if I do not do enough good things, I will lose my justification. It is my belief that, as long as I have faith, I will be saved.
Husbands, Mark, and Daniel J. Treier. Justification: what's at stake in the current debates. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press ;, 2004. Print.
Lane, A. N. S.. Justification by faith in Catholic-Protestant dialogue: an evangelical assessment. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2006. Print.
Moo, Douglas J.. Romans. Grand Rapids: ZondervanPublishingHouse, 2000. Print.
Robbins, John. "Justification by Faith: Catholicism & Protestantism." GospelPedlar. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Sept. 2011.
Slick, Matt. "Verses showing justification by faith." Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry. N.p., 1 Jan. 2011. Web. 18 Sept. 2011.