Justification was famously declared by the reformer Martin Luther to be the very “article by which the church stands or falls,” and for five hundred years, justification by faith alone has served as an essential fulcrum for Protestant theology. Yet, there are distinct flavors amongst the various streams of Christianity that articulate and differentiate the mechanics of justification in unique and, at times, conflicting manners. Fortunately, there is a bedrock of conceptual similarity that unites Christian thought on this subject, forming a tentative foundational harmony. So, even while recent scholarship (such as the New Perspective on Paul), presents an increasingly urgent need to reconsider some assumptions about what justification is and what it is not, there is still a fundamental simplicity to it. This gospel simplicity therefore remains embedded in the conviction and vision of our faith.
The simplest principle of justification is the restoration of wholistic relationship between God and Humanity. In order to recognize what justification accomplishes or makes possible, one must understand what the biblical narrative teaches from Genesis onwards, which is the estrangement that sin, human choice and Satan (the Accuser), have created between God and Man. As humanity continuously turns and moves in the opposite direction of God, we find that there is a certain separation that necessarily emerges. Because of our inability to restore this relationship with God ourselves or to traverse this distance through our own will or desire, it is God who must first act in order to reconcile and redeem us. It is thus God, who initially acts in order to justify or “make right” this relationship. Thus, this process is generally understood to describe:
“God’s powerful, cosmic and universal action in effecting a change in situation between sinful humanity and God, by which God is able to acquit and vindicate believers, setting them in a right and faithful relation to himself” (Alister McGrath, “Justification,” Dictionary of Paul & His Letters, 518).
Therefore, justification is first and foremost a divine prerogative, particularly related to God’s salvatory purposes for all of creation. In order to accomplish or set justification in motion, God in Christ becomes human flesh (which represents one of the greatest beauties and mysteries of the Christian faith). In incarnate form, it is Christ who accomplishes this universal and objective justification, which is available and accessible to every individual (John 3:16).
It is at this point, where the various theological traditions and branches of Christianity began to diverge as the inner workings of how justification takes place become difficult to parse out. What becomes apparent is that this second phase of justification involves the interplay of Christ and Man. In some form or another, the faith (or faithfulness) of each individual becomes the means by which one is grafted into Christ and thus justified. Paradoxically, it is also and primarily the faithfulness of Christ who justifies us, regardless (to an extent) of how well we strive to exercise faith. Here we see, yet again, one of the great mysteries of Christianity, in that God is both just and the justifier (Romans 3:26) for those who believe (Romans 3:22). Yet, even this formula reveals itself to be paradoxical and resistant to the reductionist claim that we are justified by faith alone as the book of James refutes in no uncertain words (James 2:24).
Justification, as one can probably see, has understandably become a focal point for some of the most heated debates within Christianity, particularly in the last 500 years. Generally, the differences manifest themselves in where one or what one emphasizes in the process of justification. Is God’s unequivocal justifying act or man’s response to that act emphasized? Is human bondage to sin or our free will autonomy emphasized? Are we justified purely in an external fashion by God in Christ or is there a necessary role that we play in participating in justification? All of these questions are answered differently dependent upon our reading of Scripture and the theological traditions (and systems) that we’ve inherited.
This discussion of justification stimulates additional questions for the praxis of the Christian. Is justification an ongoing process or a specific moment in time? Perhaps both? Because justification is part of salvation theology (soteriology), it is critical that we grasp the subtle differences and similarities across the related terminology. Three of the most closely associated terms in this conversation are generally considered to be the following; justification, sanctification and glorification. Sanctification is generally understood to be one of the results of justification in that it should and does (necessarily) follow justification. Sanctification refers to the process by which one is made and becomes holy and righteous. If justification is what restores the possibility to be righteous, sanctification is the process by which one actually becomes righteous. Interestingly enough, both justification and sanctification are described in Scripture in past, present and future tenses. This implies that there is an intimate and inseparable relationship between justification and sanctification. Glorification, on the other hand, is a fundamentally future and eschatological term, which refers to the time and place wherein estrangement, sin and death are entirely absent. God and Humanity have been united again in perfect fellowship:
“There are three things which the true Christian desires in respect to sin: Justification, that it may not condemn; sanctification, that it may not rein; and glorification, that it may not be.” – Richard Cecil
The practical elements of doctrine can be fairly murky for the average Christian and unfortunately, the complexity and the weightiness of debates can hinder our comprehension or even our desire to discern the nature of the subject. Justification can often feel like an abstract idea that bears little on the daily life of an individual. Conversations in ivory towers seem to matter little to those in the midst of suffering and bondage and in today’s cultural zeitgeist, the concern over right relationship with God and others has vanished from the public square. However, there are signs that this subject remains deeply relevant at an intuitive level. The concern for social justice and public perception in society, particularly among the younger generations showcases a desire to be considered righteous in the eyes of one’s peers and this instinct is both a divine wiring and an unfortunate remnant of sin and the human tendency to pursue “justification” by a kind of “works of the law.” Biblical justification is very much concerned with a faith that is not dead and all too often Christians conflate obedience and righteous deeds with “works of the law.” Scripture, however sees justification as essentially tethered to a faith that is active, obedient and oriented towards concrete manifestations. Consider the following:
“Tell me not of your justification, unless you have also some marks of sanctification. Boast not of Christ’s work for you, unless you can show us the Spirit’s work in you.” – J.C. Ryle
“We admit no faith to be justifying, which is not itself and in its own nature a spiritually vital principle of obedience and good works.” – John Owen
At the same time, the beauty of the Gospel is that nothing we do of our own accord can save or earn our salvation. God’s love for each of us is not contingent upon anything we do. This truth is a freeing reality that is often hard to fully grasp or accept. It is also an important truth that a culture of “performative works” needs to be confronted by. The lack of grace or charitability that is rampant today, particularly towards those who are perceived as inadequate participants in the political or social spheres, is a remnant of a legalistic theology that is antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is our responsibility, as faithful Christians to prudently navigate the two ever-competing pitfalls of cheap grace and works-based righteousness.
May we do so with humility and consistency!