Justification (theology)

In Christian theology, justification is God's righteous act of removing the guilt and penalty of sin while, at the same time, declaring the ungodly to be righteous, through faith in Christ's atoning sacrifice.
The means of justification is an area of significant difference amongst the diverse theories of atonement defended within Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant theologies. Justification is often seen as being the theological fault line that divided Roman Catholicism from the Lutheran and Reformed traditions of Protestantism during the Reformation.
Broadly speaking, Catholic, Methodist and Orthodox Christians distinguish between initial justification, which in their view ordinarily occurs at baptism, and final salvation, accomplished after a lifetime of striving to do God's will.
In Catholic doctrine, righteousness is "infused", i.e., God “pours” grace into our souls or, “fills” us with his grace more and more over time, while in Protestant doctrine, righteousness is imputed to the ungodly through faith — that is, treated as if it were actually theirs. Catholics believe faith, as is shown through charity and good works justifies sinners. Protestants believe faith apart from works justifies the sinner, based on the blood of Christ. In both Catholic and Protestant doctrine, anyone who truly has faith will produce good works as a product of faith, as a good tree produces good fruit. For Lutherans, justification can be lost with the loss of faith; for Catholics, justification can be lost by mortal sin.
The Reformed tradition generally holds that justification can never truly be lost; for those who have been justified, will certainly persevere to the end by faith.
In Lutheranism and Calvinism, righteousness from God is viewed as being credited to the sinner's account through faith alone, without works.

Biblical references

New Testament

Jesus used the idea of ransom, or redemption when referring to his work on earth. Christ's death and resurrection provide justification for believers before God. His righteousness becomes theirs, and his death becomes an offering to God in their place, to pay for all of their sins. According to Protestants this justification is by faith alone – not through good deeds – and is a gift from God through Christ. According to Catholics and Eastern Orthodox we are justified by God's grace which is a free gift but is received through baptism initially, through the faith that works for love in the continuous life of a Christian and through the sacrament of reconciliation if the grace of justification is lost through grave sin.
The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, signed by both the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church on 31 October 1999, clearly stated that "consensus in basic truths of the doctrine of justification exists between Lutherans and Catholics."
In Roman Catholic and Lutheran doctrines, as expressed under section 4.7 no.37, "we confess together that good works – a Christian life lived in faith, hope and love – follow justification and are its fruits. When the justified live in Christ and act in the grace they receive, they bring forth, in biblical terms, good fruit. Since Christians struggle against sin their entire lives, this consequence of justification is also for them an obligation they must fulfill. Thus both Jesus and the apostolic Scriptures admonish Christians to bring forth the works of love."
The declaration states that several theological views on justification held by Lutherans and Catholics, though not apparently similar to each other, are in fact explaining the same "basic truths of the doctrine of justification" at different angles.
An example can be cited from section 4.7 no. 38-39, "when Catholics affirm the 'meritorious' character of good works, they wish to say that, according to the biblical witness, a reward in heaven is promised to these works. Their intention is to emphasize the responsibility of persons for their actions, not to contest the character of those works as gifts, or far less to deny that justification always remains the unmerited gift of grace", in comparison with "the concept of a preservation of grace and a growth in grace and faith is also held by Lutherans. They do emphasize that righteousness as acceptance by God and sharing in the righteousness of Christ is always complete. At the same time, they state that there can be growth in its effects in Christian living. When they view the good works of Christians as the fruits and signs of justification and not as one's own 'merits', they nevertheless also understand eternal life in accord with the New Testament as unmerited 'reward' in the sense of the fulfillment of God's promise to the believer."
D. James Kennedy explains this verse:


It was Paul who developed the term justification in the theology of the church. Justification is a major theme of the epistles to the Romans and to the Galatians in the New Testament, and is also given treatment in many other epistles. In Romans, Paul develops justification by first speaking of God's just wrath at sin. Justification is then presented as the solution for God's wrath. One is said to be 'justified by faith apart from works of the Law'. Further, Paul writes of sin and justification in terms of two men, Adam and Christ. Through Adam, sin came into the world bringing death; through Jesus, righteousness came into the world, bringing justification unto life. In this connection, Paul speaks of Adam's sin being 'imputed' or 'accounted' and speaks of justification as acting in analogy to sin. In chapter 8, Paul connects justification with predestination and glorification. He further states that those who are justified cannot be separated from the love of Christ. Several of these passages are central in the debate between Roman Catholics, and the various streams of Protestantism, who can understand them in quite different ways. In Galatians, Paul emphatically rejects justification by works of the Law, a rejection sparked apparently by a controversy concerning the necessity of circumcision for salvation. He also adds that the only thing that counts is the "faith works by love".

Other New Testament writers

The Epistle to the Hebrews also takes up the theme of justification, declaring that Jesus' death is superior to the Old Testament sacrifices in that it takes away sin once for all. In Hebrews, faith in Jesus' sacrifice includes steadfast perseverance. James discusses justification briefly but significantly, declaring that a faith that is apart from works cannot be a justifying faith, because faith is made perfect or completed by works. Indeed, works are required for justification because "man is justified by works, and not by faith alone", though the sense of the word justified in this passage is disputed. The writer of James emphasizes the Jewish belief that faith and deeds go together. However, in James, it is possible that justification is referring to how believers are to behave as believers, not how an unbeliever becomes a believer. Faith without works is counterfeit. The faith must produce good fruit as a sign lest it become the occasion for self-justification.

Early church

After the Apostolic era, the concept of justification was secondary to issues such as martyrdom. Justification as a concept is mentioned in the works of early church fathers, and in the sermons of John Chrysostom, but it is not developed until Augustine's conflict with Pelagius.
Pelagius taught that one became righteous through the exertion of one's will to follow the example of Jesus' life. Over against this, Augustine taught that we are justified by God, as a work of his grace. Augustine took great pains in his anti-Pelagian works to refute the notion that our works could serve as the proper basis for our justification. Following an appeal from Augustine, Pope Innocent I condemned Pelagius. The accused heretic wrote an appeal of his own, declaring his innocence, which was duly accepted by Innocent's successor, Pope Zosimus. However, the Council of Carthage again renounced Pelagius with papal approval.

Comparison of traditions

Christian traditions answer questions about the nature, function and meaning of justification quite differently. These issues include: Is justification an event occurring instantaneously or is it as an ongoing process? Is justification effected by divine action alone, by divine and human action together or by human action? Is justification permanent or can it be lost? What is the relationship of justification to sanctification, the process whereby sinners become righteous and are enabled by the Holy Spirit to live lives pleasing to God?
Catholics and Protestants believe that we are justified by grace alone through faith, a faith that is active in charity and good works in the case of Catholics, whilst Protestants believe through faith by grace they are justified.
Most Protestants believe they are justified by God's grace which is a free gift but it is received through faith alone.
Catholics believe they are justified by God's grace which is a free gift but it is received through baptism initially, through the faith which worketh by love in the continuous life of the Christian and through the sacrament of reconciliation if the grace of justification is lost through mortal sin.

Catholic Church

To Catholics, justification is "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", including the transforming of a sinner from the state of unrighteousness to the state of holiness. This transformation is made possible by accessing the merit of Christ, made available in the atonement, through faith and the sacraments. The Catholic Church teaches that "faith without works is dead" and that works perfect faith.
In Catholic theology, all are born in a state of original sin, meaning that the sinful nature of Adam is inherited by all. Following Augustine, the Catholic Church asserts that people are unable to make themselves righteous; instead, they require justification.
Catholic theology holds that the sacrament of baptism, which is closely connected to faith, "purifies, justifies and sanctifies" the sinner; in this sacrament, the sinner is "freed from sin". This is termed initial justification or "being cleansed of sin", the entrance into the Christian life. Catholics use Mark 16:16, John 3:5, Acts 2:38, and 1 Peter 3:21 to support this view in justification by baptism.
As the individual then progresses in his Christian life, he continues to receive God's grace both directly through the Holy Spirit as well as through the sacraments. This has the effect of combating sin in the individual's life, causing him to become more righteous both in heart and in action. If one falls into mortal sin they lose justification and it can be gained back through the sacrament of confession.
At the Final Judgment, the individual's works will then be evaluated. At that time, those who are righteous will be shown to be so. This is the permanent justification.
In the Council of Trent, which Catholics believe to be infallible, the Catholic Church declared in the VII session in canon IV that, "If any one saith, that the sacraments of the New Law are not necessary unto salvation, but superfluous; and that, without them, or without the desire thereof, men obtain of God, through faith alone, the grace of justification;-though all are not indeed necessary for every individual; let him be anathema."

Eastern Orthodoxy

Eastern Christianity, including both Eastern Orthodoxy and Oriental Orthodoxy, tends to not have a strong emphasis on justification as compared to Catholicism or Protestantism, seeing it as part of the concept of "theosis"; justification is often viewed by Eastern theologians as too highly forensic and they reject it. The Greek term for justification is not understood by most Eastern theologians to mean simply being pardoned of one's sins. In large part, this de-emphasis on justification is historical. The Eastern church sees humanity as inheriting the disease of sin from Adam, but not his guilt; hence, there is no need in Eastern theology for any forensic justification.
The Orthodox see salvation as a process of theosis, in which the individual is united to Christ and the life of Christ is reproduced within him. Thus, in one sense, justification is an aspect of theosis. However, it is also the case that those who are baptized into the church and experience Chrismation are considered to be cleansed of sin. Hence, the Orthodox concept of justification cannot be reconciled to Protestant concepts, while it is in partial agreement with some Roman Catholic concepts. In the words of one Orthodox Bishop:
"The Holy Spirit effects the vocation, the illumination, the conversion, the justification, the rebirth in Baptism and the sanctification in the Church..."


, particularly high-church Anglo-Catholics, often follow Catholicism and Orthodoxy in believing both man and God are involved in justification. "Justification has an objective and a subjective aspect. The objective is the act of God in Christ restoring the covenant and opening it to all people. The subjective aspect is faith, trust in the divine factor, acceptance of divine mercy. Apart from the presence of the subjective aspect there is no justification. People are not justified apart from their knowledge or against their will...God forgives and accepts sinners as they are into the divine fellowship, and that these sinners are in fact changed by their trust in the divine mercy." Justification, the establishment of a relationship with God through Christ, and sanctification go hand in hand. In historic Anglicanism, the eleventh article of the Thirty-Nine Articles made it clear that justification cannot be earned, "We are accounted righteous before God... not for our own works or deservings".
However, certain Anglican theologians argue for a faith characterized by faithfulness, where good works and the Sacraments play important roles in the life of the Christian believer.


From 1510 to 1520, Luther lectured on the Psalms, the books of Hebrews, Romans, and Galatians. As he studied these portions of the Bible, he came to view the use of terms such as penance and righteousness by the Catholic Church in new ways. He became convinced that the church was corrupt in their ways and had lost sight of what he saw as several of the central truths of Christianity, the most important of which, for Luther, was the doctrine of justification—God's act of declaring a sinner righteous—by faith alone through God's grace. He began to teach that salvation or redemption is a gift of God's grace, attainable only through faith in Jesus.
"This one and firm rock, which we call the doctrine of justification", insisted Martin Luther, "is the chief article of the whole Christian doctrine, which comprehends the understanding of all godliness." He also called this doctrine the articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae : "…if this article stands, the Church stands; if it falls, the Church falls." Lutherans follow Luther in this when they call this doctrine "the material principle" of theology in relation to the Bible, which is "the formal principle." They believe justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ's righteousness alone is the gospel, the core of the Christian faith around which all other Christian doctrines are centered and based.
Luther came to understand justification as entirely the work of God. When God's righteousness is mentioned in the gospel, it is God's action of declaring righteous the unrighteous sinner who has faith in Jesus Christ. The righteousness by which the person is justified is not his own but that of another, Christ,. "That is why faith alone makes someone just and fulfills the law", said Luther. "Faith is that which brings the Holy Spirit through the merits of Christ". Thus faith, for Luther, is a gift from God, and "...a living, bold trust in God's grace, so certain of God's favor that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it." This faith grasps Christ's righteousness and appropriates it for the believer. He explained his concept of "justification" in the Smalcald Articles:
Traditionally, Lutherans have taught forensic justification, a divine verdict of acquittal pronounced on the believing sinner. God declares the sinner to be "not guilty" because Christ has taken his place, living a perfect life according to God's law and suffering for his sins. For Lutherans justification is in no way dependent upon the thoughts, words, and deeds of those justified through faith alone in Christ. The new obedience that the justified sinner renders to God through sanctification follows justification as a consequence, but is not part of justification.
Lutherans believe that individuals receive this gift of salvation through faith alone. Saving faith is the knowledge of, acceptance of, and trust in the promise of the Gospel. Even faith itself is seen as a gift of God, created in the hearts of Christians by the work of the Holy Spirit through the Word and Baptism. Faith is seen as an instrument that receives the gift of salvation, not something that causes salvation. Thus, Lutherans reject the "decision theology" which is common among modern evangelicals.
For Lutherans, justification provides the power by which Christians can grow in holiness. Such improvement comes about in the believer only after he has become a new creation in Christ. This improvement is not completed in this life: Christians are always "saint and sinner at the same time" —saints because they are holy in God's eyes, for Christ's sake, and do works that please him; sinners because they continue to sin until death.


, the founder of Methodism, was heavily influenced by the thought of Dutch Reformed theologian Jacob Arminius and Hugo Grotius' governmental theory of the atonement. Hence, he held that God's work in us consisted of prevenient grace, which undoes the effects of sin sufficiently that we may then freely choose to believe. An individual's act of faith then results in becoming part of the body of Christ, which allows one to appropriate Christ's atonement for oneself, erasing the guilt of sin. According to the Articles of Religion in the Book of Discipline of the Methodist Church:
However, once the individual has been so justified, one must then continue in the new life given; if one fails to persevere in the faith and in fact falls away from God in total unbelief, the attachment to Christ — and with it, justification — may be lost.


's understanding of justification was in substantial agreement with Martin Luther's. Calvin expanded this understanding by emphasizing that justification is a part of one's union with Christ. The center of Calvin's soteriology was Union with Christ. For Calvin, one is united to Christ by faith, and all of the benefits of Christ come from being united to him. Therefore, anyone who is justified will also receive all of the benefits of salvation, including sanctification. Thus, while Calvin agreed in substance with the "simultaneously saint and sinner" formulation, he was more definite in asserting that the result of being justified is a consequent sanctification. Calvin also used more definite language than Luther, spelling out the exchange notion of imputed righteousness: that the good works that Jesus did in his life are imputed to his people, while their sins were imputed to him on the cross.
For Calvin, Adam and Jesus functioned as federal heads, or legal representatives, meaning that each one represented his people through his actions. When Adam sinned, all of Adam's people were accounted to have sinned at that moment. When Jesus achieved righteousness, all of his people were accounted to be righteous at that moment. In this way Calvin attempted to simultaneously solve the problems of original sin, justification, and atonement.
Some of the technical details of this union with Christ are tied into Calvin's understanding of the atonement and of predestination.
One outcome of Calvin's change in center over against Luther was that he saw justification as a permanent feature of being connected to Christ: since, for Calvin, people are attached to Christ monergistically, it is therefore impossible for them to lose justification if indeed they were once justified. This idea was expressed by the Synod of Dort as the "perseverance of the saint."
In recent times, two controversies have arisen in the Reformed churches over justification. The first concerns the teaching of "final justification" by Norman Shepherd; the second is the exact relationship of justification, sanctification, and church membership, which is part of a larger controversy concerning the Federal Vision.

The New Church (Emanuel Swedenborg)

According to the doctrine of The New Church, as explained by Emanuel Swedenborg, the doctrine of justification by faith alone is a false belief which forms the foundation of much of Protestant theology. Man must of his own volition justify himself, and yet believe that justification comes from God only. Not only must man believe in God, but must love God with all his strength, and his neighbor as himself.
Inasmuch as man obeys God's commandment to love others, so God conjoins himself to man, and man to God. It is from this that man's belief becomes a living and saving belief.
It is by means of faith from charity, that a man is reformed and justified, and this is done as if from himself, and this proceeds from the Divine Truth which flows in from the Holy Spirit. Man is of the will and understanding, and he is saved when both are brought into accordance with God's will.
"Believing in the Lord is not merely acknowledging Him but also doing His commandments; for simply acknowledging Him is solely a matter of thought, arising from somewhat of the understanding; but doing His commandments is also a matter of acknowledgment from the will. Man's mind consists of understanding and will; and as the understanding deals with thinking and the will with doing, so when man's acknowledgment is merely from the thought of the understanding he comes to the Lord with only half of his mind; but when there is doing he comes with all of it; and this is to believe."


became a significant minority view in the 18th century, popularized by thinkers such as John Murray. Universalism holds that Christ's death on the cross has entirely atoned for the sin of humanity; hence, God's wrath is or will be satisfied for all people. Conservative and liberal varieties of universalism then point in different directions. Pluralistic Unitarian Universalism asserts that many different religions all lead to God. Others teach that God's love is sufficient to cover for sins, thus embracing some form of the moral influence theory of Peter Abelard. For some universalists, justification either was accomplished once and for all in the crucifixion, or is altogether unnecessary.
A range of so-called New Perspectives on Paul, represented by Protestant scholars such as E.P. Sanders, N.T. Wright, and James Dunn, have given rise to a re-thinking of the historical Protestant understanding of justification. Proponents of this view argue that Paul's letters have too often been read through the lens of the Protestant reformation rather than in the context of first-century Second Temple Judaism, and therefore impose a religion of legalism on their understanding of Pharisaism. This view has been criticized by a number of Reformed ministers and theologians including John Piper, D.A. Carson, and Sinclair Ferguson.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, believes that while justification is a gift from God, the recipient must choose it through striving to do good works to the extent possible. The Second Book of Nephi states "...it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.". In LDS theology, justification is not earned through good works, but rather chosen by striving to rid one's life of sin. This allows God to rescue his children from sin while not infringing on their .

Interactions between various doctrines

''Sola fide''

Luther's reformulation of justification introduced the phrase sola fide, or "by faith alone". That phrase has been one of the uniting factors among various Protestant denominations; despite the wide variety of doctrines and practices among Protestants, they all agree that one is saved by faith alone.
Roman Catholics and most Lutherans as represented by most of the Lutheran councils worldwide that agreed with the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, believe that they have found much agreement on the subject of justification. Examples:
Other Lutherans, especially Confessional Lutherans, maintain that this agreement fails to properly define the meaning of faith, sin, and other essential terms and thus do not support the Lutheran World Federation's agreement. Likewise, Catholics affirming the real and serious differences between the decrees of the Council of Trent and the normative Lutheran documents collected in the 1580 Book of Concord equally reject the 1999 "JDDJ" as fatally flawed. In July 2006 the World Methodist Council, representing 70 million Wesleyan Christians, including The United Methodist Church, "signed on" to the Joint Declaration on Justification between Roman Catholics and the Lutheran World Federation.
Anglican bishop N.T. Wright has written extensively on the topic of justification. His views are troubling to many evangelicals, and have sparked some debate. Those concerned with his view of justification worry that he marginalizes the importance of the penal substitutionary transaction that takes place at salvation. Defenders of Wright respond by saying that, while the bishop acknowledges advocacy of penal substitution in many biblical texts, he does not see its application in scriptures other evangelicals might. Proponents of Wright's view of justification warn detractors to "read him well" before criticizing his theology forthright.