“For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” – Romans 3:28
Justification is one of the trickiest issues to address in all of Christian theology. It was the cause of the split between the Catholic Church and Martin Luther (although Luther simply meant to reform the Catholic Church from the inside). Since this split occurred in the early 16th century there have been massive books and numerous academic papers addressing this topic. I do not plan on addressing all of the nuances of this topic. Instead I hope to simply introduce the topic and touch on some of the many areas of difference, all at the risk of sounding simplistic. Some may think that the way that I handle the topic is too simple, but that’s okay. I’m not writing to the academic but to the person who wonders what the doctrine of justification is and why it is important.
At its most basic definition, justification is the doctrine that deals with our righteousness (or “right-standing”) and cleanliness before God. The theological category of justification deals, then, with how we are saved and the initial effects of that salvation.
I will reveal my hand at this moment: I am a Protestant Christian. All that means is that I come from a long tradition that emphasizes “Justification by grace alone, through faith alone.” This means that our salvation is by God’s grace, not by anything that we can do or have done, and that this salvation is received by believing upon Jesus Christ. I espouse this view and I believe that it is true. Scriptures such as Ephesians 2:8-9 and Galatians 2:16 seem to make this view pretty obvious. Salvation does not, and cannot, come from works, but only from the grace of God.
Besides the issue of faith vs. works (or so it has been categorized) there are other issues that the topic of justification raises, namely whether righteousness is imparted or imputed. These terms are used by theologians to refer to the effects of justification. The imputed view suggests that when one is justified that Christ clothes us in righteousness. Some have described this by suggesting that when God the Father looks at you, he does not see you, but he sees Christ. Martin Luther, in his typical brash manner, says that God sprinkles “snow on a dung heap”; God’s righteousness covers us, although we are still sinners. Martin Luther’s famous Latin phrase for this is simul justus et peccator (“simultaneously saint and sinner”), meaning that the person who is justified is, at once, both a sinner and a saint.
Imparted righteousness, on the other hand, suggests that when one is declared righteous by God, she is actually changed by God. He no longer is considered to be a sinner by God, but is described by the Lord as a saint. Instead of considering the person to be a “dung heap” and simply covering the person with righteousness, God actually enters in and changes that person from a dung heap into something beautiful. This is, I think, the idea that is expressed by Romans 6 which suggests that we are “dead to sin”. I have preached a sermon before in which I state that “dead” means DEAD; one cannot be mostly dead (contrary to what Miracle Max from the Princess Bride says). Either one is dead or one is alive; there is no middle ground. This idea is uniquely summed up by a former pastor (although he will always be my pastor) who says that “you are not a sinner; you are a saint who occasionally sins.”
What is essential to know from this topic of justification, amidst all of the banter about the details, is that God is the primary actor in salvation. We do not, indeed we cannot, justify ourselves. Justification is entirely a gift from God in which we can stand before him on that last day and enter into his presence because we are among those whom have been justified. It is a gracious gift, indeed!
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