Reformation · Theology

What is Justification?

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Justification according to Martin Luther is the very doctrine on which the church either stands or falls. While I agree with Luther in some ways, I would like to further expound on the reasons why this teaching is so foundational to what our Evangelical Christian faith confesses. Justification most simply means, “to make right” there is no debate on this matter. Where the issue truly lies is if this justification is declarative, transformational, or possibly a mix of both? I personally hold to the view of justification that Martin Luther voiced, as well as many of the other reformers that followed after him; I will refer to this as the reformed view of justification.

The Reformed view of justification is that mankind is ungodly, wicked, and sinful, therefore we rightfully deserve God’s wrath. Yet, Jesus Christ lived a life of perfect obedience and sinlessness to God which made him the spotless (sinless) sacrifice necessary for the remission of sins for all ungodly people. So, he takes our sin upon himself when he was crucified on the cross and he also imputes his perfect righteousness onto humanity; both of these actions take place based upon the sovereign plan of God and the faith of man in Christ. This is typically referred to as the penal substitutionary atonement. So in layman’s terms, justification is God’s declaration of righteousness upon ungodly men who place their faith in his Son Jesus Christ for salvation. This is the main difference between the reformed view and other views on justification. 

“For what does the Scripture say? Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him for righteousness. Now to the one who works, pay is not credited as a gift, but as something owed. But to the one who does not work, but believes on him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited for righteousness.” ‭‭Romans‬ ‭4:3-5‬ CSB

This verse explains one of the main points of what justification or “being justified” looks like by the Apostle Paul’s own words. Mankind is not justified before God by their own works and self-earned righteousness; they are justified before God by his own declaration based upon their faith. So, in this way the people who are justified are not made perfectly righteous by nature yet, they are still ungodly sinners who trust in Jesus Christ and are found righteous based on his righteousness. 

“If by the one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive the overflow of grace and the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. So then, as through one trespass there is condemnation for everyone, so also through one righteous act there is justification leading to life for everyone. For just as through one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so also through the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” ‭‭Romans‬ ‭5:17-19‬ ‭CSB‬‬

It is clearly portrayed by Paul that those who believe in Christ Jesus are not made righteous by their own works, merits, and obedience because it is only through the obedience of Jesus Christ that man can be made in right standing before the Father and forgiven of all sins.

Now in this next section, I would like to focus on something a little different as a way to why the reformed view of justification is the most biblically founded of the views out there. I am going to see what the Early Church Fathers have to say about the doctrine of justification, because if they do agree with the reformed view, than the traditional apostolic churches (Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Coptic, Syriac, and so on) are in error for departing from their traditions, and the reformation did, in fact, return to the original teaching of the Church in regards to this matter. All Christians should be able to agree that the earliest of the Church Fathers have higher chances of having a proper understanding of what the Apostles meant in their letters because they were alive in similar contexts and also some were direct disciples to the Apostles themselves.

Clement of Rome (96 AD): “We also, being called through God’s will in Christ Jesus, are not justified through ourselves, neither through our own wisdom or understanding, or piety, or works which we have done in holiness of heart, but through faith through which, from the beginning, Almighty God has justified all men; to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.” Epistle to the Corinthians.

Athanasius (Early 4th Century): “To provide against this also, He sends His own Son, and He becomes Son of Man, by taking created flesh; that, since all were under sentence of death, He, being other than them all, might Himself for all offer to death His own body; and that henceforth, as if all had died through Him, the word of that sentence might be accomplished (for all died in Christ), and all through Him might thereupon become free from sin and from the curse which came upon it, and might truly abide forever, risen from the dead and clothed in immortality and incorruption.” Athanasius, Orations Against The Arians 2:69.

Letter to Diognetus (120 AD): “God gave his own Son the ransom for us…for what, save his righteousness, could cover our sins. In whom was it possible that we, transgressors and ungodly as we were, could be justified, save in the Son of God alone? …O unexpected benefit, that the transgression of many should be hidden in one righteous Person and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors.”

These early Christian writings help lay the groundwork that became so prevalent for the Protestant Reformers as they sought to reform the Church of Rome; burning up what false teachings had been developed through the ages and renewing the original intent and meaning of the biblical text and the Early Church Fathers that taught the Word of God to the Church. The Reformers quoted the Early Church Fathers generously, not because they found their words to be infallible, rather they believed that their expressions of the faith were purer than the Roman Catholic Church of their times. So, they viewed themselves as the true catholic (universal) church and that the Church Fathers belonged to their own heritage, not the Roman Catholic Church. This is why the Lutheran Church claims that they are the true western branch of Christianity that traces back to the earliest roots of Jesus Christ, as opposed to their Roman counterparts. 

Article VII: Of the Church

Also, they teach that one holy Church is to continue forever. The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered. And to the true unity of the Church, it is enough to agree concerning the doctrine of the gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. Nor is it necessary that human traditions, that is, rites or ceremonies, instituted by men, should be everywhere alike. As Pual says: One faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all, etc. Ephesians 4:5-6. The Augsburg Confession

In conclusion, I find that the Reformed view of justification has the most biblical backing in regards to the exegesis of the text, and in that the vast majority of Early Church Fathers’ writings record a similar understanding of this concept that the Reformers clung on to. This is because their view of justification was founded in their practice of Sola Scriptura, prior to that the Roman Catholic Church had begun to interpret all things through the lens of tradition rather than God’s Word itself. This is not to negate the importance of tradition and its influence on the church, but rather to clear the water, that the Church Fathers who established such traditions are not infallible, so whatever traditions and teachings they espoused must be checked based on the authority of God’s own established Word. The doctrine of justification is laid out through the entirety of both the Old and New Testaments, which provide us with examples of ungodly, imperfect, unsanctified people being deemed righteous by God through their true and living faith in the provision of God through the Son, rather than a need to be perfectly holy and righteous in of themselves to be truly justified.

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