Where and what is justification?

‘Christ on the Cross’ by Roger van der Weyden

On Jan. 23rd to Jan 26th 2011, I published two blog posts on the issue of Justification, after having a discussion with one of my friends (whom I will not name.)[1] The issue centered around this important question: Does justification take place outside us, or in us? We also got into the relationship between justification and sanctification. I wanted to write one big post in english, but it became so long that I decided to write a paper instead. It can be found as a pdf file in my download section. (Just scroll down to ‘English texts.’) The following is a somewhat edited rendition of part 1 of that paper.

What and where is justification?

In the discussion with my friend I was ‘accused’ of mixing my deeds with God’s because I believed – and still believe – that justification is something that happens in us. My friend believed this to be a pastoral concern. He believed that it could create problems because many people don’t ‘feel justified,’ and he also felt that my point gave us as persons an improper part in justification.

I believe this is partly due to a misunderstanding.[3] When I claim that justification happens in us, I don’t mean that it happens on the basis of something that we have done. The basis is the work of Christ, but I feel that it is improper to say that the basis of justification = justification. (Just as, to use an analogy,[4] it is improper to say that aspirin = the removal of the effects of an headache.) To explore this a bit further, I will ask this question: If the basis of justification (the work of Christ) = justification, how are we to view damnation?

Many protestants use the phrase ‘I’m justified because Christ dies for me.’ That is true, but it is just half of it. Justification has its basis in the work of Christ – in his incarnation, passion, death, resurrection, ascension and his eternal presentation of himself.[5] But it doesn’t stop there. I will not be justified before I’m given this, by the grace of God. I am convinced that there are only two possible interpretations of the proposition ‘I’m justified because Christ dies for me,’ if this is to be read absolutely: Either the calvinistic – that Christ didn’t die for the whole world, but just for ‘the elect,’ i.e. for those who actually gets saved. Or the universalistic – that since Christ died for the whole world, everyone will be saved, if they want to or not. I am convinced that both of these are unbiblical to the core. (That doesn’t mean, of course, that one cannot hope that all will be saved.)

The only way we can avoid this, is to understand that even though the basis of justification and justification itself are closely related (as is aspirin and the removal of the effects of an headache), they are not identical. Justification is a noun referring to the process of ‘being justified.’ And I believe that one is not justified before one has Christ on the inside. Therefore justification happens in me.

Now that I have examined where justification happens, and have ‘concluded’ that it is in the individual person, since I believe justification = having Christ within me, I will go more in detail into the question of whether justification is imputed or infused.

To examine this question, I will take a look at Rom 4:5. This is one of the verses that are often put forth as a evidence of the protestant doctrine of imputed righteousness. Imputed righteousness is the teaching that justification is forensic: that God declares that we are justified, but that nothing (necessarily) happens within us. (If something where to happen, this is attributed to sanctification, cf. part 3 of this post.)[6] Let’s read Rom 4:4-5:

Now to he who works, the reward is not counted according to grace, but according to debt. But to he who does not work, but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.

The question is how we are to understand the word ‘counted’ (from the gr. λογίζομαι). The understanding of this verse depends on how we understand the words ‘work,’ ‘counted’ and ‘faith.’ I will here focus on the word ‘counted’ (sometimes also translated ‘imputed’ or ‘credited’).[7]

The question is: Are we to read the word counted in a purely forensic, and nominalistic, way? First, why should I read this in a purely declarative way? Why assume that when God declares something to happen, it doesn’t really happen?

The bottom line is: It is God’s work, but he works through us, as St. Paul points out. He writes:

I am crucified with Christ; I no longer live myself, but Christ lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me, and who has given himself for me. (Gal 2:19b-20)

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence, but even more now in my absence, with fear and trembling work out your own salvation. For it is God who is working in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Phil 2:12-13)

The point is that according to St. Paul, God is working, but he is working through us. This is an important point, a point I am convinced will be meaningless if one is to adopt a nominalistic framework. Luther worked within this framework, even though he criticized many of the philosophers of his day. (One could perhaps say that Luther gave the correct answer to a wrong question, based on a faulty philosophical framework.)

But what about our works? In Rom 4:4-5 we read:

Now to he who works, the reward is not counted according to grace, but according to debt. But to he who does not works, but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.

I believe that St. Paul us using the term ‘work’ in a narrow sense; as our own works, done by our own power and, as Bryan Cross points out, “apart from the grace that comes through Christ.” Our good works can have a degree of merit, because when it comes down to it, they are not our works at all. This is because God is not ‘alone-working,’ but ‘all-working.’ He does not merely operate like a surgeon or a judge, but he works from within (Phil 2:12-13). Christ lives within us (Gal 2:20), and in him “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; but faith working through love.” (Gal 5:6) Faith working through love is what counts in Christ.

But love is not merely something abstract; it is utterly concrete. To love is a concrete action of the will. We should not discount works from justification, because it is God who works through us, and not ourselves working by our own power, “apart from the grace that comes through Christ.”[8] When we understand that we cannot earn salvation ourselves, and that Christ works through us, and not merely outside of us, the words of James (Jas 2:24) becomes understandable. I’ll let him finish my post: “You see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone.”


[1] He is of course free to name himself, if he wants to.

[2] I don’t use the word ‘philosophical’ as an insult. My point is that the other parts will also be philosophical, but that the first part will be more explicitly so.

[3] The problem goes deeper than that, as I examine in the second part of the paper, but which is not present in this post. Here I will concentrate on the misunderstanding.

[4] My friend accused me of reducing to arguments by analogy. But sometimes I think that is ok.

[5] The sacrifice of Christ is not just something in the past (or in time, for that matter). No, it is eternal. In Hebr 7:27 we read that he did his work “once for all having offered up himself.” (If not otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are translated by yours truly.) The word translated ‘having offered up’ is the greek participle ἀνενέγκας. This is in aorist active. Aorist is a grammatical tense like present, perfect, etc. But unlike other tenses in our language, it is not bound by time, but denotes finality. Therefore the focus is not necessarily on Christ’s offering up himself in the past, on the Cross, but on the finality of the sacrifice. The sacrifice is not ended, it is eternal — because it is Christ Himself. And Christ is continually presenting it in heaven, cf. Hebr 8:1-3, 9:24; Rev 5:5-6.

[6] The expression ‘forensic’ is derived from lat. forensis, ‘in open forum.’ (‘Forum’ in this context denotes a court.)

[7] For a Catholic take on Rom 4:5, read this excellent comment from Bryan Cross on the blog Called to Communion.

[8] For more on this, read this excellent article from Bryan Cross on the blog Called to Communion.


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