Justified by Faith: What Does it Mean?


Robert W. Jenson, in the third chapter of his small booklet Lutheran Slogans: Use and Abuse, talks about the misconception and confusion brought about by the slogan “faith alone”. Just how are we saved by faith alone? Or to put another way, what is it about faith that is so effective in saving man?

Jenson explains that faith, according to the classical Protestant accounts, justifies “because God credits the fruits of Jesus’ atoning work to those in whom he finds faith. Despite what God sees when he looks at us sinners, he for Christ’s sake judicially declares us righteous” (p 17). At the end of his chapter, Jenson ultimately finds this conception of justification lacking. In fact he calls it an “arbitrary” decree (p 21)!

In any case, he expounds on Luther’s own understanding of just how faith saves from his classic work The Freedom of the Christian. Jenson expounds two ways in which Luther understood that faith makes the sinner just, righteous, “saved”:

The first. Luther observes that believing in someone is the highest honor we can bring him. Therefore believing in God just is fulfillment of the first table of the commandments. And as ecumenical theology has always supposed, obeying the second table is the natural result of obeying the first, however slowly or with however many setbacks this may take place. If we trust God, we will seek to fulfill his stated will (p 18)

As Luther says in his Small Catechism, fulfilling the first commandment is very simply “trusting…God above all other things”. That, according to Luther, is the essence of faith: trusting God, placing your security in him, finding your ultimate source in him. In this way, to have faith in Christ is itself a righteous act, presumably brought about by the Spirit. And thus we are righteous by faith.

Second, Luther expounds upon an Aristotelian principle: “for Aristotle, seeing was the chief channel of openness to reality; therefore, so far as my subjectivity is concerned, I become what I see” (p 19). Luther took this concept, but applied it to the hearing of the gospel. Jenson explains:

[Luther] regarded hearing rather than seeing as the dominating way by which in this life we are opened to an other. According to Luther… I become what is addressed to me, what I must hearken to.

Therefore, if what we attend to is the word of God, we are merely thereby shaped by the Word’s content. Hearkening to the Word, we are constituted as persons by the good things the Word communicates, peace and love and righteousness and so on…[Thus], when Jones is grasped by the gospel, “Jones is righteous” is straightforwardly true… (p 19)

The adage “you become what you eat” might well be termed “you become what you hear” in Luther’s understanding. If we hear the word of the gospel, that gospel makes its way into us and thereby transforms us. Jenson takes one last step however. Because, according to John and other biblical writers, the ultimate word of God is the Word of God. Put another way, the fullest form of the gospel is the person of Christ himself. To grasp the gospel is to grasp Christ himself. Therefore, hearing and being grasped by the gospel is, for Luther, to be grasped by Christ himself, to be in vital union with his person. “Thus Luther made it a principle of his theology: ‘In such faith Christ is present’. Faith makes us personally and actually righteous because faith is a transforming and ruling presence in us of the righteous one himself” (p 20).

Just as an aside, this is why Luther was quite emphatic about the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The sacrament of the Supper is nothing else than a verbal word of promise, and where the promise of the gospel is, there also, is Christ. Thus, he is right there on every altar wherever the Eucharist is practiced; and he’s there whether we realize it or not.

In any case, Luther understood that by grasping the promise of the gospel in faith, one was grasping none other than Christ, and this personal union of Christ and the believer was thus real and transformative: it made the believer really and truly righteous.

Jenson closes this chapter, as I have already noted, by stating that justification by faith as a bare declaration is simply not enough to get to the heart of this doctrine:

The alternative theory of justification, as sheer decree by the divine Judge “in the forum of heaven”, for all the genius that has been devoted to its plausible defense, cannot finally be rescued from making God’s justifying seem arbitrary” (p 21)

While I’m not sure I would go that far, I do agree with him that Luther’s own understanding of faith as involving a transformative union with the person of Christ is central to his teaching. We are justified not simply by divine decree, but by grasping Christ himself. We find our righteousness in none other than the righteousness of Christ himself!

Catholicism vs Protestantism on Faith + Works: What’s the Difference?

faith works

I wrote a POST earlier, describing the main difference between Catholicism and Protestantism. And what I said essentially, was that justification was the doctrine that distinguished the Reformers from the Catholicism of their day. And it really isn’t different nowadays.

What I want to consider in this post, is how justification in either position deals with “works”, or state differently, how works are connected to a believer’s justification.

Catholics commonly say that justification, or final salvation, comes through faith and works. Now, to a Protestant, this rubs against the core of the solas. Justification, even final justification, is by faith alone! 

OK… But, why do Catholics argue this? Is Catholicism a dry religion, where you earn God’s love? Well, not quite. Let’s review the Catholic understanding of justification quickly to understand:

For Catholics, justification is not merely declarative. Or legal. Justification does involve a status change; but there is an added element. Justification, in the Catholic scheme, is an infusion of Christ’s righteousness within the believer; what I mean is that in salvation, Jesus’ righteousness is actually infused into the believer by union with him; that by faith / sacraments, the believer contains actual, “ontological”, “corporeal” righteousness from Jesus. And this righteousness grows in the believer as they cooperate with God in the sacraments, and live out that righteousness.

What all of this means is that final justification is dependent on the believer’s cooperation with this gift of Christ’s righteousness. And through cooperation, Christ’s life increases in the believer, enabling them to be “actually righteous”. As they partake more and more in the corporeal life of Christ, in union with him, they grow to become more and more “justified”, or “saintly”. This is why Catholics say that final justification is by faith and works. Faith is the initial thing which gives the gift of righteousness; but, because Christ’s righteousness is by nature ontological, the believer must cooperate and grow in that righteousness. In other words, Catholics view justification and sanctification (growth in justification) as one big thing.

Catholic Peter Kreeft says,

Catholic theology teaches that justification and sanctification, faith and works, are not separated, as Luther thought. Rather, “ ‘[j]ustification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man’ 6 ” (CCC 1989) (source, pg 126)

Catholic Taylor Marshall says,

As a Catholic, I understand [justification to be] juridical [or legal] AND transformative. A sinner “becomes righteous” [actually, or ontologically] and this is why the Greek word was rightly translated as iustificatio—“making just.”

I’m saying that a legal, declarative change is not merely what God does for us. Salvation involves a union with Christ to the sinner and that union transforms the sinner into a new creation.

I was not merely “declared righteous” through faith, rather I “became righteous,” because Christ washed away my original sin and my personal sins so that I was a new creation. Grace filled my soul and the Holy Spirit came upon me (source)

That being said, it’s not quite fair to call Catholicism “works-based”, as many Protestants do. But, because of their sort of “corporeal” understanding of Christ’s righteousness, meaning that it is infused in the believer, and because that believer must cooperate with that righteousness, there is a reality to the claim that salvation is by a sort of “working faith”. The Catholic Catechism even has a theology of “merit”, whereby the believer, cooperating with Christ’s infused righteousness, “merits” eternal life. Granted, it’s not by the believer’s own righteousness. It is by Christ’s righteousness.

So, Catholics see faith and works as one big thing, whereby justification is a gradual process (sanctification) as the believer cooperates with the grace of God.

Now, how does this contrast with Protestant theology?

In the Protestant scheme, justification is not the ontological infusion of righteousness. Rather, it is the legal imputation of righteousness. Now this might seem like a small change, but it’s actually important, as I said in my last post. Rather than righteousness being actually infused, righteousness is accredited to the believer; and the believer is righteous not by cooperation with that righteousness, but solely on the basis of Christ’s perfect righteousness. The righteousness that is the believer’s, is only their’s because Christ himself is righteous. In other words, God accredits the believer with the perfect account of Jesus, and they are thereby legally righteous in a complete sense. Nothing lacks. Justification then, is a once-for-all declaration. It is a finished, closed reality. And the believer doesn’t need to grow in righteousness for final salvation, because the righteousness of Christ, which is imputed / accredited, is complete already.

That being said, how do good works come into play in the Protestant scheme? Do they come into play at all. Why, yes!

What a Protestant would say is that good works are necessarily involved, but only insofar as they blossom, or grow out of that once-for-all justification. In other words, good works are a fruit, a confirmation or justification, not part of justification. Protestants want to be careful to separate “justification” and “sanctification”. They see them as separate realities.

Justification is a closed reality. And sanctification is proof that one has experienced that reality. Good works mean that God has already justified that person. And a person who has good works has been justified.

OK, got it. But why is that true?

The reason is because justification, while being a legal reality, leads to and causes ontological realities. What does that mean? What I mean, is that once God declares a sinner “righteous”, he doesn’t just stop there! He also forgives, regenerates, and indwells that person. And what is regeneration, but God creating new life within that person? And when the Spirit indwells the believer, what can happen but a change in lifestyle? 

In other words, justification is but the start of many changes within the believer. And if the believer has spiritual fruit, or obedience to God, what can it mean but that they have been justified? So someone who claims to have a living faith proves it by living out new-creation realities. As RC Sproul says, “true faith will absolutely and necessarily yield the fruits of obedience and the works of righteousness” (source). That sounds awfully Catholic! Well, OK. We aren’t saying that good works aren’t important. Catholics and Protestants agree, they are.

We just disagree about why they are important.

So while Catholics say that justification and sanctification are one process, Protestants say that justification is one thing, and that sanctification necessarily follows, but is not that same one thing. These are small differences, but as you can hopefully see, they diverge as the believer attempts to live out their spiritual life. While I believe that Catholics and Protestants can call one another “brothers”, they do have some important differences.

The Reformers on Works-righteousness

“For if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (Gal 2:21).

John Calvin, from his commentary on Galatians, writes,


Hence it follows, that we are justified by his grace, and, therefore, not by works… If we could produce a righteousness of our own, then Christ has suffered in vain; for the intention of his sufferings was to procure it for us, and what need was there that a work which we could accomplish for ourselves should be obtained from another? If the death of Christ be our redemption, then we were captives; if it be satisfaction, we were debtors; if it be atonement, we were guilty; if it be cleansing, we were unclean. On the contrary, he who ascribes to works his sanctification, pardon, atonement, righteousness, or deliverance, makes void the death of Christ.

Martin Luther, from his commentary, says:

martin luther

Is it true that Christ suffered death or not? Did he suffer in vain or not? Unless we are quite mad, we have to answer that he did indeed suffer, not in vain or for himself, but for us… Take the…law, which contains the most perfect religion and the highest service to God — that is, faith, the fear of God, the love of God, and the love of our neighbor — and show me anyone who has been justified by it. It will then be true that Christ died in vain, for anyone who is justified by the law has power to obtain righteousness by himself… If you grant this, it must follow that Christ died in vain… Are we to allow this horrible blasphemy that the divine Majesty, not sparing his own dear Son, but giving him up to death for us all, should not do all these things seriously but as a sort of joke? I would rather see all the saints and holy angels thrown into hell with the devil. My eyes will see only this inestimable price, my Lord and Savior Christ.