Justification: Historic journey from the Middle Ages through now
Erwin R. Gane

What does justification mean? The standard view in the Middle Ages was that when God justifies a believer, the Holy Spirit injects into the soul a habitus or quality that makes the soul intrinsically righteous, having the capacity to perform works that can earn merit with God.1 The Reformers rejected this view in favor of one of two alternatives. Luther and Calvin recognized justification as a forensic (legal) declaration that Christ’s righteousness counted for the believer, while in the same act, the Holy Spirit brings Christ’s presence to the heart. Hence, righteousness is both counted and experienced. Later Reformation writers separated the legal declaration from the Spirit’s transformation. They regarded justification as forensic only; Christ’s righteousness is put to the account of the believer in justification, while regeneration is a separate act of God by which He progressively transforms the heart. These three major views are the subject of this article.

The Roman Catholic view

Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1225–1274) defined justification as infusion of grace that repairs the soul so that now it has the power to do good works. As a result, believers have the natural ability to perform in a manner acceptable to God.

In his famous Summa Theologica, Aquinas wrote,

Man is helped by God’s gratuitous will, inasmuch as a habitual gift is infused by God into the soul; and for this reason, that it is not fitting that God should provide less for those He loves, that they may acquire supernatural good, than for creatures, whom He loves that they may acquire natural good. Now He so provides for natural creatures, that not merely does He move them to their natural acts, but He bestows upon them certain forms and powers, which are the principles of acts, in order that they may of themselves be inclined to these movements, and thus the movements whereby they are moved by God become natural and easy to creatures. . . . Much more therefore does He infuse into such as He moves towards the acquisition of supernatural good, certain forms or supernatural qualities, whereby they may be moved by Him sweetly and promptly to acquire eternal good; and thus the gift of grace is a quality.2

He continued,

Hence it remains that grace, as it is prior to virtue, has a subject prior to the powers of the soul, so that it is in the essence of the soul. For as man in his intellective powers participates in the Divine knowledge through the virtue of faith, and in his power of will participates in the Divine love through the virtue of charity, so also in the nature of the soul does he participate in the Divine Nature, after the manner of a likeness, through a certain regeneration or re-creation. . ..

. . . For grace is the principle of meritorious works through the medium of virtues, just as the essence of the soul is the principle of vital deeds through the medium of the powers.3

“In the infusion of justifying grace there is a certain transmutation of the human soul, and hence a proper movement of the human soul is required in order that the soul may be moved in its own manner.”4

Aquinas held that because grace, a divine quality, is infused into the soul of the believer, the soul, now naturally righteous, has the capacity to perform good works. He emphasizes that the immortal soul within the individual becomes reformed so that it is now righteous.5

This Catholic formulation was challenged by the Reformation, and the Roman Catholic answer to the Protestant challenge came at the Council of Trent (1545–1563). The council’s decrees express the doctrinal beliefs of official Roman Catholicism. On the question of justification, its definition “was modeled upon the pattern found in Thomas.”6 The decree of justification accepted at Trent may be considered in three parts: preparation for, definition of, and increase of justification.

1. Preparation for justification. According to Trent, it is not merely a matter of God’s grace leading the individual to repentance, but of the sinner’s own will cooperating with grace, projecting him towards justification. The council taught “that God justifies the impious by his grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus; and when, understanding themselves to be sinners, they, by turning themselves, from the fear of divine justice whereby they are profitably agitated, to consider the mercy of God.”7

2. The definition of justification. Like Aquinas, Trent defined justification as an inner renewal of the soul. “This disposition, or preparation, is followed by Justification itself, which is not remission of sins merely, but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man, through the voluntary reception of the grace, and of the gifts, whereby man of unjust becomes just.” This re-creation of the soul takes place at baptism. At baptism “the charity of God is poured forth, by the Holy Spirit, in the hearts of those that are justified, and is inherent therein: whence, man, through Jesus Christ, in whom he is ingrafted, receives, in the said justification, together with the remission of sins, all these [gifts] infused at once, faith, hope, and charity.” Even so, no one can be thoroughly certain that his sins are forgiven and that he is justified, “seeing that no one can know with a certainty of faith, which can not be subject to error, that he has obtained the grace of God.”8

3. Increase of justification. Thus, according to Roman Catholic theology, justification is never complete for the believer. Trent taught that “they, through the observance of the commandments of God and of the Church, faith co-operating with good works, increase in that justice which they have received through the grace of Christ, and are still further justified.” The justified person has the ability to do works that are meritorious in the sight of God and that will improve upon his level of justification.9

Thus, the Roman Catholic position on justification, as defined by Aquinas and Trent, involved transformation, re-creation, and re-forming of the immortal soul. This was not merely a reiteration of Jesus’ teaching on the new birth. For Aquinas and Trent, righteousness within is a habitus or quality injected or infused into the souls of believers so that they are intrinsically or inherently righteous. Righteousness within is not Christ within by the presence of the Holy Spirit, but a quality injected into the soul by the Holy Spirit, so that the soul that is now righteous in nature has the capacity to perform works that are meritorious in God’s sight. This was the theology to which Luther and Calvin reacted so vigorously.

Martin Luther’s view

The two leading sixteenth-century Reformers were Martin Luther (1483–1546) and John Calvin (1509–1564). On scriptural grounds, both rejected the Roman Catholic concept of justification. They opposed the idea that humans can predispose themselves towards justification, the concept of infused grace, the idea of the transmutation (re-making) of the soul, the notion that justification is never complete, and the teaching that the justified person is capable of doing meritorious works.

Luther and Calvin saw justification as involving two inseparable aspects: (1) the legal or forensic aspect is God’s forgiveness of the believers’ sins and His crediting Christ’s righteousness to their account; and (2) the experiential aspect is Christ’s gift of His righteousness to believers by the Holy Spirit. The soul is not re-formed or re-created so that it becomes inherently righteous. The Holy Spirit within believers’ hearts is their righteousness. Christ within is the Spirit within is righteousness within. The indwelling Christ is our righteousness within. The transformation is Christ, by the Holy Spirit, coming to dwell in the human heart, so that His righteousness becomes the believers’ righteousness; not by re-creating the soul into an independently righteous entity but by providing righteousness by His righteous presence. Believers remain fallen, sinful human beings, but their fallen natures are now under the control and direction of the indwelling Holy Spirit.

Paul Althaus writes in his The Theology of Martin Luther:

Luther uses the terms “to justify” [ justificare] and “justification” [ justificatio] in more than one sense. From the beginning, justification most often means the judgment of God with which he declares man to be righteous [justum reputare or computare]. In other places, however, this word stands for the entire event through which a man is essentially made righteous (a usage which Luther also finds in Paul, Romans 5), that is, for both the imputation of righteousness to man as well as man’s actually becoming righteous. . . . This twofold use of the word cannot be correlated with Luther’s early and later theology; he uses “justification” in both senses at the same time, sometimes even shortly after each other in the same text.10

In his Disputation Concerning Justification (1536), Luther wrote of justification as God counting the believer righteous. Thus, as he often did, he emphasized the legal aspect of justification. “To be justified,” he wrote, “includes that idea, namely that we are considered righteous on account of Christ.11

Luther continues, “He sustains and supports them on account of the first fruit of his creation in us, and he thereupon decrees that they are righteous and sons of the kingdom. For we perceive that a man who is justified is not yet a righteous man, but is in the very movement or journey toward righteousness. . . . Therefore, whoever is justified is still a sinner; and yet he is considered fully and perfectly righteous by God who pardons and is merciful.”12

Yet, in the same work, Luther explained, “Natural motion is our motion, but this movement of justification is the work of God in us, to which our propositions refer.”13 Explaining what is meant by the righteousness of God being outside of us, Luther wrote, “The phrase is grammatical. To be outside of us means not to be out of our powers. Righteousness is our possession, to be sure, since it was given to us out of mercy. Nevertheless, it is foreign to us, because we have not merited it.”14

Luther underlined his understanding that justification is a heart experience, not just a legal declaration, by his comment on Romans 12:1, “Up to this point he has taught how to become a new man, and he has described the new birth which makes the new man (John 3:3ff.). But now he is teaching concerning the works of the new birth which anyone who has not been made a new man does in vain and presumptuously. For being comes before doing, and suffering comes before being. Therefore the order is: becoming, being, and then working.”15

Luther knew all too well that the imagery of the new birth does not occur in the book of Romans, as the imagery of justification does not occur in John, chapter 3. Yet he identified the two metaphors. Justification, to Luther, was the new birth. He made the same identification at the beginning of his sermon on John 3: “This chapter stresses above all else that sublime topic: faith in Christ, which alone justifies us before God.”16 But the term justification is not mentioned in John 3. The point is that Luther saw the new birth as justification.

Thus, Luther regarded justification as involving the transforming work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. “Then what does justify? Hearing the voice of the Bridegroom, hearing the proclamation of faith—when this is heard, it justifies. Why? Because it brings the Holy Spirit who justifies. From this it is sufficiently evident what the distinction is between the Law and the Gospel. The Law never brings the Holy Spirit; therefore it does not justify, because it only teaches what we ought to do. But the Gospel does bring the Holy Spirit, because it teaches what we ought to receive.”17

Certainly Luther recognized justification as God’s legal act of forgiving sin and reckoning the perfect righteousness of Christ to the believer. But in the works that evidence his mature theology, he repeatedly wrote of justification as also involving the gift of Christ to the heart. For example, in his lengthy comments on Galatians 2:16, contained in his 1535 Lectures on Galatians, Luther wrote, “Therefore the Christ who is grasped by faith and who lives in the heart is the true Christian righteousness, on account of which God counts us righteous and grants us eternal life.”18 The presence of Christ in our hearts, Luther said, is the reason God counts us righteous and grants us eternal life.

Rejecting the Roman Catholic concept of inherent righteousness of soul for the justified, Luther wrote,

Therefore we, too, acknowledge a quality and a formal righteousness in the heart; but we do not mean love, as the sophists do, but faith, because the heart must behold and grasp nothing but Christ the Savior. . . . Here it is to be noted these three things are joined together: faith, Christ, and acceptance or imputation. Faith takes hold of Christ and has Him present, enclosing Him as the ring encloses the gem. And whoever is found having this faith in the Christ who is grasped in the heart, him God accounts as righteous. This is the means and the merit by which we obtain the forgiveness of sins and righteousness.19

Commenting on Galatians 2:20, Luther wrote, “But so far as justification is concerned, Christ and I must be so closely attached that He lives in me and I in Him. What a marvelous way of speaking! Because He lives in me, whatever grace, righteousness, life, peace, and salvation there is in me is all Christ’s; nevertheless, it is mine as well, by the cementing and attachment that are through faith, by which we become as one body in the Spirit. Since Christ lives in me, grace, righteousness, life, and eternal salvation must be present with Him; and the Law, sin, and death must be absent.”20

Some scholars have denied that Luther’s definition of justification includes the gift of Christ to the heart by the transforming presence of the Holy Spirit. But reputable Luther scholars have recognized the balance in his thought between justification as God’s legal declaration and His gift of Christ to the heart.

For example, Althaus comments,

Although faith is not to be considered as a “work” in relationship to our justification, it remains the source and fountain of “good works.” As such it is the beginning of a new righteousness which a man has because he is actually righteous. This is implicit in the fact that faith justifies through Christ, that is, it brings Christ into the heart, or, expressed in other words, it is worked by the Holy Spirit and “brings (this Spirit) with it.” This means—as Luther says in his first lectures on Galatians—that God’s name, his holy, pure, and divine nature as revealed to us in Christ, so joins itself to our heart in faith that it makes our heart like itself. Thus our heart itself becomes righteous, not only because it is accepted as such through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, that is, of God’s own righteousness; but it also becomes righteous because God’s Holy Spirit is poured into the heart and he brings love and new obedience to him. . . .

Faith looks only and solely to the Christ for us, toward his righteousness “outside of us”; yet it thereby becomes the presence and the power of Christ in us. One and the same faith in Christ gives both forgiveness of sins and the triumph over sin. In faith a man becomes a new man. Justifying faith means being born again from God. The certainty of God’s forgiving mercy makes me glad in God, and brings the slavish service under the law to an end, works a new, free, and joyful obedience to God’s will, places me in the line of battle against the sin of the old man, creates the readiness to serve someone else in love and to suffer “in love and praise of God.” . . .

The two effects of faith in Christ are: It receives the forgiveness of sins and therewith the imputation of righteousness; it also establishes a new being and makes a man righteous in himself. These two effects of faith are inseparably joined together in Luther’s theology. When he speaks of that righteousness which faith is and gives he sees both together: the righteousness imputed for Christ’s sake, and man’s transformation to a new obedience. “Justification” in the full sense of the word consists in both of these together. The basic and decisive factor is that man is forgiven and receives new worth before God.21

Evangelical theologians in recent times have been engaged in a healthy debate on this subject. The recent book Justification: What’s at Stake in the Current Debates, edited by Mark Husbands and Daniel J. Treier, is very revealing with the forensic-only position being seriously questioned.22 Moreover, a group of Finnish historians have recently established that Luther saw justification as an experiential, spiritual union with Christ. Quite apart from their ecumenical interest, they have come up with an interpretation of Luther that contradicts the traditional forensic-only view.23

John Calvin’s view

John Calvin’s definition of justification is similar to Luther’s. In book III, chapter XI of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin identifies two vital ingredients of justification: (1) the legal element, according to which God forgives sin and credits the righteousness of Christ to the believer; and (2) the experiential element, by which Christ comes into our hearts by the presence of the Holy Spirit.

On the first point, Calvin wrote,

A man is said to be justified in the sight of God when in the judgment of God he is deemed righteous, and is accepted on account of his righteousness; for as iniquity is abominable to God, so neither can the sinner find grace in his sight, so far as he is and so long as he is regarded as a sinner. Hence, wherever sin is, there also are the wrath and vengeance of God. He, on the other hand, is justified who is regarded not as a sinner, but as righteous, and as such stands acquitted at the judgment-seat of God, where all sinners are condemned. As an innocent man, when charged before an impartial judge, who decides according to his innocence, is said to be justified by the judge, so a man is said to be justified by God when, removed from the catalogue of sinners, he has God as the witness and assertor of his righteousness. In the same manner, a man will be said to be justified by works, if in his life there can be found a purity and holiness which merits an attestation of righteousness at the throne of God, or if by the perfection of his works he can answer and satisfy the divine justice. On the contrary, a man will be justified by faith, when, excluded from the righteousness of works, he by faith lays hold of the righteousness of Christ, and clothed in it appears in the sight of God not as a sinner, but as righteous. Thus we interpret justification, as the acceptance with which God receives us into his favor as if we were righteous; and we say that this justification consists in the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ. . . .

Hence, when God justifies us through the intercession of Christ, he does not acquit us on a proof of our innocence, but by an imputation of righteousness, so that though not righteous in ourselves, we are deemed righteous in Christ.24

On the second point, that justification involves the bestowal of Christ upon our hearts by the presence of the Holy Spirit, Calvin wrote, “In this way, in this meaning, I deny not that Christ, as he is God and man, justifies us; that this work is common also to the Father and the Holy Spirit; in fine, that the righteousness of which God makes us partakers is the eternal righteousness of the eternal God, provided effect is given to the clear and valid reasons to which I have adverted us one with himself, and, therefore, we glory in having a fellowship of righteousness with him.”25

Calvin seems to have given greater emphasis to the legal (forensic) aspect in justification than did Luther.26 “Calvin speaks of the believer being ‘grafted into Christ’, so that the concept of incorporation becomes central to his understanding of justification. The iustitia Christi [the righteousness of Christ] on the basis of which man is justified, is treated as if it were man’s within the context of the intimate personal relationship of Christ and the believer.”27

Justification today

Among theologians and Christian denominations today, a number of different views regarding justification are held. Among the views propagated today are the following: (1) the Roman Catholic position that justification makes the soul intrinsically righteous; (2) the view of Luther and Calvin that justification involves both a legal element and Christ’s bestowal of Himself upon the heart of the believer by the presence of the Holy Spirit; (3) the legal-only position that regards justification as solely God’s declaration that the righteousness of Christ is counted for the believer who remains unrighteous; and (4) the view that there is no legal aspect to justification, that it is only God’s act of making the believer right in heart with Himself.

The evangelicals who argue for legal-only justification are in the tradition of post-Reformation orthodox, scholastic Lutheranism, not in the tradition of the Reformation itself. Despite their attempts to identify themselves with the Reformation, they are being untrue to the understanding of salvation taught by Luther and Calvin. Obviously each new generation must determine for itself from the scripture text what Paul meant by justification. But authors and churches that claim the Reformation as the historical foundation of their concept of the gospel, or claim that their theology is a perpetuation and an advancement of Reformation theology, while they ignore or misinterpret the basic understandings of the magisterial Reformers, are sadly committing themselves to a distinctly unhistorical position.

1. See Alister E. McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the
Christian Doctrine of Justifi cation
(Cambridge: University
Press, 1986), 1;40–51.

2. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, vol. 20, Great
Books of Our Western World, First Part of the Second Part
(Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952), question 110,
article 2,
(accessed Oct. 8, 2009).

3. Ibid., question 110, article 4,
(accessed Oct. 8, 2009).

4. Ibid., question 113, article 3, http://www.newadvent.org/
(accessed Oct. 8, 2009).

5. See McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 44–47, 63–65, 81, 82, 85–87.

6. Reinhold Seeberg, Text-book of the History of Doctrines
(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books House, 1977), 2:433.

7. Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom (Grand Rapids, MI:
Baker Books, 1919), 2:93; emphasis added.

8. Ibid., 94–99.

9. Ibid., 99–101, 107–109.

10. Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, trans. Robert
C. Schultz (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 226.

11. Luther’s Works, ed. Helmut T. Lehmann, (Philadelphia:
Muhlenberg Press, 1960), 34:153.

12. Ibid., 34:152, 153.

13. Ibid., 34:177; emphasis added.

14. Ibid., 34:178.

15. Ibid., 25:104.

16. Ibid., 22:275.

17. Ibid., 26:208.

18. Ibid., 26:130.

19. Ibid., 26:132.

20. Ibid., 26:167, 168.

21. Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, 234, 235.

22. See, for example, “God’s declaration in other words, is
itself constitutive of that which is declared. God’s word is
always effective. When it goes forth, it never returns to
Him void. So a judicial act for God is never merely judicial;
it is itself transformative.” Bruce L. McCormack, “What’s at
Stake in Current Debates Over Justification: The Crisis of
Protestantism in the West,” in Justification: What’s at Stake
in the Current Debates
, eds. Mark Husbands and Daniel J.
Treier, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 107.

23. See Tuomo Mannermaa, Christ Present in Faith: Luther’s
View of Justification
(Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press,
2005) ; and Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, eds.,
Union With Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther
(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998).

24. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, bk. III, ch.
XI, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans,
1559, 1962), 2, 3.

25. Ibid., 10.

26. McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 2:36–38.

27. Ibid., 36, 37; see also Wilhelm Niesel, The Theology of
(Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1956), 120–139.