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The Meaning of Justification

Question: The Catholic Church teaches that in justification, God changes a person and makes him just and righteous. Protestants, however, understand justification as God declaring the believer as righteous. Your comments?

Answer: I am convinced that one reason for the misunderstanding between Catholics and Protestants on justification is the different definitions assigned to that crucial word -- justification. Catholics mean one thing, Protestants mean something altogether different.

We can't assign an arbitrary meaning to a biblical term. Human communication is possible because words have a definite meaning. Words are not made of plasticine and we’re not free to shape them in any way we please. Otherwise communication breaks down and comprehension is distorted.

The meaning of the word should be determined by its use in Scripture. If we really desire to know what God is saying, we need to study the meaning of biblical words as used in the Bible itself. To attribute the wrong meaning to the scriptural words is a sure guarantee not only of misunderstanding one another, but also to miss and distort God’s message.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church declares: “Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man.” Roman theology defines justification as making someone just (paragraphs 1989,1992). In contrast to this, Protestants understand justification as a judicial declaration. Thus, Catholics think of justification as a moral transformation beginning at baptism and continuing until death, whereas Protestants think of justification as a favorable legal judgment by God about the believer, declaring him righteous.

Well then, what is the biblical use of the term justification? Is it a judicial act declaring the person righteous, or is it an action of making someone objectively righteous in himself? To answer this question, one needs to study the use of the word justification, and related words, in the Bible. Here, I cite a few passages.

  • If there is a dispute between men, and they come to court, that the judges may judge them, and they justify the righteous and condemn the wicked. (Deuteronomy 25:1).

  • He who justifies the wicked, and he who condemns the just, both of them alike are an abomination to the LORD. (Proverbs 17:15).

  • Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us. (Romans 8:33,34).

It is helpful to note that ‘to justify’ is contrasted with ‘to condemn.’ Justification is the very opposite of condemnation. Now, to condemn means to declare someone unjust and guilty; to justify must mean to declare someone just and righteous.

The concept of “making just” simply doesn’t fit. If, for the sake of argument we assume that justification has the Catholic meaning, why should God abhor the person who justifies the wicked? Would it not be a charitable thing to do, if the wicked is made righteous?

The judge’s role is to declare just the righteous and to declare unjust the wicked. That is, to justify the former and condemn the latter. The judge does not make the person unjust when he condemns him. He simply declares him as such. Similarly, in justification the judge does not make the person righteous. He simply declares him just and acquits him from any accusation.

© Dr Joseph Mizzi