A Brief Introduction to Justification (Part 1)

By Dr Mark Mattes

god2-sistine_chapelThe doctrine of justification is intended to formulate the answer to the question: “what must I do to be saved?”  Justification’s answer, “nothing,” is startling, and it reframes the question itself by asserting that God is not in the salvaging business.  Instead, what God does in saving us is to recreate us.  God’s salvation is a recommitment to his original work of creating out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo).  God not only creates us out of nothingness, but also providentially sustains our lives, together with those of all creatures, from moment to moment, out of nothingness.  Just as God creates and sustains the world out of nothingness through his address, his speaking his creation into being and maintaining it in being, God re-creates humanity out of the nothingness of sin and death.  Indeed, those who are self-justifying in any capacity must be reduced to nothing if they are to receive God’s justification.  Justification is first and foremost about God, specifically God’s action in contrast to all threats and opposition (including his own law) to claim his world as his own.  It is God’s affirmation of his own desire to share his life with creatures by forgiving them their sin apart from the law.  God claims what belongs to him-his creatures-and liberates that creation from the bondage of sin and death.  In faith, we acclaim God as just in his justifying of this his sinful world in the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Correspondingly, in faith we justify God by confessing that he is right.

Late Medieval Views of Nature and Grace

The Reformation teaching of the doctrine of justification emerges from Scripture, Jesus Christ was crucified for your trespasses, raised for your justification (Romans 4:25), but it was developed polemically against the views of salvation of late medieval theologians.  It employs the vocabulary of the doctrine of justification as influenced by Augustine (354-430) as it had developed in the Western church but it does so by completely and incommensurably altering its grammar, syntax, and semantics.  The most obvious difference between the Reformation teaching and that of Medieval theology is the Lutheran insistence that justification is the final,  future decree of acquittal, the “last judgment,” bestowed in the present moment on the basis of God’s justification of Jesus Christ who as the “greatest sinner” (maximus peccator, LW 26:277) has borne our sins.  Justification is not to be seen as a progression from grace to virtue.  Nor is it to be viewed as moving from a starting point, a terminus a quo, towards an ending point, a terminus ad quem.  Instead, justification is “forensic,” a decree that puts to death the old sinner and raises the new creature.

In the Medieval and Roman Catholic perspectives, the primary metaphor for a relationship with God that saves is that of a ladder.  If humans are to see God face to face in heaven, they need grace to heal them from the wound of sin and aid them as finite creatures in their elevation towards becoming more and more like God, the process of deification.  In the Scholastic system, grace is similar to a jump start for a nearly dead battery.  It is less God’s attitude of favor toward sinners and more an infusion of grace that can help sinners fulfill their potential to become like God, which has been crippled by sin and hindered by finitude.  Apart from the gift of grace and our loving devotion to God and Christ-like deeds of love to our neighbors, we would not be able to conform more and more to the truth, beauty, and goodness which constitute the Triune life.  Hence, the medieval supposition that we need to climb a ladder toward God as the itinerary of our salvation is wrong.  The ladder, if it exists, goes in only one direction: down.  For us and for our salvation he came down and was incarnate of the Virgin Mary.  This event is our salvation.  The ladder is meant for one direction only: to go down to those in need.

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Thomas Aquinas

For Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), the movement that constitutes justification is non-temporal and happens all at once.  It is nonetheless a movement, initiating growth in holiness, such that the person makes progress in the “theological virtues” of faith, love, and hope.  It is composed of four features: (1) an infusion of grace into the heart of the sinner, (2) a movement of free will toward God in faith, (3) a movement of free will in recoil from sin, and (4) the remission of guilt (Summa Theologica, 12ae, esp. Q 113, Art. 6).  All four of these steps are “under the power of grace.”  Lutherans and Roman Catholics agree that we are saved by grace-even grace alone.  Where they disagree is that Lutherans believe that faith alone saves and not faith plus the works of love.

A variant on this theme of the Christian life as progress is to be found in late medieval Nominalists, such as Holcott and Biel, who contended that if we do all that which is within us, God has covenanted to give us grace (gratia infusa) to aid our transformation and growth in holiness and virtue by earning condign merit (de condigno), that is, we can merit eternal life by our own full merit.  If faith is to be real and take shape, have “color” on a wall, as medieval thinkers metaphorically expressed it, it must be formed by love (fides charitate formata).  Grace is thus a power behind the scenes that enables people to fulfill their ultimate potential and fulfill the ultimate desire of their hearts-to eternally rest in God. By grace, our temporal lives mimic eternal truth.  Our being is altered through the infusion of grace, the “super-added gift of the Holy Spirit,” and enables us to participate analogously in the divine life by activating works of love analogously akin to the divine life.  In the Medieval perspective, we are both ontologically and ethically altered by grace, which heals the wound of sin and allows us to progress in greater stages of conformity to God’s eternal being.

Both the Nominalist perspective of divine acceptation (based on God’s agreement to give grace to those who do their very best) and the Realist view of divinization (picked up by a long heritage of Christian mysticism) assume an Augustinian stance on love as caritas, love as desire for God and mimetically enacted in deeds, which promote growth in our ability to conform to God’s own being.  Augustine’s view was developed in opposition to Pelagius (ca. 354-ca. 420/440) who distanced himself from the notion that humans are sinful.  For Pelagius, every person is born with the ability not to sin; we only recapitulate Adam’s fall through imitation.  Many currents in the ancient world led early Christians to emphasize the role of the human will in salvation.  Chief amongst these was opposition to the fatalism entertained by Gnostics and Manicheans.  Additionally, it was important for early Christians to offer an alternate ethics and lifestyle in contrast to the decadence of the ancient Roman world.  Early Christians sold their message by offering an alternate morality, but this meant that they needed to emphasize the freedom of the human will with respect to our relationship with God.  Augustine went against this trend when he emphasized that grace was not chosen but freely given, and unmerited.  It is, however, a divine quality infused in the heart of believers which enable them to become more like God in all their dealings.  Eastern Orthodoxy has never accepted Augustine’s view of grace and its anthropological implications.  From Luther’s perspective, as we shall see, Augustine failed to go far enough.  For Luther, the Christian life is not primarily a growth in holiness, even if it is initiated by grace, but a constant, continuous, and passive reception of God’s favor, God’s own legitimation of his sinful creatures for Jesus’ sake, and so a new creation.

Go to Part 2

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