The Greek words that lie behind the English translations of justify, "justification, and righteousness in the letters of Paul are the verb dikaioo and the nouns dikaios and dikaiosyne. This Greek verb and associated nouns originally referred to "justice" and the results of justice delivered, that is, "a just verdict" in a court of law. In this usage these words have a legal sense of having been acquitted. We can speak of this usage as "forensic." In its use in Judaism (the words appear in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Tanakh), it came also to mean "righteousness," especially as it related to the keeping of God’s law, the law of Moses. Paul’s use of this group of words takes us in a new direction, though obviously related to its use in Greek and Jewish settings. The first and basic issue that Paul is addressing when he speaks of "justification" is, to my mind, not soteriological but anthropological: human beings find themselves as sinful before God. What can repair this situation or relationship? Paul states that it is through Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection, and our participation in it, that we become "justified." As a result, those who participate in Christ can Anow stand before God’s tribunal acquitted or innocent (New Jerome Biblical Commentary , 1397; cf. Rom. 4:25). The process begins with God, who is wholly "just" and who "justifies" the sinner as a result of what Christ has done on behalf of all humanity. It is what Christ has done that allows us to be called and to become "righteous" or "justified." This understanding, it seems, preceded Paul in the earliest Christianity; Paul’s contribution seems to be that justification comes "by grace as a gift" (Rom. 3:24) and "through faith in/of Christ" (Rom. 3:25)(New Jerome Biblical Commentary , 1397). But the action whereby God "justifies" the sinner has been a hotly contested issue in biblical studies and amongst Christian denominations. In what way does the Christian himself or herself participate in this "justification"? What is necessary for the believer? Must one only be baptized into the body of Christ to be "justified"? Or must one live a life of holiness? Primarily, since the Protestant Reformation, Lutherans, and other Protestants, have argued that "justification by faith" means that we add nothing to what God through Christ has gained for us; we do not participate in this process, and, in fact, it might be better not classified as "process," but simply the language of legal imagery, by which we are called "just." This language is only "forensic" or "declarative," for we add nothing to the gift God has poured out on us through Christ. It indicates no change, as such, in the ability of the person to be just or to participate in Christ’s saving event. What Christ has done for us is his solely gracious act and gift. Catholics, of course, affirm that what Christ has done for us is "by grace as a gift," that there is nothing we can do to earn this gift gained "through faith in/of Christ," but that the language of justification involves not just a legal fiction, but a "causative" or "factitive" or "transformative" dimension: we are able to participate in our justification by growing in holiness. Paul speaks of righteousness as not now based upon ones one observance of the law of Moses, by fulfilling the works it prescribes, that is, "the works of the law," but by a participation in God’s righteousness through faith in Christ. Ceslas Spicq argues that it is justification gained by divine intervention. "It is known by its manifestations, because it is essentially active, dynamic, communicating benefits proper to God, making, as it were, a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17); and its goal is the justification of humans (Rom. 3:25-26)" (Ceslas Spicq, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament. Volume 1. Hendrickson Publishers, 1995, 335). This justification, though, is not a simple acquittal, but it "transforms the one who participates in Christ’s death and resurrection" (Spicq, Theological Lexicon, 335). Faith and justification must also be distinguished: "it is not faith that justifies, but God who justifies through faith. In faith, a person appropriates Christ’s righteousness (Gal. 2:17, the efficient cause of our own righteousness, thus becoming the "righteousness of God," 2 Cor. 5:21)" (Spicq, Theological Lexicon, 336). While a person is justified by faith, the principal agent in this activity is God. Understood in this way, to be righteous or justified "by faith in/of Christ" is not simply forensic, that is, a legal declaration made of the person who accepts Christ, but fictive in that it states what is without transforming the person, but actually the beginning of the process by which one is transformed by God, a process whose end is our sanctification. This has been the major difference regarding justification between Catholics and Protestants, particularly Lutherans, who have seen righteousness as primarily "forensic" or "declarative," but not "transformative" or "causative." It is not for me to speak for Lutherans, however, or other Protestants, and I do hope that I have fairly represented their position, at least historically. The document produced by Catholics and Lutherans, The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification", gives the nuanced and thorough attempt to brings Catholics and Lutherans together on this score and can be found at the Vatican website(vatican.va). My own reading of Paul on the issue of justification is that there are times where Paul does use the forensic sense of justification, such as in Rom. 3:4, 3:20, and 4:2, where one is simply declared or called just. But I also believe that Paul uses the causative sense, such as in Rom. 3:24, 26, 28, 30, 5:1, 9 and 1 Cor. 6:11. This causative sense implies the infusion of moral qualities which enables someone to become dikaios (Rom. 5:9), or "upright" or "just," or "justified." This is to live according to the divine norm. This suggests that what we do does have an impact on our justification. Then what does Paul intend when he speaks of works of the law as being unnecessary or unfruitful in light of Christ? Paul is speaking particularly about the law of Moses. He casts the problem, especially in Galatians, as one in which the law of Moses, which was only given for a short time, or as a paedagogus (tutor; disciplinarian; custodian; a term we will discuss shortly), has come to its end, and that in light of Christ one is able to fulfill the law by following Christ in faith and living in the Spirit (Gal. 5:14; Rom. 8:4). "Works" of the law refers specifically to those who argue that the law of Moses is essential and necessary for one’s salvation. But Paul does not eschew works in the life of the Christian (see Rom. 2:6; cf. Also Ephes. 2:8-10). He also focuses on the need for Christians to be teleios (perfect; mature) and amemptos (blameless) and hagios (holy). He also speaks, quite interestingly, of salvation as something which one must continually strive towards or work towards (Phil. 3:8-16; cf. Also Col. 1:21-23). What we have gained through faith is Christ himself; what we bring to our justification is the attempt to be more like him. John W. Martens
"Justification", "Faith in Christ" and "Works of the Law"