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From the Early Church to the Council of Trent


A.        Justification in the Early Church


The early church fathers did not use the concept or vocabulary of “justification” to express their understanding of the nature of salvation. As Alister McGrath notes, “justification was simply not a theological issue in the pre-Augustinian tradition” (Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, [Cambridge Univ. Press, 1986] I:19). Salvation was portrayed more in terms of illumination, enlightenment, or deliverance from the captivity of Satan. McGrath summarizes:


“For the first three hundred and fifty years of the history of the church, her teaching on justification was inchoate and ill-defined. There had never been a serious controversy over the matter, such as those which had so stimulated the development of christology over the period. The patristic inexactitude and naivete on the question merely reflects the absence of a controversy which would force more precise definition of the terms used” (I:23).


B.         Justification in the theology of Augustine


The first theologian to give extensive attention to the concept of justification was Augustine, who was entirely dependent on the Latin translation of the NT and thus the term iustificare. The latter term was taken to mean “to make righteous” rather than “to declare” or “to reckon/consider righteous,” which is the meaning of the Greek dikaiao.


McGrath explains:


“Man’s righteousness, effected in justification, is regarded by Augustine as inherent rather than imputed, to use the vocabulary of the sixteenth century. A concept of ‘imputed righteousness’, in the later Protestant sense of the term, would be quite redundant within Augustine’s doctrine of justification, in that man is made righteous in justification. The righteousness which man thus receives, although originating from God, is nevertheless located within man, and can be said to be his, part of his being and intrinsic to his person” (I:31).


Augustine viewed justification in a comprehensive way as encompassing both the initial event of conversion and faith in Christ (brought about by operative grace) and the subsequent process of progressive ethical transformation into the image of Christ (brought about by cooperative grace). The traditional Protestant distinction between these two dimensions of salvation, according to which the former is designated justification and the latter sanctification, was entirely foreign to Augustine. Augustine tended to see justification as the all-encompassing renewal of the divine image in man that begins with initial faith and consummates with the glorified body.


Thus Augustine envisaged a real, experiential change or transformation in man’s being or nature and not merely in his status before God (coram Deo). Justification is thus a genuine, albeit progressive, becoming righteous and not merely being treated or reckoned as if righteous. Justification for Augustine is as much a present experience and future anticipation as it is a past fact. It is ethical and spiritual renewal no less than legal standing. Justification involves the entire transition of the sinner from nature to grace and entails both the initial act of faith by which eternal life is bestowed as well as the process by which it develops and is ultimately consummated in the eschaton.


Be it noted that Augustine firmly attributed salvation wholly to divine grace. The fact that he conceived of the grounds of justification as an experiential righteousness rather than merely an imputed one is no indication that he held to salvation by works. For the righteousness on account of which we are “justified” is itself the fruit of divine grace, not unaided human effort.


For Augustine, the biblical concept of “justice” (iustitia), “effected only through man’s justification, demonstrates how the doctrine of justification encompasses the whole of Christian existence from the first moment of faith, through the increase in righteousness before God and man, to the final perfection of that righteousness in the eschatological city” (I:36).


C.        Justification in the Medieval Period


This understanding of justification extended well into and through the medieval period. Following Augustine, medieval authors likewise believed that justification referred


“not merely to the beginning of the Christian life, but also to its continuation and ultimate perfection, in which the Christian is made righteous in the sight of God and the sight of men through a fundamental change in his nature, and not merely his status. In effect, the distinction between justification (understood as an external pronouncement of God) and sanctification (understood as the subsequent process of inner renewal), characteristic of the Reformation period, is excluded from the outset” (McGrath, I:41).


Thus for the medieval period the concept of justification was viewed as involving an experiential, on-going renovation of the sinner that entailed the habit of created grace within the soul, particularly as mediated through the sacramental system of Rome. Consider Olson’s description of the medieval RC doctrine of justification:


“According to Catholic doctrine --- stretching back at least a thousand years to Augustine --- justification is the gradual process by which a sinner is made actually righteous internally by having God’s own righteousness infused through the grace of baptism, faith, works of love and the entire penitential life. Only when the sinner is so transformed that he or she is no longer really a sinner at all does God justify in the full and completed sense. Baptismal grace that washes away the guilt of original sin must become habitual grace that grows within through sacraments and penance and must eventually become sinless perfection. Justification comes gradually all through the salvation process, but ultimately and perfectly only at its end” (389-90).


Thus, the medieval RC concept of grace was that it was something of a "substance" that could be "infused" in a person by means of the sacraments, something like a "divine vitamin"! The reformers will argue that grace is simply the unconditional favor of God to hell-deserving sinners received by faith alone. The righteousness of justification, so they would say, is always both alien and imputed. That is to say, it is alien in the sense that it is Christ’s righteousness, not our own, and it is imputed in the sense that it is legally reckoned to us, rather than imparted or infused experientially within us.


The implications of this are noted by McGrath:


“If it can be shown that the central teaching of the Lutheran Reformation, the fulcrum about which the early Reformation turned, the articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae, constituted a theological novum, unknown within the previous fifteen centuries of catholic thought, it will be clear that the Reformers’ claim to catholicity would be seriously prejudiced, if not totally discredited” (I:180).


Mention should be made of what has come to be known as the via moderna (otherwise known as nominalism) in late medieval thought, according to which justification was viewed from a somewhat Pelagian perspective. Advocates of this approach insisted that God had established a covenant (pactum) with humanity in which the conditions for justification (or acceptance with God) had been clearly stated. According to the terms of this covenant, God put himself under obligation to accept any individual who fulfilled the stated condition. The condition was “doing what lies within you” (facere quod in se est). Whereas human works were intrinsically inadequate, God had promised through the covenant to treat them as if they were of much greater value. Thus a framework was established “within which a relatively small human effort results in a disproportionately large divine reward” (McGrath, Reformation Thought, 106). This was the concept of justification advocated by Luther prior to his conversion.


D.        Justification in the Theology of Luther


As noted above, the “early” Luther believed that, if the sinner would take the initiative by humbly calling on God and “doing what lies within”, God would respond with the grace of justification. This doctrine, however, brought Luther little comfort, for he found himself despairing of the ability to fulfill the condition of the covenant (Luther was even at this stage of his development more Augustinian than Pelagian when it came to human ability). He conceived of the “righteousness of God” as an impartial divine attribute according to which God either forgave or condemned the individual, based on the latter’s response to the terms of the covenant. God’s righteousness, therefore, was not gospel (i.e., good news) for Luther but an ever-present threat. The transformation in Luther’s theology came with the recognition that the “righteousness” of God was, in fact, that according to which God graciously provided the very righteousness he required.


Luther’s concept of justification is best seen in the phrase simul iustus et peccator, i.e., simultaneously both just and a sinner. Or again, the Christian is intrinsically (i.e., experientially) sinful, yet extrinsically (i.e., legally) righteous. In justification the sinner is passive (man is incapable of initiating the process leading to justification) and God is active. God in grace imputes to us a righteousness not our own and we in faith gratefully receive it (a faith, be it noted, that is no less a gift of God’s grace than the righteousness imputed through it). This radical and fundamental distinction between justification as a status obtained by initial faith and the subsequent sanctification or transformation of one’s nature through grace was a true theological novelty on the part of the reformers.


McGrath identifies the nature of justification as taught by Protestants:


“1. Justification is understood to be the forensic declaration that the Christian is righteous, rather than the process by which he is made righteous, involving a change in his status before God, rather than his nature.


2. A deliberate and systematic distinction is made between the concept of justification itself (understood as the extrinsic divine pronouncement of man’s new status) and the concept of sanctification or regeneration (understood as the intrinsic process by which God renews the justified sinner).


3. The formal, or immediate cause, of justification is understood to be the alien righteousness of Christ, imputed to man in justification, so that justification involves a synthetic rather than an analytic judgment on the part of God” (I:182).


The Protestant concept of justification derived from the Lutheran tradition may thus be summarized:


·        Justification means we are declared righteous, not made righteous. Cf. Rom. 3:4.


(a)        Hence, justification is objective, not subjective. That is to say, it is something done for us, not in us.


(b)        Hence, justification is forensic, not experiential. That is to say, it is a legal act, not an emotional feeling. Whereas we do not feel justification when it occurs, once we comprehend what God has done there is certainly great exhilaration of soul and spirit.


·        Justification is both acquittal and acceptance. That is to say, it involves both the forgiveness of sins and the receiving of the righteousness of Christ. God not only declares us "Not guilty!", he also declares us "Righteous!" Mere pardon would leave us spiritually naked with no righteousness. Pardon might save us from hell but it wouldn't get us into heaven.


·        Justification is both exclusive and extensive. By exclusive I mean there is no middle ground: you either are or are not justified. By extensive I mean that all sins are dealt with, whether past, present, or future.


·        Justification is both instantaneous and irreversible. It is a position or status to which we are elevated. It is not a process. Furthermore, it is irreversible. It cannot be lost. God's verdict will never be appealed to a higher court (cf. Rom. 8:31-34). Having said this, one should be aware that for the early Luther, much like Augustine, justification was viewed “as an all-embracing process, subsuming the beginning, development and subsequent perfection of the Christian life. This,” notes McGrath, “is one of the clearest . . . [differences] between Luther and later Protestantism, and places Luther closer to the position of the Council of Trent than is generally realised” (II:18).


·        Justification is received by faith, being freely bestowed by God (cf. Rom. 3:24; 2 Thess. 3:8; John 15:25). Thus the sinner is justified per fidem propter Christum, “through faith on account of Christ” (rather than propter fidem per Christum, “on account of faith through Christ,” as later Arminianism contended). We are not justified because we believe. Faith is not a human work that somehow merits justification. We are justified on account of or because of Christ, whose righteousness we receive passively, through faith.


Thus “man is justified by laying hold of a righteousness which is not, and can never be, his own – the iustitia Christi aliena, which God mercifully ‘reckons’ to man” (McGrath, II:12). This concept of justification, said Luther, is "the cardinal doctrine" of the church. It “is the head and cornerstone which alone begets, nourishes, builds, preserves, and protects the church; without it the church of God cannot subsist one hour."


Luther was criticized by the RCC for inserting the Latin word solum into Romans 3:28 so that Paul would be read as saying that we are justified by faith alone. He responded:


"Here in Romans 3:28 I know very well that the word solum is not in the Greek or Latin text; the papists do not have to teach me that. It is a fact that these four letters s o l a are not there. And these blockheads stare at them like cows at a new gate. At the same time they do not see that it conveys the sense of the text; it belongs there if the translation is to be clear and vigorous. . . . [For] when all works are so completely cut away -- and that must mean that faith alone justifies -- whoever would speak plainly and clearly about this cutting away of works will have to say, 'Faith alone justifies us, and not works.' The matter itself, as well as the nature of the language, demand it" (On Translating: An Open Letter, 1530, LW, XXXV, pp. 188-89, 195.


Luther’s strong emphasis on sola fide has led some to draw the unwarranted conclusion that he eschewed works altogether. In fact, Luther argued that whereas works are not the cause of salvation they are a condition for it. That is to say, good works testify to the reality of faith such that in the absence of the former the latter is suspect.


Having noted Luther’s emphasis on the forensic nature of justification, wherein the ground of our acceptance with God is the imputed righteousness of Christ, mention must be made of what is being called the new Finnish interpretation of Luther (see Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther, ed. by Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson [Eerdmans, 1998]). Several scholars in Finland are contending that Luther’s view of justification actually emphasizes and entails the concept of theosis or divinization of man through faith. The key element is that “in faith Christ is really present,” a literal translation of Luther’s phrase, in ipsa fide Christus adest. Their argument is that, for Luther, “faith is a real participation in Christ, that in faith a believer receives the righteousness of God in Christ, not only in a nominal and external way, but really and inwardly” (viii). Thus, justification is not grounded merely on an imputed righteousness of Christ but also on an imparted righteousness by which the individual, through faith, actually participates in the righteousness of God. Critics of this new interpretation of Luther argue that it is motivated less by what Luther actually said than by the Finnish desire to find grounds for ecumenical unity.

In summary, the issue between Augustine and Luther on justification concerned the location of justifying righteousness. “Both Augustine and Luther are agreed that God graciously gives sinful humans a righteousness which justifies them. But where is that righteousness located? Augustine argued that it was to be found within believers; Luther insisted that it remained outside believers” (McGrath, Reformation Thought, 119). According to Augustine, God bestows justifying righteousness in such a way that it becomes part of one’s internal nature, whereas for Luther the righteousness that justifies is and always remains “alien” to the individual, being Christ’s righteousness imputed to us rather than imparted within us.

E.         Justification in the Theology of Calvin

Calvin affirmed the forensic nature of justification by faith alone:

“Justified by faith is he who, excluded from the righteousness of works, grasps the righteousness of Christ through faith, and clothed in it, appears in God’s sight not as a sinner but as a righteous man. Therefore, we explain justification simply as the acceptance with which God receives us into his favor as righteous men. And we say that it consists in the remission of sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness” (III, 21.2).

Whereas Calvin recognized the formal distinction between justification and sanctification, he refused to separate them. In other words, the person who is justified will be sanctified. Sola fides iustificat, sed non fides quae est sola, or “faith alone justifies, but not the faith which is alone.” Thus whereas we are not justified by works, neither are we justified without works, for in the faith that justifies is that sanctification of life apart from which no one shall see God. Calvin writes:

“We dream neither of a faith devoid of good works nor of a justification that stands without them. This alone is of importance: having admitted that faith and good works must cleave together, we still lodge justification in faith, not in works. . . . Because by faith we grasp Christ’s righteousness, by which alone we are reconciled to God. Yet you could not grasp this without at the same time grasping sanctification also” (Institutes, III.16.1).

Calvin also focused on union with Christ as essential to justification. What we receive from God by grace is the indwelling of Christ himself into whose risen life we are incorporated. As McGrath says, “justification is still treated as the external pronouncement of God that we are right in his sight – but the pronouncement is made on the basis of the presence within us of the living Christ” (Justification by Faith, 58).

Calvin’s view, however, should be distinguished from that of Andrew Osiander (1498-1552), a mystic who also stressed the subjective reality of union with Christ, but to the extent that “Christ’s essence is mixed with our own” (Institutes, III.11.5). The image of God, he argued, is not something to be found in man as a creature. The image is the Son of God himself. Man was created so that Christ might dwell in us as the image of God. Thus the incarnation would have occurred even had Adam not fallen, for God’s purpose was always that Christ might come to earth and indwell his people. For Osiander, justification was not the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to sinful people, but the actual indwelling of Christ within. Christ’s nature dwells in us and for that reason we become righteous. Justo Gonzalez explains it thus:

“Osiander affirms that what actually happens when Christ comes to dwell in the believer is that the ocean of his divine righteousness engulfs the small drop of our sinfulness, and that God then looks at that vast ocean of purity rather than at the small drop of sinfulness and declares us to be righteous” (3:104).

F.         Justification in Roman Catholic Theology at the Council of Trent (1545-63)

Before the Council of Trent convened, one final attempt was made to reunite Protestants and Catholics through a series of discussions initiated by Charles V. Sessions were held in Hagenau in June 1540, but with little progress. Talks began in earnest at Worms (the place of Luther's historic stand!) in January of 1541, the primary participants being John Eck (famous Catholic theologian), Gasparo Contarini (1483-1542, a moderate who was able to agree with the Protestants on every issue except transubstantiation and papal authority), and Philip Melancthon (Luther's successor).


The emperor then ordered the talks to be moved to the city of Regensburg. A work drafted at Worms by the most irenic spokesmen for each side, known as the Book of Regensburg, became the basis for discussion. Serious debate got underway in April of 1541. The two sides agreed on the first five articles of the Book, the most important point of which was the doctrine of double justification. "According to the doctrine of double justification, man was justified before God both by an alien, imputed righteousness, as the Lutherans maintained, and an inherent righteousness partly of his own creation, as the medieval church had traditionally taught" (Ozment, 406). The final authorities on both sides, however, ultimately were to find the doctrine artificial and unacceptable.


The attempt at reconciliation had failed. The theologies of Rome and the Reformation were simply incompatible, a fact that Trent was soon to make clear.


The Council opened on Dec. 13, 1545, and extended to Dec. 4, 1563, although there were extended periods of inactivity. Sessions 1-10 took place from 1545-47 under Pope Paul III; sessions 11-16 from 1551-52 under Pope Julius III; sessions 17-25 from 1562-63 under Pope Pius IV. Since the Italians numbered almost 3/4 of the voting representatives, the Pope was assured of maintaining control of the outcome.


The men who dominated Trent, writes Ozment,


"had no romantic illusions about reunion with Protestants and were not prone to compromise. Their overriding concerns were, first, to establish the machinery for tight control over religious life so that a revolution like that of Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin would never again occur in the church and, then, to find new ways to make traditional religion more appealing to laity, including the many who had succumbed to Protestantism" (406-07).


Ozment summarizes Trent's conclusions:


"Trent rejected the Reformation on every important doctrinal issue. Against justification by faith the council reaffirmed the traditional view that faith formed by works of love saved people, salvation coming to man on the basis of an acquired, inherent righteousness, not an imputed, alien righteousness. The sacrament of penance, which Protestants had attacked as mischievous and burdensome to conscience, continued in its traditional form. Against Protestant belief in the sole authority of the Bible, Trent upheld two sources of church authority: Scripture and tradition, the rulings of popes and councils. The council reaffirmed the seven sacraments against the Protestant reduction to two. It reiterated the traditional belief that the Mass repeated Christ's sacrifice and the consecrated bread and wine of the Eucharist became the very substance of Christ's body and blood. . . . Trent permitted laymen to receive communion in bread only, a reflection of the traditional division between the laity and the clergy. . . . The council gave purgatory, indulgences, the worship of saints, and the veneration of relics and sacred images a new endorsement, while calling for an end to manifest abuses" (407).


Trent on Justification by Faith:


“The causes of . . . justification are: the final cause is the glory of God and of Christ and life everlasting; the efficient cause is the merciful God who washes and sanctifies . . . the meritorious cause is His most beloved only begotten, our Lord Jesus Christ, who, when we were enemies merited for us justification by His most holy passion . . . and made satisfaction for us to God the Father. . . . [W]hen the Apostle [Paul] says that man is justified by faith and freely, these words are to be understood in the sense that we are said to be justified by faith because faith is the beginning of human salvation, the foundation and root of all justification. . . . [W]e are therefore said to be justified gratuitously, because none of those things that precede justification, whether by faith or works, merit the grace of justification” (Sixth Session, 1/13/47).


“If anyone says that man can be justified before God by his own works, whether done by his own natural powers or through the teaching of the law, without divine grace through Jesus Christ, let him be anathema” (ibid.).


"If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtain the grace of justification, and that it is not in any way necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the action of his own will, let him be anathema" (Can. 9).


"If anyone says that justifying faith is nothing else than confidence in divine mercy, which remits sins for Christ's sake, or that it is this confidence alone that justifies us, let him be anathema" (Can. 12).


“If anyone says that the good works of a justified man are gifts of God to such an extent that they are not also the good merits of the justified man himself; or that, by the good works he performs through the grace of God and the merits of Jesus Christ . . . the justified man does not truly merit an increase of grace, life everlasting, and, provided that he dies in the state of grace, the attainment of that life everlasting, and even an increase of glory, let him be anathema” (Can. 32).





The Nature of Justification


Roman Catholicism

Subjective (to/in us)
Justification is Santification
Becoming Righteous

Objective (for us)
Justification issues in Sanctification
Reckoned as Righteous