Is Justification a Process, or a One-Time Deal?
There are many themes common to both the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, and the Christian texts of the New Testament; chief of this for this discussion is that believers are to remain in the faith, doing the things which God commands.
Justification is the perennial argument between Protestants and Catholics. This particular writing is in response to another topic — “Purgatory.” In that conversation the question was posed, that if the doctrine of Purgatory is true, how does that relate to the sufficiency of grace “imputed” by faith in Christ? Though my response here is initially intended as a reply to a particular person, Catholics should also be familiar with the Catholic doctrine of justification.
As a convert to Catholicism from an Evangelical Protestant paradigm, I am intimately aware of the conflict. In my pre-Catholic Days, Romans 5:1 was one of my favorite verses. This verse is the touchstone for the Protestant/Calvinist teaching of “once saved, always saved:” ”Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” This text is believed to indicate that the justification of the believer in Christ at the point of faith is a one-time completed action. All sins are forgiven immediately—past, present, and future. The believer then has, or at least, can have, absolute assurance of his justification regardless of what may happen in the future. In this theological approach, there is nothing that can separate the true believer from Christ—not even the gravest of sins. Similarly, with regard to salvation, Eph. 2:8-9 says: For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not because of works, lest any man should boast.
As an Evangelical Protestant, these texts seemed sufficient. Ephesians 2 says the salvation of the believer is past—perfect tense, passive voice in Greek, to be more precise—which means a past completed action with present on-going results. It’s over! And if we examine again Romans 5:1, the verb to justify is in a simple past tense (Gr. Aorist tense). And this is in a context where St. Paul had just told these same Romans: For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”
In biblical speak, “righteousness” is a synonym for justice or justification. How does it get any clearer than that? There you have it, Abraham was justified once and for all, the claim is made, when he believed. Not only is this proof of sola fide, says the reformed theologians claim, but it is proof that justification is a completed transaction at the point the believer comes to Christ. The paradigm of the life of Abraham is believed to hold indisputable proof of the Reformed position.
THE CATHOLIC RESPONSE
In my own journey to Catholicism, it was comforting to understand that the Catholic Church actually agrees with the above, at least on a couple points. First, as baptized Catholics, we can agree that we have been justified and we have been saved. Thus, in one sense, our justification and salvation are in the past as a completed action. The initial grace of justification and salvation we receive in baptism is a done deal. Additionally, Catholics do not believe we were partially justified or partially saved at baptism. Catholics believe, as St. Peter said in I Peter 3:21, “Baptism… now saves you…” Ananias said to Saul of Tarsus, “Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name.” That means the new Christian has been “washed, sanctified, and yes, justified,” as I Cor. 6:11 clearly teaches. That much is a done deal; thus, it is entirely proper for Catholic Christians to say we “have been justified” and we “have been saved.”
THE REST OF THE STORY
As the late Paul Harvey was famous for saying, “and now for the rest of the story.” Yes, there is more, this is not the end of the story. Catholics read in scripture that Justification is a life-long process, requiring cooperation with God’s grace. One interesting thing I realized early on in my journey is that we cannot take scripture passages in isolation. Catholic theology utilizes the totality of scripture in doctrinal development. If we read the very next verses of our above-cited texts, we find the inspired writer himself telling us there is more to the story here than our Protestant brethren teach.
Romans 5:1-2 reads:
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through Him, we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God.”
This text indicates that after having received the grace of justification we now have access to God’s grace by which we stand in Christ and we can then rejoice in the hope of sharing God’s glory. That word “hope” indicates that what we are hoping for we do not yet possess (see Romans 8:24).
Ephesians 2:10 reads:
“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
There is no doubt that we must continue to work in Christ as Christians and it is also true that it is only by the grace of God we can continue to do so. But even more importantly, Scripture tells us this grace can be resisted.
II Corinthians 6:1 tells us:
“Working together with him, then, we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain.”
St. Paul urged believers in Antioch—and all of us by allusion; “to continue in the grace of God” (Acts 13:43). Indeed, in a text we will look at more closely in a moment, St. Paul warns Christians that they can “fall from Grace” in Galatians 5:4. This leads us to our next and most crucial point.
JUSTIFICATION AND SALVATION AS FUTURE AND CONTINGENT
The major part of the puzzle here that our Protestant friends are missing is that there are many biblical texts revealing both justification and salvation to have a future and contingent sense as well as these we have mentioned that show a past sense. In other words, justification and salvation also have a sense in which they are not complete in the lives of believers. Perhaps this is most plainly seen in Galatians 5:1-5:
“For freedom, Christ has set us free; stand fast, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Now I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who receives circumcision that he is bound to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we wait for the hope of righteousness.”
The Greek word used in verse 6 and here translated as “righteousness” is dikaiosunes, which can be translated either as “righteousness” or as “justification.” In fact, Romans 4:3, which we quoted above, uses a verb form of this same term for justification. Now the fact that St. Paul tells us we “wait for the hope of [justification]” is very significant. As we said before, that which one “hopes” for is something one does not yet possess. It is still in the future. Romans 8:24 tells us:
“For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”
The context of Galatians is clear: St. Paul warns Galatian Christians that if they attempt to be justified—even though they are already justified in one sense, through baptism, according to Gal. 3:27—by the works of the law, they will fall from the grace of Christ. Why? Because they would be attempting to be justified apart from Christ and the gospel of Christ! St. Paul makes very clear in Romans and elsewhere that “those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:8, cf. Gal. 5:19-21). “The flesh” is a reference to the human person apart from grace.
The truth is: this example of justification being in the future is not an isolated case. There are numerous biblical texts that indicate both justification and salvation to be future and contingent realities, in one sense, as well as past completed realities in another sense:
“For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified…” on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Jesus Christ.
“Do you not know that if you yield yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience which leads to righteousness?” (Gr.dikaiosunen- “justification”)
“And you will be hated of all men for my name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved.”
“For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.”
I Cor. 5:5:
“You are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.”
FUTURE SINS FORGIVEN?
The Evangelical Christian interpretation of Romans 5:1 not only takes Romans 5:1 out of context, but it leads to still other unbiblical teachings. As we mentioned above, at least from a Calvinist perspective, this understanding of Romans 5:1 leads to the untenable position that all future sins are forgiven at the point of saving faith. Where is that in the Bible? Answer? It’s not. I John 1:8-9 could not make any clearer the fact that our future sins will only be forgiven when we confess them.
“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
I should note here that many who hold to the “once saved always saved” part of classic Calvinist doctrine—respond to this text by claiming that the forgiveness of sins St. John is talking about here has nothing to do with one’s justification before God. This text only considers whether or not one is in fellowship with God. And this “fellowship with God” is interpreted to mean only whether or not one will receive God’s blessings in this life. There is a large problem here. The context of the passage does not allow for this interpretation. In fact, if you look at verse five, St. John had just said:
“God is light and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him, while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth; but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”
This text makes clear that the “fellowship” being spoken of is essential in order for us to:
walk in the light as God is in the light, and
have our sins forgiven.
If we are not in “fellowship,” according to verse 6, then we are in darkness. And if we are in darkness, we are not in God, “who is light and in him is no darkness” (vs. 5). There is nothing in this text that even hints at the possibility that you can be out of “fellowship” with God, but still go to heaven. That is, of course, unless you have that fellowship restored by the confession of your sins. This is precisely what verses eight and nine are all about!
THE EXAMPLE OF ABRAHAM
Another point we can agree with our Protestant friends on is that Romans 4:3 demonstrates Abraham to have been justified through the gift of faith he received from God. The Catholic Church acknowledges what the text clearly says: “Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” referencing Genesis 15:6.
However, there is more to this text as well. While the Catholic Church agrees that Abraham was justified by faith in Genesis 15:6 as St. Paul said, we also note that Abraham was justified at other times in his life as well indicating justification to have an on-going aspect to it. Again, there is a sense in which justification is a past action in the life of believers, but there is another sense in which justification is revealed to be a process.
THE LIFE OF ABRAHAM
Virtually all Christians agree that Romans 4:3 depicts Abraham as being justified through faith in the promise God made to him concerning his offspring:
“For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.'” What many fail to see, however, is Abraham is also revealed to have already been justified many years prior to this when he was initially called by God to leave his home in Haran to create a new nation in a then-unknown land promised to him by God. Heb. 11:8 provides:
“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place which he was to receive as an inheritance, and he went out, not knowing where he was to go.”
What kind of “faith” is the inspired author speaking about? Hebrews 11:6 tells us it is a faith “without [which] it is impossible to please God.” This is a saving faith. So how could Abraham have saving faith if he wasn’t yet saved, or justified?
He had a saving faith because he was already justified through his faith and obedience to the call of God in his life long before his encounter with the Lord in Genesis 15. In addition, Abraham is revealed to have been justified again in Genesis 22 years after Genesis 15, when he offered his son Isaac in sacrifice and in obedience to the Lord.
Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works, and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness”; and he was called the friend of God (James 2:21-23).
ONE LAST POINT
When Catholics read of Abraham “justified by faith” in Romans 5, we believe it. However, we don’t end there. When Catholics read of Abraham “justified by works” in James 2 we believe that as well. For 2,000 years the Catholic Church has taken all of Sacred Scripture into the core of our theology harmonizing all of the biblical texts. Thus, we can agree with our Protestant friends and say as Christians we have been (past tense) justified and saved through our faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross.
But we also agree with our Lord that there is another sense in which we are being saved and justified by cooperation with God’s grace in our lives, and we hope to finally be saved and justified by our Lord on the last day:I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned (Matt. 12:36-37).