The doctrine of justification is central to the beliefs of Christianity. Have you ever had the opportunity to study it before either at church or on your own? If not, I would like to encourage you to learn more about it. It can lead to deeper joy as you come to understand the gospel better, and it can be a part of being ready to give a defense for the hope that is in you. (1 Peter 3:15) We should be able to give a biblical answer to the question how is one justified before God? Or to put it another way, how does man’s guilty standing before God because of sin change to a righteous standing?
There is great benefit in studying this topic. Studying this and other topics of Christian doctrine helps us to better understand our faith, protect against false teachings, be better prepared to defend the faith, and grow in the knowledge of God. Yes, it can take time, but it is time well spent. Since we have the Holy Spirit and the word of God, I know that my sisters in Christ can do this work. You don’t need to be a theologian to do it, but the work might turn you into a mini-theologian! May our work lead to praise and worship to God’s glory.
I recommend studying justification in three phases. How far you progress through them is completely up to you. Only the first one is really needed, since it involves studying justification biblically. Phase two is for those who might like to consider additional sources. This phase includes suggestions for utilizing and comparing Protestant and Catholic sources on the topic. Since I am posting this at the same time as Reformation Day and the Doctrine of Justification, it seems like a timely thing to suggest. Additionally, I have learned from personal experience that studying Protestant and Catholic positions on justification can be very enlightening. There are many Protestant articles and books that do a good job of explaining justification biblically. If you are Protestant or a non-denominational Christian that holds the same belief that justification is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, these sources can help you understand your faith better.
By way of contrast, looking at Catholic sources can also help you understand your faith better. We often learn even more when studying an opposing view. Additionally, examining the teachings of the Catholic Church in light of the Scriptures can help prepare you to lovingly and gently talk with Catholics should you have opportunity. Lastly, looking at both the Protestant and Catholic positions will help explain why the Reformation happened and underscore why we still need to make a distinction between the two even in this age of greater ecumenism. Whether the difference in beliefs about the way of salvation between the Protestant and Catholic position is unknown by many, minimized, or denied; it does exist. Yet, there is only one true gospel according to the Bible. We should not move away from that for the sake of surface unity, even if it feels good and seems loving. A far better stand is to know what the Bible teaches, to be faithful to it, and to lovingly share the true gospel for the sake of the salvation of souls to the glory of God. (Romans 1:16)
Phase One: Look at justification biblically
Since we are seeking the truth about the forgiveness of sins and our righteousness before God, the Bible must be our chief source. Begin there. Let the Bible define justification and explain how one is justified. (John 17:17, 2 Timothy 3:16) Here are some suggestions about how to go about this. With some tweaking of #6 and #7, you can also use these ideas for studying other biblical concepts and teachings.
1. As with any biblical concept, studying justification should be done with care. Pray for wisdom and discernment and approach the work with humility and entire submissiveness to God’s word.
2. Use a good word-for-word translation like the NASB, ESV, or KJV. Bibles that do not consistently translate the Greek word for justification and its other forms with appropriate English words will make it hard if not impossible to see the doctrine in the text. One version that is guilty of this and that I do not recommend is The Message. Please see Analysis of The Message Bible: Justification and Sanctification for information about how this version obscures these all important biblical concepts.
3. Gather relevant verses. Perform a word search for justification and other similar forms like justified and justifies. Focus your search in the New Testament. Bible software or a concordance can help you with this. Read the verses in context considering several verses before and after. Sometimes words can have slightly different meanings depending on the context, so only collect the verses that fit this topic.
4. Look up the Greek meaning. You may wish to consult different sources like Strong’s Greek Dictionary, the NASB Concordance, and Thayer’s Greek Definitions.
5. When you read passages, make sure to exercise good hermeneutics. Be careful to practice exegesis (digging out the original meaning of the text) and not eisegesis (reading meaning into it). This work can be done prayerfully and carefully. You could also check trusted commentaries to aid you.
6. When you read the verses about justification consider these questions.
Who is speaking and to whom?
How do the verses and the context shape the meaning of justification or being justified?
Where does justification originate? Is it with God or man?
What is the basis for our justification?
How is a sinner justified or seen as righteous before God?
When is one justified?
What are the results of justification?
What is the evidence that one has been justified?
Is justification something that can be considered as finished? In other words; is it ongoing, repeatable, or can you become unjustified?
If one is not justified, what are they?
7. Consider the rest of the Scriptures in your study. Include relevant verses such as those that speak about works, the law, faith, righteousness, salvation, and grace. Yes, this could widen your study considerably; but isn’t that a good thing? Spending more time in the word brings more knowledge about God and helps us better understand His ways. His ways are far above ours and to be praised! To Him be the glory!
Phase Two: Look at Protestant and Catholic sources
This phase may not be for everyone. Again, it’s not necessary but it can be helpful. Please only do it if you are well prepared to test everything by the Bible. Sources outside of the Bible are secondary no matter what their creed. Pray for discernment and look for contradictions. The points made must be biblical and sensible.
It is quick work with the help of Google to find Protestant and Catholic apologists who write about justification. It is a dividing line that is centuries old, and much has been written. Looking at these and other Protestant and Catholic sources can deepen your understanding of the differences. Study as much as you find helpful. I tend to over research everything, but I just enjoy it.
If you participate in this phase, I recommend finding a working definition of justification from both. From there, read Protestant and Catholic sources old and new. It will be an informative trip through time. Take a look at the Council of Trent pronouncements and Catechisms of the Catholic Church. Read Martin Luther and John Calvin; and visit sites like Ligonier Ministries and Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry. You will undoubtedly read about infused righteousness (Catholic position) and imputed righteousness (reformers/Protestant position). Check these positions against the Scriptures, praying for discernment. Read carefully. Please be aware that the Catholic concept of justification is a many faceted process that amongst other things includes sacraments, indulgences, and purgatory. You will need to look at each part of the picture and see how they all connect in order to compare the process to the Scriptures. They are so connected that if one fails to be true biblically, the process falls short.
To aid you at this phase, I have added a new page under Apologetics called Study Burst: Doctrine of Justification. It includes some resources I’ve turned to over the past week or so as well as some I’ve had for a long time.
Phase Three: Look at justification biblically again
By the time you get to phase three, you are going to KNOW something about justification. That’s great! Once you are there, take a look at justification biblically again. Reread the relevant verses and let God’s word cement in your heart. I pray that your joy in the Lord has increased and that you are now better prepared to give a defense for the hope that is in you. (1 Peter 3:15)
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Thanks, Sharon, for your diligent study and sharing your research and wisdom w/us. Very thoughtful and significant information on word usage in scripture.
You’re welcome, Eleanore. It is a topic worth giving a lot of time to.