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UCGia Bible Insights Thursday, August 17 2023

What does it mean to be justified?

The words justification, justify, justified and just are found numerous times in both the Old and New Testaments. Both the Hebrew tsadaq and the Greek dikaiosis refer to justification, meaning "made righteous." Justification means to be made righteous in God's sight.

by Ken Murray

Righteousness is having the same character as our holy, righteous God. Paul encouraged us to understand the importance of being justified or made righteous before God, because it has a lot to do with our calling.

"Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified: and whom He justified, these He also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?" (Romans 8:30-32).

It is clear from Scripture that being justified or made righteous is an important part of our personal salvation, but there are many different viewpoints about what justification is.

The Catholic viewpoint was formulated at the Council of Trent (A.D. 1547), primarily to counter Martin Luther and other Protestants who promoted divergent views about justification being grace versus works: "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" (Canon 12, Council of Trent).

Catholics believe that it is not only faith in God that justifies a person, but that it also entails works. They believe in obeying their version of the commandments, participating in sacraments, going to church, doing penance, giving alms, reciting prayers and so on, to merit salvation. The Catholic Church teaches faith is important; but it also insists on the necessity of good works to merit eternal life.

Most Protestants have a different viewpoint and base their beliefs upon their early founders, such as Luther, who believed justification only comes by faith in Christ and does not require the works the Catholics believe in, either before or after faith is exercised. According to Luther, by faith God justifies us, for the sake of Christ, and no longer imputes to us our sins. If we continue in faith, He will treat us as if we are just and holy, even if we remain the same sinners as before.

Catholics criticize Luther by quoting statements made by him in a letter written to Melancthon in 1521: "Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ more strongly, who triumphed over sin, death, and the world; as long as we live here, we must sin." Also, they criticize him for saying: "If adultery could be committed in faith, it would not be a sin" ("Justification," Catholic Encyclopedia).

Martin Luther was also critical of Catholic ideas regarding justification and works: "How they mislead people with their good works! They call good works what God has not commanded, as pilgrimages, fasting, building and decorating their churches in honor of the saints, saying mass, paying for vigils, praying with rosaries, much prattling and bawling in churches, turning nun, monk, priest, using special food, raiment or dwelling—who can enumerate all the horrible abominations and deceptions? This is the pope's government and holiness" (Sermons of Martin Luther, www.trinitylutheranms.org/MartinLuther/MLSermons/Mathew21ConcerningGoodWorks.html).

The problem of people being confused about how they can be justified or made righteous before God was something Paul had to deal with. On the one hand, some Jewish people in the Church were boasting of their law keeping (Romans 2:17 and 3:27). On the other hand, he had to correct the Gentiles in the Church who were also proud of their newfound knowledge and spiritual gifts and felt that God was somehow indebted to them to reward them with salvation (1 Corinthians 4:7).

Paul answered the extremism of both camps when he said: "Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been His counselor? Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?" (Romans 11:34-35). It is a common fault of mankind to think that because of the good things we do, God owes us salvation. It is important to understand that we don't earn righteousness by self-righteously keeping God's laws. Paul explained "that a man is not justified [or made righteous] by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ…for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified" (Galatians 2:16).

In other words, there is a right sequence to becoming righteous in God's sight, beginning with coming to believe and have faith in the "true God" (1 John 5:20). Secondly, when we grow in faith, we see our sins and our need to repent and be baptized. At this point we are forgiven by God's grace (free unmerited pardon) and are considered righteous before God.

Thirdly, we continue to remain righteous in God's sight when we obey and live by His laws, instead of our own customs and religious ceremonies (1 John 3:3-4). The Apostle James clarified this point by saying: "You see then that a man is justified [considered righteous] by works, and not by faith only" (James 2:24). If we slip, we should exercise faith and repentance immediately and correct our mistake.

Each year when we perform the foot washing, and partake of the unleavened bread and the wine during the Passover, it is an annual reminder of our baptism and renewal, being rewashed, recleansed, forgiven and made righteous or justified in God's sight. We should put to death the old man or old woman, just as Paul admonished us (Ephesians 4:22-24), and then, through daily faith, repentance and loving obedience, we will be considered justified or righteous in God's sight.