Justification by Faith

The trial of Martin Luther in Diet of Worms
The trial of Martin Luther in Diet of Worms

The term justification by faith refers to a Christian doctrine that has its roots in the Bible but became crucially important during the Reformation controversy in the 16th century. In recent years, progress has been made on resolving this key issue, which divides the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches.

In order to understand the term, it is helpful to take it apart. Justification is a word often used in a legal sense. A person may be justified in breaking the speed limit if it was necessary in order to get someone to the hospital.

Instead of getting a fine, he or she is excused before a judge who has authority to declare that the person is not guilty for a particular reason. Faith is a word that implies belief and trust. People have faith that their parents want the best for them.

Justification by faith then refers to Christians’ belief that they have been declared or made “not guilty” by reason of Jesus Christ’s death on the cross. It has to do with the foundational aspects of a person’s relationship to God according to Christian teaching.


The concept of justification by faith is found in the Bible, most clearly in the letters of Paul. His letter to the Romans uses the example of the biblical figure Abraham. Abraham believed in the promises of God, and as Paul puts it, that faith “was credited to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:22).

St. Paul applies the example of Abraham to all Christians, holding that Abraham’s faith was the same faith as a Christian’s, looking forward to God’s saving action for his people. Justification is a freely given gift of God.

Paul also drew a contrast between faith and works (or good deeds) in justification. The good deeds done by a person, while counting for something, count nothing in his or her meriting eternal life. On this issue turned much in the Reformation controversy described later.

But if the gift is freely given, why do most Christians teach that some people go to heaven and others to hell? What is the role of human will? If we need to do something in order to get to heaven, how much do we need to do? Will it be enough? If we have done something in order to merit eternal life, does that take away from what Jesus did on the cross? While the questions may seem finicky, much ink and blood have been spilled over them.

In the centuries following the events of the Bible, those very questions resulted in various theological points of view. Augustine of Hippo is best known for his clarification and refinement of the doctrine of justification by faith, which set the stage for the rest of Western Christianity.

Against his opponents (particularly those advocates of the Manichean and Pelagian heresies), Augustine taught that a person has free will, but one that is limited and tainted by the human condition. Thus a person participates in justification, but more in the sense of standing before a judge. Echoing St. Paul, Augustine would hold that there is no good work a person can do to balance out his or her justly deserved sentence.

Martin Luther and the Reformation

More than 1,000 years after St. Augustine the issue of justification by faith boiled into a raging controversy, which resulted in the fracturing of the Roman Catholic Church. In the years preceding 1517, the sale of indulgences had become increasingly popular.

Indulgences were certificates issued under the authority of the church that absolved people from certain penalties due to their sins. These were now sold, and those selling them promised forgiveness of all sins and seemingly an easy entry to heaven. While this was not official church teaching, the way the indulgences were sold implied this easy entry.

Martin Luther objected strenuously to the sale of indulgences, arguing that a piece of paper could not gain entry to heaven, since nothing a person could do could result in entry to heaven. God’s grace alone was the cause of the justification of the sinner.

While Luther first intended a theological debate, his argumentative style and the various political undercurrents of the time resulted in a defensive posture on the side of the Catholic Church. All agreed that one is justified by faith, but the nuances of the role of works (and the related issue of indulgences) were positions of sharp disagreement.

Luther was excommunicated for his beliefs in 1521, but that did not put the issue to rest. Several attempts to reconcile the issue were made, with the Marburg Colloquy in 1538 nearly bringing the issue to a positive resolution.

Council of Trent

Council of trent

When the Council of Trent was called by Pope Paul III, there was initial hope that the issues between Catholic and Protestant would be resolved. Luther had originally called for such a council in the early years of the Reformation, but by 1545 there was little hope that the council would include Protestant participation.

Nevertheless, when the council took up the issue, it produced a fairly nuanced statement on justification by faith. The council was concerned to refute the Lutheran position but had to take care not to condemn positions held by differing schools within the Catholic Church (most notably the Augustinians).

Long discussions regarding the wording of the statement were held, and finally after seven months of debate, the statement was issued. In the statement, there was a definition of justification by faith, and then followed 33 Canons, each ending with “let him be anathema” (cast out of the church).

It is interesting that the very first canon states something with which Catholic and Protestant would heartily agree:
If anyone shall say that man can be justified before God by his own works which are done either by his own natural powers, or through the teaching of the Law, and without divine grace through Christ Jesus: let him be anathema.
On the other hand, Canon 9 was aimed well at the Lutheran position:
If anyone shall say that by faith alone the sinner is justified, so as to understand that nothing else is required to cooperate in the attainment of the grace of justification, and that it is in no way necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the action of his own will: let him be anathema.
Thus the Council of Trent worked to clarify Catholic teaching and draw a firm line between it and Lutheran teaching. Between the end of the Council of Trent in 1563 and the Vatican II Council in 1963, there were few significant changes to the positions of the Catholic and Protestant Churches.

Vatican II did not revisit the issue of justification by faith, but did open the door for further dialogue with other churches. Dialogues began in earnest in 1967 patterned after dialogues that had been held in the previous 40 years by various Protestant churches, bringing together both leaders and theologians from the churches.

Such dialogues are limited in their authority. Agreement on an issue in a dialogue is similar to two ambassadors’ negotiating an agreement on behalf of their country. If the ambassadors come to an agreement, the agreement must still be ratified by the leaders of the countries before it is accepted.

Dialogues were held on the specific issue of justification by faith between the Lutherans and Catholics both in the United States and in Germany. The result of these dialogues was the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.

The Joint Declaration did not “solve” all the differences between Catholic and Protestant on the issue, but did resolve some of the differences that were matters of misunderstanding and worked to provide a common basis for further dialogue.