It's not often that a theological word like justification makes headlines, but with the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification signed by the Lutheran and Catholic churches on Sunday, it's been in the news all week. As church historian Douglas A. Sweeney pointed out on Tuesday in an earlier article, the doctrine has been called "first and chief article" of Protestant Christianity, indeed the article "on which the Church stands or falls." So today we take a look at two articles from the Christianity Today archives, one (from a 1986 issue on America's Catholics) examining the Roman Catholic view and another, presented here, examining the traditional Protestant understanding of the term. It ran as an unsigned editorial in our October 24, 1975 issue.

The doctrine of justification by faith alone lay at the heart of the Reformation. But as we celebrate the Reformation this year we need to remember that in a sense we are justified by works.

The central question raised by the doctrine of justification is how God can himself be just and also the justifier. How is it possible for God to retain his own integrity, keep his law, and at the same time forgive the sinner? This dilemma is based upon a prior fact: God has ordained that the soul that sins shall die. Sin has consequences; penalties are exacted against those who despise God's law and do violence to his holiness.

Everywhere Scripture bears testimony to the truth that man cannot make himself right in the eyes of God by what he does. His works, no matter how good, are insufficient. Both in quality and quantity they are inadequate, because they are intermingled with the reality of sin.

God's solution was to send Jesus as the one who would make it possible for God to remain just and at the same time to justify sinful man. By his active and his passive obedience, Jesus became our mediator. He lived sinlessly and died in our place. Jesus kept the law of God perfectly. He also submitted himself voluntarily to death on the cross in order to satisfy the full demands of the law. As a result, sinful man, by accepting Jesus as his substitute, can be forgiven and made righteous before God—justified. This is the glory of Scripture, the testimony of the early Church, and the truth recovered by the Reformation.

But it was works that made the justification of man possible—the works of Jesus. And the justification of man makes good works not only possible but mandatory. They are the necessary fruit of justification; their absence is proof positive that there has been no justification. Paul says that no one can be justified by works, that justification comes by faith alone. James, complementing rather than contradicting what Paul says, asserts that the absence of good works in the life of one who professes to be justified is an impossibility. Works are outward evidences of justification, just as the signs and wonders that Jesus did were proofs of this messiahship. Jesus said that the tree that did not produce fruit was to be cut down.

... Christ died for all people, but this does not mean that everybody is therefore justified. Nor does it mean that every person is therefore justified. Nor does it mean that every person is already in Christ whether or not he knows it. It means that the invitation is open to all persons. A hungry man who is invited to sit and eat at a banquet will remain hungry if he stands beside the table but does not eat. ...

Those who spur God's gracious invitation must experience his wrath. On Reformation Sunday we need to remember that there can be no greater works, no greater fruit of justification, that telling sinners the good news that Christ died for them.

Related Elsewhere

Today's other article on justification, "Are We Speaking the Same Language?" presents a Jesuit theologian's explanation of how Catholics view the doctrine. It is from the November 7, 1986 issue of Christianity Today.

Christian History Online, a sister publication, has an excellent historical perspective on the Lutheran-Catholic Justification Agreement on its site this week (as well as a listing of events that occurred this week in church history). But hurry—the article will disappear on Friday, November 5.