J is for Justification

The Worldwide Anglican and Reformed Churches both chose to mark the 500th anniversary of Luther’s theses by endorsing an agreement written by Lutheran and Roman Catholic theologians: the so-called Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1999).

But what is “justification”?

Christians understand history (collective and individual) in terms of a broken relationship. Bad actions have harmed the human relationship with God. Justification is the process of mending it.

While Jerome was busy translating the Bible for Latin-speakers, Augustine was thinking about brokenness. As a young man he behaved badly. He knew this, but he struggled to change. The turning point occurred when he read part of a letter written by Paul to Christians in Rome. From Paul, Augustine learned to rely on God.

Paul had told the Roman Christians that what was necessary to repair the relationship with God was faith. No deeds could make the difference. Following rules would not help. The necessary action was believing.

Faith would “make right” the relationship with God. Jerome translated this “making right” with the Latin verb iustificari. It provides the root of our English word “justification”.

Paul was not the only New Testament writer to talk about “making right”. James wrote strongly about the importance of doing good deeds. Faith was meaningless without action. For James, deeds were part of mending broken relationships. The “making right” involved doing right.

Like Augustine, Luther liked Paul’s account. He stressed faith’s importance by adding “allein” (alone, only) to his translation of Romans 3:28. He also moved James’ letter to the back of his bibles.

Looking at these texts today, it seems obvious that they are based on different circumstances and addressed to different communities. But the debate about who “makes right” and how is at least as old as Christianity.


Featured image: Detail from Luther’s 1522 New Testament, Wittenberg edition, showing Romans 3:28 “alleyn durch de[n] glawben”, ‘through faith alone’. Courtesy of Basel University Library.

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