The Varying Theological Views of Justification

This is an awfully theological sounding title and is not typical of what I do on this blog. But as a result of the previous post I just wanted to study a little more on this justification issue. In particular I will be looking at how the major dominations differ in their views of justification. In order to make this manageable let’s break this down into different paragraphs. I will start with the Roman Catholics and Orthodox churches and then show how as a result of the Protestant Reformation others came to view it. Just to understand the magnitude I am going to put some rough estimates on the church memberships being covered. Due to not being unable to discern practices of non-denominational churches which number in the thousands they will not be covered here. All told there are about 35,000 different Christians sects.


  • Roman Catholics — The Roman Catholic church who have about 1 billion members, like almost all Christian sects, asserts that people are unable to make themselves righteous; instead, they require “justification.” Roman Catholics believe justification to be a three step process that goes on throughout a person’s life. The first step is accomplished through baptism. The person then progresses in his Christian life, he continues to receive God’s grace both directly through the Holy Spirit as well as through the sacraments. This has the effect of combating sin in the individual’s life, causing him to become more righteous both in heart and in action. This is progressive justification, or “being made righteous”. The last step is the individual’s works will then be evaluated. At that time, those who are righteous will be shown to be so. This is the “final justification.”


  • Orthodox Church — The Orthodox Church, like the Roman Catholic Church, believe that justification is a process. Within Christianity, the term orthodox occurs in the Eastern Orthodox, Western Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox churches as well as in Protestant denominations like the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. The most prominent one I believe is the Eastern Orthodox Church which broke off from the RCC sometime in the 5th century. Its members, who total about 225 million, think of themselves as being the original church and that the Roman Catholic Church split off from them. I personally have not studied this so have no opinion on who is the oldest. Anyway, their views of justification are very similar to the RCC. They mainly differ in the last of the three stages. That is what happens at the final judgment.


  • Lutherans — Lutherans who have about 20 million members in 20 or more different denominations, generally believe that justification is an event rather than a process. They believe that justification is in no way dependent upon the thoughts, words, and deeds of those justified through faith in Christ. The new obedience that the justified sinner renders to God through sanctification follows justification as a consequence, but is not part of justification. The degree of works that is part of sanctification varies from person to person and is up to each individual to determine for themselves. Lutherans believe that it is possible to lose justification but only by a total loss of faith and basic rejection of God.


  • Methodists — Methodists who have about 75 million members in 50 or more denominations, also believe that justification is an event. John Wesley, who is the founder of the Methodist Church, was heavily influenced by the thoughts of Jacob Arminius and the Governmental theory of atonement. He held that God’s work in us consisted of grace, which undoes the effects of sin sufficiently that we may then freely choose to believe. An individual’s act of faith then results in becoming part of the body of Christ, which allows one to appropriate Christ’s atonement for oneself, erasing the guilt of sin. However, once the individual has been so justified, one must then continue in the new life given; if one fails to persevere in that new life or if he in fact falls away from God in total unbelief, the attachment to Christ and with it, justification can be lost.


  • Reformed Church — The reformed church who has hundreds of different denominations and counts about maybe 80 million members, gets much of it’s doctrine from John Calvin. Calvin basically believed that God chooses some to go to heaven but most to go to hell and that choice is God’s alone and therefore has nothing to do with the person themself. Therefore many of them consider the process is an event instituted by God and therefore can never be lost by the “chosen”. It must be noted that some churches usually identified as “reformed” do not follow this theology and therefore may have different views of Justification.


Wikipedia, which much of the information comes from, summarizes these differences in the following table.


Tradition Process
Permanence Justification
Roman Catholic Process Synergism Can be lost via mortal sin Part of the same process
Lutheran Event Divine monergism Can be lost via loss of faith Separate from and prior to sanctification
Methodist Event Synergism Can be lost Dependent upon continued sanctification
Orthodox Process Synergism Can be lost via mortal sin Part of the same process of theosis
Reformed Event Divine monergism Cannot be lost Both are a result of union with Christ

As a summary the Reformation churches and the Reformed churches (about 30% of Christians) generally take man and his actions out of the process of Justification whereas the Catholic and Orthodox churches (about 70% of Christians) hold that justification comes from God but requires action by Christians to come to completion. Who is right about this?  They both can’t be.

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