Some questions about justification and righteousness

John Calvin

John Calvin (1509-1564)

I am pretty busy with thesis research right now, and now packing for a move, so I thought I would try something different: some questions, asked particularly of Protestants, but really of anybody who would like to reply. This is not to stir up a contentious debate (though a friendly, academic discussion would be fine with me) — but more to get a sense, as I’ve been trying recently, of how other Christians view Christ and understand their theology. So, here goes:

  1. What is righteousness before God? How do you define it?

  2. What is justification? How is it accomplished?

  3. What is sanctification? How is that accomplished?

  4. Is it possible for any human to become “righteous” in any way or degree during his or her lifetime? How, or why not?

  5. What was John Calvin’s favorite flavor ice cream?

27 thoughts on “Some questions about justification and righteousness

  1. Serious consideration necessary in order to answer these. The only one I could possibly attempt to comment on is the question on ‘sanctification’. We are sanctified by cleansing Baptismal water and through the sanctifying Graces received through the Sacraments of Reconciliation, the Eucharist, Confirmation, marriage, ordination and the Last Rite.

    • In Protestant theology, there’s a very distinct difference between justification — the declaration that one is righteous due to Christ’s imputed righteousness, and therefore does not have one’s sin counted against oneself, and sanctification — the process by which one actually becomes holy and righteous — I think. That’s one of the reasons I’m asking this. I’m not quite sure how Protestants understand sanctification. For Catholics, justification and sanctification are part of the same process, and are practically synonymous with each other: the process of actually being made righteous and holy — and you are right, this is through the Sacraments. But coming from a Protestant background, I still tend to see something of a distinction between the two: not in how it happens, since the Sacraments accomplish both, but in different aspects of the Holy Spirit’s work. Justification acquits us juridically of our sin, and sanctification washes away the stain of sin and infuses us with righteousness and love.

        • It’s in the Catechism (see especially CCC 1987-1995). But you’re right, I have not heard Catholics talk about it much in homilies or conversation or even in RCIA. To Catholics, the practical matter is what we do to have our sins forgiven — which is called justification, in technical, theological terms. Because it was one of the major points of division in the Reformation, the Council of Trent spent a lot of time talking about it, and it continues to be key in discussions with Protestants.

  2. I’ll give it a go! Playing my former self off my current event :p

    1.What is righteousness before God? How do you define it?

    Righteousness is the quality of being in a right relationship with God and being perfectly holy in His sight. The two are equivalent because we can’t be in a relationship with God when we are sinful, and utterly depraved.

    2.What is justification? How is it accomplished?

    Justification is the declaration that we have been put into this state of righteousness. It is an instanteous and judicial and gives us a new identity.

    3.What is sanctification? How is that accomplished?

    Sanctification is the slow, gradual change whereby this outward identity becomes our inward identity, and we are made holy. This, however, is also dependent on and lesser to our justification. When we are finally judged, we will be judged on whether we are justified, not whether we are sanctified.

    The analogy I would use is that when we are adopted, we are adopted, no matter how badly behaved we are. Or when we are married, our behaviour doesn’t alter our marriedness.

    Sancitifcation is important but it’s only the fruit of justification and if you put too much emphasis on it, you will end up diminishing Christ’s work in justifying sinners, which is the essence of the Gospel.

    When will be completely sanctified at the Second Coming of Christ, when what was sown perishable is raised imperishable etc. 1 Co 15. This was happen in a twinkling in a eye. In that way, our sanctification in this life is more about being a missional witness for Christ, “that they may see your good works and praise God” etc, than for ourselves.

    4.Is it possible for any human to become “righteous” in any way or degree during his or her lifetime? How, or why not?

    No, righteousness is an either-or state. Christ is righteous, Christians are righteous only insofar as they are united to Him in both His active and passive obedience, in perfectly fulfilling all righteousness. This why Paul addresses Christians as saints.

    5.What was John Calvin’s favorite flavor ice cream?

    John Calvin likes (Swiss) chocolate ice cream, but he is adamantly against gelato. If you eat gelato, you are reprobate.


    • It took me a minute or two to realize you answering in your Calvinist voice. A very good imitation. 😉 That sounds a lot like other things I have heard from them.

      (In seriousness: we believe as Catholics that one doesn’t have to be completely perfect to be called “righteous,” right? — since a lot of imperfect people, including David and Abraham, are discussed continually in Scripture as being righteous.)

      And yes, those reprobate Romanists and their gelato.

      • Haha, it should be a good impression – I was a Calvinist for five years! 🙂 And yep, as far as I understand it, righteousness is not complete sinlessness, as people are constantly being referred to as righteous in the Bible, including John the Baptist’s parents.

        If I was still a Calvinist Protestant, I’d hit back and say that Rom 3 clearly states that no one is righteous, not even one, and that Paul directly equates righteousness with sinlessness. And then we’d have a stand-off and hopefully, the Catholic would then raise the whole issue of interpretation and sola Scriptura and then… I’d see the need for an authoritative interpretor and become Catholic. 😉

  3. Meant to add to Qu 4 – and no, no one can be completely righteous in this life. I’m not sure why. Probably because it’s Wesleyan and we are Calvinists. 😉

  4. 2. and 3. are beyond my available time/current capacity to answer in a proper manner. So as for the others:

    1. I think righteousness is a state of mind more than anything; recognizing and accepting the sovereignty of God and one’s need for a salvation one could never deserve (Take that, Pelagians!) Maybe that kind of gets at 2. and 3. as well, come to think of it.

    4. Yes, I think people can achieve a DEGREE of righteousness during their lives, by making the spiritual journey outlined above. The Bible describes Abraham and other figures as “righteous” individuals, and certainly they were people who took those steps. So, yes, although I don’t think it can be complete in this life.

    5. Definitely Rocky Road. Preferably with a side of Baked Alaska. (Get it?)

    • Thanks, Travis. I definitely agree about Abraham. He certainly wasn’t sinless — nor was David — though some Calvinists especially like to argue that in order to be “righteous” one must be without blemish. When Catholics talk about saints being sanctified in this life, nobody means that they are completely without sin — just that they have been transformed by Christ’s love to the point that they don’t commit grave sins and live a life of His love and grace.

  5. Joseph, I apologize to you for being less that Christian in my treatment of you on my blog in the past. You mentioned this reality on Sacred Struggler’s blog, and I wanted to apologize to you and tell you that I’m sorry for my treatment of you in the past. Please forgive me.

  6. “Sanctifcation is important but it’s only the fruit of justification and if you put too much emphasis on it, you will end up diminishing Christ’s work in justifying sinners, which is the essence of the Gospel.”

    I like that answer.

    I would probably lean towards not putting any emphasis on it. Because sanctification is also the Lord’s work, in us, we ought trust that “He who began a good work in us will bring it to completion…”

    Gerhard Forde said, “Sanctification is forgetting about yourself”.

    Justification and sanctification are two sides of the same coin.


    Calvin’s favorite ice cream? Geneva almond swirl with chocolate sauce.

    • Thanks for the reply. 🙂 I think Laura (who is a Catholic convert like me) was being a little facetious, doing her best Calvinist interpretation. We definitely believe justification and sanctification are equal parts of the same process.

      And mmm, Calvin’s favorite ice cream sounds yummy.

    • Hey, yes unfortunately, I was being a little facetious. 🙂 I did used to believe that but I’ve come to see that our personal sanctification can’t and doesn’t detract from the work of God, because it is completely the fruit and goal of that work. Christ died to save us and bring us to perfect union with the Trinity in Heaven, a process that includes what Protestants generally refer to as justification and sanctification.

      It isn’t merely a fruit, it is the goal too. It’s why we get justified, so we can be completely sanctified. 🙂 Indeed, we Catholics would say that while we’re initially justified when we are baptised/receive the Holy Spirit/are born again, we are completely justified when we are completely sanctified.

      Given that both justification and sancitifcation (understanding them in their Protestant meanings) are both the work of God in our lives, why do you think we should emphasise on and not the other? Or, to use your analogy, why don’t you think we should put “any emphasis” on one side of the coin and all on the other? Why not simply “emphasise” the coin itself?

      (Also, looking above, I saw that there’s no question of how important sancitifcation is in your questions, Joseph! The whole question of “importance” or “emphasis” could be a completely useless one. Because thinking about it, I’m not even sure what I meant about “emphasis”, only that it felt right writing it and obviously resonated!)

      • Thank you, dear Laura. You’re helping me understand a lot. Having never been a Calvinist, I have a hard time wrapping my head around the way Calvinists think. I used to faintly agree with the Protestant ideas of “salvation by faith alone” and such, acclaiming the passages in Paul that Protestants read as such, but now going back and reading those passages, I can’t see how I ever saw it that way at all. When one understands — as should be clear from the context — that the “works” he is talking about are works of the Mosaic Law — everything he says is entirely consistent with Catholic theology and doesn’t even suggest sola fide. I’m beginning to think that what Luther did that was new was not so much that he “discovered justification by faith, not works” — which the Catholic Church has always affirmed (cf. Council of Trent, 1547: Sixth Session, Canon I “On Justification”), in the sense that we don’t think anyone can “merit salvation” through his or her own works — but that he interpreted “works” as “anything we do to please God, including the Sacraments.”

        Now, I have a very hard time even distinguishing between justification and sanctification. Holding over the Protestant idea of those terms, justification abrogates the guilt of our sins and declares us righteous, while sanctification purifies us and transforms us and makes us holy and righteous. But the way justification nullifies our guilt is by Jesus forgiving our sins and blotting them out, not by declaring something holy and righteous that’s not holy and righteous. Protestants accuse us of detracting from Christ’s work by saying that we can be sanctified by our works done through the grace of the Holy Spirit — but really it is they who are detracting, by denying the power of Christ to actually forgive sins and wash them away and obliterate them, to make us actually righteous.

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