Grace and Debt – How do we Understand Legal Terminology in Paul?

Christ Pantocrator and the Last Judgement, Mosaic in the Baptistery of San Giovanni in Florence  (From Wikimedia Commons)
Christ Pantocrator and the Last Judgement, Mosaic in the Baptistery of San Giovanni in Florence
(From Wikimedia Commons)

The discussion of justification in my past two posts have brought up a lot of good discussion in the comments revealing the great discomfort that Orthodox Christians seem to feel with forensic (i.e., legal) terms used to describe justification. Nevertheless, such forensic terms are quite dominant in Paul’s language, and the Fathers use them as well. We cannot completely rid ourselves of this manner of speaking, no matter how hard we try. The important thing to remember here is that such concepts are used iconologically to describe a divine mystery through the legal concepts of guilt, acquittal, law, freedom, etc. We need not press these concepts too far, though they are significant for us to be able to understand the fullness of our salvation in Christ. But if we carefully examine the forensic language in Paul, something very interesting emerges: “Christ is the end (telos) of the Law for righteousness for those who believe” (Romans 10:4).

In other words, whatever legal concepts we use to describe sin, forgiveness, divine judgment, and justification, Christ is ultimately the end of the forensic concept itself, both in terms of the ceasing of the Law and its fulfillment. When we look back upon the Cross and our justification by the blood of Jesus, we are looking back to a point whereby legal categories and a legal relationship with God are both ended and fulfilled. Let me explain a bit further.

Forensic Terms in Paul

Paul is speaking about Torah/nomos in the Jewish sense of divine statutes, precepts, and commandments which are found within a legal system to which Israel was bound as if to a husband or a slave master (Rom. 6:15-7:6). Paul speaks of being confined under sin by Torah, which brings knowledge of sin. He also speaks in terms of “righteous requirement” of the Torah, dikaioma, which can refer to the divine commandment itself (Rom. 2:26), God’s judgment according to the commandment (1:26, 8:4), and fulfillment of the righteous requirement, i.e., justification (5:16, 18). Other forensic terms are used as well aside from the dikaio- word group, such as krima (“judgment”), katakrima (“condemnation”), eleutheria (“freedom”), opheilema (“debt”), not to mention nomos (“law”) itself.  These are all very stark, forensic terms. So, while there is metaphor and imagery (icon), these terms are nevertheless stark in representing the absolute perfection required by God, and failure to keep it renders one liable to judgment and condemnation. But, “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, for the Law of the Spirit of Life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:1).

The Christian and the Law

It seems as though Paul conceived of Torah/Law in different ways than James, as I explained in my last post. Paul takes a very pessimistic view of it, seeing it mainly as an impossible requirement which could never be met and which was given for the purpose of confining all under sin so that all might receive the grace of God through Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:19-20). James, on the other hand, is much more positive in his approach, conceiving of the Torah in the vein of his contemporary Jews as a divine principle of righteousness woven into the very fabric of the cosmos, as a reflection of the divine Wisdom by which the universe was created. The Jews of the Second Temple period began to bring the concept of Wisdom (as seen in the Proverbs) into alignment with Torah, and we see this in places like Psalm 1, 19(18), 119(118), etc. It is really amazing to see how the Jews waxed so eloquently about the Torah in such a way, and as such one can see then the Pauline and Johannine insistence that this “divine principle” by which the cosmos was created is not Torah per se but Christ the Logos, or in Pauline terms, “Christ, the wisdom and power of God” (1 Cor. 1:24). So then, continuing the forensic metaphor, we, being confined under sin and guilty of transgressing divine precepts, die to the Torah with Christ, i.e., to the very law which condemns us, and we are raised to live under a new Torah – the Torah of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus (i.e., the Logos and true “divine law”).

Thus, to be justified in Christ Jesus by faith in his blood, and to be baptized into his death and raised with him to walk in the newness of life by the Spirit, is to be freed from the very system of sin-law-judgment-condemnation itself. So the Christian is no longer under Torah as a forensic system of condemnation, but is now under the “Torah of Christ,” which is the true Logos and Wisdom, i.e., “Divine Law,” of God.

The Christian and Good Works

Paul therefore uses forensic language and leverages it in order to demonstrate that the forensic concept itself, seeking to be justified by works, only leads to condemnation. If, while we are condemned by the Law, we seek to be justified by keeping the Law, we find that it is impossible, for “all have sinned” (Rom. 3:23). Therefore, under this system, good works, the works of the Law, are counted as debt, for we are indebted to keep the Torah, as Paul says, “For Moses writes about the righteousness which is of the law, ‘The man who does those things shall live by them'” (Rom. 10:5).  Therefore, under the Law, good works cannot be counted as such but only as feeble attempts to establish our own righteousness, which is impossible before God.

But, because we are justified by faith, and thereby because of the grace of God, we no longer do good works in order to establish or attain righteousness before God. What then of works? Herein lies the beauty of all that we have talked about. Because we are free from having to do good works to attain righteousness (as a debt), the works that we do perform are done as a grace, freely and in freedom. We work, not because we owe a debt of good works to God, but rather we work in eucharistic thanksgiving to God and in conformity to his image (theosis). God performs righteous deeds in full freedom, and so we, in conformity to his image and standing in the freedom of justification, perform good works in freedom and not in debt. It is only because we are justified by faith that our works are not counted as debt but as truly good works, for if works are performed as a debt to attain to righteousness, then they are not good (eucharistic) but rather self-righteous. Rather, having attained to righteousness by faith in Jesus, our works are not aimed at attaining to righteousness, because we have already attained it. Instead, our works are performed in the full freedom of the Children of God, not as slaves owing a debt. “And if children, then heirs—heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17), and herein lies our deification in Christ—as adopted sons and daughters of God living in freedom to perform works of righteousness as a Eucharist to God, whereby our works are transformed into operations of the Spirit who abides in us.

Concluding the Matter

We could say then that Paul used forensic concepts in order to show the limits of them, to show that we are no longer under law (hence forensic categories) but under grace (Rom. 6:14). Again, Romans 10:4, “Christ is the end (telos) of the Law/Torah for righteousness for all who believe.” The Torah, and therefore all legal categories by which we are either excused or condemned by divine judgment, find their end, both in the cense of ceasing and final fulfillment, in Christ. We should, rather than being suspicious of these forensic terms, rejoice that they are there, because they get to the heart of the matter of how we relate now to the absolute standard of divine Wisdom/Logos, which is the substance of divine law to which we are held accountable as transgressors. Moreover, they demonstrate the true freedom of the Children of God, who are given freedom to work, not as to pay a debt, but as ministers of grace.

So we distinguish the concept of justification from the concept of theosis (deification, conformity to the image of Christ) in order to show how they are related to each other. Justification is the forgiveness of sins, the wiping away of our transgressions and the removal of the enmity between us and God that was caused by them. Having been forgiven of our sins, we have peace with God (Rom. 5:1). Now, this does not speak further about how we progress in divine grace to the complete likeness of Christ. Justification brings us from condemnation to peace, while theosis brings us from peace to likeness. Justification frees us from our debts to the Law, while theosis is our life lived in Eucharistic freedom.

I think some people have in mind that righteousness is a positive “thing” or “work” which we can attain to. No! That was Paul’s whole point! Righteousness cannot ever be attained to, because we cannot keep perfection. Rather we are forgiven of our sins and justified, not by trying to attain to something positive, but by receiving forgiveness from God freely. Then, we press on to attain the upward calling of God in Christ Jesus by living according to the Spirit. Justification allows us to attain, to work, to become like God, not the other way around. Unfortunately, I think a lot of contemporary Orthodox people gets this backward—we work in order to attain righteousness. No, we have been justified, therefore we live in freedom to work. Why? because when we are justified by faith our working is no longer counted as a debt to be paid. It doesn’t mean that we do not work; it only means that the aim or our working has changed from trying to attain justification to walking in the Spirit—theosis.


  1. There is nothing here a Lutheran would disagree with re that church’s distinction between justification and sanctification. I am not sure if that is good or bad, right or wrong.

    1. Lutheranism does add a few things to this, such as imputed righteousness, which is foreign to Orthodoxy and not present in my description. The righteousness bestowed upon us by grace in justification is not a “positive” virtue, but a cleansing and wiping away of sins.

  2. Eric, I hope you don’t mind if I comment again on your position, specially since, it seems to me, you present your point in a less historical view.

    Justification is the forgiveness of sins, the wiping away of our transgressions and the removal of the enmity between us and God that was caused by them. Having been forgiven of our sins, we have peace with God (Rom. 5:1).

    I personally don’t think that there is a distinction between our sins being forgiven and us being healed from their consequences in our souls. The law of sin has power, efficiency, just like natural laws, because of the inner properties and mechanisms in our soul and its passions. There are natural powers that God put in our souls, such as memory, desire, anger, and so on. And sin is when these powers are used contrary to their purpose. This sinful use is a transgression and it moves our attention, our face, away from God. This is the enmity between us and God. This is why we don’t have peace.

    Peace is absent in as much as there are factors that trouble the soul and try to move one’s attention from God’s love. This is what the Scripture calls death. Death is being like matter, governed and acting according to fix and predictable laws. The laws of sin. Our liberation from this law can be quick, but generally it is not. It takes time and effort. And with the grace of God it happens.

    Peace is not there in as much as we are not like Christ. It’s not that we don’t have peace until we didn’t achieve full Christ likeness. But it’s not like peace is the starting point toward a higher state of being. “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” I take it that as long as something sneaks in our hears and our minds, something contrary to the likeness and will of Christ, the peace of God is not fully guarding our hearts. A window is still broken. Or the door is largely open.

    You can, of course, define the moment of our turning towards God, in repentance, as “justification”. But I believe that it’s more important that we actually become “just”, as in being capable of discernment, of seeing what’s right and wrong, having the wisdom of Christ.

    Needless to say, I agree with you, good works, by themselves, do nothing at all to make as better. Actually, I don’t even think that one is capable of doing (only) good works if one doesn’t know what’s right or wrong. That is, without the Wisdom of Christ, without His grace, without Him living in us. That’s why, as you point out, Eucharist is essential and central.


    1. There are a lot of nuances to this, of course. When I speak of justification, I am speaking of something that happens at baptism, but can be damaged through a life of sin. It must be maintained by confession and repentance, but it is always a gracious gift of God. When we are baptized, we are justified, in that we are forgiven of our sins and cleansed from all impurity. We have total peace with God. But, we cannot maintain it, because we sin, yet when we repent, we are restored to a justified state and to peace with God. Yet, this initial justification is the primary and enduring element, because it is a justification that brings us into the adopted family of God, and as children and heirs of the promise, we have a new relationship with God, who deals with us as sons, not as slaves. Even if we stray long and far from God, he welcomes us as the Prodigal Son, and this parable is an apt description of justification. The prodigal did not have to “work” to be counted as a son and to be restored to a right relationship with his father. But, he did have to repent, to come back to the father’s house.

      1. When we are baptized, we are justified, in that we are forgiven of our sins and cleansed from all impurity.

        Good point! I’m getting closer to your meaning of “justification”. 🙂 It’s still not clear to me what “work” is in your view. Which, by the way, raises the important question of what happens to with those that haven’t been baptised. In a future post, I hope.

        Fun note, the prodigal son, although still a son in his Father’s eyes, still had to “walk” back home. 😉

        1. Let’s put it in mathematical terms. Sin places us in debt to God’s law, so we are in a negative range: x0. This positive range is deification (theosis), the increasing growth into the likeness of Christ. (And herein lies the fundamental difference from Protestantism). Justification (at baptism) brings us into a right relationship with God by removing our sin and the enmity that was between us and God. We still have a long way to go before we are fully transformed into the likeness of Christ, which we do by walking in the Spirit (to use Paul’s terminology).

      2. I don’t see how that was any different under the Law.

        Eze 18:21 But the wicked, if he will turn from all his sins which he has done, and keep all My statutes, and do justice and righteousness, living he shall live; he shall not die.

        Eze 18:30 I will judge you, each man by his ways, O house of Israel, declares the Lord YHWH. Turn and be made to turn from all your transgressions, and iniquity shall not be a stumbling-block to you.
        Eze 18:31 Cast away all your transgressions from you by which you have transgressed in them, andmake for yourselves a new heart and a new spirit; for why will you die, O house of Israel?
        Eze 18:32 For I do not have delight in the death of him who dies, declares the Lord YHWH. So turn and live.

        Deu 30:2 and shall turn back to YHWH your God and listen to His voice, according to all that I am commanding you today, you and your sons with all your heart, and with all your soul;

  3. At issue here is the relationship between justification and sanctification/theosis. 3 possibilities exist:

    1. They are indestinct and inseparable.

    2. They are distinct yet inseparable.

    3. They are distinct and separable.

    The Classic Reformational formulas have leaned to #2. Although modern evangalism has shifted more to #3.

    Who God justifies by faith he goes on to sanctify in varying degrees depending upon our participation.

    The issue the Reformers had is if our ultimate salvation is tied too closely to our performance or lack thereof, this would prevent anyone from having assurance of salvation. So instead of salvation being a free gift it becomes a spiritual state to be achieved. They felt that only when one is secure in his eternal destiny can he ever begin to freely love God out of sheer gratitude.

    1. I would say that modern Evangelicalism takes something like #1, in that they metonymically conceive of justification as being the whole of salvation. To be justified is to be “saved,” granted entrance into heaven, etc., all because of the alien, imputed righteousness of Christ given to the believer. This is not Orthodox, where in our scheme presented here, justification grants no imputed righteousness but is merely the forgiveness of sins and placing one in a right relationship with God. Theosis, then is the positive growth in grace into the likeness of Christ.

      1. Pop evangelism certainly makes the mistake listed in #1, but as one raised United Methodist and later became a traditional Anglican, I have to say that everything you wrote Mr. Jobe aligns with what I have been taught all my life. Dare I say that those Protestants who stick closely to the Magisterial Reformation are of the same opinion? At least from my reading of Luther, Bucer, Calvin, Cramner, and others, I think they would agree with you completely.

        1. There are important differences, such as imputed righteousness, which do not appear in my schema. Ultimately, justification as I have outlined it, is not something permanent that exists for a believe regardless of their conduct. As I have tried to reiterate time and again, justification must be maintained through a life of repentance and confession. This is very different than the Reformed doctrine.

          Yet, your comment points to another issue which I see coming through so much of this conversation, that is people (especially converts to Orthodox from Protestantism) need Orthodoxy to be different than Protestantism in an almost total sense. This is unrealistic and ahistorical. Furthermore, it speaks to the psychology of conversion rather than Orthodox theology itself. If Orthodoxy agrees with Protestantism at points (certainly not all), then why is that a problem? We read the same Pauline epistles, so why should we both not come up with similar readings of him. Now, again, there are significant differences which I have explained, but there is not need for their respective positions to be entirely distinct.

          1. In regards to imputed righteousness, the Reformers generally (certainly Luther and Calvin had their differences) would agree that justification is not something that exists without conduct conforming to being transformed into Christ. Luther and his followers would likely take the position all who are baptized are justified, but not all who are baptized remain justified if they do not produce works flowing from their justification. Of course Calvin would say not all who are baptized are justified (I disagree), but he would also point out that those who are justified must have works also. Could you elaborate more on how this differs from what you’ve explained? Now if we are talking about contemporary pop evangelicalism that wrongly describes imputed righteousness as a one-time ticket to heaven regardless how one acts then I would agree with your rejection of “imputed righteousness.” But this isn’t how the Reformers laid out their theology, at least in my reading and understanding of their confessions and writings.

            As to your second paragraph, I agree wholeheartedly. As I stated on your first installment, the rejection of justification and forensic terms prevented me from becoming Orthodox. I visited numerous parishes and discussed these topics with several priests and all had the same answer that Paul didn’t really mean what he wrote (the Western Protestants have somehow made a mess of Paul) and that forensic models and terms are “unOrthodox.” Yet when I read the Fathers and Scripture itself, it is their, although certainly not in the manner that pop evangelicalism harps on to the exclusion of theosis, Christus Victor, and other salvation models.

            I do agree that converts to Orthodoxy stress the differences with Protestantism, but at least in my journey, those raised in Orthodoxy and in positions of leadership held the same opinion as the converts (the converts had to learn it from someone!). You are a great voice and witness to American Orthodoxy’s contemporary ignorance to addressing justification and forensic terms/models, and I pray that you make great strides and in roads to “resurrecting” these ancient truths within the ancient Eastern Church.

          2. I think it goes back to my contention that justification or the righteousness that is obtained by justification is not a “positive” merit or credit. Here, I depart quite starkly with Roman Catholic theology in regard to the treasury of merits, etc. Righteousness is not a merit or a positive thing that can be counted. It is a wiping away of debts, to the point where a sinner is forgiven and placed in a right relationship with God, as when a criminal serves time and upon leaving prison, he has paid his debt and is therefore righteous in the sight of the law. If, however, a judge decides not to sentence a convicted criminal to a debt of prison time or a fine, then he is still in a righteous relationship with the law, since he has been forgiven. This is how Paul characterizes justification in Romans 4:7-8, “Blessed is the man whose lawless deeds are forgiven.” Now, again, the judicial or forensic language is used to emphasize that “Christ is the end of the Law” and in him we are no longer bound under legal categories of Torah, but rather we are bound to the Law of the Spirit of Life in Christ Jesus. So, when we sin, we are not found debtors to the Law (“I died to the Law that I might live unto Christ”), but a disobedient sons. This pairs well with ontological models of atonement, i.e. union with Christ, which is replete within Paul’s writings.

  4. “”In fact, the entire cleavage of justification and sanctification into two different themes—the former said to occur instantly, and the latter being a life-long process—is of relatively recent origin in the history of the Church. It was only in the first era of the Reformation, as the eminent Protestant scholar Allister McGrath points out, that “A deliberate and systematic distinction is made between the concept of justification itself (understood as the extrinsic divine pronouncement of man’s new status) and the concept of sanctification or regeneration (understood as the intrinsic process by which God renews the justified sinner).” He goes on to explain that: “The significance of the Protestant distinction between iustificatio and regeneratio is that a fundamental discontinuity has been introduced into the western theological tradition where none had existed before…The Reformation understanding of the nature of justification – as opposed to its mode – must therefore be regarded as a genuine theological novum [44].

    Interestingly enough, this unjustifiable cleavage has never been a part of Orthodoxy. After discussing the subject of theosis, Bishop Kallistos (Ware) explains: “By this time it will be abundantly clear that, when we Orthodox speak about salvation, we do not have in view any sharp differentiation between justification and sanctification. Indeed, Orthodox usually have little to say about justification as a distinct topic. I note, for example, that in my own book The Orthodox Church, written thirty years ago, the word ‘justification’ does not appear in the index, although this was not a deliberate omission. Orthodoxy links sanctification and justification together, just as St. Paul does in 1 Cor. 6:11: ‘You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.’ The references to justification in the opening chapters of Romans (for example 3:20, 24, 28), we understand in the light of Romans 6:4-10, which describe our radical incorporation through baptism into Christ’s death, burial and resurrection. We Orthodox, then, ‘see justification’ and ‘sanctification’ as one divine action…one continuous process,’ to use the words of the Common Statement issued by the Lutheran-Orthodox Dialogue in North America” [45].””

    [44] McGrath, Alister E., Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification-Vol. 1. Cambridge University Press, 1986, p. 182, 184, 186-187.

    [45] Ware, Kallistos, How Are We Saved? The Understanding of Salvation in the Orthodox Tradition. Light & Life Publishing, 1996, p. 48-49.

    From: Salvation By Christ: A Response to Credenda / Agenda on Orthodoxy’s Teaching of Theosis and the Doctrine of Salvation, by Carmen Fragapane

    1. This may be true, but it is something I disagree with on the principles I have described rather distinctly. I believe that Orthodoxy’s thought on justification may be a bit underdeveloped, because it has not yet fully engaged the issues predominating in the West. As something at occurs at baptism, justification is distinct from the growth in grace toward christ-likeness, yet it accompanies it. I never used the term “sanctification,” which I also see occurring mainly at baptism, as a person is separated unto God and made a member of his body. Also, regeneration, etc., and all of the things associated with Baptism. These are separate in Paul, though they are intimately connected, and I have explained how they are connected.

      It is crucial that we follow Paul in denying that anyone can achieve justification by trying to live according to divine law. If we are justified by works, then none could be justified. If we seek to be justified by works, then we have abandoned the Gospel and submitted ourselves again to the Torah. Yet, I have explained time and again that justification is a state that must be maintained by walking in the Spirit and constant repentance.

      One cannot say that justification and the growth in grace toward Christ-likeness are the same thing without doing massive violence to Scripture. Yet, this is not to deny that they are intimately connected, following each other in perfect complementation.

    2. I will reiterate, any gospel by which one seeks to establish one’s own righteousness before God by the works of the Law is completely other and different than the Gospel of Jesus Christ into which we were baptized, and St. Paul places all who preach such gospel under anathema. We do not work in order to gain justification! How can this not be clear?! Have Orthodox Christians abandoned Paul’s Gospel to return to Judaism? Rather, having been justified freely by God’s grace we live by the Spirit performing works in thanksgiving being transformed by the Spirit into the likeness of Christ. Anything less than this is a false gospel!

      1. “We do not work in order to gain justification! ”

        Actually we do. Lord Jesus Christ said that by the words you speak (human activity of the will) you will be justified or condemned.

        “Have Orthodox Christians abandoned Paul’s Gospel to return to Judaism?”

        This is the classical Protestant mistake. The works that justify are not the works of Judaism. The righteous live (living is “working”) by faith.

        In the Orthodox faith we seek to be justified (Gal 2:17)…always, even after we are justified in Baptism. It is eschatological (ie eternal) life, not only a point in time.

        1. You’re misunderstanding me. No person can be justified by trying to keep a code of law, any law, either the Mosaic Torah or otherwise. If you seek to establish your own righteousness before God, you will be condemned, because no person can keep perfection. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” We are forgiven our sins and brought into a right relationship with God – justified – and this is “not of ourselves, it is a gift of God not of works lest any man should boast.” Yet, – Gal 2:17 – if we seek to be justified by Christ, i.e. by faith and not by works, and we are yet found sinners, then “I make myself a transgressor.” That is to say, that after we have been justified, if we sin, we place ourselves again in a position as if we had not been justified. But God is gracious, therefore “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and JUST to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” It is God who justifies, not we ourselves. He forgives us our sins, because we cannot keep perfect righteousness. Justification, i.e. forgiveness, gives us freedom to work, to practice the virtues, not as trying to earn salvation, but in thanksgiving. Our confession, our repentance, here, is the faith by which we are justified – they are not works. If we are still about trying to earn justification by our works, then we undo the Cross and nullify the blood of the New Covenant. But, if we have faith in that blood, then we are justified, and by our continued faith exercised through repentance, we may live in the freedom of justification to perform good works to the glory of God.

          1. That’s what I understood you to be saying, yes. But honestly I can’t discern any difference between it and standard Protestant doctrine. If that is actually the case I’ll register my disagreement and again note the teaching of Met. Kallistos Ware, Alistair McGrath, St. Augustine, etc., to illustrate that “a fundamental discontinuity has been introduced into the western theological tradition where none had existed before…”

          2. Just to be clear. Justification is a beginning, but not the whole story of salvation. When we are justified, we are set on the path to glory, to be transformed into the image of Christ. Justification is a “place” in which we live, practicing the virtues in Eucharistic freedom. Justification must be maintained through repentance, because sin places us again in a state of un-rightness with God. But, if you think that we must earn justification through works, then this is not Orthodox, no matter what +Kallistos Ware says. Such thinking was anathematized by Paul very clearly. That is Judaism, or Islam, not the Cross of Christ. And, no, that is not “Protestant.” It seems as if, in seeking to differentiate yourself from what is “Protestant,” you have abandoned some of the basic principles of the Gospel!

          3. I don’t know if this could point toward a resolution to the apparent conflict between Luke’s and Eric’s formulations, but it seems to me it would be a mistake to understand the “works” of faith described in James as works produced by self-effort by which we “earn” something from God. I suspect neither McGrath nor Met. Kallistos would agree our works can “earn” us God’s grace or “obligate” God to do something for us He did not otherwise will to do. According to James, they are rather a description of what a “living faith” (faith actualized) really is and does. It is “works” (in the sense of this “living faith”) that “save” us both in the sense of justification and of sanctification. It seems to me the “faith that works” saves us by effectively in our experience connecting us to the grace of the Holy Spirit who indeed is the One at work within us to work and to will for God’s good pleasure and apart from Whom we can do nothing (John 15). This connects the kind of “works” (and “words,” in the example Luke cites) which can “save” inseparably both to the state of our heart (i.e., to the seat of our trust–to living “faith”) and also to the grace of the Holy Spirit at work within us.

          4. Yes, that is correct. This post was dealing with Paul’s use of forensic terms, so I was speaking in his terminology and within the theological system that he established. Nevertheless, if (to use non-Pauline terminology) we practice the virtues thinking that by doing so we can meet the righteous requirement of divine law, then we will fail and still be condemned. Even if we take James at his word, we still fail to “work” in such a way that we can justify ourselves before God. We can’t practice the virtues enough in order to meet the divine requirement. This is so clear in Paul, I am shocked that people have such a hard time understanding it. But, if we are forgiven our trespasses and sins and by grace set in a right relationship with God in faith, then we, having been given freedom from the law, we work, not to earn salvation but to actualize it in our lives. I just can’t see why this is so difficult to grasp. Are we so Judaized in our thinking that we have lost sight of grace? Have we taken up again the burden of the Law? This is very disturbing to me.

          5. Exactly, Karen. The pejorative, Protestant sense of the word “earn” is not what we do. But we do obtain, and acquire. This, too, is a part of being justified.

          6. Further to my last comment, and considering the lesson of the Good Thief we will soon ponder during Holy Week, I have read in the sayings of the Fathers words to the effect that “repentance” is the “greatest work” we can do, greater than all others, the implication being even if it (as a change in the disposition of the heart from unbelief to faith) is the only “work” we can do, it will save us. This, it seems to me, points to the power inherent in our initial justification and sanctification at Baptism, and also to the fundamental inseparability of a living faith that works, repentance, and the works of faith, all of which describe and spring from the same Spirit-activated reality in the heart of the believer.

          7. Coming from Paul, the main point I wanted to make in this post was that without first being justified by faith we cannot work in a way that is pleasing to God, because all such attempts are efforts to establish our own righteousness. But, being justified freely by His grace, we are granted freedom to work in the context of being sons and daughters of God, thus our works are effective for bringing us into conformity with the image of Christ. We do not work to establish justification (in the Pauline sense), but rather justification makes works possible. This does two things – (1) It reorients works from attempts to try to live up to a divine law that we cannot attain to toward a Eucharistic life, whereby our works are transformed by grace into something divine, leading to (2) in this context, works are reoriented from being a debt to divine law toward the freedom we have as children of God, which is theosis. If we work in order to obtain, then we are neither working eucharistically or in theosis, but rather as unbelievers. If, however, we “live in the grace in which we now stand” and work in thanksgiving as heirs of the promise, then our works are both eucharistic and divinized.

  5. “But we cannot obtain it on our own. It must be given by grace and received and actualized in virtue by faith.”

    Yes, of course.

  6. For a deeper survey of this issue I recommend, in addition to Salvation By Christ, by Carmen Fragapane, Beyond Justification, by Valerie Karras.

    An excerpt:

    Lucian Turcescu[58] has rightly criticized Orthodoxy for focusing so strongly on theosis that it has tended to ignore the “justification” side of the coin. However, I disagree with him that, simply because Jewish notions of justification had forensic significance, therefore Paul, or the early church, understood the term in the same legalistic way (in fact, Paul’s point in Romans is precisely to rid Jewish Christians of their forensic understanding of justification rooted in the Levitical law). Orthodoxy may emphasize theosis (correlated to “sanctification” in the Lutheran model) and see one continuous relational process between the human person and God,[59] but it does not ignore the distinction between justification and sanctification. Rather, the Eastern Church recognizes two purposes to the incarnation, which may be identified with justification and sanctification: restoring human nature to its prelapsarian state of “justification” and providing the possibility for true union with God through participation, respectively. The former purpose was necessitated by the Fall and has been the focus of Western soteriology. For the East the restoration of human nature to its prelapsarian potential (justification) explains why the Son of God took on humanity’s fallen human nature, i.e., why it was necessary for Christ to die and be resurrected. Hence, Orthodoxy agrees in affirming the free nature of that restoration through grace (in fact, Orthodoxy proclaims the gratuitous nature of our justification even more strongly than most of Western Christianity since it is given to all humanity, not just the “elect” or those receiving prevenient grace).[60] However, the Fall is not the primary reason for the incarnation itself since, as Maximos and others point out, the incarnation was always part of God’s plan since it was the means by which humanity could truly achieve salvation, understood as theosis or union with God, an approach which will be discussed in more detail in the following section.

    The Cross thus acquires ontological rather than forensic significance.[61] This is why juridical notions of atonement and justification cannot truly be reconciled with the soteriology underlying the christology of the ecumenical councils.

    1. I don’t think anything in that is in disagreement with what I have written, though I think such categorical statements as “This is why juridical notions of atonement and justification cannot truly be reconciled with the soteriology underlying the christology of the ecumenical councils” are fundamentally flawed and do not take into account the breadth of Christian theology both in the Scriptures and in the Fathers.

  7. “If we work in order to obtain, then we are neither working eucharistically or in theosis, but rather as unbelievers.”

    Yes. To put it the way the Apostle John does, “We love Him because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

  8. I disagree with Eric’s claim that for St Paul, justification is not something positive, but only the forgiveness of our past sins. St Paul teaches (1 Cor. 1:30) that Christ Himself is our wisdom, righteousness (justification), sanctification (holiness), and redemption. As the image of God in whose likeness we are being renewed (2 Cor. 3:18, 4:4), Christ Himself is our theosis. In Gal. 2:15-21, St Paul contrasts the false gospel of righteousness through the law (whether of Moses or of nature) with the true Gospel of righteousness through union with Christ, who gave Himself to be crucified for us *and* who lives in us so “the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us” (Rom. 8:4). Christ, as our compassionate physician, gives us undeserving sinners the medicine of works to perform for our healing (to believe in Him, John 6:27-29, and to repent and do works befitting repentance, Acts 26:14-20, cf. Eph. 2:10). Our cooperation with the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit, while necessary for us to abide and grow in our life in Christ, does NOT earn the gifts of forgiveness or eternal life (Rom. 6:23, 1 Cor. 4:7). But the need for human synergy with divine Grace (Phil. 2:12-13) explains why we are not justified by faith alone (James 2:14-26), and how the “doers of the law will be justified” on the Day of Judgment (Rom. 2:12-16, cf. Matt. 25:31-46).

    1. Justification is intimately connected to all of those things, even to such a degree that it becomes hard to distinguish between them, though identifying justification with all of those things, especially theosis is a part of the Protestant error, as I see it. On the one hand, they make a distinction between justification and sanctification, but they also take justification for the real essence of salvation. If we construe justification with theosis, we risk doing the same as well. Paul makes a clear distinction between justification which is the necessary condition that brings us peace with God leading to walking by the Spirit, which is analogous both to theosis (as a process) as well as James’ concept of “works” (Rom 5:1ff).

    2. The juridical paradigm of justification/salvation is challenged by the question of whether it is truly based on the christology of the early Fathers. Prof. Valerie Karras examines this question in some detail.

      “The question is whether Luther’s soteriology – and, for that matter, other forms of Western atonement soteriology – are truly based on the christology of the early Fathers, especially those behind the dogmatic formulations of the ecumenical councils. Both the dogmatic definitions and the supplementary patristic writings surrounding the christological controversies seem to indicate a negative answer to the question. Far from emphasizing atonement as satisfaction or a forensic notion of justification, these writings express an understanding of human salvation rooted not simply in a particular activity of Jesus Christ[52], but in the very person of Jesus Christ. Gregory of Nyssa, writing more than a millennium before the development of the Lutheran doctrine of “imputed righteousness,” in the context of the controversy over the extreme form of Arianism known as Eunomianism, rejects the notion that one could be “totally righteous” in a legal but not existential sense. Human beings are not restored to communion with God through an act of spiritual prestidigitation where God looks and thinks he sees humanity, but in fact is really seeing his Son.[53] Justification must be as organic and existential as sin is:

      Humanity’s justification through forgiveness of sins is not a mere covering over man’s sins, but a real destruction of them. It is not a mere external decision but a reality. Sins are forgiven truly and really. God does not declare someone to be justified if he [or she] is not really free. We understand this teaching better if we remember the relation between Adam and Christ. As we became not only apparently but really sinful because of Adam, so through Christ the Second Adam we become really justified.[54]

      This emphasis on the personal christological nature of soteriology is particularly evident in the Second, Fourth, Sixth, and Seventh Ecumenical Councils.[55] These four councils insisted on the full humanity of Christ not because it was simply “fitting” for God to become fully human in order to “pay the price” for other humans, but because it was ontologically necessary for God to become human. Thus, Gregory of Nazianzus, the presider and theological leader of the Second Ecumenical Council, described what the Joint Declaration calls “justification” in terms of the healing of our fallen human nature through Christ’s sharing of that same fallen human nature: “For that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved.”[56] It is this same soteriological consideration which informs both the anthropology and the christology of Maximos the Confessor three hundred years later, and which causes iconophile authors such as John of Damascus and Theodore of Stoudios in the eighth and ninth century, respectively, to recognize that an unwillingness to depict Jesus Christ in the flesh amounted to a denial of the reality of the incarnation and hence threatened the entire framework of salvation.

      In other words, the christological definitions of the ecumenical councils are grounded in a relational-ontological soteriology based on humanity’s being homoousios (one in essence, substance, or nature) in our humanity with Jesus Christ, who is in turn homoousios with God the Father. Thus, the soteriology of the ecumenical councils (and hence of Eastern Christianity) is based not on putting us juridically “right” with God, but on the existential healing of human nature through the person of Jesus Christ.”

      Beyond Justification: AN ORTHODOX PERSPECTIVE

  9. Hello Eric:

    I see that the distinction between justification and sanctification has triggered a few responses to your article. I have greatly enjoyed your past few articles, as I have spent several years researching justification in the Greek Fathers. I would offer the following points, which do not contest your thoughts, but rather undergird and nuance them.

    1) Justification in the Greek Fathers is oftentimes connected with God’s desire to “justify” Himself. This is how St. Athanasius, St. John Chrysostom, St. Cyril of Alexandria and St. Gregory Palamas understand this. In other words, following Ps. 50, God is always vindicated in His actions toward mankind because He is always just. We humans unjustly accuse God for our situation; unjustly, because it is man who has brought judgment upon himself. In this version of justification, the entire economy of salvation is brought to bear, and the Resurrection of Christ is seen as the ultimate vindication of God. In this one divine and miraculous act–hapax–God vindicates Himself against all accusation, and also offers man freedom (lytrosis/manumission) from slavery to sin, death and the devil. By our entering into Christ’s death and Resurrection through faith and baptism, we are simultaneously vindicated and redeemed (set free). Much of this approach is implied in St. Paul, but the Fathers combine Pauline thought with an Old Testament view of God’s justice, the Pashcal narrative of Exodus, and other concepts.

    2) You are correct in linking justification to baptism, as St Paul himself does. When he writes, “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified” (1 Cor 6:11 ), justification and sanctification intersect in the sacrament of baptism. Interestingly, all three verbs in this verse are in the aorist tense, showing something accomplished in the past. But I would also bring the theology of N.T. Wright to bear here. Ultimately, God’s vindication (as portrayed in the Old Testament) is something that occurs at the final judgment, which for Christians occurs upon Christ’s return in glory. However, through faith (and according to Orthodoxy, through baptism), the believer is united to Christ–who is Himself the eschaton–and thus the future irrupts into the present. And yet, it remains an ongoing process, only completed or fulfilled at the last judgment. In other words, both justification and sanctification are continual. But how is justification continual? Not through works, as you point out. Rather, it is through continual repentance. Asking God for forgiveness each day constantly places us before His judgment seat, and in return He vindicates us, and we hope will vindicate us on that Day. Thus, we can apply Met. Kallistos Ware’s schema for salvation to justification in particular: I was justified, I am being justified, and I shall be justified (at the last judgment).

    3) Too clear a demarcation between justification and sanctification in the Lutheran manner may be unwarranted, as some of the comments point out. And yet, you are correct in that they are distinct within the life of the believer. Justification, as a forensic concept, naturally has to do with God’s judgment and righteousness/justice. Sanctification has to do with God’s imparting His very life to us, His holiness (and so even Romanides preferred this term over “theosis”). St Cyril of Alexandria would point out that this is a process of increasing participation in God’s holiness, through the Christian life of faith, and through constant reception of the Eucharist. There is definitely an overlap between sanctification and justification, but they are not identical, because why then would we (and St Paul) use different terms?

    As an epilogue, I would say that you are correct also in saying that contemporary Orthodox Christians are only beginning to engage what these soteriological images entail. We have been fixated with deification over the past century, and usually ignore the biblical concepts, as well as the rich patristic heritage which interpreted these passages. As I have discovered over the past ten years of research into soteriology in the Fathers, their thought is hard to classify according to later constructs; and yet offers much to bridging old and new, East and West, Bible and theology.

    1. Thanks for this thoughtful comment, Fr. Joseph. I do believe I mentioned somewhere that God was about demonstrating his righteousness or proving it by raising Jesus from the dead, and this is the basis for justification. This is so clear in Paul, esp. Rom 1-4, and is probably the a good concept to keep in one’s back pocket when reading Rom 9-11, i.e. “the purpose of God according to election” is also this purpose to justify himself or prove his rightness by raising up a justified remnant.

      You remark that Orthodoxy has been focused on theosis for the past century, and I do believe this is true, and not only have we ignored other, biblical concepts of salvation, but in an effort to appear “different” than the West or Protestantism, we have latched on to theosis in the process of our identity formation, because perish the thought that we could ever agree with the West on anything!

      Fr, Matthew Baker’s series of posts on theosis over at OCN was a game changer for me in reorienting (patristically) theosis in adoption. But how can we be adopted if we are not first justified? Therefore, when we work, we work as sons in the freedom of that relationship, not as slaves or debtors to the Law. This is so key to Paul’s thought, I’m not sure there is anyway to get around it without pulling down the whole edifice of his theology.

  10. One addition, if I may, regarding my comments. St Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11:31-2 (in context of the Eucharistic gathering), “But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.” This goes along with what I mentioned above regarding the continual action of justification in the life of the believer. If vindication has to do with judgment, which the OT certainly makes clear, then continual repentance (i.e., judging ourselves before God) is a constant and present judgment and vindication by God that results in continual forgiveness.

    1. Yes, I have tried to belabor the point that justification is maintained through repentance and confession. Nevertheless, in regard to post-baptismal sin, there isn’t a complete break in our relationship with God. The justification that occurs at baptism is in some sense a more comprehensive change that permanently places us in a new category. We are adopted as sons and daughters, and when we sin, we remain so, and we are “disciplined” as you point out, as sons, not as slaves. Paul’s language of adoption and the son/slave dichotomy is very important and perhaps overlooked in contemporary thought. So, I did want to emphasize that baptism has the incredible effect of permanently placing us in a new relationship with God, which cannot be undone inasmuch as baptism cannot be repeated. This is a justification of a higher order, which forges a relationship with God as our Father and we as his children, and this cannot be undone. Yet, within this relationship, we must maintain a repentant disposition in order that we might enjoy the benefits of sonship. And this is where the Prodigal Son icon comes in to very vividly illustrate it. Good timing, I suppose.

  11. Hi Gabe,

    This post is just plain marvelous…….

    So we distinguish the concept of justification from the concept of theosis (deification, conformity to the image of Christ) in order to show how they are related to each other. Justification is the forgiveness of sins, the wiping away of our transgressions and the removal of the enmity between us and God that was caused by them. Having been forgiven of our sins, we have peace with God (Rom. 5:1).

    If theosis is conforming to the image of Christ, then when one is In Christ he is a new creation. By grace, everything we do, every good deed, like walking the little old lady across the street is a testament to God working through us. We become Christ to others; not doing anything to work our way into heaven, but what good we do in the world, for the sake of the Kingdom, we do by Grace. Do these good works we now do in Gods service, by his grace, is the reward a higher place in heaven or is heaven the reward?

    I’m not to familiar with Theosis, but it does sound like “Internalizing Christ Jesus.” Internalizing, meaning we, In Christ, can now, by Grace, Radiate Christ to others in everything we do. Is that what is meant by Theosis?

    I see in this post an excellent rebuttal to people saying that we Catholics and Orthodox are legalistic. No, we are not legalistic, but under Grace.



    1. We shouldn’t think about rewards in heaven per se, as if something to work for, as the disciples argued over who would sit at the right hand of Jesus in his kingdom. Rather Rewards are the promise given to us for enduring persecution and temptation. But what those rewards will be, we do not know, though for us now, being in communion with God is reward enough.

  12. The deeds without the Faith are useless!
    He who does not gather with the Lord, disperse.
    The Faith without deeds is dead!
    If you have Faith, you’ll do the deeds by consequence. If you don’t, your faith is a pretension.

    I’d dare to say it’s just that simple.

  13. How would you say your view relates to the New Perspective on Paul in which the law is viewed more as a “boundary marker” and justification involves the Gentiles coming into God’s new covenant and community?

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