What does it mean to be justified? As a Protestant, I would have answered like this: “At the moment we believe in Christ, His righteousness is imputed (credited) to our account. We are from that moment in God’s sight as righteous as Christ Himself. Our salvation is assured. We are saved — past tense!”
At the same time, I struggled with this view because it seemed to me that in both Old and New Testaments salvation is never presented as something “assured” at the beginning of one’s journey with God.
I thought about the Exodus, the primary Old Testament image of salvation. Do we see the children of Israel “assured” of reaching the Promised Land from the moment they put their faith in God’s word through Moses? Is the promised inheritance “credited” to them at that moment? No. To reach the end of their journey, they must sacrifice the Passover lamb, and walk out of Egypt, and cross the Red Sea, and follow the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, and receive the bread from heaven every morning, and keep God’s commandments, and offer sacrifice to make atonement when they fail.
The promised inheritance isn’t guaranteed at the beginning, but to those who persevere in faith and the obedience that flows from faith.
I could see this pattern illustrated throughout the Old Testament, and I could see that it continued unchanged in the New. “If a man loves me,” Jesus said, “he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (Jn 14:23). “To him who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (Rev 2:7). “For we share in Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end” (Heb 3:14).
How was I to take this message seriously when I had been taught that Christ’s perfect righteousness was credited to me the instant I first believed and that my salvation was a “done deal”?
From Genesis to Revelation, the message of God’s Word is consistent: “Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments” (Deut 7:9). According to Catholic teaching, justification isn’t about Jesus fulfilling the call to “love God and keep his commandments” and then crediting that to us. It isn’t about righteousness being “imputed” to us. Instead, justification is about God acting in us to make us the sort of people who have the ability to love God, keep His commandments, and live.
Old Testament Promises
There are a handful of passages in the Old Testament that speak directly to this issue. These passages describe what God will do to solve the problem of our inability to love God and keep His commandments. In none of them do we hear a whisper about the imputation of righteousness.
The first is in the book of Deuteronomy. Moses is preparing the people of Israel to cross over the Jordan into the Promised Land. He has reminded them of God’s call upon their lives to love Him and keep His commandments. At the same time, Moses knows that because they are a sinful people they will not be able to do this and therefore they will suffer. But the day will come, Moses promises, when the Lord will step in to solve the problem. “The Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live” (Deut 30:6).
Notice, the solution is not to “credit” love and obedience to God’s people so that they can be “regarded” as having loved God and kept His commandments. The solution is to change them from the inside, to circumcise their hearts, so that they become the kind of people who “will” love the Lord their God and live.
In Jeremiah 31:31-34 we find the first explicit promise of a New Covenant God will one day make with His people.
The first thing we learn is that this New Covenant will not be “like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke.” So how exactly will this New Covenant differ from the Old? “This is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts.” In other words, God will change the hearts of His people, enabling them to love Him and keep His commandments. And then, “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” In the New Covenant, God will forgive sins and make His people the sort of people who can do what they could not previously do.
One more Old Testament passage. In Ezekiel 36:24-27 we are given even more detail as to what this New Covenant will entail. The passage is so rich that I think we should read it in full.
For I will take you from the nations, and gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.
Again, there is nothing here about the legal imputation or crediting or transfer of righteousness.
When the Lord institutes a New Covenant with His people, it will be about imparting righteousness to them. It will be about washing their sins away and circumcising their hearts to love the Lord their God, removing their hearts of stone and giving them hearts of flesh, writing His laws on their hearts. It will be about giving them His own Spirit. In short, the New Covenant will bring the forgiveness of sins and the ability to love God and keep His commandments and live.
The New Testament Fulfillment
Now if this is what we find promised in the Old Testament, this is what we ought to find fulfilled in the New. And we do.
St. Paul offers the fullest treatment of the New Testament doctrine of justification in his Epistle to the Romans. In chapters 1 and 2 he reminds his readers that they are called to love God and keep His commandments. “To those who by patience in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, He will give eternal life” (Rom 2:7).
In chapter 3, Paul establishes that both Jews and Gentiles are under the power of sin and have both failed to love God and obey Him as they ought. “Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23).
In chapters 4 and 5, Paul argues that through faith in Christ, who reconciled us to God through His blood, we are brought from the state of being in Adam to that of being “in Christ,” where we have received “the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness” (Rom 5:17).
In chapter 6, St. Paul explains what exactly happens to us when we come to faith in Christ. In our Baptism, he says, we are united to Christ in His death and resurrection and experience our own death to sin and resurrection to life. The power of sin is broken in our lives. We are no longer “slaves to sin” but are given the ability “to walk in newness of life.” The Apostle is clearly not talking about the legal imputation of righteousness but about an experienced reality. And he refers to this dying and rising to as our being “justified from sin” (Rom 6:7).
In chapters 7 and 8, Paul adds the final touch. It is the Spirit of God coming to dwell within us that enables us to love God and keep His commandments. Listen to how St. Paul summarizes his entire teaching on justification in Romans 8:1-4, and as you read it, remember Deuteronomy 30, Jeremiah 31, and Ezekiel 36.
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do in that it was weakened by the sinful flesh, God has done, sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, put sin to death so that the righteous requirements of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Rom 8:1-4).
According to St. Paul, the righteous requirements of the law — that we love God and keep His commandments — are fulfilled in us as we walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. This is how the righteous requirements of the law are fulfilled in us. This sounds exactly like Ezekiel 36:26-27: “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.”
No wonder St. Paul begins his Letter to the Romans by describing the Gospel as “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom 1:16). His message is not about the imputation of righteousness. His message is about power — to become what God has called us to become and to do what God has called us to do. “For the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live” (Deut 30:6).
But how can our imperfect love and obedience be acceptable to a God who is “of purer eyes than to behold iniquity and cannot look on wrong” (Hab 1:13)? We can understand God accepting us on the basis of the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ credited to our account. But our feeble and inconsistent love and obedience? How can God accept this?
The answer is simple: God is compassionate and forgiving to those who (imperfectly) love Him and (imperfectly) keep His commandments.
Remember when the Prodigal Son returned home? His father didn’t say to him, “Son, I see your repentance and desire to do right, but these are imperfect and therefore do not provide sufficient basis for me to accept you. Come back when a perfect righteousness has been credited to your account!” Instead, what do we read in the Gospel?
While he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him … [And] said to his servants, “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” And they began to make merry (Lk 15).
Once I understood that this was the Catholic teaching, I was home. A “damning system of works righteousness”?
Not even close. Not even close.