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Is Justification Ongoing?

Romans 5:1 (“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through Jesus Christ”) is often cited in defense of the Reformed view that justification is a once for all declaration by God; justification can neither be increased nor lost. Paul’s use of the aorist tense in Greek (“we have been justified”) supposedly demonstrates that justification is exclusively a “past, completed act” which confers a state of justification unalterable by a subsequent act of the believer.

Why won’t this argument work? Because the aorist doesn’t function the way the Reformed argument presupposes.

Although the Bible speaks in Romans 5:1 of justification as a “past, completed act,” this doesn’t mean it can’t be altered, for better or worse, by what we do. To say an act has been completed needn’t imply that no further development or change is possible.

Consider the biblical teaching about sanctification. (Most proponents of the Reformed position see justification and sanctification as two distinct things; Catholics see them as complementary ways of talking about the same thing—being “in Christ”).

Paul speaks of sanctification as a “past, completed act”—in the aorist tense—in 1 Corinthians 6:11. He tells his readers, “You have been washed, you have been sanctified, you have been justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of God.” At the same time, Scripture teaches sanctification or holiness is something into which we can grow.

In 2 Corinthians 7:1 Paul says we should “purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit and strive for perfect holiness out of fear of God.” The writer to the Hebrews exhorts us to consider our trials as discipline from our heavenly Father, “in order that we share his holiness” (Heb. 12:10). We’re advised to “strive for that sanctity without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb.12:14).

If sanctification means to make holy, then Christians are progressively sanctified or made holy as they strive, by the grace of God, to attain “that sanctity without which no one will see the Lord.” Christians can also fall into sin and impurity—into “unsanctity.” This is the point of Paul’s repeated warnings to believers not to return to the sinful lifestyles they left behind (1 Cor. 6:9-10; Gal. 5:16-21; Eph. 5:3-5):

“It is God’s will that you should be holy; that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him. The Lord will punish men for all such sins, as we have already told you and warned you” (1 Thess. 4:3-7).

Sanctification, then, is both a “past, completed action” and something which believers can increase or from which they can fall away through sin. This leads us to ask, “If Paul’s use of the aorist with respect to sanctification doesn’t preclude progress or regress, why should it do so with respect to justification?”

To this advocates of the Reformed view reply, “Because the gratuitousness of justification would be undone. If we could increase our justification or righteousness through our obedience, even through grace-empowered obedience, this would contradict Paul’s teaching that we’re ‘justified by faith apart from works of the Law'” (Rom. 3:28).

This answer neglects three key points: (1) In Romans 3:28 Paul is speaking of initial justification rather than righteousness in the ongoing life of the believer; (2) when he speaks of the works of the Law, Paul is concerned with Mosaic observances such as circumcision, not acts of Christian obedience; (3) human cooperation doesn’t undermine the gratuitousness of God’s work in us, but can be an expression of it. Consider each point in turn.

Our works of obedience as Christians don’t earn our initial justification. How could they, since such deeds follow and flow from it? The Council of Trent says as much when it observes that “we are therefore said to be justified gratuitously, because none of those things that precede justification, whether faith or works, merit the grace of justification” (Session Six, Chapter VIII).

At the same time, works of Christian obedience contribute something if the term justification is used to refer not merely to our initial justification, but to our growth in righteousness as regenerated children of God. This is the justification to which James refers when he writes that “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24).

When Paul contrasts faith with works, it’s clear from the context (Romans 3:1; 4:9-12) he means works of the Mosaic Law—ritual prescriptions such as circumcision given to identify one as a Jew, to convict of sin, and to point to the Redeemer who would remit sin. This is different from works of Christian obedience which lead to righteousness (Rom. 6:16). With respect to the latter, even faith itself can be spoken of as obedience (Rom. 1:5; 16:26).

If the gratuitousness of sanctification isn’t undermined by its capacity for increase through obedience or loss through disobedience, why should justification be? Only by assuming that justification is unalterable—an assumption grammatical arguments about the aorist tense will not uphold—could we conclude that increasing or decreasing in justification is, per se, incompatible with justification by grace.

Works of obedience which contribute to our sanctification are as much the result of grace as is our faith. This is why Paul can say, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you both to will and to work” (Phil. 2:12). As Augustine puts it, “When God rewards our merits, he rewards his own gifts to us.”

Although sanctification is a more dramatic refutation of the Reformed position regarding justification and the aorist tense, there are other biblical examples which could be cited, each equally deadly to the thesis. Space doesn’t permit us to examine each of these; let’s consider just two poignant cases.

In John 11:14 Jesus tells his disciples Lazarus has died. The word used in this passage is apethanen—the third person, singular, second aorist active, indicative form of apothnesko (“I die”). Lazarus’s death was certainly a “past, completed act,” yet his condition wasn’t unalterable. After all, Jesus raised him from the dead (John 11:43-44).

In 2 Peter 2:20 the first pope mentions lapsed Christians who, “having escaped the defilement of the world through a full knowledge of the Lord and savior Jesus Christ,” return to their old sinful ways. The word for “having escaped” is apophugontes. This is the second aorist, active, participial, nominative, plural, masculine form of apopheugo (“I flee from” or “I escape”).

If use of the aorist automatically means an unchangeable “past, completed act,” then those having lapsed would have been incapable of falling away at all. A “past, completed act”—in this case, having “escaped the defilement of the world”—is changed by subsequent apostasy.

Of course staunch advocates of the Reformed position, holding as they do the doctrine “once saved, always saved,” contend these lapsi were never truly Christians in the first place. Yet the text indicates otherwise, for it describes these people as having “escaped the defilement of the world through a full knowledge of the Lord and savior Jesus Christ.” Surely only true believers could be described as possessing “a full knowledge of the Lord and savior Jesus Christ.”

Even granting (but not conceding) that Peter isn’t talking about authentic believers who have lapsed, the grammatical point regarding the use of the aorist in the passage still stands. People who once escaped the defilement of the world, regardless of whether this means they were true Christians or not, are said to have returned to it. There’s nothing in the aorist tense which prevents them from having done so.

Back to Romans 5:1. Even though Paul refers to believers as those who “have been justified through faith,” his use of the aorist doesn’t rule out a change in the state of justification by subsequent behavior, any more than other biblical uses of the aorist preclude a “past, completed” state of affairs from being altered by subsequent events.

Nothing we do as believers after our initial justification can change the fact that “we have been justified through faith” at some time in the past, but this doesn’t mean we can’t our alter justification in the present, whether by increasing it through “working out” our salvation (Phil. 2:12) or by forfeiting it through sin (1 Cor. 6:7-10; Gal. 5:21; Eph. 5:1-5).

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