(1) Most Protestant Christians immediately think of the reformer Martin Luther when the subject of justification is raised. Early on Luther believed that, if the sinner would take the initiative by humbly calling on God and “doing what lies within”, God would respond with the grace of justification. This doctrine, however, brought Luther little comfort, for he found himself despairing of the ability to fulfill the condition of the covenant. He conceived of the “righteousness of God” as an impartial divine attribute according to which God either forgave or condemned the individual based on the latter’s response to the terms of the covenant. God’s righteousness, therefore, was not gospel (i.e., good news) for Luther but an ever-present threat. The transformation in Luther’s theology came with the recognition that the “righteousness” of God was, in fact, that according to which God graciously provided the very righteousness he required.
(2) Luther’s concept of justification is best seen in the phrase simul iustus et peccator, i.e., simultaneously both just and a sinner. Or again, the Christian is intrinsically (i.e., experientially) sinful, yet extrinsically (i.e., legally) righteous. In justification the sinner is passive (man is incapable of initiating the process leading to justification) and God is active. God in grace imputes to us a righteousness not our own and we in faith gratefully receive it (a faith, be it noted, that is no less a gift of God’s grace than the righteousness imputed through it).
(3) Justification means we are declared righteous, not made righteous. It is a change in our status, not our nature. That doesn’t mean justification has no relationship to progressive sanctification in which we are gradually, by grace, transformed inwardly into the very image of Jesus himself. They are distinct spiritual realities, but by no means separable. Those who are truly justified will be sanctified. This radical and fundamental distinction between justification as a status obtained by initial faith and the subsequent sanctification or transformation of one’s nature through grace was a profound insight of the Protestant Reformers and a return to the biblical doctrine itself.
(4) Justification is objective, not subjective. That is to say, it is something done for us, not in us. Or to say much the same thing, justification is forensic, not experiential. That is to say, it is a legal act, not an emotional feeling. Whereas we do not feel justification when it occurs, once we comprehend what God has done there may be great exhilaration of soul and spirit.
Thus, the differences between the Protestant and Roman Catholic views on justification are unmistakable. In Protestantism, justification is extrinsic (not intrinsic), alien to us (not inherent within us), objective or for us (not subjective or in us), punctiliar (it occurs at a point in time, when we believe, and is not progressive), forensic (not experiential), declarative (not transformative), entails the imputation of righteousness to us (not the impartation of righteousness in us), issues in (but is not the same as) sanctification, and pertains to our status (not our being) as we are reckoned righteous (not made righteous).
(5) Justification is both acquittal and acceptance. That is to say, it involves both the forgiveness of sins and the receiving of the righteousness of Christ. God not only declares us “Not guilty!” he also declares us “Righteous!” Mere pardon would leave us spiritually naked with no righteousness. Pardon might save us from hell but it wouldn’t get us into heaven.
(6) Justification is both exclusive and extensive. By exclusive I mean there is no middle ground: you either are or are not justified. It is not something you attain by degrees but is a standing that is yours by divine decree. By extensive I mean that all sins are dealt with, whether past, present, or future.
(7) Justification is both instantaneous and irreversible. It is a position or status to which we are elevated. It is not a process. Furthermore, it is irreversible. It cannot be lost. God’s verdict will never be appealed to a higher court (cf. Rom. 8:31-34).
(8) Justification is received by faith, being freely bestowed by God (cf. Rom. 3:24; 2 Thess. 3:8; John 15:25). Thus the sinner is justified per fidem propter Christum, “through faith on account of Christ” (rather than propter fidem per Christum, “on account of faith through Christ,” as later Arminianism contended). We are not justified because we believe. Faith is not a human work that somehow merits justification. We are justified on account of or because of Christ, whose righteousness we receive passively, through faith.
(9) Justification is by faith alone, but the faith that justifies is never alone. In other words, the person who is justified will be sanctified. Sola fides iustificat, sed non fides quae est sola, or “faith alone justifies, but not the faith which is alone.” Thus whereas we are not justified by works, neither are we justified without works, for in the faith that justifies lies the seed of that sanctification of life apart from which no one shall see God.
(10) Justification by faith alone is grounded in our union with Christ. What we receive from God by grace is the indwelling of Christ himself into whose risen life we are incorporated. As Alister McGrath says, “justification is still treated as the external pronouncement of God that we are right in his sight – but the pronouncement is made on the basis of the presence within us of the living Christ” (Justification by Faith, 58).