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From Adam to Zwingli: The Dictionary Definition of Justification

2 August, 2008

This isn’t actually a post about an English langauge dictionary definition of justification, although it is interesting to compare, for instance Webster’s:

Jus`ti*fi*ca”tion\, n. [L. justificatio: cf. F. justification. See Justify.]….3. (Theol.) The act of justifying, or the state of being justified, in respect to God’s requirements. ‘Who was delivered for our offenses, and was raised again for our justification. –Rom. iv. 25’; ‘In such righteousness To them by faith imputed, they may find Justification toward God, and peace Of conscience. –Milton.’


jus·ti·fi·ca·tion….3. the state of being justified. 4. Also called justification by faith. Theology. the act of God whereby humankind is made or accounted just, or free from guilt or penalty of sin.

Webster’s legacy is broadly Protestant (even now, remarkably, long after Webster), while’s answer encompasses Protestants, Roman Catholics (and everyone else) alike. The key phrase is “made or accounted“, which is really the functional equivalent of saying “Roman Catholic (made) or Protestant (accounted)”.

But the dictionary definition of justification I have in mind is that found in The Wordsworth Dictionary of Beliefs & Religions: A Comprehensive Guide to World-Wide Faiths. I picked this volume up on the cheap at a used book store, and I have to say that with respect to the Bible and Christianity, anyway, I got it expecting it to be more of an example of what comparative religions scholars think rather than what the Bible and Christianity actually say and believe. It’s just the nature of the case that many of these all-encompassing treatments are so broad as to be equal parts shallow and unhelpful, and just plain wrong. How can you treat not only all the world’s organized religions from earliest history to the present, but also ‘beliefs’ in the general sense of the term? Plus, the most typical approach is a lowest common denominator comparison of all the different views, which often tends to force the gospel to fit into the same paradigm as everything else–which won’t work, because the only thing that’s in the category of ‘gospel’ rather than ‘law’ is THE gospel of God’s free grace in Jesus Christ.

Therefore, to have any chance of doing the job well, I think the only hope for such a book  is to provide the basic gist of each entry topic according to its sources, and very little else. This is probably the main reason I find these dictionaries so interesting and frustrating at the same time. They’re interesting because you get to see what they think something’s all about ‘in a nutshell’, and it’s frustrating because of what they actually think is in the nutshell!

There’s a lot of shallowness and inaccuracy going on in the Wordsworth Dictionary, to be sure. It’s entry on “cherubim” is an example of shallowness:

In the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, winged celestial creatures or beasts of various descriptions. Their roles include guarding the tree of life in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3.24), being stationed on the cover of the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25.18-22), adorning Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 6.23ff.), and accompanying the throne chariot of God (Ezekiel 1, 10).

Now on the face of it, you’d have no idea that the cherubim in the first and fourth examples are ‘winged celestial creatures or beasts’ while the second and third examples are not roles of these beings, but carved statues or figures and embroideries of these beings. This isn’t an earth-shattering mistake, of course–it just suggests that the person in charge of this entry was in a rush, looked up the word ‘cherubim’ in Strong’s concordance, found a description, and mentioned some other places in the Bible that they show up–missing the ‘minor’ distinction between cherubim that are doing something and cherubim that are pictures. Another example, all too common, is the summary description of Reformation Geneva as a ‘theocracy’ under the ‘absolute supremacy’ of John Calvin, whose ‘intolerance’ oversaw Servetus’ execution.

But what about “justification“? Well, Wordsworth starts out like, but then clarifies the distinction between ‘made’ and ‘declared’ righteous in a remarkably able fashion:

In Christianity, to be made or declared right with God. Traditional Roman Catholic theology (following Augustine, Aquinas, and the Council of Trent) understands justification as a lifelong process of being made righteous, by grace imparted through the sacraments of baptism and penance. Protestant theology (following Luther and the Greek rather than the Latin terms in Paul’s letters to the Romans and the Galatians) understands justification as a being declared or counted righteous for the sake of Christ. Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. There is no way to earn merit (and so no need to fear being unable to do so), but justification…is inseperable from sanctification or growth in holiness….

For a dictionary of religions and beliefs, I think that’s pretty solid and really clear. For Protestants, justification is not a being made righteous in ourselves, but on the contrary a being declared and counted righteous only for Christ’s sake. There is no place for our merits or goodness or works. I wonder what the Wordsworth Dictionary says about merit…. Well, it’s account of the Roman Catholic understanding of merit suffers from some overgeneralization and oversimplification, but look at it’s account of the Protestant view:

This doctrine [of meritorious co-operation with grace] was rejected by the Reformers, who insisted on justification by grace through faith in Christ’s merits alone. In response to the accusation that to reject the idea of merit was to suggest that moral behaviour was irrelevant (antinomianism) and to overlook the fact that most people need the incentive of rewards and punishments (as seemed to be offered in the Bible), they argued that good deeds were the fruit rather than the cause of justification. To say that no one has merit before God is not the same as saying that all human deeds are equally worthless.

Again, Wow! If only so many of our Protestant pastors could understand the basic moves of Protestantism as well as the Wordsworth Dictionary! Why does Wordsworth get it when so many theologians and pastors and elders and laypersons don’t?? A large part of the answer, I think, is the point I made earlier: the only way to do such a dictionary successfully is to focus on explaining the basic gist of each topic.

So in a way, I shouldn’t be surprised that the contributors and editors of Wordsworth seem to ‘get’ certain topics so well–after all, the basic gist of the Prostestant understanding of justification, merit, and so on is there and available for all to see. Any busy scholar who picked up Luther or Calvin or any number of their successors, looked in the index under ‘justificaion’ and so on, and simply summarized what they found there, would come really close to what the Wordsworth people have come to. These things aren’t obscure and subtle, complex or hidden–these are the first things that should be in our hearts and minds and always on the tip of our tongues. These things can be grasped by little children — or religious dictionaries! — yet will occupy our praise of the triune God of justice and mercy forever. 

The real thing that is surprising, then, is that so many of us, on the inside, don’t see it or try to find a way around the basic clarity of the tradition. So many of us do not know or understand or embrace even the simple dictionary definition of (Protestant) justification. May the Lord keep us from missing the forest for the trees, forgetting the basics of our faith and hope, or leaving our first love.

  1. Donna Ellis permalink
    3 August, 2008 1:59 pm

    Thanks for the clarification on justification…now that I understand a little better, I can no longer “justify” poor decisions due to ignorance.

  2. 4 August, 2008 11:10 am

    Hi Brannon!

    My blog for today spoke of justification by faith alone. Shameless promotion or sufficient link? You be the judge. 🙂

    “The truth and beauty of Reformed doctrine is that it emphasizes God’s work. Throughout Scripture, we see the emphasis of the works which God has done. For example, consider Psalm 40:5: “Many, O LORD my God, are the wonders which You have done, And Your thoughts toward us; There is none to compare with You If I would declare and speak of them, They would be too numerous to count.” Psalm 40:5.

    Consider also John 6: 28-29: “Therefore they said to Him, “What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?” Jesus answered and said to them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.’ “

    Just as Jesus here changed the focus from what man should do for God to what God has done, Reformed doctrine tries to imitate by its emphasis of God’s sovereignty. Just as Jesus here changed the focus from works to faith, Reformed doctrine tries to imitate by its emphasis of justification by faith alone. Just as Jesus here changed the focus from man generating his own faith to God even giving faith, Reformed doctrine tries to imitate by its emphasis of “Irresistable Grace” “.

    Best wishes,

  3. 5 August, 2008 9:33 am


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