St. Paul’s Understanding of Justification
The Apostle Paul, 1635, by Rembrandt (1606-1669)

St. Paul’s Understanding of Justification

It is quite evident that the Apostle Paul brought his Jewish background into his letters, especially with reference to the Letter to the Romans. Paul the Jew drew extensively from his very significant Jewish legacy in order to preach Christ to the varied audiences he addressed. The letter to the Romans, which he personally wrote while being a prisoner, is certainly a clear attestation to this.

A very important topic which surfaces in the Letter to the Romans is the Law. In fact, the term Law (νόμος) nomos in Greek, is mentioned some 75 times throughout this letter. When Paul is speaking about the Law what he has in mind is the Jewish Law. Now, what was the idea of the Jews of the law? The Jews upheld the Mosaic Law. For them, the Law represented the mind of God as expressed in do this and do not this. In this way, in his Law, God is saying to his people how they should act in order that they could live in the most dignified way possible in their transient earthly life. For the Jews, the Law meant security because, thanks to it, they could have an insight into a world dominated by doubts and uncertainty. 

Although for Paul the Law was good, it proved to him incomplete. Seen from his perspective, the Law for the apostle of the gentiles stands for a system of salvation which excludes Jesus. Yes, the Law is guidance from God or a system of salvation. The gentiles did not have God’s revelation since they have followed their idols. The Letter to the Romans is crystal clear about this when it says: For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth… Though they know God’s decree that those who do such things deserve to die, they not only do them but approve those who practice them (Rom 1:18.32). 

Even the Jews did not fare any better. They too failed in keeping God’s law. And this apparent frustration led Paul to conclude: As it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands, no one seeks for God. All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong;no one does good, not even one.” “Their throat is an open grave, they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.””Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood, in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they do not know.” “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Rom 3:10-18).

Hence, the system of the Law was an utter failure because it neither produced justice or just people. The Jewish Law cannot bring justification since it was merely a revelation of the mind of God as well as a system of salvation. It was just a means not the essence or end itself. To prove this point we can mention two interesting arguments.

First, Paul went to pagan places and planted the seeds of Christianity. In these places the gifts of the Holy Spirit were beautifully at work such as speaking in tongues, prophecy and so forth. These places did not have the Jewish Law to guide them. Thus, salvation was occuring outside the Jewish Law.

The second argument is that the Jewish Law is defective since it refused Jesus by putting him to death. In Galatians Paul tells us: I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification were through the law, then Christ died to no purpose (Gal 2:21). Jesus is the one who justifies me through grace not the Law.

For Paul justification, or the “forgiveness of sins and being made righteous, through which God ‘imparts the gift of new life in Christ’” (Joint Declaration of the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation on the Doctrine of Justification, no. 22), takes place thanks to Jesus’ death. It is solely the latter, and the latter only, which is our reconciliation, redemption, expiation or atonement and justification. Humanly speaking, Jesus is the reconciliation of our breaking bond with God since by his death he reconciled us with God by making himself the price for that reconciliation. Moreover, Jesus is the priest of his own self-sacrifice for us through the merciful shedding of his blood from the Cross so that you and I are now considered forgiven and just by God. Thus, the reconciliation, redemption, atonement or expiation and justification have done for me what I could not do with the Law system.  

As Paul says to the Galatians, it does not make sense anymore to return to the Law system. The Letter to the Romans constantly keeps reminding us: None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands, no one seeks for God (Rom 3:10). Therefore, through Jesus, God is giving us the Spirit, under whom our healing process gets started until we become a new creation. That is why, in his letter to the Romans, precisely in chapter 6, Paul affirms that the new creation can take root in us if we are to reject sin and embrace grace. He says: What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? … What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! (Rom 6:1. 15). 

These verses show me, at least, two important reflections. First, the power of baptism which we Christians receive. In the baptismal practice of the early Church of the second and third centuries, the baptised used to take off the old clothes, immerse themselves into the water as occurs in a tomb, and then exit towards the other side and put on their white garments. If baptism took place at Easter the neophytes wore their white garments till the following Sunday, Dominica in Albis. Hence, baptism is telling us that the journey of Christian life is one of dying and rising.

In simple words, belief in Jesus has to be activated through the imitation of Jesus, which implies a moral death followed by a moral resurrection. And this dying and rising is open to all those who believe in Jesus, both Jews and gentiles. 

Secondly, the reality of baptism is also telling us that Jesus is now the boss of our lives. By his death on the Cross, Jesus did what the Jewish Law could never do, giving appropriate reparation. Thus, by giving himself as atonement for our sins, Jesus can allow reparation for the sins performed and to keep the Law happen. On both counts the Mosaic Law failed miserably. 

Furthermore, Jesus perfects the Law by giving us his mind about it. Already, in Matthew 5 we come across this very interesting formula which is repeated five times, like the five books of the Jewish Law: You have heard that it was said … (Mt 5:21-27; 33:38-43). What Jesus does is to go back to the hub of the Law which supports all the other laws: Loving God and loving the neighbour. In the Book of Leviticus itself we meet this foundational verse: You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord (Lev 19:18).

If all God’s wisdom is mainly summed up in the above commandment, as found in the Book of Leviticus, from where can we get our much-needed power to live it? The answer now becomes obvious for Paul: Jesus Christ. In fact, in reading what Paul says in his Second Letter to the Corinthians chapter 3, one hears the apostle of the gentiles saying: I want to be with him, I want to know the power of his resurrection. When I look at him as Moses looked at God, suddenly I become changed, suddenly I am transferred by my being with Jesus.

Now, Christ Jesus, becomes our ongoing true and complete justification. From his personal experience with Jesus, which led him to commit himself entirely to him, Paul could marvelously say in his letter to the Galatians: I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Gal 2:20). Is there a more total and perfect symbiosis than this? Is not for this symbiotic relationship that you and me were created, saved, justified and called to?

Pope Francis summarizes all that we have been trying to say here when he imparted his ninth catechesis on the Letter to the Galatians entitled Life of faith, on Wednesday, 29 September 2021, when he said:

Justification incorporates us into the long history of salvation that demonstrates God’s justice: faced with our continual falls and inadequacies, he did not give up, but wanted to make us just and he did so through grace, through the gift of Jesus Christ, of his death and resurrection. Sometimes I have said, how God acts, what his style is. And I said it with three words: God’s style is nearness, compassion and tenderness. He always draws near to us, is compassionate and tender. And justification is precisely God’s greatest nearness with us, men and women, God’s greatest compassion for us men and women, the Father’s greatest tenderness. Justification is this gift of Christ,  the death and resurrection of Christ that makes us free. “But, Father, I am a sinner, I have robbed…” Yes. But fundamentally, you are just. Allow Christ to effect that justification. We are not fundamentally condemned no, we are just. Allow me to say, we are saints,  fundamentally. But then, by our actions, we become sinners. But, fundamentally, we are saints: let us allow Christ’s grace to come and this justice, this justification will give us the strength to progress. Thus, the light of faith allows us to recognize how infinite God’s mercy is, his grace that works for our good. But that same light also makes us see the responsibility that has been entrusted to us to cooperate with God in his work of salvation. The power of grace needs to be coupled with our works of mercy which we are called to live to bear witness to how tremendous God’s love is. Let us move ahead with this trust: we have all been justified, we are just in Christ. We must effect that justice with our works.

Thank you dear Saint Paul that, drawing from your immense riches of Jewish background, as you wisely shared in your letters, you taught us to want God in wanting Jesus! Pray for us to never stop wanting him! Amen.

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Written by
Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap