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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Graceful words: Justification

Our computers justify margins. We may justify our actions to a court of law or an angry loved one. But what do Lutherans mean when we confess with Paul that we are, in words from the Augsburg Confession, Article 4, "justified as a gift on account of Christ through faith"?

Justify literally means to be made just or righteous. That sounds like ethics and law: Measure up to God's standards or else! But Paul sings a different tune in Romans 3:23-25: "Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus ... effective through faith." We don't do the measuring up. It's God who takes us — falling down though we are — and sets us upright.

Sometimes Christians imagine they have to set themselves right and take great pride when they appear successful. Others think that in justification God gives power to do righteous things and, thus, makes us righteous. Then, too, our consciences worry about how righteous we really are.

Paul takes a different approach in Romans 10:17: "Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ." That is, our righteousness and faith rest not in us but in God and God's word of forgiveness.

Justification, then, is a matter of our ears. It happens whenever we hear the good news of the forgiveness, life and salvation given to us in Christ. This happens in baptism, in preaching and teaching, in the Lord's Supper, in the declaration of forgiveness, in each word of comfort one Christian gives to another.

Philip Melanchthon, Martin Luther's colleague and the chief author of the Augsburg Confession, liked to say that justification isn't abstract but "relational." It depends on God whispering in the child's ear, "You're mine"; calling to wayward youth, "My son was lost and is found"; and singing to the aged, "I will never leave you."

This relational word speaks God's heart and mind to you and for you, so that you are what God declares — justified!


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