When Catholics and Protestants talk about justification, our discussions usually center on the question of faith and works. Do we need to do good works to be justified, or is faith alone sufficient? For Catholics, it is the former, and for most Protestants, it is the latter. However, that is not the only way our understandings of this crucial topic differ. We also disagree on the nature of justification, and in this article, I want to take a look at this equally important difference between us and our separated brethren.
For most Protestants, justification is merely a legal declaration. God considers us righteous, but we’re still just as sinful as we were before, and only after that declaration does he begin to sanctify us and make us truly holy. However, for us Catholics, that declaration actually makes us righteous. Just like his word at creation, God’s word that declares us righteous actually makes it happen, so it is the start of our lifelong process of sanctification.
So which side is right? Is justification really just a legal declaration, or does it actually make us righteous too? There is a lot we can say about this question, but we don’t have space to get into all the ins and outs of the debate. Instead, I just want to focus on one small part of it. I want to look at arguably the strongest evidence for the Protestant understanding of justification and see how well it holds up under scrutiny.
Becoming God’s Righteousness
The best evidence for the Protestant view comes from a verse in one of St. Paul’s most difficult letters:
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)
To understand the argument based on this passage, we have to start with the phrase at the very end, “the righteousness of God.” This is a phrase Paul uses numerous times throughout his letters, and it has traditionally been seen as the righteousness God gives us when he justifies us. So with that background, the Protestant argument here is pretty straightforward.
Jesus didn’t literally become “sin” on the cross. Rather, God punished him as if he were sin, so when we “become the righteousness of God,” it likewise does not mean that we literally become righteous. Instead, God simply considers us righteous, just like he simply considered Jesus sinful and punished him for it in our place.
“Made Him to Be Sin”
And at first glance, that seems to make a lot of sense. The point that Jesus didn’t literally become sin looks just about airtight, and the rest flows pretty naturally from it. But, as usual, there is more here than meets our 21st-century Western eyes. Let’s start with the first half of the verse, where Paul says that God “made [Jesus] to be sin.” Contrary to what we might think at first, this does not actually mean that God considered Jesus sinful and punished Him for it.
In the Old Testament, God gave the Israelites instructions for several different kinds of sacrifices, and one of them was called a “sin offering” (as you can probably guess, it was offered for the forgiveness of people’s sins). Significantly, in both the original Hebrew and the ancient Greek translation known as the Septuagint, the word for sin offering is just “sin” (for example, Leviticus 4:33, 5:8). We insert the word “offering” to make it work in English, but it is not there in the ancient languages.
Consequently, when Paul wrote in Greek that Jesus “became sin,” he most likely had this background in mind, so he actually meant that Jesus became a sin offering. He was saying that Jesus offered Himself on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins, just like the ancient Israelites would offer animal sacrifices for the forgiveness of their sins.
“The Righteousness of God”
Next, let’s move on to the second half of the verse, where St. Paul explains that we “become the righteousness of God.” Like I said before, Paul talks about “the righteousness of God” several times throughout his letters, and in recent decades, many New Testament scholars have come to realize that the traditional interpretation of this phrase is actually incorrect. It does not refer to the righteousness God gives us. Rather, it refers to God’s own righteousness, and to see this, we can look at some verses that bookend a small section of Paul’s Letter to the Romans:
“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested.” (Romans 3:21)
“…to prove his righteousness because of the forgiveness of sins previously committed, through the forbearance of God—to prove his righteousness in the present time, that he might be righteous and justify the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:25-26)
Romans 3:21-26 is a literary unit, and it begins and ends with references to God’s righteousness being shown through the saving death of Jesus Christ. Significantly, the three references at the end (“his righteousness” twice and “that he might be righteous”) clearly refer to God’s own righteousness, not the righteousness he gives us, so the phrase “the righteousness of God” at the beginning of this section must mean that as well.
St. Paul’s Real Meaning
When we take this understanding back to 2 Corinthians 5:21, Paul’s teaching that we “become the righteousness of God” cannot mean that God simply considers us righteous when He justifies us. Paul is referring to God’s own righteousness, not the righteousness God gives us, so he is not even talking about justification.
Rather, he is just saying that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross enables us to become the manifestation of God’s righteousness. In other words, his point is that God demonstrates his righteousness by saving us from our sins through Jesus Christ, so this text has nothing to do with the Protestant understanding of justification. In fact, it doesn’t tell us anything about the nature of justification, so as far as this particular debate is concerned, it is little more than a red herring.