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The Bible speaks of both God and humans as being justified. God is justified when his acts of judgment and salvation are openly displayed, and recognized and praised as just (Isaiah 45:22-25, Romans 3:3-5). Humans are justified when God declares them to be righteous in his judgment (Romans 8:33-34, 1 Corinthians 4:4). The early Anabaptists eagerly anticipated God's eschatological deliverance of the righteous and condemnation of the wicked. In this sense, they emphasized the coming justification of God. Nevertheless, when Anabaptists and Mennonites used "justification" terminology they were usually referring to a major dispute between Roman Catholics and Protestants that began in the Reformation: to the question of how a man or woman can be considered righteous by God and thus be freed from fear of condemnation.

Catholics argue that justification is a comprehensive act in which God not only declares persons to be righteous, but also makes them so. Justification, then, cannot be sharply distinguished from the process of sanctification. Sanctification is attained as humans cooperate with divine grace, which is imparted largely through sacraments and other ecclesiastical channels. Protestants counter that in order to truly begin sanctification, individuals must first be justified. For unless they are first freed from fear of condemnation, simply by faith in Christ's atonement, individuals can never perform those selfless acts of love which produce true sanctification.

Anabaptists seldom used "justification" to describe their own views, for they approached the issues involved from a different angle. Like Protestants, they emphasized that God initiates the salvation process, and that individuals enter it through faith. Yet they often complained that Protestants, by emphasizing "faith alone", minimized sanctification and encouraged sub-Christian behavior. Like Catholics, Anabaptists insisted that sanctification, or actually becoming righteous, is the goal of God's saving work. Yet they argued that this occurs not within Catholicism's ecclesiastical framework, but primarily through acts of love in daily life. And although human co-operation is involved in the process, most Anabaptists maintained, as did Michael Sattler, that the works involved "are not the work of man, but of God and Christ, through whose power a man does such works ... because God through them wishes to give to man something of his own." (CRR 1:113)

Today there is probably little value in seeking to identify the Mennonite perspective with either traditional Protestantism or Catholicism. Since Anabaptists viewed the issues from a different angle, Mennonite contributions to the often stalemated discussion can best be made by seeking to recover this perspective. Perhaps consideration of the eschatological justification of God, as an overarching (though formally unarticulated) horizon for Mennonite theologizing, can provide helpful insights for rediscovering that perspective.


Council of Trent. "Decree on Justification." The Sources of Catholic Dogma, ed. Henry Denziger. St. Louis: B. Herr, 1957: 248-61.

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960: Bk III, ch. XI-XIV, pp. 725-88.

He, Heinrich, ed. Reformed Dogmatics. Grand Rapids: Baker. 1978: 543-64.

Klaassen, Walter, ed. Anabaptism in Outline: Selected Primary Sources, Classics of the Radical Reformation, vol. 3. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1981: 85-100.

Friedmann, Robert. The Theology of Anabaptism. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1973: 78-101.

Davis, Kenneth R. Anabaptism and Asceticism. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1974: 129-217.

Sattler, Michael in John H. Yoder, ed. The Legacy of Michael Sattler, Classics of the Radical Reformation, vol. 1. Scottdale : Herald Press, 1973: 108-20.

Denck, Hans. "Recantation" in Selected Writings, ed. Walter Fellmann. Pittsburgh: Pickwick, 1975: 122-31.

Finger, Thomas N. Christian Theology, vol. 2, ch. 7.

Hubmaier, Balthasar. "On the Christian Baptism of Believers." Anabaptist Beginnings, ed. William Estep. Nieuwkoop: B. De Graaf, 1976: esp. 94-98.

Menno Simons. "Confession of the Distressed Christians." The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, c. 1496-1561, trans. Leonard Verduin, ed. J.C. Wenger. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1956: esp. 503-8, and "True Christian Faith in Writings, 324-40 .

Additional Information

Council of Trent, Canons and Decrees

Author(s) Thomas N Finger
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Finger, Thomas N. "Justification." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 21 Apr 2024. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Justification&oldid=162925.

APA style

Finger, Thomas N. (1989). Justification. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 21 April 2024, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Justification&oldid=162925.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, p. 473. All rights reserved.

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