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June 1, 2009


There is a narrow interpretation of that big word "justification." The narrow interpretation is that when we are justified through faith in Jesus Christ, who died and rose again, we are freed from our sins.

There is much more to it than that. Justification is real when our lives are filled with the Holy Spirit, when not only have we left sin behind, when it is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me.

In my unscholarly opinion, the key line to understanding Paul's letter to the Romans is "God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us" (5.5). James Dunn, perhaps the leading Pauline scholar of our day, dismisses this line as a sort of ecstatic outburst by a Paul who was on an emotional high.

Well, Paul may have been emotional, but when he talked about the Holy Spirit being poured into our hearts, he was making an important statement about the Christian life.


Through the Scriptures, we come to see God first as a lawgiver then as a compassionate God who loves his people as a bridegroom loves his bride. In the New Testament, God goes further, showing his love by becoming human and then giving his life in atonement for our sins.

With the sending of the Holy Spirit, there is even more. God not only loves us intimately from the outside, he enters our very being. His love has been poured right into our hearts.

Because of that, our nature is changed through Baptism. We are not only creatures made in God's image and likeness – a great gift in itself – but God's divinity lives within us. In a very real way, we share in God's life.

This is an ostentatious claim. But it is real, qualified only by the facts that we still experience the effects of original sin and that our freedom permits us to act against our new nature.


The Old Law was powerless to keep its adherents from sinning. Paul asserts that it even increased the propensity to sin. But the New Law empowers the believer to live by the law – not merely to avoid violating its prohibitions, but also to stretch beyond oneself to serve God and others in love.

We can see this most clearly in the lives of the saints, whose lives far transcend in goodness and self-sacrifice what a normal, hung-up human might possibly do.

But if we are observant, we can even see it in our own lives, when moved by faith we perform small acts of goodness. Instead of reacting without thinking to someone's obnoxious actions, for example, the Holy Spirit shows his presence when we overcome our inclinations and act with patience and kindness.

Our human tendency is to see law as an imposition, an unwelcome demand to restrain our impulses. The New Law does not change the content of what is morally right and wrong, but it does free us from the notion that law is a repressive restraint. Instead, we come to see the moral law as an expression of one's real and fullest self.

"All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God," not slaves of an imposed law, Paul wrote (8.14). As children of God, the blood that flows through our veins comes from God.

We come from him and we are heirs to all that he is.

Paul's letter to the Romans shows us why justification is seen too narrowly when it is interpreted in terms of a court of law. The 16th century Council of Trent declared, "Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man."

We cannot give ourselves either the remission of sins or interior sanctification by our own works. We are "justified" through the gift of a merciful God through the presence of the Holy Spirit.


But neither the remission of sins nor our sanctification are one-time events. We grow in sanctity as we live the life of the Spirit through prayer, deliberate acts of charity and the acceptance of God's gifts given through the sacraments.

Justification is God's gift. We accept that gift over and over by opening our hearts to the pouring in of the Holy Spirit.