What is the Difference between Justification and Salvation in Swedenborg’s Theology?

(Note: This post is a slightly edited version of an answer I recently wrote and posted on Christianity StackExchange. You can see the original question on StackExchange here, and the StackExchange version of my answer here.)

In the theology of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772), as in other Christian theologies, justification is seen as part of a process that results in our salvation. In a nod to the traditional Christian concept of the ordo salutis (“order of salvation”), Swedenborg lists justification as one among many elements of the process of salvation. For example, he writes:

The Divine power and activity meant by the Holy Spirit are, generally speaking, reformation and regeneration, which lead to renewal, quickening, sanctification and justification; and these lead to purification from evils and the forgiveness of sins, and ultimately to salvation. (True Christianity #138)

However, his view of justification, in particular, is significantly different from the Roman Catholic and Orthodox perspectives, and radically different from the Reformed Protestant perspective.

Salvation

The word “salvation” is so ubiquitous in Christianity that Swedenborg simply assumes that the reader knows what it means. He rarely offers anything like a concise definition of salvation. However, when he does define it, he equates it with eternal life. For example, in commenting on Ezekiel 3:18-21, Swedenborg writes:

Here “dying he shall die” is to perish in eternal death, which is damnation, for it is said of the wicked; and “living he shall live” is to enjoy eternal life, which is salvation, for it is said of those who repent, and of the righteous. (Apocalypse Explained #186:2, italics added)

And in the same work:

“Salvation and glory and honor and power unto the Lord our God” [Revelation 19:1] signifies because eternal life is from the Lord through the divine truth and the divine good from his divine omnipotence. This is evident from the signification of “salvation,” as being eternal life; also from the signification of “glory and honor,” as being the Lord’s divine truth and divine good; also from the signification of “power,” as being, in reference to the Lord, omnipotence. (Apocalypse Explained #1198, italics added)

So in Swedenborg’s theology, “salvation” simply means gaining eternal life in heaven. He describes the nature of that life in detail in his best-known book, Heaven and Hell.

Swedenborg makes it clear that it is the Lord Jesus Christ alone who saves us. And yet, the Lord does not do this instantaneously, but through a lifelong process—a process that requires our willing receptivity and cooperation to succeed:

The people who are going to receive the powerful spiritual effects listed above are those who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. He is salvation and eternal life. He is salvation because he is the Savior—this is the meaning of his name, Jesus. He is eternal life because those in whom he is and who are in him have eternal life. He is even called “eternal life” in 1 John 5:20.

Now, because the Lord is salvation and eternal life, it follows that he is also everything that enables us to gain salvation and eternal life. Therefore he is every part of reforming, regenerating, renewing, bringing to life, sanctifying, justifying, purifying from evils, and finally saving. The Lord is carrying out these processes in all of us, meaning that he is trying to have these effects on us; and when we adapt and modify ourselves to receive them, he actually carries them out in us. (Even the acts of adapting and modifying ourselves are actually from the Lord.) If we do not accept the Lord’s processes with a willing spirit, he cannot carry them out in us, but his desire to do so remains constant. (True Christianity #150)

Justification

Justification is one of the elements Swedenborg lists as part of the process of salvation. And this is where Swedenborg departs radically from the Protestant (Lutheran) theology in which he grew up, and significantly from Catholic and Orthodox theology.

In fact, in order to appreciate Swedenborg’s view of justification, it is necessary to understand that although he was conversant with the various Catholic and Protestant creeds and doctrinal statements, he skipped over them all, pushed them aside, and looked directly to the Bible itself to formulate his doctrines of justification and salvation.

To understand Swedenborg’s theology of justification, then, it is necessary to understand the underlying meaning of the words commonly translated “justify” and “justification” in the Bible.

Justification in the Bible

Our English word “justification” is derived from the Latin word iustificationem. However, the use of this latinate term to translate the underlying Hebrew and Greek words in the Bible can make the Bible’s meaning seem more abstract than it actually is.

In biblical Hebrew, the word צָדַק (tsadaq) has the root meaning of “to be right, straight.” From this it derives its more common meaning of “to be just, upright, righteous.” In its various forms it can also mean “to make just, righteous, innocent” and “to declare someone just, or innocent, to acquit.”

In biblical Greek, the word δίκαιος (dikaios) has the basic meaning of “righteous; observing divine and human laws.” In a broader sense it means “upright, righteous, virtuous, keeping the commands of God.” Based on this it can also have the meaning of being declared righteous.

In both Hebrew and Greek, the biblical words for “just,” and the forms derived from them, such as “justify” and “justification,” are primarily speaking about the intrinsic quality of the person, as being a just, righteous, virtuous, and innocent person who keeps the commandments of God. The meaning of declaring a person just or righteous depends upon the person actually being just or righteous.

Justification in Swedenborg’s theology

Swedenborg’s view of justification, then, involves a person becoming righteous. Without this, it would be a violation of divine justice for a person to be declared righteous. God’s judgments are always just and right, Swedenborg says, so God will not declare anything just or righteous unless it actually is just and righteous.

Because of Swedenborg’s practical, biblical focus, it is usually more accurate to translate the words he uses for “justification” as “being made righteous”—which is exactly how most of the translations of his works do translate them.

Here is one of the earliest definitions of justification in Swedenborg’s published theological works:

Those who have been purified from self-love and love of the world—both those inside the church and those outside of it—are made righteous by the Lord. (Arcana Coelestia (“Secrets of Heaven”) #2114)

Here the distinctiveness of Swedenborg’s theology of justification from Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant theology is already on display. By “the church,” Swedenborg means Christianity. So by “people inside the church” he means Christians. And here, early in his theological works, he was already saying that both Christians and non-Christians are justified, or made righteous, by the Lord (Jesus Christ) when they are purified from self-love and love of the world.

This shows the practical nature of Swedenborg’s doctrine of justification. It is not a mere theological or legal term and process. It is a process of changing a person so that he or she is no longer driven by selfish and worldly desires, but by love for God and love for the neighbor. And this is true no matter whether the person is a Christian or a non-Christian. In all cases—even among non-Christians—this is accomplished by the Lord Jesus Christ working in and through the person. (See: Is Jesus Christ the Only Way to Heaven?)

Swedenborg gives a fuller account of what it means for a person to be righteous in a commentary on Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:31-46—a passage commonly called “The Sheep and the Goats” or “The Judgment of the Nations”:

The expression “the righteous,” used of those on the right in these statements,

The righteous will answer him, saying . . . [Matthew 25:37]

and

The righteous will go into eternal life [Matthew 25:46]

means that the Lord’s righteousness dwells with them. All in whom the good of kindness [literally “charity”] is present are called “the righteous.” Not that of themselves they are righteous but that they are made so by the Lord, whose righteousness they take to themselves.

Those who believe that of themselves they are righteous, or that they have been made righteous to such an extent that no evil at all is present in them any longer, are not among the righteous but among the unrighteous. For they attribute good to themselves and also make that good meritorious; and people like them cannot possibly possess true humility with which to worship the Lord.

Therefore in the Bible those people are called “righteous and holy” who know and acknowledge that all good comes from the Lord, and all evil from themselves, which means that their evil comes from hell. (Arcana Coelestia #5069)

In other words, in Swedenborg’s theology, to be “righteous” or “justified” is to accept the righteousness of the Lord into ourselves willingly, while recognizing that it is not our own, but the Lord’s in us. And as Swedenborg explains extensively elsewhere, this happens only by our repenting from our sins—which flow from our inborn selfishness and worldliness—and focusing our life on loving the Lord by loving the neighbor through practical service to our fellow human beings, as the Lord himself taught in Matthew 25:31-46 and in many other places.

Swedenborg was aware of the judicial sense of “justification” that is commonly used in traditional Christian, and especially Protestant, interpretations of “justification.” See, for example, Arcana Coelestia #9264. However, for an extended statement on Swedenborg’s view of justification, or becoming righteous, in contrast to traditional Christian perspectives, see Arcana Coelestia #9263.

In Swedenborg’s theology, then, “justification” involves a person repenting from sins and living a new life of love for God and love and service to the neighbor. This, in Swedenborg’s view, is not an instantaneous event, but rather a lifelong process. For more on what this process involves, please see: “What does Jesus Mean when He Says we Must be Born Again?

In a nutshell

In Swedenborg’s theology:

  1. Salvation is attaining eternal life in heaven.
  2. Justification is the process of becoming a good and righteous person through repentance from sins and living a life of love and kindness to the neighbor.

Justification, then, in Swedenborg’s theology, is an integral part of the process of salvation. It is the process by which we become good, loving, thoughtful, and righteous people through the active presence of the Lord within us—which presence is the Holy Spirit working in us.

When we have gone through this process of “justification,” or becoming good and righteous people (together with other things that the Lord accomplishes in our lives when we are willing and receptive), we are saved—which means that we will move on to eternal life in heaven when our life on this earth is finished.

For further reading:

About

Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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3 comments on “What is the Difference between Justification and Salvation in Swedenborg’s Theology?
  1. Alex says:

    Hi Lee. Thanks for sharing. It was a good post.

    This is what irked me about people trying to justify their actions through God or declare themselves or others righteous. Does it not speak of arrogance to assume you are able to judge on the same divine level as God?

    This is the thing about Swedenborg. His teaching appear to make too much sense to be true. On the one hand, we have no idea how people viewed the Bible and faith as a whole before ‘traditional Christianity’ was born. I would imagine it being similar so hoe Swedenborg saw it, because it seems intuitive and logical.
    But then again, how come it took so long for someone to open the Bible and try to read it and see what it meant the way he did? Was the medieval church that oppressive?

  2. Gage says:

    Lee,

    Thank you. This helped me understand something that has always been challenging. I hope you have or will take on sanctification too!

    Best regards, Gage

    • Lee says:

      Hi Gage,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment. I’m glad this article was helpful to you! It’s a bit more technical than most of the articles here, but it does deal with a couple of important words that get thrown around a lot in Christian circles, and with the realities behind those words.

      Here’s the quick version on sanctification:

      Sanctification is another one of those latinate words that makes things seem fancier and more abstract than they actually are. It simply means “being made holy.” And things are holy when the Lord—who alone is holy—is present in them.

      So we are made holy when we accept the Lord into our lives by believing in him and living according to his teachings from a good heart. In the Bible, “the saints” means “the holy ones.” And they are the holy ones because they are the ones who have accepted the Lord into their head, heart, and hands, meaning their thoughts and beliefs, their loves and motivations, and the things they do each day.

      Like justification, God doesn’t “sanctify,” or declare holy, anything that isn’t actually holy. So when we have become holy by accepting God into our life, we are then “saints” or “holy ones” as the Bible uses that term, and God also declares us “holy ones” or “sanctified.”

      More abstractly, when divine good and truth are present in something or someone, that sanctifies the person or thing. The Bible is called “The Holy Bible” because it contains and delivers divine truth.

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