Justification is the declaring of a person to be just or righteous. It is a legal termsignifying acquittal, a fact that makes it unpalatable to many in our day. We tend todistrust legalism and thus we dismiss anything that savors of a legalistic approach. Weshould be clear that our hesitation was not shared by the biblical writers. In their dayit was axiomatic that a wealthy and important citizen would not be treated in a law courtin the same way as an insignificant person. Indeed this was sometimes written into thestatutes and, for example, in the ancient Code of Hammurabi it is laid down that if acitizen knocked out the tooth of another citizen his own tooth should be knocked out. Butif the victim was a vassal it sufficed to pay a small fine. Nobody expected strict justicein human tribunals but the biblical writers were sure that God is a God of justice.Throughout the Bible justice is a category of fundamental importance.
It mattered to the biblical writers that God is a God is a God of perfect justice, atruth expressed in Abraham's question, "Will not the Judge of all the earth doright?" ( Gen18:25 ). God can be relied on to act in perfect justice and without giving preferenceto the wealthy and the highly placed in our human societies. "The Lord takes hisplace in court; he rises to judge the people. The Lord enters into judgment against theelders and leaders of his people" ( Isa 3:13-14 ).Over and over the punishment of evil is put in legal terms ( Exod 6:6 ; 7:4 ) and specificallyIsrael's sin is brought out with the use of legal imagery ( Micah 6:1-2 ).
Accordingly it is not surprising that salvation is often viewed in legal terms. Thebasic question in all religion is, "How can sinful people be just (i.e., bejustified) before the holy God?" Justification is a legal term with a meaning like"acquittal"; in religion it points to the process whereby a person is declaredto be right before God. That person should be an upright and good person, butjustification does not point to qualities like these. That is rather the content ofsanctification. Justification points to the acquittal of one who is tried before God. Inboth the Old Testament and the New the question receives a good deal of attention and inboth it is clear that people cannot bring about their justification by their own efforts.The legal force of the terminology is clear when Job exclaims, "Now that I haveprepared my case, I know I will be vindicated" ( Job 13:18 ).
Justification (dikaiosis [
The Old Testament. We do not find the full New Testament doctrine ofjustification by faith in the Old Testament, but we do find teachings that agree with itand that in due course were taken up into that doctrine. Thus it is made clear that sin isuNIVersal, but that God provides forgiveness. For the first point, "All have turnedaside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not evenone" ( Psalm 14:3 ).And when God looks down from heaven he sees that "they have together become corrupt;there is no one who does good, not even one" ( Psalm 53:2-3 ).Many such passages could be cited. And for the second point, "If you, O Lord, kept arecord of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness" ( Psalm 130:3-4 ).The end of Micah's prophecy emphasizes that God is a God "who pardons sin andforgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance" and that he"delights to show mercy" ( 7:18-20 ).
Sometimes we find the thought that God imputes righteousness to people. He did this toAbraham, who believed God "and he credited it to him as righteousness" ( Gen 15:6 ). AgainPhinehas took decisive action so that the plague was checked and "This was creditedto him as righteousness" ( Psalm 106:31 ;Phinehas is described in the words, "as zealous as I am for my honor among them," Num 25:11 ).And the prophet can say, "He who vindicates (or justifies) me is near" ( Isa 50:8 ).
The New Testament. When we turn to the New Testament we must be clear that therighteousness and justification terminology is to be understood in the light of its Hebrewbackground, not in terms of contemporary Greek ideas. We see this, for example, in thewords of Jesus who speaks of people giving account on the day of judgment: "by yourwords you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned" ( Matt 12:37 ; theword NIV translates "acquitted" is the one Paul normally uses for"justified" ). Those acquitted on the day of judgment are spoken of as "therighteous" ( Matt25:37 ; they go into "eternal life, " v. 46 ).
The verb translated "to justify" clearly means "to declarerighteous." It is used of God in a quotation, which the New International Versionrenders "So that you may be proved right when you speak" ( Rom 3:4 ; the NRSV hasmore exactly, "So that you may be justified in your words" ). Now God cannot be"made righteous"; the expression obviously means "shown to berighteous" and this helps us see that when the word is applied to believers it doesnot mean "made righteous"; it signifies "declared righteous, ""shown to be in the right, " or the like.
Paul is fond of the concept of justification; indeed for him it is the characteristicway of referring to the central truth of the gospel. He makes much more use of the conceptthan do the other writers of the New Testament. This does not mean that he has a differentunderstanding of the gospel; it is the same gospel that he proclaims, the gospel that thedeath of Christ on the cross has opened a way of salvation for sinners. But he uses theconcept of justification to express it whereas the other writers prefer other terms. Hesays, "Just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, soalso through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous" ( Rom 5:19 ). We shouldnot understand "were made sinners" in any such sense as "were compelled tobe sinners." It signifies "were constituted sinners, " "were reckonedas sinners." Paul is saying that the whole human race is caught up in the effect ofAdam's sin; now all are sinners. Paul speaks of God "who justifies the wicked" ( Rom 4:5 ): it is notpeople who have merited their salvation of whom he writes, but people who had no claim onsalvation. It was "while we were still sinners" that Christ died for us ( Rom 5:8 ). But theeffect of Christ's saving work is that now all believers are "made righteous, ""accepted by God as righteous."
Paul insists that people are not justified by what they themselves do. Justification isnot the result of the infusion of new life into people, but comes about when they believe.The apostle points to the important example of Abraham, the great forbear of the Jewishrace, as one who was not justified by works ( Rom 4:2-3 ). And, ofcourse, if Abraham was not justified by works, then who could possibly be? SpecificallyPaul says, "a man is not justified by observing the law"; indeed, "byobserving the law no one will be justified" ( Gal 2:16 ; cf. also Gal 3:11 ).
There is something of a problem in that, whereas Paul says quite plainly thatjustification is by faith and not by works, James holds that "a person is justifiedby what he does and not by faith alone" ( 2:24 ). Jameschooses Abraham and Rahab as examples of people who were justified by works ( James 2:21 James 2:25 ). Hepoints out that Abraham "offered his son Isaac on the altar" and that Rahablodged the spies and sent them away.
But we should notice that both these Old Testament worthies are elsewhere singled outas examples of faith. Paul cited Abraham to establish the truth that we are justified byfaith rather than by works. Indeed, he quotes Scripture, "Abraham believed God, andit was credited to him as righteousness" ( Rom 4:3 , citing Gen 15:6 ; he citesit again in v. 22 ). In Romans 4 Paul has a strong argument that it was not works thatcommended the patriarch to God, but faith: Abraham is, for Paul, the classic example of aman who believed and who was accepted by God because of his faith. And the writer to theHebrews says plainly that it was "by faith" that Rahab welcomed the spies ( Heb 11:31 ).
If we look more closely at what James says we see that he is not arguing for works inthe absence of faith, but rather for works as the evidence of faith. "Show me yourfaith without deeds, " he writes, "and I will show you my faith by what Ido" ( 2:18 )and goes on to cite the demons who believe that there is one God as examples of the kindof faith he deprecates. James is sure that saving faith transforms the believer so thatgood works necessarily follow; and he complains about people who say they have faith, butwhose lives show quite plainly that they have not been saved. When people have savingfaith God transforms their lives and James' point is that in the absence of thistransformation we have no reason for thinking that those who profess to be believersreally have saving faith. We should not overlook the fact that James as well as Paulquotes Genesis 15:6 to make it clear that Abraham was justified by faith. And we shouldbear in mind that this was many years before he offered Isaac on the altar; indeed it wasbefore Isaac was born. While the offering of Isaac showed that Abraham was justified, hisjustification, even on James' premises, took place long before the act that showed itspresence.
And we must say much the same about Paul. He certainly calls vigorously for faith, buthe calls equally vigorously for lives of Christian service. And when he writes, "Theonly thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love" ( Gal 5:6 ), he issaying something with which James would surely agree. For James says, "I will showyou my faith by what I do" ( 2:18 ).
Paul continually emphasizes the importance of justification by faith. In his sermon atAntioch in Pisidia he points out that "through Jesus the forgiveness of sins isproclaimed to you" and immediately adds, "Through him everyone who believes isjustified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses" ( Acts 13:38-39 ).More than once he quotes the words from Habbakuk 2:4, "the righteous will live byfaith" ( Rom 1:17 ; Gal 3:11 ; cf.also Gal 2:16 ; Heb 10:38 ). Hesays explicitly that justification is by faith and not by observing the law ( Rom 3:28 ), or simplythat "we have been justified through faith" ( Rom 5:1 ).
Paul does not, of course, argue that faith is a meritorious act that of itself bringsabout justification. He is not saying that if we believe strongly enough we somehow getrid of our sins. But real faith means trust in God and when we trust God we are open tothe divine power that works in us to make us the sort of people we ought to be and toaccomplish the divine purpose. When we insist on our own moral performance we cutourselves off from the good that God works in believers.
At the center of Paul's religion is the cross of Jesus, and faith means trusting thecrucified Lord. Thus Paul says that Jesus "was delivered over to death for our sinsand was raised to life for our justification" ( Rom 4:25 ). We shouldnot, of course, put too strong a distinction between the effects of Jesus' death and theeffects of his resurrection. Paul is saying that Jesus' death and resurrection meant acomplete dealing with sins and a perfectly accomplished justification. We are"justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus"( Rom 3:24 ), whichmeans that Jesus' atoning death is critically important in our justification. Similarly weare justified "by his grace" ( Rom 3:24 ), "byhis blood" ( Rom5:9 ), "in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ" ( 1 Cor 6:11 ), and"in Christ" ( Gal 2:17 ), which areall ways of saying that it is the saving work of Jesus that brings about the justificationof sinners.
Salvation by the way of the cross was so that God would be "just and the one whojustifies the man who has faith in Jesus" ( Rom 3:26 ). This willbe in mind also in the reference to God as presenting Christ "as a sacrifice ofatonement (better, "a propitiation") through faith in his blood" ( Rom 3:25 ). That weare "justified by his blood" ( Rom 5:9 ) points tothe same truth: It is the death of Jesus that makes us right with God. This is the meaningalso when we read that we are "justified by his grace" ( Titus 3:7 ). It wasGod's good gift that brought justification, his "one act of righteousness" inChrist that effected it ( Romans 5:16 Romans 5:18 ).Another way of putting it is that the saved are saved not because of their ownrighteousness (they are sinners), but because of the righteousness that is from God andwhich they receive by faith ( Php 3:9 ; cf. 2 Col 5:21 ).
It is plain from the New Testament teaching throughout that justification comes to thesinner by the atoning work of Jesus and that this is applied to the individual sinner byfaith. That God pardons and accepts believing sinners is the truth that is enshrined inthe doctrine of justification by faith.
Bibliography. M. Barth, Justification; G. C. Berkouwer, Faith andJustification; J. Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification; F. Colquhoun, TheMeaning of Justification; L. Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross;idem, The Cross in the New Testament; P. Toon, Justification and Sanctification;F. B. Westcott, The Biblical Doctrine of Justification.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
[E] indicates this entry was also found in Easton's Bible Dictionary
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Justification'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".