Improve your biblical word power 3: Justification

On the Sola Panel:

This post is the third in a series designed to help you to get to know and love some of the important words used in the Bible. Today we’ll learn the basic meaning of the word ‘justification’.

To recap

In the first post, we saw that,

Righteousness = being in line with a standard.

In the second post, we saw that there is a particularly important context in which the word ‘righteousness’ appears: the law court. In this ‘forensic’ context,

Righteousness of a defendant = being in line with a legal and/or moral standard.

Righteousness of a judge = making decisions in line with legal and/or moral standards.


The word ‘justification’ is very closely related to ‘righteousness’ in the forensic context. In fact, in the original Hebrew and Greek languages (in which the Bible was written), the word for ‘justification’ has the same basic root as the words for ‘righteousness’.

The word translated ‘to justify’, ‘justification’ and ‘justified’ occur almost exclusively in the forensic (law court) context in the Bible. Here’s what it means:

To justify = to declare that a person is indeed righteous (usually in a law court).

While righteousness (or unrighteousness) is generally a quality the defendant possesses upon entry to the law court, ‘justification’ is an action that happens in the law court itself.

The job of the law court is to examine the defendant, to compare the evidence of their behaviour against the righteous standards of the law (which are based upon the moral created order established by God himself), and then to determine whether or not the defendant has acted in such a way as to show that he or she is in line with those standards. If the defendant, on the basis of evidence, is deemed to have indeed been righteous, then the judge ‘justifies’ them—that is, the judge declares that they are righteous. If not, then the judge ‘condemns’ them.

Here’s an example:

If there is a dispute between men and they come into court and the judges decide between them, acquitting [literally ‘justifying’] the innocent [literally ‘righteous’] and condemning the guilty … (Deut 25:1)

God’s justification versus human justification

However, human law courts are not perfect. Sometimes the judges themselves are unrighteous, and so make false judgements. It is possible, therefore, for a human law court to justify a person who is not righteous—that is, to declare that somebody is righteous when they are not righteous at all (e.g. Prov 17:15, Isa 5:23).

In contrast, God is a righteous judge. God hates those who justify the wicked and condemn the righteous. God himself never justifies the wicked:

You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in his lawsuit. Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent and righteous, for I will not acquit [literally ‘justify’] the wicked. (Exod 23:6-7)

In fact, God’s justification of the righteous is one of the key activities that take place in the temple in Jerusalem. In the Old Testament, we see God’s heavenly law court ‘coming to earth’ in the temple:

If a man sins against his neighbor and is made to take an oath and comes and swears his oath before your altar in this house, then hear from heaven and act and judge your servants, repaying the guilty by bringing his conduct on his own head, and vindicating [literally: ‘justifying’] the righteous by rewarding him according to his righteousness. (2 Chron 6:22-23)


Here’s the definition again:

To justify = to declare that a person is indeed righteous (usually in a law court).


Just briefly, here are two fundamental errors that have occurred in understanding the biblical word ‘justification’.

One serious error, made by many theologians in both the medieval Catholic church and also the modern Roman Catholic church, is to assert that ‘to justify’ means ‘to make righteous’ rather than ‘to declare righteous’. On this understanding, justification is a process that takes place in the life of a person, conforming the person to God’s moral standards over a period of time. It was one of the great rediscoveries of the Reformation that justification means ‘to declare righteous’ in the forensic context, not ‘to make righteous’.

A number of modern writers make a different error. They will agree that ‘to justify’ means ‘to declare righteous’. However, they use a different definition of the term ‘righteous’. Tom Wright, for example, claims that in Galatians, ‘righteousness’ really means ‘membership of God’s family’, not ‘being in line with a legal and/or moral standard’, as we saw in the previous post. This profoundly affects his definition of ‘justification’, which, he claims, really means to ‘receive the verdict “member of the family”’.1 As a result, Wright’s theology of justification shows less interest in the moral standing of creature before creator, and becomes anchored instead in what he sees as being a more fundamental concept—the human community of God’s covenant people. The key problem with this move is that ‘righteous’ does not mean ‘family member’, but rather ‘in line with a standard’—and in the forensic context of justification, the standards in view are the moral standards of the created order.

But there’s more…

Keen Bible readers will, of course, realize that there is more to be said about justification. In this post, we have simply examined the basic meaning of the word ‘justification’. It is important to understand this basic biblical meaning as we read how the word was used by Jesus and Paul—in what, at first glance, seem to be very surprising ways! In a future post, we will return to the temple to see how forensic justification is shaped by another fundamental biblical concept: atonement.