Skip to content

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.

Justification

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)

Summary

Here’s the definition again:

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

Errors

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.

Published inJustificationThe Briefing

Publications by Lionel Windsor:

  • Lift Your Eyes: Reflections on Ephesians

Recent blog posts

  • Entering a tomb in PompeiiWe too: the offenders (Ephesians 2:3)
    Judgmentalism. It’s a bigger problem than we think. Judgmentalism is certainly a danger for God’s people. That’s because God’s people have God’s word. God’s word helps God’s people to see how wonderful God is, and how terrible humanity is in comparison. But Ephesians 2:3 contains two highly significant, emphatic words: “we too”. We too, says Paul, were the offenders. We, too, were the disobedient. These words aren’t talking about all those horrible people “out there”. They’re talking about God’s people. And it’s something we, too, need to hear. These words tell us something incredibly important—something that we ignore at our peril.
  • Photo by Daniel Lienert on UnsplashThe root of the problem (Ephesians 2:1–2)
    I hadn’t visited the dentist for years. Then I felt a tiny amount of pain in one of my teeth. But I ignored it. I didn’t want to bother with a dentist. Anyway, I had my own solution: I’d always brushed my teeth quite thoroughly, and was proud of it. So I just kept brushing. But after a while, the pain came back. This time, it was worse. So I finally visited the dentist. That was painful, too. The root had become so infected that I needed root canal surgery. That was a while ago. But last year, it flared up again, as these things apparently do. And yet I chose to visit the dentist again, even though I knew it might be painful. Why? Because I’d learnt something. I’ve learnt that if I have a problem that goes to the root, and if I know someone who has the solution to the problem, I shouldn’t ignore it or try to fix it myself. I should face up to the root problem, and get help. So I got help. Now, I don’t have a tooth in that spot at all. In Ephesians 2:1–2, Paul seeks to go deep, to the root of the problem. The problem Paul talks about here is incredibly serious. It can be very painful to admit. But Paul can and does admit it—because he also knows the person with the solution. According to Paul, this isn’t a problem to ignore or try to fix ourselves. It’s not something we can educate ourselves out of. This is a problem to face up to, and get help.
  • Captivated by ScriptureCaptivated by Scripture: A personal reflection on D. W. B. Robinson’s legacy for biblical studies
    What made Donald W. B. Robinson such an inspiring and influential teacher for generations of students? His commitment to being captivated by Scripture. This is a paper given by Lionel Windsor at the legacy day and launch of Donald Robinson Selected Works Volume 3: Biblical and Liturgical Studies & Volume 4: Historical Studies and Series Index. Moore Theological College, Sydney, 16 March 2019.
  • The first thing to say about church (Ephesians 1:22–23)
    Here in Ephesians 1:22–23, for the first time in his letter, the apostle Paul uses the word “church”. He’s taken quite some time to get to this point. That might make you think that the church isn’t very important to Paul. But actually, the reverse is true. This is a climactic statement. So far in Ephesians, Paul has poured out his praise to God for his blessings and plans and purposes. He has told his readers how he is praying for knowledge and hope and strength in God. Now, finally, at the highest peak of this amazing prayer, Paul names “the church”. So what is the first thing Paul has to say about the church? What is the word he associates most closely with the church? What matters most to Paul when it comes to the church? The answer is, in fact, obvious. It’s so obvious that you might think it doesn’t need to be said. You might even wonder why Paul bothers saying it, when there are so many other more practical things he could say about the church. But while it might seem obvious, it needs to be said first. Why? Because it’s so easy to assume it. Yet without it, nothing else about the church makes sense.
  • Grave of John BunyanStrength to live (Ephesians 1:19–21)
    What do we do when we feel weak in the face of the powers that be? One response might be just to shut down, close ranks and find a bitter satisfaction in our identity as victims. Another response might be to try to fight as hard as we can to exert our power and dominance over others, seeking to turn the tables so that we become the conquerors instead of the oppressors. Both of these responses involve seeking strength and power in ourselves. They are often the way that oppressed individuals and groups in our world respond to the powers that are oppressing them. But is that the way God wants his people to respond to our weakness in the face of power? In Ephesians 1:19–21, the apostle Paul gives us a far better way to respond. Paul’s response involves looking for strength. But it’s not a strength that comes from within ourselves. It’s a strength that comes from God himself.
  • Christ, the Cross and Creation Care ConferenceConference: Christ, the Cross and Creation Care
    I'll be speaking at the "Christ, the Cross and Creation Care Conference", Sydney. 8.30am to 3.30pm, Saturday 22 June 2019. A conference run by A Rocha Australia
  • Palatine Hill from Roman Forum with contrails – Black and WhiteWhat’s the point of theology? (Ephesians 1:17–18)
    The full name of the college I teach at is “Moore Theological College”. That word “Theological” says something important about who we are. It reminds us about what we're on about. Yes, the Bible is at the centre of everything we do. Yes, we seek to train people for ministry. Yes, we're driven by the worldwide mission of Jesus Christ. Yes, we're committed to learning together, and having our characters formed in loving Christian community. But our careful study of the Bible, and our pastorally-motivated ministry and mission training, and our encouragement of one another in our community, all matter because of something more basic: theology. Unfortunately, the word "theology" can be misunderstood. It sometimes gets used to mean something like “technical details about spiritual things that experts argue about and isn’t much practical use to regular people”. But that's just a caricature. It's not what theology is. Theology is something far more profound, far more life-changing, and far more fundamental—not just for people at a college, but for everyone. In Ephesians 1:17–18, Paul prays for his readers—people who have come to believe in and live for Jesus Christ. It's a prayer for more theology.
  • Youth praying, Finchale PrioryPrayer: What are we actually doing? (Ephesians 1:15–16)
    “A Muslim, a Jew and an Anglican Minister walk into a classroom”. This was the advertising blurb for a local Community College seminar I participated in a few years ago. I joined a Muslim educator and a Jewish academic (who is also a friend of mine) to give a series of presentations on different aspects of our three religions to interested people from the community. When we came to the topic of ‘prayer’, I was fascinated to hear what my co-presenters had to say. Even though we were all using the same word, ‘prayer’, the word meant very different things in the different religions. As a believer in Jesus Christ, what did I have to say about what prayer is? What would you have said? Christians, too, can often be a bit confused or unclear about what prayer actually is. That’s where the Apostle Paul really helps us. In these verses in Ephesians, Paul starts telling his readers about his own prayers for them.
  • Photo by Danielle Macinnes on UnsplashThe Holy Spirit: Our security (Ephesians 1:14)
    The Stanford Marshmallow Experiments are a favourite illustration of motivational speakers. The lesson is this: If you can learn how to delay gratification early in life, you’ll do better in later life. Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? But unfortunately, like many popular conclusions drawn from famous psychological experiments, it doesn’t stand up to closer scrutiny. The more up-to-date study demonstrates something far more mundane: if you grow up in a secure home where you know there will always be food on the table, you’re more likely to be able to put off eating a marshmallow. This isn’t a particularly useful lesson for motivational speakers. But it’s a great illustration of what it means to be a child of God.
  • Mission. Photo by Ben White on UnsplashThe message is the mission (Ephesians 1:13)
    What is God’s mission? What means is God using to bring about his purposes in Christ? What does that mean for our own mission as Christians and churches?

On this site

All content copyright Lionel Windsor