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:

  • The Named Jew and the Name of God: A new reading of Romans 2:17–29

All posts

Recent blog posts

  • Yes no“Paul within Judaism” and Romans 2:17–29
    My article on Romans 2:17–29 supports one key feature of the "Paul within Judaism" perspective, but undermines another common feature.
  • Photo by Engin Akyurt on UnsplashThe goals of Bible teaching (1 Timothy 1:1–11)
    In gospel ministry and Bible teaching, if you’re not committed to the right goal, or if you have the wrong goal, it’s not just a matter of being ineffective: you’ll be downright dangerous. So what is that goal? What are you seeking to achieve in your gospel ministry and Bible teaching - now and in the future? And how would you know if you’d done it right? This passage in 1 Timothy 1:1–11 speaks to this issue of the goals of ministry and teaching. It challenges us to think about our own aims in teaching, and to see how important it is to get it right. A sermon preached at Moore College Men's Chapel on 14 July, 2021.
  • Slow-burn crazy-making behaviours. Photo by Vadim Sadovski on UnsplashSlow-burn crazy-making behaviours: recognising and responding
    Do you know someone who seems to have drama and problems constantly appear around them? Whenever you relate to this person, perhaps you find yourself feeling vaguely guilty, or uncomfortable, or put down, or obligated to affirm them? Do you often feel like you’re questioning yourself and your actions because of what they say and do? You don’t feel the same way around other people; it’s just this individual who seems to attract these dramas and give rise to these feelings in you. If that’s the case, the chances are it’s not you who is the problem. It’s quite possible that the person you’re thinking of is exhibiting a pattern of behaviours that can be significantly detrimental to you and to others. This pattern of behaviours is hard to pin down; it doesn’t seem too serious in the short term, and indeed it might appear quite normal to a casual acquaintance. However, over the long term, it can cause serious problems for you and others. That’s especially true in close-knit communities, like families, churches and other Christian ministries.
  • Romans Crash CourseRomans Crash Course (video)
    A 75 minute video course in the Apostle Paul's letter to the Romans designed for church members and leaders.
  • The Mistranslation "Call Yourself a Jew" in Romans 2:17: A Mythbusting StoryThe mistranslation “call yourself a Jew”: A myth-busting story (Romans 2:17)
    This is a story about a scholarly myth and how I had the chance to bust it. I’m talking here about a small but significant 20th century biblical translation: “call yourself” instead of “are called” in Romans 2:17.
  • Breaking news: Religious Scandal in RomeThe named Jew and the name of God: A new reading of Romans 2:17–29
    I've just had an article published in the journal Novum Testamentum. In it, I provide a detailed defense of my new reading of Romans 2:17–29. This passage is not primarily about Jewish salvation - rather it's primarily about Jewish teaching and God's glory.
  • Photo by Joseph d'Mello on UnsplashPreaching the Pastoral Epistles
    A one-hour audio seminar with principles and ideas for preaching the biblical books 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus ("Pastoral Epistles")
  • A Crash Course in Romans: Livestream
    Here's a <90 minute "Crash Course in Romans" I'm running on Monday evening 1 Feb 2021. It's aimed at leaders and any interested members of my church St Augustine's Neutral Bay and Church by the Bridge Kirribilli. Anyone is welcome to watch the livestream.
  • Photo by Dmitry Ratushny on UnsplashWhat’s wrong with the world? Is there hope? (Ephesians)
    Guilt, weakness, spiritual slavery, prejudice, arrogance, tribalism, conflict, war, victimhood, persecution, pain, suffering, futility, ignorance, lying, deceit, anger, theft, greed, pornography, sexual sin, darkness, fear, drunkenness, substance abuse, domestic abuse, workplace abuse, spiritual powers... In Paul's letter to the Ephesians, he says many things about the problems we face in this world. He also gives us wonderful reasons to find life, hope and healing in Jesus Christ. Along the way, he provides practical teachings about how to respond and live together.
  • What does Ephesians say about reconciliation?
    We humans are not very good at living up close with others. This is especially true when we have a history of conflict with those others. Reconciliation isn't easy. No matter how much you might want healing, it’s hardly ever a matter of just everybody getting on and pretending the hurts didn’t happen. In Paul's letter to the Ephesians, he says some very important, fundamental things about peace and reconciliation, and gives many other very practical teachings about how to live together in light of these truths.

On this site

All content copyright Lionel Windsor