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“Justification” and “righteousness” are not the same

As a side-project, I’m engaging in a small quest for greater semantic clarity in regard to the biblical word-group related to “justification” and “righteousness”. I’m not just trying to engage in pedantic nit-picking; I think it’s important to clarify the meanings of these really important words that are used by the apostle Paul in key places in his letters, in order to understand and proclaim the realities of our relationship with God more accurately.

In this post, I want to make a simple observation that should be obvious, but is too often neglected. The observation is this: in the forensic context, “justification” and “righteousness” are words that are related in meaning, but they are not identical.

It is certainly true that “justification” and “righteousness” are very closely related to each other. Even though the words look very different in English, in Hebrew and Greek they are based on the same root. This observation is often made (e.g. Wright 2009, 67-69), and it is an entirely valid and helpful observation as far as it goes.

Unfortunately, however, too often, once this observation has been made, the two words are then illegitimately assumed to be interchangeable. They are not.

Here’s a table which maps out the various relevant words used by Paul, most of which are also quite common in the Greek Old Testament (LXX) and other Greek sources. I have also provided a definition, which summarises the meaning of the word when it is being used in a forensic (lawcourt) context (both in Paul’s letters and and elsewhere). The terminology seems to be fairly consistent when it occurs in forensic contexts. My definitions are based primarily on the standard lexicon BDAG (see bibliography), which I’ve checked and nuanced slightly by looking at the word usage in the NT and LXX. I have already discussed most of these definitions in more detail in another related post; this table, however, is more comprehensive because it includes all the relevant Greek words.

NB A number of these words also occur in other (non-forensic) contexts, but this table is restricted to forensic contexts

Grammatical part of speech Greek word (NT and LXX) Normal Hebrew equivalent (Masoretic text) English gloss Meaning when used in a forensic (lawcourt) context Example in Paul
Noun δικαίωμα (1) מִשְׁפָט / חֹק “Rule” A particular moral / legal standard Rom 8:4
Adjective δίκαιος צַדִּיק “Righteous” Of a defendant: Consistent with a moral / legal standard

Of a judge: Consistently making decisions in line with moral / legal standards

Defendant: Rom 2:13

Judge: Rom 3:26

Adverb δικαίως צֶדֶק “Rightly” Quality of an action that is in line with moral / legal standards Tit 2:12
Adjective ἅδικος שֶׁקֶר “Unrighteous” Of a judge: Not consistently making decisions in line with moral / legal standards Rom 3:5
Noun δικαιοσύνη צֶדֶק “Righteousness” Of a defendant: the quality of being in line with a moral / legal standard

Of a judge: the quality of consistently making decisions in line with moral / legal standards

Defendant: Phil 3:9*

Judge: Rom 3:25-26

Noun ἀδικία עָוֹן “Unrighteousness” Of a defendant: the quality of being out of line with a moral / legal standard

Of a judge: the quality of not consistently making decision in line with moral / legal standards

Defendant: Rom 3:5

Judge: Rom 9:14

Verb δικαιόω הִצְדִּיק “To justify” / “To acquit” The action of a judge, after investigation of a defendant: To declare that the defendant is, indeed, in line with the court’s moral / legal standard. Rom 3:20
Noun δικαίωμα (2) מִשְׁפָט “Justification” / “Aquittal” (Rare) The declaration that the defendant is, indeed, in line with the court’s moral / legal standard, probably with more of an emphasis on the outcome of the declaratory process. Rom 5:16
Noun δικαίωσις מִשְׁפָט “Justification” / “Aquittal” (Rare) The declaration that the defendant is, indeed, in line with the court’s moral / legal standard, probably with more of an emphasis on the declaratory process itself. Rom 4:25

The fairly obvious conclusion from this table is that the “righteousness” of a defendant and the “justification” of a defendant are not the same. Righteousness, in the normal forensic usage, is a quality that the defendant possesses on the basis of something which is not strictly dependent upon the courtroom – it means being in line with moral / legal standards. “Righteousness” is a quality, not a status. Justification is the outcome of the courtroom process, if the courtroom finds that such righteousness is indeed present. Therefore, in its noun form, “justification” is a status conferred by the court.

* A number of people claim that Paul is using the word “righteousness” (e.g. Phil 3:9) in a way that is completely different to the normal usage found in the Greco-Roman and Jewish sources (esp. the LXX) – that is, they claim that Paul means “righteous status” (i.e. “justification”), not “righteous quality” (i.e. the normal meaning). Contrary to such claims, I claim that Paul uses the word “righteousness” in a way that is consistent with the normal usage of everybody else in his context (i.e. “righteous quality”), but extends the idea by finding the source of such righteousness in Christ, not in himself (or in any Christian). See my post on imputation.

Sadly, these basic dictionary definitions are often ignored. For example, Wright (2009, 69), speaking particularly about the Hebrew background to the term ‘righteousness’, says:

‘Righteousness’ within the lawcourt setting [. . .] denotes the status that someone has when the court has found in their favour. Notice, it does not denote, within that all-important lawcourt context, ‘the moral character they are then assumed to have’, or ‘the moral behaviour they have demonstrated which has earned them the verdict.’

This claim is quite central to Wright’s entire theology of justification. However, it is simply wrong. It disagrees with the lexical research (see above); and Wright does not provides any evidence for his claim, either from the texts themselves, or from any other scholars. Furthermore, I cannot find any evidence that would unambiguously support Wright’s claim. If any of my readers can find any evidence that might support this claim, I would be grateful to receive it.


  • Tom Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. London: SPCK, 2009.
  • BDAG = Bauer, Walter; Danker, Frederick W.; Arndt, W. F.; Gingrich, F. W., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
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  1. Ben D.

    While I also find Wright’s definition of righteousness to be very odd (as you say, there is actually no lexical proof at all that the word righteousness ever means “covenant membership.” One thing I do wonder though is whether Paul’s language of “counting as righteous” (e.g., Rom 4:1, 5, 6, 9-11 etc.) comes pretty close to treating righteousness as a “status.” What I mean is this: while righteousness in the OT is indeed “the quality of being in line with a moral/legal standard” (i.e., God’s covenant law), when Paul says that someone is “counted as rigtheous” he is also saying that they are counted as if they have the inherent righteousness that they do not in fact have (since they are ungodly, cf. Rom 4:5-8). Thus, they have the “status” of being in line with God’s moral/legal standard, even though they aren’t inherently in line with that status. Furthermore, when we are declared to be “in line with the court’s moral/legal standard” (i.e., “justified”; cf. Rom 4:25) this simply means that we have been “counted righteous” (Rom 4:22-24); i.e., we have been given the “status” of a fully righteous person.

    All that to say, as you well know, Wright’s definition of righteousness as status is not even related to the question of adherence to a moral/legal norm, and thus gets off track in attempting to come up with a definition of status (covenant membership) unrelated to the proper legal/covenantal setting of righteousness. As a professor of mine once told me, Wright gets off track since he appears to derive his definition of righteousness in general from his understanding of the righteousness of God, rather than from the more mundane definition of righteousness that dominates the OT, and is not disputed by any lexicographer that I am aware of.

    • Hey Ben,

      Thanks! I love the question. I agree that Paul is doing very strange things with the words; things that most people don’t do. In particular, I heartily agree with you when you say,

      when Paul says that someone is “counted as rig[ht]eous” he is also saying that they are counted as if they have the inherent righteousness that they do not in fact have (since they are ungodly, cf. Rom 4:5-8)

      But I think there’s two possible ways to proceed from this observation.

      1. Assume that Paul is abandoning the normal definitions and rejigging his vocabulary. Then theorise alternative definitions that make for a smoother, more logical reading, plug them in, and see if they “work”. In this case, suppose that for some reason Paul uses the word “righteousness” in places where anybody else would have used the word “justification” (e.g. Rom 4:5-6, Phil 3:9). That is, we posit that Paul is (anomalously) using the word “righteousness” to mean a forensic status rather than a quality. Then, hey presto, Paul is being perfectly reasonable and understandable in his Jewish milieu (apart from his weird word-usage). I think quite a few NT scholars do this, often implicitly. The advantage of this approach is that we don’t need extra theological concepts like “imputation of righteousness”, etc. But I think it’s exegetically unsatisfactory.

      2. Assume that Paul is using the words in the normal way, but that he’s saying something scandalous, something so strange that it cuts across normal expectations and forces us to reassess everything. Then think harder about it and work out how this scandalous thing actually works, given what Paul says elsewhere. In this case, it seems that we do need to understand the whole thing in terms of atonement, union with Christ and (indeed) imputation. Justification is based on union with Christ: because of union with Christ by faith, Christ’s quality (not just status) of being in line with God’s created standards, which he has by virtue of his life, atoning death and resurrection, is imputed to me; and I am able to be treated as if I am righteous, because I am indeed righteous–not because I am righteous in myself, but because I am righteous in Christ. I think that this is Paul’s point in Philippians 3:9. I also think this is what Luther, Calvin (especially) and many Reformed theologians are talking about. And I think it’s the right way to go.

  2. Lionel, my friend, thanks for this latest post. The chart is helpful.

  3. If justification is a legal declaration, then the “status” conferred on guilty sinners is an alien righteousness which is not their own. It is the righteous status of Christ imputed to them by a forensic imputation. In other words, our righteousness is outside of us. The good works which justify us are the perfect works of Christ credited to our account.

    N.T. Wright’s error is making “faithfulness” the basis of righteousness rather than making righteousness a legal declaration. “Faithfulness” confuses justification with sanctification and is therefore the same error propagated by the Roman Catholic Church. It is not our transformation that justifies but it is the righteousness of Christ imputed to us that makes our status before God as perfect as that of Christ Himself. This then frees us for an imperfect and infused righteousness of sanctification which is progressive throughout the Christian life.

    Thanks for your helpful post.


    • Hi Charlie,

      Thanks. I think that some of the things you’ve said are helpful. You seem to be speaking as if “righteousness” is identical to “justification”. E.g. you said:

      the “status” conferred on guilty sinners is an alien righteousness…
      the righteous status of Christ…
      making righteousness a legal declaration

      Is that deliberate – i.e. do you disagree with me, and are you claiming that “righteousness” can be used interchangeably with “justification” (as you seem to have done)?

      PS If I could prefer reword your phrases thus, I would agree with you! :

      the “status” conferred on guilty sinners is the declaration of an alien righteousness…
      the status that comes as a result of the righteousness of Christ…
      making justification a legal declaration

  4. I understand justification by faith alone to be the doctrine by which the true church/congregation stands or falls.

    You quotation from Calvin on spiritual union in your post on imputation ignores that Calvin taught that justification stands in complete distinction from sanctification/spiritual union:

    alvin writes about imputation too, describing it as a “fellowship of righteousness”:

    We do not, therefore, contemplate him [i.e. Christ] outside ourselves from afar in order that his righteousness may be imputed to us but because we put on Christ and are engrafted into his body—in short, because he deigns to make us one with him. For this reason, we glory that we have fellowship of righteousness with him.

    (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.11.10)

    Spiritual union is not the basis of our “right standing” with God. It is rather the natural “result” of regeneration, conversion. Without justification sanctification is impossible. Calvin makes this absolutely clear:

    The whole may be thus summed up: Christ given to us by the kindness of God is apprehended and possessed by faith, by means of which we obtain in particular a twofold benefit; first, being reconciled by the righteousness of Christ, God becomes, instead of a judge, an indulgent Father; and, secondly, being sanctified by his Spirit, we aspire to integrity and purity of life. This second benefit—viz. regeneration, appears to have been already sufficiently discussed. On the other hand, the subject of justification was discussed more cursorily, because it seemed of more consequence first to explain that the faith by which alone, through the mercy of God, we obtain free justification, is not destitute of good works; and also to show the true nature of these good works on which this question partly turns. The doctrine of Justification is now to be fully discussed, and discussed under the conviction, that as it is the principal ground on which religion must be supported, so it requires greater care and attention. For unless you understand first of all what your position is before God, and what the judgment which he passes upon you, you have no foundation on which your salvation can be laid, or on which piety towards God can be reared. Institutes 3.11.1

    You ought to be aware that simply doing a word study from the LXX is not the same as doing a thorough exegetical study of each context in which the words occur, how they are used in the verse, pericope as a whole, and how Paul utilizes those terms.

    It seems to me that Calvin at least does associate the “righteousness of Christ” with justification by faith alone.

    Are you trying to find some sort of via media between the magisterial Refomers and N.T. Wright?

    The Bible clearly says that our “righteousness” is in Christ and the words are so translated by almost every major translation, including the KJV.

    The word for sanctification, is a completely different word.

    Examples of righteousness in the forensic and declared sense permeate Paul’s writings.

    Your pedantric redefinition of “righteousness” is completely unnecessary since Scripture interprets Scripture.

    Also, you clearly ignore the fact that the term is inherently forensic without any need for further definition, especially when the verb form is in the passive voice as in the participle in Romans 5:1.

    While your study is interesting, it’s really no different from a fundamentalist who is proof texting unless you can exegete each occurrence of the terms and show how your translation/exegesis is correct.

    As for my use of the term “righteousness” I was clearly referring to the English translation.

    Clearly, dikaiosune is sometimes related to sanctification as in Romans 6:19.

    You might find the view of D. Broughton Knox of interest in this regard as well:

    <a href="


    • Hi Charlie,

      Sadly, I think that sadly a number of the comments you’ve made demonstrate that you haven’t understood my original post. That may be partly my fault – perhaps I haven’t been clear enough. But I would ask you to reread my posts.

      You’ve said far too much for me to give a detailed reply. However, I will clarify a few things relating to your comment.

      • I believe justification by faith alone is incredibly important and central to the Christian life
      • I don’t recall mentioning sanctification anywhere in these posts, so I’m not sure why you’ve brought it up, but if you would like you can read my views on the relationship between justification and sanctification.
      • I believe that justification is logically prior to sanctification
      • I believe (following Calvin) that spiritual union is not the same as sanctification
      • I agree that Calvin certainly does associate the “righteousness of Christ” with justification by faith alone.
      • I’m trying to use the word studies as a basis for further exegesis, they are not intended to be the final word.
      • My word study is not something I’ve done on my own; it’s based on a standard lexicon whose editors have done a pretty thorough job in most cases
      • I think Calvin is essentially correct on this, and I think that I’m just echoing his own views on this matter (especially Institutes 3).
      • I disagree with Wright, and am not trying to find any via media.
      • The reason I have tried to define “righteousness” so precisely is because I believe Scripture interprets Scripture, and therefore we should understand Scripture precisely (in this case the OT) in order to understand Paul.
      • My whole point is that the term is inherently forensic in forensic contexts, I’m not ignoring it.
      • I can’t see how you were referring to an English translation of the Bible, since there’s no English translation of the Bible that I am aware of that talks about “alien righteousness”, “righteous status” and “legal declaration”.
      • I like Broughton Knox a lot and find his views very helpful, thanks.
  5. Justification a “Legal Fiction”?

    Sorry about that. My notebook is getting unstable. Anyway, the article from the Expository Times clearly shows that for Paul it is a matter of legal standing, not meeting a standard of actual sinlessness. Declared justification/righteousness is a legal declaration of “not guilty”, which is not necessarily the same as actually innocent, as anyone familiar with modern law knows. Actually guilt or innocence is not in view at all. All that matters is whether or not on a legal basis the person is rendered with a legal verdict of “not guilty” or “guilty”. It often turns out that the court got the verdict wrong.

    In the case of God’s judgment He knows we are guilty but we are declared “not guilty” on the basis of Christ’s fulfilling the requirements of the standards of God’s moral law for us and doing so with perfect obedience. On the objective standard of Christ’s obedience and His substitutionary atonement we are declared “not guilty” and therefore on a legal basis we are in “right standing” with God.

    The use of the term dikaiosune is not uniform in Scripture and must be interpreted in context. That does not remove the fact that texts like Romans 5:1 are indeed forensic. Sometimes dikaiosune is related to sanctification (Romans 6:19) and other times to our justification.


    • Hi Charlie,

      W.r.t. your first paragraph: I don’t buy it. As Paul repeatedly says, God is not an unjust judge. A righteous judge makes decisions based on reality; he doesn’t make it up. That’s precisely the difference between God’s justice and modern law.

      W.r.t. your second paragraph: that’s the actual point I was making in my post; and it contradicts your first paragraph. I agree with you entirely at this point.

      W.r.t. your final paragraph: see comment above.

  6. Your view of Philippians 3:9 is ambiguous. Clearly Paul says that his righteousness is not his. It is the “righteousness of Christ” that puts him in right standing with God. Thus, God is not ruling on Paul’s own actual status as in his own goodness or lack thereof but that Paul on the basis of Christ’s active and passive obedience is rendered “not guilty” and in legal “right standing” with God.

    • Exactly. That’s what I was saying.

  7. We are “made” righteous only in the sense of pardon, of being declared “not guilty”. So “declared” righteousness/justification is purely a legal pardon, not of being made actually righteous or good or of any idea of entire sanctification as in the Roman Catholic view of “infused righteousness”.

    • Indeed.

  8. The fairly obvious conclusion from this table is that the “righteousness” of a defendant and the “justification” of a defendant are not the same. Righteousness, in the normal forensic usage, is a quality that the defendant possesses on the basis of something which is not strictly dependent upon the courtroom – it means being in line with moral / legal standards. “Righteousness” is a quality, not a status. Justification is the outcome of the courtroom process, if the courtroom finds that such righteousness is indeed present. Therefore, in its noun form, “justification” is a status conferred by the court.

    This conclusion is ambiguous at best. You’re trying to make a distinction between justification and justification? Justification is a “legal declaration” and is objective and therefore a “legal status” of being in “right standing” with the court or “not guilty”. The Christian is declared “just” not based on his own quality of having kept the law–he has not! Rather the Christian is “declared” just or “not guilty” on the status of another–Jesus Christ who kept all the moral law perfectly in our place. Jesus literally stands as a mediator between us and God so that God can be legally reconciled to us. Without that legal reconciliation there is no basis for any personal relationship with God or any acceptance of our “good works”. Apart from faith we cannot please God and none of our works are acceptable to Him or pleasing to Him.

    The 39 Articles of Religion 9-18 make this abundantly clear that it was and is the confession of the English Reformers.

    Good works cannot put away our sins or withstand the severity of God’s judgment. Article 12.

    I might point out that Article 11 directly contradicts your view as posted above.

    “We are accounted righteous…”

    • I’m sorry Charlie, but I can’t keep replying to you. Your first paragraph in this comment demonstrates that you have entirely misunderstood my post. I don’t know yet how I can make myself much clearer to avoid such misunderstanding in the future by people such as yourself; but I’ll keep mulling it over and, God willing, your comments will help me to be clearer in subsequent posts.

      I love article 11.

      God bless, and goodbye!

  9. Article 12

    “iusti coram Deo reputamur”.

    “… just before God we are accounted . . .”

    Or “. . . we are accounted just before God . . .”

    • I assume you mean article 11. Since this is an article of the English Church, I’m baffled as to why you quoted it in Latin and then translated it into English (cf. Article 24).

  10. Lionel, to be blunt, if you believe that God declares us just on the basis our “actual” righteousness, then you contradict the 39 Articles of Religion. You also contradict the Bible and every Reformed confession of the magisterial Reformation.

    I quoted the Latin to show that the Reformers, especially Cranmer, the author of the 42 Articles from which the 39 are revised, saw that righteousness is a matter of being “just”. It is a legal righteousness.

    Your view is the same as N.T. Wright’s view and the same as the Federal Visionists and of the Roman Catholic Church.

    The Protestant Reformers one and all refused to confuse justification with sanctification as you are doing.


    • Dear Charlie, please read my post. I believe no such thing, and I never said that I did. I’m now going to ask you to stop commenting on my blog, because you’re not clearly not listening to me. Thank you.

  11. A “quality” is inherent in the sinful believer and since NO ONE meets that standard, then by your own view no one is justified and all are doomed to hell.

    Justification is not made on the basis of “our” righteousness but on the basis of Christ’s active and passive obedience. That has been the position taken by ALL the Reformers, including Cranmer. Your view is a move back in the direction of Rome just as N.T. Wright’s view is a move in that direction.

    It truly is regettable that so-called “Evangelicals” are really teaching a view of justification is that is nothing more than a rehashing of the Roman Catholic view of an infused righteousness and inherent righteousness.

    Your false dichotomy fails on the basis of Scripture and it fails on the basis of the Reformed Standards, including the Anglican Formularies.


    • I will repeat. Dear Charlie, please read my post. I believe no such thing, and I never said that I did. I’m now going to ask you to stop commenting on my blog, because you’re not clearly not listening to me. Thank you.

  12. A legal status is not a “quality” in the believer. Your view makes that mistake and is therefore open to criticism.

    • I will repeat one last time. Dear Charlie, please read my post. I believe no such thing, and I never said that I did. I’m now going to ask you to stop commenting on my blog, because you’re not clearly not listening to me. Thank you.

  13. But you did say it. I quoted you. You need to stop being sloppy with your writing if you don’t mean what you say.

  14. “Righteousness, in the normal forensic usage, is a quality that the defendant possesses on the basis of something which is not strictly dependent upon the courtroom – it means being in line with moral / legal standards.”

    These are your words. By that definition you imply that righteousness and sanctification are “being in line with moral / legal standards.”

    Now, context makes all the difference. In some contexts Paul links righteousness to sanctification. In other contexts he is clearly referring to a legal declaration and a legal “status” and NOT a quality inherent in the person OR the “quality” of his obedience or conformity to God’s perfect standards, which is the moral law.

    ALL have sinned and come short of the glory of God. Romans 3:20-23.


  15. I’m sorry to confront you so bluntly but your ambiguous statements are so blatantly self-contradictory as to constitute confused thinking.

    You can block me all you like but fact is you need clarify what you mean.

    The Westminster Confession and other documents of the Reformation do a much better job of clarifying the distinctions between imputed righteousness and infused righteousness.

    I would suggest you go back and read Broughton Knox again in Volume III.


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