“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.

Bibliography

  • 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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