Martin Luther famously wrote about justification by faith: “if this article stands, the church stands; if this article collapses, the church collapses” (Luther’s Works 40/3.352.3). Justification matters. Why? Because it is caught up with our status before God, our assurance of eternal life, and our freedom to live the Christian life in love for others and without fear. But what does the Bible actually say about justification? Luther and Calvin recognised that we need to come to grips with the precise meaning of the key biblical terms—“righteousness” and “justification”—in order to grasp the biblical doctrine. But in modern New Testament scholarship, there is often a lack of clarity about these terms.
In this 3-part series, I speak with my colleague Chris Thomson, lecturer in Old Testament at Moore College, who has engaged in detailed research in this area as well as scholarly discussions with others, including N. T. Wright. We talk about what the terms mean, what other people are saying today about the terms, why righteousness is different from justification, why it’s both shocking and deeply comforting that God is the one who justifies the ungodly, and why it matters for us today.
In this first part, we look at the meaning of “righteousness”, especially in light of modern scholarly views (in particular that of N. T. Wright) that define “righteousness” in different ways. We see that “righteousness” is essentially a moral quality: it’s about being “right” or “good” rather than “wrong” or “bad”. We also see that this moral righteousness can be “credited” to someone by God.