Justification: What It Is and What It Is Not

What does the term mean and not mean? An old-fashioned Bible study offered in a Q&A format.

What would happen to you if you were ushered into God’s presence right now in all your sinful self-regard? This happened to Isaiah the prophet, who was a godly and righteous man. Yet he felt totally unclean and worthy and cried out in despair: “Woe is me! I am ruined!”

So God’s act of justifying us must be seen in the context of standing in his holy presence with awe-struck wonder and fear and then being welcomed into his presence with joy.

Here’s how you go from unacceptable to acceptable just by believing in Christ.

Here is Part Two, which expands on Christ’s death and the benefits or results of justification.

1.. What are the original words for “justify” and “justification”?

Here are brief word studies which I hope are not too technical. They are intended for everyone, but may be advanced. If they are, study them, or just scroll past them.

The New Testament was written in Greek, and here are some of the related words.

The nouns “righteousness” or “justice” is dikaiosynê;

The noun “justification” is dikaiôsis;

The verbs “to justify” or “pronounce righteous” “or acquit” is dikaioô;

Notice how they share the dik-stem.

Next, just to introduce the Hebrew words that are synonyms, here they are:

The verb tsadaq means “to be righteous, justify, judge rightly, acquit.”

And the nouns tsěděq and tsadaqah both mean righteousness. They have the same root: ts-d-q.

Bottom line: we will mostly focus on the NT and the verb “to justify” and the noun “justification” or “righteousness.”

2.. So what do “justify” and “justification” mean, then?

The basic meaning in context, particularly in Paul’s writings, is to declare or pronounce righteous. It means to acquit someone, to declare him not guilty.

It does not mean that we present our own righteousness before and justify ourselves. “See, God? I am worthy by my righteous deeds to come into your presence!” No, God has to declare or pronounce us righteous or acquitted of our unrighteousness, after we repent and our sins are forgiven.

Reformed theologian Wayne Grudem says justification is an instantaneous legal act of God that has these two aspects: God thinks of our sins as forgiven and Christ’s righteousness belonging to us; and he declares us righteous in his sight.

This idea of God thinking of us in this way is summed up in the Greek word logizomai (note the log– stem), which expresses a mental action or an accounting term. It means “to reckon or calculate or count, estimate, evaluate, look upon, consider, think about, believe” (BDAG).

Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof says it is a judicial act of God, who declares that the claims of the law on the sinner are satisfied, on the basis of the righteousness of Jesus Christ.

These definitions have the same elements: forgiveness from God and declaration of God that we are the righteousness of God in Christ.

What Is Biblical Imputation?

3.. What are some further aspects of justification?

There are at least two important ones.

The first aspect is the nonimputation of sins. This is the negative side (the word “non” is a negation). Paul writes in 2 Cor. 5:19 that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not imputing their trespasses against them. The verb for “imputing” is the standard one throughout Paul’s writing for this concept: logizomai (as noted in the previous point).

So God considers us acquitted and declares us righteous.

However, we cannot pretend that our sins no longer exist. Just the opposite. We need to repent for our sins and crimes against God. When we do, he forgives us.

When Peter preached before the people of Jerusalem at Pentecost, he told them to repent and baptized for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38) He also proclaimed before the Jewish high council (the Sanhedrin) that they should repent so they will receive forgiveness of sins (Acts 5:31). Paul writes, “Blessed is the man whose sins are forgiven” (Rom. 4:7). Jeremiah the Old Testament prophet foretold the day when God will make a new covenant with his people and will forgive their iniquity and remember their sins no more (Jer. 31:31).

We repent, he forgives us, and he does not impute or calculate our sins against us.

The second aspect is the imputation of righteousness of Jesus Christ. This is the positive side.

Paul states in 1 Cor. 1:30 that by God’s doing we are in Christ Jesus and he has become for us righteousness or a declaration of not guilty. Jeremiah predicted that the day is coming when we will be called “the LORD is our righteousness” (Jer. 33:16). Paul said he believed himself blameless as a Pharisee in working out the law of Moses, but then said he counted all his old past as garbage or refuse or dung (Phil. 3:8-9).

So he “nonimputes” our sin and imputes Christ’s righteousness to our account or our legal indictment against us. His righteousness is all complete and lacking nothing and perfect.

4.. So you are saying he infuses us with his righteousness?

No, not at this (logical) stage in his salvation extended to us. If we thought we had a share in salvation, we would be like many other religions that teach that with our good behavior we somehow climb the ladder to Nirvana or Islamic heaven or Sikh heaven or a better existence in the next life. No, the gospel of Christ is different.

Rather, God considers us acquitted apart from anything we have done. Righteousness covers us like a garment. In the OT prophet Zechariah’s writings (Zech. 3), the prophet saw Joshua the high priest being accused by Satan and wearing dirty clothes. God takes off his dirty robes and puts a perfectly clean priestly robe on him. That’s the perfect image of the righteousness that God imputes to us.

In the now-famous passage in Titus, Paul writes that God saved us not because of deeds done by us in righteousness (3:5). In other words, we did not earn his forgiveness, and he did not infuse righteousness in us at this point so we could claim that we somehow did it with an internal righteousness. If that we so, we would never be satisfied that it is enough. Wouldn’t we need more? We might ask ourselves.

No, the righteousness that we have which acquits us before a thrice-holy God is one that we did not have before salvation. Call it alien righteousness.

5.. But doesn’t Rom. 5:19 say that God will make us righteous? Doesn’t that mean he infuses righteousness in us?

No, the Greek verb for “make” is not the standard one (poieō). Instead, it is kathistēmi, which is sometimes translated as “bring” or “conduct” (Acts 17:15), “appoint” or “put in charge.”

Here are all verses:

Seven times in the Gospels it means “appoint” or “put in charge” (Matt. 24:45, 47; 25:21, 23; Luke 12:14, 42, 44);

Four times in Acts it means “appoints” or “puts in charge.” (6:3; 7:10, 27, 35).

One time in Acts it means to “bring” or “conduct” or “escort” (17:15);

Three times in Hebrews it means “appoints” (5:1; 7:28; 8:3);

And in Tit. 1:5 it means “appoints.”

Or it can be translated as “set” on fire (Jas. 3:6);

A friend of the world is “established” or “constituted” or “made” an enemy of God (Jas. 4:4);

Or you “are established” in the knowledge of God (2 Pet. 1:8).

And in context here in 5:19, Paul had been developing the argument of a forensic (legal) righteousness that comes through faith in Christ, as distinct from the righteousness that comes by law keeping. And so “people are made righteous only by the righteousness of Christ and their faith in Christ, not by being righteous (Douglas Moo, Epistle to the Romans, p. 345, n. 145).

In other words, people are made sinners by being in Adam, not by sinning. And people are made righteous by being in Christ, not by doing righteous acts. So whether it is “made” or “constituted,” it is in Christ.

Further, Renewalists (Pentecostals, Charismatics, and Neo-Charismatics) who believe in justification by grace through faith do not leave the justified man as he is, but rather, he will be united in Christ and work out the salvation that God has worked in (Phil. 2:12).

6.. But isn’t this declaration just playing fast and loose with reality?

This question is a good one. After all, Exod. 23:7 says God will not acquit the guilty. However, there has to be an alteration of our present condition. Humans change, but not by sinful human effort, but by redemption in Christ Jesus. In the cross, God altered humankind’s standing before the Lord. And the verse in Exod. 23:7 in context is about a human judge in a dispute, not the eternal plan of salvation.

God declares us righteous in Christ the moment we repent of our sins and have saving faith in Christ. On our repentance and saving faith, we are born again. Repentance and new birth are the work of grace and the Spirit. So God is not declaring the guilty not guilty without a basis, but he declares not guilty the repentant as they have saving faith in him, when they are now in union with Christ. As for paying for the penalty of our sins done in our past life, Jesus paid for this just penalty on the cross. He died in our place, where we should have died for our own sins. He is our substitute.

Now sanctification is the outworking of God’s declared righteousness over you.

As noted in the other posts, justification is different from sanctification in these ways:

Justification Sanctification
Legal standing Internal condition
Once and for all time Continuous throughout life
Entirely God’s work We cooperate with God
Perfect in this life Imperfect in this life
The same in all Christians Greater in some than in others
Source: Grudem, p. 746

The only slight disagreement is that God declares us holy only because he transfers us from darkness to light, from the profane to the sacred; we are consecrated to him, no longer to the world. But now we work it out. Justification and sanctification are linked, but distinct. As noted in the other posts in the Justification series, the order is really logical, not sequential in time, according to NT theology. That is, logically, legal declaration by God comes before we humans practice holiness and righteousness. Logically, we receive righteousness as a free gift before we can have it infused in us by the work of the Spirit. (If we believed that our holiness logically came before God’s gift of righteousness, Paul would say his theology was turned upside down and out of order.) Logically, your personal sanctification never launches God’s declaration of your right legal standing and your being born again (regeneration), or else Christianity would resemble other religions, particularly certain strands of Saul’s / Paul’s old Judaism. Just the opposite is the case. Your repentance (by grace) and your saving faith (by grace), and your new birth (by the Spirit) and God’s declared righteousness–all of this at the same time–launches your sanctification process.

So how does article about justification help me grow in Christ?

When you believe in Christ, you are now declared righteous in Christ. You may not feel like it, because this declaration happens in the heavenly tribunal. If it were to require your own righteousness or a mixture of his and yours, then you would remain insecure when you actually stand before the tribunal at the final judgment.

Let’s review the benefits of justification (Berkhof p. 513).

First, justification removes the guilt of sin and restores the sinner to the rights of being a child of God.

Second, justification happens outside of the sinner in the tribunal of God. It may not immediately change the sinner’s inner state, though it hits him in his heart. In contrast, the process of making him holy is called sanctification and takes a lifetime.

Third, it takes place once and for all. It is not a process that is repeated over and over again. In contrast, sanctification, as noted, is a process of making the believer holy, over a lifetime.

Remember, justification is God’s legal declaration of your being righteous in Christ, not in yourself. In Christ, God can declare you righteous without playing fast and loose with your reality. It is his heavenly reality and perspective that counts more. It is his Son’s sacrificial death on the cross that forms the foundation on which you stand righteous before God. He sees you clothed in Christ’s righteousness.


Justification: Bible Basics

Justification: How It Was Done, How We Get It, and Its Results

Justification: What It Is and What It Is Not


Works Cited

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s