A Primer on Justification: Part 3
September 19, 2016
TODAY'S BIBLE READING:
This article is the third in a ten-part series by Dr. Ryken that will be made available over the coming weeks. Find the other articles: Part 1: The Need For Justification, Part 2: The Centrality of Justification.
The Meaning of Justification
The vocabulary of justification comes from the law court, where “to justify” is a declarative verb. In its noun form “justification” is a legal word that refers to a person’s judicial standing. The biblical terms surrounding justification find their origin in legal relationships. The Greek verb dikaioo, which means “to justify,” is essentially a forensic term that “denotes basically a sentence of acquittal.”1 To justify is to render a favorable verdict, to declare a person to be in the right, to announce forgiveness in legal terms. Justification is vindication. It is a decision of the court stating that someone has a right relationship to God and his law. It is the pronouncement that—as far as the law is concerned—the defendant is not guilty, but innocent.
One good way to define justification is to contrast it with its opposite, which is condemnation. To condemn is to declare a person unrighteous. It is the judicial verdict that—as far as the law is concerned—he is guilty. This act of condemnation is not what makes a criminal guilty, of course. His own actions make him guilty, and he becomes guilty the very moment he violates the law. When he is finally condemned, therefore, the court simply pronounces him to be what he already is: a guilty sinner.
Justification is the opposite of condemnation. To justify is to pronounce a verdict of innocence. In justification a person is not made righteous, but declared righteous. Justification is not a process, therefore, but an act. It is not the impartation of righteousness through faith plus works and the sacraments, as some theologians have tried to claim, but the imputation of righteousness by faith alone.
The true meaning of justification—which is “legally to declare righteous,” not “actually to make righteous”—can be demonstrated from Scripture. For example, in Deuteronomy 25:1 the Bible teaches that “when men have a dispute, they are to take it to court and the judges will decide the case, acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty.” Obviously, a judge does not make a person guilty; he simply declares him to be guilty, thereby condemning him to his sentence. By analogy, the word “acquit” (which is really the Hebrew verb hatsdiq, “to justify”) means “to declare righteous.” Or consider Proverbs 17:15: “Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent—the Lord detests them both.” Here again, the word “acquit,” or “justify” (hatsdiq), obviously refers to a legal declaration. By lamenting the justification of the guilty, God is not trying to stop anyone from transforming the guilty into fine, upstanding citizens. If justifying the guilty means to make them righteous, surely God would be in favor of it! His objection rather is to declaring the guilty to be innocent, which would be false and pernicious.
When we turn to the New Testament, we find justification used in much the same way. As in the Old Testament, to justify is the opposite of to condemn. This is clear, for example, from the contrast Paul draws between the sin of Adam and the gift of Christ: “The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification” (Rom. 5:16). To justify, then, means to declare that a defendant is innocent of a charge. In the context of salvation, it is God’s declaration that a person is acceptable in his sight and now stands rightly before him. Note that justification means something more than acquittal. To acquit is to declare a person “not guilty.” But in justification God does not simply clear a sinner of all charges; he declares a sinner to be positively righteous. Justification is God’s legal declaration that, on the basis of the perfect life and the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, received by faith, a sinner is as righteous as his own beloved Son.
Some theologians object to forensic justification on the grounds that it places too much emphasis on judicial categories. They object to the idea that the cross was a legal transaction in which an innocent victim was made to pay the penalty for the crimes of others. Yet the Bible teaches forensic justification, and with good reason. While there are many ways to describe God’s saving grace, the legal category of justification is fundamental to the gospel. Since God is a Judge as well as a Father, our relationship to him must be a right relationship. To eliminate the legal basis for this rightness (i.e. justification) is to make it impossible for a sinner to know God in a saving way. Even worse, it is to believe in a God of unjust love, who forgives people without having any right to do so.
1 Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, 3rd edn. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1965), 260.
Dr. Philip Ryken currently serves as the president of Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Josh Moody (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is the senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, IL., president and founder of God Centered Life Ministries, and author of several books including How the Bible Can Change Your Life and John 1-12 For You.
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