Being Justified in Paul’s Epistles

What does “being justified” mean? Acquittal in law court, put right in a covenant, or both, or what?

Let’s see if we can solve the dilemma or find out if the two interpretations can work together.

We have at least two ways to interpret the verb dikaioō: it means being put right with God in a covenant context, or it is mainly (but not exclusively) a legal term, meaning to acquit or declare not guilty in a forensic or courtroom setting.

But these words go well beyond that current controversy that is here today and gone tomorrow. The word has interesting nuances that will last until Jesus returns.

All translations are from the ESV. If readers would like to see the verses in other translations, they may go to Biblegateway.com and type in the references.

Passages

1.. To be justified is to be vindicated in the face of accusations by enemies.

4 By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar, as it is written,

“That you may be justified in your words,

and prevail when you are judged.” (Rom. 3:4; Ps. 51:4)

See also:

Rom. 8:33

1 Cor. 4:3-5

1 Tim. 3:16

2.. Paul speaks about the standards of God and implies from the rest of Romans that humans can’t meet them.

12 For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. … 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. (Rom. 2:12-13, 16)

3.. God justifies us apart from the law (our law keeping).

19 Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Rom. 3:19-20)

28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. (Rom. 3:28)

See also:

Gal. 3:11

Gal. 5:2-4

4.. God justifies us apart from our works and works of the law.

26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. 27 Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. (Rom. 3:26-28)

See also:

Rom. 4:1-5

Gal. 2:15-17

5.. God justifies us freely by grace and faith.

23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift. (Rom. 3:23-24)

26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. … 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since God is one – who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. 31 Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law. (Rom. 3:26, 29-31)

1 Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. (Rom. 5:1)

See also:

Rom. 3:21-24, 26, 29-31

Gal 3:24

Titus 3:7

6.. The Spirit Himself justifies us.

11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor. 6:11)

7.. God justifies us by Christ’s sacrificial blood.

9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. (Rom. 5:9)

See also:

Rom. 3:23-25

8.. We are freed and acquitted from sin (sin accusing us).

7 For one who has died has been set free [ESV notes: has been justified] from sin. (Rom. 6:7)

9.. God calls us to be justified and then he has glorified us.

30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Rom. 8:30)

Summary and Conclusion

* Nearly all the occurrences of dikaioō are in the passive. Justification happens to a human. It is an act of God on him or her. He or she is justified.

* When it is an active verb, God is the subject–he’s the one who’s justifying us.

* Faith is how we appropriate being justified. It is faith in God.

* Being justified is a free gift (free to us) by the grace of God.

* God justifies us by Christ’s atoning blood and sacrifice.

* God does not acquit the guilty (Exod. 23:7), for that would be unjust based on a narrow set of facts against the guilty party. However, God includes and evaluates a broader set of facts, the atoning sacrifice of Christ. He takes the punishment.

* Even the Spirit justifies us.

* Being justified is not done by the works of the law, but by faith in Christ.

* Being justified stands in opposition to condemnation by the law as the standard and when our sin fails to meet the law’s requirement.

* Being put right with God in the New Covenant can apply to all occurrences.

* But a subset of those passages refer specifically to a judgment or forensic or courtroom setting (Rom. 2:13, Rom. 3:4, Rom. 3:25-26, Rom. 8:30; 1 Cor. 4:3-5). The forensic setting is sometimes down here on earth (Rom. 8:33, 1 Cor. 4:3-5) and at least one other passage is about the Last Judgment (Rom. 2:12-13, Rom. 2:16).

Now we can look at the dilemma between being put right with God in a covenant and declared acquittal in a forensic setting. Can the two interpretations work together?

* The law by definition entails the forensic element. So every passage that has dikaioō or being put right with God and has the law nearby is placed squarely in the legal or courtroom setting.

* This is certainly true of Romans in which the law is mentioned eighty-six times (and the vast majority is in 2-10). Galatians records law thirty-two times.

*Romans and Galatians are where the vast majority of diakioō appears: fifteen times in Romans (mainly 2-8) and eight times in Galatians. (The other epistles have four occurrences.)

* The law has legal rights over everyone and accuses everyone: “For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law” (Rom. 2:12).

*Even the Gentiles, who have the moral law and conscience, are not let off the hook (2:14-15).

* This declaration of acquittal in a judgment or forensic setting puts us right with God in the New Covenant.

* So the forensic setting and being put right with God in a covenant context can work together.

Additional Discussion

Zech. 3:1-10 talks about Joshua the High Priest in the heavenly court. He was standing next to an angel. But Satan was also there accusing him. God orders the angel to take off Joshua’s unclean robes and put the “pure” vestments. Though the words “declared righteous” as such do not occur in Zech. 3, it is a beautiful image of God evaluating (judging) Joshua and calling him and putting a new garment on him. (See also about a robe of righteousness: Job 29:14; Ps. 132:9; Is. 11:5, Is. 59:17, Is. 61:10.)

How does this post help me grow in Christ?

Let’s use a courtroom setting.

How do we escape from the law, the prosecuting attorney, named Mr. Law, who represents the legal system that accuses us?

We can obey the law, and Mr. Law is happy and satisfied. We don’t have to appear in court at all. Unfortunately, he discovers that we get dragged back into court every day. We break the law in small or big ways. “You again!” he says with a scowl.

The compassionate judge, Mr. Divine (God), also sees something is wrong with us. We can’t keep the law. Judge Divine, a special judge, can see into our hearts and concludes we’re bound by our own nature; it tends towards law breaking, like water flows downward.

Jesus, our defense attorney, steps in and pays the fine for us. He even takes our just, deserved punishment for us.

Since Jesus paid the fine and also volunteered to take the punishment in our place, Judge Divine declares us “not guilty!” So we are now acquitted or declared righteous by an act of his divine grace.

Additional Discussion

Zech. 3:1-10 talks about Joshua the High Priest in the heavenly court. He was standing next to an angel. But Satan was also there accusing him. God orders the angel to take off Joshua’s unclean robes and put the “pure” vestments. Though the words “declared righteous” as such do not occur in Zech. 3, it is a beautiful image of God evaluating (judging) Joshua and calling him and putting a new garment on him. (See also about a robe of righteousness: Job 29:14; Ps. 132:9; Is. 11:5, Is. 59:17, Is. 61:10.)

Written by James Malcolm

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