Improve your biblical word power 3: Justification

This post is the third in a series designed to help you to get to know and love some of the important words used in the Bible. Today we’ll learn the basic meaning of the word ‘justification’.

To recap

In the first post, we saw that,

Righteousness = being in line with a standard.

In the second post, we saw that there is a particularly important context in which the word ‘righteousness’ appears: the law court. In this ‘forensic’ context,

Righteousness of a defendant = being in line with a legal and/or moral standard.

Righteousness of a judge = making decisions in line with legal and/or moral standards.


The word ‘justification’ is very closely related to ‘righteousness’ in the forensic context. In fact, in the original Hebrew and Greek languages (in which the Bible was written), the word for ‘justification’ has the same basic root as the words for ‘righteousness’.

The word translated ‘to justify’, ‘justification’ and ‘justified’ occur almost exclusively in the forensic (law court) context in the Bible. Here’s what it means:

To justify = to declare that a person is indeed righteous (usually in a law court).

While righteousness (or unrighteousness) is generally a quality the defendant possesses upon entry to the law court, ‘justification’ is an action that happens in the law court itself.

The job of the law court is to examine the defendant, to compare the evidence of their behaviour against the righteous standards of the law (which are based upon the moral created order established by God himself), and then to determine whether or not the defendant has acted in such a way as to show that he or she is in line with those standards. If the defendant, on the basis of evidence, is deemed to have indeed been righteous, then the judge ‘justifies’ them—that is, the judge declares that they are righteous. If not, then the judge ‘condemns’ them.

Here’s an example:

If there is a dispute between men and they come into court and the judges decide between them, acquitting [literally ‘justifying’] the innocent [literally ‘righteous’] and condemning the guilty … (Deut 25:1)

God’s justification versus human justification

However, human law courts are not perfect. Sometimes the judges themselves are unrighteous, and so make false judgements. It is possible, therefore, for a human law court to justify a person who is not righteous—that is, to declare that somebody is righteous when they are not righteous at all (e.g. Prov 17:15, Isa 5:23).

In contrast, God is a righteous judge. God hates those who justify the wicked and condemn the righteous. God himself never justifies the wicked:

You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in his lawsuit. Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent and righteous, for I will not acquit [literally ‘justify’] the wicked. (Exod 23:6-7)

In fact, God’s justification of the righteous is one of the key activities that take place in the temple in Jerusalem. In the Old Testament, we see God’s heavenly law court ‘coming to earth’ in the temple:

If a man sins against his neighbor and is made to take an oath and comes and swears his oath before your altar in this house, then hear from heaven and act and judge your servants, repaying the guilty by bringing his conduct on his own head, and vindicating [literally: ‘justifying’] the righteous by rewarding him according to his righteousness. (2 Chron 6:22-23)


Here’s the definition again:

To justify = to declare that a person is indeed righteous (usually in a law court).


Just briefly, here are two fundamental errors that have occurred in understanding the biblical word ‘justification’.

One serious error, made by many theologians in both the medieval Catholic church and also the modern Roman Catholic church, is to assert that ‘to justify’ means ‘to make righteous’ rather than ‘to declare righteous’. On this understanding, justification is a process that takes place in the life of a person, conforming the person to God’s moral standards over a period of time. It was one of the great rediscoveries of the Reformation that justification means ‘to declare righteous’ in the forensic context, not ‘to make righteous’.

A number of modern writers make a different error. They will agree that ‘to justify’ means ‘to declare righteous’. However, they use a different definition of the term ‘righteous’. Tom Wright, for example, claims that in Galatians, ‘righteousness’ really means ‘membership of God’s family’, not ‘being in line with a legal and/or moral standard’, as we saw in the previous post. This profoundly affects his definition of ‘justification’, which, he claims, really means to ‘receive the verdict “member of the family”’.1 As a result, Wright’s theology of justification shows less interest in the moral standing of creature before creator, and becomes anchored instead in what he sees as being a more fundamental concept—the human community of God’s covenant people. The key problem with this move is that ‘righteous’ does not mean ‘family member’, but rather ‘in line with a standard’—and in the forensic context of justification, the standards in view are the moral standards of the created order.

But there’s more…

Keen Bible readers will, of course, realize that there is more to be said about justification. In this post, we have simply examined the basic meaning of the word ‘justification’. It is important to understand this basic biblical meaning as we read how the word was used by Jesus and Paul—in what, at first glance, seem to be very surprising ways! In a future post, we will return to the temple to see how forensic justification is shaped by another fundamental biblical concept: atonement.

1 NT Wright, Justification: God’s plan and Paul’s vision, SPCK, London, 2009, p. 112.

10 thoughts on “Improve your biblical word power 3: Justification

  1. But can’t both be right? That is: isn’t it both true about moral standards AND true about membership of the community? And aren’t there texts that say both kinds of things?

  2. Hi Michael – the point I’m trying to make is about the meaning of the words “righteousness” and “justification” themselves.

    My beef with Wright here is actually very similar to my issue with Piper that I discussed in the previous post. Wright, like Piper, has helpfully noticed a conceptual connection, but illegitimately turned it into a lexical equivalence.

    I would certainly agree that in Galatians, Paul’s argument about justification implies something about whom one eats with (Gal 2:11-14) and also something about who is the seed of Abraham (Galatians 3:29). I would also agree that these two concepts (eating and seed of Abraham) are related to the notion of “community”.

    But that is not what the word “justification” actually means. Righteousness has implications for community, granted. But Wright takes a further, unwarranted step by claiming that the terms are essentially synonymous. And this is a real problem, because by doing so, he makes the notion of human “community” far more central and fundamental to his theology than it should be.

  3. I’m not convinced by all this righteousness and justification stuff.  Sounds like OT hairsplitting to defend a theory of salvation.

    Jesus I think addressed this issue in the parable of the Leaven in the Loaf.  The Kingdom of God is found in the most unexpected of places (ie unclean places as implied by the parable), and the most unexpected places.  Far be it our business to know the deep motives of God as to what constitues those who are ‘righteous’ or ‘justified’


  4. Hi Stephen, my colleague Lionel is very busy at the moment, although he may well post in response to your comments. But as a less competent scholar I will have a go in the mean time…

    You wrote

    I’m not convinced by all this righteousness and justification stuff.  Sounds like OT hairsplitting to defend a theory of salvation.)

    Thanks for your opinion, but where’s your evidence?

    Lionel has primarily been discussing the meaning of words at this stage, and not an over all theory of salvation.

    However it’s not just OT hair-splitting. Perhaps Lionel could have improved his articles by giving some NT examples. But the standard lexicon BDAG indicates that the forensic (or verdict sense’) meaning of the Greek verb “to justify” is certainly a very common one (perhaps the most common), namely

    2. to render a favorable verdict, vindicate.

    An older lexicon, Thayer, also showed it to be the most common meaning

    3. to declare, pronounce, one to be just, righteous, or such as he ought to be,[…]a. with the negative idea predominant, to declare guiltless one accused or who may be accused, acquitted of a charge or reproach […examples given…]
    b. with the positive idea predominant, to judge, declare, pronounce, righteous and therefore acceptable […more examples given],

    Some NT examples to consider include: Matthew 12:37 (the verb is contrasted to a verb which means to ‘condemn’ or ‘find guilty’); Luke 10:29; Luke 16:15; Romans 2:13, Rom 3:24-26, Rom 4:5, Rom 5:9, Rom 8:33-34 (cf. Rom 8:1 for the ‘comdemnation’ contrast); 1 Cor 4:4. Look these up via the tags!

    Sometimes it is used of person pronouncing a verdict on themselves or others, or of God pronouncing a verdict relevant to the great judgment.

    Conclusion both from these examples, and the expert testimony of the lexicons: the ‘verdict’ sense – often in a forensic context of a judgment of some sort – is very common.

  5. Stephen, you also wrote

    Jesus I think addressed this issue in the parable of the Leaven in the Loaf.  The Kingdom of God is found in the most unexpected of places (ie unclean places as implied by the parable), and the most unexpected places.  Far be it our business to know the deep motives of God as to what constitues those who are ‘righteous’ or ‘justified’

    You are perhaps right in your general but vague statement that the Kingdom of God is found unexpected places. Certainly his radical teaching was that by God’s grace, the irreligious and ‘sinners’ beyond the pale could enter – much to the surprise of the religious.

    And I am sure that Lionel does not claim to have special access to the book of life as to which individuals are righteous and justified.

    But it is not presumptuous to speak about what God has revealed for himself. And Jesus personally talked about justification.

    For example, in Luke 18:9-14, in the parable he told to those who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous”, it was the lowly, sin-ashamed tax collector and not the proud and religious Pharisee who “went home justified”.

    Asking for mercy – in particular asking Jesus for mercy – is the way to justification.

    But I am sure Lionel has more on this in store for us.

  6. Hi Stephen – I would echo Sandy’s responses to your comment.

    I’d also add a couple of other things. If, as I believe, God has revealed himself in human words, then it is very important for us to get a reasonable grasp on the meaning of those words in their context, in order that we may come to know what God has revealed. Knowing God’s mind about righteousness is not, as you claim, far from us, because God in his wisdom has revealed it to us (Romans 10:6-9).

    Secondly, I’ve deliberately concentrated on the Old Testament because it is the primary conceptual and lexical context for the teaching of Jesus and the New Testament writers. When the New Testament uses words, particularly important theological words such as righteousness and justification, the key starting point for us as we seek to understand why and how they use those words is the Old Testament. This is, I think, one important implication of Paul’s encouragement to Timothy that the Old Testament Scriptures are able to make us wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 3:15).

  7. Thanks for the responses, I certainly respect your deep abiding committment to validating the salvific model you have chosen.

    Glad you raised Luke 18 – it contains a great parable, most likely spoken by Jesus himself – that of the Corrupt Judge (v2-5).  The interpretative verses that follow are most likely later layers of emerging tradition.  I favour the reading that resolving who is justified is actually confounding – an unresolvable paradox.  It defies our conventional wisdom.  The parable may suggest that God is the widow, and we are the corrupt judge – or is the other way around?  The emerging tradition thought they knew (v6-8), but I think Jesus was challenging what had passed before, and what was to follow.


  8. Stephen, I really appreciate that you read and comment here – it is good for us both to read and hear people with different views.

    Like Nick, this time, I would like a little more evidence for the opinions you advance. At the least you could cite the scholars you rely on, but even better for me would be to show us from the scriptures themselves why you have come to the particular view you have.

    Possibly the fault is with me, but I was not sure whether this comment had an element of the backhanded compliment in it

    I certainly respect your deep abiding committment to validating the salvific model you have chosen.

    I certainly appreciate that you seem to genuinely respect our strength of conviction. Thanks. And sorry if I read you wrong, but you seem to imply Lionel and I have adopted a particular view and are now trying hard to find evidence to support it.

    I suspect you know very little about how each of us came to our convictions.

    And it feels a tad ironic that Lionel and I have been – however inadequately – supplying evidence for our views – mainly about the meaning of words so far (albeit with implications for our view of salvation) – while you have largely responded with bare assertions of your opinion without much evidence if I may dare to say so.

  9. Thanks again Sandy,

    Yes, my comment on your deeply held convictions was genuine. Whilst I myself occupy a space vastly different to the one you guys inhabit, I do apsire to the notion that we can move beyond a dualistic mindset of right-wrong, left-right, liberal-conservative, mystic-reformed, etc, and see ways to be integrative on our collective journey of transformation.  Living with paradox – a common theme of the Jesus parables – I think is a crucial part of this journey.


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