What Does the Bible Say About Justification?

Kevin Zuber
header for What Does the Bible Say About Justification?

The biblical doctrine of justification deals with the fundamental issue of how guilty sinners can be acquitted and restored to favor with an infinitely righteous and just God.[1]

Genesis 15:6
Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.

Deuteronomy 25:1
“If there is a dispute between men and they go to court, and the judges decide their case, and they justify the righteous and condemn the wicked.”

Job 25:4
“How then can a man be just with God?
Or how can he be clean who is born of woman?”

Proverbs 17:15
“He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous,
Both of them alike are an abomination to the Lord.”

Luke 18:14
“I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

The point of citing these texts is not so much to articulate the doctrine of justification but to understand the notion of the term justify. In Deuteronomy 25:1 the Law is instructing judges to decide the cases that come before them in such a way that they declare the righteous to be righteous or just, and they declare the wicked to be condemned. In Proverbs 17:15 the point is that to do the reverse—that is, to declare the wicked to be righteous or just and declare the righteous to be condemned—is a perversion of justice and “an abomination to the Lord.”

For the purpose of understanding the doctrine of “Justification by Faith,” these texts make the point that the actions of a judge are legal declarations that do not actually make the righteous to be righteous, nor do they make the wicked to be wicked. Such declarations should be true to the actual character of the persons being adjudicated, but sadly in human courts it is possible that such declarations are not true about the persons being adjudicated. Nevertheless, the legal declaration is what matters. In the doctrine of “Justification by Faith” this legal declaration is a key feature.

In what is possibly the most important single paragraph ever written (Romans 3:21–26), Paul brings out something of the grandeur of Christ’s saving work.[2]

The Key Text

Romans 3:21-28
“But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.”

This is the locus classicus of the essential doctrine of “Justification by Faith Alone.” Perhaps the best way to understand this vital text of Romans (3:21ff) is a series of questions that in effect follows Paul’s flow of thought.

The Deeper Question

The underlying question behind this text is, “How can a man be just before God?” (see Job 9:2 “But how can a man be in the right before God?”). This question arises because of Paul’s conclusion in Rom. 3:20, “by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His (God’s) sight.” In the first two and a half chapters of Romans Paul has methodically argued that the pagan, idolatrous Gentile (see Rom. 1:18–32) and the moralistic, Law-honoring (but Law-breaking) Jew (see Rom. 2:1–3:9), indeed, “all the world” (see Rom. 3:10–19) are “under sin” (Rom. 3:9) and “accountable to God” (Rom. 3:19; see v. 23). The answer to the question is: a man needs to be righteous (or just) before God, but on his own he cannot be (see Rom. 3:10). However, there is hope, namely the gospel Paul preached (see Rom. 1:15–16). It is in this gospel that “the righteousness of God is revealed” (Rom. 1:17). In Romans 3:21ff Paul is about to show how a man may have the righteousness that he must have before God. (Note: The terms righteous, righteousness, just, and justification all come from the same Greek root dikand the way Paul uses those terms is based on the Hebrew terms ṣādeq (verb: “to be just or righteous”), ṣedāqâ (noun: “righteous”), and ṣāddiq (adjective: “righteous”).

What is the “righteousness of God” Paul has in mind here in Romans 3:21 (see Rom. 1:17)? To answer that question, in this paragraph Paul gives nine facts about the righteousness of God.

One: this righteousness is “apart from the Law.” As Paul has already demonstrated, this righteousness is not attained by keeping the Old Testament Law because one would need to keep every point of the Law perfectly (see James 2:10). Furthermore, this righteousness is not attained by any system of human law or personal morality. This is the righteousness God gives, not a righteousness one earns by works (see Eph. 2:9).

Two: this righteousness “has been manifested.” The gospel of Jesus Christ and the provision of righteousness has appeared, is available, and is being preached by Paul and the apostles. This term also indicates that this gospel was no human invention. It is revealed by God.

Three: this righteousness is “witnessed by the Law and the Prophets.” These terms reflect the customary division of the Old Testament and are meant to indicate the whole of the Old Testament. Paul’s point here is that this means of justification is not something new or a change from how one was made right with God in the Old Testament. Indeed, in Romans 4 Paul makes it clear that this was the experience of both Abraham (see Rom. 4:1–3, 9–25) and David (see 4:5–8).

Four: this righteousness is “through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” This is the key fact of this essential doctrine. This is “justification by faith” (see Rom. 3:28). This faith is not the cause or ground of justification (i.e., being declared righteous, see below). It is not an exchange for or instead of righteousness. It is not taken “as righteousness” in the sense of as a replacement for or substitute for righteousness. It is not a condition for righteousness. Faith is the means by which the sinner receives the gift of righteousness. Faith is an instrument, the “hand that receives the gift” and is itself a gift (see Eph. 2:8–9). It is not “faith in faith,” but “faith in Christ!” The object of the faith makes the faith effective; the faith itself is powerless. This faith is not mere intellectual assent but an intellectual understanding (Latin notitia), personal, heartfelt agreement (Latin assensus), and personal, volitional commitment (Latin fiducia).

Five: this righteousness is “for all those who believe; for there is no distinction.” The righteousness in view here is available for any repentant sinner who believes the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul has made clear that the problem was comprehensive (see Rom. 3:10ff); this fact means that the “solution” is as comprehensive as the “problem.” In other words, since everyone has the same problem (sin), this solution is applicable to “all.” This also indicates that the cross work of Christ that accomplished redemption (see vv. 24–25) was sufficient for all.

Six: this righteousness of God is necessary, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Paul has already demonstrated this in Romans 3:10–19.

Seven: this righteousness of God is a gift of God’s grace (“being justified as a gift by His grace”). This righteousness is given as a gift. The term justified means “to be declared right.” The idea is forensic or legal. This “justification” is a legal pronouncement made by God in which He declares that the alien righteousness of Christ is imputed (reckoned, counted) to the one who has put faith in Christ. The basis of this declaration is only on the basis of grace—the unmerited favor of God.

Eight: this righteousness is “through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” made available because of the “propitiation in His blood”—in other words, by His sacrificial death on the cross. It is on the basis of Christ’s perfect (law-obedient, sinless) life and His sacrificial (penal-substitutionary) death that this righteousness is manifested and available. The term propitiation has the twin notions of “satisfaction” and “appeasement.” The sacrifice of Christ both appeases, turns away God’s wrath, and satisfies God’s justice.

Nine: this righteousness is a demonstration of God’s righteousness and His rightness (He is just) “so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” The unspoken question Paul is answering here is, “How can God be just to save sinners in this way?”

Justification is a legal pronouncement made by God in the present, prior to the day of judgment, declaring sinners to be not guilty and therefore to be acquitted, by pardoning all their sins and reckoning them to be righteous in His sight, on the basis of Christ as their representative and substitute, whose righteousness in life and death is put to their account when in self-despairing trust they look to Him alone for salvation.[3]

Justification Is…

…by faith

Romans 5:1
“Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Galatians 3:24
“Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith.”

…in the name of Jesus Christ.

1 Corinthians 6:11
“Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.”

…not by works.

Galatians 2:16
“Nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of
the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.”

…by the grace of God.

Titus 3:7
“So that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”

…demonstrated by works.

James 2:21-24
“Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? 22 You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “and abraham beLieved god, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. 24 You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.”

James’s view of justification is not in conflict with that of the apostle Paul. Paul uses the term justification in the legal, declarative sense, whereas James uses the term justification in the “demonstrative” sense. In other words, James is saying Abraham’s works demonstrated his rightness (righteousness, justification) before God. The (almost!) sacrifice of Isaac took place years after Abraham had “believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). “James is teaching, then, that Abraham’s willingness to offer Isaac vindicates his faith before men—a teaching with which the apostle Paul was in wholehearted agreement (Eph. 2:10). There is thus no conflict between the two inspired writers.”[4]

[1] Bruce Demarest, The Cross and Salvation: The Doctrine of Salvation (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1997), 345.

[2] Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), 173.

[3] Philip H. Eveson, The Great Exchange: Justification by Faith Alone (Leominster, UK: Day One Publications, 1996), 193.

[4] John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: James (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1998), 137.

For Further Reading:

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