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Bridgeway Bible Dictionary
The English words ‘justification’ and ‘righteousness’ are different parts of the same word in the original languages of the Bible. This applies to the Hebrew of the Old Testament and the Greek of the New (see also).
Meaning of ‘justify’ in the Bible
Most commonly the Bible uses the word ‘justify’ in what might be called a legal sense. The picture is that of a courtroom where the righteous person is the one whom the judge declares to be right. The person is justified. In other words, to justify means to declare righteous, to declare to be in the right, to vindicate. It is the opposite of to condemn, which means to declare guilty, to declare to be in the wrong (Deuteronomy 25:1; Job 13:18; Isaiah 50:7-8; Matthew 12:37; Luke 18:14; Romans 8:33).
Those who try to show that they are in the right are said to be trying to justify themselves. They are trying to declare themselves righteous (Job 32:2; Luke 10:28-29; Luke 16:14-15). They may even go to the extent of condemning God in order to justify themselves, declaring God to be wrong and themselves to be right (Job 40:8). It is in this sense of declaring someone to be right or wrong that the Bible may speak of God as being justified. People acknowledge that he is in the right and that his judgments are correct (Psalms 51:4; Luke 7:29; Romans 3:4; cf. Revelation 16:5).
Some may argue that to justify means to make righteous (cf. Romans 5:19 RSV), but if such is the case it is important to understand what is meant by being ‘made’ righteous. People are not made righteous in the sense that a piece of metal placed in a fire is ‘made hot’. They are made righteous only in the sense of being declared righteous. They are put in a right relationship with God (Romans 5:19 GNB). The word has to do with a legal pronouncement, not with changing people from one thing to another by placing some new moral power within them (Romans 4:1-3; Romans 5:17-19; Philippians 3:9).
Just as condemn does not mean ‘make wicked’, so justify does not mean ‘make good’. Nevertheless, one result of the justification of believers is that their lives are changed so that righteousness (in the sense of right behaviour), not sin, becomes the chief characteristic (Philippians 3:9-10; James 2:17-23; 1 Peter 2:24; 1 John 3:7; see ).
Justification by faith
The fullest explanation of justification is in the writings of Paul. There the teaching centres on God’s great act of salvation by which he declares repentant sinners righteous before him. Instead of having the status of those who are guilty and condemned, sinners now have the status of those who are right with God. God brings them into a right relationship with himself, giving them a right standing before him (Romans 5:1-2; Romans 8:33).
This is entirely an act of God’s grace, for no one can have a right standing before God on the basis of personal good deeds. Even a person’s best efforts to keep the law will not help. Since all are sinners and under God’s condemnation, there is nothing anyone can do to gain acceptance with God (Psalms 143:2; Romans 3:28; Romans 9:31-32; Galatians 2:16). God accepts people not because of anything they do, but solely because of his mercy (Isaiah 55:7; Micah 7:18; Romans 3:24; Ephesians 2:8).
However, this gracious work of justification takes place only in those who trust in God. It is through faith that people are justified; more specifically, through faith in Jesus Christ. Christ has done the work and they accept the benefits of that work by faith (Romans 1:17; Romans 3:22; Romans 3:28; Romans 4:2-5; Romans 5:1; Galatians 2:16; Galatians 3:11; see ; ).
The basis of God’s merciful act of justification is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Romans 3:24-25; Romans 4:23-25; Romans 5:9; Romans 5:17-19; Galatians 2:21). God now sees believers as ‘in Christ’ and therefore he declares them righteous. And those whom God declares righteous are righteous – not in the sense that they are perfect people who cannot sin any more, but in the sense that God gives them a righteousness that is not their own, the righteousness of Christ. God accepts believing sinners because of what Christ has done. Jesus Christ becomes, as it were, their righteousness (1 Corinthians 1:30; 2 Peter 1:1).
Justification and substitution
Although the word ‘justification’ tells us that God declares sinners righteous, it does not tell us the hidden mysteries of divine activity that make it possible for God to do this. The mysteries of God’s will and the wonders of his salvation are in some ways beyond human understanding. But since justification is concerned with the processes of law, a further illustration from the law court may suggest the way God has worked.
In this courtroom scene, God is the judge and sinners are on trial (Romans 2:2; Romans 2:5-6; Romans 3:23). God loves them and wants to forgive them (1 John 4:16; 2 Peter 3:9), but his love requires that he act justly (i.e. righteously). If a judge acquitted the guilty merely because they were people he liked, he would be unjust. He might claim to be loving, but his love would be no more than an irrational emotion divorced from moral justice and righteousness. True love, by contrast, is so zealous for the other person’s well-being that it reacts in anger against all that is wrong (cf. Hebrews 12:6).
God is love and wants to forgive sinners, but because he is a God of love he cannot ignore sin or treat it as if it does not matter. His act of forgiveness, if it is based on love, will involve his dealing with sin.
Being a God of love, God must punish sin, but at the same time (being a God of love) he provides a way whereby sinners need not suffer the punishment themselves. He has done this by taking human form in the person of Jesus Christ, living with sinners as a fellow human being in their world, and then, without himself being a sinner, taking sin’s punishment on their behalf (Romans 3:24; Romans 5:9; 2 Corinthians 5:18). God is both the judge and the one against whom people have sinned, but at the same time he is the one who bears the penalty of their sin. He forgives sinners only at great cost to himself (John 3:16; 2 Corinthians 8:9; see ).
Jesus died in the place of, or as the substitute for, guilty sinners (1 Peter 2:24). Whereas Adam’s sin brought death, Christ’s death brings life (Romans 5:15; Romans 5:18). Being fully human, Jesus could be a substitute for his fellow human beings, but only because he was sinless and completely obedient. He fulfilled all God’s righteous requirements under the law (Matthew 3:15; Philippians 2:8; 1 Peter 2:22; 1 John 3:5). One who broke God’s law would be under condemnation himself and could not take the place others (Galatians 3:10). Jesus, however, kept God’s law perfectly. He was absolutely righteous in the fullest moral sense of the word, and so was able to bear the law’s punishment on behalf of those who had broken it (Galatians 3:11-13; Galatians 4:4-5).
When he died, the sinless Jesus suffered the punishment that sin deserved. ‘He bore our sins’ (1 Peter 2:24). Because of the death of Christ, God can now forgive repentant sinners and accept them as righteous before him. Believers are now in a right relationship with God, because Christ is in a right relationship with God (2 Corinthians 5:21). God’s justice and God’s mercy operate in harmony, because both are outworkings of his love. His justice is satisfied in seeing sin punished, and his mercy flows out in seeing sin forgiven. In his love God justifies guilty but repentant sinners, yet he does so justly and righteously (Romans 3:26; Romans 4:5; see also ).
Justification and forgiveness
God’s forgiveness is more than what people usually mean when they talk of forgiveness. It is more than merely the removal of hostility or the ignoring of wrongdoing. When God forgives sinners, he also justifies them, bringing them into a right relation with himself (Romans 5:6-11). God not only removes condemnation, he also gives righteousness (Romans 4:6-8; Romans 4:22; Romans 5:17; Romans 5:19; 2 Corinthians 5:19; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Philippians 3:9). Forgiveness is something that believers continue to be in need of because they are still likely to sin (Matthew 6:12); justification is a once-for-all act, a declaration by God that he accepts them in his Son (Romans 5:1-2).
The forgiveness that believers need day by day is concerned not with the basic work of justification, but with their daily enjoyment of fellowship with God. Although the penalty of sin has been paid, the evil effects of sin are still in the world and believers cannot escape them. Their failures may disappoint themselves and God, but as they confess those failures they are assured of God’s forgiveness (1 John 1:7; 1 John 1:9; see ; ). Their justification, however, is never in question.
Christ’s death deals with sin’s penalty for all believers, whether they belong to generations past, present or future. In like manner it deals with the penalty for all the sins of each individual believer, whether those sins be in the past, present or future Romans 3:22-26; Hebrews 9:15).
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Fleming, Don. Entry for 'Justification'. Bridgeway Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​bbd/​j/justification.html. 2004.