The Biblical Concept of Justification (part 1)

The Problem of Justification

To begin a discussion of the idea of biblical justification, defining the term itself cannot be avoided. This is because once one understands the implications behind the word used by Scripture, a problem arises. That problem shows itself in the attempt to apply the idea of justification to the relationship between God and man. Both the Hebrew (sadaq) and the Greek word (dikaioo) for “justify” are  forensic terms. To “justify” in biblical terminology is to declare one just or righteous, without guilt. On one hand there is the proclamation that one is no longer penally liable for breaking the law. On the other hand, it is a proclamation that one is entitled to all privileges due those who have kept the law.

In essence, justification is a verdict of acquittal, excluding all possibility of condemnation. This idea is simple and unthreatening in a forensic, legal context. The point behind legal defense is to prove the innocence of the accused so that he may be acquitted and pronounced “not guilty.” However, when this idea is applied to the standing of sinful people before a Holy God a problem is presented.

It was the problem of justification that defined the struggle of the great reformer, Martin Luther. In his book Here I Stand, a standard biography of Luther, Roland Bainton recorded this struggle. He quotes Luther at length to summarize the conflict that came to be the staple of Luther’s legacy. Luther writes:

 “I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistles to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, “the justice of God,” because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him. Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant.”

God’s Holiness and Man’s Sinfulness

Luther’s anxiety was reasonable. As much as he sacrificed of himself to gain a right standing before God, he felt no peace or assurance that he was anything less than guilty and condemned. This is simply because that is exactly what he was. That is exactly what all men are.

One of, if not the main characteristic attributed to God in Scripture is His holiness. The Prophet Isaiah experienced God’s holiness first hand and gives an account of what he saw in Isaiah 6:1-4. It was that mere glimpse of God’s holiness that provoked him to cry out in verse 5:

“Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.”

It was Isaiah’s vision of God’s holiness that lead him to so adequately describe the state of sinful man before Holy God.

“But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away. And there is none that calleth upon thy name, that stirreth up himself to take hold of thee: for thou hast hid thy face from us, and hast consumed us, because of our iniquities.” (Isaiah 64:6, 7) 

The standard that God has set for fellowship with Him is total righteousness. However, the only righteousness that man can produce is filthy before God. Therefore, we all fall short of God’s standard. We all “come short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)

Judgment and Justification

There are only two possible outcomes of the conflict between God’s holiness and man’s sinfulness – either judgment or justification. Because the general idea of justification has been defined, we must examine the more reasonable outcome, and more deserving on our account, that being judgment.

As Paul expounds his view of the judgment of God, he comes from a Jewish perspective that can only result from centuries of anticipating the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. There is no doubt that the writings of Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and so on, sculpted the emphatic nature of  Paul’s idea of “the day of the Lord.” Christ’s confirmation of the matter (John 5:25-30) could have only deepened Paul’s resolve. In essence, Paul’s concept of justification is derived from his eschatological expectation of final judgment of God.[i]

From the latter portion of Romans 1 through the middle of Romans 3, Paul establishes the final judgment of God as the background for the doctrine of justification.

  • 1:18-32 – Paul declares the wrath of God to be upon all unrighteousness. He then describes the sinful decline of men who hold the truth in unrighteousness.
  • 2:1-4 – Paul takes his discussion from being a second hand observation and directs our attention inward. Rather than simply treating this as a thought process, Paul points his finger to the reader and declares, “Thou art inexcusable….”(v. 1)
  • 2:5-16 – The basic act of God’s judgment will be rendering “to every man according to his deeds.” (v. 6) This includes the very thoughts and intents of men, as “God shall judge the secrets of men.”(v. 16)
  • 2:17-29 – The end result of this judgment is a universal guilt and condemnation. As easy as it would be for a Jew of Paul’s stature to only declare the Gentiles guilty and condemned, he leaves no one untouched as he explains that a Jew which breaks God’s law is just as unacceptable before God as any Gentile.
  • 3:1-20 – Paul concludes that there is no advantage before the judgment of God in having received God’s law. “There is none righteousness,” Jew or Gentile, law or no law. All are guilty before God.

Paul does not leave the discussion of man’s standing before God with impending judgment. He declares the need of justification as the only escape from the wrath or God. However, the problem of justification remains. As was stated by Job, “…how should man be just with God?” (Job 9:2)

It is well known that the struggle with this question drove Luther to the brink of insanity. Nevertheless, through much study and prayerful contemplation, he found resolution. He continues from the quote referenced earlier:

“Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that “the just shall live by his faith.” Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the “justice of God” had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven.” 

That “gate to heaven” is found in the Biblical Concept of Justification.


[i]     Baker’s Dictionary of Theology, J.I. Packer, Baker Book House Company, 1987, pg. 305

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1 comment so far

  1. JT on

    In the Catholic Church justification is granted by God from baptism firstly, (Catechism of the Catholic Church No. 1992 “Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith.”) instead of plainly by faith, and from the Sacrament of Reconciliation after if a mortal sin is committed.(Catechism of the Catholic Church No. 1446 “Christ instituted the sacrament of Penance for all sinful members of his Church: above all for those who, since Baptism, have fallen into grave sin, and have thus lost their baptismal grace and wounded ecclesial communion. It is to them that the sacrament of Penance offers a new possibility to convert and to recover the grace of justification. The Fathers of the Church present this sacrament as “the second plank [of salvation] after the shipwreck which is the loss of grace.” ” A mortal sin makes justification lost even if faith is still present. Before baptism faith is required of adults. The baptism of babies requires the parents’ promise to pass on the faith to the child. Baptism is called the sacrament of faith.


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