The traditional doctrine of justification is all about the courtroom

The Traditional Doctrine of Justification: Putting Together the Pieces of the Puzzle

All who believe in Jesus Christ are justified before God. But what does that mean? The traditional doctrine of justification can be summarized: “Believers are declared to be righteous before God based on the imputation of Christ’s active obedience.”

Now, if you are searching for what verse says that, you won’t find it. There is no single verse that spells out every detail of this great doctrine. However, that does not mean it is absent altogether. In Brian Vicker’s excellent book, Jesus’ Blood and Righteousness: Paul’s Theology of Imputation, he admits that no one passage includes every piece of the puzzle. He states however, that when we synthesize each of the major texts on the subject, as well as take into consideration broad biblical-theological themes, we see that the traditional doctrine is taught.

Because of the different intentions between his book and this post I am including different pieces of the puzzle, and this in no way is a summary or review of his book (which I highly recommend). Before breaking down the doctrine, I offer the following chart as a visual aid:

Puzzle that pieces together the traditional doctrine of justification

Our righteous status is described using other terminology

With this knowledge we can face the oppositions to our doctrine of justification that try to remove morality from the term “righteousness” and take the term “justify” out of its courtroom setting. Whatever men may do to redefine these biblical terms, there are still other texts that describe salvation as men gaining some sort of righteous status in God’s eyes.

In addition to the NT citations in the puzzle, see OT examples: Gen. 3:21; Ps. 103:12; Isa. 38:17; Mic. 7:19; Zech. 3:3-5

Where the term ‘righteous’ is used to describe our condition

There are also Scriptures where the term “righteous” itself is used to describe the condition of a believer. There is a righteousness of God which comes through faith in Him (Phil. 3:8-9). Salvation is a “Great Exchange” in which our sins are placed on Christ’s account and He is punished as if He had committed them, and likewise His righteousness is accredited to us and we are treated by God accordingly (2 Cor. 5:21). The righteousness of God is revealed through the gospel, apart from the Law (Rom. 1:17; 3:21-22).

‘Justification’ is a Law-court term

Now what about the terms “justify” and “justification”? Basically, justification is all about answering the question, “How is one made right with God?” The Bible is laden with the forensic theme. God is our Creator and therefore Judge; men will give an answer for their actions; God gave Moses a written Law; there is a coming Judgment Day; the terms for our bad behavior (“sin”, “unrighteousness”, “lawlessness”, “transgressions”) all deal with a standard that we break.

So with these grand, overarching biblical themes in mind, when we come across “justify” in Paul’s writings we should naturally think, “Ahh, he’s talking about the verdict of the Righteous Judge concerning me!”

Sadly this common sense approach to Scripture is not shared by all theologians and interpreters. Therefore we must go a little further in order to defend the traditional doctrine of justification. There are three major reasons to take justification as a law-court term.

  1. He definition of the word itself. In English as well as ancient Greek, the word relates to justice and the court, and basically means “to declare righteous”.
  2. The term is used in courtroom settings. In Deuteronomy 25:1 we read of a dispute between two men (a case), one taking the other to court, a judge, and the judge’s verdict (justify/condemn, i.e. “guilty” or “not guilty”) based on the case presented by both sides. In Matthew 12:36-37, Jesus mentions giving an account for our careless words on Judgment Day, and being justified or condemned on that basis.
  3. The word is often contrasted with the term “condemn” and “condemnation”, another law term (see 1 Kings 8:31-32; Job 40:8; Prov. 17:15; Matt. 12:37; Rom. 5:18; 8:33-34). These words are more frequent in Scripture, and again are clearly found in a courtroom setting. For example, the word is used concerning Jesus’ trials.

Justification is to declare, not make righteous

First, God is sometimes the object. In other words, God is justified. If “justify” means to make somebody righteous rather than declare or show that they are righteous, then God must not be just. It is used of God the Father in Psalm 51:4 (quoted in Rom. 3:4, see also Like 7:29). The thought is not that when God makes a righteous verdict in court that He suddenly becomes a righteous Judge. Rather, God is justified when He judges because His decisions are always true and holy, which proves that He is a good Judge.

Second, we know it means to declare one righteous because the Bible says it is wrong to justify the wicked (Prov. 17:15; 24:24). Basically, when the Bible says “You shall not justify the wicked,” does it really mean that we should not seek to make a wicked man righteous? I think it would be great if we could turn a wicked man around to the right path! It would not be bad for a correctional facility to actually correct people. Rather, what God condemns in these passages is a judge letting a guilty person go free. It is wrong to declare a guilty person “not guilty”.

Third, the opposite thought is also nonsense. We just saw that a judge should not declare that an unrighteous person is righteous. That is to put the moral negatively, i.e. what a judge should not do. We can also learn how to define “justify” from the positive command, i.e. what a judge should do. In Deuteronomy 25:1 we are told that judges should justify the righteous and condemn the wicked. This verse becomes quite confusing if we take “justify” to mean “make righteous”. Is it the judge’s (or anyone’s) duty to make somebody who is already a good person into a good person? Or think about “condemning” the wicked. Is it the judge’s responsibility to make a wicked person even more wicked than they already are? Surely the passage means that judges examine the data and declare that the one guilty of the crime is guilty of it.

The righteousness is moral, relating to the Law of God

I bring this up because many see “the righteousness of God” as referring to God’s faithfulness to His covenants, and take our “justification” to mean that we are included in the people of God. So what is this righteousness actually like?

Returning to the broad ideas in Scripture of God as Lawgiver and Judge, etc. we see that it has reference to God’s Law. When we say that a man we know is “righteous” we mean that he is morally upright, or a good person. So it is in the Bible when we come across a verse saying that we are “righteous” or receive “the righteousness of God” in regards to salvation. When we come across this righteousness in any given verse, within close proximity are clues which point toward a moral understanding of it.

There is also insight concerning “righteous/justification” to be gained from what does not save us. We are not saved by “the works of the Law”. To what is that referring? Is it only those ceremonial aspects of the Mosaic Law that distinguish the Jews from the nations? When each passage is examined we see that this is not the case.

In Romans 3:20 we are told that nobody will be saved by the works of the Law. This cannot be limited to the ceremonial aspects of the Law because Paul has been talking about how both Jew and Gentiles are shut up under sin by the Law. Also, throughout Paul’s citations concerning (all) mankind’s complete moral depravity (Rom. 3:10-18) there are references to non-ceremonial laws.

Another example is in Romans 9:30-10:4. It may seem that Paul, by distinguishing the Jews seeking righteousness by the Law while Gentiles do by faith, is speaking of Jewish patriotism. However, a look at the citation in verse 5 (quoting Lev. 18:5) shows otherwise, for that OT context mentions various non-ceremonial laws.

The same goes for Galatians 3:10, where “the works of the Law” refers to every single commandment within the Law of Moses. Such was Paul’s thought also in Philippians 3. Although he certainly did boast about his Jewish heritage, his resume extended past his birth to his keeping of the moral aspects of the Law also. In fact, the “righteousness” by which he is not saved in verse 8 is more closely paralleled with the moral righteousness mentioned in verse 6 than his upbringing.

Jesus was sinless

Having observed that a believer is seen in God’s eyes as having fulfilled every command of the Law, we now look to the one Who did so on our behalf. Thus we discover the source of this perfect obedience to the entire Law imputed to us. It is Jesus, Who was born under the Law to redeem those under the Law (Gal. 4:4). Whereas Adam’s disobedience was accredited to our account, bringing condemnation and guilt, so Christ’s obedience is the basis of our justification (Rom. 5:18-19).

If one calls himself a “Christian,” there should be no dispute concerning Jesus’ sinlessness. It is indisputable and a core teaching of the faith. This doctrine is clearly spelled out in: Acts 3:14; 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15; 7:26-27; 1 Pet. 1:18-19; 2:22; 1 John 3:5.

Putting the Puzzle Together

When we put together all of the pieces of the puzzle we see the traditional doctrine of justification. When one puts their trust in Christ God declares them “not guilty”. The believer has Jesus’ 33 years of perfect obedience to every one of God’s commands imputed to them and is declared righteous in God’s sight. This is how men may be made right with God. This is how the issue of sin and guilt is resolved. Christ’s righteousness is the only basis by which God sees us as righteous. We should never think that God thinks more highly of our obedience than that of His perfect Son.

-Steve Rohn

What do you think?