The establishment of a sinner in a righteous standing before God. The verb dikaioo means “to declare or demonstrate to be righteous” (Matt. 11:19; 12:37; Luke 7:29; 10:29). The cognate nouns are dikaiosune (Rom. 1:17), dikaiosis (Rom. 4:25), and dikaioma (Rom. 1:32; 5:16, 18). Dikaiosune is always translated “righteousness” and denotes a perfect rectitude according to the standard of God’s character revealed in His law. The phrase “the righteousness of God” may denote the divine attribute of righteousness, or in the great soteriological teaching of Romans, the righteousness God has provided to give His people a title to eternal life (Rom. 3:22; 5:17, “the gift of righteousness”).
Dikaiosis is the action of declaring righteous, and dikaioma signifies the verdict, the judgment handed down by God. Lenski states the relationship between these two terms: dikaiosis is “a declaring righteous (action)”; dikaioma is “a declaring righteous and thereby placing in a permanent relationship or state even as the declaration stands permanently (result).” The language of Scripture, therefore, points to justification as God’s action in declaring His people righteous and placing them in a state of legal perfection before His law on the basis of the righteousness He provided freely for them in Christ.
There is no more scriptural or succinct theological definition of justification than that given by the Shorter Catechism: “Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein He pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone” (Q. 33; see Westminster Confession of Faith, chap. 11).
The two elements in justification are pardon and imputed righteousness. That is, the total obedience of Christ, both passive and active, avails for the believer. The vicarious atonement of Christ pays the debt of the believer’s sin, satisfies divine justice on his behalf, and renders it possible for God to be just and yet to justify him (Rom. 3:26). The imputed righteousness of Christ gives the believer “the adoption of children” (Gal. 4:5) and the title to eternal life.
1. Justification is an act, not a process (Rom. 5:1). It is something that has taken place in the justified, not something that is constantly taking place.
2. It is an act of the free grace of God toward sinners who are personally guilty and deserving of His wrath (Rom. 3:25).
3. It is a forensic act. It describes a change in the legal standing of the justified person. It does not describe the inner moral change God effects in all those whom He saves (2 Cor. 5:21). This is a vital truth. “God made him [Christ] to be sin for us” does not mean that Christ became morally corrupted. It solely describes a forensic transaction. Similarly, when as a result of that transaction we are “made the righteousness of God in him,” there is no reference to an inner moral change. It does not mean we are made morally sinless or pure. It means that God has radically changed our legal standing before His law. Thus justify means “to declare righteous,” not “to make righteous” (see Psa. 51:4). The statement in Rom. 5:19 that through Christ’s obedience “shall many be made righteous” uses the verb kathistemi which means “appoint, constitute.” It describes the place we occupy, not a purification of our nature.
4. It is a just act, for it proceeds on the ground of the imputed righteousness of Christ (Rom. 5:19). This text makes it clear that the righteousness of Christ’s obedience in life and death is imputed as the ground of justification. Christ is the righteousness of the justified (1 Cor. 1:30; Jer. 23:6). This answers the objection that unless justification is an actual infusion of grace and moral purity, God would be lying to declare any man righteous. Paul states bluntly that God “justifieth the ungodly” (Rom. 5:5), not the godly, the sanctified. How can the God of truth declare the ungodly righteous? By crediting all the perfect righteousness of Christ to their account (see Imputation).
5. It is a once-and-for-all act. It can neither be reversed nor repeated (Heb. 10:2; Rom. 8:30).
6. It is equally complete in all the justified. It cannot be increased or decreased (Rom. 5:19; 1 Cor. 1:30). All Christians are not equally mature, or holy. But all believers are equally “justified from all things” (Acts 13:39). They all have the same basis for their acceptance by God, the righteousness of Christ.
7. It invariably leads to glorification. No justified person can perish: “whom he justified, them he also glorified” (Rom. 8:30).
8. It is received by faith without works (Rom. 3:20–22; 4:1–8, 24; 5:1; Gal. 3:5–12; see Sola Fide). Some imagine that James contradicts this in James 2:18–26, notably in verse 24, “Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.”
There is no discrepancy between Paul and James. There is a difference of emphasis in response to the particular form of opposition each apostle was combatting. Paul was opposing the legalist who taught justification by works. James was opposing the antinomian (see Antinomianism) whose profession of justifying faith was united to a life of blatant ungodliness. Paul teaches that we are justified by faith as the sole instrument of reception, excluding works or any mixture of faith and works. James teaches that the faith that justifies is never alone. It is a living faith and therefore will express itself in good works. Good works are the evidence of the reality of justifying faith, not a substitute for it, a preparation for it, or an addition to it. Buchanan in his Justification, terms justification according to Paul actual justification, and justification according to James declarative justification.
The doctrine of justification lies at the very heart of all biblical soteriology. Yet prior to the Reformation, confusion reigned on the meaning of the term. Even in very early times, the legal aspect of justification so clearly set forth in the NT was overlooked with the result that it was common for justification to be confused with regeneration or sanctification.
Justification Confused with Regeneration. Thomas Aquinas set the standard for medieval views on the subject. He taught that the first element in justification was the infusion of grace, on the ground of which the second element, pardon for sins, was given. Thus the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification in baptism was laid down. As Aquinas’ doctrine was developed, Rome came to assert more and more blatantly that the justification received in baptism could be increased or lost by human activity. This laid the ground for the Tridentine decree that justification depends at least in part upon personal merit.
Justification Confused with Sanctification. Confounding justification and sanctification led to the error of viewing justification as a process (e.g. , Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, chap. 16, canon 24). This characteristic error of Romanism has found acceptance in many other quarters. Many early Anabaptists espoused it. To this day, it is the mark of all false gospels to equate justification with sanctification as the basis of a doctrine of salvation by works.
Scripture carefully marks the difference between justification and sanctification. Berkhof notes:
“1. Justification removes the guilt of sin and restores the sinner to all the filial rights involved in his state as a child of God, including eternal inheritance. Sanctification removes the pollution of sin and renews the sinner ever increasingly in conformity with the image of God.
“2. Justification takes place outside of the sinner in the tribunal of God, and does not change his inner life, though the sentence is brought home to him subjectively. Sanctification on the other hand, takes place in the inner life of man and gradually affects his whole being.
“3. Justification takes place once for all. It is not repeated, neither is it a process; it is complete at once and for all time. There is no more or less in justification, man is either fully justified, or he is not justified at all. In distinction from it, sanctification is a continuous process, which is never completed in this life.
“4. While the meritorious cause of both lies in the merits of Christ, there is a difference in the efficient cause. Speaking economically, God the Father declares the sinner righteous, and God the Holy Spirit sanctifies him” (Systematic Theology, pp. 513, 514).
This justification is in all respects the same for believers under both the Old and New Testaments (Gal. 3:9, 13, 14; Rom. 4:1–6, 16). Abraham was justified on the very same ground and in the very same way as believers in the NT . We are “blessed with faithful Abraham.” He is the “father of all them that believe” (Rom. 4:11). David rejoiced in the very same justification we enjoy (Ps. 32:1, 2; Rom. 4:6). The only righteousness that ever gave any man a title to heaven is the righteousness of Christ freely imputed to him and received by faith alone.
Luther’s insight was accurate when he declared the biblical doctrine of justification to be articulus ecclesiae stantis aut cadentis, the article of faith that marks whether a church is standing or falling. Paul realized its immense importance to the entire gospel scheme and pronounced God’s curse on anyone, even an angel from heaven, who preached any other gospel (Gal. 1:8, 9). This is the gospel of which the apostle was “not ashamed … for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth” (Rom. 1:16).
Cairns, A. (2002). In Dictionary of Theological Terms. Belfast; Greenville, SC: Ambassador Emerald International.
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