Justification by Faith Alone: A Definitive Legal Declaration
In a previous post, we highlighted the vital importance of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Now we’ll begin to expound that doctrine. And defining terms is the place to start. What does the Bible mean by the term “to justify”? Below we’ll examine two key passages that illumine the significance of the term for the doctrine of justification.
A Legal Appraisal and Declaration
The first text is found in the book of Deuteronomy where we read,
If there is a dispute between men, and they come to court, that the judges may judge them, and they justify the righteous and condemn the wicked, then it shall be, if the wicked man deserves to be beaten, that the judge will cause him to lie down and be beaten in his presence, according to his guilt, with a certain number of blows (Deut 25:1).
The word translated “justify” comes from the same root as the word that follows which is translated “the righteous.” The term “righteous” refers to ethical behavior that confirms to a standard. What, then, does it means for a judge to “justify” someone?
Some might suggest it means “to make righteous,” in the sense of reforming the man’s character? After all, if the adjective means “righteous” and if the noun means “righteousness,” wouldn’t the verb when used with a direct object literally mean “to make righteous.” However, that definition wouldn’t make sense! Especially because of the parallel phrase: “and condemn the wicked.” Certainly, the judge does not “make wicked” the wicked!
What then does he do to the righteous and the wicked? He merely makes an appraisal and pronouncement concerning the person’s relationship to the law. If the man conforms to the law, the judge declares him righteous. If the man fails to conform to the standard, the judge declares him wicked. To condemn means “to declare wicked”; to justify means, “to declare righteous.”
Proverbs 17:15 confirms this understanding of the verb “to justify.” There we read,
He who justifies the wicked, and he who condemns the just, Both of them alike are an abomination to the LORD.
Notice in this passage we have the reverse of Deuteronomy 25. There, the judge justified the righteous and condemned the wicked. Here, we have envisioned a judge who justifies the wicked, and a judge who condemns the righteous, and according to Solomon such judges are “an abomination to the LORD.”
If the term “to justify” means “to make righteous,” why would such a judge be abominable in God’s sight? Wouldn’t God be happy with a judge who “made a wicked man righteous”? Of course He would! But that’s not what this verse is referring to. It’s not referring to “making the wicked righteous”; it’s referring, rather, to “assessing and declaring the wicked righteous.”
Consider, by way of illustration, the infamous O. J. Simpson case. Of course, in his case it was a jury, not a judge. Nevertheless, Simpson, a wicked man, was “justified.” He was declared innocent, which is precisely what Solomon is envisioning. There’s no doubt that the man is guilty! Yet, that judge pronounces the verdict “innocent,” “not guilty,” “righteous.” In sum, The judge PARDONS the wicked!
In conclusion, what have we learned about meaning of justification? First, it is a legal word—a word used in legal proceedings or argumentation. Specifically, “justification” is something that involves at a Judge, a defendant, and a verdict. Second, the word does not refer to the defendant’s character or behavior as such, but more precisely, it refers to the judge’s verdict of the man’s character or behavior. When the judge justifies the righteous, he is simply pronouncing his assessment of the man’s character or behavior. And he is releasing the man from any legal liability.
A Definitive Legal Action
Based on the meaning of the biblical terminology, we can conclude that justification is not a life-long process that takes place within the sinner. Rather, it’s a once-for-all legal act that takes place outside the sinner. The Bible doesn’t teach a process of justification. In the words of Romans 5:1, “Having been [once-for-all] justified . . . we have peace with God.” Justification is a once-for-all completed transaction. You’re either justified, or you’re not justified. There’s no middle ground.
That’s not the case for your dear Roman Catholic neighbor. Ask him whether or not he’s right with God. He’ll struggle to give you a decisive answer. He can’t be sure he’s quite made it yet. As a result, he’s not certain whether he has peace with God, and, in the end, he must rely on purgatory to burn away his myriad shortcomings.
Not so for those who understand the true significance of justification. If justification is a definitive act, we can unashamedly say to our dear neighbor, “I have peace with God.” They may object, “How dare you have such a high view of yourself.” We may reply, “No, my friend, I don’t have a high view of myself. I do, however, have a very high view of God’s redeeming grace and the saving work of Jesus Christ.”
And that leads us to the next question: how can God justify sinners? We’ll take this up in the text post.