(Originally published in New Dictionary of Theology. David F. Wright, Sinclair B. Ferguson, J.I. Packer (eds), 359-361. IVP. Reproduced by permission of the author.)
JUSTIFICATION denotes, primarily, that action in the lawcourt whereby a judge upholds the case of one party in dispute before him (in the Hebrew lawcourt, where the image originates, all cases consist of an accuser and a defendant, there being no public prosecutor). Having heard the case, the judge finds in favour of one party, and thereby ‘justifies’ him: if he finds for the defendant, this action has the force of ‘acquittal’. The person justified is described as ‘just’, ‘righteous’ (on the terminology, see Righteousness), not as a description of moral character but as a statement of his status before the court (which will, ideally, be matched by character, but that is not the point).
Since this lawcourt imagery is used in Scripture to elucidate God’s dealings with Israel, his covenant people, ‘justification’ comes to denote God’s action in restoring the fortunes of Israel after she has been oppressed: it is as though Israel, or a faithful individual within Israel, is the innocent defendant in a trial (see Pss. 43:1; 135:14; Is. 50:8; Lk. 18:7), whose cause will be upheld by the righteous covenant God. As Israel’s troubles increase in the period after the exile, it becomes increasingly clear that what is needed is a final day of judgment, when God will right all wrongs, and vindicate his people, once and for all. This notion, which is closely correlated with the hope of resurrection (God’s vindication of Israel after her suffering) is staunchly upheld in the NT.
At the same time, in the NT Israel’s expectation is radically redefined. In his welcome for outcasts and sinners, Jesus enacts God’s vindication of (apparently) the wrong group in Israel — the poor, the humble. This man [the tax-collector], rather than the other [the Pharisee], went home justified before God’ (Lk. 18:14). In continuity with his paradoxical ministry, Jesus goes to the cross apparently condemned by God. The resurrection, however, is quickly seen by the disciples as God’s ‘vindication’ or ‘justification’ of Jesus (e.g. Acts 3:14-15, 26; 1 Tim. 3:16). God has finally acted, within history, to identify his covenant people, and it turns out that Jesus, ‘the king of the Jews’, has alone represented that people.
Although, therefore, the doctrine of justification is discussed quite rarely in the NT, the fact of it is everywhere apparent. God has redefined his covenant people around Jesus. The entire Christian mission is built on this foundation. It is left to Paul, however, to articulate this conviction fully and draw out its implications: and he does so at the appropriate point, i.e. when the question of the identity of the covenant people is raised (Rom. 3:21 - 4:25; 9:30 - 10:13; Gal. passim; Phil. 3:2-11). Five points need to be observed here.
1. The question of justification is a matter of covenant membership. The underlying question in (for instance) Gal. 3 and 4 is: Who are the true children of Abraham? Paul’s answer is that membership belongs to all who believe in the gospel of Jesus, whatever their racial or moral background.
2. The basis of this verdict is the representative death and resurrection of Jesus himself. In view of universal sin, God can only be in covenant with human beings if that sin is dealt with, and this has been achieved by God himself in the death of his Son (Rom. 3:24-26; 5:8-9). Jesus takes on himself the curse which would have prevented God’s promised blessing finding fulfilment (Gal. 3:10-14). The resurrection is God’s declaration that Jesus, and hence his people, are in the right before God (Rom. 4:24-25).
3. The verdict issued in the present on the basis of faith (Rom. 3:21-26) correctly anticipates the verdict to be issued in the final judgment on the basis of the total life (Rom. 2:1-16, on which see Cranfield, Romans, vol. 1, pp. 151-153). This future ‘verdict’ is in fact, seen from another angle, simply resurrection itself (Phil. 3:9-11). The logic of this ‘eschatological’ perspective is explained as follows: faith is itself the sign of God’s life-giving work, by his Spirit (1 Cor. 12:3), and what God has begun he will complete (Phil. 1:6).
4. Justification thus establishes the church as a new entity, the renewed Israel, now qualitatively distinct from Jew and Greek alike, transcending racial and social barriers (Gal. 3:28). The sharp edge of this point, for Paul, was the conviction not only that pagan converts to Christianity did not need to become Jews in order fully to belong to God’s people, but also that the attempt to do so was in itself a renunciation of the gospel, implying that Christ’s achievement was insufficient or even unnecessary (Gal. 2:21; 5:4—6). At the same time, Paul warns pagan converts against the opposite mistake, that of imagining Jews to be now cut off without hope — the mirror image of the characteristic Jewish mistake, and one which some post-Reformation theology has not always avoided (Rom. 11:13-24).
5. ‘Justification by faith’ is thus a shorthand for ‘justification by grace through faith’, and in Paul’s thought at least has nothing to do with a suspicious attitude towards good behaviour. On the contrary: Paul expects his converts to live in the manner appropriate for members of the covenant (Rom. 6, etc.), and this is in fact necessary if faith is not to appear a sham (2 Cor. 13:5). His polemic against ‘works of the law’ is not directed against those who attempted to earn covenant membership through keeping the Jewish law (such people do not seem to have existed in the 1st century) but against those who sought to demonstrate their membership in the covenant through obeying the Jewish law. Against these people Paul argues a. that the law cannot in fact be kept perfectly — it merely shows up sin; and b. that this attempt would reduce the covenant to a single race, those who possess the Jewish law, whereas God desires a world-wide family (Rom. 3:27-31; Gal. 3:15-22). This means that Jas. 2:14-26 is not in conflict with Paul, but expresses the same truth from a different perspective. The ‘faith’ which is insufficient is bare Jewish monotheism (Jas. 2:19); and Abraham’s faith, through which God declared him within the covenant in Gn. 15 (Jas. 2:23), was simply ‘fulfilled’ in the later incident of Gn. 22 (Jas. 2:21).
With the disappearance of Paul’s particular polemical situation, it was likely that the doctrine of justification would be reapplied in new ways, and this happened with its development as the over-all view of how one becomes a Christian — a much wider notion than the very precise NT usage. Allied to the medieval view of God’s righteousness as iustitia distributiva (see Righteousness), this encouraged a belief in good works as the means by which one earns merit or favour with God. In reacting against this, Luther never totally avoided the risk of making faith a substitute for works, and hence itself a meritorious performance on man’s part. His failure to note the Jewish, covenantal and eschatological content of Paul’s doctrine led to exegetical difficulties (e.g. the meaning of Rom. 2 and Rom. 9-11) and theological problems (the danger of a dualistic rejection of the law, and the difficulty of providing a thorough foundation for ethics) which have beset subsequent Protestantism. In particular, popular Protestantism has often more or less elided the distinction between justification and regeneration, using ‘justification by faith’ as a slogan for a romantic or existentialist view of Christianity, rightly criticized by Roman Catholics. Roman Catholic views of justification have continued to be influenced by Augustine, who saw it as God’s action in making people righteous, through pouring into their hearts love towards himself. This stress on the actual change which God effects in the sinner has continued into modern Roman Catholic theology. The result of this is significantly to broaden the reference of the word, to include far more than Paul (or the Reformers) intended.
Current debates about ‘justification’ have tended to raise much wider issues than the specific concerns of Paul, and modern ecumenical agreement on the subject (cf. Küng), while welcome in its own right, does not always do justice to the nuances of biblical teaching. Thus, for instance, for Paul it is not the doctrine of justification that is ‘the power of God for salvation’ (Rom. 1:16), but the gospel of Jesus Christ. As Hooker noted, it is perfectly possible to be saved by believing in Jesus Christ without ever having heard of justification by faith. What that doctrine provides is the assurance that, though Christian obedience is still imperfect, the believer is already a full member of God’s people. It establishes, in consequence, the basis and motive for love (and true obedience) towards God. The teaching of present justification is thus a central means whereby the fruits of the Spirit — love, joy, peace and the rest — may be produced.
J. Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification (repr. London, 1961); C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 2 vols. (Edinburgh, 1975, 1979); Richard Hooker, Sermon on Justification (1612), in Works, ed. I. Walton (London, 1822, etc.); H. Küng, Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Reflection (London, 1964); A. E. McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, 2 vols. (Cambridge, 1986); G. Reid (ed.). The Great Acquittal (London, 1980); J. Reumann, ‘Righteousness’ in the New Testament: ‘Justification’ in the United States Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialogue, with responses by J. A. Fitzmyer and J. D. Quinn (Philadelphia, 1982); H. N. Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology (ET, Grand Rapids, MI, 1975).