What Is Justification?
by Ernest L. Martin, Ph.D., 1996
The word justification sounds like an ecclesiastical term, and so it is. And that is just the problem. The word today is so encased within a religious surrounding that ordinary people, who are not particularly theological in their outlook (or in their use of terms), often pass over the meaning of this word even when they read the Bible in the King James Version. Indeed, the word justification is one of those words that appears in the King James Version because King James gave strict orders to the six committees that translated the Bible in the early 1600ís that they were to render no word from the Hebrew or Greek into the English of that day that would tend to give the laity a different opinion on what the Scriptures meant than what the Church of England decreed. For example, since the Church of England taught that the sprinkling of water on an infant was sufficient to "baptize" the child into the official bowels of the Church, King James forbade the translators to render the Greek word "baptizo" by its original meaning of immerse" because that would give the laity the impression that the Church was wrong in its "sprinkling" of infants. That is the reason we always read "John the Baptist" and not (as it should be) "John the Immerser." Of course, the actual Greek word meant "to put under the water" and not to sprinkle. But to avoid the doctrinal issue which might emerge, they simply transliterated the word. This prevalent procedure of the translators is one of the main drawbacks in using the King James Version in doctrinal matters, especially with Paulís letters.
The word justification has a similar history. It is not a transliterated word, but it is a word that Jerome in the fifth century adopted to explain a church doctrine that by his time had developed within the Church. The nebulous theological meaning of Jerome, which only "churchmen" could supposedly fathom as a sophisticated legal term, continued to exist in ecclesiastical circles until the Protestant Reformation. So, the King James translators decided to retain its old "Jerome-type" of meaning and avoid its original Greek significance as understood by the apostles and the generality of the Greek people in the first century. What we need to do today (to understand what the apostle Paul actually intended by the word) is to return to the pristine meaning of the word. When we do, a great deal of light emerges on the scene that will illumine the full teaching of what the Gospel of Jesus Christ is all about. Believe me, once we know what justification actually means, we will rejoice in the legal sanctification and security that we have with the Father through our attachment to Christ Jesus. So, let us look at this matter that is an essential part of the Christian message of salvation for mankind. In Paulís point of view, just what is justification?
When the apostle Paul viewed the condition of the human race in matters relating to their quest to observe the divine laws that God had given to mankind since the time of Adam, he expressed a very pessimistic evaluation. Even when Paul looked at the most righteous of men that history and his present era could produce, his appraisal was one of dismal proportions. Paulís opinion started with himself. "For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh), dwelleth no good thing: for the will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not.... I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me" (Romans 7:1821). Paul said: "I am carnal [fleshly], sold under sin. For that which I do I allow not: for what I would [do], that do I not; but what I hate, that do I" (Romans 7:14,15). The truth is, not only was Paul correct when he stated the universal fact that "all have sinned and come short of the glory of God" (Romans 3;23; 5:12). but he was also correct when he stated that mankind has a hopeless task on their hands in trying to live a type of righteous life through their own powers which God requires of mankind in order to be in a proper and righteous fellowship with Him.
The apostle Paul taught that every person who wishes to enter into the divine presence of God must demonstrate and must express in his or her person a perfect "holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord" (Hebrews 12:14). But when God looks down from heaven upon mankind (even the best of them) he sees the same thing that he observed at the period just before the Flood of Noah. "And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually" (Genesis 6:5). The apostle Paul said that when God observed the moral and ethical state of mankind, the only conclusion that God could reach was that every person was "ungodly" (Romans 5:6), that every person was a "sinner" (verse 8), and that every person in his or her heart was an "enemy" of God (verse 10). What is interesting in Godís appraisal is the fact that the apostle Paul said the present condition of mankind (whether a person is converted to the truth or not) is that of hostility and antagonism to God and to His ways. The apostle Paul in the Book of Romans (which he wrote when he was very much converted to Christ and even an apostle in the Christian community) still said IN THE PRESENT TENSE: "If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good.... For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh), dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me [to do good or righteously]; but how to perform that which is good I find not" (Romans 7:16,18). The fact is, we humans are a hopeless lot of individuals when it comes to practicing the principles of good and the proper righteousness that God requires in order to be in a right fellowship and communion with him. This is what the apostle Paul was informing us very eloquently in the Book of Romans, and Paul had the utter conviction that he was telling us the truth.
Now some may say that the apostle Paul is too severe in his appraisal of mankind. After all, we have our Mother Teresas and our Billy Grahams and the Popes at Rome. Why, all of these persons have received honors and accolades for the good works and the righteousness that they have displayed before other human beings. True enough, some have shown extraordinary works of goodness to the human race and to God (as they have imagined God to require) and I wholeheartedly endorse the tributes they have received for their efforts and attitudes which other human beings have bequeathed to them. But in Godís eyes (I mean in the opinion of the real God of the Bible, not the "God" that people of this world have imagined to exist), even these persons whom we esteem and award with honors are no different than the hopelessness the apostle Paul adjudged himself to be in. In their flesh dwells no good thing. They are all abject sinners and in need of redemption for the sinfulness that is attached to their persons. They of themselves are judged in Godís eyes as being "ungodly, sinners and enemies," just as Paul said all humans were. Yes, even these people whom mankind honors with righteousness and goodness are also in need of profound forgiveness and a purification of their souls and bodies as does every other person on earth, including the apostle Paul. That also means YOU, and it means ME.
Frankly, as far as I am concerned, I think I am one of the nicest guys anyone would want to meet and to be around. I believe that most of you could say the same thing of yourselves. Believe me, I am one who wishes to let people live in peace with me and others and I would go a long way to try to help people with the truth of the Gospel and help them otherwise in times of need if it lay in my power. But when I look at myself in the mirror and give myself an appraisal from Godís point of view, I come up quite short in so many ways that I would under normal circumstances hold my head down in shame if I allowed this appraisal to prevail. You could no doubt do the same thing. In fact, if you and I would hold a contest on who is the greatest sinner, I could probably show that my pile of sins are about as high as yours (or even higher than yours). Now, you might beat me on a few sins, but I dare say that I would outrank you on a few. This illustration is in spite of the fact that I feel in human terms that I am one of the nicest guys you would ever want to meet. I believe most of you would say the same thing of yourselves. Most of us would normally think of ourselves as having a measure of "good" in us and that we are not intrinsically "evil" and "bad." The problem is, however, our appraisal of what constitutes righteousness and goodness is not what God uses to judge us. When He sees us (all of us together óindividually or collectively), God reckons us of ourselves to be "ungodly, sinners and enemies of God" (Romans 5:6,8,10).
The fact is, we are all a hopeless lot when it comes to establishing a righteousness and a goodness of reputation by our own efforts and in the manner which is pleasing to us. The fact is, sin is so prevalent in each of us that none of us is able to achieve the perfect type of righteousness that God has designed for us to perform. But still, it is the absolute command of God that each of us must demonstrate and maintain a perfect holiness (a divine righteousness) if any of us wish to stand in the presence of God the Father. Remember, without a perfect holiness being demonstrated in all aspects of our lives, none of us shall see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14). With this requirement, it may appear to be an utterly distressing situation in which we find ourselves. Thankfully, however, this is where Christ Jesus comes on the scene, and where the doctrine of Ďjustification" becomes an evident and applicable legal doctrine of hope and security for us all.
Look at the matter carefully. It is clear in the teachings of the Holy Scriptures that God expects each of us to show a perfect goodness and righteousness that will achieve not only the acclaim of the world, but also of God himself. We Christians are especially expected to perform good and honorable works throughout our lives. Indeed, the apostle Paul said: "We are his [Godís] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them" (Ephesians 2:10). The simple truth is, good works and the finest righteousness that we can muster should be prime attributes of our daily living among our fellow human beings and before God in heaven. But Paul shows that we do not have the capability of living perfectly in goodness and righteousness that God requires of His children. If we live to be a hundred years old (or more), we will still not be able to manifest in our lives a perfect and unblemished goodness and righteousness in Godís eyes. But wait a moment. This is again, where Christ Jesus and "justification" come on the scene.
Let us now look closer at what the doctrine of Ďjustification" provides for mankind. It is one of the most glorious teachings that God could ever bestow upon humanity and bring to the recognition of our consciousness. It is one of the most rewarding teachings that Godís wisdom can disclose to mankind. What it does is to answer the question of how each of us can be reckoned to be righteous IN A PERFECT SENSE, though none of us is actually perfect at all. It is a legal method and a theological procedure approved by God in which each of us (who happens to be hopelessly in sin and unrighteousness of ourselves) can be rendered in the eyes of God the Father as the purest of the pure, the most righteous of the righteous and the best of the best. This is legally accomplished in us with the New Testament doctrine called "justification."
Let us now do what the King James translators failed to do ó to provide a factual and non-ecclesiastical meaning to the Greek word dikaioma which those early theologians esoterically and clandestinely purposely translated as "justification" in Romans 4:24; 5:16,18 (probably believing that the astute and professional clergyman would be able to strip away their "Church rendition" and understand the original Greek word in a proper way). We need to get rid of this ecclesiastical term. The word in Greek means in the verb sense "to be made or declared righteous." In the noun sense, it means (in the singular) "the one made or declared righteous." It signifies that a declaration of grace is made by God that provides a legal basis for awarding a perfect and unblemished righteousness to mankind through the merits and works of Christ Jesus, not through mankindís own merits and works. It is important to realize what the apostle Paul meant by the selection of this word in the various contexts in which we find it. What Paul shows is that Jesus Christ came to this earth and died for mankind (by assuming on his back all their sins and unrighteousness). And, by our now being "in Christ" and reckoned to be a part of him, we are presently acknowledged by the Father to be precisely like Christ in every way. Since Christ knew no sin whatever (I Peter 2:21,22) and showed a perfect righteousness before the Father in everything He did, then (because of our attachment to Christ because Christ has selected each of us to be in Him), then we are accounted in the eyes of the Father to be just like Christ Jesus at the present time.
The apostle Paul taught that each of us has now been "justified" (that is, each of us has been made or legally declared to be righteous) by our being in Christ. Whereas we are actually (as far as our own outward actions are concerned) not righteous at all in comparison with God the Father, we are still reckoned in the eyes of the Father to be as righteous and as holy as Jesus Christ himself. Or. to put it another way. When God the Father sees each of us (no matter what our actual condition is in matters of righteousness and goodness), God accounts each of us to be in the same legal position of righteousness and holiness in His eyes as is His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ. We are reckoned to be in Christ, and Christ is reckoned to be in us (Ephesians 1:3-IS). In spite of the fact that each of us is NOT really full of wisdom, NOT really showing righteousness. NOT really in a state of holiness with God, and NOT really in a redeemed attitude with God based on our own human accomplishments, we nonetheless are legally acknowledged by the Father to be doing those very things. We are all reckoned to be "in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us [Christ is made to be in our place] wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification [we are reckoned in a sanctified state], and redemption [we are all declared to be in a redeemed state]" (I Corinthians 1:30).
Indeed, this relationship we have by being in Christ allows us to be declared by the Father as being not a whit less in righteousness and goodness and holiness and wisdom and redemption than Christ Jesus himself. Some of the righteousness, goodness, holiness and wisdom now enjoyed and experienced by Christ in heaven at the present, is now IMPUTED to us. We are "justified" (made or declared to be legally righteous) and we are now acknowledged by the Father as being on the same level of righteousness as the level now experienced by Christ himself. To make it plain, when God the Father sees each of us (no matter what our actual spiritual condition might be) we are still reckoned by the Father to be as PERFECT and as SINLESS and as RIGHTEOUS as is Christ Jesus himself.
That is what the doctrine of "justification" reveals that the apostle Paul placed at the forefront of his doctrinal teaching (and any theological dictionary or encyclopedia that relies only on the teachings of the Holy Scriptures in their definitions will attest to this biblical meaning ó also look up a related biblical doctrine which theologians call "Imputation" that shows the same thing).
This "justification" is something that you and I can never lose, no matter what the circumstances. True, you may miss out on many blessings if you continue in doing wrong (especially in a deliberate manner) ó see where the continuing fornicator in Corinth was delivered to Satan for the destruction of the flesh (I Corinthians 5:5) ó but in no circumstances does this mean that oneís ultimate salvation that we have in Christ will be in jeopardy. Paul explained further about the fornicator: "that the spirit [of that fornicator] may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus" (I Corinthians 5:5). Even if some sanctified [righteous] people commit what some call the "unpardonable sin" that we find discussed in the Book of Hebrews (chapter 6 & 10), that simply means that when a sanctified person refuses to repent of specific sins and continues in them with abandon, then it is inevitable that those sins will cause the rebellious person to reap the consequences by the person himself in this life. Paul taught clearly that "God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap" (Galatians 6:7).
Be that as it may (sadly so), in no case does this mean that the person will be lost for all eternity. Indeed, Paul said in the same context that dastardly sins can cause inevitable punishment for such effrontery, but he also said in reminder: "For by one offering [that of Christ Jesus] he hath sanctified FOR EVER them that are sanctified" (Hebrews 10:14). Our sanctification in Christ is destined to last FOR EVER and in no case can one lose this grace that the Father has provided through Christ Jesus. Indeed, the apostle Paul even castigated and condemned the Corinthian Christians with retribution if they continued in their erroneous and hostile ways to God, yet he nonetheless said at the very beginning of his discourse that at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, he "shall also confirm you unto the end, that you may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ" (I Corinthians 1:8). In no way will Christ Jesus lose a single one of the persons he has called to come to him in this age or in any age. We have the words of Christ himself: "This is the Fatherís will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day" (John 6:39). Indeed, the angels may look at the face of God to determine by His nod or flick of the finger to determine what His desires are, and the righteous angels perform all that God desires. And what does God desire and wills for all mankind? "Who [God] will have all men to be saved and to come unto the knowledge of the truth" (I Timothy 2:4). All mankind are destined to be saved in Christ Jesus.
The purpose of Christ Jesus (the reason he came to earth) was to lead a life of righteousness and sinlessness that no person on earth could perform in order to bring all of us humans into a divine relationship with Him and the Father (I Corinthians 15:28). We will all learn that sin and unrighteousness is not what the Father and Christ want in our lives. But they, with their great power and wisdom, will eventually grant to us the ability to live in conformity to their ways and manner of life.
May God grant us the wisdom to understand the real teaching of "justification." When we do, we will begin to recognize what the grace of God is all about in the matter of the salvation that all of us have in Christ. Remember, we are now reckoned to be in Christ, and this allows the Father to look on us as being as righteous and as perfect as Christ Jesus. That is what Ďjustification" means.
Ernest L. Martin
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