Process by which an individual is brought into an unmerited, right relationship with a person, whether that relationship is established between people or with God.
Old Testament In its simplest form, the cardinal theme of Scripture could be described as God's relationship with His people. Justification is a term which explains how an individual enters into that relationship with God, contrasts the life of participants in that relationship with those outside, and outlines the obligations of that relationship. Justification is the remedy for the chief problem of sin which separates God and sinners.
God called Abraham and promised to make him into a great people (Genesis 12:1-3). Effectually, Abraham was called to counteract the sin of Adam. The only proper response to that call was faith. Although advanced in years, Abraham was promised a child Isaac, through whom innumerable descendants would emerge. Abraham's response to this promise is the crux of the whole idea of justification in the Old as well as in the New Testament.
Genesis 15:6 captures this response: “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (NIV). Righteousness is not something Abraham possessed that prompted a reward from God. Quite to the contrary, a condition was fulfilled on the part of Abraham, and subsequently on the part of God. The Old Testament teaches that to be righteous is to fulfill the conditions of the covenant relationship. Therefore, to act righteously is to act in compliance with the covenant. The Hebrew word translated “credited” (or imputed or reckoned) originally described the important priestly task of endorsing the offerings presented to God (Leviticus 7:18;
Numbers 18:27). On the basis of this understanding, God accepted the response of Abraham's faith. This covenant was no mere abstraction. It was a term of relationship encompassed by the concrete, dynamic action of God. Similarly, righteousness is a term of relationship. The covenant establishes the terms of the relationship. A person who fulfills the terms of the covenant relationship is called righteous.
The search for the abstract noun “justification” in the Old Testament is fruitless. However, the verb, “to justify,” is found occasionally, often in the passive “to be justified,” pointing to some kind of agency involved in the action (see
Isaiah 43:9,Isaiah 43:26;
Isaiah 45:25). All of these references clearly reveal the nature of justification: it is something that God does. The elemental sense in which the Old Testament employs the idea of “justifying” is best expressed in the phrase “proclaiming to be within the covenant relationship.”
Ironically, God's chosen people Israel continually displayed a bent toward rebellion which can best be rendered, in covenantal language, as infidelity more than immorality. This is why the Hebrew prophets strongly decried Israel's proclivity to prostitute themselves with foreign gods. Hosea provides the best example of this infidelity because it was personified in his life. Hosea's personal experience in marriage served also as a parable of God's relationship with Israel. The names of his three children, Jezreel (God scatters), Lo-Ruhamah (not pitied), and Lo-Ammi (not my people) show the extent of the rebellion. God's perennial problem with Israel caused Him to act “justly,” that is, He had to render a judgment or He would be characterized as a bad judge. This is how Hosea interpreted God's judgment upon sin and unfaithfulness to the covenant. The actions taken by God were not arbitrary; rather, they are to be seen as actions resulting directly from a major disruption in the covenantal bond. Balancing this view, the Hebrew conception of justice also included an important redemptive element. Even in the midst of Israel's rebellion, Hosea vividly portrayed God saying to them, “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel?” (Hosea 11:8 NIV). Justification always requires obedience on the part of God's people, but justification also always requires judgment and restoration on the part of God. Anything less would greatly diminish the meaning of the term “justification.”
New Testament The New Testament's posture, with respect to the idea of justification, is also dependent on the concrete activity of God. The major difference is that, in the New Testament, God dealt with the sin of humankind by the highest and most intimate form of revelation, His Son Jesus Christ. The earliest Christians believed that they were “made right” with God through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Romans 3:21-26;
1 Corinthians 1:30;
1 Corinthians 6:11;
1 Timothy 3:16;
1 Peter 3:18). In his letter to the Romans, Paul conveyed the message that God did not consider sin lightly. Sin created a massive gulf between God and people. This gulf required a bridge to bring all of humanity into a right relationship with God. Theologians call God's bridge building “reconciliation.” Reconciliation functions to bring humans “justification.” The main character who effected this divine plan was Jesus Christ. Uniquely, His death on the cross made it possible for God and people to be reconciled (Romans 5:10) and thus for humans to be justified.
Not found in the Old Testament, justification is almost as scarce in the New Testament, occurring only three times (Romans 4:25;
Romans 5:16,Romans 5:18). The necessity of justification, however, is sufficiently expressed by Paul in
Romans 5:12-21. Paul advanced this theme of sin and its effects no doubt with the story of
Genesis 3:1 in mind. Paul described sin almost as a personal power controlling people, preventing them from obeying God, and leading them to death. No one is excluded from sin's domain. All people are in the deplorable state of being separated from God due to sin. All people desperately need deliverance. The redemptive activity of Christ provides the only avenue to a right relationship with God.
Justification does not encompass the whole salvation process; it does, however, mark that instantaneous point of entry or transformation which makes one “right with God.” Christians are justified in the same way Abraham was, by faith (Romans 4:16;
Romans 5:1). Human works do not achieve or earn acceptance by God. The exercise of faith alone ushers us into a right, unmerited relationship with God (Galatians 2:16;
Titus 3:7). Biblically, the spiritual journey begins at the point of justification. This immediate act has far-reaching consequences. It establishes the future. God in the present moment announces the verdict He will pronounce on the day of final judgment. He declares that trusting faith in Jesus Christ puts people in the right with God, bringing eternal life now and forever.
Paul taught that faith in Jesus Christ is an obedient response which results from hearing the Gospel (Romans 10:17). He drew a connection between the Christian's faith and the faith of Abraham. Abraham's faith in God can be seen as an exemplary foreshadowing which would find ultimate expression in every Christians' relationship to God through Jesus Christ.
Two related questions present themselves for consideration: (1) What is the relationship between faith and Old Testament law?, and (2) What is the relationship between faith and works? Paul found no room in his theology for an elitist righteousness. Special privileges were not administered by God in direct proportion to blood (nationality), brawn (strength), or brains (intellect). No justification within the law would allow anyone (Jew or not) to sidestep faith in Jesus Christ. Paul eliminated all doubt when he argued that being a Jew is neither a prerequisite (Romans 4:1-25) nor a prerogative (Romans 9:1-33) for justification. The only stipulation, accessible to all, is faith.
Some confusion results when a comparison is made between faith and works. Paul is not the only adherent or spokesman for the doctrine of justification by faith. The apostle James, among others, taught this crucial doctrine also. However, premature appraisals of
James 2:14-26 have caused some to see a contradiction in comparison with Paul's instruction. Nothing is further from the truth. The two writers merely expressed different concerns. James' idea of faith summarily eliminated all instances of imagined belief which had no observable or corresponding behavior. Paul's concept of faith emphasized a shift of focus from the world to Jesus Christ on the part of the believer. It was a reorientation which resulted in good works (see
Romans 12:1). By God's grace we are offered salvation, which we accept by faith. This faith results in a radical change of our natures (2 Corinthians 5:17) in order that we might do good works. See Paul; James; Reconciliation; Faith; Eternal Life.