The Doctrine of Chief Importance
The New Testament uses several word pictures to explicate the atonement (e.g. the temple precincts [propitiation], the marketplace [redemption], the family [reconciliation], etc.).
However, the apostle Paul seems to give special significance to the law court metaphor (justification) in his gospel treatise – the book of Romans.1 Thus, I think we should begin there.
To Martin Luther, justification was the doctrine of chief importance. “When the article of justification has fallen,” he warned, “everything has fallen.” This would later be called the articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae (i.e. the article upon which the church stands or falls).
The Apostle Paul confirms Luther’s conviction, declaring that any major misalignment in the pillar of justification causes the gospel to collapse (Gal. 1:6-9).
Therefore, it is crucial that we accurately handle this metaphor.
Let’s start by defining what justification is and what it is not.
Justification is a judicial declaration or verdict concerning one’s legal status. It is a forensic pronouncement that someone is right before the law. Thus, to declare that someone is righteous means that he has satisfied the law’s demands.
However, justification is not the making of someone righteous.2 It does not entail, in other words, moral transformation.3 Rather it concerns Jesus’ role as the appointed judge who will render a verdict in the case concerning our legal status (Acts 17:31).4
Often our understanding of a certain concept can be aided by considering it’s opposite. The antithesis of justification is condemnation, as Paul makes clear in Romans 8:33-34a:
Who will bring any charge against Godʼs elect? It is God who justifies. Who is the one who will condemn?
And condemnation, like justification, is not the making of someone guilty, but rather the declaration of his or her guilt.
Consider how both of these concepts are used in Deuteronomy 25:1-2:
If there is a dispute between men and they come into court and the judges decide between them, acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty, then if the guilty man deserves to be beaten, the judge shall cause him to lie down and be beaten in his presence with a number of stripes in proportion to his offense.
The verb translated “acquitting” can be rendered “they will justify”.5
Thus, in this verse, justification and condemnation are set over against one another as contrasting legal terms in which both speak of moral declaration rather than moral transformation.
A judge does not make the person charged with a crime innocent or guilty (righteous or unrighteous). Rather, he seeks to determine who is guilty or innocent and then declares a decision or renders a verdict based upon the evidence.
This forensic quality of justification is found time and again in scripture, including the well-known passage of Proverbs 17:15:
He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the Lord.
Again, it is plain that justification/condemnation involves the conferring of a legal status – sometimes wrongly (unjust judgement) and sometimes rightly (just judgement).
However, neither deals with moral transformation.
Many more passages could be cited, however these should be sufficient to demonstrate the scriptural-ness of my preceding definition.
Therefore, when Paul introduces the grace system of salvation in Romans 3:21ff by stating that we are, “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (vs. 24), he is not speaking of any subjective moral change which has taken place within us 6, but rather the objective change of our legal status before God.
Now, if we agree on such a definition, we can then turn to discussing the grounds upon which Christ’s legal pronouncement rests.
In other words, if we are to be justified, upon what legal grounds will we stand before the Judge of the Supreme Court and plead our case for acquittal? What will be the basis of our argument?
The cross? Our faith? Our works? Our doctrinal knowledge? All four?
1. δικαιόω appears fourteen times in the book.
2. Much of Christendom’s misunderstanding concerning the meaning of the word “to justify” (δικαιόω) comes from Augustine’s false interpretation of the Latin iustiﬁcare. Augustine, unable to read Greek, thought the Latin verb meant “to make righteous”, rather than to “declare righteous”. This lead to a thousand years of a “moral transformational” view of justification until the time of the Reformation with Martin Luther returning to the original Greek. Alister McGrath comments: “Augustine understands the verb iustificare to mean ‘to make righteous,’ an understanding of the term which he appears to have held throughout his working life. In arriving at this understanding, he appears to have interpreted –ficare as the unstressed form of facere, by analogy with vivificare and mortificare. Although this is a permissible interpretation of the Latin word, it is unacceptable as an interpretation of the Hebrew concept which underlies it.” [Alister McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000)].
3. Certainly moral transformation is a major part of salvation, however the Bible uses different metaphors to describe it (e.g. regeneration, new birth, sanctification, etc.). The difference between justification, regeneration and sanctification (progressive) will be discussed later.
4. i.e. guilt or innocence.
5. The LXX reading of this passage has the same Greek word (δικαιόω) which Paul uses. It means “to declare just”.
6. Even though such moral change (regeneration, the new birth) has taken place at baptism (Rom 6; Eph 2; Col 2; etc.).