Justification: Its Biblical Language

The Greek in the active voice δικαιουν describes the perspective of God and His action, and is translated ‘to justify’ (cf. Romans 3:26, 30; 4:5; 8:30, 33; Galatians 3:8). Cranfield asserts that in the book of Romans, and other Pauline epistles, δικαιουν “means simply” to “acquit” or “confer a righteous status on”.[1] Further, he supports his determined meaning by claiming it is “surely forced upon… by the linguistic evidence” and is firmly cohesive to the “structure of Paul’s argument in Romans.”[2] Nonetheless, the debate lingers in “some scholars” suggesting, “justification is forgiveness, nothing but forgiveness”.[3] However, this casts justification as a remission, rather than a bestowal. Justification must be active, not passive. For, when one only recites the pardon of God, consequently the glorious and hopeful imputation of righteousness is neglected.[4] This inaccuracy would distort the Christian life into an external observance from God – a mere reversal in His attitude – rather than an internal radiance of righteousness inherited from the redemptive sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

Yet, a distinction must be unfolded. Kung recites, “God’s declaration of justice is… at the same time and in the same act a making just.”[5] C.K. Barrett rebuttals, in that “to justify” cannot designate righteousness conferred “in an ethical sense – ‘to make virtuous’”.[6] Biblical cohesiveness does not illustrate such an example where justified men are perfectly righteous. Moreover, the grammar points to a meaning of ‘treating’ or ‘counting’ one as righteous.[7] To be righteous is not the same as to be ‘virtuous’, but it is to be ‘right’ before God. Regarding the language, justification renders God ‘treating’ unrighteous men as if they were indeed righteous.

The abundant phrase of chapter four of Romans (appearing eleven times) ‘to reckon as righteousness’ λογίζεσθα εἰς δικαιοσύνη, focuses on the recognition of righteousness in God’s final judgment (cf. Romans 4:3-5; Galatians 3:6; Genesis 15:6), and δικαίωσις depicts the “process and result of justification carried out by God” (cf. Romans 4:25; 5:18).[8] Dunn notes in his research that λογίζεται “was a ‘technical term’ in commercial dealings”, which suggests “an analogy from the business world” and therefore λογίζεσθαι certainly meant “a reckoning of payment for work done”.[9] Schreiner would agree, but importantly add that it is a payment “that is not inherent to him or her”.[10]

Moreover, in summation, Paul speaks of the righteousness of God with a two-fold principle of ‘power’ and ‘gift’. He makes certain that God’s action and man’s reception are both noted.

[1] C.E.B. Cranfield, (intl Critical Commentary), vol. 1 of A Critical and Exegetical Commentary On the Epistle to the Romans (New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 95.


[2] Ibid., 95.


[3]  John R.W. Stott, The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2001), 110.


[4] Charles Hodge, Romans (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1994), 78. C.H. Hodge elucidates the dissimilarity of forgiveness and justification by wittily exposing the converse between condemnation and justification. “To condemn is not merely to punish, but to declare the accused guilty or worthy of punishment; and justification is not merely to remit that punishment, but to declare the punishment cannot be justly inflicted… Pardon and Justification therefore are essentially distinct”

[5] Stott, Romans, 111. John R.W. Stott, in The Message of Romans, reveals this quote for the purposes of contrast and correction. He cites: Kung, Hans, Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Reflection (1957; ET, Burnes and Oates, 1964).


[6] C. K. Barrett, Epistle to the Romans, (The Black’s New Testament Commentary), Revised ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2011), 71.


[7]  Ibid., 71. Barrett explains the grammatical reasoning behind his definition of justification: “It is often pointed out that when the Greek verbal suffix in question (-οω) is attached to adjectives denoting moral qualities the meaning is sometimes not ‘to make…’ but ‘to count…’, or ‘to treat as…’. From this observation is drawn to most popular modern interpretation of the Pauline verb ‘to justify’ and the Pauline doctrine of justification. The verb means ‘to count, or treat as, righteous’.

[8]  Peter Stuhlmacher, Revisiting Paul’s Doctrine of Justification: a Challenge to the New Perspective (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2001), 20.

[9] James D. G. Dunn, Word Biblical Commentary: Volume 38a, Romans 1-8 (Downers Grove, Ill.: Thomas Nelson, 1988), 241.


[10] Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 1998), 215.


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