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The terms “justification” and “justification by faith” cover a wide area—from linguistics, biblical theology, systematic theology, and the history of doctrine. It will not be possible to offer anything like a thorough treatment in one brief article. My purpose here is to present a summary of the basic meaning of the Greek words involved (especially the dikaio- wordgroup), and to explore the ancient background of the concepts and terminology, as utilized by Paul.

The dikaio- wordgroup

We must begin with the wider d–e—ik- wordgroup and the basic noun di/kh (dík¢), which fundamentally refers to that which is established as right, proper or customary. It can be used in terms of a specific law or ruling, tradition, a principle, even a (divine) power; it covers some of the same ground as the word no/mo$ (usually translated “law”). We might render di/kh simply, and fairly accurately, as “what is right”. In English, the terms “right” and “just” overlap; we can also refer to di/kh as “what is just”. There is a longstanding question: whether it is better to translate the dikaio- wordgroup with “right, righteous, righteousness” or “just, justice”, etc. The primary corresponding word(group) in Hebrew is qdx (ƒdq), which also carries the sense of loyal(ty). Partially overlapping in meaning is fpv (šp‰), the primary wordgroup referring to judging, judgment, justice, etc.

di/kaio$ (díkaios)—The adjective is usually rendered “right” or “just”, both of which are preferable to “righteous”, which carries a distinctively religious connotation in English. The wider meaning in Greek refers to that which is “according to custom”, i.e. a person who fulfills his/her duties and obligations, follows the established customs or traditions, obeys the laws, and so forth. A person who may be so characterized is “just” and “right(eous)”. The corresponding adjective in Hebrew is qyD!x^ (ƒadîq). The adverb dikaiw/$ (dikaiœ¡s) carries a similar range of meaning as the adjective, “rightly, justly”, etc.

dikaiosu/nh (dikaiosy¡n¢)—This is a more abstract noun, signifying the proper observance of law and custom, the fulfillment of duty and obligation, etc. It ought to be rendered something like “right-ness” or “just-ness”, but as there are no such terms in English, it is usually translated “justice” or “righteousness”, neither of which fits precisely—one relates more to the law and society, the other more properly to religion and morality. However, “justice” probably better represents the basic range of meaning in Greek thought, covering both social/religious virtue and proper observance/administration of law and custom. The corresponding Hebrew words qd#x# (ƒedeq) and hq*d*x= (ƒ®d¹qâ) might fit “righteousness” more closely, especially with the connotation of “truthfulness, loyalty”, etc.

dikaio/w (dikaióœ)—This verb fundamentally means “make right”, or to “establish as right/just” (i.e. establish justice). The primary context is that of the realm of law and the courts (the administration of law), but it can also apply to personal life and conduct (i.e. generally, make a situation right, treat/regard something fairly, etc). In a legal/judicial sense, it can refer to judgment in terms of “passing sentence” (declaring innocence or guilt), “securing justice” for someone (i.e. respresenting them in court), “validating” or confirming the law, and so forth. In Hebrew, the corresponding verb is the denominative qd@x* (ƒ¹d¢q), in the Hiphil/causative stem; as indicated above, fp^v* (š¹pa‰) is the primary verb indicating judging and judgment.

Paul uses this verb (indeed the dikaio- wordgroup as a whole) in a very distinct, specialized sense, an understanding of which requires some familiarity with the ancient religious and cultural background related to these words.

The ancient background of “Justification”

Paul’s use of the dikaio- wordgroup (and, in particular, the verb dikaio/w) draws upon the ancient concept of judgment after death. Upon death, human beings were seen as having to stand before a divine tribunal to be judged—according to what they had done in their lifetime (including their intention/motivation)—before being allowed to enter into the divine/heavenly blessedness. This explains the traditional connection between justice/righteousness and the Beatitude saying-form (cf. Matt 5:3-12, 20 and my notes on the Beatitudes). Only the person whose life reflects the purity and “righteousness” of the gods (or God, cf. Matt 5:48) may enter into the divine realm, becoming like the gods (or God). Jewish thought preserved much of this idea, but with several important differences:

  1. Monotheistic belief changed the religious dynamic of the judgment scene—rather than being localized in the “underworld”, or presided over by specific deities (associated with death, law and order, etc), it takes place in the court of YHWH (on this, see my earlier note on Psalm 1, associated with the Beatitudes).
  2. The idea of the covenant established between YHWH and Israel meant that Israelites (and Jews) were, as a result of God’s gracious choosing, assumed to be righteous from the beginning. This status was preserved and confirmed by observing the commands and regulations of the Torah, which effectively provided the terms of the covenant (cf. Deut 27-28). Transgression of the Torah meant violation of the covenant, and only the wicked would do so willfully and unrepentantly. The person who has lived according to God’s Law (as expressed in the Torah) will stand and pass the judgment.
  3. Jewish eschatology ultimately shifted the judgment scene from taking place after death (for each person) to a final (end-time) judgment, in which all people would be judged. This was either connected with (1) the concept of the resurrection from the dead (en masse), or with (2) the “day of YHWH”, during which God would appear in glory and judge the nations upon earth. Both motifs are found in Jewish writings, all the way back to the Old Testament Prophets in the mid-1st millennium B.C.

Early Christians inherited the Jewish worldview, though, with further development:

  • The end-time judgment by God was seen as imminent, likely to occur at any moment, and, as such, is more precisely understood as the culmination of history, the end of the present age. Christians connected this end of the old with the beginning of a “new age” in Christ.
  • Judgment would take place through the person of Jesus Christ, as God’s representative; the impending end-time judgment thus was thus thought to coincide with a return of Christ to earth.
  • The strong sense of an imminent, impending judgment defined the early Christian idea of salvation—believers in Christ would be saved from the judgment, the anger/wrath of God, which was about to come.

This provides the essential background for Paul’s use of the dikaio- wordgroup; in particular, the verb dikaio/w, of which more than half (23) of the New Testament instances occur in Romans and Galatians, is an important word for Paul. It is used almost always in the passive, that is, a “divine passive” (passivum divinum) with God as the implied agent. There are, I believe, three aspects to Paul’s usage, which correspond to three basic levels of meaning (and ways of translating the verb, cf. above):

  1. “Make right”—the situation for believers is “made right” by God; this would best be understood in terms of human beings’ bondage under the power of sin, from which we have been freed.
  2. “Declare just”—this corresponds to the primary meaning based on the judicial context and background, i.e. of the end-time judgment before God (cf. above). In a modern legal context, we might say “declare innocent”, but this is not quite the idea in Paul’s writings—in fact, he rarely uses words corresponding to “guilt” or “innocence” in English. It is rather the ancient, Jewish background that informs his language and symbolism. Normally, a person is declared “just” or “right” according to his/her deeds—from the Israelite/Jewish standpoint, this means having properly fulfilled the terms of the covenant by faithfully observing the Law (Torah). Paul’s belief in this regard seems to have been that Christ’s work (his sacrificial death) has effectively fulfilled the Law for believers, and so all who trust in him are automatically “declared (or considered) just/right” in God’s eyes. This should be understood further at two levels:
    (a) believers will pass through the judgment and be “saved” from the wrath (punishment) to come
    (b) believers also realize, and experience the reality of, this status in the present
  3. “Make righteous”—this relates primarily to believers’ experience of salvation/justification in the present, though, more properly, it involves a (transformative) participation in the justice/righteousness of God. This occurs in two respects:
    (a) a spiritual identification with, and participation in, the death and resurrection of Christ, represented symbolically through the ritual of Baptism (and the Lord’s Supper), and effectively by the expression “in Christ”—that is, in the body of Christ
    (b) by the power and presence of the Spirit (of God and Christ) living and working within—through the Spirit, believers also fulfill the Law (of God and Christ)

“Justification by Faith”

While Paul never actually uses anything corresponding to this expression (the noun corr. to “justification” is found only in Rom 4:25; 5:18), it generally summarizes a number of statements he makes in Galatians and Romans (and elsewhere). Due to the polemic of Galatians, he has a more specific and narrow focus in that letter—constrasting faith (trust) in Christ with observance of the Torah commands (“works of the Law”). The main verse is Gal 2:16: “a man is not made/declared just out of works of Law [e)c e&rgwn no/mou], but through trust [dia\ pi/stew$] of Jesus Christ”; later in the verse he states even more decisively, “all flesh will not be made/declared just out of works of Law”. Elsewhere, Paul contrasts “out of works” with the parallel formulation “out of trust/faith” (e)k pi/stew$).

The relevant verses in Galatians are Gal 2:16-17, 21; 3:2, 8, 11, 24; 5:4. In both Galatians and Romans, Paul cites the keynote verse Hab 2:4 [LXX], “the just [di/kaio$] (person) will live out of trust [e)k pi/stew$]” (Gal 3:11; Rom 1:17), and uses/interprets the example of Abraham in Gen 15:6 (Gal 3:6ff; Rom 4:3ff). The main verses of Romans are: Rom 3:13, 19-20, 21-30; 4:2, 5ff; 5:1ff; 8:30, 33; 9:30-32; 10:5-6ff. It is a bit surprising that this theme does not appear more frequently in the other Pauline letters—it is stated rather clearly, but in passing, in Phil 3:9; otherwise, it has to be inferred in passages such as 1 Cor 6:11; Col 2:11-15. If Ephesians is authentically Pauline, then there is also a relatively clear statement in Eph 2:8-9, though the verb dikaio/w does not occur. This latter reference is significant in its use of the word xa/ri$ (“favor, grace”); Paul begins to apply this term and concept (“the favor [of God]”) in the context of “justification” in Romans 3:24, then on throughout chapters 4-7, and again in 11:5-6. These two words—xa/ri$ and pi/sti$—represent the twin aspects of “justification”, that it is: (1) by the favor/grace of God, and (2) through trust/faith in Christ.

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