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To Be Justified in Paul’s Epistles

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I’m a radical believer in God’s radical grace. So I need to explore being justified in Paul’s epistle because I interpret him as a radical believer. And being justified is how I get there.

We have at least two ways to interpret the Greek verb dikaioō: it means being put right with God in a covenant context, or it is mainly (but not exclusively) a legal term, meaning to acquit or declare not guilty in a forensic or courtroom setting.

Let’s see if we can solve the dilemma or find out if the two interpretations can work together.

An interesting thing to look for is that the Greek word is almost always in the passive mood; that is, something is done to or on us.

If you would like to see the verses in various translations, you may go to and type in the references.


1. To be justified is to be vindicated in the face of accusations from enemies.

Rom. 3:4; Ps. 51:4

Rom. 8:33

1 Cor. 4:3-5

1 Tim. 3:16

2. Paul speaks about the standards of God and implies from the rest of Romans that humans can’t meet them.

Rom. 2:12-13, Rom. 2:16

3. God justifies us apart from the law (our law keeping).

Rom. 3:19-20

Rom. 3:28

Gal. 3:11

Gal. 5:2-4

4. God justifies us apart from our works and works of the law.

Rom. 3:26-28

Rom. 4:1-5

Gal. 2:15-17

5. God justifies us freely by grace and faith.

Rom. 3:23-24

Rom. 3:26, 29-31

Rom. 5:1

Gal. 3:24

Ti. 3:7

Rom. 3:21-24

6. The Spirit Himself justifies us.

1 Cor. 6:11

7. God justifies us by Christ’s sacrificial blood.

Rom. 3:23-25

Rom. 5:9

8. We are freed and acquitted from sin (sin accusing us).

Rom. 6:7

9. God calls us to be justified and then he has glorified us.

Rom. 8:30

Summary and Conclusion

* We can take out of the discussion 1 Tim 3:16, which is a hymn about Christ. Vindication is the right translation. Though taken out, it does put things in the context of God’s evaluation or judgment of Christ’s work during his life and death; God saw that Jesus had fulfilled his mission and vindicated him in the presence of his enemies and the whole world.

* Nearly all the occurrences of dikaioō are in the passive. Justification happens to a human. It is an act of God on him or her. He or she is justified.

* Faith is how we appropriate being justified. It is faith in God.

* Being justified is a free gift (free to us) by the grace of God.

* God justifies us by Christ’s atoning blood and sacrifice.

* God does not acquit the guilty (Exod. 23:7), for that would be unjust based on a narrow set of facts against the guilty party. However, God includes and evaluates a broader set of facts, the atoning sacrifice of Christ. He takes the punishment.

* Even the Spirit justifies us.

* Being justified is not done by the works of the law, but by faith in Christ.

* Being justified stands in opposition to condemnation by the law as the standard and when our sin fails to meet the law’s requirement.

* Being put right with God in the New Covenant can apply to all occurrences.

* But a subset of those passages refer specifically to a judgment or forensic or courtroom setting (Rom. 2:13, Rom. 3:4, Rom. 3:25-26, Rom. 8:30; 1 Cor. 4:3-5). The forensic setting is sometimes down here on earth (Rom. 8:33, 1 Cor. 4:3-5) and at least one other passage is about the Last Judgment (Rom. 2:12-13, Rom. 2:16). 

Now we can look at the dilemma between being put right with God in a covenant and declared acquittal in a forensic setting. Can the two interpretations work together?

* The law by definition entails the forensic element. So every passage that has dikaioō or being put right with God and has the law nearby is placed squarely in the legal or courtroom setting.

* This is certainly true of Romans in which the law is mentioned eighty-six times (and the vast majority is in 2-10). Galatians records law thirty-two times.

*Romans and Galatians are where the vast majority of diakioō appears: fifteen times in Romans (mainly 2-8) and eight times in Galatians. (The other epistles have four occurrences.)

* See points 3 and 4, above.

* The law has legal rights over everyone and accuses everyone: “For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law” (Rom. 2:12). Even the Gentiles, who have the moral law and conscience, are not let off the hook (2:14-15).

* How do we escape from the law, the prosecuting attorney, named Mr. Law, who represents the legal system that accuses us?

* We can obey the law, and Mr. Law is happy and satisfied. We don’t have to appear in court at all. Unfortunately, he discovers that we get dragged back into court every day. We break the law in small or big ways. “You again!” he says with a scowl.

* The compassionate judge, Mr. Divine (God), also sees something is wrong with us. We can’t keep the law. Judge Divine, a special judge, can see into our hearts and concludes we’re bound by our own nature; it tends towards law breaking, like water flows downward.

* Jesus, our defense attorney, steps in and pays the fine for us. He even takes our just, deserved punishment for us.

* Since Jesus paid the fine and also volunteered to take the punishment in our place, Judge Divine declares us “not guilty!” So we are now acquitted or declared righteous by an act of his divine grace.

* This declaration of acquittal in a judgment or forensic setting puts us right with God in the New Covenant.

* So the forensic setting and being put right with God in a covenant context can work together.

Additional Discussion

Zech. 3:1-10 talks about Joshua the High Priest in the heavenly court. He was standing next to an angel. But Satan was also there accusing him. God orders the angel to take off Joshua’s unclean robes and put the “pure” vestments. Though the words “declared righteous” as such do not occur in Zech. 3, it is a beautiful image of God evaluating (judging) Joshua and calling him and putting a new garment on him. (See also about a robe of righteousness: Job 29:14; Ps. 132:9; Is. 11:5, Is. 59:17, Is. 61:10.)

Imagine if we had a custom in our courts that involved having an armoire in which a stock of white robes is kept. Call them the White Robes of Acquittal or the White Robes of Being Declared Righteous or (to please everyone) the White Robes of Being Put Right. When the accused is acquitted and put right, it would be a beautiful ceremony in our legal system if the judge told the court clerk to get a white robe and put it on the acquitted. As he walked out of the courtroom, the white robe could tell the world, with cameras flashing and videos rolling, that he is not guilty. All charges have been dismissed and expunged from the records.

God the Judge really does have such a heavenly courtroom. After he acquits us, declaring us not guilty and putting us right, he tells an angel to get the white robe and put it on us. We now walk around with the White Robe of Acquittal on – invisible to us and onlookers in the natural realm, but quite visible to angels and demons in the supernatural realm. Most importantly, God sees it and smiles. Jesus sees it and beams. He put us right, and now we’re in his New Covenant that he paid for and ratified by his blood.

Related Topics: Regeneration, Justification

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