Justification – definition

Justification is being put right with God
Correctly understanding these terms leads to a better
understanding of the character of God and the Gospel.

Note: this page includes discussion of the word “justified.”

Traditional Legal Model – justification is the declaration that a person is right with God in a legal sense – He is then justified, his sins being forgiven and the penalty paid. Essentially, it is a ticket to heaven.

Biblical Healing Model – to cure man’s condition in the sense of setting man’s heart right (or justifying it) with God. Such a person is then justified.

Definitions from Spiritual Sources

“A legal declaration involving God’s free grace in which He pardons the sinner, making him innocent, and reckons the believing sinner righteous. Justification gives the believing sinner perfect permanent standing before the Father.” (From https://bible.org/seriespage/appendix-glossary-terms, accessed Dec. 24, 2017)

“God is the one who makes us just, even though we are unjust. He is just and the justifier. The glory is that God pronounces us, His children, to be just. This is amazing, especially because we are still sinners. God actually declares us righteous in His sight God has made us right before His law even though we are sinners; our Father judges us as just even though we are unjust. However, our Father who art in heaven is just and the justifier; He is the only one who can make a person righteous. He justifies men and women who put their faith, belief, and trust in His Son, Jesus Christ. (From: https://www.spirituallight.ca/justification-1.html, accessed Dec. 24, 2017)

 “A forensic term, opposed to condemnation. As regards its nature, it is the judicial act of God, by which he pardons all the sins of those who believe in Christ, and accounts, accepts, and treats them as righteous in the eye of the law, i.e., as conformed to all its demands. In addition to the pardon (q.v.) of sin, justification declares that all the claims of the law are satisfied in respect of the justified. It is the act of a judge and not of a sovereign. The law is not relaxed or set aside, but is declared to be fulfilled in the strictest sense; and so the person justified is declared to be entitled to all the advantages and rewards arising from perfect obedience to the law (Rom. 5:1-10).” (http://thekingsbible.com/BibleDictionary.aspx?dict=Full&dw=justification, accessed Dec. 26, 2017)

 Even Webster’s 1828 dictionary gives this definition (the one related to theology)

4. In theology, remission of sin and absolution from guilt and punishment; or an act of free grace by which God pardons the sinner and accepts him as righteous, on account of the atonement of Christ.”
(http://webstersdictionary1828.com/Dictionary/justification; accessed Dec. 24, 2017)

Webster’s definition is pretty much in line with most modern definitions (examples above) as this legal understanding became common long before the 19th century.

Notice, in the modern definitions above, phrases like:

  • making him innocent”
  • reckons the believing sinner righteous.”
  • “makes us just, even though we are unjust”
  • “God pronounces us … to be just … amazing … because we are still sinners”
  • “God has made us right before His law even though we are sinners”
  • “our Father judges us as just even though we are unjust”
  • treats them as righteous”
  • declares that all the claims of the law are satisfied”
  • “the law … is declared to be fulfilled”

These definitions are suggesting God is saying a person is just, righteous, innocent even when he is not. It has been argued that such statements even charge God with lying. Man is guilty, unjust, unrighteous, still a sinner and yet God says He is justified! There is something suspicious with this.

It is often pictured as the sinner before God as the judge with Jesus standing between them so that as God looks toward the sinner He can only see Jesus. The evidence that the defendant is guilty is not admissible to the court and he is thus declared to be innocent.

Justification Understood as Being Set Right

Justification can also be understood and defined as to set things right. We use the term that way today. Think of print on a page and how it can be “justified” or lined up to the margins of the page. This paragraph is not justified.

Justification can also be understood and defined as to set things right. We use the term that way today. Think of print on a page and how it can be ” justified” or lined up to the margins of the page. This paragraph is justified.

 To achieve a state of justification (noun) one must be justified (verb) or made right or aligned to a certain standard or come into right relation with something/someone else. Something has to change in whoever/whatever is being justified. But to declare justification in its absence is a sham. It is only a change in the understanding or attitude or opinion of the one declaring the justification with no change in the one who is “justified.”

There are a few problems with the traditional understanding of justification:

  • Justification is viewed strictly in legal terms.
  • Guilt is transferred from the guilty to the innocent (contrary to Ezekiel 18).
  • The actual heart condition of the defendant is not taken into account.
  • The sin problem is not resolved in the person.
  • It makes God (the judge) to be unaware of or ignoring the facts of the case.

 True justification is not achieved by transferring the blame to someone else even if they are willing to take that blame but by having a new heart and mind, by being healed of what was wrong, being set right. This glossary takes the position that Biblical justification is to be set right in relation to God as opposed to it being a strictly legal transaction. This is reflected in some translations such as:

“Now that we have been put right with God through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Rom 5:1, Good News Translation)

True justification is a change in us (our attitude towards God) not a change in His attitude towards us (however, He and all heaven rejoice over us when we choose to trust Him), not a change in legal standing (except that we are then safe to live in heaven).

The further question in regard to Biblical justification is what is the justification in relation to? Is it in relation to the law or is it in relation to God? Is it legal or is it relational? Many of these questions can be answered by a careful examination of the case of Abraham.

Justified is also used in the sense of being proven to be right by evidence as in this verse:

“God forbid: yea, let God be true, but every man a liar; as it is written, That thou mightest be justified in thy sayings, and mightest overcome when thou art judged.” (Rom 3:4)

Paul is not speaking of God being justified or set right in that there was anything wrong with Him. He is saying that God’s sayings will be justified in that what He said will be proven to be right.

Go to The Character of God and the Gospel Glossary

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