Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Does the Biblical term "justify" really mean "to declare righteous" (as Protestants teach)?

This post ties into my last post discussing the Biblical teaching on "righteousness." When it comes to justification, Protestant apologists insist that the Biblical term "justify" means "to declare righteous" (in a courtroom setting). More bluntly, Protestants understand the declaration to mean something of the form of "declared by God the judge to have kept the law perfectly." But I think the Protestant argument contains some serious errors and is not built on actual Biblical evidence but rather some unbiblical and faulty assumptions. In this post, I'll show why the Protestant understanding cannot be true and thus should be abandoned.

To begin, the Greek word "justify" appears in about 36 verses in the New Testament. Of all these occurrences, the only time it is used in an explicitly forensic (legal, courtroom) context is in four verses: Mt 12:37; Rom 3:4; 8:33; 1 Cor 4:4. So how do Protestants come to the conclusion that it must mean "declare legally righteous by a judge"? Certainly not from the New Testament evidence, especially since 'forensic terms' don't really appear in places like Romans 3-4 and Galatians 2-3. Turning to the 40 verses of the Old Testament that use the term "justify," there were more occurrences in a legal context than in the New Testament, but still not enough to form any concrete conclusion: Ex 23:7; Deut 25:1; 2 Sam 15:4; 1 Kings 8:32 (same as 2 Chron 6:23); Ps 19:9; 51:4 (quoted in Rom 4:3); Ps 143:2; Prov 17:15. So for a Protestant to say that "justify," especially as Paul uses it in Romans 3-4 and Galatians 2-3, means "declared to be a perfect law keeper by a judge" is by no means an established fact at all.

But to make matters even more problematic for Protestants, of those 11 'forensic' verses just mentioned, even these don't bode well for their understanding. For example:
  • Matthew 12:37, 1 Corinthians 4:4, and (arguably) Romans 8:33, are speaking of the final judgement, not something that takes place at the moment of conversion
  • Romans 3:4 (Psalm 51:4) and (arguably) Psalm 19:9 are speaking of God being justified, thus it cannot mean "declare righteous by a judge," for no judge is above God. So despite being in a forensic context, "justify" here can really only mean vindicate. (I wrote about this earlier this year.)
  • 1 Kings 8:32 (same as 2 Chron 6:23) and (maybe) Psalm 143:2 are the only forensic occurrences in which "declare righteous" would make sense. But this is only 1, maybe 2, verses in favor of such a definition.
  • Ex 23:7, Deut 25:1, Rom 8:33, 1 Cor 4:4, (and likely) Prov 17:5 & Mt 12:37 are not speaking of "declaring righteous" - as in declaring that someone has done his duty like keeping the commandments perfectly - but rather of "acquittal," meaning being found not guilty, i.e. innocent. For example, if I'm on trial for speeding, the Judge can either find me guilty (condemn), or he can acquit me (find innocent), but he cannot declare me to be a perfect driver and worthy of a reward. 
Once one realizes that this is what the Bible has said on the subject, one finds that the Protestant understanding/definition of "justify" is very dubious and even erroneous. But I think the heat can be turned up even more on the Protestant assumption by looking at the possible definition of "vindicate".

Of the various possible definitions of "justify," I'm going to propose that "vindicate" is the 'truest' meaning of the term "justify" - meaning that translating the term as "vindicate" renders a coherent meaning in the great majority of the 76 or so verses that "justify" appears. Here are my findings:
  • Using "vindicate" is fits best for Job 9:2; 9:20; 13:18; 32:2; 33:12; 33:32; 34:5; 35:7; Ps 51:4 (Rom 3:4); Is 43:26; 45:25; 50:8; Jer 3:11; Mat 11:19 (Lk 7:35); Lk 7:29; Lk 10:29; Lk 16:15; Rom 2:13; 1 Tim 3:16; Jas 2:21; 2:24-25
  • Using "acquit" fits best for Gen 44:16; Ex 23:7; Deut 25:1; Job 9:15; 25:4; 27:5; Prov 17:15; Mt 12:37; Acts 13:39; Rom 8:33; 1 Cor 4:4
  • Using either "vindicate" or "acquit" is very possible for Gen 38:26; 2 Sam 15:4; 1 Kings 8:32 (2 Chron 6:23); Job 4:17; Job 10:15; 11:2; 15:14; 22:3; 40:8; Ps 19:9; 143:2; Is 5:23; 43:9; Is 53:11; Eze 16:51-52; Lk 18:14; Rom 3:20; 3:24; 3:26; 3:28; 3:30; Rom 4:2; 4:5; Rom 5:1; 5:9; Rom 6:7; Rom 8:30; 1 Cor 6:11; Gal 2:16-17; Gal 3:8; 3:11; 3:24; Gal 5:4; Titus 3:7
  • Using "vindicate" doesn't really fit for Ps 82:3; Dan 8:14; 12:3; Rev 22:11
I made a distinction between vindicating and acquitting because it seems acquitting fits best in situations where a person is being found 'innocent' of a charge, where as vindicating means more to show someone is in the right. But that said, I would argue that acquitting is a form or subset of vindicating, so the terms are conceptually not that different. With that in mind, all but 4 of the 76 verses can fit within a vindication/acquittal framework, meaning this is how we should most probably view it as well, especially in the key texts of Romans and Galatians.

This approach to rendering the term term "justify" as vindicate/acquit has the devastating effect of rendering the Protestant definition not only dubious, but completely without precedent. There isn't a single example where "justify" pertains to a judge declaring that you've kept the law perfectly. But in case a Protestant says I've over-reached here, this case I've presented conforms with Luther and Calvin's view that justification was more or less synonymous with forgiveness, without any mention of us being found perfectly obedient to the commandments (via Christ's imputed Active Obedience). See also my quotes of Luther and Calvin on Romans 4:6-8 in This Post.


Steve Martin said...

We sure hope so.

If anyone thinks that God's view of us depends on our performance in this world, then they might as well just take their Bibles and throw them out the window. Because apart being justified by God, reconciled by God through Christ...there's nothing in that book that will do us one bit of good to make ourselves right with God.

cwdlaw223 said...

Steve -

Are you aware that the unintended consequences of your post is that man can thereafter do whatever he wants if our "performance" to make ourselves right with God doesn't count.

You are trying to split the mystery of grace and effort (God forbid I use the word work) when the mystery was never intended to be split. This is like removing my lungs and still trying to call me human. Your worldview is a legal novum. You do have a responsibility on this eart to try to make yourself right with God. Most people just don't want to hear the hard truth and attempt the massive amount of effort and sacrifice it takes to try to become saintly. I struggle mightily, but I would never, ever tell someone such heresy that their peformance doesn't count. It most certainly does count. How much counts? I have no idea and that's up to God. There is no recipe for works that gets you into heaven.

N/a said...

Hello. I'm a long time reader, first time commenter.

I like what St. James wrote in 2:21-23 of his own epistle. Abraham's faith was one of obedience. Thus, when he obeyed God, his faith was counted as righteousness. It's that simple.


God's view of us depends on our faith and performance --- what's in our heart and whom we serve.

Look at what St. Paul wrote in Galatians 5:19-21 about works of the flesh such as fornication, drunkenness, and enmity. He told us that such things keep us out of the Kingdom of God. One can believe Jesus is the King of Kings (even Satan is positive that He is), but if one has no intention and effort to turn away from the sinful works of the flesh, then one cannot inherit the Kingdom.

Read Titus 2:11-14. It's a short passage about the process of salvation. Paul tells us that the very people who are awaiting the second advent of Jesus Christ are turning away from iniquity and are zealous for good deeds. While waiting for their Lord, they live a sober, upright, and godly life. They sin (and rightly admit it), but their Lord made expiation for their sins and He is their advocate with God (1 John 2:1-2).

In Romans 2:6-8, Paul has us know that God will render to each person according to their works. Those who patiently do good and seek reward from Him will be given eternal life; those who do not serve Him will receive His wrath. This does not mean we must observe the Mosaic Law and perfectly keep all those commandments that pertain to our place in society. We are saved by faith, a faith that works through love (Galatians 5:6). God is love; if we truly are of Him through faith, we will love one another and act on it. This is why the sheep will be on their Lord's right --- their faith worked through love (Matthew 25:32-40).

Christ made expiation for our sins. It is not our burden then to give compensation to God for having sinned against Him (not that we would be able to); Christ did it on our behalf on Calvary. Eternal life with Him, who is love, is ours if we love Him, love one another, and renounce the sinful things of the devil, the world, and the flesh. So, it's not that the King's future heirs must pay for their every crime (someone already did), it's that the King's heirs must walk in His noble ways because He is noble. His kingdom is for His own kind.

Pax vobiscum,
- Clint

cwdlaw223 said...

The "reformers" didn't want the burden of the effort demanded by Christ. What did they do? Created a new religion off of the back of Catholicism where all you need is your mind to be saved, no effort, actions or work. That is what is so enticing about Protestantism, you can be your own Pope, priest and church and have minimal effort to feel like you're saved in your mind. It's a wonderful construct that has no relationship to Orthodox Christianity.

Christianity requires effort. That's why "faith alone" was rejected. Too many people would have thought faith is just some thought process. Nobody wants to hear about the hard work and effort demanded by our lord. They just want to put Christ in a box and have him on their own terms.

Steve Martin said...

Yes, cwdlaw223.

What do you want to do?

cwdlaw223 said...

I want to follow the physical church created by Christ that remains on this earth and speaks the truth. What do you want to do? Continue believing that you can figure it out or have better exegesis?

Steve Martin said...

Figure what out?

I'm free. Christ has forgiven my sins and made me His own in Baptism and through His Word.

So I live...freely...outwardly (when I'm up to it) for the neighbor. The getting right with God project is finished (funny...He said that, as well "It is finished").

cwdlaw223 said...

Why don't you worship him in the physical church that he created and guarded? You are not free from the consequence of sin. Are you free to now murder? Steal? Fornicate? You don't understand the consequence of your statements and how someone could interpret them to do whatever you want. You have adopted a new form of easy believeism Christianity out of thin air. If Scripture and history have no meaning, do whatever you want.

I will pray for you.

Nick said...


Thank you for your comments. Indeed, James 2:21ff was so clear that a Protestant apologist has just come out saying that James cannot be part of the canon and that he is rejecting it for the same reasons Luther did:

cwdlaw223 said...

Nick -

It's amazing to me that Protestants reject the Catholic Bible because it's too Catholic and the Jews reject the Septuagint version of the OT because it's too Christian.

Protestantism doesn't fit with history and there's a reason there is no Protestant Bible for 1,400 years in this world.

Keep up your good work!
Protestantism is really a softer version of Mormonism. Each heresy is built upon the truth of Catholicism.

N/a said...


Wow. I just finished reading his post. I am not surprised at his rejection of James. I wouldn't even be surprised if, some time in the future, any popular Protestant church bodies and evangelists publicly reject James and encourage their laity to do the same. These poor souls desperately need to realize that 'works of the law' and 'good works' are not the same thing. And lastly, I noticed one lady pointed out, in a comment on that guy's post, that his kind are becoming more and more like the Gnostics.


The Protestants cannot accept the fact of history that the Bible was put together by Catholic bishops. To do so would mean they would also have to accept it being a Catholic book. This is why they have to come up with historically late reasons for accepting the contents of the Bible as canonical, even if it is their 66 book Bible, a reduction of the original 73 book Bible.


If the "getting right with God project" is finished, why then do you pray the Lord's Prayer? "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us" is one of it's lines. Why do you still need Christ as your advocate with the Father?

Pax vobiscum,
- Clint

cwdlaw223 said...

Clint -

It's ironic that the Ps reject the original OT as too Catholic and the Jews reject the original OT as to Christian.

What is a Church to do????

People want Christ on their terms, not his. That will happen until the final judgment day. Either Christ failed with Rome and he's a false prophet or woe is the person who rejects his Church.

Anonymous said...

Or the church at Rome has failed Christ. All we need to do is to look at its history and doctrines which tells us they have.

cwdlaw223 said...

If Rome failed then Christ failed! There is no other Church in history. Rome's theology hasn't changed. If Christ failed with his Bride, then he is a false prophet and Christianity is a joke and you should be pitied.

Certain people in the Church have failed, but not the Church itself. There is a vast difference and the conclusion of your statement above is that Christ was a failure. Open your eyes to scripture and the promises/protections Christ gave his Church. There is no other Church in history but Rome. If so, name this physical Church on earth. It certainly isn't s bunch of believers with various forms of differing theology.

Anonymous said...

Help me out. How could your church not have failed if the leaders of your church have in the unbiblical doctrines-practices and the massive scandals that have rocked your church to the core?

Need we talk about the inquisitions that had the full approval of the popes and the magesterium for centuries?

cwdlaw223 said...

The theology of Rome never failed or changed.

Unbiblical doctines? Like the Trinity?

You honestly believe the "scandals" are part of the teaching of the church?

How about you tell me what happened to the physical church that Christ claimed to have created on this earth? You cannot answer this question without Rome. If Rome failed, Christ failed and he's a liar. There is nothing more biblical than concluding that Christ was a liar if he failed with the physical Church he created on this planet.

You incorrectly presume that sinless men must be in charge of Christ's Church. Christ has protected Rome's theology from the sinfulness of man. He has not stopped men IN the Church who still sin. Huge difference.

Anonymous said...

Unbiblical doctrines such as the doctrines on Mary and a few others.

The scandals are the fruit of false doctrines.

There were many churches in the early centuries in which Rome did not have authority over. That kind of thing took centuries to develop.

I never claimed-"You incorrectly presume that sinless men must be in charge of Christ's Church." All men are fallen and do err. Jesus never promised error would be impossible.

Barbara said...


@ April 17, 2013 at 9:17 AM

This might help you

Anonymous said...

When the context is sinners or ungodly being justified for there is no merit in the lives for there to be a justification by works. Consider the parallel between the imputation of righteousness apart from works and the non imputation of sin . The latter is an external reality (for Paul is referring to an external reality not the inner undeceitfulness of the spirit). Therefore the former is external.

Valentin said...

This is cool!