Righteousness Terms and the New Perspective, part 3, Pauline Epistles (2), by Jeffery Smith

In part two of Righteous terms and the New Perspective we began to focus upon Paul’s usage of righteousness terms in is epistles, especially the book of Romans. In the last post we consider his use of the terms “righteousness, righteous” etc.. with reference to men under the headings of active righteousness and passive righteousness. Now in this post we continue with considering Paul’s use of righteousness terms with reference to men. Then in last post I plan to consider his use of righteousness terms with reference to God.

The Meaning of Justification in Paul’s Epistles

We saw from its O.T. usage that justification doesn’t mean to make a person righteous, in the sense of some subjective transformation of the person’s character. Justification is a forensic term which speaks of a judicial declaration; declaring a person either guilty or righteous. Paul uses the word in this same way when he refers to the justification of sinners.

First of all, this justification is set forth as the opposite of condemnation. Remember to condemn is not to make bad, nor is it a process by which a man is made bad. To condemn is the declared sentence of a judge about a person. The judge does not make bad when he condemns, he declares the person to be bad and sentences him to his punishment. Well, in Paul for the sinner to be justified is the opposite of being condemned. We see this, for example, in Rom. 5:18, “As through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s righteousness the free gift came to all men resulting in justification.” Justification is the opposite of condemnation.

In Rom. 8:33 Paul is specifically speaking about the justification of sinners, and he says, “Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns?” We see here again that to be justified is the opposite of having something laid to your charge. It means to have nothing laid to your charge. It’s the opposite of being condemned. Now again what does it mean to condemn? It certainly does not mean to make someone wicked or to infuse wickedness into a person. It means to judicially declare or to pronounce someone guilty before the law. Likewise, justification, as the opposite of condemnation, does not mean to subjectively transform someone’s character. It means for the judge to render a verdict by declaring someone righteous in the eyes of the law.

Secondly, there is the fact that when Paul speaks of the justification of believing sinners he speaks of that justification as a completed act as opposed to being a process. He speaks of the justification of those who are already believers as a completed event which took place in the past. Notice Rom. 5:1. Here we have an aorist passive participle. “Having been justified by faith.” The passive voice points to this as being an act of God. The aorist tense preceding as it does the verb it modifies, (“we have peace”), points to a once and for all act in the past;[1] “Having been justified by faith.” We see that the justification of the believing sinner is not an ongoing process the outcome of which is suspended until the Day of Judgment.

Now it is true that we will be shown to be among God’s justified people on that day and the evidence of that fact will be brought forth to demonstrate it. We also show ourselves to be God’s people in this life by how we live; what is sometimes called demonstrative justification. But our actual justification and acceptance as righteous before God occurs the moment we first believe. It is a past completed one time act.[2] “Having been justified by faith (aorist passive participle), we have (present tense) peace with God.” Not the peace of God here, but peace with God or peace toward God. This is not a subjective feeling. It’s an objective presently ongoing state of reconciliation with God that results from a past once-and-for all justification. And this is not a state that can be entered then forfeited by disobedience.[3] “It is a point-in–time accomplishment of a once-and-for-all act of God which continues into the present as the basis of continual peace with God.”[4]

In v. 9 of chapter 5 we have an aorist participle again, “Much more then, having now been justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath”. As a believer my salvation from wrath on the day of God’s righteous judgment of sinners is absolutely certain and secure. Why?: “Having now been justified by his blood.” It is secure because I have been justified. Both present peace with God and full salvation in the future are all certain and secured by this once and for all act of God completed in the past at the moment the sinner first believes. Therefore Paul could say in Rom. 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus”.

This tells those of us who are trusting Christ for salvation, that we must realize that we are no longer under condemnation for our sins and never will be. We who are pastors need to preach this to our people. This is the truth which drives away the legal spirit that would bring believers into bondage and despair by telling them that every time they are aware of remaining sin they cease to be justified; that every time we fall prey to sin we have fallen back under legal condemnation and back under the wrath of God. No, by faith we must lay hold of this reality that there is now, therefore, no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Our sins as believers do not nullify our justified standing before God. They do not cause God to cast us out of his family. They can never condemn us to hell. It is God who justifies us, who is he that condemns? We are now members of his household, his children. We are now in the living room context. Our sins are still real sins and they should still cause us grief and as we are made aware of them we must confess them and repent of them. God is displeased with the believer’s sins, and we need our Father’s ongoing forgiveness in that sense. But the sins of the justified do not cause God to throw them out of the house. They do not put us back into the position of the condemned criminal before the judgment bar and we will never be back in that position. “Having been justified by faith we have peace with God”! We must lay hold of this glorious reality by faith. We must keep coming back to it and keep bringing our people back to this reality. It is the assurance of our acceptance with God that fills the heart with love and gratitude and joy and drives the engine of sacrificial self denying devotion to our Savior.

Well I trust we see, from this survey, that justification in Romans cannot be reduced merely to the recognition or declaration that one is a member of the covenant. Righteousness language in this epistle means more than that.[5] Righteousness is the opposite of sin. Justification is the exact opposite of being condemned. And to be declared righteous is to be declared not guilty. It is to be put into the category and declared to be in the category of one who has perfectly kept what God requires in terms of his moral claims upon men.

Furthermore, this is not some kind of pronouncement in the present of what people will one day become on the Day of Judgment; a declaration that believing sinners will one day become subjectively righteous. We will but that’s glorification, not justification. It is also not a future justification on the basis of our own covenant faithfulness projected into the present and suspended upon the condition of continued covenant faithfulness. In other words, our future justification in glory is not our actual justification with present justification only being the anticipatory recognition of what we will be by our own faithfulness. No, it is just the opposite. The sinners actual justification occurs the moment he believes the gospel, and our future justification will simply be the unveiling and manifesting of who we are and the reality of what we became when we first believed on Jesus and continued becoming in the sanctification flowing out of that believing justified relationship to Him. Justification is the once and for all judicial declaration that the believer is now and will forever be regarded as righteous in the eyes of God’s law. Well we’ve surveyed Paul’s use of righteousness language with reference to men, next time in the last post on this subject we’ll consider righteousness language in Romans as it’s used with reference to God.


[1] I know the aorist does not always require a past reference. However,  normally the aorist participle when preceding the verb it modifies does. Furthermore, this is supported by the use of the aorist participle in v.9. See Douglass Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1996), 298,310.

[2] This is consistent with how the word is used elsewhere in the N.T. as well. There are numerous places where any other meaning would be extremely difficult to apply if not impossible (See for example: Lk. 7:29; 16:15; 18:14; 1 Cor. 4:4; Galatians). There are a few instances in scripture where the term has the meaning “to show to be righteous” or to demonstrate oneself to be righteous before men. For example, some argue, including me, that this is the way James uses the term in James 2. But when speaking of the gift of free justification to sinners in Christ here in Romans this is clearly not the way Paul uses the word. It is a matter of debate as to whether he uses the word in a demonstrative, rather than a declarative sense, in Rom. 2:13. He may be using it that way there also, though there are good arguments for understanding him as speaking hypothetically in that verse of what would be the case if anyone, indeed, did or could obey all that the law demands.  Philip Eveson, Justification by Faith alone- in light of recent thought (Surrey, England: Day One Publications, 1998) 57-58, in giving a helpful word study  defending the traditional reformed understanding of the term makes this comment, “While the declarative meaning predominates in the New Testament, there are cases where dikaioo (justify) has the demonstrative sense of, ‘to show to be righteous.’ We read of the lawyer who felt he needed to ‘justify himself’ by asking Jesus the question ‘who is my neighbor?’ (Luke 10:29). He wanted to ‘show himself righteous’. At the end of Mathew 11:19 Jesus remarks that ‘wisdom is justified by her children’. Again, the meaning is that wisdom is ‘shown to be righteous’ rather than ‘declared to righteous’. It is important to bear in mind this meaning of the verb when we consider the statement in James 2:24, where it is often suggested that James is contradicting Paul. Instead of using the word in Paul’s declaratory sense ‘to declare righteous’ James could well be saying that a person is ‘shown to be righteous’ by his works and not simply by his faith”.

[3] Fred Malone, “Justification By Faith Alone In Contemporary Theological Perspective: A Critique of ‘New Covenant Nomism’,” in Reformed Baptist Theological Review vol. 1, no.1 (2004), 107. Malone gives a brief but very good exposition of Rom. 5:1-2 on pages 106-110.

[4] I am aware of the textual variant. Some manuscripts have the subjunctive “let us have peace with God”. Moo presents the arguments in favor of the indicative rendering followed in most of our English translations, “we have peace with God”. Moo, Romans, footnote 17, 295. Even if the variant reading was used it does not significantly alter the point being made above concerning justification.

[5] This is not to imply that Paul’s speaking of righteousness in this way is only found in his epistle to the Romans or only in the texts we have considered. Westerholm, Perspectives Old And New On Paul, 278-279 helpfully summarizes and collates Paul’s references to this passive righteousness as contrasted with that which comes through the law (Gal.2:21;3:11-12; 5:4; Rom. 10:5; Pp. 3:9), as contrasted with the law’s works (Gal.2:16; Rom. 3:20;28), and as contrasted  with works in general (Rom. 4:2; 5-6;Rom. 9:31-32). It is also called a righteousness by faith in Jesus Christ (Rom.3:24), righteousness of faith (Rom. 4:11, 13), righteousness which is of faith (Rom. 9:30; 10:60), Righteousness from God by faith as opposed to my own righteousness which is from the law (Pp. 3:9).


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