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What Does Justification Mean? 7 Things You Need to Know

Categories Theology New Testament

When we reflect on the meaning of salvation—and on our piety, mission, and life together—our thought necessarily engages the doctrine of justification. But what does justification mean? In many ways, this question has always sat at the heart of the Christian faith. However, at various junctures in the church’s history the question has taken on greater urgency—and debate. We live in such a time. 

9780310578383Michael Horton explores the meaning of justification in a key chapter of his new book Justification, Volume 2, one half of the new two-volume theological project on justification (also including Volume 1).

This post overviews seven of the many insights Horton unearths about the meaning of justification in chapter seven of Justification, Volume 2, where Horton outlines the historical, lexical, exegetical, and theological contours of what justification means. Horton explains his position:

Most basically, the view that I am defending here is that justification is simply “the gift of righteousness” in contrast with the righteousness by which God condemns and the righteousness that one may acquire by his or her deeds. (285)

Read on for a deeper understanding of what justification really means. (Note: Justification is the fourth title in the groundbreaking New Studies in Dogmatics series which seeks to retrieve the riches of classical Christian doctrine for the sake of contemporary theological renewal. Horton's Justification will help scholars, students, pastors, and interested Christians alike encounter the remarkable biblical texts on justification, and examine those texts in conversation with provocative contemporary proposals that have reignited debates around justification.)

Horton launches his discussion on the meaning of justification by presenting two contrary positions:

1) Roman Catholicisms position on justification

To present the Catholic position, Horton quotes Karl Adam: “We have not only the certainty of forgiveness, but also the severe imperative, the commandments, and the doctrine of merit” (The Spirit of Catholicism, 101); so Horton points out that “forgiveness itself depends on this inward sanctification” (283).

He goes on to note two more aspects of the Catholic meaning: the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines justification as “both a declaration and transformation effected by the infusion of grace through the sacraments, enabling final justification according to merits” (283); the Council of Trent said, “Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man” (283).

2) The Westminster Confessions position on justification

In contrast to the Catholic view is the Protestant Reformers’ position that justification is “a gift only because it is the righteousness of Christ credited or imputed to the believer. This righteousness is alien in the sense that it does not belong inherently to the believer” (283). Here Horton quotes the Westminister Confession:

Those whom God effectually calls, He also freely justifies; not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on Him and His righteousness by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God. (284)

3) How the Essene and Pauline teachings on justification differ

“The Quram scrolls have references to ‘the justification of human beings by God's ‘mercy’ and ‘grace,’” [1QS 11.9–12] (283). But did the Essenes mean what Paul meant by justification? No. “No community, including Qumran, would have agreed that this gift of righteousness—justification—can come apart from works of the law (4QMMT C 27; 4Q348 ii:2–3)” (290).  Horton quotes Joseph Fitzmyer's contrast of the two positions:

The one big difference between the Essene teaching on justification and the Pauline is that the Apostle insists that human beings appropriate this status of righteousness and acquittal in God’s sight through faith in Christ Jesus. For Paul, the vicarious death and the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth have made a difference, and the important difference is “faith” (pistis) in Christ, by which one appropriates that status of righteousness. (The Dead Sea Scrolls and Christian Origins, 29). (289)

Horton concludes, “Once again, we see that for Paul . . . the contrast is to be drawn not on a spectrum (texts that more or less affirm the need for grace) but between solo Christo and whatever deeds may be said to justify a person on the last day” (290).

4) What lexical analysis reveals about justification

Horton offers considerable lexical analysis to arrive at an understanding of what is meant by the Hebrew and Greek terms for justification. Among many other insights, he makes an important distinction between ἀρετή and δικαιοσύνη:

The LXX translators could have used words like ἀρετή (virtue, uprightness, moral perfection) but instead chose the forensic δικαιοσύνη. It is also obvious that in the patristic sources of the Christian East, justification meant “to declare righteous.” Although he interpreted the doctrine in a more transformative direction, it is striking that even Origen acknowledged the semantic meaning of justification as forensic. (290)

He concludes, “If native Greek-speakers understood justification in this way, then surely the Vulgate represents a divergence from the original sense” (290).

5) Dikaiow does not mean “to make righteous”

Continuing his lexical insights, Horton argues “δικαιόω cannot mean ‘to make righteous,’ as the Latin Vulgate translated it (as iustificare) and centuries of great Christian minds understood it” (291).

As he explains, “the verb itself does not mean ‘to make just’ but ‘to declare just.’ To be justified in Christ is to ‘stand before God’s tribunal acquitted or vindicated,’ notes Joseph Fitzmyer, SJ, ‘that they might stand before him as righteous persons’” (291). Interestingly, he references how E. P. Sanders “also notes that in both Hebrew and Greek, justification is a forensic, courtroom term meaning ‘to be cleared in court’” (291).

6) Dikaiow does not mean “to be covenantally faithful”

Contrary to the position of the new perspective movement, “δικαιόω cannot mean “to be covenantally faithful,’” argues Horton (292). He points to the Hebrew Scriptures:

There is a perfectly good word for “covenant faithfulness”: ֵאמוּן (emun). Closely related is ֶח ֶסד (khesed), often rendered “covenant faithfulness” but actually a narrower term meaning mercy or lovingkindness. Neither אמוּן (emun) nor ֶח ֶסד (khesed) has any lexical connection with ֶצ ֶדק (tsedeq). (292)

Horton also explains how “the covenant faithfulness interpretation of the “righteousness of God” emerges from a particular history of nineteenth and twentieth-century theology” (292), known as the “Cremer thesis," after Hermann Cremer who rejected “the traditional (ostensibly Hellenistic) idea of justice or righteousness as conformity to an external norm” (292).

7) What we say about Abraham shapes what we say about justification

Horton argues, “How Paul answers [“What shall we say about Abraham?”]—and [how] we interpret his answer—determines much of what we have to say about the nature of justification” (306). Horton offers considerable exegesis of Romans 4 to unpack this question and definition, arguing Romans 4 is “the lodestar for Paul’s transition from plight to solution” (306). 

Interestingly, various other definitions of justification center on other portions of Romans, reading those sections back into this one: “The new perspective reads Romans 9–11 into the early chapters . . . The apocalyptic school would like to bring Romans 5–8 into these earlier chapters, or, in Douglas Campbell’s case, write off these early chapters altogether as the misanthropic speculations of a false teacher” (306).

However, Horton believes “Romans 1–4 in fact makes perfect sense as the opening argument to an epistle that centers on the justification of the ungodly” (306) since “Abraham is Paul’s example of one who was justified through faith not only apart from circumcision but apart from anything by which he might boast before God” (320).



New Testament scholar Craig Keener offers an informed endorsement of Horton's two-volume work:

This thorough, systematic, and far-ranging work advances a reading both distinctive and yet more traditional than many of today’s dominant paradigms. Horton also exposes some of our blind spots, properly challenging mischaracterizations of the Reformers. In contrast to some New Testament scholars driven too much by modern philosophic premises, Horton is often more faithful to ancient interpretations relevant to the biblical cultures. As a New Testament scholar, I profited repeatedly from his historical context for various theological approaches in modern New Testament scholarship.

Engage volume 1 and volume 2 of Horton’s project to trace the doctrine of justification from the patristic era to the Reformation, and to discover a map for constructive discussions of justification today.

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