What Does the
About the Doctrine of Justification?
by Dr. John
Ankerberg, Dr. John Weldon
No doctrine is more important—or more
misunderstood and neglected, even by Protestants—than the biblical
doctrine of justification by faith alone. The Bible teaches that any
person who simply and truly believes in Jesus Christ as his personal
Savior from sin is at that point irrevocably and eternally
justified. What is justification? Justification is the act of God
whereby He not only forgives the sins of believers, He also declares
them perfectly righteous by imputing the obedience and righteousness of
Christ Himself to them through faith.
an illustration: If a wealthy uncle deposits a million dollars into the
checking account of his young nephew, that money is now the property of
his nephew—even though the lad had never earned it, worked for, or even
deserved it. In justification, God "deposits" the righteousness of Jesus
Christ to the believer’s account—He credits the Christian with the moral
perfection of His own Son.
Justification is thus a completed act of God, and
because it is entirely accomplished by God, once for all, it is not a
life-long process such as is personal sanctification or individual
growth in holy living.
There can be no doubt that both the Old and New
Testaments teach the Protestant view of legal or forensic justification.
Consider the following discussion of the Old Testament view of
Concerning the Old Testament word hitsdiq, usually rendered
"justified," more often than not it is "...used in a forensic or legal
sense, as meaning, not ‘to make just or righteous,’ but ‘to declare
judicially that one is in harmony with the law’... Therefore, the
majority of Reformed scholars would agree that ‘In the Old Testament,
the concept of righteousness frequently appears in a forensic or
juridical context. A righteous man is one who has been declared by a
judge to be free from guilt." 1
In his book, Justification, even Catholic theologian Hans Kung
agrees when he says, "According to the original biblical usage of the
term, ‘justification’ must be defined as a declaring just by court
The following New Testament Scriptures clearly show
that justification is 1) a crediting of righteousness on the
basis of a person’s faith, 2) a completed act of God, and 3)
something that occurs wholly apart from personal merit or good
"...to the man who... trusts God who justifies the wicked, his
faith is credited as righteousness... [How blessed is] the man to
whom God credits righteousness apart from works" (Romans 4:5-6,
"For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from
works of the Law" (Romans 3:28).
"Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace
with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Romans 5:1).
"Much more than, having now been justified by His blood, we
shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him" (Romans 5:9;
please also read: Romans 9:30-10:4, 1 Corinthians 6:11, Galatians
Catholic theologians claim that Paul’s use of the Greek word for
justification dikaiow does not refer to imputed
righteousness. But they did not get this understanding from standard
Greek dictionaries which define the principal New Testament word for
justification in a Protestant and not a Catholic sense—as a legal
declaration of righteousness, not an infusing of actual righteousness.
As the premier Greek lexicon puts it, "In Paul, the legal usage is plain
and indisputable... [it] does not suggest the infusion of moral
qualities... [but] the justification of the ungodly who believe.... the
result of a judicial pronouncement." 3
Thus, if the believer actually possesses the
righteousness of Christ by divine decree, it can hardly be called a
"legal fiction" as Catholics maintain. Catholics argue that for God to
declare a sinful person righteous is inconsistent with His justice. But
God says just the opposite. It is His imputing of righteousness to the
sinner that proves He is just (Romans 3:26).
Again, standard Greek dictionaries define the Greek
word for justification as an imputed, not actual, righteousness: The
Hebrew Greek Study Bible, (1984:23): "to render just or innocent";
Arndt and Gingrich (1967:196): "being acquitted, be pronounced and
treated as righteous," New Thayers’ Greek-English Lexicon
(1977:150): "which never means to make worthy, but to judge
worthy, to declare worthy… to declare guiltless.... to judge, declare,
pronounce righteous and therefore acceptable"; Loruv and Nida’s
Greek-English Lexicon (1988:557): "the act of clearing someone of
transgression—‘to acquit, to set free, to remove guilt, acquittal.’"
This is why Bruce Metzger, perhaps the premier Greek
scholar in America, emphasizes it is "past comprehension" how someone
can deny "the unmistakable evidence" of the Pauline meaning of this
word. "The fact is that Paul simply does not use this verb to mean ‘to
be made upright or righteous.’ Indeed, it is extremely doubtful whether
it ever bore this meaning in the Greek of any period or author.... it
means ‘to be pronounced, or declared, or treated as righteous or
upright."’ 4 Theologian J. I.
Packer says, "There is no lexical grounds for the view of... the
medieval and Roman theologians that ‘justify’ means or connotes as part
of its meaning ‘making righteous’ by subjective spiritual renewal. The
tridentine [Council of Trent] definition of justification as not only
the remission of sins but also the sanctification and renewal of the
inward man is erroneous." 5
Unfortunately, some Catholics have misunderstood the
Protestant position here, thinking it means that mere assent to doctrine
saves entirely and that Protestants have little concern with good works
or sanctification. To the contrary, Scripture is clear that good works
and sanctification are crucial—indeed it is the very knowledge of grace
itself (in a Protestant sense) that produces good works and growth in
holy living. (Please see Ephesians 2:8-10; 1 Peter 5:12; 2 Peter 3:18;
Colossians 1:6; cf. 2:23.) But good works and sanctification have
nothing to do with our justification. What justification means to
Protestants is that believers are to plead the merits of Christ
before the throne of God, instead of their own merits. This is
why biblical Christians accept the "gift of righteousness" (Rom.
5:17) and "glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh"
Justification means that true Christians may be
assured that in God’s eyes, they now possess the perfect
holiness necessary for them to gain entrance to heaven. Why? If the
death of Christ forgave all our sins and fully satisfied the
divine penalty due them, and if God declares the believer
absolutely righteous on the basis of their faith in Christ, then nothing
else is needed to permit a person’s entrance into heaven. Thus, because
of justification—i.e., because Christ’s righteousness and merits are
reckoned to the believer (as far as God is concerned) the Christian now
possesses perfect holiness in this life, and he possesses it
from the moment of saving faith. Neither sacraments, such as baptism
or penance, nor indulgences, nor saying the Rosary, nor suffering in
purgatory can now possibly be necessary for a believer to enter heaven.
This is what the biblical doctrine of justification means.
Once acquitted of all charges, no one, absolutely no
one, goes back to the judge and asks for acquittal again. If
there is complete justification for the believer, then obviously, e.g.,
"there is no need for confession to a priest, forgiveness by a priest,
or penance from a priest." 6
1. Norman Geisler, prepublication transcript, chapter on
"Justification," p. 34, citing respectively, Anthony A. Hoekema,
Saved by Grace (1989), p. 154; Millard J. Erickson, Christian
Theology, 1987, 4th printing, p. 955.
2. Hans Kung, Justification (New York, Nelson, 1964), 209;
Geisler observes, "For an extended treatment of the Old Testament
understandings of these terms and the difficulties inherent in
translating from the Hebrew into Greek and Latin, see Alister E.
McGrath, Justitia Dei, Vol. 1, Cambridge, Cambridge University
Press, 1986, pp. 4-16."
3. Gerhard Kittel, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New
Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1978), Vol. 2, pp.
4. Statements by Metzger and Packer were cited by Dr. Rod
Rosenbladt during "The Salvation Debate," March 11, 1989 at Simon
Greenleaf University, Anaheim, CA (with Karl Keating).
6. Walter R. Martin, The Roman Catholic Church in History
(Livingston, NJ: Christian Research Institute, Inc., 1960), p. 68.
Mr. Mike Gendron
Mr. Greg Durel
Carlos Tomas Knott
Copyright 2006, Ankerberg Theological Research Institute