“Those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified” (Rom. 8:30). At the core of the Christian’s relationship with the holy God is the doctrine of justification. Concerning justification, Bavinck wrote, “Of all God’s benefits given in the covenant of grace, first place belongs to Justification, to forgiveness of sins. All joy and peace, all certainty of communion with God, rests on this forgiveness, a benefit no mind can fully comprehend or believe.[1]


“Justification is an instantaneous legal act of God in which he (1) thinks of our sins as forgiven and Christ’s righteousness as belonging to us, and (2) declares us to be righteous in his sight.”[2]  In the Old Testament, justification is seen primarily through צָדַק (ṣā·ḏǎq): which is defined as:

1. (qal) be righteous, be innocent, be vindicated, i.e., be in a state in accordance with a standard (Ge 38:26; Job 4:17; 9:2, 15, 20; 10:15; 11:2; 13:18; 15:14; 22:3; 25:4; 33:12; 35:7; 40:8; Ps 19:10[EB 9]; 51:6[EB 4]; 143:2; Isa 43:9, 26; 45:25; Eze 16:52a+), note: in context, usually God’s proper standard; (piel) be righteous, innocent, clear of charges (Job 32:2; 33:32; Jer 3:11; Eze 16:51, 52b+); (hif) get justice, maintain the right, cause righteousness (2Sa 15:4; Ps 82:3; Da 12:3+); (hitp) prove innocence (Ge 44:16+), note: see also domain LN 88.289–88.318; 2. LN 56.20–56.34 (hif) acquit, declare not guilty, justify, i.e., the act. of clearing one of a transgression or allegation of wrongdoing (Ex 23:7; Dt 25:1; 1Ki 8:32; 2Ch 6:23; Job 27:5; Pr 17:15; Isa 5:23; 50:8; 53:11+); 3. LN 53.44–53.52 (nif) reconsecrated, formally, justified, i.e., pertaining to being ceremonially pure, with an implication that the impurity was also due to the violation of a moral standard (Da 8:14+).[3]

Justification, in the New Testament, is from δικαιόω (dikaioō) and meansput right with, justify, vindicate, declare righteous, i.e., cause one to be in a right relation (Ro 3:24); 2. show to be right, demonstrate to something is morally just (Ro 3:4); 3. acquit, remove guilt, set free, i.e., clear of a transgression (Ac 13:38); 4. set free, release from the control of (Ro 6:7); 5. obey righteous commands (Lk 7:29).”[4] Justification is a declaration of God made possible by the Son’s atoning work so that the condemned sinner can go free.

Justification can be divided into two parts. First, justification has to do with the removal of the sentence of condemnation. This puts the Christian in a “neutral position” with God, but this is insufficient. The just requirement of God’s covenant requires more than neutrality. God requires a positive balance and not neutrality. This leads us to the second aspect of justification which is demonstrated by the imputation or reckoning of Christ’s righteousness to the redeemed.

“Imputation” or reckoning was declared by Paul in Romans 4:5, “and to the one who does not work, but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” The ESV’s “counted” is λογίζεται is defined, in BDAG, as “to determine by mathematical process.”[5]  Paul used  λογίζομαι to describe what “is understood as enter into the books.”[6] Just as Christians must “reckon themselves dead to sin and alive to righteousness” (Rom. 6:11), God reckons us as righteous.

“When we say that God imputes Christ’s righteousness to us it means that God thinks of Christ’s righteousness as belonging to us, or regards it as belonging to us. He “reckons” it to our account.”[7] Geerhardus Vos was correct when he wrote, “Justification is always and everywhere in Scripture a declaration of God, not on the basis of an actually existing condition of our being righteous, but on the basis of a gracious imputation of God that is contradicted by our condition.”[8]

This imputation or reckoning of righteousness is seen in passages like Isaiah 61:10 which says “he has covered me with the robe of righteousness.” Abraham benefited from this as the Bible says, “Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Rom. 4:3; Gen. 15:6). This imputation or reckoning of righteousness is dependent upon Christ’s work. Paul wrote, “by one man’s obedience the many will be mad righteous” (Rom. 5:19).


Justification has been defined as “a legal declaration.” This declaration is made by God. This declaration is possible because Jesus has 1) borne the penalty due for sin and 2) covered us in his righteousness. “God does not set aside the law that properly judges us; only because Christ bore the wrath of God are we reckoned righteous in him.”[9]This helps us to see that justification, though we must live appropriately (Rom. 6:1), is a declaration of God and not an achievement of man. Theologians must differentiate between justification and sanctification. Justification is the legal declaration of God that a sinner is freed from sin. Sanctification has to do with 1) God’s presence with the redeemed person through the Spirit; 2) God’s view of the person through the representation of Christ; and 3) the individual’s pursuit of sanctification in his own spiritually disciplined life.

The doctrine of justification remains at the heart of the Protestant movement as a response to the Catholic church’s doctrine that one must “earn” this justified position with God through penance, pilgrimages, and payments. Bavinck noted the difference between Catholic and Protestant views when he wrote, “Either we must do something to be saved, or our salvation is purely a gift of grace.”[10] The Bible definitely teaches that justification is a binding legal declaration from God (Rom. 3:20, 26, 28; 4:5; 5:1; 8:30; 10:4, 10; Gal. 2:16; 3:24; 8:33-34).

Bavinck’s dichotomy between doing something to be saved and reception of a gift is accurate, but it does not negate the command to be baptized with its subsequent blessings. The Protestant vs. Catholic dilemma should be understood in its historical context of salvation by works (medieval Catholicism) in conflict with salvation by God’s gracious gift. Baptism is the moment in which grace is applied by God to those who are moved by faith to submit to him.

Catholic, Protestant, and the New Perspective


Justification is also important because it is the heart of the Protestant-Catholic divide. Medieval Catholicism taught that justification required the works of mankind. Protestantism saw justification as a gift from God received through faith. The Catholic view is that justification changes the individual by “sanctifying and renewing of the inner man.”[11] This “sanctifying and renewing” begins even as infants are baptized. Grudem said, “The Roman Catholic view may be said to understand justification as based not on imputed righteousness but on infused righteousness—that is, righteousness that God actually puts into us and that changes us internally and in terms of our actual moral character. Then he gives us varying measures of justification according to the measure of righteousness that has been infused or placed within us.”[12]

This also leads the Catholic to continuous insecurity. Rather than boldly affirming there is no condemnation, the Council of Trent affirmed “If one considers his own weakness and his defective disposition, he may well be fearful and anxious as to the state of grace, as nobody knows with the certainty of faith, which permits of no error, that he has achieved the grace of God.”[13] This view of justification has an unhealthy relationship with human work. Vos wrote, “The intended proposal must accordingly be rejected, and one must endeavor to be completely clear where the error in it is. It reverses the relationship between grace in the justice of God and grace in the life of the sinner; it makes the former rest on the latter.”[14] This soteriological anxiety leads to constant work to be further justified or at least to earn a measure of justification.


The Protestant view of justification has not affirmed that the Christian is changed internally by justification which is received as a free gift from God rather than a wage earned from God. Grudem wrote that “If justification changed us internally and then declared us to be righteous based on how good we actually were, then (1) we could never be declared perfectly righteous in this life, because there is always sin that remains in our lives, and (2) there would be no provision for forgiveness of past sins (committed before we were changed internally), and therefore we could never have confidence that we are right before God.”

But since justification is a legal declaration from God, we cannot “lose the confidence that Paul has when he says, “Therefore, since we are justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1).” Furthermore, Grudem noted, “If we thought of justification as based on something that we are internally we would never have the confidence to say with Paul, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).”[15]

The New Perspective

If ever there was a difficult position to briefly describe it is the New Perspective. It encompasses a wide array of adherents whose view are evolving and there is no single statement of faith to represent the movement. N. T. Wright, who builds off the work of James Dunn and E. P. Sanders, is the most popular proponent. His book Justification is a good place to see Wright’s material on justification, but it is a response to his critics and not a pure affirmation of his original position. D. A. Carson, Peter O’Brien, and Mark A. Seifrid edited a large and full response to the NPP titled Justification and Variegated Nomism. John Piper wrote an accessible response to the NPP titled The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright. Matthew Barrett’s Justification: The Doctrine Upon Which the Church Stands or Falls is also a helpful conversation partner for the NPP as well.

Wright made a slight adjustment to the definition of justification and righteousness. In Matthew Barrett’s Justification, we are told that in regard to God, Wright maintains that righteousness has to do with God’s faithfulness to his covenants. Wright then shifted a bit more in his definition of righteousness in reference to mankind with the emphasis on covenant membership. In this way, justification, according to Wright, focused more on the group rather than the individual and soteriological concerns.


“The legal basis for all grace lies in being reckoned in Christ by the judgment of God.”[16] This “legal basis” is the doctrine of justification. This is the doctrine upon which our hope stands.

Praise the Lord.

[1] Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 176.

[2] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House, 2004), 723.

[3] James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains : Hebrew (Old Testament).

[4] James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Greek (New Testament).

[5] William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 597.

[6] Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990–), 354–355.

[7] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House, 2004), 726.

[8] Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. Richard B. Gaffin, trans. Annemie Godbehere et al., vol. 4 (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012–2016), 22.

[9] Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 177.

[10] Bavinck Reformed Dogmatics Vol. 4, 177.

[11] Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma p. 257.

[12] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, 728.

[13] Quoted in Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology,728.

[14] Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. Richard B. Gaffin, trans. Annemie Godbehere et al., vol. 4 (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012–2016), 22.

[15] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House, 2004), 727.

[16] Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. Richard B. Gaffin, trans. Annemie Godbehere et al., vol. 4 (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012–2016), 23.

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