Adventist Media Response and Conversation

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Misuse of the Word Justify to Create a Legal Fiction

One of the reasons I am so opposed to sermons is that they frequently present wrong information and there is no way to correct or even question the information given. Recently the Pastor of our church had a series on the Cross of Christ. In part four of the series the Pastor was quite adamant that the word Justified means to “be declared righteous” it does not mean to be “made righteous” it is a legal term. Of course justify and righteous are basically the same Greek word. In fact it was not in Greek a legal term at all but took on the legal characteristic’s through it Latin usage. I can understand why those who hold to the penal theory of the atonement prefer to remake the language in their desired image, how else can a legal fiction be produced, but it ends up in sermons as a distortion of reality.

Definitions from Strongs Lexicon

1344 dikaioo (dik-ah-yo'-o); from 1342; to render (i.e. show or regard as) just or innocent: KJV-- free, justify (-ier), be righteous.

Greek Lexicon based on Thayer’s and Smith’s Bible Dictionary Definition

  1. to render righteous or such he ought to be
  2. to show, exhibit, evince, one to be righteous, such as he is and wishes himself to be considered
  3. to declare, pronounce, one to be just, righteous, or such as he ought to be King James Word Usage - Total: 40 justify 37, be freed 1, be righteous 1, justifier 1

Definitions from Strongs Lexicon:

1342 dikaios (dik'-ah-yos); from 1349; equitable (in character or act); by implication, innocent, holy (absolutely or relatively): KJV-- just, meet, right (-eous).

Greek Lexicon based on Thayer’s and Smith’s Bible Dictionary Definition


  1. righteous, observing divine laws
    1. in a wide sense, upright, righteous, virtuous, keeping the commands of God
      1. of those who seem to themselves to be righteous, who pride themselves to be righteous, who pride themselves in their virtues, whether real or imagined
      2. innocent, faultless, guiltless
      3. used of him whose way of thinking, feeling, and acting is wholly conformed to the will of God, and who therefore needs no rectification in the heart or life 1a
    2. only Christ truly
      1. approved of or acceptable of God
    3. in a narrower sense, rendering to each his due and that in a judicial sense, passing just judgment on others, whether expressed in words or shown by the manner of dealing with them King James Word Usage - Total: 81 righteous 41, just 33, right 5, meet 2

Definitions from Strongs Lexicon

1343 dikaiosune (dik-ah-yos-oo'-nay); from 1342; equity (of character or act); specially (Christian) justification: KJV-- righteousness.

Greek Lexicon based on Thayer’s and Smith’s Bible Dictionary Definition


  1. in a broad sense: state of him who is as he ought to be, righteousness, the condition acceptable to God
    1. the doctrine concerning the way in which man may attain a state approved of God
    2. integrity, virtue, purity of life, rightness, correctness of thinking feeling, and acting
  2. in a narrower sense, justice or the virtue which gives each his due King James Word Usage - Total: 92 righteousness 92

Notice the way the words are interchangeable:

Rom 3:25 God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished--(NIV)

Rom 3:25 Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; (KJV)

Vines Exposition of New Testament Words ends by saying:

So with righteousness, or "justification:" Paul is occupied with a right relationship with God, James, with right conduct. Paul testifies that the ungodly can be "justified" by faith, James that only the right-doer is "justified." See also under RIGHTEOUS, RIGHTEOUSNESS.

A good article on this subject is Did Paul Teach Law Court Justification? It begins by saying:

In the western church it is generally assumed that the key to Paul's Epistle to the Romans is the word "justification." The English verb "justify" comes straight from the Latin justificio which is a verb that belonged to the Roman law courts. The noun justificatio from which we transliterated the English word "justification" means that an accused person is pronounced free of condemnation and punishment. It was an essential part of the Roman Catholic doctrine of the atonement, and justification by faith alone became the rallying crying of the Reformation.

This has saddled Paul with a forensic model of God's dealings with us which is quite foreign to his other epistles and totally absent from the Gospels. A possible counter example is the word "ransom" in Mark 10:45. But this can only be done by focussing on the amount paid for ransoming instead of the resulting new life of freedom. "He has ransomed and redeemed his people" cannnot be forced into a forensic model.

The way many today use the verses in Paul is predicated upon this assumption, many sermons try to emphasis this assumption by taking verses out of the context of the theological point Paul tries to make. A popular example which was used in the sermon this last week is this paradoxical text:

God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Cor 5:21 NIV)

This is the concluding line of the chapter and the context indicates that the chapter break is at the break of this thought. But the paradox of the verse above cannot stand on its own. How was Jesus made to be sin? There is no place that indicates that sin which is an attitude can be transferred from one person to another or from one time past or future to Jesus. Nor does the verse indicate how that becoming sin can cause us to become the righteousness of God. You actually have to go back to where Paul started upon this subject to even have a clue about what he is talking about. People must read the verses that precede the paradoxical statement:

For Christ's love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died .And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: (2 Cor 5:14-18 NIV)

All have died because Christ died for all therefore all can leave the body of death and live the life offered by Christ who rose from the dead. It is the compelling love of God that ends the self destructive living for ourselves, and this love is shown clearly by the life and death of Christ who even when tortured offered this murders forgiveness. Love compels our consciences to return to God which brings us into a right relationship with God (the reconciliation). And that relationship of trust allows us to trust God to change our lives.

For more information on the Atonement see my article What is wrong with the Substitutionary theory of the Atonement

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Of course then we would have to wonder if anyone can comment on anything. Whole systems are based on misunderstandings. I don't know if that means we should throw out the sermon. It might not hurt to at least back off the emphasis of it being central in the most holy part of worship.
Kind of along the same lines as misusing texts, it always seems odd to me that heads of Christian churches are always dressed in pageantry and pomp. It's like they don't even know who they claim to be following.
Dick Larsen