What Does the Bible Teach About the Doctrine of Justification?

By: Dr. John Ankerberg / Dr. John Weldon; ©2002
No doctrine is more important or more misunderstood than the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone. The authors give a brief explanation of this most important doctrine.

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.

Consider 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 justification:

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 order.”[2]

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 works:

“…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, emphasis added).
“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 2:16; 3:8-9,21,24).

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” (Philippians 3:3).

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. 215-216.
  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).
  5. Ibid.
  6. Walter R. Martin, The Roman Catholic Church in History (Livingston, NJ: Christian Research Institute, Inc., 1960), p. 68.

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