“[Yet] we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” –Galatians 2:16, ESV
Sometimes I forget that the culture where one was raised and the culture that one is currently a part of affects the way they talk. Whether it is street lingo of inner-city youths, or the proper speaking of the world’s wealthy, even to the mixed French of those in Louisiana, where one situates themselves changes their vocabulary. This is even true for those in the church. Being part of the body of Christ means that one will speak “Christianese,” at least to some degree.
However, there are words that many Christians use in their everyday vocabulary that, in reality, have definitions that are foreign to them. While I do not claim to have full understanding of each and every word used in English, Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, I strive to understand them as best as I can.
So my struggle is more with common stupidity rather than ignorance.
The term, “justified” is no exception. It is a word that Paul used a lot. I still wrestle with what this word truly means in its biblical context, but that’s okay, because I’m not alone! Many scholars have argued about what exactly it means to be “justified,” as well as understanding the “justice” of God and God’s “righteousness.”
So what does it mean to be justified?
“The biblical terms often translated as ‘righteousness’ or ‘justice’ belong to a single word-group, that associated with the sdq root in Hebrew, or that based on the dik-root in Greek.” There are three words in Galatians 2:16 with this “dik-root” in the Greek. The verb form, “justified” occurs eight times in this letter to the Galatians, and 80% of the time this word is used in the entire New Testament, it is by Paul. Although this word in Greek held more of a sense of punishing someone, Paul seems to be using it in the same sense that the Hebrew authors did in the Old Testament. Being “justified” holds the idea of being made righteous (being shown justice, being vindicated, etc.).
The biggest argument that usually arises with “justification” is whether it is a change of status or a change of character. If one is “made righteous” are they a better person? Does it mean they are morally better? Or if one is “made righteous” does it mean that they were once guilty but are now innocent, and their moral character does not directly play into it?
We should broaden the scope a little bit. Did God justify the world in order to make it a better place? Indeed, though this was not necessarily God’s chief aim. God’s chief aim was to vindicate a world that was damned by the Fall. This is a change of status that, in turn, causes a change of character. To understand “justification” as anything other than a change of status creates a misunderstanding in the life of the Christian individual as well as to the story of Salvation History. And like many scholars, I stand that Paul has both a relational and ethical understanding as well as a forensic understanding of these terms. The term, especially here, however, seems to be more forensic in nature.
This is why Christ is the Righteous One. It isn’t that he was the “morally perfect one.” While this is true, it misses the theological significance that Christ is the One who set the world to rights through his faithful act of dying on the cross. Because Christ was faithfully obedient to dying a sinner’s death, God raised him from the dead! The New Dictionary of Biblical Theology states: “In raising Christ [from the dead], God ‘gave him justice’, vindicating him over against the world… The justifying act of God in Christ is twofold; in him God is justified in his contention with the sinner, and yet the sinner is justified.”
I may not understand “justification” completely, but I understand it enough to know that I was a sinner that needed to be “made right” with God.
Do you understand what it means to be justified? Whether you are the worst sinner in the world or have never committed even the slightest traffic violation, you are a sinner, because at one time you’ve sinned. In the heavenly courtroom God would call you “guilty.” But Christ came so that all people who were found guilty could be found innocent in God’s court of law. You just have to understand where you as a guilty sinner, and understand that Christ took your punishment so that you could have an “innocent” verdict.
You have to believe in Christ and understand his faithful act of dying for your sins.
Do you stand justified or condemned?
“But we know that no one is made right with God by meeting the demands of the law. It is only through the faithfulness of Jesus the Anointed that salvation is even possible. This is why we put faith in Jesus the Anointed: so we will be put right with God. It’s His faithfulness—not works prescribed by the law—that puts us in right standing with God because no one will be acquitted and declared ‘right’ for doing what the law demands.” –Galatians 2:16, The Voice
Sources: New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, Paul and Palestinian Judaism by E.P. Sanders, and various Commentaries on Galatians (by NT Wright, James Dunn, Richard Longenecker, Ben Witherington).