Being Justified in Paul’s Epistles

It’s about the Grace Revolution. What does “being justified” mean? Acquittal in law court, put right in a covenant, or both (though distinct)?

I’m a radical believer in God’s radical grace. So I need to explore being justified in Paul’s epistle because I interpret him as a radical believer in God’s grace.

We have at least two ways to interpret the verb dikaioō: it means being put right with God in a covenant context, or it is mainly (but not exclusively) a legal term, meaning to acquit or declare not guilty in a forensic or courtroom setting.

Let’s see if we can solve the dilemma or find out if the two interpretations can work together.

But these words go well beyond that current controversy that is here today and gone tomorrow. The word has interesting nuances that will last until Jesus returns.

All translations are from the ESV. If readers would like to see the verses in other translations, they may go to and type in the references.


  1. To be justified is to be vindicated in the face of accusations from enemies.

4 By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar, as it is written,

“That you may be justified in your words,

and prevail when you are judged.” (Rom. 3:4; Ps. 51:4)

33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. (Rom. 8:33)

3 But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. 4 For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. 5 Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God. (1 Cor. 4:3-5)

16 Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness:

He was manifested in the flesh,

vindicated by the Spirit,

seen by angels,

 proclaimed among the nations,

believed on in the world,

taken up in glory. (1 Tim. 3:16)

  1. Paul speaks about the standards of God and implies from the rest of Romans that humans can’t meet them.

12 For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. … 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. (Rom. 2:12-13, 16)

  1. God justifies us apart from the law (our law keeping).

19 Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Rom. 3:19-20)

28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. (Rom. 3:28)

11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Gal. 3:11)

2 Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. 3 I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. 4 You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. (Gal. 5:2-4)

  1. God justifies us apart from our works and works of the law.

26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. 27 Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. (Rom. 3:26-28)

1 What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness (Rom. 4:1-5)

15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 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. But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! (Gal. 2:15-17)

  1. God justifies us freely by grace and faith.

23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift. (Rom. 3:23-24)

26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. … 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since God is one – who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. 31 Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law. (Rom. 3:26, 29-31)

1 Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. (Rom. 5:1)

24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. (Gal. 3:24)

7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Ti. 3:7)

21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it – 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. (Rom. 3:21-24)

  1. The Spirit Himself justifies us.

11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor. 6:11)

  1. God justifies us by Christ’s sacrificial blood.

23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. (Rom. 3:23-25)

9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. (Rom. 5:9)

  1. We are freed and acquitted from sin (sin accusing us).

7 For one who has died has been set free [ESV notes: has been justified] from sin. (Rom. 6:7)

  1. God calls us to be justified and then he has glorified us.

30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Rom. 8:30)

Summary and Conclusion

* We can take out of the discussion 1 Tim 3:16, which is a hymn about Christ. Vindication is the right translation. Though taken out, it does put things in the context of God’s evaluation or judgment of Christ’s work during his life and death; God saw that Jesus had fulfilled his mission and vindicated him in the presence of his enemies and the whole world.

* Nearly all the occurrences of dikaioō are in the passive. Justification happens to a human. It is an act of God on him or her. He or she is justified.

* When it is an active verb, God is the subject–he’s the one who’s justifying us.

* Faith is how we appropriate being justified. It is faith in God.

* Being justified is a free gift (free to us) by the grace of God.

* God justifies us by Christ’s atoning blood and sacrifice.

* God does not acquit the guilty (Exod. 23:7), for that would be unjust based on a narrow set of facts against the guilty party. However, God includes and evaluates a broader set of facts, the atoning sacrifice of Christ. He takes the punishment.

* Even the Spirit justifies us.

* Being justified is not done by the works of the law, but by faith in Christ.

* Being justified stands in opposition to condemnation by the law as the standard and when our sin fails to meet the law’s requirement.

* Being put right with God in the New Covenant can apply to all occurrences.

* But a subset of those passages refer specifically to a judgment or forensic or courtroom setting (Rom. 2:13, Rom. 3:4, Rom. 3:25-26, Rom. 8:30; 1 Cor. 4:3-5). The forensic setting is sometimes down here on earth (Rom. 8:33, 1 Cor. 4:3-5) and at least one other passage is about the Last Judgment (Rom. 2:12-13, Rom. 2:16).

Now we can look at the dilemma between being put right with God in a covenant and declared acquittal in a forensic setting. Can the two interpretations work together?

* The law by definition entails the forensic element. So every passage that has dikaioō or being put right with God and has the law nearby is placed squarely in the legal or courtroom setting.

* This is certainly true of Romans in which the law is mentioned eighty-six times (and the vast majority is in 2-10). Galatians records law thirty-two times.

*Romans and Galatians are where the vast majority of diakioō appears: fifteen times in Romans (mainly 2-8) and eight times in Galatians. (The other epistles have four occurrences.)

* See points 3 and 4, above.

* The law has legal rights over everyone and accuses everyone: “For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law” (Rom. 2:12).

*Even the Gentiles, who have the moral law and conscience, are not let off the hook (2:14-15).

* How do we escape from the law, the prosecuting attorney, named Mr. Law, who represents the legal system that accuses us?

* We can obey the law, and Mr. Law is happy and satisfied. We don’t have to appear in court at all. Unfortunately, he discovers that we get dragged back into court every day. We break the law in small or big ways. “You again!” he says with a scowl.

* The compassionate judge, Mr. Divine (God), also sees something is wrong with us. We can’t keep the law. Judge Divine, a special judge, can see into our hearts and concludes we’re bound by our own nature; it tends towards law breaking, like water flows downward.

* Jesus, our defense attorney, steps in and pays the fine for us. He even takes our just, deserved punishment for us.

* Since Jesus paid the fine and also volunteered to take the punishment in our place, Judge Divine declares us “not guilty!” So we are now acquitted or declared righteous by an act of his divine grace.

* This declaration of acquittal in a judgment or forensic setting puts us right with God in the New Covenant.

* So the forensic setting and being put right with God in a covenant context can work together.

Additional Discussion

Zech. 3:1-10 talks about Joshua the High Priest in the heavenly court. He was standing next to an angel. But Satan was also there accusing him. God orders the angel to take off Joshua’s unclean robes and put the “pure” vestments. Though the words “declared righteous” as such do not occur in Zech. 3, it is a beautiful image of God evaluating (judging) Joshua and calling him and putting a new garment on him. (See also about a robe of righteousness: Job 29:14; Ps. 132:9; Is. 11:5, Is. 59:17, Is. 61:10.)



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