Are people justified by God by imputing Christ’s righteousness to them?

Summary

Strong defines the Greek word translated “justified” as: to show or regard as just or innocent.  It seems to imply some sort of legal process in the court rooms of heaven.

Galatians 2:16 contrasts two opposing means of justification, namely by works or by faith: The Jews sought to be “justified by the works of the Law.” Paul advised us that “God … will justify …  by faith.”  “Justified” therefore means to be accepted by God.

It is ordinary, sinful people that are justified.  It therefore means to be accepted by God, in spite of your sinful desires and evil deeds.

Synonyms for “justified” are to “have peace with God” or to be “reconciled to God.”  We should not read too much into the word “justified.”  It is simply one of the many metaphors in the New Testament to describe how sinners are put right with God, for example:

Justified” implies that the sinner was accused in a court.
Ransomed” implies that the sinner was held hostage.
Redeemed” implies that the sinner was bound by a debt.
Reconciled” implies that the sinner was estranged from God.
Propitiation” implies that God is angry with the sinner.

Sometimes people put much emphasis on the legal undertones of the word “justify” to argue that sinners are justified when Christ’s righteousness is imputed to them.  However, the idea that Jesus’ righteousness is imputed to sinners is only one of the many alternative theories of the atonement.  To say that sinners are justified through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness does not explain the word justification; it explains the person’s preferred theory of the atonement.

Introduction

JustifiedPaul used the words “justified” and “justify” many times, for instance in Galatians 2:16-17, 3:8, 11, 24 and 5:4.  Strong’s dictionary explains the meaning of underlying Greek word as to show or regard as just or innocent.  It seems to imply some sort of legal process in the court rooms of heaven.  Some translations replace justified with other words or phrases, for instance:

put right with God” (GNB)
declared righteous” (YLT)

How are we justified?

Galatians 2:16 contrasts two opposing means of justification, namely by works or by faith:

To be “justified by the works of the Law” implies that the person tries to obtain God’s approval by observing rituals.  In the first century it would have been Jews observing the rituals of the Law of Moses.  In Luther’s time it was observing the rituals of the Catholic Church in the hope of earning credit with God.  This is something which the sinner does himself.

The word “faith” can also be translated as “trust.”  To be justified by faith means to accepted by God simply because you trust Him, and not to trust what you can do for yourself.  To be justified by faith is something which God does:

God … will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith” (Rom. 3:30).
God would justify the Gentiles by faith” (Gal. 3:8).

Statements containing the word justified therefore imply that it means to obtain God’s approval or to be accepted by God.  This is similar to the phrase “put right with God,” as used by the GNB.

It is ordinary, sinful people that are justified.  An important implication of the word “justified” is that it means to be accepted by God in spite of your sinful desires and evil deeds.

Synonyms for Justified

The meaning of “justified” can also be determined by comparing it to parallel phrases to describe a right relationship with God.  These may be regarded as synonyms for “justified”, namely:

To be “Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise” (3:29; cf. 3:7, 9, 14; 4:7);
To have “righteousnessthrough … Christ” (2:21; cf. 3:6, 21);
To be “sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (3:26; cf. 4:5);

Romans 5:1 offers a good definition of “justified:”

Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ

We have peace with God” because “we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son” (Rom. 5:10; cf. 2Cor. 5:18, 20; Col. 1:20, 22).  The process of justification is therefore explained as reconciliation.  The end result of justification is to be sons of God, to be heirs of the promises made to Abraham, and to at peace with God.

Imputed Righteousness

Certain Schools of Thought understand “justified” to be the result of a technical legal process in the court rooms of heaven.  In this view God has no option but the punish sin, and Christ took our punishment, so that we do not have to be punished.   Christ’s righteousness is then imputed to sinners.

As already stated, to be justified simply means that the sinner is accepted by God; declared righteous, in spite of his sins.  But there is much disagreement on HOW one is justified.  The idea that people are justified by imputing Jesus’ righteousness to them is only one of the many theories of the atonement.  How atonement works is a very complex matter because the Bible uses many metaphors and symbols, such as redemption, ransom, propitiation, atonement and reconcile, and it is difficult to distinguish between what is literal and what is figurative.

The point is, if somebody says that sinners are justified through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, understand that that person is not explaining the word justification as such, but his or her preferred theory of atonement.

The word “justify” has connotations with a legal court room process, but it should not be understood literally: It is only one of the many metaphors of salvation,

Theories of Atonement

To elaborate, the following are a few brief comments about theories of atonement:

It is generally accepted that, if Jesus did not die, we could not be saved.  The challenge is to understand HOW His death saves us.

Some say that sin made God angry and Christ died to pacify Him.  This blatantly contradicts the Bible, which states that God so loved the world that He sent His only begotten Son.

A variation on this theme is that sin perverted Justice and that Jesus died to restore the equilibrium of Justice in the universe.  At least this view does not present God as angry, but:

(1) This view presents Justice as greater than God, and
(2) How can one injustice (torturing an innocent Person) compensate for another injustice (human sin)?

A second variation on this theme is that Jesus lived a sinless life and that His righteousness is imputed to sinners.  This is better than the previous two variations because takes the focus away from Jesus’ suffering and focuses on the more positive matter that Jesus remained without sin even when subjected to the greatest possible temptation and torture.  However, the Scriptural evidence for this theory is weak.

A very different view is that sin gave Satan a right to this world, but that the Cross “disarmed” Satan and his followers (Col 2:15), rendered them “powerless” (Heb. 2:14) and “thrown down to the earth” (Rev. 12:9).  But this view must explain how it is that Satan has any right if God is almighty.

A last alternative is that, seeing God’s love expressed through the life and death of Jesus, man is moved to repent and re-unite with God.  This is called the moral influence theories.  For a further discussion, see the article Why Jesus had to die.

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