Is justification a legal process or does it mean that the person is changed?

This is the third article in the Gospel in Galatians-series:

The first article dealt with the apparent contradiction that:
a man is not justified by the works of the Law” (Gal. 2:16)
but “the doers of the Law will be justified” (Rom. 2:13)

The second article asks, if people are justified through faith, why will they be judged by their deeds?

This third article investigates the meaning of the word “justified.”

SUMMARY

The Galatians were seeking to be justified by “the works of the Law.” This means that they thought that people are put right with God by complying with the legal requirements of the Law, irrespective of what kind of people they are.  For that reason, they were fond of using a legal word that we today often translate as “justified.” 

In his rebuttal of their position, Paul used the same legal word when he wrote that we are “justified by faith.” However, he did not think of justification as a legal process, unconnected to what kind of person you are. Rather, he thought of justification as a substantive change in the person.  He used the word “justified” because he was talking to Jews and that it was a favorite term in Jewish circles.

– END OF SUMMARY –

JUSTIFICATION – LEGAL PROCESS

JustifiedThe Galatians were trying to be “perfected by the flesh” (3:3), which means to work for salvation in their own power. 

In particular, they were seeking to be justified by “the works of the Law” (2:16; 5:4). This means that they thought that people are put right with God by complying with the legal requirements of the Law, irrespective of what kind of people they are. These legal requirements included many rituals and ceremonies but circumcision was the prime example. 

Because they thought of salvation as a technical legal process, the Jews were fond of using a legal word that we today often translate as “justification.” 

JUSTIFICATION – A CHANGED PERSON

In his rebuttal of their position, when he said that nobody will be justified by the works of the Law, Paul used the same legal word when he wrote that we are “justified by faith” (2:16; 3:11). However, he did not think of justification as a legal process, unconnected to what kind of person you are. Rather, he thought of justification as a substantive change in the person.  This can be shown in several ways:

1. Doers will be justified

As already shown above, Paul taught that “the doers of the Law will be justified” (Rom. 2:13). And as explained, that does NOT mean that a person is “justified” on some technical legal basis. Rather, people are saved if they, in their “inner man,” want to comply with God’s law (Rom. 7:22).

2. Justified by faith

Paul also argued that people are “justified by faith” (3:24). This is not a legal technicality. Faith, or the lack there-of, speaks to the substance of the human being. “Justified by faith,” therefore, actually, is a contradiction in terms, unless we understand “justified” in a non-legal way.

3. God justifies

Paul added that justification is something which God does: “God would justify the Gentiles by faith” (3:8). Justification, therefore, is not some legal technicality that justifies us before God. It is not something which I do myself or which Christ did to justify us before God. Rather, God Himself justifies us.

4. God changes us by the Spirit.

God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts” (4:6). The Spirit is a power that is able to change us: “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16). “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit” (5:24-25). “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness …” (5:22-23). “The one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (6:6).

To be “justified,” therefore, does not simply mean that our sins are forgiven through some legal technicality: God will not populate heaven with pardoned criminals: Justified means to be a changed person.  It means to be “a new creation” (6:15) that has “faith working through love” (5:6).  God creates a right spirit within us.

WHY PAUL USED THE WORD JUSTIFICATION

Paul, therefore, did not use the word “justification” because he thought that people are saved by complying with some legal requirements, irrespective of their sins: He used that word because it was a favorite term in Jewish circles and he was debating Jews. He used Jewish language to counter the claim of his Jewish opponents that man is justified by the works of the Law (5:4; 2:16; 3:2, 4).

Furthermore, we should remember that Paul used many different metaphors to describe how people are put right with God.  For example, faith will not only justify us but by faith, we also receive the promise that God made to Abraham (3:14, 22) and are we adopted as “sons of God” (3:26; 4:5-7).  This is discussed in the article Metaphors of Salvation. “Justification,” therefore, is simply one of many metaphors that Paul used to describe something which is probably beyond human understanding, namely how people are saved. 

FALSE GOD

Many theologians today still describe salvation as a legal process. They no longer propose that people are justified by the legal demands of the law. They now say that God demands that somebody had to suffer for our sins, and Christ suffered in our place.  That theology presents God as an arbitrary tyrant and is inconsistent with the Bible.  God does not need some legal technicality to save people.  Christ “gave Himself for our sins … ACCORDING TO THE WILL OF OUR GOD AND FATHER” (1:4).  Or, stated even stronger, “GOD SENT FORTH HIS SON” (4:4). Christ’s death, therefore, did not make the Father willing to forgive or to be gracious.  People who think that God needs a technical legal process to forgive people do not really worship the God of the Bible: They worship something created in their own image.

ARTICLES IN THIS SERIES

1. “The doers of the Law will be justified” (Rom. 2:13).
2. Justified through faith
3. Justification
4. Christ’s death enabled the grace of God.
Table of Contents for the articles on Galatians

Perhaps the reader will benefit from listening to Graham Maxwell, a talented but somewhat controversial Adventist preacher, as he explains his view of God’s use of the law from the letter to the Galatians.

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