To be “justified” means to be accepted by God as just.
How sinners are justified was the great controversy in the Church in Paul’s day.:
Some Jewish Christians maintained that Christians are saved “by the works of the Law.” This does not mean to try to be good. It means to rely on the observance of the rituals and ceremonies of the Law of Moses to become acceptable to God.
Paul opposed this view and taught a different law (the Law of Christ) and a different means of justification (By Grace through Faith).
Today we agree that sinners are justified by grace through faith but we still disagree about how sinners are made just.
The forensic view emphasizes the legal undertones of the word “justified” to explain HOW people are put right with God. They understand justification as a technical legal process whereby Christ’s righteousness is imputed to sinners.
One objection to this forensic view is that “justified” is only one of several Metaphors of Salvation that Paul used. We should, therefore, not interpret the word ‘justify’ literally. Nor should we emphasize it over the other metaphors.
A second objection to the forensic view is that several alternative atonement theories have been proposed over the past 2000 years. All of them should be evaluated to determine which fit the Scripture data best.
DEFINITION OF JUSTIFIED
Strong’s concordance defines the Greek word, which is translated as “justified,” as to show or regard as just or innocent. “Justified,” therefore, means that sinners are accepted and regarded by God as just. Justified people:
Are “Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:29; cf. 3:7, 9, 14; 4:7)
Are “sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (3:26; cf. 4:5); and
“Have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1).
JUSTIFICATION IN GALATIANS
In Paul’s day, the great controversy in the Church was about how sinners are justified. This controversy is particularly seen in Galatians. In this letter, Paul used the words “justified” and “justify” several times, for instance in 2:16-17, 3:8, 11, 24 and 5:4.
Some Jewish Christians maintained that Christians are saved “by the works of the Law”. This does not mean to try to be good. It means to rely on the observance of the rituals and ceremonies of the Law of Moses to become acceptable to God. Justification is then a mechanical process. All that is required is that you perform certain rituals.
Paul opposed this view and argued that God justifies sinners “through faith in Christ Jesus” (2:16). The word “faith” can also be translated as “trust.” To be justified by faith means to accepted by God simply because you trust Him, as opposed to trusting in what you can do for yourself. While justification by the Works of the Law is something which the person does, 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).
The article By Grace through Faith discusses the Galatian controversy in much more detail. While Jewish Christians were adamant that man is “justified by the works of the Law,” Paul taught:
A different law (the Law of Christ versus the Jewish Law of Moses) and
A different means of justification (by grace through faith versus the Jewish “works of the Law”).
FORENSIC VIEW OF JUSTIFICATION
We agree today that sinners are justified by grace through faith but we still disagree about how sinners are made just.
The word “justified” seems to imply some kind of legal process in the courtrooms of heaven. Some theologians emphasize the legal undertones of the word and use it to explain HOW people are put right with God. Consequently, they understand justification as a technical legal process whereby Christ’s righteousness is imputed to sinners. In this view, God has no option but the punish sin but Christ took our punishment so that we do not have to be punished.
This view is somewhat similar to the Jewish view of 2000 years ago, where they relied on mechanical rituals and ceremonies to be justified.
METAPHORS OF SALVATION
One objection to the forensic view is that “justified” is only one of several Metaphors of Salvation which the New Testament uses to express the thought that sinners are put right with God. Another metaphor explains justification as reconciliation:
“Were reconciled to God through the death of His Son” (Rom. 5:10; cf. 2 Cor. 5:18, 20; Col. 1:20, 22).
Paul drew these metaphors from different spheres of human experience. While “justified” is a term used in a courtroom setting, Paul derived other metaphors from other dimensions of human life:
“Ransomed” implies that the sinner was held as a hostage.
“Redeemed” is used when the sinner was bound by debt.
“Reconciled” suggests that the sinner was estranged from God.
“Propitiation” implies that God was angry with the sinner.
These terms are simply different ways of saying the same thing. Because of the many metaphors of salvation that Paul used, and because it is difficult to determine which of these are literal and which are figurative, we cannot determine with certainty, simply on the basis of these words, how Christ atones for the sins of God’s people. When we attempt to explain how a person is put right with God, we should not interpret the word ‘justify’ literally. Nor should we emphasize it over the other metaphors. See the article Metaphors of Salvation for a discussion of these metaphors.
THEORIES OF THE ATONEMENT
A second objection to the forensic view is that several alternative atonement theories have been proposed over the centuries. The idea that people are justified by imputing Jesus’ righteousness to them is only one of these. The article Atonement Theories provides an overview of these theories and also suggests further arguments against the forensic view of the atonement. See the articles Christ’s death proved that God judges rightly or Why Jesus had to die for the explanation of atonement which, in my view, best fits the data from the Bible.