Bible, Christianity

How is one justified?

It’s a contentious issue to some. But I’ll just post what the New Testament says without comment. Only one passage is partially my translation. The rest are either the NET or ESV. I’ve excluded passages that repeat the same thing. I have left one passage out about the impossibility of being justified by the law simply because I do not think that justification by law and justification by God for obeying the law are necessarily conceptual equals. But it’s important to consider that the New Testament picture of justification is rich and a simple formulation of how it happens is by no means obvious.

By Words

Matthew 12:33–37 (ESV): “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.

By Humbling Oneself Before God

Luke 18:9–14 (ESV): He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

By Faith in Christ

Acts 13:38–39 (NET): Therefore let it be known to you, brothers, that through this one forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by this one everyone who believes is justified from everything from which the law of Moses could not justify you.

By Doing The Law

Romans 2:9–16: There will be affliction and distress on everyone who does evil, on the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, for the Jew first and also the Greek. For there is no partiality with God. For all who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous before God, but those who do the law will be justified. For whenever the Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature the things required by the law, these who do not have the law are a law to themselves. They show that the work of the law is written in their hearts, as their conscience bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or else defend them, on the day when God will judge the secrets of human hearts, according to my gospel through Christ Jesus.

By God’s Grace

Romans 3:19–26 (NET): Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For no one is declared righteous before him by the works of the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (which is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed—namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. But they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. God publicly displayed him at his death as the mercy seat accessible through faith. This was to demonstrate his righteousness, because God in his forbearance had passed over the sins previously committed. This was also to demonstrate his righteousness in the present time, so that he would be just and the justifier of the one who lives because of Jesus’ faithfulness.

By Faith

Romans 5:1–5 (ESV): Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

In/By the Name of Jesus

1 Corinthians 6:9–11 (ESV): Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 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.

By Works (not of the law)

James 2:14–26 (ESV): What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.

5 Comments on “How is one justified?

  1. You know that I’m not a Piper homie, however, I found his below rhetorical breakdown of Romans 2 to be quite reasonable…

    cf John Piper on Romans 2:

    “The objection goes like this: You say, Paul, that God is going to judge all people according to their deeds, and therefore impartially; but, in fact, God gave the law of Moses only to the Jews, and so they have access to what deeds are required of them, and the rest of the world doesn’t. So how can you say that God is impartial to judge according to deeds when he has told only one group of people what deeds they must do?

    The first part of Paul’s answer is in verse 12: The reason we know God is impartial is because “all who have sinned without the law [that is, nations who don’t have the Old Testament law of Moses] will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law [Jews who have the law of Moses] will be judged by the law.” We can see that this is a direct response to an objection: They don’t have equal access to what they will be held accountable for! The point is that the law of Moses will not be brought in to condemn those who sinned with no access to the law of Moses. It will be used only to judge those who had access to it.

    When someone perishes who never heard of the law of Moses, it is not because they never heard that law. Not hearing the law of Moses will not condemn anyone. And hearing it will not save anyone. That’s what Paul says next in verse 13: “It is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.” In other words, having access to the moral law of Moses and hearing it is not an advantage at the final judgment. At the judgment, the question will not be: How much of the law did you hear? The question will be: Did you do it?”


    1. I think Piper misses who the target audience is. I doubt that Jewish believers struggling to accept Gentiles would object to God treating Gentiles in an apparently unfair fashion. Paul Jewett explains it this way:

      Dunn suggests that the distinction between hearing and doing the law drives “a wedge between the interconnected elements of Jewish self-understanding,” but this is performed with rhetorical finesse. As far as the listeners of Rom 2 are concerned, the bigot who knows God’s will but fails to perform it is under attack here. Paul’s assertion that hearing the law does not make one “righteous before God” counters the claim of superior status made by the bigot, and would have been supported by some important rabbis. Wilckens reports that Rabbi Johannai (30 b.c.e.) taught his disciples, “Make the study of Torah into something solid: speak little but do much.… The main thing is not studying but doing.” Paul’s denial is categorical: participation in synagogue worship or reciting the Shema provides the religious bigot no guarantee of assured status before God.
      Paul’s antithesis is that only “the doers of the law” will be accounted righteous. The future tense of δικαιωθήσονται (“they shall be set right”) is probably eschatological rather than gnomic; at the last judgment each person’s status before God will be assessed, and no exceptionalism of any kind will be allowed, as v. 11* had made plain. This verse reiterates the point of v. 7*, that those who actually accomplish good works will gain eternal life. At first glance this appears to contradict the main argument of Romans, that no flesh will be set right by works of the law and that salvation comes only through faith in God’s grace (3:20–24*). However, the underlying issue is that actions motivated by the desire for superior honor, in Paul’s view, pervert obedience and frustrate the purpose of divine law. Only those who abandon claims of superiority can fulfill the law, which required both Jews and Gentiles to change their motivational systems. In the formulation of Klyne Snodgrass, “‘Works righteousness’ is excluded, but saving obedience in response to God’s grace is not.” Garlington maintains that “Paul has in mind a different kind of ‘doing the law,’ a doing … commensurate with ‘the obedience of faith.’ ”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *