Justification is certainly one of the central tenets of Christianity and is closely related to the concept of righteousness. Justification is the legal declaration by God the righteous judge that we are righteous.
The Greek word that is translated as “justification” is:
δικαίωσις dikaiōsis noun: Acquittal, justification.
This word only occurs twice in the New Testament:
Romans 4:25 (NASB) He who was delivered over because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification.
Romans 5:18 (NASB) So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men.
dikaiōsisis is derived from the verb often translated as “to justify” shown below:
δικαιόω dikaioō verb: Justify, render (show or regard as) righteous, pronounce or declare righteous
This Greek verb generally means to declare righteous or show to be righteous. It is closely related to the Greek words translated as “righteous” and “righteousness”.
In order to understand justification I believe it is important to understand righteousness, as in God’s righteousness, and man’s righteousness (or lack thereof). First of all, the Bible very clearly testifies that God is righteous.
Psalm 145:17 (HCSB) The LORD is righteous in all His ways and gracious in all His acts.
Psalm 11:7 (HCSB) For the LORD is righteous; He loves righteous deeds. The upright will see His face.
The Bible is also clear than mankind is unrighteous:
Romans 3:10 (HCSB) “as it is written: There is no one righteous, not even one.”
And no one will become righteous by following the Law:
Romans 3:20 (HCSB) For no one will be justified in His sight by the works of the law, because the knowledge of sin ⌊comes⌋ through the law.
The idea of God’s righteousness is mentioned five times in the doctrinally profound and pivotal statement in Romans 3:21-26.
Romans 3:21-26 (NET1) 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 (righteous) and the justifier of the one who lives because of Jesus’ faithfulness.
The Greek word translated “just” in the above passage is:
δίκαιος dikaios adjective: Just, righteous, right, upright, impartial.
God is just. His judgments are right and impartial. Everything He does is right, just and righteous.
With the above as an introduction, a question arises about how could God be righteous when He declares the unrighteous to be righteous? As it says in Proverbs:
Proverbs 17:15 (NASB) He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous, Both of them alike are an abomination to the LORD.
I believe the answer is that before declaring us to be righteous, God first made us righteous, as shown in the following two verses:
Romans 5:19 (NASB) For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.
2 Corinthians 5:21 (NASB) He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
After God made us righteous, He is perfectly just to declare us to be righteous.
When did God make us righteous? I believe it is when He regenerated us, creating the “new man” in us. The new man is righteous. Consider the following:
1 John 2:29 (HCSB) If you know that He is righteous, you know this as well: Everyone who does what is right has been born of Him.
The phrase “Everyone who does what is right has been born of Him” is literally, “Everyone completely doing the righteousness has been born of Him.”
1 John 3:7 (HCSB) Little children, let no one deceive you! The one who does what is right is righteous, just as He is righteous.
The phrase, “The one who does what is right is righteous” is literally, “the one completely doing the righteousness is righteous”.
1 John 3:9 (HCSB) Everyone who has been born of God does not sin, because His seed remains in him; he is not able to sin, because he has been born of God.
The three verses above show that the one born of God, which I believe refers to our regenerated new man, is righteous, does righteousness and only righteousness, i.e., does not sin.
If you are like me, you might be thinking, I don’t feel very righteous or look very righteous. In fact I struggle with temptation and sin. How could I be righteous and still struggle in this way? The answer is we still have the desires of the flesh, which are evil and ungodly desires. The flesh is separate from the new man. It is also temporary, only with us until we go to be with the Lord. The new man is permanent, present now, and who we are for eternity.
To summarize, God declares us righteous after He made us righteous, when He caused us to born again (regenerated).