A Study Of Justification By Faith
Don Garlington - August 2000
The doctrine of justification by faith, as familiar as it is, continues to be revisited. Just when students of the New Testament think that the last word has been said on the subject, a new study appears shedding new light on old texts or at least challenging our assumptions about those texts. The following little study is an attempt both to canvass some well-worn territory and to interact with the recent influential work of N. T. Wright.
I. The Verb Dikaioô
The characteristic Pauline verb articulating the justification of the people of God is dikaioô, translated traditionally as “justify” (see below the note on the translation of the verb) (Rom 2:13; 3:4, 20, 24, 26, 28, 30; 4:2, 5; 5:1; 6:7; 8:30, 33; 1 Cor 6:11; Gal 2:16, 17; 3:8, 11, 24; 5:4; Titus 3:7). The usage of this verb in the Greek Old Testament, the matrix of Paul’s own employment of it, is complex, especially when compared with the various Hebrew words underlying it. Without providing anything like a comprehensive analysis of the verb, we may note the following settings in which it occurs.
(1) Literal juridical contexts, in which human beings render judgment: Exodus 23:7 (“you shall not justify/vindicate/acquit the wicked for gifts”); Deuteronomy 25:1 (“justify/vindicate/acquit the righteous”); 2 Samuel 15:4 (“I will give him a just judgment”); Psalm 82:3 (LXX 81:3) (“do justice to the low and needy”); Isaiah 1:17 (“obtain justice for the widow”); 5:23 (“justify/vindicate/acquit the ungodly for gifts”); Ezekiel 44:24 (“rightly observe my ordinances”); Sirach 42:2 (“justify/vindicate/acquit the ungodly”). As can be seen, the precise translation of dikaioô varies according to the setting in which it is found. Several times it means to pronounce and treat as righteous. At other times, it can take on broader connotations (though still within a juridical context), especially 2 Samuel 15:4; Psalm 82 (LXX 81):3; Isaiah 1:17; Ezekiel 44:24.
(2) Metaphorical juridical contexts, in which God renders judgment: Psalm 143:2 (LXX 142:2) (“no flesh will be justified in your sight”); Micah 7:9 (“until he justifies/vindicates my cause”); Isaiah 43:9 (“let them bring for their witnesses and be justified/vindicated”); Isaiah 43:26 (“first confess your deeds of lawlessness that you may be justified/vindicated”); Isaiah 45:25 (“In the Lord all the offspring of Israel will be justified/vindicated); Isaiah 50:8 (“the one who vindicates me is drawing near”); Isaiah 53:11 (“to justify/vindicate the righteous one who serves many well”); Micah 6:11 (“will the wicked be acquitted by the balance or deceitful weights in the bag”).
(3) Quasi-juridical contexts, in which God (or his law) is vindicated or regarded by humans as righteous: Psalm 19:9 (LXX 18:9) (“the judgments of the Lord are true, justified altogether”); Psalm 51:4 (LXX 50:4) (“That you may be justified/vindicated in your words and prevail when you are judged”); Isaiah 42:21 (“The Lord God has taken counsel that he might be justified/vindicated and might magnify his praise”); Sirach 18:2 (“The Lord alone will be justified/vindicated”). I call these quasi-juridical contexts because, strictly speaking, human beings cannot judge God. Rather, God is justified/vindicated by them when they consider him to be righteous, i.e., committed to his relationship with his people. “The point is to assert that God will be regarded as righteous, or in this culture much the same thing, will be righteous and the source of righteousness (cf. Isa. 45.23-25).”
(4) Non-juridical contexts, in which dikaioô signifies “be regarded as in the right or righteous:” Genesis 44:16 (“how shall we be regarded as righteous”); Job 33:32 (“I want to regard you as righteous”); Psalm 73:13 (LXX 72:13) (“in vain I have regarded my heart as righteous”). These contexts are divorced from legal proceedings, although it might be thought there is a juridical flavoring to them. If so, dikaioô could be translated “justify” or “vindicate.” Nevertheless, the focus is on behavior within the norms of a relationship. When one conforms to these norms, one is considered to be righteous. See also Sirach 1:21; 7:5; 10:29; 13:22; 18:22; 23:11; 26:29; 34:5, in which humans likewise regard other humans as righteous.
(5) Non-juridical contexts, in which dikaioô means “to be righteous.” The outstanding passage is Genesis 38:26: “she has acted more righteously than I,” or simply, “she is more righteous than I” (dedikaiôtai ê egô). As Esler explains, this is the expression used by Judah, who is on the verge of burning Tamar to death because she has played the prostitute and borne a child, when he has been shown himself to be the father. In this case, dikaioô depicts what Tamar has been (it translates the qal of tsddaq). “Put precisely, Tamar has acted more in accordance with the prevailing conventions governing social relationships, especially those relating to family honour, than he has. This means that dikaioô is an appropriate word to describe acceptable conduct within the honour-shame code operating in this culture.” J. A. Ziesler similarly translates: “she has fulfilled the community obligations better than I have.” Other passages include Jeremiah 3:11 (“Israel has shown himself to be more righteous than faithless Judah”); Ezekiel 16:51-52 (because of her sins, Jerusalem has made her sisters, Sodom and Samaria, “appear more righteous” than herself).
In sum, it is apparent from this mere sampling that dikaioô (like any other word) assumes different shades of meaning according to context. Because of its occurrence in juridical settings (literal or metaphorical), meanings like “justify,” “vindicate,” “acquit” stand out and provide a forensic framework within which to place Paul’s doctrine of justification. Closely aligned with this pronouncement or declaratory character of dikaioô is the meaning “regard as righteous.” In point of fact, “regard as righteous” and “justify”/ “vindicate”/“acquit” are of a piece. Finally, while the sense “be righteous” is attested in the Old Testament, none of the Pauline usages exhibit this usage. Paul’s stress is always on the God who justifies.
II. Justification and the Righteousness of God
But even with these data before us, Paul’s teaching on justification is more comprehensive than the verb dikaioô, because the idea of justification is linked to the concept of the righteousness in the Old Testament. Strictly speaking, there is no independent doctrine of justification which is detachable from righteousness as a generic category. This means that the semantic range of dikaioô is broadened by its relation to the Hebrew/covenantal concept of the “righteousness of God” (dikaiosunê theou).
God’s righteousness in the Old Testament finds two points of contact with justification in Paul. First of all, there is the forensic/juridical setting of the Mosaic covenantal courtroom. The person who is vindicated and thus acquitted of all charges is declared to be “righteous” (Hebrew tsddaq = Greek dikaios) and then treated as such. Yet it is vital to remember that even in these instances in the LXX where dikaioô is strongly forensic, Ziesler reminds us that it is forensic in the Hebrew sense, i.e., the verb signifies “restoration of the community or covenant relationship, and thus cannot be separated from the ethical altogether. The restoration is not merely to a standing, but to an existence in the relationship.” As a result, “righteousness” in this scenario has reference to a vindicated existence conferred on a person by a gracious God. “What this means is that men live together in freedom, possessing their civil rights in a good society. It is not just a vindicated status, but a vindicated life.” Therefore, the one of whom “justification” is predicated is regarded as “righteous,” i.e., committed to the covenant and the God of the covenant in a household relationship. Likewise, Ernst Käsemann writes that in the Old Testament and Judaism generally dikaiosunê has in view the relations of community members: “originally signifying trustworthiness in regard to the community, it came to mean the rehabilitated standing of a member of the community who had been acquitted of an offense against it.” Reumann concurs that righteousness/justice/justification terminology in the Hebrew scriptures is “action-oriented,” not just “status” or “being” language, and “binds together forensic, ethical and other aspects in such a way that some sort of more unified ancient Near Eastern view can readily be presupposed.” In brief, it is the righteous person who is recognized in his/her true character and thus vindicated against all charges. Just how such a conception of “justification” can square with Paul’s declaration that God justifies the “ungodly” (Rom 4:5) will be clarified below.
The other point of contact between righteousness in the Old Testament and Paul is the outlook on Israel’s future evidenced in the Prophets and several of the Psalms. The Prophets characteristically contemplate Israel’s removed into Babylon captivity because of her idolatry. Yet one day the nation is to return her land when Yahweh acts in power to deliver her from bondage. At the time of this new exodus, the remnant of the people will enjoy the definitive forgiveness of sins, the restoration of the broken covenant, the glorious new creation, and vindication as those faithful to the Lord. It is Yahweh who vindicates the faithful from the charges of their enemies, who assume that he is unable to deliver his people and suppose that their faith in him is in vain. It is he who exonerates them, when in the “eschatological courtroom” he judges their oppressors (Isa 10:5-19; Hab 2:2-20) and brings them back to the land from which they will never be uprooted again. It is in this context of promised deliverance that God is said to act righteously on behalf of his own. Especially striking is that in several key passages in Isaiah and in Psalm 98 the terms “righteousness” and “salvation” (or “be justified”) are placed in synonymous parallelism.
“Turn to Me and be saved, all the ends of the earth; For I am God, and there is no other. “I have sworn by Myself, The word has gone forth from My mouth in righteousness And will not turn back, That to Me every knee will bow, every tongue will swear allegiance. “They will say of Me, ‘Only in the Lord are righteousness and strength.’ Men will come to Him, And all who were angry at Him will be put to shame. “In the Lord all the offspring of Israel Will be justified (dikaiôthesontai” NIV: will beaiomous parallelis; NIV: “will be found righteous”) and will glory.” (NASB)
“My righteousness is near, My salvation has gone forth, And My arms will judge the peoples; The coastlands will wait for Me, And for My arm they will wait expectantly. “Lift up your eyes to the sky, Then look to the earth beneath; For the sky will vanish like smoke, And the earth will wear out like a garment And its inhabitants will die in like manner; But My salvation will be forever, And My righteousness will not wane. (NASB)
For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, And for Jerusalem’s sake I will not keep quiet, Until her righteousness goes forth like brightness, And her salvation like a torch that is burning. The nations will see your righteousness, And all kings your glory; And you will be called by a new name Which the mouth of the Lord will designate. (NASB)
Psalm 98:2-3, 8-9 (LXX 97:2-3, 8-9):
The Lord has made known His salvation; He has revealed His righteousness in the sight of the nations. He has remembered His lovingkindness and His faithfulness to the house of Israel; All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God…. Let the rivers clap their hands, Let the mountains sing together for joy Before the Lord, for He is coming to judge the earth; He will judge the world with righteousness And the peoples with equity. (NASB)
Noteworthy as well are Psalm 72:1-4 (LXX 71:1-4, 7); 85:11-13 (LXX 84:12-14); 96:13 (LXX 95:13); Isaiah 9:7 (LXX 9:6); 11:1-2, 5; 53:10-11; 45:8; 61:11; Jeremiah 23:5-6; Malachi 4:2 (LXX 3:20).
Several comments are in order. For one, “righteousness” and “salvation” are synonymous. The logic behind this is not difficult to discern. Righteousness by definition is God’s fidelity to his people within the covenant bond. As Wright expresses it, the phrase “the righteousness of God” (dikaiosunê theou) to a reader of the LXX would have one obvious meaning: “God’s own faithfulness to his promises, to the covenant.” It is especially in Isaiah 40-55 that God’s righteousness is that aspect of his character which compels him to save Israel, despite the nation’s perversity and lostness. “God has made promises; Israel can trust those promises. God’s righteousness is thus cognate with his trustworthiness on the one hand, and Israel’s salvation on the other.” He further notes that at the heart of the picture in Isaiah is the figure of the suffering servant through whom God’s righteous purpose is finally accomplished. Psalm 98 is likewise explicit that the revelation of God’s righteousness to the nations is commensurate with the fact that he has remembered his lovingkindness and faithfulness to the house of Israel. Therefore, he demonstrates his fidelity when he springs into action to deliver Israel from her bondage (note that Psalm 98 is echoed in Rom 1:16-17, which likewise places in parallel “righteousness” and “salvation”). Thus, a formal definition of the Greek phrase dikaiosunê theou could be stated as: “God’s faithfulness to his covenant with Israel, as a result of which he saves her from her exile in Babylon.” Second, the return of Israel from exile is Israel’s justification. Isaiah 45:25 in the LXX actually uses the verb dikaioô, translated “justified” by the NASB. It is true that the Hebrew of the passage can be fairly be rendered “found righteous” (as NIV). Yet the net effect is the same: the people who return from exile are the vindicated ones whose righteousness is now made evident. Third, the Hebrew of Isaiah 62:1-2 speaks of Israel’s (“her”) righteousness and salvation. However, the LXX has “my,” referring to God, instead of “her.” This may be accounted for by the textual tradition followed by the LXX at this point. Be that as it may, on the theological level there is no problem, because the blazing demonstration of Israel’s righteousness and salvation is made possible only by the prior revelation of the Lord’s righteousness/salvation.
These two interrelated branches of righteousness in the Old Testament, of which Paul was heir, combine to inform us that justification in the apostle’s thought is essentially the vindication of the righteous, i.e., the faithful people of God. Believers in Christ, so to speak, have been exonerated in the lawcourt and have been (re)admitted into the privilege, responsibilities, and fellowship of the covenant. The juridical metaphor is extended even further in Isaiah (and Psalm 98). Given the parallel between “righteousness” and “salvation,” and given especially the backdrop of the captivity and return from exile, dikaioô in Paul means to “vindicate as the people of God.” When the Lord caused Israel to return to the land, he vindicated the faithful remnant against the accusations of their enemies that they have rightly been taken into captivity and it is because of them that Yahweh’s name has been blasphemed among the nations (Isa 52:5; Rom 2:24).
God, of course, is the judge. Israel comes before him to plead her case against the wicked pagans who are oppressing her. She longs for her case to come to court, for God to hear it, and, in his own righteousness, to deliver her from her enemies. She longs, that is, to be justified, acquitted, vindicated. And because the God who is the judge is also her covenant God, she pleads with him; be faithful to your covenant! Vindicate me in your righteousness!
In Paul, all this is transposed into the “higher key” of what God has done in Christ at the turning of the ages—his own “eschatological courtroom.” The actual enemy of believers is not Babylon (or Egypt) but Satan himself. He is the strong man who held them in the bondage of sin (Matt 12:29; Luke 11:21-22); he is “the accuser of our brothers, who accuses them before our God day and night” (Rev 12:10; cf. Rom 8:33-34a). It is this cluster of ideas which is embodied by dikaioô. If God’s righteousness is “his intervention in a saving act on behalf of his people,” then the passive voice of the verb means “to be an object of the saving righteousness of God (so as to be well-pleasing to him at the judgment).” When God in Christ intervenes to save his covenant partners, he plants them again in the newly created land, the new heavens and earth, never to be removed. This is “salvation” in the pregnant sense of the term: deliverance from evil and the bestowal of “peace” on a redeemed people. In short, justification in Paul signals deliverance from exile and freedom from bondage (one of the key motifs of Galatians). One of the clearest indications is the relationship of Romans 6:7 and 18. In the former verse, dikaioô is literally translated “justified from sin.” As such, it forms a parallelism with the verb “liberated from sin” (eleutheroô) in 6:18. The parallel is best preserved by rendering 6:7 as “freed from sin.” Therefore, when Paul writes of justification, he characteristically has in mind the new exodus on which the latter-day people of God have embarked. Moreover, this saving righteousness is cosmic in its dimensions. At the end of the day, “the righteousness of God” is actively directed at the rescue of the creation.
III. The Function of Justification in Paul’s Letters
Within the setting of Paul’s mission to he nations, justification functions to delineate just who are the latter-day people of God. In the eschatological new exodus which has been brought to pass in Christ, it is Gentiles who are as much the vindicated people as Jews, and this irrespective of circumcision and the other traditional badges of Jewish self-identity. Therefore, justification is very much a covenantal term, speaking to the issue of the identity of the people of God. It is here that the perspective of Romans 3:21-26 directly parallel to Galatians. According to that passage, in his righteousness (as defined above), God has acted in Christ to remove the sin-barrier that stood between himself and an apostate humanity in toto (Rom 1:18-3:20). Jew and Greek alike are now the object of the saving fidelity of the God of Israel. Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23), all are now freely justified by his grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus. In short:
He has been true to the covenant, which always aimed to deal with the sin of the world; he has kept his promises; he has dealt with sin on the cross; he has done so impartially, making a way of salvation for Jew and Gentile alike; and he now, as the righteous judge, helps and saves the helpless who cast themselves on his mercy.
As Wright continues, the covenant with Israel always envisaged a worldwide family. But Israel, clinging to her own special status as the covenant-bearer, has betrayed the purpose for which that covenant was made. “It is as though the postman were to imagine that all the letters in his bag were intended for him.”
An important corollary is that the center of gravity of Paul’s thought on justification is more the corporate body of Christ than the individual believer. As W. D. Davies writes:
That there was such a personal dimension need not be denied, but it existed within and not separated from a communal and, indeed, a cosmic dimension. Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith was not solely and not primarily oriented towards the individual but to the interpretation of the people of God. The justified man was “in Christ”, which is a communal concept. And, necessarily because it was eschatological, the doctrine moved towards the salvation of the world, a new creation.
Davies further points out that in both Galatians and Romans the discussion of justification by faith is immediately followed by that of the constitution of the people of God. In Gal 2:16-17 and like passages, dikaioô has to do specifically with the vindication/restoration of Jews who have believed in Christ. No longer do they anticipate being vindicated at the last judgment by virtue of their loyalty to the God of Israel and his law; but rather eschatological vindication has taken place at the cross of Christ (Gal 2:20), and “works of the law” are no longer relevant—this, claims Paul, is a matter of common and well-established knowledge.
IV. The Justification of the Ungodly
With all this background in view, we are in a position to address the question posed above: If it is the righteous who are vindicated because of their fidelity, then how can Paul maintain that God justifies the ungodly? In answering, it will be useful to interact somewhat further with Wright’s analysis of the relation of righteousness and the pronouncement of justification by God the judge.
According to Wright, in the Jewish law court there are three parties: the judge, the plaintiff and the defendant. In such a scenario, for the judge to be “righteous” and to practice “righteousness” is a complex matter having to do with the way he handles the case, i.e., he must render a verdict according to the evidence. However, for the plaintiff and the defendant, Wright says, none of these connotations apply. Although in English the word “righteous” has moral overtones, in the Hebrew courtroom those who stand before the bar are not, before the trial starts, considered morally upright and thus deserve to have the verdict go their way. “No, for the plaintiff or defendant to be ‘righteous’ in the biblical sense within the law-court setting is for them to have that status as a result of the decision of the court.” Otherwise stated, “righteous” for these two persons means “the status they have when the court finds in their favour. Nothing more, nothing less.” Consequently, maintains Wright, “it makes no sense whatever to say that the judge imputes, imparts, bequeaths, conveys or otherwise transfers his righteousness to either the plaintiff or the defendant…. To imagine the defendant somehow receiving the judge’s righteousness is simply a mistake. That is not how the language works.” He is emphatic that the righteousness of God people will not be God’s own righteousness simply because God’s own righteousness is his covenant faithfulness which vindicates them and bestows on them the status of “righteous” as the vindicated or acquitted defendant. In one stroke, then, Wright dismisses the idea of what the Reformers called an “alien righteousness.”
In response, several matters come to mind. (1) Wright is correct to stress that the context and setting of justification is the Hebrew (not Greco-Roman or modern) courtroom. By definition, this places us within the realm of the covenant, in which the exonerated person is declared righteous by the judge and then allowed to resume his/her position within the community with all its privileges and responsibilities. (2) Nevertheless, a decided weakness in Wright’s construction is that the court does not arbitrarily decide that one is righteous; it hears the evidence and on the basis of the evidence pronounces that here is a righteous person. According to Deuteronomy 25:1, it is precisely the righteous who are to be justified and the wicked who are to be condemned. To be sure, the judge is righteous himself when he handles matters correctly; but by the very nature of the case to render an appropriate judgment entails an assessment of all relevant data and on that basis the verdict is pronounced. In brief, one is righteous not primarily because of a judge’s pronouncement but because the judge is compelled by the evidence to render a decision in one’s favor. The judge’s pronouncement seals and confirms the realities established by the evidence.
(3) The major problem with Wright’s scenario is the absence of Christ from the equation. In fairness, Wright’s focus is more narrowly on the Jewish context of justification, and certainly Wright is aware of the centrality of Christ in the preaching of Paul, as his book as a whole demonstrates. Nevertheless, his overall treatment of justification is rendered less than adequate because it does not allow for a righteousness that finds is very origin in the believer’s union with Christ. It is surely telling that the text in Paul which most clearly states this, 2 Corinthians 5:21, is given a very non-traditional interpretation. According to Wright, what Paul means is that the apostles embody the covenant fidelity of God. For various exegetical reasons, this reading fails to carry conviction. But apart from those, Wright has missed the broader biblical-theological picture of the way in which the people of God become righteous. In so doing, he has abstracted the forensic metaphor from the broader picture of what God will do for a renewed Israel. No doubt, he is correct that in the courtroom setting righteousness does not flow directly from the judge. However, he has pressed the metaphor too stringently and has not allowed for the all-important presence of Christ within God’s courtroom. Indeed, we do not get righteousness directly from the judge, but we do get it from Christ. In his fidelity to his covenant (his righteousness), God the judge provides the means whereby he is able to vindicate/justify/exonerate his own. He writes his law on their hearts, gives them a new heart and raises them from the dead (Jer 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36-37). Because of a righteous Branch whom Yahweh will raise up, the Lord himself is our righteousness (Jer 23:6). This is none other than the Servant of God who makes many righteous (Isa 53:11 as carried over into Rom 5:12-19). In the prophetic perspective generally, it is the righteousness remnant that returns from captivity to the land, although they are the very first to confess their sins. They are not righteous in themselves but have been made righteous by the Lord who is their righteousness (the very text Wright quotes, Ps 143:2, indicates that left to themselves they could never be justified; they must be made righteous).
We are now in a position to answer our question, How can God justify the ungodly while being consistent with the practice of the Hebrew courtroom to acquit only the righteous? The answer quite simply is that those who were formerly ungodly in Adam have been made righteous in Christ. Here the perspective Philippians 3:9 is much to the point. Paul speaks of a “righteousness from God” (dikaiosunê ek theou). It is God’s own righteousness, defined as “covenant fidelity,” that entails the gift of righteousness to the apostle. In his own righteousness, God enables us to become what he is—righteous (2 Cor 5:21). His loyalty to his people consists in his conforming them to himself, so that he and they may live in uninterrupted covenant fellowship. God’s righteousness has provided Christ as the propitiation for sins (Rom 3:21-26). In Adam all are guilty, but God has removed their guilt by means of Christ and thus can vindicate them as his faithful people. In these actions are embodied God’s covenant faithfulness. Without constructing a full-blown ordo salutis (order of salvation), there is a logical process whereby God is able to justify sinners. By the work of the Spirit we are united with Christ and become God’s righteousness in him; and on that basis God the judge pronounces us righteous and entitled to the full privileges of covenant membership. After all is said and done, Luther was right that the righteousness God requires is the righteousness he provides in Christ.
Note: The Translation of Dikaioô
Dikaioô is not an easy verb to translate. As is true of any Greek word, there is no one English equivalent to cover every usage. Its overall significance is determined by the cluster of ideas stemming from the Old Testament and Paul’s use of it in specific contexts. It is this pregnant significance of dikaioô which some modern scholars have sought to preserve by the term “rightwise” (popularized by Kendrick Grobel’s translation of Rudolf Bultmann’s Theology of the New Testament). In place of “rightwise,” Sanders opts for a somewhat unwieldy term of his own devising: “to righteous.” Others prefer “put in the right” or similar renderings. “Justify,” because of its time-honored usage, is adequate, provided that the comprehensive character of dikaioô is kept in mind. The believer is “righteoused” in that he/she is vindicated, placed in covenant relationship and lives out the righteousness of God. Given that actual Pauline paradigm of justification is to be found in Old Testament covenantal categories, “to be an object of the saving righteousness of God” (Motyer) is to be placed within a renewed covenant relationship and enabled to render to God an obedience commensurate with that relationship. It is just the passive of dikaioô in Rom 5:1, 9 which finds its correspondent in Romans 5:9-10, i.e., justification is tantamount to being “saved” and “reconciled.” As noted above, in Romans 6:7, the use of dikaioô (“justified from sin”) stands in direct parallel to “liberated from sin” (eleutheroô) in 6:18. The parallel is preserved by rendering the former as “freed from sin.” To this we may add Galatians 2:15-21: those who have been justified in Christ (vv. 16-17) now live in him (vv. 19-20). Justification and life together constitute the “righteousness” which has been procured by the death of Christ (v. 21). Moreover, “justified” in 1 Corinthians 6:11 finds its equivalent in “washed” and “sanctified” (cf. 1QS 11:14), all three pointing to the time when the Corinthians ceased to be what they once were outside of Christ (6:9-10). G. R. Beasley-Murray can say that the “sanctification” by the Spirit and “justification” by the Lord Jesus occurred at the same time—it is a once-for-all consecration Paul has in mind, not a process. Both he and Gordon Fee take “you were justified” (edkaiôthête) to be a look back to “unrighteous” (adikoi) in vv. 1, 9, Paul’s description of pagan judges and of some of the Corinthians’ rather seamy past. Thus, there is more at stake than a changed status: those who had been dead are now alive; they are new creatures in a new creation. In this light, Paul’s statement becomes an exhortation for Christians to live as those who are washed, sanctified, and justified.
To make a long story as short as possible, the overall best shorthand translation of dikaioô is “vindicate.” The verb gives voice to a declaration, but a declaration resultant from an activity (God’s saving righteousness). This declaration also opens the way into the life of the covenant. The one acquitted in the Hebrew courtroom resumes his responsibilities and privileges within the covenant. When Israel is vindicated at the time of release from exile the new covenant is established and peace is the result of the nation’s renewed righteousness. These two perspectives combine to inform us that dikaioô, in the active voice, is “to righteous,” “to rightwise,” “to place in the right” or “to save” in the comprehensive sense. In the passive, it is “to be an object of the saving righteousness of God (so as to be well-pleasing to him at the judgment).”
Recent developments are surveyed by Stephen Westerholm, Israel’s Law and the Church’s Faith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 1-101; Peter T. O’Brien, “Justification in Paul and Some Crucial Issues of the Last Two Decades,” Right With God: Justification in the Bible and the World (ed. D. A. Carson; London/Grand Rapids: Paternoster/Baker, 1992), 69-95; Colin G. Kruse, Paul, the Law, and Justification (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1996), 277-53.
N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997).
Esler, Galatians, 163.
Ibid., 252, n. 12.
J. A. Ziesler, The Meaning of Righteousness in Paul: A Linguistic and Theological Enquiry (Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 1972), 43.
Treatments of justification/righteousness language in the Old Testament and Judaism are provided by Ziesler, Righteousness, 52-127; Philip Esler, Galatians (New Testament Readings; London: Routledge, 1998), 161-64; Karl Kertelge, “Rechtfertigung” bei Paulus: Studien zur Struktur und zum Bedeutungsgehalt des paulinischen Rechfertigungsbegriffs (2nd ed.; Münster: Aschendorff, 1967), 15-45; Benno Przybylski, Righteousness in Matthew and His World of Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 8-76; John Reumann, Righteousness in the New Testament: “Justification” in the United States Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialogue, with Responses by Joseph A. Fitzmyer and Jerome D. Quinn (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982), 12-22; David Hill, Greek Words and Hebrew Meanings: Studies in the Semantics of Soteriological Terms (Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 1967), 82-120; Peter Stuhlmacher, Gottes Gerechtigkeit bei Paulus (2nd ed.; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1966), 102-84. The related issue of purity is canvassed by Michael Newton, The Concept of Purity at Qumran and in the Letters of Paul (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 10-51; Roger P. Booth, Jesus and the Laws of Purity: Tradition History and Legal History in Mark 7 (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1986), 117-216.
Cf. Steve Motyer, “Righteousness by Faith in the New Testament,” Here We Stand: Justification by Faith Today (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1986), 34. Motyer’s entire essay is excellent.
Ziesler, Righteousness, 20, 25 (italics mine). Cf. Kertelge, Rechtfertigung, 113-20; Richard N. Longenecker, Galatians (Word Biblical Commentary; Dallas: Word, 1990), 84-85; J. Christiaan Beker, Paul the Apostle: The Triumph of God in Life and Thought (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980), 263-64; Joseph A. Fitzmyer, “The Biblical Basis of Justification by Faith: Comments on the Essay of Professor Reumann,” in John Reumann, Righteousness in the New Testament: “Justification” in the United States Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialogue, with Responses by Joseph A. Fitzmyer and Jerome D. Quinn (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982), 198; Reumann, Righteousness, 16.
Cf. Gottlob Schrenk, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (10 vols.; eds. Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964-76), 2.185, 189.
Käsemann, “‘The Righteousness of God’ in Paul,” New Testament Questions of Today (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1969), 172.
Ziesler, Righteousness, 16 (italics mine).
Cf. Wright, Saint Paul, 33-34.
See further Arland J. Hultgren, Paul’s Gospel and Mission (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), 21-26.
Wright, Saint Paul, 96.
Motyer, “Righteousness,” 48.
Käsemann, “Righteousness;” Motyer, “Righteousness,” 55.
See William J. Dumbrell, “Justification in Paul: A Covenantal Perspective,” Reformed Theological Review 51 (1992), 91-101.
 Wright, Saint Paul, 107.
Ibid., 108; see also p. 118.
W. D. Davies, “Paul: From the Jewish Point of View,” The Cambridge History of Judaism. Volume Three: The Early Roman Period (eds. William Horbury, W. D. Davies and John Sturdy; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 715-16.
Wright, Saint Paul, 97-99.
Ibid., 98 (italics his). The same line is taken by Esler, Galatians, 151.
Ibid. (italics his).
Ibid., 104-5. Wright defends this interpretation at more length in his essay, “On Becoming the Righteousness of God: 2 Corinthians 5:21,” Pauline Theology. Volume II: 1 & 2 Corinthians (ed. David M. Hay; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 200-8.
See Don Garlington, Faith, Obedience, and Perseverance: Aspects of Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1994), chap. 4. Note that Isaiah 53 falls within in the setting of the restoration of Israel. See Ronald E. Clements, “Isaiah 53 and the Restoration of Israel,” Jesus and the Suffering Servant: Isaiah 53 and Christian Origins (eds. William Bellinger, Jr. and William R. Farmer; Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 1998), 39-54.
See the penitential prayers of Ezra 9, Nehemiah 9 and Daniel 9, along with the penitential prayer tradition in post-Biblical Judaism. See Rodney Alan Werline, Penitential Prayer in Second Temple Judaism: The Development of a Religious Institution (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1998).
On righteousness as privileged identity, see Esler, Galatians, 141-77.
See further Edmund Clowney, “The Biblical
Doctrine of Justification by
Faith,” Right With God: Justification in the Bible and the World (ed. D. A. Carson; London/Grand Rapids: Paternoster/Baker, 1992), 17-50.
See E. P. Sanders, Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983), 13-14, n. 18.
Cf. Brendan Byrne, “Living Out the Righteousness of God: The Contribution of Rom 6:1-8:13 to an Understanding of Paul’s Ethical Presuppositions,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 43 (1981), 572.
Sanders, Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People, 13-14, n. 18, passim.
E.g., F. F. Bruce, Commentary on Galatians (New International Greek Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 138.
Cf. Longenecker, Galatians, 85.
G. R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament (London: MacMillan, 1962), 164-65.
Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (New International Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 246, n. 32.
Motyer, “Righteousness,” 48.