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St Paul’s Teaching of Justification

My purpose in this brief article is to outline Paul’s understanding of justification, at the same time pointing out some of the weaknesses in this quarter’s Adventist Bible Study Guide (BSG).

Currently there is a strenuous debate within Protestant circles on the issue of justification, one in which Adventists are little involved. The noted British New Testament scholar and Anglican bishop, N.T. Wright, argues that justification is not conversion or spiritual transformation. In his view, it is a change of status, by which the believer is now declared to be a true member of God’s covenant family.[1] Wright is opposed by John Piper who argues for the traditional Protestant view of imputed righteousness, which term he defines as God’s counting the believer to be morally righteous even though, in fact, he or she is not.[2]

My view is that both those authors and the Adventist author of this quarter’s BSG fail to grasp Paul’s true meaning. Lesson 3 of BSG quotes Romans 1:16, 17 but fails to interpret the passage. The author defines “gospel,” “righteousness,” and “faith,” but leaves the reader wondering what Paul was actually saying. Paul was proud of the gospel “for it is the power of God unto (for) salvation.”

Who are the recipients of this power? “All those who believe,” irrespective of race or culture. What is the source of this power? “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed.” To whom is the righteousness of God revealed? “From faith to faith.” Whose faith? The Jews and Gentiles mentioned in verse 16; that is, the faith of anyone who accepts Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. What is meant by “the righteousness of God is revealed”? The Greek word is apokalupto, used elsewhere in the New Testament to refer to spiritual life and truth revealed to the hearts of believers by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 2:9, 10, 12; Matt. 11:25). The gospel reveals to our hearts the righteousness of God. And the result? “The righteous person shall live by faith.”

Paul doesn’t say that the believer is counted, imputed, reckoned righteous, even though he or she is not. He simply says that the person living by faith is righteous because to his (or her) heart the righteousness of God has been revealed. That righteousness of God revealed to the believer is the opposite of the “ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth” (vs. 18 ff.)

The BSG passes over Romans 2:12-14, were, Paul speaks of the judgment. Those who have God’s law, His truth in His Word, will be judged by it. Those who don’t have the law are judged by what light God has been able to reveal to them. Those who have God’s law written on their hearts and who have lived by it are counted as believers. The crucial line is: “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (v.13, RSV). In the judgment, the doers of the law will be justified (vindicated) because their righteous behavior reveals that they had enjoyed justification by faith. Judgment according to works, by which works reveal the effective working of God’s grace in the life, is a Bible teaching.[3]

Lesson 4 of the BSG asserts: “We are justified when we are ‘declared righteous’ by God.” (p. 33). It has just told us correctly that “the Greek word dikaioo, translated ‘justify,’ may mean “make righteous,” “declare righteous,” or “consider righteous.” Now it asserts that only one of those meanings for justification is valid in Romans. The author could have pointed out that justification in Paul’s writings is forgiveness (Acts 13:38, 39; Rom. 4:1-8). But, for Paul, forgiveness is not only a forensic matter. Certainly confessing sinners are vindicated, but in addition they are spiritually transformed. Colossians 2:13 reads: “And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses” (RSV; see also Acts 26:18; Eph. 1:7-9; Col. 1:13, 14.)

Ellen White defines forgiveness biblically: “God’s forgiveness is not merely a judicial act by which He sets us free from condemnation. It is not only forgiveness for sin, but reclaiming from sin. It is the outflow of redeeming love that transforms the heart.” But forgiveness is justification. Justification, then, is “the outflow of redeeming love that transforms the heart” (Mount of Blessing, p. 11).

The author of BSG quotes Ellen White selectively, emphasizing that justified believers are treated as though they were righteous. But often Ellen White also speaks of justification as spiritual transformation. (See Christ’s Object Lessons, pp. 163, 312; Steps to Christ, p. 62; Selected Messages, book 1, p. 399.)

Considering Romans 3:24, the author of the BSG states, “Grace means ‘favor’ ” (p. 33). Of course that is true, but consistently in the writings of Paul, grace is enriching spiritual power given to believers.[4] Romans 3:24 states: “they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (NRSV). As the gift of grace, justification is not just a legal matter; it is the gift of spiritual transformation and power for believers.

Considering Romans, chapter 4, the BSG provides a limited understanding of imputation. Paul cites Genesis 15:6: Abraham’s belief was reckoned, counted, imputed (Gr: logizomai, Heb. chashab) to him as righteousness. A study of the verb “to believe” (‘aman) throughout the Old Testament reveals that belief in God involves, not merely acceptance of ideas, doctrines, or propositions, but also acceptance of God into the life, resulting in total practical commitment to a lifestyle that is stipulated by Yahweh as appropriate to the everlasting covenant relationship.[5] We might say that belief is union with God that affects all a person’s attitudes and actions. No wonder God considered (counted, reckoned, imputed) Abraham righteous (Gen. 15:6). He considered him so because, in view of Abraham’s faith covenant fellowship with God, he shared the righteousness of God. His righteousness was God’s righteousness, but because of his faith union with God it was his also. Abraham experienced righteousness by faith.

This conclusion is supported by a study of chashab in the Hebrew O.T. and logizomai in the Septuagint. These words have a wide range of meanings. Sometimes they refer to things or persons that are counted (imputed) to be what they are not.[6] On the other hand, the verb “to impute” in some instances refers to people being regarded as exactly what they are.[7]

On occasions the verb “to impute” is used in the Old Testament to designate an actual gift, or to specify actual ownership. The tithe “reckoned to the Levites” (Num. 18:26-30) was a gift of food for them and their households (v. 31). Joshua 13:3 mentions land “reckoned as Canaanite”—it was reckoned (imputed) to the people who were in actual possession of it. 2nd Samuel 4:2 records that the town Beeroth was “reckoned to Benjamin.” In fact, the tribe of Benjamin was given that town in the distribution of property (Josh. 9:17; 18:21-25). The imputation was an actual gift.

Imputation of righteousness in Romans 4 refers to God’s bestowing upon believers that which He legally accounts. Despite the traditional view, God does not impute that which is not so. Logizomai is used in both verses 4 and 5 of Romans 4: a worker’s wages are counted [logizetai] as owing to him. “But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned [logizetai] as righteousness” (v. 5). The contrast in the passage is between one who works and one who does not work. In both cases, an actual gift is reckoned (imputed); to the worker his wages, to the believer the gift of righteousness.

The BSG says, “His righteousness alone is enough to give us the right standing with our Lord” (p. 46). It should be added, His righteousness is enough to give us both a right standing and a right spiritual state. Romans 5 assures us that when we are justified by faith “we have peace with God”; this is “because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (vv. 1, 5, NRSV).

In the lesson on Romans 6, the BSG states: “Yet, the word sanctification itself appears nowhere in Romans” (p. 56). This is a curious error. In fact the Greek word hagiasmos occurs twice, in Romans 6:19 and 22. The word means both “sanctification” and “holiness.” Romans 6 is as much about justification as it is about sanctification. Romans 6:7 translates literally: “For he who died has been justified [dedikaiotai] from sin. The death of the old man is conversion; it is the death of the old life of habitual sinning (Eph. 4:22; Col. 3:3-11). Paul speaks of the Roman Christians who have had this experience as willing “slaves of righteousness” (Rom. 6:18, NRSV). They became such when they were justified, for justification is the gift of righteousness (Rom. 3:22). The believers became slaves of righteousness “for sanctification” (Rom. 6:19, NRSV). The point is that sanctification (holiness) is the immediate and long-term result of justification. Justification causes sanctification (cf. Rom. 6:22.)

Romans 7:6 underlines the point. When the old man of sin is dead “we are slaves . . . in the new life of the Spirit” (NRSV). Romans 8 encapsulates the point. “But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit” (v. 9, NRSV). The Roman believers were not unjustified; they had received the indwelling Holy Spirit when they were justified. “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him” (v. 9, NRSV). In other words, any unjustified person does not belong to Christ. “But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness” (v. 10, NRSV). The passage is saying that the Spirit in the believer is Christ in the believer, and His presence in the life is righteousness in the life. The gift of righteousness (justification) is bestowed by the Holy Spirit. Justification, then, is the work of the Spirit.

This truth is strongly reinforced in Titus 3:5-7. Paul explicitly states that God’s saving act was “by the washing of rebirth [paliggenesias] and the renewing of the Holy Spirit, which He poured out upon us.” We were not saved by infusion but by pouring. Ekcheo is the same verb used in Matt. 9:17 to refer to the pouring out of a liquid (cf. Acts 2:17, 18, 33 where the pouring out of the Spirit is mentioned). We were saved “so that having been justified [dikaiothentes] by His grace we might be heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (v. 7). In this passage, God’s saving act is identified with His justifying act, and the result is that we are heirs.

Since He saves us by pouring the Holy Spirit upon us, this is precisely how He justifies us. Justification includes the new birth experience.


  1. N. T. Wright, Paul in Fresh Perspective (Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 2005), pp. 121, 122, 159, 160; Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (Downers Grove: Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2009), pp. 28, 69, 90, 91, 95-99, 118.
  2. John Piper, The Future of Justification. A Response to N. T. Wright (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2007), p. 78.
  3. Ps. 62:12; Jer. 17:10; Matt. 16:27; 2 Cor. 5:10; 1 Peter 1:17; Rev. 20:12; 22:12.
  4. See 1 Cor. 1:4-9; 15:10; 2 Cor. 8:1, 2; 2 Cor. 9:8, 14; Gal. 2:9; 2 Tim. 2:1; cf. Heb. 13:9; 2 Peter 3:18.
  5. Cf. Ps. 31:23; 78:7, 8; Isa. 1:21, 26; Neh. 9:8.
  6. Lev. 25:31; Gen. 31:15; 38:15; 1 Sam. 1:13; Job 13:24; 19:11.
  7. Neh. 13:13; Deut 2:11, 20; Job 18:3; Ps. 106:30, 31; cf. Num. 25:10-13.
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