God's Word For You is a free Bible Study site committed to bringing you studies firmly grounded in the Bible – the Word of God. Holding a reformed, conservative, evangelical perspective this site affirms that God has provided in Jesus Christ his eternal Son, a way of salvation in which we can live in his presence guilt free, acquitted and at peace.



© Rosemary Bardsley 2005, 2014

We humans are obsessed with justifying ourselves. Ever since Genesis 3:12 we have defended our own rightness or excused our lack of it. We hate to be considered in the wrong. We treasure our lists of ‘brownie points’, thinking that by them we merit recognition or reward. We automatically relate to God, our Judge, on a self-promoting, good works/performance basis. The Bible rejects this mindset as the way of the flesh, our way, as opposed to the way of the Spirit, God’s way.

When we hear the words ‘righteous’ or ‘righteousness’ our minds automatically understand them to mean something we have to do or be. We think in terms of ‘being good’ or ‘being holy’ or ‘keeping the law’. At one level, this is what they do mean – they refer to a total keeping of the just requirements of God’s law that, if we could actually do it, would gain for us a ‘not guilty’ verdict from God the just judge. But this meaning is far from a salvation meaning; rather it is the opposite of salvation, it is condemnation, because, as the Scripture testifies, and as experience demonstrates, we are all actually guilty. Not one of us is ‘righteous’ in this legal sense on the basis of our own endeavours.



The Old Testament makes many references to righteousness. The Hebrew words are sadaq – ‘to be righteous, be in the right, be justified, be just’; sedeq and s’daqah – ‘righteousness’. These terms are legal terms. If one is sadaq one is not guilty, one is in the clear, in the right, as far as the law is concerned.  It is very easy when reading the Old Testament to be overwhelmed by the repeated and heavy demands that men should be ‘righteous’, and to think that this personal guiltlessness is the basis of one’s relationship with God. There is, however, another dimension to Old Testament righteousness.

Task #1: Scripture research

Read these scriptures and describe the concept of righteousness they present. Remember the significance of parallel thoughts in Hebrew poetry when reading the grouped Psalms and Isaiah passages.

Genesis 15:6

Psalm 65:1-5

Psalm 71:2, 15
Psalm 98:2
Psalm 119:123

Isaiah 45:8
Isaiah 46:13
Isaiah 51:5-8

Isaiah 53:11

Isaiah 61:10


The New Testament contains a group of words, sharing a common Greek root, which translate as ‘to declare righteous’ [dikaioo], ‘righteousness’ [dikaiosune], ‘righteous’ [dikaios], ‘to justify’ [dikaioo], ‘justification’ [dikaiosune], and ‘just’ [dikaios]. Their primary application is legal, not moral. They are the language of the law courts; in the Bible they describe our legal or forensic standing in the presence of God.

Leon Morris Comments:

‘The great apostle does not share the curious modern antipathy to the use of legal terms in interpreting God’s relation to men. He delights in speaking of Christ as having “justified” sinners. Justification is essentially a legal term. It means a verdict of acquittal. To justify means to declare “not guilty”. When Paul speaks of men as “justified”, then, he means that they have God’s verdict of acquittal. When they stand before the bar of God’s justice they need have no fear, for the Judge has already given His verdict in their favour.

‘Many theologians have maintained that justification means “to make righteous”. They assert that the term points to a change in men, so that, by the grace of God, they become the kind of people they ought to be. This is to confuse justification and sanctification. … [The Greek verb] signifies “to declare righteous”, “to acquit”, and not “to make righteous”. While it is true that the justified man will be deeply concerned with holy living, it is also true that justification is not simply another name for his holy life. It refers to his standing before God, to God’s acceptance of him’ [p241-242 The Cross in the New Testament]


In Romans 1:16-7 Paul gave a brief summary of the Gospel, stating: ‘[the Gospel] is the power of God for the salvation of every one who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last’. In Romans 3:20-31 he explains the significance of this justification/righteousness that is at the core of the Gospel.

A.1 No one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law (3:20).

Paul has spent from 1:18 to 3:20 explaining why the Gospel is necessary, why the Gospel has to depend on the power of God not on any supposed power of our own, and why it has to be ‘by faith from first to last’ and not by any merit of our own. Verse 20 is his final conclusion on that matter: No matter how hard and how faithfully we try to keep the law our performance will never obtain for us the declaration ‘not guilty’ in the presence of God. In fact the law does not highlight our merit, it identifies our demerit. God cannot acquit us on the basis of our own performance because our performance always fails.

Because no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by observing the law, Romans 3:21 & 28 tell us that Gospel righteousness/justification is ‘apart from law’ and ‘apart from observing the law’. In the Gospel God declares us righteous – pronounces acquittal - apart from our keeping the law. This immediately silences any of our human protestations that something of ours, or anything in us – something we are, or do, or have done, is the cause of this declaration of acquittal. It silences also all those who would make the cause of God’s election anything in us that he foreknew that we would do. Gospel righteousness, Gospel justification, is completely apart from works. It has absolutely nothing to do with our having done anything required by God.

A.2 It is a righteousness from God (3:21,22; 1:17).

When we try to be justified or declared righteous by keeping God’s law, we see justification or righteousness as having its source in ourselves.  When we think that by our own performance we can earn it, merit it or deserve it, our standing in his presence will be constantly under threat of our failure to keep God’s law. There is no guarantee or assurance in such self-focused justification/righteousness. In fact the opposite is guaranteed: we will never be acquitted by God if we approach him on the basis of our own ‘righteousness’.

In Gospel justification/righteousness no such threat hangs over us, because it is a legal acquittal in the presence of God that depends not on us but on him. It comes from him.  Because it is not relative to our performance, it is absolute, permanent and guaranteed (Romans 4:16).

A.3 It is a righteousness/justification that has been made known (3:21).

Every human effort to find union and acceptance with our god or gods is performance based. World religions, false cults, our own misuse of Scripture, all testify to this. Our idea is that we, by our effort, must get ourselves right with God. This performance-based relationship with God or gods is the mindset of the flesh, the mindset of the world; it is the best the world of men could come up with.

Task #2: Read these Scriptures and answer these questions:
What do they warn us against?
Where do these doctrines originate from?

Mark 7:6-7

Ephesians 4:14

Colossians 2:8

Colossians 2:20-22

1Timothy 4:1

Gospel righteousness/justification, cutting right across our idea, is something that God has made known. It is not something that we humans thought up; in fact it is not something that we humans would ever think up, for it reduces us to nothing. It makes us spiritually destitute. It knocks our pride and our ability on the head and tells us we are utterly incapable of gaining a ‘not guilty’ verdict from God. This gospel, this righteousness, this justification is something revealed by God. God, in fact, tells us that this gospel righteousness, this declaration of acquittal that comes from God, is the message of the Law and the Prophets [3:21]. It has been embedded in his revelation from the very beginning.


A.4 Gospel righteousness/justification comes through faith in Jesus Christ (3:22).

In the previous study faith was identified as knowing, trusting, and being committed to, Jesus Christ. It is this faith in Jesus Christ, which is essentially knowing God - a return to the one true God, and always a gift of God - which is followed by God’s declaration that we are right with him. ‘Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness’; in the same way faith in Jesus Christ brings upon those who believe, the ‘blessing of Abraham’ by which we are declared right with God irrespective of our performance.


Task #3: Study these verses.
What do they teach about the relationship between righteousness and faith?
Romans 4:3

Romans 4:16-17

Romans 4:23

Romans 9:30-31

Galatians 3:6-9

A.5 Gospel righteousness/justification is to all who believe. There is no difference ... (3:22).

Here God teaches us that everyone who believes in Jesus Christ stands equally acquitted, equally in the right with God. There are no degrees of righteousness/justification. Because our legal standing as right in the presence of God does not depend on our performance but on his pronouncement, it is the same for all who believe. There is no difference. In 3:29,30 this equality in justification is applied to the two extremely divergent and antithetical groups of Jews and Gentiles. Both are justified equally by the same means, because justification is through faith, not by works of the law.

Reinforcing this Paul wrote: ‘for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (3:23). We ‘have all sinned’ (past tense) and are thereby disqualified in the court of heaven; in addition we ‘all fall short’ (present continuous tense), and are thereby constantly disqualified in the presence of our Judge. Not one of us merits God’s acquittal. We are all equally condemned, equally in need of this alien, outside-of-us righteousness at every moment of our lives.


A.6 We are all ‘justified freely by his grace’ (3:24).

Justification/righteousness is something we cannot earn, merit or deserve with obedience or good works. It is free. It is independent. It is absolute. It does not vary with our variability, becoming greater when we are ‘good’ and lesser when we are ‘bad’. It is unconditional. It is fixed. All of this is because it is by God’s grace. Sheer unqualified, undeserved gift. This is God’s will, God’s purpose, God’s pleasure [Ephesians 1:5,9,11]: that out of his boundless, overflowing love he gives to us that which we don’t deserve, that which we could never merit or maintain by our own goodness. By this grace we are justified freely.


Task #4: Study a contrasting view

Contrast this free, unmerited justification with these comments from Finney, where, in the first quote he maintains that justification is conditional on ‘perseverance in obedience to the end of life’ and that faith that justifies includes ‘every virtue’, and in the second quote rejects the teaching that people are justified apart from works.

‘We have seen that repentance, as well as faith, is a condition of justification. We shall see that perseverance in obedience to the end of life is also a condition of justification. Faith is often spoken of in scripture as if it were the sole condition of salvation, because, as we have seen, from its very nature it implies repentance and every virtue.’

‘Those who hold that justification by imputed righteousness is a forensic proceeding, take a view of final or ultimate justification, according with their view of the nature of the transaction. With them, faith receives an imputed righteousness, and a judicial justification. The first act of faith, according to them, introduces the sinner into this relation, and obtains for him a perpetual justification. They maintain that after this first act of faith it is impossible for the sinner to come into condemnation; that, being once justified, he is always thereafter justified, whatever he may do; indeed that he is never justified by grace, as to sins that are past, upon condition that he ceases to sin; that Christ's righteousness is the ground, and that his own present obedience is not even a condition of his justification, so that, in fact, his own present or future obedience to the law of God is, in no case, and in no sense, a sine quà non of his justification, present or ultimate’ [Systematic Theology, Lecture 56]

Discuss Finney’s statements. In what ways do they undermine the ‘freely’ of the Biblical statement?





A.7 This justification/righteousness is through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus (3:24,25).

What Jesus did on the cross was the one thing, the only thing, necessary to enable God to acquit us and declare us righteous. He died as our substitute, bearing all the legal punishment and condemnation due to us because of our sin. By dying for us [in our place] Jesus Christ redeemed us [set us free] from the curse of the law which holds all of us alienated from God and unacceptable to God [Galatians 3:1-14 – see Study Eight]. This action of Christ on the cross to obtain our justification/righteousness was fixed in the purpose of our God before the world began [1Peter 1:18-20; Revelation 13:8]. It is rock solid. It cannot be moved. It cannot be reduced by our failures.


A.8 Because Gospel righteousness/justification depends on the death of Jesus Christ on the cross on our behalf it demonstrates God’s justice (3:25b-26).

How can God acquit the guilty and remain just? How can he accept us, whom his word condemns, and remain faithful to that word? God here teaches us that because Jesus died in our place God’s just verdict on our sin has been carried out. Justice has been upheld. Our sin has been paid for, punished to the full. So complete and finished is this act of Jesus Christ in taking our place that God reckons his death to be our death [Romans 6:2-11; Galatians 2:17-21; Colossians 2:12,20; 3:3]. [Substitutionary atonement is the focus of a later study.]


A.9 Gospel righteousness/justification excludes boasting (3:27-28; Ephesians 2:9).

Because gospel righteousness is grounded and fixed in the action and obedience of Jesus Christ and has no relation to our actions and obedience, because it is grounded and fixed in the purpose of God, because it is by sheer undeserved, unmerited grace, it excludes and outlaws boasting. We contribute nothing to it. Nothing we do gains it. Nothing we do maintains it. None of us can say ‘I am right with God because I....’. None of us is permitted to say ‘I am more acceptable to God than you are because I ...’ There can be no boasting. Every believer is acceptable in the court of heaven because of the righteousness of Jesus Christ. All believers are equally acquitted. All are equally declared righteous – ‘not guilty’.  


A.10 Gospel righteousness/justification upholds God’s law (3:31).

Lest some respond to justification by thinking that law is redundant, or that God’s law has been side-stepped or ignored by the Gospel, Paul states that, rather than nullifying the law, justification by faith upholds the law. Living, Jesus fully met the law’s demand for righteousness. Dying, he fully bore the law’s penalty on all unrighteousness. In both he affirmed the true significance and relevance of God’s law. Thus Hoekema, discussing the ground of justification, comments:

‘It will probably be best to say, with Louis Berkhof, that the ground for our justification is the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ, by which we mean all that Christ did for us in suffering the punishment which our sins deserved, and in perfectly keeping God’s law for us. This perfect righteousness, imputed or credited to us when through faith we become one with Christ, is the totally adequate ground for our justification.’ [Saved by Grace, p190]

In one way of looking at it, we are saved by the keeping of God’s law – but this ‘keeping of God’s law’ was achieved by Jesus Christ. Had he not kept the Law, God’s gift of Gospel righteousness would have been impossible.


In Romans 4 Paul discusses Abraham, and the way he received God’s declaration of imputed righteousness.

Task #5: Romans 4
What does Paul say about justification or righteousness in these verses from Romans 4?










B.1 God justifies the wicked

Note particularly in verse 5 Paul states that God ‘justifies the wicked’. Martin Luther used the term simul justus et peccator to convey this concept: the Christian is a person who is at the same time justified and a sinner. But this glorious fact of legal acquittal by God while still a sinner stirs up criticism and antagonism. By one way or another people try to explain this phrase away, either by altering the concept of the sinfulness and inability of man, or changing the nature of justification from imputed righteousness in the sense of a legal status or standing to imparted righteousness in the sense of freedom from personal sinfulness.

Finney states in his lectures on Systematic Theology:

‘But again, to the question, can man be justified while sin remains in him? Surely he cannot, either upon legal or gospel principles, unless the law be repealed. That he cannot be justified by the law, while there is a particle of sin in him, is too plain to need proof. But can he be pardoned and accepted, and then justified, in the gospel sense, while sin, any degree of sin, remains in him? Certainly not. For the law, unless it be repealed, and antinomianism be true, continues to condemn him while there is any degree of sin in him. It is a contradiction to say, that he can both be pardoned, and at the same time condemned. But if he is all the time coming short of full obedience, there never is a moment in which the law is not uttering its curses against him. "Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things that are written in the book of the law to do them." The fact is, there never has been, and there never can be, any such thing as sin without condemnation. "Beloved, if our own heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart;" that, is, he much more condemns us. "But if our heart condemn us not, then have we confidence towards God." God cannot repeal the law. It is not founded in his arbitrary will. It is as unalterable and unrepealable as his own nature. God can never repeal nor alter it. He can, for Christ's sake, dispense with the execution of the penalty, when the subject has returned to full present obedience to the precept, but in no other case, and upon no other possible conditions. To affirm that he can, is to affirm that God can alter the immutable and eternal principles of moral law and moral government.’    [http://www.gospeltruth.net/1851Sys_Theo/st15.htm bold added]

The Council of Trent affirmed:

CANON 9:  "If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema."
CANON 12:  "If any one shall say that justifying faith is nothing else than confidence in the divine mercy pardoning sins for Christ's sake, or that it is that confidence alone by which we are justified ... let him be accursed"
CANON 24:  "If any one saith, that the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of Justification obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof; let him be anathema."
CANON 30:  "If any one saith, that, after the grace of Justification has been received, to every penitent sinner the guilt is remitted, and the debt of eternal punishment is blotted out in such wise, that there remains not any debt of temporal punishment to be discharged either in this world, or in the next in Purgatory, before the entrance to the kingdom of heaven can be opened (to him); let him be anathema." [Canons on Justification;http://carm.org/council-trent-canons-justification]


Task #6: Recognizing the contrast

How do the statements of Finney a 19th century protestant and the Council of Trent [a definitive Roman Catholic council in 1544-1563] contrast with the Biblical statement that God justifies the wicked? How do they undermine the impact of the work of Christ on the cross? How do they negate grace? [See quotes below as well.]








The understanding of justification evident in these two positions impacts the view of the Christian life and the view of the significance of the Christian life held in these two positions. For example:

[1] Finney states:

‘It is self-evident, that entire obedience to God's law is possible on the ground of natural ability. To deny this, is to deny that a man is able to do as well as he can. The very language of the law is such as to level its claims to the capacity of the subject, however great or small that capacity may be. "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength." Here then it is plain, that all the law demands, is the exercise of whatever strength we have, in the service of God. Now, as entire sanctification consists in perfect obedience to the law of God, and as the law requires nothing more than the right use of whatever strength we have, it is, of course, for ever settled, that a state of entire sanctification is attainable in this life, on the ground of natural ability.’ [Bold added. Question: what is wrong with the boldstatements?]

‘The provisions of grace are such as to render its actual attainment in this life, the object of reasonable pursuit. It is admitted, that the entire sanctification of the church is to be accomplished. It is also admitted, that this work is to be accomplished, "through the sanctification of the Spirit and the belief of the truth." It is also universally agreed, that this work must be begun here; and also that it must be completed before the soul can enter heaven. [Lecture 59, Systematic Theology]

[2] The Council of Trent states:

‘For as in truth men, if they were not born propagated of the seed of Adam, would not be born unjust,-seeing that, by that propagation, they contract through him, when they are conceived, injustice as their own,-so, if they were not born again in Christ, they never would be justified; seeing that, in that new birth, there is bestowed upon them, through the merit of His passion, the grace whereby they are made just.’ [Decree on Justification, III]

‘This disposition, or preparation, is followed by Justification itself, which is not remission of sins merely, but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man, through the voluntary reception of the grace, and of the gifts, whereby man of unjust becomes just, and of an enemy a friend, that so he may be an heir according to hope of life everlasting.

‘Of this Justification the causes are these: the final cause indeed is the glory of God and of Jesus Christ, and life everlasting; while the efficient cause is a merciful God who washes and sanctifies gratuitously, signing, and anointing with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the pledge of our inheritance; but the meritorious cause is His most beloved only-begotten, our Lord Jesus Christ, who, when we were enemies, for the exceeding charity wherewith he loved us, merited Justification for us by His most holy Passion on  
the wood of the cross, and made satisfaction for us unto God the Father; the instrumental cause is the
sacrament of baptism, which is the sacrament of faith, without which (faith) no man was ever justified; lastly, the alone formal cause is the justice of God, not that whereby He Himself is just, but that whereby He maketh us just, that, to wit, with which we being endowed by Him, are renewed in the spirit of our mind, and we are not only reputed, but are truly called, and are, just, receiving justice within us, each one according to his own measure, which the Holy Ghost distributes to every one as He wills, and according to each one's proper disposition and co-operation. For, although no one can be just, but he to whom the merits of the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ are communicated, yet is this done in the said justification of the impious, when by the merit of that same most holy Passion, the charity of God is poured forth, by the Holy Spirit, in the hearts of those that are justified, and is inherent therein: whence, man, through Jesus Christ, in whom he is ingrafted, receives, in the said justification, together with the remission of sins, all these (gifts) infused at once, faith, hope, and charity’ [Decree on Justification, VII; bold added].


Neither Finney nor the Council of Trent can accept the concept that a person is a ‘sinner’ and at the same time ‘justified’:

Finney gets around it by stating that justification is applied only to those who have returned to full present obedience to the moral precepts, and by further stating that such a keeping of the law is possible for us, even for the natural, unredeemed man.

Trent, on the other hand, affirms that at baptism the unjust is actually made just, that is, the righteousness of Christ is imparted to the baptised person [so that he/she is made ‘just’, that is, righteous], not imputed, credited, counted or reckoned just as the Scriptures state.

Yet the Scripture says clearly that there is no one who is righteous, that is ‘just’ [Romans 310]; Paul stated that he counted all of his ‘righteousness’ as ‘dung’ [Philippians 3:8]; and John explained to believers that if anyone says he has not sinned or that he has no sin, he is not only deceiving himself, but is also calling God a liar [1John 1:8-10]. So, Paul says, God justifies the wicked. God declares  sinners acquitted. It is ‘sinners’ whom Christ calls to repentance. It is sinners who need the eternal priesthood/advocacy of Christ [1John 1:8-2:2]. If we do not continue to be sinners, if the application of the merits of Christ makes us actually just or righteous, then the continuing and eternal advocacy of Christ, the great High Priest, is meaningless and redundant. So also is the continuing application of mercy and grace to us on account of his death. Only sinners need an advocate/mediator in the presence of God. Only sinners need grace and mercy. These inventions of Finney and Trent, and many others like them, thrust us back onto our own merits, and force us to approach the throne of God as if it is a throne of judgment, and not the throne of grace which the scripture says it is for all those who trust in Jesus Christ. [Hebrews 4:14-16].