What are the key elements of justification in Paul’s letters?

[Note: this is a practice essay response, and is therefore sketchy in places]

How does a Holy God forgive guilty sinners? How is one justified, or made right before God? This question lies at the heart of the entire Bible, and is answered in full by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul, the NT author who writes most about the doctrine of justification, teaches that there are three main elements to justification: a removal of God’s wrath against our unrighteousness, a crediting of Jesus’s righteousness to us, and that it is received by grace through faith in Christ.

1. Justification is the removal of God’s ANGER

The first element of justification is that it is the removal of God’s settled opposition to human sin – His wrath. Paul opens his letter to the Romans by reminding them that “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Rom 1:17, quoting Habbakuk 2:4). The reason that faith is the basis for righteousness is given in the very next verse: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth…” (Rom 1:18) These transgressions are not merely horizontal in nature (e.g. Gentile-Jew relationships), but a self-centred rejection of God Himself (Rom 1:21) and is evidenced in all kinds of ways. Paul’s argument over Romans 1-3 culminates in the summary that “there is none righteous, not even one” (Rom 3:10).

It is inconsistent with God’s character and actions over history to “justify the wicked” (Ex 23:7, Prov 17:15). As a result, the fair response from God “for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth” must be “wrath and anger” (Rom 2:8). Given this state of affairs, in order for God to clear the guilty and “declare righteous the ungodly” (Rom 4:5), some kind of action to turn away this wrath is required.

Paul repeatedly teaches that Christ’s death solves this dilemma; in His death, he bears God’s wrath for sin in our place. Romans 3:24-25 states that sinners have been justified (δικαιούμενοι) freely by God’s grace through Christ, of whom God presents as a propitiation (or atoning sacrifice) for our sins. This language of Christ taking our penalty as a substitute is also evident in other passages such as Galatians 3:13 (“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us”) and 2 Cor 5:19 (“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”) So to understand what it means to be justified, we first recognise that it involves the removal of God’s wrath against our unrighteousness.

2. Justification is a righteousness TRANSFER

Justification is not merely the removal of guilt; a mnemonic like “Just as if I never sinned” actually falls short of fully covering what occurs. According to Paul, the second element of justification is that God in Christ credits, or imputes His genuine righteousness to us. Paul summarises chapter three by stating that one is “justified by faith apart from the works of the Law.” (Rom 3:28) Then, in Romans 4:2-6, citing Abraham’s response to God, Paul uses a new term, λογίζεται (reckoned, credited), to illustrate a close connection with justification. culminating in the use of both terms his summary in Romans 4:6:

“just as David also speaks of the blessing upon the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works

The last clause (underlined) mirrors the syntax of Romans 3:28, except that Paul swaps the term “justified” with “reckons righteousness”. This language of crediting helps us to visualise that justification is also a transfer of Christ’s righteousness. In Romans 5:18-19, Paul states that “through the obedience of the One many will be appointed righteous” – he does this to emphasise that when sinners are justified, Christ’s obedience is genuinely transferred to our account.

Therefore, justification does not only mean “just as if I’ve never sinned”, but also “just as if I’ve always obeyed” – because the righteousness of Christ’s perfect life has really been transferred to us.

3. The MEANS of justification is “by grace through faith”

How is the removal of God’s wrath and the crediting of Christ’s righteousness appropriated to us? Paul uses the terms “by grace” and “through faith” repeatedly throughout his writings to emphasise the only means of being made right before God (e.g. Rom 3:24, 4:16, 5:17, Tit 3:7, Eph 2:8). The distinction between the two is that God’s grace is the source of our justification, while our faith is the means by which we receive this justification.

For example, while explaining how Abraham was justified by faith not works, Paul explains that justification is received by “the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly” (Rom 4:5). Other passages in Paul’s writings clearly portray faith as the instrument for receiving a righteousness from God (e.g. Rom 3:22-30, 4:6, 5:1, Phil 3:9). This faith is also in view when Paul states in Romans 10:10 that “for with the heart one believes, [resulting] in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, [resulting] in salvation.” The appropriate response therefore, is to “declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom 10:9)

In conclusion, Paul’s teaching on justification is that firstly, it is a removal of God’s wrath against sin, it is a crediting of Christ’s righteousness, and that this “great exchange” is obtained through a personal response of faith in what Jesus has done on our behalf.


[60 minutes]

Sources and helpful links:

  • Thompson, Alan. “Righteousness and Justification in Paul.” NT635 Romans and Pauline Theology (Lecture Notes), Sydney Missionary Bible College, 2018.
  • Thompson, Alan. “Greek Exegesis: Romans 1-6.” NT635 Romans and Pauline Theology (Lecture Notes), Sydney Missionary Bible College, 2018.
  • PSALLOS, Romans album.
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