The apostle Paul tells us that the law and the prophets bear witness to God’s justifying righteousness. In making this statement he is not only saying that particular passages point to this great subject but that the entire Old Testament does so. Before coming to specific verses that directly bear upon the theme there are some general observations to be made.
The Initial Family Bond
The biblical doctrine of justification presupposes the living and true God, the Creator and Ruler of the whole universe, and the recognition that human beings are created by God and are responsible to God. ‘God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness . . .” So God created man in his own image . . .male and female he created them’ (Genesis 1:26-27). God created man in his image so that a personal relationship of mutual love might exist and that man might act as God’s viceroy over the newly created earth. That original bond between God and man is described in covenantal terms. A general blessing is pronounced: ‘God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over . . .” (Genesis 1:28). A curse is also threatened for disobedience: ‘you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die’ (2:17). In that initial family bond, where man is described as God’s son (5:1-2; Luke 3:3 8), righteousness involved loyalty to that covenant relationship. On the divine side it meant the obligation to punish disobedience as well as to bless. It should be noted, however, that God is the sovereign. He makes the rules and he is not accountable to man: on the contrary, man is accountable to God.
Human Sin and Divine Grace
Justification also implies human sin and divine grace. There would be no need for justification if human beings had remained faithful to the initial covenant bond. Such terms as ‘judge’, ‘judgment’ and ‘justification’ arise in the context of human sinfulness. Again, there would be no possibility of justification were it not for the grace of God. These twin themes of man’s sin and God’s grace are present in chapter three of Genesis. The account is given of how sin entered the world through the rebellion of our first parents. God is now shown to be the divine judge who pronounces sentence. At the same time, God’s grace is revealed in the promise of victory through the offspring of the woman (Genesis 3:15). In addition, the provision of proper clothing for the couple is both a reminder of their sinfulness and an act of grace (3:21). Prior to Adam and Eve’s disobedience nakedness was neither a problem to them nor to God (2:25). After their disobedience they sought to hide from each other and from God. Their awareness of being naked was an indication of their guilt and shame. For that guilt and shame to be removed they must be properly clad. Thus their clothing was a continual reminder that they were now sinners.1 They could not approach God unclothed.
That it was God who provided the suitable clothing was, nevertheless, an indication of his grace.2 The paltry efforts of the human couple were totally inadequate. To be adequately and decently covered God must clothe them. Their sin and guilt could not be properly covered through their own desperate efforts. For human beings to approach God it was necessary to have clothes provided and approved by him. In place of the skimpy belt of fig leaves God chose tunics or shirts of skin. There could be no greater contrast. It shows how easy-going and utterly inadequate were the human efforts to deal with guilt and shame, and how thorough-going and costly was God’s way. It involved the taking of life. As E. J. Young suggests it would appear that ‘this act of God in the taking of animal life laid the foundation for animal sacrifice’3 Here, then, we have in this chapter all the basic ingredients concerning the biblical doctrine of justification, which will be opened up and developed with the accumulation of divine revelation through the Old Testament period, until the climax is reached in the New Testament. Promise and type give way to fulfilment and reality in the coming of Messiah, God’s Son. We can only briefly draw attention to these themes of sin and judgment, of grace and promise and of the provision of proper covering with which to approach God.
Solomon, in his great prayer at the dedication of the temple, is conscious of the sin of Israel (1 Kings 8:33, 35,46-47,50) and confesses that ‘there is no-one who does not sin’ (v. 46). The Psalmist declares that is God looks down on humanity he sees that ‘there is no-one who does good, not even one’ (Psalm 14:3). Jeremiah teaches that ‘the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?’ (17:9) God reveals through Ezekiel that ‘the soul who sins is the one who will die’ (18:4). The Preacher insists that ‘there is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins’ (Ecclesiastes 7:20). Indeed, Ecclesiastes can be thought of as a sermon or commentary on the early chapters of Genesis, with its emphasis on the transitory nature of life in this fallen world and the power of death. All feel the curse. Isaiah sums up the situation in these words: ‘The earth is defiled by its people; they have disobeyed the laws, violated the statutes and broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse consumes the earth; its people must bear their guilt (24:5-6).
‘But Noah found favour in the eyes of the Lord’ (Genesis 6:8). This is the first actual reference to grace in the Bible and it is set against the dark background of human wickedness and God’s anger. With an eye to God’s promise made in Eden Noah’s father was expecting a deliverer to be born (5:29). Noah was not the promised offspring but God saved Noah with a view to fulfilling his promise. A new section of Genesis opens in 6:9 with the statement that ‘Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God’ despite belonging to a race of sinners, by God’s grace Noah was righteous. This meant he was in a right legal position before God and did what was pleasing to God. He stood out as free from blemish among his contemporaries and had a close personal relationship with God like Enoch before him. These themes of grace, hope, promise, and a right legal status before God are all present against the background of God’s wrath and judgment.
God’s Saving Plan
The emphasis on a promised offspring becomes even more prominent from the time of Abraham, when we are told that ‘through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed’ (Genesis 22:18). In fact, the book of Genesis, through its special headings to each section (‘this is the account of’ or better ‘this is the family history of’: 2:4, 5:1, 6:9, 10:1, 11:10, 11:27, etc.), focuses the mind on the promises of God. They act like signposts which encourage the reader to look forward to the fulfilment of God’s saving purposes for all peoples on earth. At the close of Genesis blessing comes to Egypt, a representative of the nations, as a result of the offspring of Abraham. Through the sufferings of righteous Joseph at the hands of his own people life comes to many in accordance with God’s plan. ‘You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives’ (50:20). But this is not the real fulfilment, it is only a token and type of greater things to come. Jacob and Joseph are seen as men of faith who put their trust in the promise of God and look forward to the day when the promise will be fully realised (49:29-32; 50:24-25).
From this point on, the history is dominated by the covenant which God made with the twelve tribes of Jacob under the leadership of Moses at Sinai. This covenant is another milestone in the divine plan to teach the people of God important lessons and to encourage them to continue to look for the fulfilment of God’s promise. They are redeemed from Egyptian slavery and formed into a nation in which the kingdom of God is to be seen on earth as they live together in the land of Canaan. They are given God’s law and in every department of life they are to be seen as God’s holy people. The law not only presents Israel with the moral standard which God requires and with detailed rules based on that standard, it provides, through its sacrifices and cleansing rituals, visual aid teaching on sin and its consequences, the way of acceptance with God and the forgiveness of sins. Blessing is promised for obedience and a curse is pronounced for disobedience and apostasy.
Deuteronomy also emphasises the promises to the patriarchs and the need of a heart religion which only God can give. It also teaches that God’s choice of Israel to bring blessing to the world is due to the grace of God and not their own righteousness. The true prophets of the Lord who come later, both in historical writing and prophetic word, seek to draw attention to the demands of the covenant, to the curses that will inevitably fall on the people for their disobedience and lack of trust in God, and to the great fulfilment of God’s promises to the patriarchs in new covenant, and to a ruler of Davidic stock who will bring lasting deliverance and universal peace. This new administration will not merely replace the former but will bring about the great reality to which the old Sinai covenant at best could only point. The hymns and wisdom literature of the Old Testament in their own way also call attention to these themes of grace, faith, a religion of the heart, a right legal position before God and future blessing associated with the Davidic king.
Our attention now shifts to those specific texts in the Old Testament that directly bear upon the subject of justification.
1. Genesis 15:6, ‘Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness’.
This verse is quoted in Romans 4:3, 20-24; Galatians 3:6 and in James 2:23. Abraham is the father of the Jewish nation and therefore what is said of him is very important. We are first of all informed that his faith was credited as righteousness. This is the only place in the Old Testament where faith is counted as righteousness.4 It is also significant that this is the first occurrence of the word ‘believe’ in Scripture.
God graciously called Abraham from an idolatrous background and made a covenant with him. All nations would find blessing through him and his offspring. It is interesting to discover the subject of justification in this setting. While it was common in Jewish circles to think of Abraham’s faith as a meritorious work, both Paul and James view the text in context. Genesis 15 does not speak of faith as a work done by Abraham. Faith is reliance on God’s promise. It was not Abraham’s act of believing that was credited to him for righteousness. There is no thought of God treating faith as though it were righteousness. The act of believing is not a substitute for good works. Righteousness is a gift given by God to those who rely on the promised offspring. Abraham believed the promise concerning the offspring and this led God to account to him a righteousness which he did not merit or inherently possess. Righteousness is what acquits a person in a human court and likewise before the heavenly Judge. ‘Normally righteousness is defined in terms of moral conduct . . . and might well be paraphrased as God-like, or at least God-pleasing, action’.5 Abraham, however, does not do righteousness but has righteousness credited to him. Thus Abraham was justified by faith alone in that he was judged by God to be in a right legal position before him and acquitted through faith in God’s promised offspring. This is the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
Abraham’s faith was later severely tested in his submission to God’s call to sacrifice his own unique son but, as James indicates, that act of obedience showed the genuineness of his faith. Through the various visual aids in the covenant ceremony (cf. Genesis 15:17) and all the experiences connected with his son Isaac, including the miraculous birth and the circumstances surrounding the offering of his son, God taught Abraham about the coming offspring. It is left to Paul to spell out the connection between the offspring, who is Jesus Christ the Son of God, and the gift of righteousness. There are a number of passages in the New Testament which stress that Abraham and the other patriarchs looked to the promise which finds its fulfilment in Jesus Christ. Our Lord himself said, ‘Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad’ (John 8:56). Paul declared that all the promises of God find their ‘Yes’ in Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20). Hebrews comments that though the patriarchs died before the things promised arrived yet they ‘saw them and welcomed them from a distance’ (Hebrews 11:13).
2. Psalm 32:1-2, ‘Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord does not count against him . . .’
These verses express the privileged and happy state of the forgiven sinner. The weight of his rebellion against God, and its consequences, has been lifted. His sin has been properly covered and the Lord ‘no longer considers the person a sinner’ (cf. 2 Samuel 19:19).6
It is the phrase ‘whose sin the Lord does not count against him’ which Paul seizes in his use of this verse in Romans 4:7-8. Paul quotes the text not so much to show that forgiveness is involved in justification, which it obviously is, but because it includes the verb ‘to impute’ or ‘to reckon’. It emphasises again that justification is an act of God’s free grace which is not based on a person’s works. It involves the non-accrediting of sins. Again, the forensic or judicial element is present. The divine Judge is acquitting and treating the person as righteous. Whereas Genesis 15:6 presents the positive side, in which righteousness is reckoned to the person, here the negative is highlighted. Sin is not reckoned to the person.
3. Habakkuk 2:4b, ‘the righteous will live by his faith’.
These words are quoted by Paul in Romans 1:17 and Galatians 3:11, and by the writer of Hebrews in 10:38. It is generally recognised that the personal pronoun ‘his’ refers to ‘the righteous’ and not to God.7 There is more uncertainty over the meaning of the word ‘faith’. While, generally in the Old Testament, the word means ‘faithfulness’, its use in Habakkuk favours the meaning ‘trust’. The prophet is called to wait in faith for God to act. He is to rest in God’s word, come what may. ‘Though it linger, wait for it’ (v. 3). Chapter three then expresses in poetry trustful reliance on God. This is what ‘faith’ means. A contrast is drawn between the one who is arrogant and not upright and against whom woes are pronounced, and the righteous one who lives by his trust in God. The reference to ‘living’ is a reminder of the life associated with obedience to the covenant obligations: ‘Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God’ (Deuteronomy 30:19-20; cf. Leviticus 18:5). The opposite is death and destruction for all who are disobedient and turn away from God’s way. It is an echo of the tree of life in the garden of Eden and the death that came through disobedience.
Paul is quite in order to use this passage from Habakkuk as a key text in support of his argument that it is by faith alone and not by the works of the law that we are justified (Galatians 3:11). It is also significant that he should take this one passage from the Old Testament where the noun ‘faith’ has the meaning of ‘trust’ rather than faithfulness, and that it is connected to ‘the righteous’ and the verb ‘live’. There is much discussion as to whether Paul links faith with ‘righteous’ or with ‘live’. In the final analysis it really does not matter. The quotation is important for stressing that the gospel of God’s justifying grace means ‘faith from start to finish’ (Romans 1:17). They are righteous by faith and live daily by faith. The unrighteous are the ones who do not believe the promise of God, and however many works they do, they are under the wrath of God and their end is death.
4. Isaiah 53:11 b, ‘by his knowlege my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities’.
Instead of the Levitical offerings for sin presented by the priests, the Servant of the Lord offers himself as the sacrifice for sin. Those offerings not only pointed to the expiation or covering of sins through the shedding of blood, but to the appeasing of God’s wrath, indicated in the symbolism of the smoke of the burnt offering rising as a pleasing sacrifice acceptable to God. That the blood of bulls and goats cannot in themselves take away sins and remove the divine wrath is evident in the plea of Moses, the servant of the Lord, to be accursed instead of his people (Exodus 32:32). That plea was turned down by God but it certainly prepared for this prophecy of Isaiah where the Servant of the Lord actually comes under the curse of God on account of his people’s sins.
In addition, the Servant is described as the righteous one who justifies many. E. J. Young speaks of the glorious interchange which determines the connotation of the verb ‘to justify’. The Servant bears the iniquity of sinners and they in turn receive his righteousness.8 He provides righteousness for the many. It can only mean, as Motyer comments: ‘that there are those (‘the many’) whom he clothes in his righteousness, sharing with them his own perfect acceptability before God.’9 The righteousness that Abraham received through faith in the promise, Isaiah depicts as being provided by the Servant.
The work of the Servant calls to mind the prophecy of Daniel. He speaks of Messiah being ‘cut off’ and putting an end to sacrifice and offering. In that same context we are told of God’s purpose ‘to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness’ (Daniel 9:24-27).
Phinehas, Aaron’s grandson, points us towards Isaiah’s righteous Servant. As an expression of his faith in God, Phinehas’ zealous action stopped the plague which had already claimed thousands of lives (Numbers 25:6-13) His intervention removed the divine wrath and God confirmed the lasting nature of his priesthood, a priesthood which finds its fulfilment in Christ (Hebrews 7:11-28) and prophesied by Isaiah. This is not all, Psalm 106:30-31 draws on this incident and states that the action of Phinehas ‘was credited to him as righteousness for endless generations to come’. There is an interesting parallel here between an endless priesthood and the endless benefit of the accredited righteousness. In Motyer’s words, Phinehas foreshadows the Lord Jesus ‘in the divine status of righteousness accorded to him as mediator, anticipating the One whom Isaiah calls “that righteous One, my Servant” (53:11; Heb. 7:26).’10 This is the one who justifies the many.
5. Psalm 143:1 b-2, ‘in your faithfulness and righteousness come to my relief. Do not bring your servant into judgment, for no-one living is righteous before you.’
‘Faithfulness’ and ‘righteousness’ are covenant words and the psalmist prays the Lord will answer him on the basis of God’s righteous character. God can be trusted to do what is right according to the covenant promises and threats (cf. verses 11-12). Yet, the psalmist is aware that the righteousness of God also means that if God were to judge him according to the righteous standard of his own nature, revealed in the law, he would have no right legal standing. His sinfulness would be all too obvious. There is, in fact, no-one on earth who is righteous. This is the same truth that is presented in Psalm 130:3, ‘If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?’ (cf. Psalm 14:2-3). Job expresses the same dilemma in these terms: ‘But how can a mortal be righteous before God?’ (Job 9:2; cf. 7:17; 15:14; 25:4-5). It is made quite clear that to justify the wicked is an atrocious thing; ‘Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent — the Lord detests them both’ (Proverbs 17:15). Nevertheless, the psalmist cries for mercy on the basis of God’s righteousness. His plea is not based on any achievements or merits of his own. His entire trust is in God’s righteousness.
These verses call to mind two passages from the New Testament. After appealing to a number of Old Testament verses to prove that Jew and Gentile alike are all sinners, Paul writes in Romans 3:20: ‘Therefore no-one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law.’ But then he immediately follows this up by that glorious statement which has been considered in chapter two concerning God’s righteousness made known in the gospel. The other New Testament text is 1 John 1:9, ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness’. God’s faithfulness and righteousness, as revealed in the promised Saviour, are the basis on which to plead.
We are reminded in the last book of the Bible of that fundamental promise found in the first book of the Bible, that the offspring of the woman would bruise the serpent’s head and that that promise has been wonderfully fulfilled with the coming of Jesus Christ, his atoning death, resurrection and ascension to the throne of God (Genesis 3:15; cf. Revelation 12:1-12; 13:3). A moral victory has been won; justice has been done; the ancient serpent has received a mortal wound; and the sinner who belongs to Jesus is freed and can no longer be accused. ‘Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died — more than that, who was raised to life — is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us’ (Romans 8:33-34). It also means that a proper garment to cover nakedness and shame, typified in the covering God gave to Adam and Eve, has been provided by God, again through our union with Jesus Christ. Jesus alluded to this robe in the parable where the man is refused entry into the wedding feast for not possessing the proper wedding clothes (Matthew 22:1-14). This is the righteousness which Paul describes as a divine gift which the believer receives by faith (Romans 5:17).
‘How can a mortal be righteous before God?’ Job asks. (Job 9:2) That is the basic problem. We cannot come and go as we please before the Almighty. He is of purer eyes than to look upon our depraved lives. We are all sinners and God is right to be angry with us. He is now our judge and is fully justified in condemning us to the punishment that fits the crime, eternal death. That is what the Old Testament continually impresses upon us and the New constantly underlines it. ‘The wages of sin is death’ says Paul in Romans 6:23. ‘The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire’ (Revelation 20:14-15). At the same time the kindness and love of God is displayed in God’s Son, Jesus Christ, the Messiah and Servant of the Lord promised in the Old Testament, who came to seek and to save those who lie in the shadow of death. As a result of Christ’s righteous life, his atoning death, his bodily resurrection and his ascension to the Father’s throne in glory, those who are united to Christ through faith alone, are no longer condemned. They no longer face God’s wrath and eternal ruin, but are already able to stand upright in God’s presence, unashamed, clothed in the righteousness of Christ and washed in his precious blood. If they were to die, at that very moment, like the repentant thief on the cross, they would be presented ‘holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation’ (Colossians 1:22; cf. Ephesians 1:4; 5:27; Jude 24).
Faith believes the promise of God in the gospel concerning Jesus Christ. The faith by which we embrace Christ is a faith given through the work of the Holy Spirit. It is, therefore, a living faith which perseveres to the end (Colossians 1:23) and which is active in doing the good works which God has given us to do (Ephesians 2:8-10). Those who die in the Lord rest from their labours ‘for their deeds will follow them’ (Revelation 14:13). On the day of judgment they will be judged as those who are righteous in Christ and their deeds will indicate that they are righteous.11
A native of Wrexham, Philip Eveson obtained his initial degree in Biblical Studies at the University College of North Wales, Bangor. From there he was awarded a scholarship to read Theology at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He later gained his MTh in Hebrew and Aramaic Studies at King's College, London and is a member of the Tyndale Fellowship for Biblical Research. After a year at the Presbyterian Theological College, Aberystwyth, he served churches in South Wales before moving to London, where he has been Minister of Kensit Evangelical Church for the past twenty-three years. Since its inception in 1977, he has been Resident Tutor and Lecturer in Biblical Languages and Exegesis at the London Theological Seminary. Philip has also preached and lectured in the Far East and Ghana, is Chairman of the Red Sea Mission Team British Home Council and a Director of Go Teach. He is married to Jennifer and they have one daughter.