Philip Eveson


G. C. Berkouwer wrote: ‘The confession of divine justification touches man’s life at its heart, at the point of its relationship to God’1 In particular, as we have seen from the previous chapters, it is about humans being in a right legal position before God.1 Having considered the biblical evidence we must now give some attention to the biblical terminology. A word of warning, however, needs to be issued. There is the danger of thinking that a detailed examination of words is all that is required in presenting the scriptural understanding of justification. Such reasoning fails to appreciate that the Bible can teach and give further light on a subject without necessarily using the precise terminology. To concentrate purely on a study of words, even in their original contexts, can lead to an unbalanced view of the subject. Nevertheless, it is important to be clear concerning the language used. We shall therefore survey the words associated with justification, discuss their meaning in different contexts and make a number of observations.2

Justification and Righteousness

From the biblical perspective these two words are linked. In Greek, both terms belong to the same word-group, the dik- family. English is forced at times to use two different word-groups, the ‘just-’ and ‘right-’families. For instance, the noun dikaiosyne and the adjective dikaios are usually translated ‘righteousness’ and ‘righteous’ respectively. When it comes to translating the verb dikaioo there is no modern English equivalent within the ‘right-’ family. No such verb as ‘to rightify’ exists although there is an old English verb ‘to rightwise’. Instead, it has been the common practice from the sixteenth century to express the verbal idea by employing the ‘just’ word-group, and so we have the word ‘justify’. Sometimes ‘justice’ is used by translators as a synonym for ‘righteousness’ and ‘just’ as a synonym for ‘righteous’. Why not be consistent then, and take advantage of all the words of the ‘just-’ family to translate the dik- word-group? One reason is that such terms as ‘justice’ and ‘just’ suggest a narrower range of meaning associated with fairness in implementing the law. It is better, therefore, to speak of a ‘righteous’ person and of the ‘righteousness’ of God on the one hand, and of God ‘justifying’ the ungodly on the other. Incidentally, Hebrew also uses one main word-group, the s-d-q family. These three root letters are familiar to us in the name ‘Melkizedek’ (‘zedek’ in its transliterated form is sedeq). The Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint (LXX), generally uses the dik- word-group to translate words belonging to the Hebrew s-d-q word-group.


Unlike some theological terms such as ‘Trinity’, ‘justification’ is a biblical word. Our English word ‘justification’ sometimes renders different words from the dik- group. One of these, dikaiosis, commonly means, in classical Greek, ‘condemnation’ or ‘punishment’ although it occasionally has the sense of ‘vindication’. It is found twice in the New Testament in Paul’s letter to the Romans in the sense of ‘vindication’ and ‘acquittal’. At the end of chapter four, in reference to Jesus Christ, we are told that he ‘was delivered up because of our offences, and was raised because of our justification.’ (v. 25 New King James) In the next chapter it appears again at verse eighteen, ‘Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men.’ Another word from the same word-group, dikaioma, which normally means ‘regulation’ or ‘right action’ in the New Testament, is used in verse sixteen to express the same idea of acquittal: ‘The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification’.

In all three passages ‘justification’ is the best translation.3 Certainly, ‘righteousness’ would not be an appropriate alternative. It is also clear from the context how we should understand the term. Justification is to be taken as the opposite of condemnation. The word ‘condemnation’ occurs again at 8:1, where Paul provides a summary statement and a reminder of what he has argued in 5:12-21: ‘Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.’ Condemnation refers to the pronouncement of a guilty sentence and the punishment due. Justification, in this context, must mean the declaration of a verdict of not guilty, of acquittal and of a right status before God. ‘Righteousness’ (dikaiosyne) can also have this meaning as will be noted below.


This is a comprehensive term with a wide range of meanings in the Scriptures. In the history of its interpretation a number of definitions have been attempted. Older scholars understood the basic meaning to be action that conforms to a particular norm.4 More recently the trend has been to define ‘righteousness’ in terms of relationships: it is taken to mean loyalty to the demands of a relationship.5 Given these definitions, there are those who would emphasise the ethical implications of righteousness, namely, right behaviour, ethically right actions that conform to the norm or that meet the obligations of the relationship. The Greeks understood righteousness in this way as an ethical virtue.6 On the other hand, others stress that righteousness is primarily a legal concept and that this is the way the Hebrews understood it. It is the right standing of a person in relation to a court’s decision.7

These various definitions and stresses need not be mutually exclusive. They can all be linked under the concept of the covenant.8 The covenant idea is of fundamental importance in biblical theology. In the context of the covenant, ‘righteousness’ means a right legal status before God and conduct that is consistent with God’s demands as revealed in the covenant stipulations. As in a marriage bond, a covenant involves commitment by both parties. In God’s gracious covenant with Israel, righteousness means God and his people being loyal to that covenant. God is committed to doing what is right. Therefore, God’s righteousness is his faithfulness to his word of promise or threat, as indicated in the covenant. Those brought into this special covenant relationship are called to do what is right by keeping God’s commandments. Their righteousness is their faithfulness to the covenant commands. The demands of the covenant are rooted in the being and character of God so that righteousness can be more broadly defined as conformity to God’s standard. Within this covenant framework, then, righteousness can mean a legal standing and an ethical virtue.

There are two Hebrew words for righteousness, sedeq and sedaqa. It is difficult to discern any difference in meaning, except that in usage only sedeq is found in such phrases as ‘honest scales’ (lit. ‘scales of righteousness’) in Leviticus 19:36 and Deuteronomy 25:15. (Cf. also Psalm 4:5 ‘sacrifices of righteousness’, Psalm 23:3 ‘paths of righteousness’.) The Greek Old Testament generally uses dikaiosyne to translate both sedeq and sedaqa.

In surveying the use made of these Old Testament words for righteousness, the above phrases provide interesting examples with which to begin. The phrase ‘scales of righteousness’ does not mean morally superior scales but accurate or correct ones. Such examples suggest that righteousness has this fundamental meaning of ‘conformity to a norm’. In the context of God’s relationship with Israel in the covenant, that norm is the law of God.

When used of human beings, ‘righteousness’ can be defined in terms of personal morality, social justice and fairness in law-suits (e.g. Ezekiel 18:24; Leviticus 19:15; Isaiah 5:7). It is human activity which conforms to God’s revealed will but it arises out of God’s special relationship with his creatures. Righteousness is God-pleasing or even God-like behaviour.9 On the other hand, it is possible to have a righteousness that is thoroughly unclean and unacceptable to God. The confession of Isaiah 64:6 states that ‘all our righteous acts (lit. ‘righteousnesses) are like filthy rags’ (Cf. also Isaiah 48:1). It is expected, however, that those who are in a right legal standing before God will do what is right (Cf. Isaiah 56:1; lit. ‘doing righteousness’).

This behavioural righteousness is set against the background of legal or forensic righteousness or what can be termed ‘justification’. Righteousness in this sense refers to the standing of a person in relation to the judge’s favourable decision. It means ‘acquittal’ or ‘vindication’ in a court of law. In Israel, the law is God’s law and the judges must judge according to it, in the light of their covenant obligations. The supreme judge is God himself and what matters in the final analysis is to be in a right legal position before God, to be acquitted by him. This understanding of righteousness as a legal standing is clear in the passage where Isaiah denounces the leaders of the people who ‘deny justice to the innocent’ (Isaiah 5:23). The more literal translation of the AV reads: ‘take away the righteousness of the righteous from him’. It is clear that ‘righteousness’ cannot mean right behaviour because no one can take away a person’s moral character and attainments. What these leaders are doing is taking away the right status before the law of those who have a just claim to it. In this connection, it is instructive to note Genesis 15:6, that unique passage in the Old Testament where again the righteousness of the individual is not spoken of as a human activity. Instead of Abram doing righteousness, righteousness is credited to him. As we have already indicated in chapter four this is one of the most important verses in the Old Testament concerning justification by faith alone.

Turning now to its use in relation to God, there are very many verses in the Old Testament which speak of the righteousness of God, particularly in the Psalms and Isaiah. God’s righteousness refers, in the first place, to his moral character. Biblical theology this century has been embarrassed to speak of God’s being or nature, lest it give the impression of speculative Greek thought and so it has emphasised God’s activity.10 Sadly, it must also be said that it has not taken seriously the Bible’s claim that God revealed to Israel truth about his being and character. We read in Isaiah 5:16 ‘the holy God will show himself holy by his righteousness’. Compared with the gods of the surrounding nations, what makes God truly God is his essential righteousness which he has displayed in this world. In addressing God the Psalmist declares, ‘your righteousness is an everlasting righteousness, and your law is truth’ (Psalm 119:142 New King James). It is a revealed attribute which is experienced by human beings. Because it is in his nature to do what is right, God can be depended on to act in an upright, fair and consistent manner. Righteousness is one of those attributes fundamental to his sovereign rule. Psalm 89:14 reads, ‘Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne . . .’

Within the context of his covenant with Israel, righteousness is often understood as God’s activity in doing what is right in accordance with what he has promised or threatened. God’s righteousness is therefore his justice in vindicating his oppressed people, in condemning the wicked within Israel and judging the other nations (Psalms 9:4,8; 50:6, 16ff). God’s righteousness means his victory in war. After such a victory over the enemy, Deborah sings of the ‘righteous acts (lit. ‘righteousnesses’) of the LORD’ (Judges 5:11). God’s righteousness is often associated with his saving intervention on behalf of his people. The book of Psalms and the prophecy of Isaiah often draw attention to this. As the following texts show, God’s righteousness is another way of referring to God’s salvation: ‘I am bringing my righteousness near, it is not far away; and my salvation will not be delayed’ (Isaiah 46:13); ‘My righteousness draws near speedily, my salvation is on the way . . . But my salvation will last for ever, my righteousness will never fail’ (Isaiah 51:5-6; also verse 8); ‘My mouth will tell of your righteousness, of your salvation all day long’ (Psalm 71:15); ‘The LORD has made his salvation known and revealed his righteousness to the nations’ (Psalm 98:2).

In some passages, God’s righteousness is not so much God’s saving activity as the basis for his saving activity. The psalmist knows that ‘nothing less than the divine nature ensures that God will do what is right.11 By virtue of his covenant promises God has committed himself to intervening on behalf of his people. In Psalm 31:1, for example, the psalmist cries out to the LORD ‘deliver me in your righteousness’. He prays, in other words, on the basis of God’s righteous character, which means God will do what he has covenanted to do. Righteousness is associated with faithfulness in Psalm 143:1 ‘in your faithfulness and righteousness come to my relief’. Later, in the same psalm, a similar cry goes up to God, ‘in your righteousness, bring me out of trouble’. This strong covenantal association is the reason why the Greek Old Testament used the word ‘righteousness’ (dikaiosyne) to translate the Hebrew word hesed (‘mercy’ or ‘covenant love’) on nine occasions (e.g. Exodus 34:7, Proverbs 20:28 and Isaiah 63:7).

God’s righteousness, then, is first and foremost his nature as a moral being. He is the standard by which to assess what is right. God’s righteousness also means God acting in accordance with his own righteous character to fulfil the promises and threats he has made. His promises include deliverance from sin and its consequences, while his threats mean punishment for those who remain opposed to God. There is an eschatological or end-time dimension to this righteousness in Malachi 4:2 where we read that in connection with the coming ‘day’ for those who fear God’s name, ‘the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings’. The prophets have this expectation of God acting in righteousness to bring about everlasting righteousness (Isaiah 51:5-8). It is associated with the day of the LORD, the coming of Messiah and the work of the Servant of the Lord (Isaiah 32:1, 61:1-3; Jeremiah 33:15-16; Daniel 9:24).

In the New Testament the term ‘righteousness’ (dikaiosyne) is coloured by these Old Testament associations. In reference to human beings it has both an ethical and legal dimension. In Matthew’s Gospel, for instance, the ethical or behavioural meaning predominates, whereas, in Paul, it is the legal aspect that surfaces. Nevertheless, righteousness, in the sense of Christian behaviour, is always set against the background of a right legal position before God. After Paul has presented legal righteousness or justification in chapters three to five of Romans, he speaks of righteousness in chapter six as acts of obedience on the part of believers. John regards ‘doing righteousness’ as an indication of the new birth (I John 2:29). Like the Old Testament, the New Testament distinguishes between the godly who do the right (‘those who fear him and work righteousness’ Acts 10:35; cf. Psalm 106:3) and the totally unacceptable righteousness so widely witnessed within the old covenant community and expressed in the religion of the Pharisees (Philippians 3:6-9; cf. Isaiah 64:6). The false and futile righteousness of the religious and moral world is denounced (Matthew 5:20; John 16:8-10; Romans 10:3) and in contrast the righteousness of Christ is presented as not only an example to follow (I Peter 2:21-24) but the gift, by God’s grace, of a right legal status given to all believers (Romans 5:17-18;I Corinthians 1:30).

We have already considered ‘the righteousness of God’ as used by the apostle Paul in chapter two. It will now be clear from our examination of the Old Testament evidence that the phrase has a fulness of meaning that should make us wary of opting for just one aspect of it when it occurs in the New Testament. What we can say, by way of summary, is that this ‘righteousness of God’ is revealed in the gospel and is associated with God’s action in justifying sinners.


The adjective ‘righteous’ or ‘just’ (Hebrew saddiq; Greek dikaios) is very widely used in the Old Testament. In the first place it describes the LORD. Because righteousness belongs to his very nature, it is a characteristic of God to be righteous. ‘Righteous are you, O LORD, and your laws are right’ (Psalm 119:137). It is the testimony of the psalmist that ‘the LORD is righteous in all his ways’ (Psalm 145:17). He is righteous when he punishes sin, as the returned exiles confess: ‘In all that has happened to us, you have been just’. (Nehemiah 9:33). In saving those who call upon him in their distress, ‘The LORD is gracious and righteous’ (Psalm 116:5). He is true to his nature and to the terms of the covenant which he has made with his people.

‘Righteous’ is also the way of referring to the godly. Proverbs and Psalms provide the majority of instances. The righteous are those who are characterised by ‘righteousness’. They are in a right standing before God and seek to do what is right. They are the humble poor, the meek, who have a reverence for God which is the beginning of wisdom. In the context of legal disputes, the righteous are those who are innocent before the law and therefore are to be acquitted by the judge (Deuteronomy 25:1).

In the New Testament, dikaios (‘righteous/just’) is found in similar contexts. Jesus addresses God as ‘righteous Father’ (John 17:25). God is righteous in his judgments and righteous and true in his ways (Revelation 15:3; 19:2). ‘The righteous’ or ‘the just’ are those godly people who stand in a right legal position before God, whose trust is in the Lord’s promises and who seek to live lives that conform to God’s law (Matthew 1:19; 13:17; Luke 1:6; Acts 10:22). The New Testament discloses the gospel mystery of sinners being constituted righteous as a result of God’s justifying grace (Romans 5:19) and of Jesus Christ the righteous one suffering in the place of the unrighteous in order to bring them to God (1 Peter 3:18).

To justify

The verb dikaioo is used in the Greek Old Testament to translate the various forms of the Hebrew verb sadaq. In the simple stem (qal) the verb means ‘to be righteous’ or ‘to be vindicated’. It is used in this sense particularly in the book of Job. In the D stem (piel) it means ‘to justify’ in a demonstrative sense (i.e. ‘to demonstrate to be righteous’). Elihu is angry with Job ‘because he justified himself rather than God’ (Job 32:2). In other words, he felt that Job should have been showing God to be righteous rather than himself. The verb is also found in the H stem (hiphil) and means ‘to justify’ in the declarative sense (i.e. ‘to declare righteous’). It is used in this sense in such legal contexts as Exodus 23:7 where God declares ‘I will not justify the wicked’. In Deuteronomy 25:1, judges are directed to ‘justify the righteous and condemn the wicked’. Proverbs, likewise, has this sense in 17:15: ‘He who justifies the wicked, and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the LORD’.

It is this latter meaning that is significant when we come to the use of dikaioo in the New Testament, particularly in Paul’s letters. The contrast between ‘to justify’ and ‘to condemn’ that we see in the Old Testament passages is present in Romans 8:33-34 where Paul brings to a grand climax the absolute security and safety of those justified by God’s grace: ‘It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns?’ Matthew 12:37 presents a similar contrast: ‘For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned’. It is a legal declaration. There is no way the verb could have the meaning of ‘to make righteous’. The contexts clearly indicate that the one judging is not infusing any righteousness into people, he is simply declaring them to be not guilty and therefore acquitted. There can be no mistake that in these texts the Greek word for ‘justify’ can only mean ‘to be cleared of blame’ and ‘to be declared not guilty’.

While the declarative meaning predominates in the New Testament, there are cases where dikaioo has the demonstrative sense of ‘to show to be righteous’. We read of the lawyer who felt he needed to ‘justify himself’ by asking Jesus the question ‘who is my neighbour?’ (Luke 10:29). He wanted to ‘show himself righteous’. At the end of Matthew 11:19 Jesus remarks that ‘wisdom is justified by her children’. Again, the meaning is that wisdom is ‘shown to be righteous’ rather than ‘declared to be righteous’. It is important to bear in mind this meaning of the verb when we consider the statement in James 2:24, where it is often suggested that James is contradicting Paul. Instead of using the word in Paul’s declaratory sense ‘to declare righteous’ James could well be saying that a person is ‘shown to be righteous’ by his works and not simply by his faith.

Our study of the ‘right-’ or ‘just-’ word-groups and our survey of divine justification in the Bible prepare us for what has to be tackled in the remainder of the book. As we examine Rome’s teaching on justification and the ecumenical efforts to remove this one remaining doctrinal stumbling-block to unity, as well as the recent evangelical attempts to revise our understanding of this important doctrine, we must bear in mind that they would all claim to be working from the biblical text. The question is whether they are being faithful to the whole of Scripture or not. But before we consider these issues we must first present the teaching of the Reformers and their successors, for it is their perception of the subject that is under attack today.


  1. G. C. Berkouwer, Faith and Justification, Eerdmans, 1954, p. 17.
  2. The following word studies have been consulted and although their conclusions cannot always be accepted they have proved helpful: D. Hill, Greek Words and Hebrew Meanings: Studies in the Semantics of Soteriological Terms, Cambridge, 1967; B. Przybylski, Righteousness in Matthew and His World of Thought, Cambridge, 1980; J. A. Ziesler, The Meaning of Righteousness in Paul: A Linguistic and Theological Investigation, Cambridge, 1972. Cf. also R. Y. K. Fung, ‘The forensic character of justification’, Themelios, Vol. 3, No.1, 1977, pp. 16-21; J. Piper, The Justification of God: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Romans 9:1-23, Baker, 2nd edition 1993, pp. 103-150; J. Reumann, “Righteousness” in the New Testament, Fortress Press, 1982.
  3. Cf. D.J. Moo, Romans 1-8, Moody, 1991, pp. 351, 355.
  4. N. H. Snaith, Distinctive Ideas of the Old Testament, London, 1944, p. 90 and ‘Righteous, Righteousness’ in A Theological Word Book of the Bible, ed. A. Richardson, SCM, 1950, p. 202; D. B. Knox ‘Righteousness’ in The New Bible Dictionary, ed. J. D. Douglas, IVP 1962, p. 1097.
  5. Cf. the German scholar H. Cremer who seems to have been the first to describe ‘righteousness’ as a ‘concept of relation referring to an actual relationship between two persons and implying behaviour which corresponds to, or is true to, the claims arising out of such a relationship’ (quoted by W. Eichrodt in Theology of the Old Testament, Vol. 1, SCM, 1961, P. 240). Cf. also G. Von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, Oliver and Boyd, 1962, pp. 370-371.
  6. Cf. Snaith, ‘Righteous, Righteousness’, pp. 202-204.
  7. Cf. L. Morris, The Epistle to the Romans, IVP/Eerdmans, 1988, p. 101.
  8. Cf. Ziesler, The Meaning of Righteousness in Paul: pp. 36-39.
  9. G. J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15, Word Bible Commentary, Vol. 1, Word, 1987, p. 330.
  10. S. K. Williams, ‘The “Righteousness of God” in Romans’, Journal of Biblical Literature 99, 1980, p. 261 note 64.
  11. S. K. Williams, p. 262.


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.

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