Righteousness - Declaring or Making?

In my recent attempts to discover orthodoxy concerning “justification” and salvation, I have run across an interesting disconnect. Ultimately it all boils down to the meaning of "to justify" (Dikaioo in Greek). It should come as no surprise that there is disagreement on its meaning. Reformed thinkers have long held that it means "to declare righteous."

L. Berkhof in his Systematic Theology said, "The verb means in general 'to declare a person to be just…it is to declare forensically that the demands of the law…are fully satisfied with regard to a person…to justify…is to effect an objective relation, the state of righteousness by a judicial sentence. This can be done…by imputing to a person the righteousness of another, that is, by accounting him righteous though he is inwardly unrighteous." This understanding as stated by Berkhof is a commonly held position by many after the Reformation. The ancient interpretation and understanding of "to justify" is quite different, however. Rather than a simple declaration of righteousness, justification meant "to make righteous." While it is true that God is a righteous and holy judge who demands justice for sin, the Scriptures seem more focused on God’s role as a loving Father who desires to make us His children.

To understand this, one must go back to the beginning. The Trinity was and is a perfect divine family even before anything else existed. When God created mankind, he created them male and female (in His image and nature). He instructed them to become one flesh - to be fruitful and multiply. Their union as man and wife in the marriage covenant drew them into God's nature even further as they took part in creation (creatio continua). Two came together as one within a covenantal union and a third proceeded from that union. The resulting family reflects - in human terms - the image of God. This first family was bound by a covenant which established their familial bonds.

After the fall, God reached out to humanity so as to redeem them to Himself - to reclaim them as His children. Throughout history God has established covenants to restore fallen humanity. Covenants have two components - Word and Sign. The word of the covenant contains the expectations and blessings for compliance and the curses for not fulfilling the expectations of the covenant. "Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people." This covenantal language dominates salvation history. We will look at the sign later.

In order to understand the place of forensics within covenants, we must first understand the purpose of God’s covenants. God wanted a restored family. Without this at the core of our thinking we can not proceed. With God as Father (first and foremost) in our minds, now we move to His role as holy Judge. Someone must objectively administer the covenant. The only one qualified to do this is God, Himself. God is the greater of the parties in the covenants He institutes with fallen humanity. Therefore, He is the only viable Judge. There is none greater than God. His role as judge is secondary and subservient, however, to His role as Father.

Jesus ushers in the New Covenant with His sacrificial death and resurrection. Jesus said to His disciples, “This is the New Covenant in my blood.” This New Covenant retired the Mosaic covenant and restored the Abrahamic Covenant and fulfilled the Davidic Covenant. God’s covenant with Abraham was ALL ABOUT FAMILY. The New covenant is also ALL ABOUT FAMILY. The Davidic Covenant found its vibrancy in identifying with royal lineage. David’s royal family blood line was at the center. In the New Covenant, this is also the case as we become joint heirs with the King of kings.

Forensic justification which declares us righteous but leaves us fundamentally in a state of sin, does not coincide with adoption into God’s family and nature. Forensics, in this instance, must be seen in light of God’s designs to make us His sons and daughters. To be grafted into God’s family means that His lifeblood flows into us. No graft can take without receiving life from the source. Just taping a branch onto a vine does not make it alive!

When God declares something to be – it IS SO. God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. Jesus said, “Lazarus, come forth,” and Lazarus came forth. Jesus did not say in an ambiguous way, “Come forth,” because all of the dead would have arisen. God’s Word enacts what it declares. When God declares us righteous – it IS SO. We are made righteous.

Second, justification and regeneration are closely tied to Baptism. This is because the New Covenant, has a Word and a Sign or Signs. Baptism is a sign of the New Covenant (along with the Eucharist). Consider the following passages:

“But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, which he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:4-7). As seen here, water and the spirit are connected with Baptism. This juxtaposition is also found in other Scriptural scenes, like: the creation account in Genesis with the spirit hovering over the waters, the dove coming back to Noah as they were saved from the flood waters, the cloud protecting the Israelites as they passed through the waters of the Red Sea, as Jesus was in the waters of the Jordan – the Spirit descended like a dove, and as Jesus said to Nicodemus, “You must be born of water and the Spirit.” Again, we see these two concepts linked in Paul’s discussion of regeneration here in Titus 3.

Romans 5 and 6 are even stronger connections. Chapter 5:18 and following says, “So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.”

How are we made righteous? Look at Romans chapter 6:1-14. “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.

Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.

In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.”

Romans 5 declares that we are all under the curse of Adam. Jesus, in the New Covenant, reverses the curse. How do we come into the New Covenant? Romans 6 contains the answer. When we are Baptized into Christ, the old man is crucified and we are united with Jesus in His death. Original sin (Adam’s curse – the old man) is washed away. Further, we are now “under grace” (v. 14). We are restored to favor with God. The old Gospel hymn says it better than I could, “My sins were washed away and my night was turned to day.”

As Jesus said to Nicodemus, “…unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Later he says, “…unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.

As outlined in the Scriptures above, Baptism is connected to justification for it is the “washing of regeneration.” 1 Peter 3:20-21 says after discussing Noah and the eight saved “through the water,” that the water in that narrative is a type of baptismal water. “God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also…”

To conclude, God is an eternal Father who wants to be reconciled with fallen humanity. Jesus comes as the representative head to take mankind’s place in bearing the curse for Adam’s transgression. Justificaiton is reserved for those who come into Christ (baptism is the initiation rite into Christ). God adopts us as His children and we are united with the Lord.

Paul said, in 1 Corinthians 6:17, “But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.” That sounds like more than an external declaration from a judge and much more like the blessing of being adopted into the covenant family. What do you think?

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