The concept of justification is based on that of righteousness; in fact, both can translate the same Greek word (dikaiosunē). As applied to human beings, this connotes the status of being in the right when tested or judged by God. That condition lies at the heart of the covenantal relationship between Yahweh and his people, Israel. For the maintenance of covenant relations, righteousness on Israel's part is also required, with the prospect of attaining approval from God both in this life and, in later literature, at the final judgment.

Paul opposed this construction for two reasons. The claim that those who keep God's law will be set right with God and given approved status before God is considered by Paul to be a vain hope, inasmuch as this class of “righteous” persons has no qualified member, for “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3.23). There is no prospect of being set right with God as long as a person stays with nomistic religion (Gal. 5.3). Instead, the outlook on such a basis is one of universal condemnation for both Jews and gentiles, since all have become sinners (Rom. 2.17–3.20; Gal. 3.21–22). All stand under divine judgment (Rom. 1.18; 3.9,19), and must remain so unless God takes action on their behalf.

The second reason why Paul opposed nomistic religion is that he believed a new era had dawned with the coming of the Messiah. What Judaism anticipated as God's gracious intervention at the endtime, Paul now declares as a present reality for all who are of faith (Rom. 5.1), in the sure confidence that at the future tribunal the past verdict of acceptance and amnesty will be confirmed (Gal. 5.5; Phil. 1.11; 3.9). In this way the tension of the Christian life (“already justified … not yet finally ‘saved’ ”) is maintained as a part of Paul's proclamation.

Justification has been defined as “the gracious action of God accepting persons as righteous in consequence of faith resting upon His redemptive activity in Christ” (Vincent Taylor). This definition needs strengthening by a recognition that Paul constantly lays a basis for what he believed about God's “redemptive activity” in Christ's obedience (Rom. 5.9) or righteousness (Rom. 5.18). Consequently, more should be said in any summary statement about Paul's insistence on “imputation” as providing a rationale for the divine enterprise in canceling human guilt and providing acceptance in his holy presence. Romans 3.21–26 and 2 Corinthians 5.18–21 stand out as central to Paul's teaching. Also, Paul's thought is as much conditioned by promises of rectification of personal relationships as by assurances of forensic acquittal. Indeed, the term acquittal is best avoided if it conjures up the notion of treating sinners as though they were not sinners. Plainly, in Paul's theology there is no room for such exonerating considerations. “Amnesty,” therefore, is a term preferred by some scholars, and it recalls that justification is above all a royal act by which pardon is freely bestowed on the undeserving. God's royal rule is displayed in releasing offenders from guilt out of respect for his Son, who stands as their sponsor. Jesus Christ by his undertaking arranges a new network of divine‐human relations—the element of novelty is seen by Paul's statement that God's righteousness (i.e., his saving power) is shown “apart from law” (Rom. 3.21)—and the whole enterprise springs from his free favor, his “grace” (Rom. 3.24; 11.6). The fresh start made by Christ's action ushers in a new order that consists of a whole series of events involving both forensic and dynamic acts on the part of God. The refusal to delimit justification to the initial act of acquittal and remission of guilt, thought of in exclusively legal terms and played out in a courtroom drama, paves the way for a much richer understanding of the term. It certainly will include a forensic release from sin's penalty, but will also entail the entire process of the rectification of the human relationship to God, who dynamically releases a power to set this relationship in a new orbit. For Paul, the new sphere of living is one of sonship within a family context and no longer that of slavery under the taskmaster's stern eye.

Two consequences flow from these considerations, as Ernst Käsemann has observed. First, God's righteousness is a gift that has the character of power. In fact, the actual term is associated in the Hebrew Bible with other words, such as “love,” “peace,” “wrath,” that are used in personified form and often connote divine power. That is to say, what God does in rectifying sinners is characteristically a regal fiat, announcing a new day when past failures are put away, debts and liabilities canceled, and guilt removed from those who otherwise must pay the price. According to Romans 1.17 and 3.21, a new order has come into existence, one that sets human relationships on a different footing from that of strict justice and merit. The divine power now released and known in human experience is what the Pauline gospel is all about (Rom. 1.16; 1 Thess. 1.5).

Second, God's righteousness is characterized by universality. Paul stands directly in the tradition of the exilic prophet known as Second Isaiah (Isa. 40; nd55), for whom divine ⊡ĕdāqâ (righteousness) spills over into Yahweh's saving activity put forth on Israel's behalf and issuing in the promise of a new world. The apocalyptic dimension of Paul's thought is clear in his celebration of God's power in reaching out to capture the entire world for the sovereignty of God. What seems a limited teaching in the Jewish Christian fragment of Romans 3.24–25 is taken over editorially by Paul and enlarged to cover God's faithfulness not only to the covenant people of Israel but also to the whole creation. And that statement of a new creation brought into existence at God's command (2 Cor. 5.17) will play a significant part in Paul's developed teaching on reconciliation as Paul elaborates the cosmic scope of Christ's salvific work (2 Cor. 5.18–21; cf. Col. 1.15–20).

In summary, justification by faith is a relational term. Talk of forensic acquittal, often suggesting a sterile setting free from immediate punishment, is misplaced and merits the criticism brought by some that Paul's teaching is little short of a legal fiction. But such criticism is deflected once we recall how this terminology is basically couched in the framework of interpersonal relationships, and carries for Paul a dynamic nuance of a new attitude of God to human beings, as of humans to God, which in both instances leads to a chain of events. God, for his part, takes steps to carry through the enterprise of human recovery and renewal, while on the human side the initial act of “rightwising”—to use an old English term—begins a process of moral transformation associated with union with Christ that will ultimately reach its goal in the final homecoming of the people of God at the last day (Gal. 5.4; Phil. 1.11).

Paul's teaching was so finely balanced that it was capable of being distorted and misrepresented. The evidence for this comes in Romans 3.8; 6.1–15; Galatians 5.13, where his stress on the sufficiency of God's justifying grace was understood by some as an invitation to moral laxity. Pauline extremists are evidently the subject of James's debate on faith and works (James 2.14–26; see James, The Letter of). The need to have justification by faith set in the context of the call to a new life of obedience and the fruit of holy living (already anticipated in Gal. 5.6) led to the teachings of the Pauline school of the Pastoral letters and possibly accounts for the stress on good works in 1 Peter and Matthew.

Ralph P. Martin