The establishment by God of a new relationship with mankind. The Protestant Reformation put this term at the heart of theological dispute centred on the epistles of Paul to the Galatians and to the Romans. When God ‘justified’ people, did he make them righteous (the natural meaning of the Greek verb), as Catholics maintained, or did he declare them to be righteous, i.e. impute righteousness to them, by an act of fiction?
However, it has now been established that the verb ‘to justify’ is concerned with the restoration of a relationship rather than making, or pretending to make, a new character. It is not so far from an act of forgiveness (Rom. 4: 6–8), and it derives from God's righteousness expressed above all in Christ. Paul's earliest exposition of justification is in Galatians where he was anxious to preserve the unity in the community of both Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians; he was repudiating the view being foisted on some of his converts that Gentiles should keep the Jewish Law. In other words, that they should first be circumcised before they could be baptized—otherwise the Jewish Christians would not share a common meal with Gentiles. For Paul, however, there could be no way to Christ except by faith. It is irrelevant whether or not the convert has been circumcised (Gal. 6: 15). Every single person has sinned and falls short of the glory of God (Rom. 3: 23) and as such both Jews and Gentiles are under the condemnation of God (Rom. 1: 18) and so they would remain unless God had taken action by the sending of Christ.
The importance for the individual is that he is accepted by God by receiving righteousness as a gift, not by earning it by good works. It is a matter of either/or, in the sense that to accept the latter is to reject the former.
The meaning of justification for the individual is the theme of the epistle to the Romans (1: 16 to 3: 20). If salvation was by means of the Law, there would have been no need for Christ to come; but he did come, and die, and rise, and that proves that the universal day of the Law is over. By faith, it is possible to ‘escape from the old creation by sharing Christ's death’; being justified by faith means becoming one with Christ, a member of his body, being taken out of a group without a future into one which will be saved. The consequence of this change is the fruit of the Spirit—just as fruit is normally produced from a sound tree, so good deeds proceed naturally from becoming one person in Christ.