Justification means "made righteous"

Monday, February 22, 2010

A Little Bible Study on δικαιόω

I've been translating the book of Romans from the Greek and wanted to do a word study on δικαιόω to determine whether it should be translated as “declared righteous” or “made righteous,” that is: when God justifies (δικαιόω) the ungodly does this mean that he actually changes us ontologically, making us holy? Or does it simply refer to what traditional Lutheran scholarship has called a legal “imputed righteousness,” meaning we are declared to be righteous even though we are not. This sense of δικαιόω as “declaring righteous” is still prevalent today. It is for example how the recent NET Bible translates δικαιόω in Romans. I would like to demonstrate here that the NET Bible – for all of the many other merits of this excellent translation – is mistaken here, and that the primary meaning of δικαιόω for Paul should instead be translated as “make righteous.”

Δικαιόω in the Old Testament

It is a safe assumption that Paul understanding of the Greek word δικαιόω is rooted in the Hebrew understanding of that concept found in his Bible (the OT). So by exploring how δικαιόω is used in the Greek Old Testament (the LXX), and comparing that to the Hebrew, we can gain insight into how Paul the Jew understands δικαιόω. In the LXX, the δικαιόω almost always corresponds to the Hebrew tsadaq (צָדַק). Both mean essentially mean “to recognize as good/right”.

The simplest way δικαιόω/tsadaq is used in the OT is to speak of making correct deliberations. Deuteronomy for example says that when there is a dispute, the judge should “decide between them, declaring one to be in the right/innocent (δικαιόω/tsadaq) and the other to be in the wrong” (Deut 25:1)1. Conversely, Isaiah prophesies against those who “justify the ungodly for a bribe” (Isa 5:23), and God declares in Exodus “I will not justify the ungodly” (Ex 23:7). Here the meaning of δικαιόω/tsadaq essentially means to “declare righteous” in the sense of a legal acquittal, and it is expressly forbidden. Only the righteous may be declared right in God’s eyes. Proverbs goes so far as to declare that “the one who justifies the guilty” is “an abomination to the Lord” (Pr 17:15).2 The idea here of affirming the good and condemning the guilty seems straightforward enough. It’s morality 101. But how are we to understand Paul’s statement in Romans that God “justifies the ungodly”? In fact, we find in these three passages the same exact phrase:

Isa 5:23: οἱ δικαιοῦντες τὸν ἀσεβῆ ἕνεκεν δώρων καὶ τὸ δίκαιον τοῦ δικαίου αἴροντες.
They justify the ungodly for the sake of bribes and take away the rights of the righteous.

Exod 23:7: ἀπὸ παντὸς ῥήματος ἀδίκου ἀποστήσῃ, ἀθῷον καὶ δίκαιον οὐκ ἀποκτενεῖς καὶ οὐ δικαιώσεις τὸν ἀσεβῆ ἕνεκεν δώρων.

Keep away from unjust sentences, you shall not execute the innocent and righteous, and you shall not justify the ungodly3 for the sake of bribes.

Ro 4:5: τῷ δὲ μὴ ἐργαζομένῳ πιστεύοντι δὲ ἐπὶ τὸν δικαιοῦντα τὸν ἀσεβῆ λογίζεται ἡ πίστις αὐτοῦ εἰς δικαιοσύνην.

But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness. (NRSV)

So how can Paul claim that God justifies the ungodly when his Bible seems to say the exact opposite? I would propose that the problem comes from translating δικαιόω/tsadaq as “declare righteous” in Romans. This is clearly the sense in Isaiah and Exodus above (which is condemned), but unless we want to suppose that Paul is contradicting Scripture, this cannot be what he means. The answer I would propose is that Paul is using the term δικαιόω/tsadaq in a different sense. He is not speaking in a legal forensic sense of acquittal, but is proclaiming, as he says, a righteousness “apart from law.” This is in contrast a righteousness of/from God which is “testified to in the law and the prophets” (Ro 3:21). Indeed when we continue to look at how δικαιόω/tsadaq is used in the Old Testament, this is precisely what we find.

Because of the connection in Hebrew of the idea of righteousness to the character of God, there is a sense of tsadaq meaning shown to be innocent or good that can get lost when translated with the English “right”. For example when the Psalmist says “The judgments of Yahweh are true and altogether δικαιόω” the sense is not so much that God’s judgments are accurate, as that they are good. Similarly, the book of Job draws a parallel between being declared righteous (tsadaq) and being called pure: “Can mortals be righteous (tsadaq) before God? Can human beings be pure before their Maker?” (Job 4:17 NRSV).4 This same parallel form equating tsadaq with purity is found in Job 15:14 & 25:4 as well. Similarly, David complains “in vain I have kept my heart pure” (Ps 73:13, =LXX 72:13), the Hebrew here for “pure” is zakah (זָכָה) but in the LXX it is translated with δικαιόω: “I have kept my heart right.”

Paul’s use of δικαιόω

We also find that δικαιόω/tsadaq takes on the sense not only of declaring someone to be pure or righteous, but of making them pure and righteous. We read in Isaiah 53 for example that the servant “will make righteous (δικαιόω/tsadaq) many, for he bore their sin” (Isa 53:11). Here we have the picture of the priest who bears the sins the people, that is, we have a picture of purification. Daniel similarly speaks of the temple itself being “made tsadaq” (Dan 8:14), which various English translations have interpreted to mean “cleansed” (KJV, ASV), “restored” (NRSV, NLT), or “reconsecrated” (NIV). In both of the above cases what is at play is some sort of transformation. God will not simply declare that a person is righteous when they are not. As Paul says in Romans 3:20 (quoting from Psalm 143:2 =LXX 142:2), “Do not enter into judgment with your servant, for no one living is will be justified (δικαιόω/tsadaq) before you.” But then Paul adds, “by observing the law.” On our own we cannot turn our ungodliness into righteousness and purity. But God can. The prophet Micah writes:

I bear the wrath of the Lord because I sinned against him. Until he δικαιόω my case, and will decide for me, and leads me into the light. I will see his righteousness.(Micah 7:9)5

Here δικαιόω cannot simply mean “declare righteousness” because it immediately follows a confession of sin. Even if we translate δικαιόω as “defend my cause” we know that God has declared in no uncertain terms that he will not defend the ungodly. God will not participate in a legal fiction. The speaker here confesses their own sin, and that they stand under wrath, but nevertheless puts their hope in God’s righteousness not their own. I will see his righteousness. This is the same faith which Paul speaks of, “such faith is reckoned as righteousness” (Ro 4:5). It is a faith which – in spite of our sin – entrusts its cause to God’s righteousness. But how exactly will are we “brought into the light” as Micah says?

In a similar passage Isaiah writes, “All the descendants of Israel will be δικαιόω from the Lord and glorified in God” (Isa 45:25). Again the context is that of being sinners. God has just said to wayward Israel a few verses earlier “turn to me so you can be delivered” (v 22), and in verse 21 God declares “there is no one righteous, and no savior besides me”6 There is no one righteous. For those familiar with Romans this surely evokes Paul’s florilegia where he declares that all of humanity is under sin. God is not promising to declare sinful Israel righteousness, but to make them righteousness. Because of the righteousness of God our savior, Micah tells us, we are “made righteous/pure from God” ἀπὸ κυρίου δικαιωθήσονται.

I am God and there is no other besides me. There is no one righteous, no savior besides me. Turn to me and you shall be saved...” They will be made righteous by the Lord. All the offspring of the sons of Israel will be glorified in God7. (Isa 45:21-22,25 LXX)

As we have seen, there is a range of meaning in the OT for δικαιόω, and likewise there is a range of meaning in Paul. There are times where Paul does clearly appear to use the term δικαιόω in the sense of declaring or recognizing someone as righteous. For example quoting Psalm 51:4 (=LXX 50:6), Paul writes, “That you may be vindicated (δικαιόω) in your words, and will prevail when you are judged” (Ro 3:4)8. Since this passage refers to God, it is evident that God is not being made right, but simply that God’s words are being recognized as right. So δικαιόω can mean declared right or good, just as it can in the OT. However, just as in the OT δικαιόω has a range of meaning, it has that same range of meaning for Paul as well.

In his first letter to Corinth, Paul writes, “you were washed, you were sanctified, you were made righteous in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:11). Here (as we have also seen in several OT passages) Paul directly juxtaposes and connotes δικαιόω with purification and holiness. In other words, the δικαιόω which comes “in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” means being washed and sanctified.9 When passages such as Roman 5:9 are translated as “since we have now been made righteous by his blood, we will be saved through him from God’s wrath” they not only make more sense, (if we have been made righteous, then the cause of God’s wrath has clearly been removed), but they are also in line with Scripture. Alternatively, to translate verses like Rom 5:9 and others
as “declared righteous” is not only logically convoluted, but as we have seen blatantly contradicts Scripture.

In Romans 6:6-7 Paul writes, “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed (δικαιόω) from sin” (NRSV). Because we are co-crucified with Christ in baptism, sin in us has been abolished, removed (καταργέομαι) and as a result we are δικαιόω from sin Paul says. The BDAG gives for this use of δικαιόω the definition, “make free/pure.10 A change has taken place that is not simply legal. As a result of that real change, because our sin has been removed, the cause of God’s righteous anger is also removed. God has made Jesus “to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God ” (2 Co 5:21 NRSV). Let me underline every word here: we have in Christ become the righteousness of Godγενώμεθα δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ. Paul writes, “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! (2 Co 5:17 NRSV). That is what the δικαιόω from God means in Romans. As Paul writes, “Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to δικαίωσις11 and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Ro 5:18-19 NRSV). Paul’s understanding of δικαιόω is unmistakable here. As he explicitly spells out for us, it means “made righteousδίκαιοι κατασταθήσονται. As Paul says, no human being will be recognized as righteous before God by observance of the law (Ro 3:20), but we can be made righteous by God’s righteousness. When δικαιόω is read in this way, what Paul writes in Romans 4:5 is no longer a contradiction to what we read in the law (Ex 23:7) and the prophets (Isa 5:23), but its solution.

But to one who without works trusts him who makes the ungodly righteous/pure, such faith is reckoned as righteousness” (Ro 4:5).

God’s saving goodness makes the ungodly good. To paraphrase what Paul writes in Romans 3:20, we find in Paul the proclamation of a righteousness that comes from God – apart from a forensic legal understanding – which is testified to in the law and the prophets. It is about justification in the sense of being set right. It is about a real ontological change effected in us by the indwelling life of God. It is about becoming a new creation in Christ.


1 The LXX here is δικαιώσωσιν τὸν δίκαιον καὶ καταγνῶσιν τοῦ ἀσεβοῦς “declare right/good the righteous and condemn the wicked”.

See also 1 Kings 8:32, Isa 43:9, Job 33:32, Gen 44:16, Isa 43:26, Ps 51:4 (=LXX 50:6)

2 The Hebrew here in Proverbs for “justify the ungodly” is exactly the same as in Isaiah :
מַצְדִּיק רָשָׁע The LXX however is different: ὃς δίκαιον κρίνει τὸν ἄδικον.

3 LXX. In the Hebrew MT God declares “I will not justify the ungodly” לֹא־אַצְדִּיק רָשָׁע

4 This is a form typical of Hebrew verse known as doubling. See W. Gesenius, et al, Hebrew Grammar, (2nd English ed.) 475 §150.h

5 My translation from the LXX: ὀργὴν κυρίου ὑποίσω, ὅτι ἥμαρτον τῷ, ἕως τοῦ δικαιῶσαι αὐτὸν τὴν δίκην μου, καὶ ποιήσει τὸ κρίμα μου καὶ ἐξάξει με εἰς τὸ φῶς, ὄψομαι τὴν δικαιοσύνην αὐτοῦ.

6 δίκαιος καὶ σωτὴρ οὐκ ἔστιν πάρεξ ἐμοῦ

7 Compare this to Rom 8:30 where Paul makes a progressive connection between election, justification (being made right), and glorification, “And those he predestined, he also called; and those he called, he also set right; and those he set right, he also glorified.”

8 Note that in the same Psalm David prays to God, “create in me a clean heart” (v 10) expressing the same basic idea of δικαιόω meaning making righteous or pure.

9 The BDAG
states that
δικαιόω in this verse specifically means “you have become pure” (s.v. at 3 on 1 Co 6:11)

10 BDAG s.v. at 3

11 δικαίωσις is the noun form of the verb δικαιόω

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At 2:00 AM, Blogger Rev Drew Tweedy said...

Thanks Derek for this helpful and clear explanation. God is not interested in participating in a legal fiction but in real transformation and reconciliation. This is what Paul believed and wrote. When we mistranslate dikaion we introduce inconsistencies into Paul which are not really there.

At 4:45 PM, Blogger M.G. said...

Once again with great clarity and ability to divide the word you have shown that God is not looking for pretending we are righteous. The old nature circumcised and cut away will never be able to be declared righteous. Every person that puts their faith in the work of Christ receives His Spirit and are made righteous as children of God. First we believe it, then we live it. God imputing righteousness fails to change us where we need it the most. We need a new nature, a new start, a new hope that we can live righteousness every day because that is our new normal. This is the gospel: that we can live Christ life in us and through us.

Thanks Derek. Keep up the good work.

At 11:31 AM, Blogger Nick said...

I'd like to add that one can see clearly from Rom 4:5 itself that "declare righteous" doesn't work for the simple reason Paul explains his comment immediately in verse 6, "just as David says Blessed is the man who's sins are forgiven." Thus, for Paul, in this context, to 'justify the ungodly' means to forgive the sinner, removing his sin/unrighteousness, thus rendering him Blessed (Acts 15:9; 1 Jn 1:9).

To force "declare righteous" in this case means "God declares righteous the unrighteous," which Lutherans and Calvinists don't even believe in. Lutherans and Calvinists believe God only justifies the righteous, even if the righteousness is an alien righteousness. This is why they deny the Catholic "legal fiction" charge. But their 'solution' (separating justification from sanctification) hardly helps them, for they now must read it as "God justifies the unsanctified," which is a category mistake (if true) on Paul's part!

Regarding your analysis of 'justify', you might want to have a look at these links:


At 6:54 AM, Blogger jmac said...

A couple of observations... 1) The first mention of righteousness in the Old Testament is Gen 15:6 where God imputes righteousness to Abraham based upon his belief. 2) the scripture verses you mention warn against justifying the ungodly for a bribe. God imputing righteousness on the basis of faith is not God doing it for a bribe.

I like the fact that you use the definition of good. God declares the ungodly good based upon Jesus reconciliation which happens to coinside his original declaration about man Gen 1:32.

At 10:50 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Yes, Paul clearly was working from the passage of Abraham in Genesis which he quotes in the following chapter (Ro 4:3). Nice observations.

At 10:03 PM, Blogger Jason said...

The Hebrew term you should use here is הִצְדִּיק in the hiphil binyan. צָדַק (in the pa'al/qal) is "he was right," but הִצְדִּיק (in the hiphil) is "he showed X right, justified, declared X to be right." You've used the wrong binyan above.

As for Greek, what do you make of Galatians 5:4, where the mid/pass is used? κατηργήθητε ἀπὸ Χριστοῦ οἵτινες ἐν νόμῳ δικαιοῦσθε, τῆς χάριτος ἐξεπέσατε. Do you take this as people who were "making themselves righteous in the law"? How would you render it with your understanding of δικαιόω for imputing rather than demonstrating righteousness?


At 11:26 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Hi Jai Hare,

Yes, I know. I was just using צָדַק because it is the lemma of הִצְדִּיק.

I would translate Gal 5:4 as "you who are trying to be made righteous through law" or "you who are trying to be sanctified by observing the law." Since the verb is passive, it is "the law" that would be "making righteous/holy" not the people.

James Dunn would say that what Paul is objecting to here is not the idea that we are made holy by doing good works (contra Luther, Dunn thinks Paul would agree with that idea!), rather Paul is objecting to the idea that we are "made righteous" through ritual purity observances like circumcision proscribed by the law.

That makes a lot of sense if you keep reading. In verse 6 Paul writes "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love."

At 11:07 AM, Anonymous Kirgy said...

This has been so helpful for my assignment on Justification by Faith - thank you so much for writing it!

At 9:53 AM, Blogger Theodore A. Jones said...

"For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God's sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous." Rom. 2:13 What law? The law that was added after Jesus' was crucified.

At 4:47 AM, Blogger Douglas J said...

Of course you realize, you have just reinvented the wheel and basically rediscovered what every Catholic child learns in their sixth grade catechism. Thanks be to God!

Luther threw out this crucial and historic teaching to cope with his troubled conscience. It had been taught by the Church for 1,500 years before Luther was born. Sadly, in place of this beautiful truth of Christ making us truly new in him, Luther offered the image of the dung pile hidden by snow.

You have returned to the teaching taught by God's Church for more than 2,000 years and counting. Peace be to you!


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