Chapter 9 – Biblical Justification and Righteousness

Author: Kevin George

This book is a work in progress. Posts on this blog are to enable readers to examine the manuscript and make commentary. These blog posts are NOT the final version!

Justified – Examining the use of the Greek word “dikaioó” in the Bible

The Greek word “dikaioó” is translated into English as “justified” in many Bible passages, especially in the book of Romans, written by Paul, the apostle. This is a correct translation except for the fact that theologians will change the definition of the word to mean “a declaration of being righteous”. When Paul writes “dikaioó” in other passages that do not suit PSA, the translators either change the English word or the careful reader can notice that the meaning of the word “justified” is not a declaration but being justified as an action, which is “to be set right”, “to be rectified”, or “to be corrected” in real life instead of merely being declared right. A good example of this is Romans 6:16, “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness [dikaiosynēn]?” The Greek word “dikaiosynēn”, translated “righteousness” here, is the same Strong’s word 1343 from dikaios, meaning equity, especially justification.

It is a terrible shame that Bible dictionaries and Lexicons consistently give “justification” a legal definition as if the word was primarily a legal, judicial, forensic word, meaning “declared righteous”, which requires two words. The Greek word “dikaioó” (Strongs #1344) can be more accurately translated as “set right”, “rectified”, or “corrected”, as it is not primarily a declaration but a change from wrong to right. A good student or scholar who seeks truth in spite of being trained to think in a particular theological framework will continually seek to read each passage in its actual context. Remember, when interpreting the meaning of a passage, context is king! Try to never allow your preferred theology to overrule the context. Theological constructs are powerful and can distort word definitions and cause texts to say something very different than what the original author intended his audience to hear. Be on guard! Context, context, context – always examine the context! Furthermore, do not forget to apply the historical context as well – when did this belief arise in the history of church doctrine? Reading a doctrine back into the Bible anachronistically (out of its time context) is simply circular reasoning, and we know that this particular doctrinal spin arose primarily in the Reformation period (1500-1600 AD). Here are more examples of “justified” being used as setting right:

1 Corinthians 6:10-11 “Nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified/set right [edikaiōthētet] in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God”.

This passage is a great example of how Paul uses “justified” to mean “set right”. Consider how the term “justified” in this passage actually indicates a new condition of the individuals due to having left their sin behind, and not some imaginary legal status. These individuals were set right from their former way of living by embracing the name of, which is by being loyal to, the lord Jesus Christ, and by the Spirit of God. Notice that the context demands not a mere declaration of being right, but a genuine personal change to living right. The word translated justified is being used as a synonym with being sanctified and washed clean from the sinful life of those who will not inherit the kingdom of God. If justified is being legally declared righteous with no relation to a corresponding ceasing from sin, then the use of this word is out of place and irrelevant to its immediate textual context.

Acts 13:38-39 “Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness [literally, “release”] of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed [dikaiōthēnai] from everything from which you could not be freed [dikaioutai] by the law of Moses.”

Notice how the Greek “dikaiōthēnai ” is translated as “freed”. Various other versions translate “dikaiōthēnai” as “justified”, “set free”, and “made right”. It would have been more accurate to have used “set right” instead of “freed”, but this passage still illustrates that “dikaiothentes”/”justified” is not a legal declaration of right, nor a positional claim, but a change of condition from not being right, to becoming right. These verses, read in their own context (instead of with a predetermined theological PSA conclusion) are stating that the ability to release habitual sinning is being proclaimed because even in those things where the Law of Moses was unable to set them right, they are now, through believing like Jesus, able to be set right. The focus of the Law of Moses was on external behavior, but belief in Jesus is focused on the heart, the spirit of the person, and produced a greater and better change that released the believers from mere external legal obedience. In contrast, merely declaring someone to be just or righteous without a corresponding internal change of being set right would have been nothing better than what Paul’s audience already had with the Law of Moses, as that law did not have a mechanism for setting right/rectifying/justifying from the heart.

Romans 4:25-5:1 “Who was delivered because of our offences, and was raised again for our correction [dikaiōsin]. Therefore, since we have been set right [dikaiōthentes] by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Notice that verse 25 states that it was our sin that caused the death of Jesus and he was raised to correct, to rectify (or justify, if you prefer) us. We are not set right, justified, or corrected by some payment to get God to declare us to be in a state of merely being declared righteousness, but rather we become righteous because of his resurrection. The resurrection gave proof of a future life after the grave, and believing this fact frees us from thinking that we only have this one life now and must pursue the greatest pleasures of it by living for sin and self. Verse 1 of Romans 5 is saying that due to this change, because of having been set right through “our Lord Jesus Christ”, we are able to obtain peace with God. This means that the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God’s anointed, is why we heard and believed and were motivated to live lives pleasing to God. It is our having been set right [dikaiōthentes] therefore [oun] out of [ek] faith [pisteōs]” that “we have peace with God.” It is not God declaring us right and then we find peace, but rather us first setting something right that was previously wrong which enables us to have peace with God as a byproduct, the result. Sadly, the popular theology of today has conditioned people to think that the word “justified” is a mere declaration, a position, or a status, with no corresponding obligation of change to actually living right. This violates the order of this verse and makes God a liar for declaring that a person is living right even if he is not!

Romans 5:18-19 This is a difficult passage to translate because in it there are two difficult Greek words, typically translated as “made”. (See Chapter 19 regarding Romans 5 for more on this verse.)

Here is the ESV translation of this passage: “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. 19 For 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.”

In this passage we see that both trespasses and righteousness are actions that affect one’s life to make it right or wrong (similar to, “the one practicing righteousness is righteous” 1 John 3:7). We also see that becoming sinners when following Adam is contrasted as the exact opposite of becoming righteous when following Christ. Paul is not claiming that sinners are being declared righteous while still actively living in their sin, as this would be a false claim. The claim is that due to the righteous life of one man, many have changed their lives to also live right, with the result that they are made righteous and are granted life instead of death.

Romans 5:19 is usually translated with the phrase “made righteous”. By using the word “made”, the passage reads as if righteousness is infused from outside the person, who is passive, which of course fits well within the claims of PSA and Reformed theology. But in Greek, it is “katastathēsontai dikaioi”, which means “will be ordered right” (ordered in the sense of sequence in a process, not “ordered” in the sense of giving a command).

Romans 6:20 “For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness.”

The word translated as “righteousness” here is “dikaiosynē”, based on the same root word as “justified”. To be free of “dikaiosynē” is to not be “dikaiosynē”, which is a condition of actually being in sin, not merely a declaration of being in sin. Obviously, a declaration can be made due to the condition, but the condition comes first, a declaration is not the cause of the condition. A declaration of guilt or innocence does not change the original condition, a declaration (assuming it is true) is based on what is already a matter of fact.

The Antonym of Justification: Adikia, Adikeo

If the Greek word “dikaioóo” in the Bible means a declaration of being right, then the opposite Greek word, “adikia” should mean a declaration of being evil. But curiously, or perhaps conveniently, Bible translators and most theologians have not chosen to translate “adikia” as a declaration of evil, but understand the term in its normal sense of the word, which is to actively do unrighteousness. Consider how “adikia” is used in the following passages, sometimes even contrasting with being actively righteous, which is the same as being just.

Romans 1:18 “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness [adikian] of men, who by their unrighteousness [adikia] suppress the truth.”

Romans 1:29 “They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness [adikia], evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness.”

Romans 2:8 “But for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness [adikia], there will be wrath and fury.”

Romans 3:5 “But if our unrighteousness [adikia] serves to show the righteousness [dikaiosynēn] of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous [adikos] to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way).”

Romans 6:13 “Do not let any part of your body become an instrument of evil [adikias] to serve sin. Instead, give yourselves completely to God, for you were dead, but now you have new life. So use your whole body as an instrument to do what is right [dikaiosynēs] for the glory of God.”

Romans 9:14 “What shall we say then? Is there injustice [adikia] on God’s part? By no means!”

1 Corinthians 6:8 “But you yourselves wrong [adikeite] and defraud—even your own brothers!”

1 Corinthians 13:6 “It does not rejoice at wrongdoing [adikia], but rejoices with the truth.”

1 Peter 3:18 “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous [dikaios] for the unrighteous [adikōn], that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.”

Perhaps the single verse which most clearly exposes the contrast between doing wrong [adikias] and doing right [dikaiosynēs] is Romans 6:13. The subjects are not righteous or unrighteous by virtue of a declaration but by virtue of their actions because the person is responsible for committing either act.

Peter’s statement in 1 Peter 3:18 above is also a powerful distinction, contrasting the righteous with the unrighteous. Jesus is the righteous one who suffered for the sake of the unrighteous ones so that he could bring us to God, not by paying God, but rather that we might leave our unrighteousness and turn to him and follow him in his righteous ways.

Righteousness cannot be transferred!

Penal Substitutionary Atonement teaches that righteousness is something external to us and that it must be transferred to us as a legal or accounting transaction. It is common to hear that the righteousness of Christ covers us, claiming that we must be “clothed in the righteousness of Christ”, and that we cannot have any righteousness of our own doing. However, this idea is a presupposition read into a few select passages, while ignoring the multitude of Scriptures which state otherwise. Consider the following passages and ask yourself if any of these indicate that righteousness is being transferred from an external source.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Matthew 5:6

“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Matthew 6:13

“Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Matthew 9:13

“Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” Luke 5:7

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:20

According to PSA teachers, righteousness is often thought of as a category or a position. But in the Bible, which reflects Hebrew thought, it is a path to follow or a condition by choice.

“For a righteous person falls seven times and rises again.” Proverbs 24:16 NASB

He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” Psalm 23:3

“Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.” 1 John 3:7 NIV

I walk in the way of righteousness, along the paths of justice.” Proverbs 8:20

“The way of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD, but he loves him who pursues righteousness.” Proverbs 15:9

“Whoever pursues righteousness and kindness will find life, righteousness, and honor.” Proverbs 21:21

Lead me, O LORD, in Your righteousness because of my enemies; make straight Your way before me.” Psalm 5:8 (Notice it is “lead me”, not “transfer to me”.)

He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them His way.” Psalm 25:9

“Righteousness will go before Him to prepare the way for His steps.” Psalm 85:13

God’s righteousness is what you follow after, it can be sought, it is a guide, a path, it is not a position or a condition.

God is the source, the standard, of our righteousness; not in the sense that it is a property or a substance that is transferred, but rather in the sense that it is emulated, imitated, and reflected by our actions and attitudes. Righteousness is a virtue, just as love, patience, and humility. We must choose to pursue, sometimes even grope, for these things. Virtues cannot be transferred! Virtue is not a status, not a position, or a state of being.

There are those who deliberately ignore or reject God as the standard of righteousness, as in Romans 10:3 “Because they disregarded the righteousness from God and attempted to establish their own righteousness, they have not submitted themselves to God’s righteousness.” HCS

We see then that God sets the standard of right and wrong, but people have often disregarded this standard and have set up their own standards in rebellion against God’s definition of what is right.


Careful research of how the words “righteous” and “unrighteous” are used in the Bible reveals that neither word is a declaration, but they describe the condition of the person due to their actions. God’s words are the reference standard used to determine what is right and wrong and we either choose to follow a path toward this righteousness or we will be by default on a path contrary to God’s righteousness.