One interesting thing about important theological terms is that a lot of them don’t start out as theological terms. Ask anyone today, and they’ll tell you the world “baptism” is mostly a religious term, but the Greek word translated “baptize” in the New Testament just means “to dunk” (if you look it up you’ll get a definition more like “to dip or immerse,” but let’s face it, the better word for those phrases in modern English is “dunk”).*

At some point these terms become so associated with their Theological function that they take on a mostly theological meaning. Sometimes the timing can even be significant. The Greek word translated “deacon” (διάκονος, diakonos) in the New Testament once just meant servant, or possibly waiter, but it became an officially recognized position in the church. So, when Paul calls Phoebe a “deacon” of the church at Cenchrea in Romans 16:1, is he just trying to say that she did things to serve the cause of that church, or is he saying that she was officially recognized as a Deacon after it was determined that she met the character qualifications of 1 Timothy 3:8-13? If she was an official “Deacon,” then the debate about women serving in the role of Deacons becomes much clearer.

In some cases, you can have two different authors using the same term, but one of them is turning it into a theologically significant term and the other is not. This is what is happening when you compare how Paul and James talk about being “Justified.” When James uses the Greek word translated “justify” (δικαιόω dikaioō), he’s just talking about plain old justification. When Paul uses it, he develops it into the Doctrine of Justification.  I’ve already written a bit about how the two differ, particularly focusing on the fact that Romans 3:28 and James 2:24 are no way in conflict. Today however, I wanted to delve a little deeper. I wanted to take the time to appreciate how carefully Paul has set up his case and draw attention to what a pivotal section of scripture the back half of Romans 3 is.

To start, we need to take a step back and take a look at the flow of the book of Romans as a whole and see how Paul has led up to this crucial section.

Romans is an incredibly unique letter. For one thing, Paul is writing to a church that he’s never been to. The result is one of the longest extended arguments in the Bible. Making it all the more precious is the fact that the letter represents an extended exposition of the most important topic there is: the Gospel.

The whole book hangs off the word “Gospel” in verse 15: “So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome” (Romans 1:15). This verse is the end of Paul’s double-introduction. I say double introduction because Paul normally concludes his introduction with the phrase “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” but here that phrase occurs in verse 7 concluding his general introduction, and verses 8-15 represent a more personal introduction where he expresses his desire to visit them. Both introductions prominently feature references to the Gospel. He first mentions the Gospel in verse 1, and then goes to to describe it for 6 verses before reaching his standard closing line in verse 7. This first introduction is quite unusual in the context of Paul’s letters in the sense that it is longer and more in-depth. As the legendary commentator Matthew Henry said of it, it is similar to a normal introduction, “but intermixed with very excellent and savoury expressions.”

The second introduction concludes in verse 15 with Paul expressing his desire to preach the Gospel to the people in the Church at Rome (by the way, that’s a fascinating concept in and of itself. He’s not wanting to preach the Gospel to them because they aren’t Christians, verse 7 makes it clear that he thinks they are. Apparently the Gospel is not just a message that non-Christians need to hear so that they can get saved, it’s a message that Christians need to be regularly reminded of). This verse then transitions into the thesis for the whole book: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.  For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith'” (Romans 1:16-17). In other words, why is he eager to preach the Gospel to them in verse 15? Because he’s not ashamed of the Gospel, it is the power of God to salvation. As I said, these verses make up the thesis of the book. Just as important, they also start a line of reasoning that continues in an unbroken chain until the conclusion.

Just take a look at any good word-for-word English translation like the ESV or the NASB. What you will see is that every paragraph from this point until the end of chapter 8 begins with some type of phrase that indicates that Paul’s line of reasoning is continuing: ” Therefore,” “For this reason,” “And just as” “But if,” “But now,” “What then,” “However,” “In the same way,” etc.  And of course, while chapters 9-11 are a self-contained unit, they represent Paul’s response to a hypothetical objection to the end of chapter 8, so they are a continuation of the same line of reasoning. Chapters 12-16 which contain the moral and practical instructions begin in Romans 12: 1 with the word “therefore,” indicating that the practical instruction given flows from the theological teaching of the letter as a whole. The entire letter literally hangs off of the word “gospel” in chapter 1 verse 15. The book of Romans is a sustained exposition of the gospel message.

This exposition of the gospel reaches its ultimate pinnacle in chapter 8 (the Mount Everest of chapters) with the extraordinary promise that God will work all things together for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28). However, the book is like a mountain range, and there are other wonderful summits. One of the most notable is the end of chapter 3: the doctrine of Justification by Faith.

To fully appreciate the pinnacle of the doctrine of Justification by Faith, we need to go back and track with Paul on the ascent. The first thing that we’ll notice is that, even from the beginning, it is clear that the doctrine of Justification by Faith is central to the Gospel. Let’s take another look at the thesis statement for the book:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

Romans 1:16-17

Now notice here that we essentially have two statements about the gospel itself. One of them is an “it is” statement (verse 16), and the other is an “in it” statement (verse 17). In these two statements we get a brief overview of Paul’s understanding of the gospel.

In verse 16, we see that Paul considers the gospel to be intimately concerned with salvation. Verse 16 is his statement about what the gospel is, and according to him it’s the power of God to save believers. This is our first introduction to the concept of faith in this thesis statement. The gospel is the power of God to salvation for who? For those with faith, or “everyone who believes.”

So in verse 16, we have “faith,” but no “justification” yet. We have the concept of “salvation” which is critical to Paul’s understanding of the gospel and ends up being closely tied to justification, but is to a certain degree its own unique idea. The idea of “salvation” is that we were in danger until the good news of the gospel came about God’s power to rescue us. As we’ll see later, an essential part of this rescue was the act of justification.

Verse 17 introduces us to an incredibly important concept: the righteousness of God. It might not be readily apparent, but this is the stepping off point for the doctrine of Justification. It’s important to remember that while all major English translations are very good, languages don’t have a 1:1 correspondence with each other. So while it may not be visually apparent in English how “righteousness” and “justification” are related, in Greek it’s immediately obvious.

Just take a look at these Greek words and their translations:

  • δικαιοσύνη (dikaiosynē) -n. Righteousness, justice
  • δίκαιος (dikaios) -adj. Righteous, just
  • δικαιόω (dikaioō) – v. Justify

What should be immediately obvious is that we are looking at the same Greek word in three different parts of speech. What’s interesting though is that the first one is a noun that has two different English translations, the second is an adjective that corresponds to the same two English words in their adjective form, but the third word is a verb and only has one similiar English translation. The reason is because even though this Greek word contains both the English ideas of “justice” and “righteousness,” there is no word “righteousify.” So, in English it looks like we’re talking about two separate things: righteousness and justification. Really, in Greek we are talking about one thing.

In verse 16 we get our first glimpse of the gospel as concerning Faith and Salvation, and in verse 17 we see that the gospel concerns faith and righteousness/justification.

It’s incredibly important as we march from here toward the Doctrine of Justification by Faith in chapter 3 that you see the parallel connection between Paul’s thesis in verse 17 and his launching off point in verse 18. Here is verse 17 again with emphasis added:

For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

Romans 1:17

And here is verse 18, again with emphasis added:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth

Romans 1:18


Notice how these two statements parallel each other: each verse starts out with some attribute of God being “revealed.”  In verse 17 it’s “the righteousness of God,” and in verse 18 it’s “the wrath of God.”  In both cases the phrase follows the exact same formula: “the (attribute) of God is revealed.”

The second connection is that of the issue of righteousness. In verse 17 we learn that God is righteous, and in verse 18 we read about the “ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” The phrase “unrighteousness of men” is clearly supposed to contrast “the righteousness of God” in verse 17.

In case there were any doubt about it, Paul adds the corresponding phrase “ungodliness” to make his meaning clear. Humans are ungodly because we are not like God. One of the most significant ways that we are not like God is because he is righteous and we are not. These two phrases become almost synonyms, ungodliness and unrighteousness.

Immediately, there is a tension between verse 17 and 18. You can clearly see how later in 5:10 he is able to say we were enemies of God. This really is a good vs. evil battle, it is righteous vs. unrighteous and we start out on the wrong side. Because of this dynamic, the wrath of God in verse 17 makes perfect sense, as does the need for salvation in verse 16.

Paul then makes his case for the universal guilt of humanity in the next two chapters by citing three witnesses that leave us without excuse in our accountability to the righteous judgment of God: creation, conscience, and the law.

The Witness of Creation

The rest of chapter one is an argument that there are truths about God that should be discerned simply from the material structures of creation.

The first example that is given is the fact that creation itself points to a creator. Most famously this point is made in verse 20 which says:

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.

Romans 1:19-20

Things that have been made point us to a maker and men who deny this truth are without excuse because they had access to the data that should have led them to conclude that God exists. They are accountable for their unbelief because they should have known better.

Instead of recognizing God through creation, we have ironically and perversely looked to creation itself to fill the place of honor and glory in our lives that only the creator God is fit to occupy. This is made especially clear in verses 23 and 25 which talk about exchanging the truth of God for a lie, choosing creation rather than the creator God.

The notion that there are truths that can be known simply by looking at creation is further reinforced in verses 26 and 27 when Paul speaks out against homosexuality. Paul’s problem with homosexuality is that it is “unnatural” or “against nature” which in this context clearly means “against the design of God in creation.” In other words, the design of men and women as being complementary physically is clear enough evidence of God’s design to make anyone who rebels against this natural order accountable.

The Witness of Conscience


For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them

Romans 2:14-15

Not only do all men have the witness of creation to hold them accountable, they also have their own God-given sense of right and wrong.

Paul here argues that even for gentiles who have never heard the law, their conscience works as if the law of God were metaphorically written on their heart. This internal sense of right and wrong is sometimes at odds with what we do, hence the fact that it sometimes is there to “accuse” us.

In this context, the phrase  “their conscience also bears witness” doesn’t mean that it bears witness to God’s existence, but rather it bears witness to our moral accountability before God.

The Witness of the Law

The first two witnesses are available to all men as part of God’s general revelation to mankind. The last witness invoked to establish the universal guilt and accountability of mankind is a form of special revelation that has not been available to all people in general, but only some in particular. It is the witness of “the law,” the Old Testament scriptures (at the time Paul was writing, the New Testament wasn’t yet complete. For our purposes we could say the Bible as a whole serves this function).

Paul begins chapter two by addressing a hypothetical Jewish objector directly. He assumes that such a person would look at the list of sinful practices that he lays out in chapter one and assume Paul was just going after the lawless gentiles. Paul immediately points out the hypocrisy of this attitude noting that people who judge others for these behaviors practice the same things themselves.

More than that, he argues that even though they “rely on the law” (verse 17) to distinguish themselves from the gentiles, they dishonor God by breaking the law (verse 23). He spends the rest of chapter two arguing that having the law is not nearly as important as obeying it.

All this leads up to Paul concluding:

Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin

Romans 3:19-20

In other words, the law is the final nail in the coffin of human guilt and accountability to God. Even those to whom the law was delivered break the law and so no one is any better off standing before the judgment of God.

The Word “Justification”

As Paul wrapped up his case for human unrighteousness and accountability to God, we saw our first good look at the word “justified” (it had actually occurred previously in Romans 3:4, but that was an Old Testament quotation and not Paul’s own usage): “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his [God’s] sight” (Romans 3:20).

This verse seeks to provide the negative side to the positive statement of what the law does, namely that the law eliminates excuses and renders the whole world accountable to God (see verse 19). So Paul’s point is that the law can hold you accountable, but it can’t “justify” you. In other words it can’t declare you righteous before God.

To this point, the book of Romans seems to have led us to a desperate dilemma: God is righteous and wrathful against sin, and we are unrighteous sinners. The law can’t solve this problem, because all the law can do is demonstrate our guilt when we break the law.

It is here, contrasted against the hopelessness of our situation that the heart of the gospel is seen:

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Romans 3:21-26

Here again we see that Paul goes back to the theme of the righteousness of God. All the way back in chapter 1 verse 17 we had learned that God’s righteousness is revealed in the gospel, and now here it’s mentioned that it is manifested apart from the law.

Also harking back to the books thesis is the phrase “all who believe” –back in 1:16 we saw that the gospel is the power of God for salvation for “all who believe.”

We then get the amazing statement that though Jew and Gentile alike have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, they are “justified” by God’s grace which was given to them as a gift through the redemption of Jesus.

This is very different from how the word “justified is usually used in Greek or in English. Normally you think of someone justifying themselves, declaring their own rightness, not being justified by the gift of another.

This is seen again in verse 26 where God is said to be “just, and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” The word “just” here is the same word that is being translated “righteous” throughout most of the book of Romans. In this verse we see that God is the one who justifies, a point that is powerfully echoed in Romans 8:35-36: “It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn?”

So in the context of Romans, Justification is something of a legal declaration of righteousness that is reckoned to the one who has faith in Jesus. That person started out as an unrighteous, ungodly person who had fallen short of the glory of God and has ended up being declared righteous by God.

It’s critical that we don’t miss how this happens, and the solution is found in verse 25 where we read that Jesus was “put forward as a propitiation by his blood to be received by faith.”

This word “propitiation” is a fascinating one. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, known as the Septuagint, this same Greek work was used to translate the Hebrew term for the “mercy seat” in the tabernacle of meeting. In fact, in the only other usage of this word in the New Testament (Hebrews 9:5), it is actually explicitly talking about the tabernacle and the actual mercy seat.

The mercy seat is mentioned significantly in Leviticus 16:15 as the place where Aaron would sprinkle the blood of the goat that had been the sin offering for the people on the Day of Atonement. This connection makes the most sense for what Paul had in mind when he used the word translated “propitiation.” Jesus was offered up in the place of sinners, he died in their place for their sins to take away their guilt and avert the wrath of God.

We see further evidence of the connection that the sacrifice of Jesus has with the wrath of God in the second half of verse 25, where we read that God putting forth Jesus as a propitiation demonstrated his righteousness because  “in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.” In other words, if God really is righteous, then how does he let sinners continue in their evil ways? Why doesn’t he bring instant judgment and satisfy the demands of justice with his active wrath? The answer seems to be that Jesus paying the penalty for sin is a sufficient demonstration of God’s wrath against sin that his righteousness is no longer in question when he delays in bringing justice.

Justification by Faith

In the previous section we already saw several indications that justification was by faith: verse 22 spoke of “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” and verse 25 said that the substitutionary death of Christ is “to be received by faith,” but now Paul is going to drive the point home that justification is received by faith alone.

Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.

Romans 3:27-31

Paul makes it clear in his writings that God is very concerned that there be no opportunity for humans to boast (1 Corinthians 1:26-31 is another good example of this). Paul here argues that we are declared or made righteous though our faith, since if it were by our works or our ability to follow the law, there would be room for boasting.

His supporting argument is very interesting; he is basically pointing out that the law was given to the Jews, but God is the God of both Jews and Gentiles. So God is going to reckon both the Jews and the Gentiles righteous by faith.

Paul goes on to defend the assertion that justification doesn’t come through works of the law by bringing up the example of Abraham in chapter 4.

Abraham is a good illustration that justification is by faith for several reasons:

  • The moment when Abraham is justified, or counted as righteous in scripture, is in direct response to his faith. We read in Genesis 15:6 that “he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness”
  • When Abraham is counted righteous in Genesis 15:6, he hadn’t yet taken the major step of obedience in his life which was to get circumcised.
  • The counting of Abraham as righteous and the promises given to him occurs before the law was given to Moses. Paul makes the point that the law was not the criteria of the promises to Abraham or of him being mentioned righteous, it all rests on the grace of God (4:13-14)


Peace with God

This brings us to the pinnacle point of justification with faith: peace with God.

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Romans 5:1

The tension between the righteous God of 1:17 and the unrighteous, ungodly sinner in 1:18 has at last been overcome. Those who put their faith in Christ have been reckoned, have been declared righteous since Jesus died in their place for their sins and rose again to intercede on their behalf. The wrath of God against sin has been satisfied, and the believer is now being conformed into the image of Christ.

The goal of justification is not just to avoid God’s wrath, it’s to find peace with God.

Of course, justification isn’t the only facet of the gospel, and the rest of the book of Romans goes into unpacking many other aspects of the good news. There is the concept of reconciliation in the next several verses of chapter five, the death to sin and resurrection with Christ to new life in chapter six, being released from the law in chapter seven, and the beautiful concepts of adoption and glorification in chapter eight.

But this post was about justification, and although it pops up again in the book (see 8:30 for example), the main thread of argument regarding this aspect of the gospel is pretty much wrapped up by the beginning of chapter five.

Final Thoughts

Justification is a critical component of the Gospel. The problem humanity faces is that God is righteous but people are ungodly and unrighteous. Justification is the process where God is able to declare sinners righteous on the basis that Jesus died in their place for their sins.

Justification has always been by Grace through faith; it is because of the work of Jesus that you can be declared righteous before God, it is not because of your own moral effort.

Most significantly, justification leads to what we are all in need of: peace with God. This evokes the Hebrew notion of “shalom,” the state of rightness that was disrupted in Genesis 3. Indeed, the “rightness” of shalom and “righteousness” of justification are related, both of them are ways of indicating the state in which things ought to be.

Justification isn’t the only facet of the gospel, but it is one of the crown jewels and it is a major focus of the greatest letter ever written.

*fun fact: one of the earliest known uses of the Greek word βαπτίζω (English: baptize) comes from a pickle recipe from 200 B.C. According to the poet Nicander, when you pickle a vegetable you need to “baptize” it in a vinegar solution.

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