Does Romans Need Justification?

by Robert Brow   (web site -

(This essay is an edited revision of postings on the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association discussion list late November and early December 1996)

In the Western Church it is generally assumed that the key to Paul's Epistle to the Romans is the idea of justification. The problem is that the English verb "justify" comes straight from the Latin justificio which is a verb that was used in Roman law courts. The noun justificatio from which we transliterated the English word "justification" means that an accused person is pronounced free of condemnation and punishment. These Latin terms were an essential part of the pre-Reformation doctrine of the atonement, and this law court language came unchanged from the Latin Vulgate into our English translations of the Epistle to the Romans.

 These words have also been taken for granted in Protestant commentaries. For example, in the massive 1988 two volume Word Biblical Commentary on Romans James D.G Dunn used the terms "justify" and "be justified" throughout (2:13, 3:20, 24, 28, 4:4-5, 25, 5:18). But he did not question whether these typically Roman law court terms were appropriate to translate the Greek verb dikaioo which need mean nothing more than "to make righteous" (in the OT sense of becoming a tzaddiq person).

 Greek Orthodox theologians still read the Greek New Testament in their modern tongue, and since the time of Chrysostom they have pointed out that dikaioo could equally well be translated "make right or upright." The words in the original Greek of the Epistle to the Romans might allow, but they never require a Roman law court interpretation. This is argued and documented in David Weaver's three articles "The Exegesis of Romans 5:12 among the Greek Fathers and its Implications for the Doctrine of Original Sin," Parts I to III, The St. Vladimir Theological Quarterly, 27.3 & 27.4 (1983) and 28.1 (1984).

 In a moment I will suggest an interpretation of the Epistle to the Romans that does not require the Latin words "justify" and "justification," or the Roman law court model from which they are derived. But first there is a serious objection. "Are you suggesting that the the rallying cry of the Reformation, justification by faith alone, was a mistake?"

 The Reformation was certainly not a mistake. We all rejoice in Luther's insistence on reading the Bible in our own mother tongue, and on Luther's emphasis that we are put right by grace alone, and grace is received by faith without an ounce of legalism. Those are the essentials of the great model shift which we call the Reformation. What is being questioned is whether two Latin words, which had come into the Western Church's doctrine of the atonement with the Vulgate over a thousand years before, are proper translations of the Greek words in Paul's Epistle to the Romans.

 This is not merely a dispute about words. It is about words which trick us into thinking that the Epistle to the Romans is about being forgiven on the basis of a Roman law court transaction. I suggest that in this epistle forgiveness is not Pauls' problem. He is quite sure that nothing could possibly separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:37-39). The problem that concerns Paul is that no amount of legalism or human effort can ever persuade our flesh to begin loving the way God loves. "I can will what is right, but I cannot do it . . . I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members" (Romans 7:18 - 25). Paul then goes on to explain how the Spirit has freed him from that miserable inability of his flesh to attain what he longed be.

 So the good news is that we need not remain condemned and guilt ridden. The same Holy Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead can work in us to effect the transformation that we so badly need (Romans 8:1-11). There are eighteen references to the Holy Spirit in the first thirty verses of Romans 8, and the conclusion is that we have all we need by the Spirit "to be conformed to the image of his Son and glorified as children of God" (8:30). This is not by obeying rules or trying a bit harder, but by the Spirit.

 That the Epistle to the Romans is about being freed by the Spirit is suggested by the argument which Paul had already outlined in Galatians. "Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?" (Galatians 3:2,3). And Galatians also concludes with being perfected by the Spirit. "Live by the Spirit, I say, and you will certainly not do what the flesh desires" (Galatians 5:16 literal translation). Paul then explains how the fruit of the Spirit frees us from trying to overcome the flesh by legalism (5:17-24). In all eight cases translating the verb dikaioo by making right or putting right (2:16-17, 3:8, 11, 24, 5:4) fits the context far better than trying to introduce a law court model. And at no point is the argument focussed on the problem of forgiveness. The Epistle to the Galatians is therefore a reminder of how the Galatians were first changed by the Spirit, and they should insist on the freedom to continue in that good news. And this is exactly the gospel Paul set out in the Epistle to the Romans.

 Similarly there is nothing about the problem of forgiveness in 1 Corinthians. The NRSV uses the Roman law court term justified in 1 Cor. 6:11 but the Greek is edikaiothyte which means "you have become pure," or made right, as in Romans 6:7. And, as in Galatians, the whole emphasis of 1 Corinthians is how the Holy Spirit transforms and perfects us.

 It is significant that in the second century Christian writings there was far more interest in transformation of life than in the problem of forgiveness. And the Greek speaking theologians to this day are deeply concerned with theiosis (being perfected into the image of God). They have never emphasized forgiveness by a law court transaction in which the Son satisfied the wrath of the Father by a law court transaction. Their theology begins with the three Persons of the Trinity intending to bring many children to glory (Genesis 1:26-27), and they have always known that the transformation required in us is done by the work of the Holy Spirit.

 Scholars who interpret Romans through the lens of the words "justify" and "justification" have difficulty with how Romans 7:14-8:17 fits into this. If we see that God's own way of making us right is by the Spirit freely given to any who turn to Him, the whole Epistle can be seen as the same good news of life in the Spirit that Paul had begun to teach in Galatians and 1 Corinthians.

 In the twentieth century the work of the Holy Spirit has been recovered as very good news. Having finally grasped that God is love, we sense that it is not how we can be forgiven that is the problem but rather how we can allow the Spirit to transform us. That is why many preachers, including yours truly, now use a transformation by the Spirit model made up of Greek Orthodox theiosis, Wesleyan perfected love, C.S.Lewis' Narnia, Pope John XXIII's renewed Catholicism, Charismatic fruits and gifts, etc. And explaining the atonement as a law court transaction in which the Father's wrath is satisfied by the Son's payment on the cross does not fit that model. The point of this essay is to suggest that our preaching may now be closer to the good news of Paul's Epistle to the Romans than was suggested by the Latin words justify and justification.

An Exegetical Note for Further Discussion

In the King James translation the adjective dikaios and the noun dikaiosune are correctly translated "righteous" and "righteousness" thirty-four times in the Epistle to the Romans. The forensic virus was introduced when the King James Version [and most other English translations including the RV, RSV, NIV, NEB, NRSV] in thirteen cases translated the related Greek verbs by the typically Roman law court verbs "to justify" and the passive "to be justified." In each case the law court term justify was used to translate the Greek verb dikaioo which need mean nothing more than "to make righteous."

 Those who use the Latin root words "justification," "justify," and "be justified" have already assumed a judicial paradigm, and by doing so they set Paul's argument in a mold which we have shown is alien to his thinking in other epistles. The translators have therefore taken for granted what should be very questionable. The literal translation of the Greek by terms such as "make righteous or upright or just," "be made righteous, righteousness," etc. would have left open the question of what model Paul had in mind. That does not prove that the forensic model is wrong, only that another model fits the Bible just as well, and avoids the moral problem inherent in typically Latin law court theology.

 The words in the original Greek might allow, but they never require a judicial interpretation. Since the time of Chrysostom it has been pointed out in the Greek Church that dikaioo could equally well be translated "make upright or righteous." If this Greek Orthodox reading of the Epistle is correct then it would seem that it was the legal minds of the first Latin translators and Jerome's Vulgate which introduced the forensic virus into the western church. Augustine did not know Greek, and he set the Roman law court model in stone. Anselm clarified that logic with ruthless perfection.

 The result is that the Roman law court term justificatio has dominated the theology of the western Church since Augustine and it was the battleground for the long bloody split between Protestants and Roman Catholics. It also twisted the doctrine of the Trinity and caused the obsession with guaranteeing places in heaven which has obscured the need for genuine liberation by the Spirit.

 If we avoided the Latin term, what would be neutral translations for the three occurences in the Bible of the term "justification"? The first is "Who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification." [Romans 4:25] Here the Greek word is dikaiosis which in the Lexicon is given the meanings "justification, vindication or acquittal." These all assume the Forensic model. But the context of the passage is the faith of Abraham which is going to be a blessing to all nations. And there is no way to set Abraham's life of faith in a Roman lawcourt.

 Paul tells us that Abraham was counted righteous or upright because in his sense of great bodily weakness he had faith in the promises of God. [Romans 4:18-25] In the same way we are counted righteous or upright when in our great weakness we believe through Jesus Christ in the God of Abraham [5:1-6, so 7:14-8:2] So instead of using the law court term justificatio we could translate "He was delivered over to death because of (dia) our sins, and raised for us to be counted righteous or upright." The meaning would be that like Abraham we feel our inability to perform, but as we look in faith to the God who raised Jesus from the dead we are counted as upright and we have Abraham's kind of righteousness. [Compare 4:18-25, 5:1-6, 7:14-8:2]

 A second text is "The free gift is not like the effect of one man's sin. For the judgment following many trespasses brings justification" (Romans 5:16). Here the Greek word is dikaioma which can mean "regulation, requirement, commandment." Since it is applied to Christ two verses later it cannot mean "justification" in a forensic sense. The context suggests that Paul is contrasting two ways of living, in Adam or in Christ, in death or in life, under the sense of condemnation or in the assurance of being accepted as upright before God [Romans 5:12-21. (See Anders Nygren on "The Two Aeons," Romarbrevet, Stockholm, 1944, First American Edition, l949, Commentary on Romans, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972, pp.16-26). So a more neutral translation would be "the gift that followed many transgressions now results in us meeting God's requirement." That avoids importing the Roman judicial model and leaves the interpretation open.

 "Justification" is again used wrongly as a translation of dikaiosis later in the same context. "Just as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man's act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all." [Romans 5:18] This translation adds the word "act" which is not in the Greek, and by using the Latin word "justification" it insists that the Greek word dikaiosis is set in a law court. The New English Bible correctly abandons justification but immediately slips back into the judicial paradigm with "a verdict of acquittal."

 In this case the context is Paul's contrast between the two humanities in Adam or in Christ. A radical but neutral paraphrase would be "In contrast to human (Adamic) transgression which condemns us all, the rightness that comes from God (Christ's dikaioma) effects our righteousness (dikaiosis)." That allows the idea of a genuine work of righteousness in the heart by the Holy Spirit, which seems to be the thrust of the Epistle. The Epistle to the Romans then becomes the good news of God's plan as a loving parent to perfect us. In such a model God never was interested in condemning anyone to hell, or transferring righteousness by a merely legal transaction.

 It therefore seems that the term "justification" is misleading and never needed, even in the Epistle to the Romans. Similarly the passive of the verb dikaioo was translated by the forensic term "justified" seven times in the King James version of the Gospels, but in no case has the context anything to do with a law court. And it would have been impossible to derive a forensic model from a reading of the Gospels alone.

 It is therefore time translators had the courage to discard "justify," "justified," and "justification" from our Bible and use the ordinary meaning of the Greek words instead. Wherever the adjective dikaios, the verb dikaioo, and the noun dikaiosune occur the translation should use "righteous," "make righteous," and "righteousness." The meaning of those words should be derived from the Hebrew idea of a righteous person (tzaddiq) which never has the forensic meaning of being acquitted in a law court. The good news is that the Holy Spirit can perfect us in love, and so make us righteous in the Old Testament sense.

 As the Greek Orthodox church has always explained, God's original purpose from Genesis 1 was to bring many children to glory (theiosis), and the Three Persons of the Trinity have from the beginning undertaken our perfecting. Romans 1:18 chronicles the disastrous failure of the Greek attempt to attain perfection by wisdom, and the consequent result of their atheism in the collapse of their civilisation since the golden age. Paul then shows how Jewish civilization has also failed in in its attempt to attain perfection by legalism. Paul's point in Romans is that for Abraham and for all of us the good news is that the whole work of perfecting is done by God, and our part is to accept it by faith alone. That was the experience that moved Martin Luther. Unfortunately Luther then explained his theology in the forensic model he had learned from Augustine. Wesley read the Greek Fathers, and tried to teach God's perfecting by faith alone, but even he found it hard to free himself from the Latin word "justification" in the Vulgate and English translations.

 It seems that history would have been very different, and the western church would have been saved much pain and vast theological confusion if the Roman law terms had never been used. The confusion did not arise in the Orthodox churches of eastern Europe where the Greek New Testament was read in the original, and the Latin paradigm of Roman justice was not usually in mind. What is sorely needed in our generation is a modern commentary on the Epistle to the Romans which offers another model.

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