The acquittal, or declaration of being righteous, before God as judge. It is a central aspect of Paul’s understanding of what God achieved for believers through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Manzer & McGrath, Eds., “Justification,” Dictionary of Biblical Themes (2012).
BDAG, the most respected lexicon of biblical Greek, says,
of God be found in the right, be free of charges (cp. TestAbr A 13 p. 93, 14 [Stone p. 34] ‘be vindicated’ in a trial by fire) Mt 12:37 (opp. καταδικάζειν). δεδικαιωμένος Lk 18:14; GJs 5:1; δεδικαιωμένη (Salome) 20:4 (not pap). Ac 13:39 (but s. 3 below); Rv 22:11 v.l; Dg 5:14.—Paul, who has influenced later wr[iters]. (cp. Iren. 3, 18, 7 [Harv. II 102, 2f]), uses the word almost exclusively of God’s judgment. As affirmative verdict Ro 2:13. Esp. of pers. δικαιοῦσθαι …
Thayer’s defines “justify” as —
to declare, pronounce, one to be just, righteous, or such as he ought to be, (cf. ὁμοιόω to declare to be like, liken, i. e. compare; ὁσιόω, Sap. 6:11 ; ἀξιόω ,which never means to make worthy, but to judge worthy, to declare worthy, to treat as worthy; …)
Think about it. If “justification” is not the forgiveness itself but the declaration of a judge that I’m acquitted — innocent, really — then what does “justified by faith” mean? Well, it means that my faith evidences my acquittal. Not my circumcision, not my kosher diet, not even my scrupulous keeping of the Sabbath. My faith in Jesus declares to the world that God has acquitted me!
Thus, we read —
(Rom 3:30 NET) 30 Since God is one, he will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.
— as meaning —
(Rom 3:30 NET) 30 Since God is one, he will [declare as innocent of sin] the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.
It’s my faith that tells everyone else that God has declared me innocent so that I may be part of the Kingdom and son of God!
The NET Bible translators pick up exactly this meaning in —
(Gal 5:3-7 NET) 3 And I testify again to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. 4 You who are trying to be declared righteous [“justified”] by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace! 5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we wait expectantly for the hope of righteousness. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision carries any weight – the only thing that matters is faith working through love. 7 You were running well; who prevented you from obeying the truth?
The Galatians wanted their circumcision and other Jewish practices to be boundary markers that separate Christians from the world. In their minds, the church and the world could look at their Torah faithfulness and so see that they are saved. But Paul says that it’s our faith by which God himself declares us saved.
It’s sounds a little Calvinist, but Galatians speaks quite a lot about falling from grace, so let’s not go there.
You see, there’s a sense in which the indwelling Spirit (given only to the saved: Acts 2:38; Rom 8:9-11) creates faith within us —
(1Co 12:3 NET) 3 So I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus is cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.
Says what it means and means what it says. (But this is not about Calvinism, just the fact that I’ll not refuse to believe a verse because it gives aid and comfort to the Calvinist camp. I will not edit my Bible just to win an argument!)
And so God gives the Spirit, which produces a visible faith, so visible that it serves as God’s declaration that this person is his son or daughter. That’s what it means to be justified by faith.
And if that’s so, what do we make of someone with faith who has been imperfectly baptized? What does that faith say now? And if it doesn’t say that the person is God’s child, then Paul wasted a lot of ink on justification as something supposedly meaningful.
N. T. Wright is not unique in his argument, but he is the most forceful and the one who has sorted out the implications far better than most. He says,
Because Catholics, like many Protestants, have traditionally used the language of justification to describe the much wider realities of regeneration and sanctification, they have usually simply ignored the reality of which the word actually speaks, namely, the assurance in the present that my sins are forgiven because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and that I have a sure and certain hope because of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. And where that assurance is lacking, other elements come in to usurp its place … . The tragedy of the situation is that there must have been countless Christians down the years in all churches who really did believe in Jesus Christ as their risen Lord, but who failed in this life to enjoy the assurance of salvation which was theirs for the taking, because they were never told that believers are declared ‘righteous’ in the present because of the death of God’s son.
N. T. Wright, “Justification and Current Questions: Protestant and Catholic,” Pauline Perspectives: Essays on Paul (2013), pp. 31-32. (A vital essay for today’s Churches of Christ.)
So what of baptism, Dr. Wright? In Jesus and the Faithfulness of God, he offers his most extensive teaching on baptism —
Baptism is a community-marking symbol, which the individual then receives, not first and foremost as a statement about him- or herself, but as a statement which says, ‘This is who we are.’ This does not exactly defuse all the anxieties of troubled Protestants when contemplating a physical event with supposed spiritual consequences, but it may suggest that the normal way of looking at ‘the problem’ is, at least, seeing things through the wrong end of the telescope. Baptism marks out this community, the messianic-monotheist, new-exodus, crucified-and-risen community, which like Israel of old then requires a commensurate way of life of its members.
N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (2013), pp. 421-422.
With regard to Galatians 3:27, he explains,
Here is how the sequence works. The initial statement, itself explaining the claim of verse 25 (no longer under the paidagōgos [the Law seen as guardian or custodian]): ‘For you are all children of God, through faith, in the Messiah, Jesus.’ All children of God: that is the main thing, with Messiah-faithfulness the means by which this is accomplished and marked out. … ‘You see, every one of you who has been baptised into the Messiah has put on the Messiah’ (27). This then leads to the two-stage conclusion, in 28–9: ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no “male and female”; you are all one in the Messiah, Jesus. And, if you belong to the Messiah, you are Abraham’s family. You stand to inherit the promise.’ All children of God; all one in the Messiah; all Abraham’s family; all Abraham’s heirs, awaiting your inheritance. The fulcrum around which the argument turns is that they all belong to the Messiah, with their baptism into the Messiah as the key.
Here again we see baptism as the marker of the family and its identity. It is the praxis [Christian practice] which declares: here is the Messiah-family, the ones who are ‘in him’, who have ‘clothed themselves with the Messiah’. This is how baptism functions as one key element in the praxis which defines the worldview of the single, united family based on messianic monotheism.
Ibid. p. 424. In short, baptism is (among other things) the means by which the church announces that your faith has brought you into the covenant community. After all, we baptize anyone with faith and no one without faith. We rarely deny baptism, but I’ve seen it done when the congregational leaders concluded that the person requesting baptism was too young, seeking an unnecessary re-baptism, or unaware of what baptism is about and needed further instruction.
Thus, Paul is saying in Galatians 3:27 that our baptism assures us of our salvation. Just as our faith is God’s declaration of our acquittal, baptism is the church’s declaration. The church can make a mistake, of course, and we can sometimes perceive a faithless fraud as being full of faith. It’s not a perfect system, but perfection has to wait for Jesus’ return. He’ll get it exactly right.
Now, we were earlier considering why faith is absolutely essential and yet God will forgive errors in baptism. In part, it’s because God’s declaration of your salvation is essential. Only his opinion matters when it comes to Judgment Day. But the church’s declaration (through baptism) that you’re saved matters as well, but not as much. We are not God.
But since part of the purpose of faith, grace, salvation, and all is for you to become a part of the covenant community — for many important reasons, the church’s acceptance of you as a fellow Christian is key to God’s mission — and thus to the church’s mission.
Some will object that characterizing baptism as the church’s declaration that someone has been saved s0unds too, you know, Baptist. We’ll cover this in more detail shortly, but baptism is something received, not done. The voice is always passive. Therefore, someone other than the convert has to decide whether to grant this gift — and that person is a member of the church.
Even in Churches of Christ, the practice has been for at least 60 years — and surely much longer — for baptism to be generously granted, but never without question. Some people do get turned down based on the judgment of the church’s leaders. In fact, we shouldn’t baptize someone who doesn’t demonstrate faith — and so we always require a proper confession of faith.
PS — My position on baptism is unchanged. I’m not arguing the Zwinglian/Calvinist/Baptist position. I just think faith in Jesus is far more central to our atonement than our baptism. In the normal case, salvation occurs at the moment of baptism. But God’s grace will cover an error in baptism for someone with genuine faith in Jesus. An error in baptism is not fatal because faith in Jesus is the true boundary marker between the lost and the saved.