Paul explains that Abraham’s righteousness came through faith. He explains that people who trust in Jesus are put right through faith. The Greek verb is “dikaio”. This is a tricky word to translate into English because the equivalent adjective (dikaios) can be translated with two disconnected words: “just” or “right”. The related English nouns are “justice” and “righteousness”.
“Justify” is the English verb related to the English adjective “just”. The problem is that there is no English verb equivalent to the adjective “right”. The consequence is that the Greek verb “dikaio” is often translated as “justify” because it is the only English word available. This gives a judicial flavour to Romans that probably should not be there.
The forensic/judicial model of righteousness does not work because it functions the wrong way around. I am accused of committing sin. I do not need to be acquitted. I do not need God to declare that I am “Not guilty”. That would only work if I was innocent, but I am not. Other people know that I am not. Even the spiritual powers of evil know that I am not innocent. What I need is for God to say that it does not matter. I need things to be put right so the spiritual powers of evil cannot attack me.
My acquittal would not be justice. On the other hand, if a person is accused of things that they did not do, they need an honest judge who will investigate fairly to prove their innocence and acquit them. If a judge says, “not guilty” to an innocent person, that would be true. Unfortunately, this is not the case for any human except Jesus. Our problem is the opposite. We are guilty. If we were acquitted, it would be dishonest. We need a solution that deals with our guilt, not one that proves our innocence.
The court theme only occurs in Romans 2 when Paul disagrees with the Jewish Judger. He declares that he is storing up wrath for himself on the day of the final, “just” judgment of God (Rom 2:5,16). The sins of those who sin under the law will be judged by the law (Rom 2:12). Paul used justice words when challenging him because he is talking about the final judgment. In this context, “dikaio” does mean justify (Rom 2:13). Elsewhere, it usually means to “be put right”.
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