Does Justified Mean Justified?

One word can have more than one definition. How it is defined is often determined by its context. For example, the Greek verb δικαιόω, translated “justify” in English, can mean “pronounced and treated as righteous” but may also mean that one is vindicated “by what one does” or “as the result of one’s own accomplishment.”[1] In fact, according to BDAG, as Paul uses the verb, “there is sometimes no clear distinction between the justifying action of acquittal and the gift of new life through the Holy Spirt as God’s activity in promoting uprightness in believers.”[2] Therefore, interpretation must come through understanding the word’s use in its surrounding context.

For example, Paul writes to the Romans, “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” (Rom. 3:23-24a ESV). We may deduce that Paul is referring here to the Christian “pronounced and treated as righteous” by God, because it is presented in contrast the comprehensive statement of sinning, is described as a gift of God’s unmerited favor, is the result of Christ’s atoning work, and received through the means of God’s gift (faith). In broader context, Paul contrasts being “justified” in this sense as distinctly separate from works:

For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due (Rom. 4:2-4).

Rather, God’s gift of faith (Eph. 2:8)[3] to Abraham “was counted to him as righteousness” (Rom. 4:3).

In contrast, also referring to Abraham, James uses the same verb (δικαιόω) as Paul but differently to describe a different aspect of Abraham faith: “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? . . . You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (Jas. 2:21, 24). James’ use of the verb refers to Abraham’s works which vindicate the authenticity of his faith. Rather than the work of God in Abraham’s life, as Paul references in Romans 3 and 4, James describes Abraham’s validating works. This is made clear by James’ use of the word τελειόω, translated “completed,” meaning here to bring to maturity.[4]  It could be said that saving faith is witnessed in the good works that it produces. Or, as John Calvin wrote in his Antidote to the Council of Trent (1547), “It is therefore faith alone which justifies, and yet the faith which justifies is not alone.”[5]

Therefore, δικαιόω cannot be defined statically outside of context but within. To emphasize this point, we could say, in the case of Abraham, he was justified by God’s grace through faith and justified by his works. But he was not justified by his works and not by faith alone. This sounds absurd unless the word is defined by context.

[1] Frederick William Danker, ed., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (BDAG) (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), 249.

[2] Ibid.

[3] The Synod of Dort helpfully clarifies this hermeneutical point stating, “Faith is therefore to be considered as the gift of God, not on account of its being offered by God to man, to be accepted or rejected at his pleasure; but because it is in reality conferred, breathed, and infused into him; or even because God bestows the power or ability to believe, and then expects that man should by the exercise of his own free will, consent to the terms of salvation and actually believe in Christ; but because He who works in man both to will and to do, and indeed all things in all, produces both the will to believe and the act of believing also” (The Canons of Dort III/IV.14).

[4] Frederick William Danker, ed., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (BDAG) (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), 997.

[5] John Calvin, John Calvin, “Acts of the Council of Trent with the Antidote,” Monergism, accessed October 23, 2021,

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