The Vault


The eleventh Article is so crucial that no apology need be offered for dwelling a little upon it. Luther has been severely criticised for declaring that Justification by Faith only was “Articulus aut stantis aut cadentis ecclesiae,” “The Article of a standing or a falling Church.” But it may confidently be declared that the whole Reformation movement stands or falls according to the interpretation placed on Justification.

It is therefore most important to show that the meaning placed upon the word “to justify” is not foreign to the ideas prevalent in Hebrew and Greek thought. It is not peculiarly Pauline either, although it was greatly developed in connection with the death of Christ by St. Paul.

The Word Justify in the Old Testament

It is generally agreed that the Book of Job is representative of a very early stage of Hebrew history. The exact period of its composition has been the occasion of acute controversy. Fortunately for our purpose the date is not very material. It moulded Hebrew thought for some centuries before the advent of our Lord. In Job 32:2 we read that the wrath of Elihu was kindled against Job because “he justified himself rather than God”. The Latin Vulgate is Englished “Because he said he was just before God”. The Hebrew word “justify” here certainly means “to declare just” rather than “to be just”. The same significance attaches to the word in Ch. 23:32 where Elihu says to Job: “I desire to justify you” where the English version of the Vulgate reads:- “I would have thee to appear just”. There are, if possible, more direct instances of this usage in other parts of the Old Testament. Thus in Exodus 23:7 we read: “Keep thee far from a false matter; and the innocent and righteous slay thou not; for I will not justify the wicked”. It would be impious to suggest that God would not make the wicked righteous. The words must mean “I will not regard him as just who is in fact a wicked person”. This particular interpretation is confirmed by the passage in Proverbs 17:15, “He that justifieth the wicked, and he that condemneth the just, even they both are abomination to the Lord”. The LXX reads here:- “He that pronounces [Krinei = “to pronounce judgment.” The forensic sense is very common- (Moulton and Milligan)] the unjust just, and the just unjust, is unclean and abominable with God”. The LXX was in common use in our Lord’s time, as the quotations from it in the New Testament witness, therefore this usage of the term “justify” would be neither novel nor remarkable. The forensic sense is definitely enjoined in Deut. 25:1, where the judges are commanded to “justify the righteous and condemn the wicked”. Obviously the judges could not make the righteous just. They could only declare that the evidence made it apparent that they were just. Here the Vulgate has been Englished “They shall award the palm of justice to those whom they perceive to be just”. The fact that the sense of these passages is substantially the same in all recognized versions of the Scriptures establishes the meaning very definitely. To declare righteous is a proper usage of the term Justification.

Applied to God.

Indeed the Old Testament carries us a still further step in this argument. Psalm 51:4 speaks of God Himself as being justified when He speaketh and clear when He judgeth. The only possible meaning that can be attached to the word “justified” here, which, by the way, is also employed in the Latin Vulgate, is that God is manifested as righteous in His judgements. It could not possibly mean that God is made righteous by speaking. Other passages might be cited from the Old Testament but enough has been supplied to establish the correctness of the definition in the Article and to show that it was a common employment of the word in Old Testament times.

In the New Testament

Our Lord uses the very same forensic terminology. Warning men that they will have to render an account of every idle word in the day of judgement, He adds in Matt. 12:37 “For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned”. The same thought finds expression in Luke 7:35 “But wisdom is justified in all her children” where the meaning must be “shown or declared to be just”. The same idea that occurred in Psalm 51 is put in Luke into the mouths of the publicans a little previously when he wrote (12:29) “and all the people that heard him, and the publicans, justified God, being

baptized with the baptism of John”. That this must be the meaning of the word when applied to the deliverance of the sinner from the just punishment of his sin is rendered clear by St. Paul’s declaration that it is “the ungodly” who are justified. Indeed the whole argument in Romans 3 to 5 forces that conclusion upon us.

Confusion of Thought.

It is important to bear these facts in mind because there is great confusion of thought on this aspect of God’s divine revelation. Every New Testament message that depreciates man is exposed to the hostility of the natural heart. The message that declares we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves at once awakens this hostility. The common judgement is “I live a decent life; what more can be required ?” Wherever there is hostility there is also an attempt, sometimes conscious, sometimes unconscious, to weaken or remove the testimony. Arising out of this many modifications of the doctrine of Justification by Faith only have been attempted. They influence many sincere minds but that makes them all the more dangerous. It was ‘Tennyson who wrote “A lie which is part a truth is a harder matter to fight”. The closer we adhere to the Biblical usage in an employment of theological terms the more confidently we may believe that we are in possession of the counsel of God. Such inquiries as we have made are not mere verbal quibbles. They contain in them the very heart of the Gospel message.

39 Articles: Article 11 – Of the Justification of Man

We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by faith, and not for our own works or deservings; wherefore, that we are justified by faith only is a most wholesome doctrine, and very full of comfort, as more largely is expressed in the Homily of Justification.

Originally published in the Australian Church Record, May 24, 1956.

This article from the ACR Vault is part of our Articulate series, listening to T.C. Hammond unpack the 39 Articles one by one.

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