Justified or Made Righteous? Biblical Greek, Lexical Semantics, and Romans 3:24

October 8, 2022 // Kevin Grasso


Share this Post


Romans 3:24 in Greek reads: δικαιούμενοι δωρεὰν τῇ αὐτοῦ χάριτι διὰ τῆς ἀπολυτρώσεως τῆς ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ·

'Being made righteous freely by his grace through the redemption that is in the Messiah Jesus.'

There are many points we could make about this verse, but our main question will be how to understand the word δικαιούμενοι which I have translated 'being made righteous' and which is most often translated as 'justified.' In this short discussion, we will first look at recent proposals for what this word means. I will then present some linguistic tools that you can use to think through what words mean and how to interpret them. In light of these tools, we will take another look at justification language in Romans 3:24 and in Romans more broadly.

Scholarly Views on δικαιόω

The trouble with this word is that scholars are divided on what it actually means, even those who have studied the word extensively. Some say that it is a judicial term that means to consider or hold someone to be in the right. This is the primary meaning emphasized by James Prothro (with a lot of careful nuance as well), whose important work on justification language was a topic of one of our episodes on our key terms in Paul series

Others, such as Michael Gorman, define justification in this context as "liberation from Sin...as a power," but justification as a whole is defined as "the establishment or restoration of right covenantal relations—fidelity to God and love for neighbor—with the certain hope of acquittal/vindication on the day of judgment."

Although Gorman has much in common with NT Wright, Wright explicitly denies that "justification" means transformation, when he says "But the powerful work of the spirit, in and through the proclamation of the gospel, is not the same thing as ‘justification’. ‘Justification’ is the declaration of the one God, on the basis of the death of Jesus: this really is my adopted child, a member of Abraham’s covenant family, whose sins are forgiven." So for Wright, justification is not transformation; it is declaration, and specifically a declaration that you are a member of the covenant.

We may add one more view to the mix. In their recent work on Paul as a "New Covenant Jew," Pitre, Barber, and Kincaid say that "For Paul, then, justification is inseparable from glorification. This raises serious problems for the view that justification simply constitutes a change in legal status...Those who are justified have the life of the divine Son within them by virtue of the working of God’s Spirit." While they do not deny it sometimes has a judicial meaning, they emphasize justification's moral transformation.

So who is right? Does our word δικαιούμενοι mean 'judicially considered to be in the right' or 'liberated from the power of sin' or 'put in a right covenantal relationship with God' or 'transformed into a morally righteous person?' Adopting one or the other of these leads to a very different understanding of what Paul is saying. On a more fundamental note, all of these scholars, who come from diverse theological backgrounds, know Greek, so when people have different understandings of a term, how do we decide between the different options?

Invariable Meaning vs. Interpretations

To wade through all of this, let's start with a fundamental distinction in semantics, the field in linguistics that is concerned with meaning. For more on these and other related concepts foundational to doing semantics, you can check out my introductory video on semantics. The distinction we will focus on is between a word's interpretation in a given context and the word's meaningful contribution to a context. We can call the understanding of a word in context its interpretations or uses, while the word's contribution itself is the invariable meaning.

For example, a word like 'break' can be interpreted in different ways. I can say 'The vase broke' where I am referring to an event wherein at least part of the vase is now detached from itself. In contrast, I can say 'The computer broke' where I am usually referring to the computer no longer working, though of course, I could also mean that part of the computer broke off, which is really the only meaning for 'The vase broke.' So these are two different interpretations of the same word "break," and what is affecting our interpretation is the thing that breaks in each case. A broken vase is different from a broken computer.

When we think about the meaning of the word 'break,' we don't want to give a meaning that only allows for one use of the word, such as 'an event wherein at least part of something detaches from a larger object.' This kind of meaning would not account for all the interpretations of our word, even though this definition does capture one use of the word and is arguably the default or prototypical interpretation. However, it doesn't capture all the uses, and such a definition does not explain why 'The computer broke' does not refer to the same kind of event.

This kind of reasoning is all too common among biblical scholars. We already said that NT Wright flat out denies transformation as a potential interpretation of justification, yet we do seem to have a clear example of this in the Septuagint of Psalm 72:13, which says Ἄρα ματαίως ἐδικαίωσα τὴν καρδίαν μου καὶ ἐνιψάμην ἐν ἀθῴοις τὰς χεῖράς μου 'So then vainly I made my heart righteous and washed my hands in innocence.' Surely, the Psalmist is not saying that he vainly considered his heart to be righteous, nor that he forgave his heart. This context, particularly with the object 'my heart,' demands that we interpret ἐδικαίωσα as 'make righteous'.

On the other hand, the meaning that Wright suggests is also attested in the Septuagint in Deuteronomy 25:1 where the Israelites are commanded to δικαιώσωσιν τὸν δίκαιον, meaning 'consider righteous the righteous person.' This context disallows the 'make righteous' interpretation because the object τὸν δίκαιον is, of course, already 'righteous.'
So when we approach justification language, we need a meaning that allows for both of these uses, just like we would need to define 'break' in such a way that accounts for all its uses.

Adjectives and Scales

Before we get too much further into the meaning of δικαιόω, however, we must introduce one more concept that is crucial for analyzing this class of words. That is the concept of scales. We are about to get a little technical, but if you can hang with me, it will really help us to figure out what Paul is saying. A scale is just a set of values that refer to varying degrees of a property. Most adjectives refer to a scale of some kind, and this scale is crucial to determining the correct interpretation of the adjective.

Let's take a look at an example. I am modifying this from Chris Kennedy and Louise McNally's foundational work on the scale structure of adjectives. They explain that "My hands are dry" is actually ambiguous between two readings. It can mean either that my hands are currently in a state of dryness (meaning there is no liquid on them) or that my hands generally have the quality of being dry (rather than clammy, for example). My hands may be very dry generally and sopping wet at this current moment.

So what is the difference between these two uses of the word 'dry'? Scale structure. Under the reading where my hands are dry in this current moment, the scale is called a closed scale, which just means that there is a set limit to the amount of dryness. When I have used a towel to get all the liquid off my hands, I can say "My hands are dry" meaning there is no liquid on them. The limit of dryness has been reached.

Under the reading where my hands are generally dry, the scale is open. There is no set limit to the amount of dryness my hands could become. If the humidity drops, for example, my hands will become drier and drier, and the amount of liquid on them is irrelevant. In fact, water might even dry my hands out more. So these are the two interpretations of 'dry'--either a surface without liquid on it (which is a closed scale) or having the general property of not being moist.

The Meaning of δικαιόω

So what does this tell us about the word δικαιόω? Our word δικαιόω is actually built from the adjective δίκαιος. We have already seen that the verb can be interpreted either as 'make morally righteous' or 'consider righteous,' but we said we need a broader meaning to account for both interpretations. My suggestion is that scale structure is the difference between the two interpretations, and the verb itself allows for both meanings because it does not specify the type of scale structure, just like the English word 'dry' can have both a closed scale and an open scale interpretation.

While 'consider righteous' has a closed scale, 'make righteous' (as in morally transform) has an open scale. This is because 'consider righteous' has a standard by which someone is evaluated, and this standard represents the limit of the scale. Thus, this kind of meaning arises in judicial contexts where we do have such a standard, namely whatever the judge is using to determine the status of the person under trial.

We see this in Romans 2:13 where it says that on Judgment Day 'the doers of the Torah δικαιωθήσονται 'will be considered righteous.' While Romans 2 is a difficult passage with many complexities, this context demands an interpretation where a judge considers someone to be righteous and pronounces them as so. It is certainly not saying that the doers of Torah will be made righteous on Judgment Day. The fact that the judge is making a verdict based on a standard (in context, whether or not someone "does Torah") forces the consider righteous interpretation. The scale is closed.

Contexts that focus on sin, such as what we saw in Psalm 72:13, force an open scale interpretation where one's moral character is in view. We see this in Romans 6:7, which says ὁ γὰρ ἀποθανὼν δεδικαίωται ἀπὸ ἁμαρτίας 'the one who dies has been made righteous from sin.' The verb δεδικαίωται is often translated 'set free,' but the verb is δικαιόω, just as we saw before. The person who has died has gone from having a sinful nature to being made righteous, so that they are no longer a slave to sin.

We see a parallel construction to this in Ben Sirah 26:29 which says Μόλις ἐξελεῖται ἔμπορος ἀπὸ πλημμελείας, καὶ οὐ δικαιωθήσεται κάπηλος ἀπὸ ἁμαρτίας 'A merchant will hardly save himself from deceit, and a trader will not be made righteous from sin.' Here, we have a near identical phrase, and the context is clearly about someone's moral character. Romans 6:7 should probably receive the same interpretation.

The Interpretation of Romans 3:24

So what is the context of our passage in Romans 3:24? This is indeed tricky. Verses 19 and 20 speak of the whole world being held accountable to God and again seem to reference judgment day. However, the immediately preceding verse is not about status in and of itself but what causes the status, namely sin, when it says 'for all sinned and lack God's glory.' In the context of sin, our word should actually mean 'make righteous' in the sense of morally transform because being generally sinful is a moral quality on an open scale.

The idea would be that the verb would mean make righteous in the sense of transforming the sinful nature in humans into a righteous nature. The means by which this is done is grace. When we translate the verb as 'justify', we necessarily interpret the verb judicially with a closed scale, but we have already seen that the verb itself does not demand this kind of interpretation. It may be used with either an open scale or a closed scale.

There is a lot more that could be said. Other considerations complicate the picture, such as how Paul very quickly moves on to speak of 'making righteous' in the sense of forgiveness in Romans 4, and then there seem to be clear instances of the δίκαιος terms as involving transformation in Romans 5. Sweeping statements about Paul's overall argument are not as helpful here as close readings of each individual text. I can say something like 'I have very dry hands, but the water you poured on them makes them not dry at all' where we have two different interpretations of the word 'dry' in the same sentence.

Careful attention must be paid to the immediate context to see how Paul is using the term in each case because the words related to δίκαιος can be used in a variety of ways. We have certainly not exhaustively studied these terms, but hopefully, this has given you some tools to look at the text in a new way, so that you can decide for yourself what you think the best interpretation is.