Declaration Versus Transformation
“That is why his faith was ‘counted to him as righteousness.’ But the words ‘It was counted to him’ were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also.”- Romans 4:22–24a
Now that we are almost finished with our study of Romans 4 and its systematic presentation of justification by faith alone, it will serve us well to draw together a couple of threads related to this doctrine and consider one important point that we have thus far not directly addressed. To begin, we need to look at Paul’s use of righteousness language, specifically the Greek terms dikaioō (“I justify”), dikaios (“righteous”), and dikaiosunē (“righteousness”). Even if you do not read New Testament Greek, you will notice that all these terms are formed from the same root, so dikaio- has to do with “righteousing” someone.
We have spoken repeatedly of justification being declarative, not transformative. This is borne out by Paul’s use of the dikaio- word group, which is based on how the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Old Testament—renders zedek, the Hebrew term for righteousness. The contexts where the Septuagint translates zedek with the dikaio- word group are forensic. For example, Deuteronomy 25:1 speaks of judges “acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty.” The NKJV better reflects the underlying use of zedek and the dikaio- word group: “justify the righteous and condemn the wicked.” A good judge does not change the defendant’s character by pronouncing him guilty or innocent. Instead, he investigates the facts and makes a declaration in accordance with the evidence.
One of the great debates between the Protestant Reformers and the papacy had to do with whether God’s declaration of righteousness has anything to do with the actual righteous deeds or character of the believer. Given what we have said about the non-imputation of sin and its flip side, the imputation of righteousness (Rom. 4:1–21), the Reformers rightly grounded justification not in the believer but in a new status that God constitutes for believers in Christ, the constitution of which we will consider more carefully when we study Romans 5. When God looks at the evidence upon which to declare us righteous, He looks only at the evidence of Christ’s righteousness. Though God does transform us inwardly, His justifying verdict is not based on His work in us. It is based on what Christ has done, and like Abraham, we benefit from what Christ has done by faith alone (4:22–24a). “For our sake [God] made [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). We are righteous because we are in Christ; we are not in Christ because we are righteous.
Our justification is no “legal fiction.” When God considers the evidence upon which He justifies us, the evidence He considers is what Christ has done, not what we have done. This is our only hope, because if our lives are the standard, we could never be righteous in His sight. Past, present, and future sin would always stand in the way. The Lord transforms us, but He does not transform us in order to justify us. He transforms us because He has justified us in Christ.
Passages for Further Study