"Inconceivable!" cries a character in the classic movie "The Princess Bride." Inigo Montoya replies, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." The same can be said of "Justification." I recently heard no less than RC Sproul explain the original meaning of the word.1 It comes from two Latin words: justus, meaning "righteous," and facere, meaning "to make." Justification means "to make righteous.
ONE WORD - TWO MEANINGS
Prior to the 12th century writings of Thomas Aquinas, the worldwide Church did not see the cross as satisfying God's wrath. Only two modern forms of Christianity (Roman Catholicism and Protestantism) see the cross that way. The other three branches of Christianity still hold to the historic teaching of the Church. Those three branches (Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy and the Assyrian Church of the East) all view the death of Jesus as healing the disease of sin. Protestants in particular view the cross through the lens of legal justice, therefore Protestant theologians have arbitrarily redefined "justification" as if it were a legal term, meaning "to declare righteous," thereby removing the original meaning: "to make righteous."
While it may seem like a minor difference, the new meaning for justification keeps many Bible readers from understanding the fact that God has actually transformed them. If God only declared me righteous without changing me, then I am still thoroughly sinful. I cannot expect my behavior to change, therefore it's unlikely that my behavior will change. The modern invented meaning of "justification" only makes me think that I have escaped the punishment of sin. If on the other hand, I understand "justification" in its original meaning, I will expect myself to turn away from sin.
SAVED VERSUS HEALED
In similar fashion, "salvation" in the Greek (sozo) has two meanings, one of which has been lost over time in most Bible translations. In Acts 4:9, Peter refers to the paralytic who has been healed with the word sozo. While most Bibles use the word "healed" for sozo in Acts 4:9, that same word is changed in Acts 4:12 into "salvation" and "saved." Yet the same word, sozo, occurs in both 4:9 and in 4:12. Peter compares the healing of the paralytic in 4:9 to another kind of healing which all of humanity needs in verse 12:
Sozo means both "heal" and "save." To be healed from the disease of sin is to be saved from it, just like healing from cancer is salvation from cancer. Therefore Paul said in Romans 5:19 that while humanity was made sinners through Adam, many have been "made" righteous through the Last Adam - Jesus of Nazareth. As noted in this article, salvation from God's wrath does not come through the exercise of His wrath, but through the transformation of the second birth. God invites those who have been born of Adam as "sons of disobedience" to be reborn as "sons of God.""There is healing in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be healed."
The thought of escaping God's wrath through a second birth will surprise many readers, but such is the historic teaching of the Church, as noted here and here. Despite the popular belief among Western Christians that God the Father poured out His wrath on God the Son, the Bible does not say that anywhere.
BORN TO OBEY
If God has only "declared" me to be righteous, then I cannot honestly obey the command in Romans 6:11. The apostle commanded us to reckon ourselves as "dead to sin and alive to God in Christ (King) Jesus." Yet if God has only "declared" me to be righteous without actually transforming me, then I am still just as Adamic as ever. That is to say, that I would be just as alive to sin as Adam caused me to be through his rebellion (as the father of all humanity). Therefore the command in Romans 6:11 would only be a farce if God did not actually remake me righteous by the second birth, but only "declared" me to be righteous.
Yet Scriptures like Romans 5:19 and 2Corinthians 5:17 say that the citizens of King Jesus have been remade (reestablished) as righteous. Therefore I can honestly obey the command in Romans 6:11. With the help of the Holy Spirit, I can tell God that what He says about me is true: I am dead to sin, and I am alive unto God in Christ (King) Jesus. Prayerfully obedience to Romans 6:11, Romans 12:1-2, Ephesians 4:22-24, and Colossians 3:9-17 yields powerful results. Those who believe that they have been made righteous will live like it. Those who believe that they have only been declared righteous, will most likely live as though it were only a declaration, not a transformation.
I offer the original meaning of "justification," in hopes that the reader will learn to "walk in the Spirit" and "abide in the Vine." Those who understand that they have been changed will seek the help of the Holy Spirit to walk out that change. As Paul told the Philippians, "Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Better yet, the dual meaning of sozo sounds like this: "Work out your healing with fear and trembling." Just as a surgeon orders his or her patients to do exercises and stretching in order to enjoy the healing which the surgery provided, Scripture likewise commands us to "walk in the Spirit so that you will not obey the lusts of the flesh." For help with walking in the Spirit, click here.
1. In the linked lecture, Sproul assumes that Luther was correct to reject the Latin meaning of the word "justification." That is to say, that both Luther and Sproul claimed that the original Greek word dikaiosune meant "regard righteous," rather than "make righteous." Such rejection of the Latin based on the Greek is difficult (at best) to defend from the Greek in this writer's understanding. Regardless of the reader's opinion on the meaning of the Greek, "dikaiosune," the point of this article is that the English word "justification" is derived from a Latin word meaning "make righteous." Both Luther and Sproul therefore agree on the primary premise of this article: that Protestantism has redefined "justification" to mean something which its etymology does not support. Likewise, Romans 5:19 stands in contrast to both Luther and Sproul's claim regarding the difference between God's reestablishing (versus only "declaring") His twice-born children as righteous.