10 Key Bible Verses on Justification

This article is part of the Key Bible Verses series.

All commentary notes adapted from the ESV Study Bible.

1. Galatians 2:16

. . . yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. Read More

“Justified” means “counted righteous” or “declared righteous” by God. If people were sinless and perfectly obeyed all of God’s perfect moral standards, they could be justified or “declared righteous” on the basis of their own merits. But Paul says that this is impossible for any Gentile or even for any Jew to do (cf. Romans 1–2). we know that a person is not justified by works of the law. Paul saw that Christ had taught justification by faith, and so he called God the one “who justifies the ungodly” (Rom. 4:5). Paul will soon show that this view was taught even in the OT (see Gal. 3:6–18), though it was not the view of most of first-century Judaism. (For example, a 1st-century-B.C. Jewish writing states, “The one who does righteousness stores up life for himself with the Lord, and the one who does wickedness is the cause of the destruction of his own soul” [Psalms of Solomon 9.5]). In Gal. 2:16, “works of the law” means not only circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath, but any human effort to be justified by God by obeying a moral law.

faith in Jesus Christ. Some contend that the Greek means the “faithfulness of Jesus Christ.” But “faith in Jesus Christ” seems much more likely since “faith in Jesus Christ” is synonymous with the next phrase, “we also have believed in Christ Jesus.” “But through faith in Jesus Christ” is the opposite of depending on one’s own good deeds for justification, since justification comes through faith in Christ alone. We also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ implies that justification is the result of saving faith. The contrast and not by works of the law shows clearly that no human effort or merit can be added to faith as a basis for justification. (This verse was frequently appealed to in the Reformation by Protestants who insisted on “justification by faith alone” as opposed to the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification by faith plus merit gained through the “means of grace” administered by means of the Roman Catholic sacraments such as penance and the Mass.) Paul concludes decisively: by works of the law no one will be justified (Gal. 3:10–14; Acts 13:39; Heb. 10:1–14).

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2. Romans 5:1–2

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Read More

Therefore, since we have been justified. Romans 5 begins with a ringing affirmation of the objective legal standing of the Christian—that the Christian, through faith in Christ, has been justified and declared righteous by God, once for all. The result of this is that the Christian no longer lives under the fear of judgment and the wrath of God but has peace with God, which is not merely a subjective feeling but an objective reality.

The grace in which we stand refers to the secure position of the believer’s standing (as a blessing of justification), and the hope of the glory of God refers to the promise that Christians will be glorified and perfected at the last day—a hope that results in joy.

3. 2 Corinthians 5:21

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. Read More

This verse is one of the most important in all of Scripture for understanding the meaning of the atonement and justification. Here we see that the one who knew no sin is Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 5:20) and that he (God) made him (Christ) to be sin (Gk. hamartia, “sin”). This means that God the Father made Christ to be regarded and treated as “sin” even though Christ himself never sinned (Heb. 4:15; cf. Gal. 3:13). Further, we see that God did this for our sake—that is, God regarded and treated “our” sin (the sin of all who would believe in Christ) as if our sin belonged not to us but to Christ himself. Thus Christ “died for all” (2 Cor. 5:14) and, as Peter wrote, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Pet. 2:24). In becoming sin “for our sake,” Christ became our substitute—that is, Christ took our sin upon himself and, as our substitute, thereby bore the wrath of God (the punishment that we deserve) in our place (“for our sake”). Thus the technical term for this foundational doctrine of the Christian faith is the substitutionary atonement—that Christ has provided the atoning sacrifice as “our” substitute, for the sins of all who believe (cf. Rom. 3:23–25).

The background for this is Isaiah 53 from the Greek (Septuagint) translation of the Hebrew OT, which includes the most lengthy and detailed OT prophecy of Christ’s death and which contains numerous parallels to 2 Cor. 5:21. Isaiah’s prophecy specifically uses the Greek word for “sin” (Gk. hamartia) five times (as indicated below in italics) with reference to the coming Savior (the suffering servant) in just a few verses—e.g., “surely he has born our griefs” (Isa. 53:4); “He was crushed for our iniquities” (Isa. 53:5); “the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6); “he shall bear their iniquities” (Isa. 53:11); “he bore the sin of many” (Isa. 53:12). In a precise fulfillment of this prophecy, Christ became “sin” for those who believe in him, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. This means that just as God imputed our sin and guilt to Christ (“he made him to be sin”) so God also imputes the righteousness of Christ—a righteousness that is not our own—to all who believe in Christ. Because Christ bore the sins of those who believe, God regards and treats believers as having the legal status of “righteousness” (Gk. dikaiosynē).

This righteousness belongs to believers because they are “in him,” that is, “in Christ” (e.g., Rom. 3:22; 5:18; 1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Cor. 5:17, 19; Phil. 3:9). Therefore “the righteousness of God” (which is imputed to believers) is also the righteousness of Christ—that is, the righteousness and the legal status that belongs to Christ as a result of Christ having lived as one who “knew no sin.” This then is the heart of the doctrine of justification: God regards (or counts) believers as forgiven and God declares and treats them as forgiven, because God the Father has imputed the believer’s sin to Christ and because God the Father likewise imputes Christ’s righteousness to the believer. (See further notes on Rom. 4:6–8; Rom. 5:18; Rom. 10:3; Rom. 10:6–8; see also Isa. 53:11: “the righteous one, my servant, [shall] make many to be accounted righteous”).

4. Habakkuk 2:2–4

And the LORD answered me:

“Write the vision;
      make it plain on tablets,
      so he may run who reads it.
For still the vision awaits its appointed time;
      it hastens to the end—it will not lie.
If it seems slow, wait for it;
      it will surely come; it will not delay.”

“Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him,
      but the righteous shall live by his faith. Read More

his soul. The singular form refers to the Babylonian nation as a whole, but with a primary reference to the king. A proud person relies on himself, whereas a righteous person relies on God. While the phrase “his soul is puffed up” refers primarily to Babylon in this context, it could include anyone who is proud. It will take faith to wait patiently for God’s plan to unfold, but the righteous believe that God will accomplish it. The phrase but the righteous shall live by his faith is quoted in the NT to emphasize that people are saved by grace through faith (Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11; cf. Eph. 2:8) and that Christians should live by faith (Heb. 10:38–39). The kind of faith that Habakkuk describes, and that the NT authors promote, is continuing trust in God and clinging to God’s promises, even in the darkest days.

5. Galatians 3:11–14

Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith. Read More

The OT itself points out that righteousness cannot be achieved through the law, as Hab. 2:4 illustrates. Paul uses Lev. 18:5 to show that the law is not of faith. It is likely that Paul means the same thing here that he meant in Rom. 10:5, where Lev. 18:5 is equated with “the righteousness that is based on the law” (cf. Phil. 3:9) in contrast to the “righteousness based on faith” (Rom. 10:6). Some interpreters argue that the one who does them shall live by them (cf. Lev. 18:5) in its original context had to do with the temporal blessing and fullness of life that would come to the one who “does” the law. But it also seems to be a conditional promise within the law indicating that obedience would lead to righteousness (cf. Deut. 6:25); this promise, however, remains unfulfilled because it relies on the fulfilling of a condition that could never happen: i.e., it relies on a human “doing of the law” in a complete and sufficient way.

Others argue the original context of Lev. 18:5 mainly concerns the means of enjoying life under God’s pleasure by keeping God’s statutes and rules. Because some think the meaning of Lev. 18:5 in the original context is incompatible with the negative way in which Paul is using the verse here, they believe Paul is citing it as a misused slogan of the Judaizers. It seems better, however, to understand Paul as reading Lev. 18:5 typologically—that is, as seeing life in the land of Israel as a typological reference to eternal life. In the Mosaic covenant, salvation was through faith in God’s promise and his atonement, culminating in the Messiah. But now that the new covenant has come, those who insist on the entrance requirements of the old covenant do not have the benefit of sacrifices, so they must “do” all that the Mosaic law requires in order to “live” eternally (cf. Gal. 5:3).

The divine curse is the result of disobedience (Gal. 3:10). But the burden of the curse has been lifted by Christ’s work on the cross. Paul talked in Gal. 2:20 of Christ’s death for him personally; now he focuses on Christ’s substitutionary work for others.
Christ hanging on a tree (Gal. 3:13) not only brought blessing to Israel but took place so that . . . the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles. The coming of the Spirit in new power is one of the central benefits of the new age brought in by Christ (see Isa. 44:3). Believers not only have forgiveness of sins, but also the living presence of God with them. Paul explains more of what it means to have the gift of the Spirit in Galatians 5 and 6.

6. Romans 5:8–10

. . . but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. Read More

On rare occasions, even a human being will die for a righteous (morally upright) person or for a good person (one who has done much good). God’s love, however, belongs in an entirely different category from human love, for Christ did not die for righteous people or those who have done good for others but for sinners, that is, for ungodly, unrighteous people living in willful rebellion against God. It is not just Christ’s love that was shown in his death but also God the Father’s love. While God’s righteousness and justice led to his plan of salvation through the death of Christ (Rom. 3:25–26), it was his love that motivated this plan.

7. James 2:23–26

. . . and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead. Read More

Abraham . . . justified by works. On the surface James may seem to contradict Paul. I.e., Paul denies that Abraham was “justified by works” (Rom. 4:2), arguing from Gen. 15:6 that Abraham’s faith “was counted to him as righteousness” (Rom. 4:3). However, James’s assertion in this verse (that “Abraham [was] . . . justified by works”) is based not on Gen. 15:6 but on Gen. 22:9–10, where (many years later) Abraham began to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. Thus James apparently has a different sense of the word “justify” in view here, as evidenced by the different Scripture passages, and the different events in Abraham’s life, to which James and Paul refer. The primary way in which Paul uses the word “justify” (Gk. dikaioō) emphasizes the sense of being declared righteous by God through faith, on the basis of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice (Rom. 3:24–26), whereas the primary way that James uses the word “justify” (Gk. dikaioō) here in James 2:21 seems to emphasize the way in which works demonstrate that someone has been justified, as evidenced by the good works that the person does (cf. Matt. 12:33–37). Some others hold a similar view, which understands “justify” (Gk. dikaioō) here to mean to declare someone to be righteous because, at the final judgment, the person’s works give evidence of true saving faith.

James uses Gen. 15:6 in a way that complements rather than contradicts Paul (Rom. 4:1–9; Gal. 3:6), for he sees it as having been fulfilled (see James 2:22) in Abraham’s offering of Isaac (Genesis 22). James centers on Abraham’s act of obedience while Paul centers on God’s declaration of Abraham’s righteousness. Abraham was called a friend of God, in contrast to those who have no acts of obedience to prove their claims to faith and are therefore seen to be friends of this world (James 4:4).

not by faith alone. James again seems at first to contradict Paul’s teaching that one is justified by faith alone (Rom. 3:28), but the two are compatible. For James, “faith alone” means a bogus kind of faith, mere intellectual agreement without a genuine personal trust in Christ that bears fruit in one’s life. justified1. James, in agreement with Paul, argues that true faith is never alone, that it always produces works (cf. Eph. 2:10).

8. Titus 3:5–7

. . . he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. Read More

The transformation described in vv. 3–7 (formerly . . . but now) is not based on human effort. “We . . . were once enslaved” (v. 3) but he saved us. God must act before salvation occurs. Salvation comes not because of works but by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit. Some have understood this as saying that baptism (“the washing”) causes salvation. However, in this context human deeds are clearly downplayed (“not because of works”) and the emphasis is on divine action and initiative (“he saved us”). The “washing” described here is the spiritual cleansing, which is outwardly symbolized in baptism.

9. Luke 7:48–50

And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” Read More

Your sins are forgiven (Luke 5:20). As in Luke 5:20–25, Jesus’ statement is understood as exercising the divine prerogative of forgiving sins and is followed by a similar question: Who is this, who even forgives sins? Luke intentionally raises this question for his readers to reflect on the significance and implications of who Jesus is.

Your faith has saved you. Cf. Luke 8:48; Luke 17:19; Luke 18:42. The woman experienced the forgiveness of her sins not because of love but through faith, which was evidenced in the way she honored Jesus in her act of washing his feet.

10. Romans 3:21–28

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for 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. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.* Read More

The righteousness of God has been manifested now, i.e., in the period of salvation history inaugurated through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. On the righteousness of God,. Here in Rom. 3 it refers to the morally right character of God that is clearly shown in his saving action by which human beings may stand in the right before God as the divine judge. This righteousness has been revealed apart from the law, which means that it is not based on human obedience to the works of the law. Paul may also intend to say it is not based on the Sinai covenant. Even though God’s saving righteousness is apart from the law, the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it. In other words, the OT Scriptures prophesied this very way of salvation (Rom. 1:2).

This right standing with God is available to all who believe, whether Jew or Gentile.
No one can stake a claim to this righteousness based on his or her own obedience, for all people have sinned and fall short of what God demands (see Rom. 1:21).

Therefore, all are justified (declared not guilty but righteous by the divine Judge) only by God’s grace (unmerited favor). The word redemption reaches back to the OT exodus and the blood of the Passover lamb (see Exodus 12–15), by which the Lord liberated Israel from Egypt; the exodus likewise points forward to the greater redemption Jesus won for his people through his blood by forgiving them their sins through his death on the cross (cf. Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14).

Jesus’ blood “propitiated” or satisfied God’s wrath (1:18), so that his holiness was not compromised in forgiving sinners. Some scholars have argued that the word propitiation should be translated expiation (the wiping away of sin), but the word cannot be restricted to the wiping away of sins as it also refers to the satisfaction or appeasement of God’s wrath, turning it to favor (cf. note on John 18:11). God’s righteous anger needed to be appeased before sin could be forgiven, and God in his love sent his Son (who offered himself willingly) to satisfy God’s holy anger against sin. In this way God demonstrated his righteousness, which here refers particularly to his holiness and justice. God’s justice was called into question because in his patience he had overlooked former sins. In other words, how could God as the utterly Holy One tolerate human sin without inflicting full punishment on human beings immediately? Paul’s answer is that God looked forward to the cross of Christ where the full payment for the guilt of sin would be made, where Christ would die in the place of sinners. In the OT, propitiation (or the complete satisfaction of the wrath of God) is symbolically foreshadowed in several incidents: e.g., Ex. 32:11–14; Num. 25:8, 11; Josh. 7:25–26.

Paul repeats again, because of its supreme importance, that God has demonstrated his righteousness, i.e., his holiness and justice, at the present time in salvation history. In the cross of Christ, God has shown himself to be just (utterly holy, so that the penalty demanded by the law is not removed but paid for by Christ) but also the justifier (the one who provides the means of justification and who declares people to be in right standing with himself) and the Savior of all those who trust in Jesus. Here is the heart of the Christian faith, for at the cross God’s justice and love meet.

Since salvation is accomplished through Christ’s atoning death, all human boasting . . . is excluded. The word law in this verse probably means principle, though some think that a reference to the OT law is intended. If righteousness came through works, then human beings could brag about what they have done. But since salvation is through faith, no one can boast before God.

apart from. Justification is by faith alone and does not depend at all on doing any works of the law.

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