What Did Jesus Teach about Justification?

This article is part of the What Did Jesus Teach? series.

Jesus and Justification

Justification through faith alone by grace alone is not restricted to Paul, nor did it begin with Paul. Justification by faith is rooted and grounded in the Old Testament, and presently we will explore justification in the teaching of Jesus. In speaking of justification, I am not thinking of the word “justification” but the concept. When we think of justification conceptually instead of just verbally, we see that Jesus taught justification in his own idiom and his own way before Paul ever came on the scene. It has long been recognized that a word-study approach is reductionistic, and thus we need to include texts and accounts that have the concept of justification, even if the term itself is absent. To put it another way: Paul got his teaching of justification from Jesus himself. I’ll take some snapshots of Jesus’s teaching on this matter, and readers should know that I am just scratching the surface, gliding over the waves quickly. Much more could be said.


Thomas R. Schreiner, Graham A. Cole, Oren R. Martin

In this addition to the Short Studies in Systematic Theology series, Thomas R. Schreiner examines the biblical and historical background of the doctrine of justification.

Welcoming Tax Collectors and Sinners

We begin with Jesus’s table fellowship with tax collectors and sinners (Matt. 9:10–13; 11:19; 21:31–32; Mark 2:15–17; Luke 5:30–32; Luke 7:29, 34; Luke 15:2; Luke 19:1–10). Tax collectors were despised for two reasons. First, they collaborated with the hated Romans who were an alien power ruling over Israel, and thus tax collectors were considered to be unpatriotic. Second, tax collectors often skimmed money off the top, charging more than was warranted to enrich themselves. Many in Israel believed that living righteously mandated avoiding sinners, keeping away from them to ensure one’s own purity.

Jesus doesn’t deny that tax collectors and sinners have wandered from God’s way, nor does he teach that they can stay as they are, as if they could enjoy fellowship with Jesus even if they don’t repent from their sins. Yet he doesn’t shun them but mixes with them, even eating at table with them. Jesus came particularly to summon sinners to repentance and faith (Matt. 9:13)—people like Matthew who made his living as a tax collector before he met Jesus (Matt. 9:9). He doesn’t abandon those who have rebelled and strayed but calls them to repentance. Eating together with tax collectors and sinners enacts the truth that they are justified by faith instead of by works. They are not right with God because of their goodness but because of the grace of God that is poured out in the ministry of Jesus.

The story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1–10), a chief tax collector, illustrates the truth that we are considering. Many people in Israel were disgusted that Jesus agreed to enter the home of such a notorious sinner and traitor. The point of the story is enunciated in Luke 19:10, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Zacchaeus was lost, but there was hope; there was forgiveness; there was a new beginning for him. We could say that the unrighteous was now righteous through the mercy of Christ. We need to remember that these stories of Jesus sitting at table and welcoming tax collectors and sinners are preserved because they were characteristic of his ministry, illustrating the love of God and the forgiveness offered to all who would repent and believe.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son

The story of the prodigal son (really the story of the two lost sons!) accords with the truth that God’s forgiveness is free and unearned (Luke 15:11–32). Jesus told this parable after the religious leaders complained that he was welcoming sinners and eating with them (Luke 15:1–2). The prodigal son, then, represents the tax collectors and sinners, while the older son stands for the Pharisees and religious leaders.

The tale of the prodigal son is well known. In the end the son acknowledges his sin and unworthiness to belong to the family, showing that Jesus did not welcome tax collectors and sinners into fellowship and a right relationship with himself apart from repentance. Repentance should be understood as a relational act—a turning to God himself and a turning away from sin. After the son returned and repented, no more is said about his sin. Instead, he is arrayed with a robe, a ring, and shoes. The fattened calf is slaughtered and the party begins with music and dancing.

The parable captures the picture of justification by grace beautifully; the prodigal didn’t earn acceptance with the father by living as a respectable and godly son. He had failed miserably and, it seemed, irretrievably. But Jesus reveals the mercy and grace of God, showing that there is a way back for those who have sinned egregiously and for all those who have wandered from God. Those who admit their need, those who acknowledge their unworthiness, those who reach out an empty hand for help are forgiven. They are not chastised: they are welcomed with joy, with a party, with celebration.

The Sinful Woman

Perhaps the most remarkable story about forgiveness of sins is Jesus’s encounter with the sinful woman in Luke 7:36–50. Simon the Pharisee invited Jesus for a meal, but a woman well known for her sin, which was probably sexual sin since it was noised about, arrived at the party. Since it was a formal meal, those eating were likely reclining with their heads at the table and their feet stretched behind them, which helps explain what happened next. The woman entered weeping. Her tears fell on Jesus’s feet, and she proceeded to wipe them dry with her hair. Then she kissed his feet and anointed them with perfume. Simon was scandalized, concluding that if Jesus were a prophet he would not allow a sinful woman like this to touch him. Jesus immediately proved to Simon that he was a prophet since he read his mind. Jesus posed a seemingly typical rabbinic question to Simon asking who would love a creditor more—one forgiven a small debt or one forgiven a gargantuan amount. The answer is obvious: the one forgiven a large debt will love more. Jesus surprised Simon by applying his parable to the sinful woman. She demonstrated her love for Jesus by giving him the greeting Simon failed to give when Jesus arrived. Simon didn’t give Jesus water to cleanse his feet, but she cleaned his feet with her tears and hair. Simon didn’t give Jesus a kiss of greeting, but she kissed his feet. Simon didn’t anoint Jesus’s head with oil, but she anointed his feet with perfume.

Some have read Jesus to say that the woman is forgiven on the basis of her love. But this reading should be rejected as alien to the story. The whole point of the parable Jesus told Simon is that those who are forgiven much respond in love. Love doesn’t merit forgiveness—forgiveness comes first, giving birth to love and gratefulness. Hence, Jesus declares to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven” (Luke 7:48). We see here another picture of the justification of the ungodly. The sinful woman burdened with shame and guilt is told that her past life isn’t taken into account, that her debt no longer stands against her, that a new life has begun. The story ends with another declaration from Jesus addressed to the woman: “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (Luke 7:50). The woman didn’t receive forgiveness by working but by believing, by trusting, by relying on the word of promise.

The words “your faith has saved you” remind us of Ephesians 2:8: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” I suggest, then, that Jesus influenced Paul, that the Pauline teaching on faith saving us harkens back to Jesus himself. Actually, the expression “your faith has saved you” (hē pistis sou sesōken se) occurs three other times in Luke (Luke 8:48; 17:19; 18:42). Most translations rightly render this phrase “your faith has made you well” since in these latter cases the person is healed of a malady. We have a prime example here of how English translations can’t do everything because rendering the phrase as “your faith has saved you” is also a faithful rendering. To put it another way, in every case we see both a physical and a spiritual healing.

Gospel of John

John in his Gospel doesn’t use the language of justification. The idiom, the metaphors, the images differ, but the reality is the same. It is striking, for instance, that John uses the verb “believe” (pisteuō) ninety-eight times and the word “life” (zōē) thirty-six times, indicating that these are central themes. Indeed, the two are often linked together in John (e.g., John 3:15, 16, 36; John 5:24; John 6:35, 40, 47; John 11:25; John 20:31). Actually, these two words appear in John 20:31, a massively important verse since it communicates the purpose of the Gospel: “These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” The most famous verse in the Gospel and perhaps in the entire Bible also joins these two themes: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

One doesn’t have to measure up to a certain standard of goodness to belong to Jesus.

Where Paul speaks of “justification,” John speaks of “life,” but they both agree that life is obtained through believing. Actually, there is a closer connection between life and justification in Paul than is sometimes recognized. For instance, in Galatians 3:11 Paul declares that “no one is justified before God by the law,” but he supports this claim by citing Habakkuk 2:4, “The righteous shall live by faith.” It seems here that the verbs justify (dikaioutai) and live (zēsetai), even though they are not synonyms, are two alternate ways of describing what we can call salvation. Paul cites the same verse from Habakkuk 2:4 in Romans 1:17 where he introduces God’s righteousness in verses that are often described as the theme of the letter (Rom. 1:16–17). All of this is to say that we should not drive too sharp of a wedge between Paul and John since they both speak of life being obtained through believing.

The most important connection isn’t between justification and life when we think about John and Paul. Instead, the vital place where they meet is the importance of believing. John 6:22–59, typically designated as the bread of life discourse, functions as an example where the emphasis on trust or belief is quite striking. Jesus was in the midst of a back-and-forth debate with a crowd. They were entranced that he was able to feed five thousand people, but they also had doubts about his identity. Jesus confronted the priority they put on physical sustenance, saying that they must not “work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life” (John 6:27). This provoked the crowd to ask what they would have to do to perform God’s works (John 6:28). Jesus replied, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:29). Jesus didn’t summon the crowd to work for God but to believe in Jesus as the bread of God, to rest in his death as that which gives “life to the world” (John 6:33; cf. John 6:51).

We could examine many other texts where John emphasizes the importance of believing, but we see clearly in John 6 that Jesus calls those who want to work for him to believe in him.

The Gospel of John in its own idiom and manner of speaking emphasizes that life comes from believing and trusting in Jesus as the Son of God. There is a passivity and receptiveness to believing since we receive life from another. On the other hand, any reference to passivity could be misunderstood, for in another sense believing is living and active. And yet believing should be distinguished from working; those who believe receive (elabon) him (John 1:12; cf. John 17:8). They welcome and accept and rest in who Jesus is and what he has done.


As we have peeked into the Gospels, we have seen that even though the word “justification” isn’t common, the reality and conception is present. Paul unpacks the meaning of justification in his epistles, but the same truth is communicated in the Gospels with stories and parables that are unforgettable in their power and beauty: the calling of Matthew and Zacchaeus as tax collectors; the parable of the prodigal son; and the story of the sinful woman who showed up as the surprise guest at Simon the Pharisee’s dinner. Jesus welcomed tax collectors and sinners, inviting all who had made a wreck of their lives and all who had rebelled against God to come to him for life and forgiveness. He declared that those who believed are forgiven. One doesn’t have to measure up to a certain standard of goodness to belong to Jesus. Instead, people are called to believe, to repent, and to put their trust in him. He proclaimed that faith saves, that trust in him gives hope and a new relationship with God.

The Gospel of John travels along the same arteries, emphasizing that those who believe, those who receive, those who trust—and not those who work—enjoy eternal life. The Lord doesn’t call on people to work for him but to believe in him and to rest in his kind and merciful love. When we come to Paul we should recognize his dependence on the teaching of Jesus. Paul’s teaching on justification didn’t originate from himself; he was a faithful disciple of Jesus.

This article is adapted from Justification: An Introduction by Thomas R. Schreiner.

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