Justification in Legal Terms (Even in the Old Testament)

When talking about the biblical teaching on justification occasionally people will point back to a Hebrew understanding of the concept and then conclude that the forensic or legal understanding of the doctrine is incorrect. I found Berkhof’s opening words in his section on justification to be a helpful place setting in the discussion.

The Hebrew term for “to justify” is hitsdik, which in the great majority of cases means “to declare judicially that one’s state is in harmony with the demands of the law, Ex. 23:7; Deut. 25:1; Prov. 17:15; Isa. 5:23. The piel tsiddek occasionally has the same meaning, Jer. 3:11; Ezek. 16:50, 51. The meaning of these words is therefore strictly forensic or legal. Since Roman Catholics, such representatives of the moral influence theory of the atonement as John Young of Edinburgh and Horace Bushnell, and also the Unitarians and modern liberal theologians, deny the legal meaning of the term “to justify,” and ascribe to it the moral sense of “to make just or righteous,” it becomes important to take careful notice of the considerations that may be urged in favor of the legal meaning.

That this is the proper denotation of the word appears

(a) from the terms placed in contrast with it, as, for instance “condemnation,” Deut. 25:1; Prov. 17:15; Isa. 5:23;

(b) from the correlative terms placed in juxtaposition with it and which often imply a process of judgment, Gen. 18:25; Ps. 143:2;

(c) from the equivalent expressions that are sometimes used, Gen. 15:6; Ps. 32:1, 2; and

(d) from the fact that a passage like Prov. 17:15 would yield an impossible sense, if the word meant “to make just.” The meaning would then be: He who morally improves the life of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord.

There are a couple of passages, however, in which the word means more than simply “to declare righteous,” namely, Isa. 53:11; Dan. 12:3. But even in these cases the sense is not “to make good or holy,” but rather “to alter the condition so that man can be considered righteous.”  L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co., 1938), 510.

Berkhof’s subsequent explanation is also commendable.