The basic meaning of dikaioo is to announce and declare someone righteous, with the normal consequence of continuing to treat the subject as just, innocent or righteous in the future.
In Luke 7, Jesus is discussing the reception of John the baptizer and his message.
28 I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he. 29 (When all the people heard this, and the tax collectors too, they declared God just, having been baptized with the baptism of John, 30 but the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.)
Verse 29 is an unusual phrase because here people are declaring God to be right and John the baptizer to be doing the right thing. The Pharisees, on the other hand, treat John’s baptism as wrong, and Luke comments that this was rejecting the purpose of God.
So the term in not a highly technical one. It is a matter of saying who is “right in the purposes of God.”
In another place in the same discussion, Jesus is commenting on the criticism he receives for going to dinners and social events with the non-observant, ordinary persons in his community. He closes his commentary with this sentence.
35 But wisdom is justified of all her children.
“Justified” here means “declared right,” even though Jesus is being ironic. “Wisdom” here is actually wrong thinking, but it is assumed to be and treated as right by those who are invented in a point of view.
Again, this is not a technical term, but a common way to say someone or something is assumed to be right or just.
Some of the most well known uses of the term dikaioo in the synoptics are in Matthew 12 and Luke 18.
Matthew 12:36 I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, 37 for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.
With the ultimate evaluation of being “right” or “wrong” in view, this is an important use of the word.
Words here are a continuation of the analogy of roots and fruit. Words will reveal the true state of the heart, and so words will be the means by which a person is declared “righteous” or not.
In Romans 2, Paul suggests that our words reveal the standards we require others to live by, “the law on the heart.” Our words, spoken before an omniscient, truthful God, will reveal that we have been declared right with God and live as such, or they will reveal our hypocrisy and “wrong” hearts/actions.
God’s declaration of the standing of human beings will be congruent with the truthful evidence of our lives, where either faith or sin is the root.
And, of course, the closing lines of the parable of the Pharisee and the publican, in Luke 18.
9 Then Jesus told this story to some who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else:…. But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, God, be merciful to me, a sinner! 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.
It’s very important to see the beginning of this story. Jesus is speaking to those who had two problems: an excessive and wrong view of their own righteousness that translated into treating others “with contempt (ESV).”
The Pharisee is an exercise in failed self-justification. His recitation of his religious practices has nothing to do with the Kingdom of God, but with human ideas of what God must be impressed by.
In Luke 10:29, the phrase for the lawyer’s challenge to Jesus is that he was seeking to “justify himself.” In Luke 16:15, Jesus says that the Pharisee’s are those who are “justifying themselves in the sight of men,” which is “detestable (NASB) to God.”
The echoes of the Pharisee’s prayer are everywhere around us. In church ads. In “testimonies.” In religious teaching that does not magnify the King of mercy. In the theological bragging of the orthodox and the faux superiority of the activist.
The Pharisee references the tax collector in his prayer. I am not like the other person, he says. My righteousness is acceptable and exemplary in comparison to “the sinner.”
The publican simply confesses need, desperation and faith. He has nothing but his desire for God’s mercy. Fred Craddock, in his commentary on Luke, says that the shock of this story is obvious. If anyone would have gone home un-justified in first century Judaism, it would have been the tax collector. His prayer was fine, but his life was too offensive.
Indeed, what would he do now? Jesus doesn’t answer that.
Jesus says that the publican goes to his house, that is leaves the temple that very day, “justified,” i.e. declared to be right and consequently to be treated as right with God in the future.
This is a scene much like the judgment scene earlier, but it is brought into the present in the life of the justified person.
Based on what we have read so far, it appears that the concept of justification in the synoptics is
1. an announcement or declaration, much like a preview of God’s verdict on the day of judgment.
2. followed by consequential acceptance.
3. starkly contrasted with self-justification.
4. essentially linked with how other persons are viewed and treated.
5. completely in line with Paul’s understanding of justification in Romans 3:19-28 and his resulting practice in the churches he leads.
I believe Jesus announces the Kingdom of God as an invitation to repent of self-righteousness and receive the acceptance of God as a free gift. This declaration and gift then results in participation in a new community where other persons are treated with the same acceptance and are offered the same free gift.
Justification is not primarily an experience, but a person does come to critical points through process.
We hear the message of the Kingdom or experience the acceptance of the Kingdom.
We renounce our own righteousness (repentance from sins, in other words) and trust in God alone for “rightness.”
We enter the community formed around Jesus and the Gospel.
We participate in this community by extending it, offering it, practicing it and nurturing it.
More thoughts on this in the future, especially on the application to community.