Justification in the Gospels

Justification in the Gospels

Together, the four Gospels of the New Testament offer a full picture of the meaning of justification

Clinton Wahlen

There are a number of ways that the subject of justification in the Gospels could be approached. On the one hand, the discussion could be very brief since the word translated as “justification” never occurs in the Gospels and only twice in the rest of the New Testament (Rom. 4:25; 5:18), a fact belying its great importance to Christian theology. On the other hand, the concept of justification is found comparatively frequently in the Gospels.

Another approach would be to look at various stories of characters illustrative of the concept in some way, such as the paralytic (“‘Your sins are forgiven,’” Mark 2:5),1 Zacchaeus (“‘Today salvation has come to this house,’” Luke 19:9), and the woman caught in adultery (“‘Neither do I condemn you,’” John 8:11).

Parables that illustrate the concept could also be examined. The inherent danger in a study of this kind is to read the Gospels through the eyes of Paul or, conversely, to find no commonality whatsoever between them. Despite the obvious attraction of a more wide‑ranging study of the concept of justification, the approach taken here will be more limited, concentrating on the use in each Gospel of the Greek words linguistically related to the Greek word for “justification” (translated into English as “righteous,” “righteousness,” “justify,” and “justly”).


Justification in Matthew

Matthew focuses not on the process of justification but on the result. Jesus is the righteous king, and those who belong to His kingdom should have kingdom righteousness, which is most fully described in the Sermon on the Mount. It is a righteousness unlike that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 5:20). This is interesting because later Jesus describes the Pharisees as being righteous (9:13). As Matthew makes clear, however, this is a righteousness that can even co‑exist with lawlessness because it is only external (23:25-28). Kingdom righteousness, by contrast, internalizes the law, as the antitheses describe, by banishing anger, lust, virtually all divorce, and oaths, and by insisting on giving more than is required and loving one’s enemies—in short, exemplifying the ethical perfection of heaven (5:21-48). Thus reference is made in 6:33 to seekingGod’s righteousness, which is also described as doing the will of the Father (7:21). Kingdom righteousness impacts religious devotion because outward piety is meaningless. Almsgiving, prayer, and fasting should be done secretly because one’s real reward is not on earth but in heaven and based on trust in the heavenly Father (6:1-32).

No human standard of righteousness can ever be the basis for entering the kingdom. Matthew’s Jesus “points to a requirement that is impossible for us to achieve. Impossible though it may be for us to achieve it, it is nevertheless demanded.”2 Within Matthew’s Gospel, it becomes clear that this kingdom righteousness cannot be achieved; it can only bereceived. The work of Jesus, like that of John the Baptist, results in a division within Israel into believers and unbelievers, with believers largely coming from the disenfranchised, including the proverbial “sinners” (tax collectors and prostitutes) who are successfully entering the kingdom of God ahead of the chief priests and elders who did not believe Jesus or John (21:31, 32). This believing is connected with repentance in the immediate context and demonstrated by godly living, i.e., “the way of righteousness.”

On the other hand, references in Matthew to entering the kingdom are frequently to a future event (5:20; 7:21; 18:3; 19:23, 24). And several parables unique to Matthew place the separation between the believing and the unbelieving, the righteous and the unrighteous, at the final judgment (13:24-30, 36-43, 47-50; 25:1-13, 31-46). There is even reference to justification in connection with this judgment: “‘I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned’” (12:36, 37). Though this fits the typical Jewish understanding of future justification, its connection in Matthew with a present justification corresponds more closely to Paul’s schema and to New Testament eschatology more generally. At the same time, it should not go unnoticed that the immediate context connects the acceptance of the kingdom proclamation of Jesus with repentance (12:41; 11:20, 21), paralleling the call to repentance given by John the Baptist. In other words, justification in Matthew closely parallels both the present and future aspects of entering the kingdom of God, which comes through full acceptance of the proclamation of Jesus.


Justification in Mark

Besides the mention of Herod’s perception of John the Baptist as a righteous man (Mark 6:20), the only other occurrence of the word translated as “righteous” relevant for this study appears to be an ironic reference to the scribes and Pharisees as righteous. To the question of why He eats with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus replies, “‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance’” (2:17). The passage is significant in characterizing Jesus’ ministry as one directed at bringing outcasts back into fellowship within Israel, illustrating the theme of newness announced in 1:15 and further described in 2:18 to 22.

In the structure of the chapter, forgiveness (Mark 2:1-12) precedes fellowship (vss. 13-17). The saying of Jesus reinforces this idea, drawing on a familiar proverb. Adopting the premise of His accusers for the sake of the rebuttal, the “sinners,” those who are sick, are the ones who need the physician’s “healing,” that is, forgiveness. This call or invitation of Jesus for sinners to enter the kingdom “suggests that the basis of table‑fellowship was messianic forgiveness, and the meal itself was an anticipation of the messianic banquet.”3 Therefore, the implicit link between forgiveness and healing in the first story is here made more explicit. The story of the paralytic interprets the call of sinners to fellowship and vice versa. In other words, Jesus’ healings comprehended not just physical restoration but also “a return to wholeness within Israel and a sign of the redemption that his kingdom proclamation offered.”4 As so often in Mark, irony is utilized to make an important point: Those who are truly righteous respond to the call of Jesus and thereby receive forgiveness, fellowship, and full restoration within the community of faith.


Justification in Luke

In Luke, Jesus calls sinners “to repentance” (5:32), a seemingly innocuous clarification until it is noticed that, in the announcement of the “new wine” ministry of Jesus that follows, only Luke includes the protest of some traditionalists that “the old is better” (5:39, author’s translation). Of the Synoptic Gospels, Luke alone identifies the “leaven of the Pharisees” as hypocrisy (12:1). He also mentions that the lawyer was “wanting to justify himself” with the question “‘Who is my neighbor?’” (10:29), and so follows the parable of the Good Samaritan in which the priest and Levite pass by the half‑dead man to preserve their ceremonial purity. Likewise, in the parable of the lost sheep, there is “‘more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance’” (15:7), and the parable of the lost son is also about the self‑righteous older brother whose response to his father’s love is left open (15:31, 32).

Jewish piety appears prominently from the outset perhaps to appeal especially to other such “older brothers” in Israel that they might see in Jesus the fulfillment of their hopes. Zacharias prophesied that when finally delivered from their enemies, Israel would be able to serve God without fear (1:74, 75). The angel Gabriel, announcing the fulfillment of Malachi 4:5 and 6, indicated that part of John’s purpose in paving the way for Jesus would be to call “the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (1:17). Simeon uttered a similar prophecy when taking baby Jesus in his arms to bless him (2:25), that the child would bring God’s salvation (2:30).

One of the most poignant appeals for pharisaical Jews to comprehend the reason for Jesus’ attitude toward those with a sinful reputation is Luke’s account of the anointing of Jesus at the home of Simon the Pharisee. Responding to Simon’s unspoken doubts, Jesus defends the woman’s actions (in contrast to the host’s lack of hospitality toward him) as arising from her gratitude at being forgiven. Her love demonstrates that she has been forgiven much. Significantly, Jesus’ assurance both to Simon and to the woman that her sins stand forgiven is in the perfect tense (7:47, 48), indicating a “state of forgiveness, which Jesus recognizes and declares. . . . Jesus does not deny that her sins have been ‘many,’ but . . . she is no longer under the burden of them.”5 This is evident from his concluding words to her: “your faith has saved you; go in peace” (vs. 50, NRSV). It is fitting that this story in Luke is introduced by the description of Jesus as “a friend of tax collectors and sinners” and the affirmation that “wisdom is justified by all her children” (vss. 34, 35), suggesting a group different from Simon and the complaining children of verse 32. The meaning of the word translated as “justified” in verse 35, as with that in verse 29, is “show or pronounce to be righteous, declare or admit to be just.”6

Another passage, aimed even more directly at self‑righteousness, is the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). According to Luke, Jesus “told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised everyone else” (vs. 9, author’s translation). The Pharisee in the parable distinguished himself by his arrogant behavior: “he took up a prominent position”7 to pray; he thanked God that he was not like the rest of humanity; he then proceeded to spell out how bad everyone else was: “‘thieves, rogues, adulterers’”; he was not “‘even like this tax collector’”; next he enumerated his supererogation: fasting twice a week, tithing everything he received (even the smallest herbs, 11:42). In dramatic contrast to this proud Pharisee is the self‑abasing attitude of the tax collector: he stood at a distance; he did not venture even to lift his eyes to heaven but kept beating his breast (“or more accurately the heart, as the seat of sin”)8; his prayer was short, simple, and straightforward: “‘Oh God, be merciful to me, a sinner’” (like the Pharisee also in a class by himself and yet not like him). The prayer is a plea for propitiation and forgiveness (Rom. 3:24, 25).  

The authoritative pronouncement by Jesus that the tax collector, not the Pharisee, left justified, “accounted as righteous, accepted,”9 is startling, because God has said, “‘I will not justify the wicked’” (Ex. 23:7). Yet such a surprise ending is typical of Jesus’ parables. To ask what sin the Pharisee had committed or what reparations the tax collector had made to prove his repentance misses the point as the focus here is on the inward attitude of the two worshipers evident from their words and even their body language (as well as the concluding proverb of verse 14). The tax collector even quotes the opening words of Psalm 51, which repeatedly considers the inner condition of the penitent (vss. 6, 10, 17). Thus, the meaning reflects a changed state inwardly as well as outwardly—a change attributable solely to God’s grace, which remains His justifying righteousness. Justification in this sense can never be meritorious but is always purely God’s gift.


Justification in John

Seldom does the Gospel of John mention righteousness, but when it does it is almost always connected with judgment. The most important, yet obscure and controverted passage is John 16:8-11. The dominant interpretation of this passage is in an exclusively negative sense, as a forensic judicial prosecution of the world; but such an interpretation overlooks the larger concerns of the Fourth Gospel, most notably its purpose to bring people to faith in Jesus (20:31) through the work of His disciples, which is modeled after the work of Jesus (17:18, 20). This is also the work of the Holy Spirit, since He is the continued presence of Jesus in the world (14:16-18; 16:12-15).

Jesus is the true Light that enlightens everyone who comes into the world (1:9). Jesus did not come into the world to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him (3:17). Light brings everyone to the point of decision, some loving darkness because their deeds are evil while others come to the light (3:19-21). The latter include Samaritans who recognized in Jesus “the Savior of the world” (4:42), Jews recognizing him as “the Prophet” (6:14), the man born blind (9:17, 33, 38), apparently some Greeks (12:20, 21), and even “the world.” Accordingly, Jesus said, “‘I have come into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may be made blind’” (9:39). Since the Holy Spirit is to do a work similar to what Jesus had done, we should expect that the description of John 16:8 to 11 would have differing outcomes in accordance with differing responses.

The verb translated as “convict,” or “convince” means “to show someone his sin and to summon him to repentance.”10 This meaning has its Jewish antecedents in God’s disciplining and educating human beings through convicting, chastising, testing, and judgment. If this is the meaning here, then the Holy Spirit would convict the world: (1) of sin, because of their failure to believe [vs. 9] and their need to believe in the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world [1:29]; (2) of righteousness, because, through the “Spirit of truth” [14:17; 15:26; 16:13], Jesus sets people free from sin [8:31-36] and has ascended to the Father victorious to be their Advocate [20:17; 1 John 2:1]; (3) of judgment, because the ruler of this world is condemned and cast out through the judgment at the Cross, by which Jesus will draw all people to himself [12:31, 32].

The foregoing interpretation makes more sense of the “high priestly prayer” of John 17, where Jesus intercedes for the “Holy Father” to “keep” and “sanctify” the disciples (vss. 11, 15, 17) as well as those who will believe in Him through their word (vs. 20). In this context, Jesus also speaks of the Father as “‘righteous’” and that He has made His name known to them in order that “‘the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them’” (vs. 26). This echoes the work of Jesus in John 5:30, whose judgment is righteous because it is based not on His own will but that of the Father (7:24).

That the convicting work of the Spirit is not exclusively negative but can be positive, depending on people’s response, is seen also in connection with Jesus’ words to Nicodemus about being born of the Spirit to enter the kingdom of God (John 3:3, 5). From the subsequent narrative, it seems clear that Nicodemus ultimately accepted this teaching, believed in Jesus, and experienced this birth “from above” (7:50, 51; 19:39), while others of the Jewish rulers believed but hid the fact because they “loved the praise of men more than the praise of God” (12:43, NKJV).

The concept of justification, broadly considered, is present to a greater or lesser degree in all four canonical Gospels:

● In Matthew, justification is correlated with the righteousness of the kingdom, which alone is sufficient to enter it. This righteousness proclaimed by Jesus involves an internalization of the law. Since it is God’srighteousness, it can never be achieved by human attempts at scrupulosity. It can be received only through an intimate acquaintance with the Father—in advance of and as an assurance of vindication in the final judgment.

● Justification in Mark includes the forgiveness available to sinners as they respond to the messianic invitation to kingdom fellowship and full restoration within Israel.

● Luke’s Gospel comes closest to Paul’s concept of justification, highlighting the danger of self‑righteousness and the need for repentance to receive forgiveness, acquittal, and inner peace. It also involves an inward change manifested outwardly in humility, gratitude, and love to God for this gracious gift.

● John’s Gospel views justification, as well as its negative aspect of condemnation, in terms of the Cross—which, with the conviction brought about by the Spirit‑Advocate working through the disciples, brings people to a point of decision. Being sanctified through the word and Spirit of truth involves such a complete change that it is pictured as a new birth, which is the means of entering the kingdom of God and experiencing unity with the Father and the Son.

In all four Gospels, justification is closely connected with the proclamation of the kingdom of God, and it is perhaps for this reason that both present and future aspects of justification are in view. In Matthew the two aspects are fairly evenly balanced. The present aspect predominates in Mark and Luke, while a “perfective” element seems to pervade the Gospel of John, whereby the decisive victory at the Cross is made a reality through the Spirit, who brings conviction, faith, and transformation.


Clinton Wahlen, Ph.D., is an Associate Director of the Biblical Research Institute at the General Conference of Seventh‑day Adventists in Silver Spring, Maryland.



1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references in this article are quoted from the New King James Version of the Bible.


 2. Norvald Yri, in D. A. Carson, ed., Right With God: Justification in the Bible and the World (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1992), p. 99.


 3. William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark: The English Text With Introduction, Exposition, and Notes, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1974), p. 106. Italics in the original.


 4. Clinton Wahlen, in Joel B. Green, ed., Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2013), p. 365.


 5. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke: Introduction, Translation, and Notes (New York: Doubleday, 1981‑1985), vol. 28A in the Anchor Bible Series, p. 692.


 6. Alfred Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Luke (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1901), p. 208.


 7. Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus (London: SCM, 1972), p.140.


 8. Ibid.


 9. Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Luke, op cit., p. 419. Italics in the original.


 10. Friedrich Büchsel, in Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1972), vol. 2, p. 474.