Last time, we looked at the difference between glosses and word meanings. A gloss is an English word substitute and is of concern primarily to translators, while meaning is a brief description of a word’s referent. I illustrated this difference with some rather simple nouns, but now let’s look at a more theologically rich example of the difference with a verb dear to the heart of any Protestant: “I justify” (Greek dikaioõ; pronounced: dee-kai-AH-oh).
Notice that just now I gave a gloss for dikaioõ as “I justify.” This is typically how the word is translated into English and is a gloss not a description of the word’s meanings. Now notice further that I said “meanings,” plural. Most common words have multiple meanings that may or may not be related to each other. Think, for example, of the English word “bed.” It is normally a simple object in the home: a piece of furniture on which to sleep. But one would not want to sleep in a lake bed or in a flower bed. As a useful exercise, think of all the different meanings of “house,” “deck,” “see,” or other common words in English.
So when we talk about word meanings, we should be prepared to talk about the various meanings of a word, and when we discuss meanings it can be much more helpful than coming up with mere English glosses. Now consider the following two uses of our Greek word, dikaioõ. Here is the English Standard Version (ESV) of two places in Romans with the rendering of dikaioõ highlighted: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Rom. 5:1) And “For one who has died has been set free from sin.” (Rom. 6:7) In the latter passage, there is a footnote on the verb “set free” that says: “Greek has been justified,” because it is how they are rendering dikaioõ. (I’m not sure how valuable this footnote really is though.)
In daily American English, we would use “justify” in a statement like this: “It’s hard to justify the expense of flying first class,” or, “He felt justified when he took the law into his own hands,” or quite differently, “She remembered to justify the margins of her paper.” None of these English uses really helps us with the meaning of the Greek word dikaioõ in Rom. 5:1 or 6:7 (and elsewhere) however.
For “justified by faith” in Rom. 5:1, we really want to give an expanded meaning such as this: “To give a judicial pronouncement of acquittal from charges of wrongdoing and, consequently, to declare and establish someone’s just status according to a legal or moral standard. In most NT contexts, as here, the final judgment is the setting, and the legal standard is the divinely issued law from general or special revelation.” The Greek word dikaioõ in Rom. 5:1 has a specific meaning with a number of important implications. But this meaning is clearly not in play in Rom. 6:7, where the same verb is typically rendered “set free from” and is given the following meaning in our standard Greek lexicon (BDAG) as: “to cause someone to be released from personal or institutional claims that are no longer to be considered pertinent or valid, make free/pure.” (See also Acts 13:38-39 and possibly 1 Cor. 4:4.)
Finally, going back to the meaning in Rom. 5:1, it is often helpful to contrast a word’s meaning with that of an antonym (its opposite), which for this use of dikaioõ is katakrinõ, “I condemn.” What is nice is that Paul uses this antonym is Romans to highlight his meaning of the terms: “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn?” (Rom. 8:33-34) This same usage goes back to a famous passage in Proverbs where the Hebrew and Greek verbs are synonymous: “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the LORD.” (Prov. 17:15)
This last passage in Prov. 17:15 is what makes the Protestant doctrine of justification so spectacular. God justifies his ungodly, wicked enemies (e.g., Rom. 5:6-10), and it should therefore be an abomination to him to justify us. The answer, of course, is that God’s pure and perfect standard of justice was fully satisfied in the active and passive obedience of his Son on our behalf. We are no longer wicked because we have the rightousness of Christ given to us as a free, gracious gift (Rom. 5:15-17). Researching word meanings is a great way to go deeper into the wonderful truths of Scripture.