Justification vs. Righteousness | Romans 3:20, 28

Romans 3:20, 28 20For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin… 28For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.

The critical error of interpretation regarding these verses has been the assumption that ‘justification’ is the same as ‘righteousness’. Most in mainstream theology reason incorrectly, trying to make them mean the same thing.

The English usage and definition of the words ‘Justification’ and ‘Righteousness’ are completely different ~

Webster’s Dictionary 1828 Edition defines “Justification” as: remission of sin and absolution from guilt and punishment; or an act of free grace by which God pardons the sinner and accepts him as righteous, because of the atonement of Christ; and “Righteousness” as: in Scripture and theology, in which it is chiefly used, is nearly equivalent to holiness, comprehending holy principles and affections of heart, and conformity of life to the divine law. Applied to persons (us), it denotes one who is holy in heart, and observant of the divine commands in practice.

To be Justified is to be legally acquitted, exonerated, pardoned and pronounced free of any guilt from the sins we have committed, and that through faith, trust and belief in the atoning blood of Jesus the Messiah. IF we have confessed our sins, asked to be forgiven, repented from our heart, which is turning away from doing those past sins and going back to God’s ways (not sinning). THEN we’re covered “under” the blood of atonement, forgiven and legally declared free of that guilt. That’s what Jesus, the Deliverer, did for us!

To be Righteous is to be ‘setapart‘, or ‘Holy‘, by practicing and observing the divine commands of God. That’s what we do for him!

Righteousness is the quality of a person’s appropriate conduct; the measure of ethical behavior defined by God.

Justification is the legal acquittal or deliverance from the charge of breaking God’s Law; the measure of ethical relationship with God.

The standard for both “measures” have been predetermined by God, because only He can define what is just or unjust, what is righteous or unrighteous. God defined His standard of Righteousness for us in His Instructions, His Laws; Not for justification (nor salvation), but because it’s God’s requirement of right behavior for His ‘set-apart’ people.

Paul told us here in Romans 3 that no one will be justified {acquitted, exonerated, pardoned} by keeping the Law, because we have already broken the Law. We are all sinners, and have at one time or another broken God’s commands; “all have sinned and fallen short”. Since all of us have sinned, i.e. broken God’s Law given through Moses, we all need a deliverer, a savior, to ransom us from the bondage of sin. Praise God for Jesus the Redeemer!

However, in the same sentence of Romans 3:20 at the beginning of this study, Paul also shows us the time-honored truth, that the only way to know what sin is, is through knowing the Law/Instructions of God. How can there be sin, if there’s nothing to sin against? The apostle Paul himself tells us that, ‘only by knowing the Law can we know what sin is’.

What does the text say?

Romans 3:20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

Romans 7:7 What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin.

This is not some new revelation by Paul. God’s definition of sin has always been determined by His Instructions, i.e. His Laws. Paul is only repeating what he learned at the feet of his teacher, Gamaliel ~

Numbers 15:22-23 22But if you sin unintentionally, and do not observe all these commandments that the LORD has spoken to Moses, 23all that the LORD has commanded you by Moses, from the day that the LORD gave commandment, and onward throughout your generations,

Psalm 119:10-11 10With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments 11I have stored up your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.

Sin has been, and always will be, ‘wandering from‘ and ‘not observing‘ the commandments of God, His Instructions, His Laws.

This is echoed by John ~

1 John 3:4 Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.

If we confess our sins, and truly repent, then the atoning blood of the Messiah washes us free of the guilt of those sins, “declaring” us justified and reconciling us back into a right relationship with the Father. However, it does not instantaneously transform us into a perfect human being, incapable of sinning. We still have free will; we still can choose to walk in rebellion to God’s will. Jesus died for the whole world, but we know that not everyone will choose His offer of deliverance/salvation; not everyone will see the Kingdom of God and Eternal Life, even though Jesus died for everyone! Please click this link and read, ‘Salvation vs. Eternal Life‘.

Paul’s letters make it crystal clear that we are to pursue righteousness! His letters have scores of verses commanding us and imploring us not to be unrighteous, not to be lawless, not to sin. If” Jesus’ atoning act made us “forever righteous” no matter how we acted, and “if” we’re not required to do anything going forward in our walk of faith, then why, oh why does Paul command us to be righteous and uphold the Law?

What does the text say?

Romans 3:31 Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law. (Please click this link and read ‘Paul Commands Us to Uphold the Law‘)

Why does it even matter how we behave? Why doesn’t Paul just say, “go ahead and behave anyway that you want to, you’re righteous no matter what you do”? Where is that verse?

Our spiritual growth in Godly righteousness is an ‘active’ process, one that we are required to put into practice ‘to show what we believe’, ‘to prove our faith‘. If I claim to believe something but my actions don’t back it up, my words are empty and meaningless.

Titus 2:11-14 11For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, righteous, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.

Our Savior “redeemed” or bought us out of our bondage to lawlessness (sin), so that we would now be self-controlled, righteous, godly and zealous for good works. We have been redeemed from our bondage to sin/lawlessness; that is what we’ve been saved from, that’s what “salvation” is.

♦♦Jesus did not save us from our bondage-to-lawlessness so that we could continue in lawlessness!♦♦♦

We are justified by belief, faith and trust in the faithful work of our Redeemer. However, one does not remain justified, i.e. pardoned, not-guilty, if one chooses to continue living in sin, i.e. unrighteousness. Whether they claim to ‘believe’ in Jesus or not, the unrighteous will not see the Kingdom of God; that’s why Paul tells us not to perform the unrighteous ‘works’.

What does the text say? ~

1 Corinthians 6:9-10 9Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, 10nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.

Galatians 5:19-21 19Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Ephesians 5:5 For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.

Hebrews 12:14 Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.

Who do you think Paul was talking to?

He was not talking to those outside the church. He’s talking to believers in Jesus! He’s warning the churches in Corinth, Galatia and Ephesus! He’s warning believers everywhere!!! Why would Paul warn us about such behavior and the consequences of such behavior, if it had no bearing on our walk before God? Why even mention it?

Paul is telling us that we must behave in a righteous manner going forward in our walk of belief. Sin is disobeying God, and obedience to God is walking in righteousness, at least according to the apostle Paul…

What does the text say? ~

Deuteronomy 6:25 And it shall be our righteousness, if we observe to do all these commandments before the LORD our God, as He has commanded us.

Psalm 119:172 My song sings of Your word, for all of Your commandments are righteousness

Romans 2:13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be righteous.

Romans 6:1-2 1What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? 2By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?

Romans 6:15-16 15What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 16Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?

Romans 6:12-13 12Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. 13Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness;

Colossians 3:5-8 3Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. 6On account of these the wrath of God is coming. 7In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. 8But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth;

Ephesians 4:22-24 22to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, 23and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness;

These few verses are just the tip of the iceberg, as almost all of Paul’s letters proclaim this theme. He implores us to “put off our old self” and put on the “likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness”! He implores us to act righteously because he knows this is how God wants us to act, as His set-apart or holy, people ~

Matthew 5:48-6:1 48You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. 1“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.

1 Thessalonians 4:7-8 7For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. 8Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.

1 Peter 1:15-16 15but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, 16since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.

Jesus, Paul, and Peter did not come up with some new doctrine for “new testament” times. All three of them are quoting Moses, and Moses is quoting the LORD our God ~

Leviticus 11:44 For I am the LORD your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy.

Leviticus 19:1 “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, you shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.

Numbers 15:40 that you may remember and do all My commandments, and be holy for your God.

God has always required His people to be Holy, and His definition of Holy has never changed. To be Holy is to be ‘Set-apart‘ to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; to be different and act differently than the gentiles/nations, in order to prove we are His children.

Malachi 3:6 “For I the LORD do not change

God’s Holy Spirit, through John, sums it up quite nicely I think ~

1 John 2:29 If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who ‘practices’ righteousness has been born of him.

1 John 3:4 Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also ‘practices’ lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.

1 John 3:7,10 Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever ‘practices’ righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous10By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not ‘practice’ righteousness is not of God

Again, as the Holy Spirit through John says, the one who is righteous is the one who practices righteousness, and the one who practices lawlessness, breaking the Law, this person is sinning.

What does God-in-the-flesh have to say about sin and breaking the Law, compared to those who are righteous, at “the end of days“?

Matthew 13:39-43 39The harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, 42and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.

He did not say, ‘those who don’t believe in me will be thrown in the fiery furnace’. Jesus said at the end-of-days those that are breaking the Law (sin) will be thrown in the furnace! Obedience to the Law (righteousness) will be required at the end-of-days to avoid the fiery furnace!! At least according to the Son-of-God…

God’s definition of sin has never changed. Sin has been, and will always be, ‘rebellion and disobedience of the Law/Instructions of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’.

What does the writer of ‘Hebrews’ tell us about sinning and the Law of Moses ?

What does the text say?

Hebrews 10:26-28 26For if we deliberately sin after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire about to consume the adversaries. 28If anyone disregards Moses’ law, he dies without mercy, based on the testimony of two or three witnesses.

Did you notice how verse 28 declares how “if anyone disregards the Law of Moses, he dies”?…

The word ‘disregards’ in the Greek is ἀθετήσας/athetēsas, Strong’s G114. Thayer’s Greek lexicon states this to mean: properly, do away with; reject what is already laid down; to set aside (disregard as spurious); nullify, make void. This in an Aorist Active participle and refers to action described as a “simple occurrence”, regardless of the time in which it happened.

The word dies in the Greek is in the Present Tense!!! If your English translation has this verse in the ‘past-tense’, then you are being lied to.

Verse 26 above says, “If we deliberately sin”, which means that you and I can still choose to sin. If you do sin deliberately, then the Messiah’s sacrifice for your sins is null and void. This is why Paul preaches so adamantly for us to obey righteousness, to live Holy/Set-apart lives and to not sin.

The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob has documented for all time His Set-apart Will and Set-apart Instructions for His Set-apart people in His Set-apart Scriptures, and they are Set-apart “Forever” (see the “Forever Verses” at the bottom of this page, and click these links to read the studies, ‘The Sabbath: Forever Means Forever‘ and ‘Examining the Scriptures‘).

At the very beginning of this study, what does Romans 3:20 say? Does Paul say the Law is abolished, or does Paul say that the Law gives us the “knowledge” of what sin is?

What does the text say?

Romans 3:20b since through the law comes knowledge of sin…

This is a statement of fact that Paul is making; ‘through the law we know what sin is’.


He did not say it’s abolished or rescinded or no longer to be kept; Paul states this nowhere in any of his letters. He said it ‘exists’ to tell us what sin is.


The disconnect is this: because the apostle Paul chastised some believers that “tried to be justified” by keeping the Law, we have assumed that he’s telling everyone, everywhere that ‘keeping the Law is by default trying to be justified’; this is a ‘Straw-man argument’, and an utterly false assumption! Please click this link and read, ‘Galatians Part 1: Freedom or Bondage‘.

Just because we aren’t justified, pardoned, or acquitted for following the Law does Paul say that the Law is no good? Does Paul tell us the Law is abolished, overthrown or made void because we now have ‘faith‘?

Read what Paul says just 11 verses later ~

What does the text say?

Romans 3:31 Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! May it never be, on the contrary, we uphold the law.

(Please click this link and read, ‘Paul Commands Us to Uphold the Law‘)

Paul asked this question, I believe, because he knew that he might be misunderstood. “Do we overthrow the Law by our faith? By no means! May it never be! Clearly, he stated the Law is not overthrown or abolished or annulled by faith! 

What then becomes of the Law?

Very concisely, Paul stated, “we uphold the Law“! The word “uphold” in the Greek is Strong’s G2476 – ἱστάνομεν – histemi: to stand by, to stand firm, to establish, to keep in place, to uphold, to continue safe and sound (Thayer’s Greek Lexicon). This is Present Tense, Indicative Mood in the Greek. When used in the indicative mood, the ‘Present Tense’ denotes action taking place or going on in the present time as a statement of fact. So, according to the apostle Paul, is God’s Law abolished or overthrown by our faith? Paul fervently stated, “May it never be!” On the contrary, he stated we are to keep the Law in place, stand by it, and uphold it; the exact opposite of what mainstream Christianity teaches…

Paul never taught that the Law of God was abolished nor had passed away (Please click these links and read, ‘Zealous for the Law‘ and ‘You Yourself Also Live in Observance of the Law‘).

In Romans 3:31 Paul stated in his Present Tense just the opposite;on the contrary we uphold/establish/keep in place/continue/stand firm by the Law! Not for justification, but because it’s the righteous behavior (not sinning) that God wants His people to live by.

It is the will of God for us to be righteous, but for us to be righteous His Word says we are to practice righteousness; and His Word states that this proves that we have been born of him (1 John 2:29 listed above).

And what is the ‘will of God‘?

What does the text say? ~

Psalm 40:8 I delight to do your will, O my God, your law is within my heart.”

Deuteronomy 5:29 Oh that they had such a heart as this always, to fear me and to keep all my commandments, that it might go well with them and with their descendants forever!

Matthew 7:21-23 Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

Matthew 12:50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

Mark 3:35 For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.”

Romans 2:17-18 17But if you call yourself a Jew 18and rely on the law and boast in God 19and know his will and approve what is excellent,because’ you are instructed from the law; {Paul’s present tense in the Greek}

Final thought: When God-in-the-flesh was walking this earth and speaking these truths here in Matthew 12 and Mark 3 directly above, what was the “will of the Father”?

  • For further study of Paul’s teachings, as well as the original Greek, see the ‘Links’ at the top of this page or blog posts at the bottom. Be like the Bereans, and test Paul’s doctrines to the “Scriptures”; look up for yourself more than 60 of the “forever verses” listed directly below. Please ‘share’ this study. Thank you for your time!


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