While “New Perspective” scholars understand righteousness as the legal status that God grants to his people, justification is the pronouncement of that status. It is the Judge’s declaration that those who have been vindicated are now in a right standing with the court.
“Justification by faith” does not mean, as is commonly thought, “salvation by faith.” Justification and salvation are not synonymous terms. One’s justification does not refer to a past moment in time at which one became a child of God.
While most English translations of Scripture have the phrase “are justified” in reference to “all who believe” (Rom. 3:22, 24), the King James Version rightly retains the present tense “being justified” meaning that justification takes place in the present time. Lest anyone think that our “being justified” means that we are in any way in a process of earning or meriting this justification, the phrase “justified freely” should dispel all such notions.
That we are presently in a state of “being justified,” to my mind, would rule out justification as a one-time past event. But perhaps more importantly, being justified in the present means we don’t have to wait until the day of judgement to know where we stand with God. It’s not like he is keeping a hidden ledger which will only reveal who is righteous on the last day. That we are presently being justified means that the verdict to be declared on the last day has been brought into the present. We are even presently being "declared in the right” with God, or “justified.”
While it is generally a bad idea to use English definitions to define biblical terms that were originally in Greek, in this case I think the English definition of “justify” can help us to articulate the meaning of the word. To justify something, according to Dictionary.com, is to uphold it as being warranted, meaning to demonstrate its feasibility. In other words, justification is the evidence of a claim.
Justification is the demonstrable evidence which upholds the claim that one is righteous. “Justification by faith” (Rom. 3:28) does not mean “saved by mere belief.” It means being declared, or acknowledged, a true believer upon the evidence of one’s faithfulness to Christ. To be “justified by faith” means that the feasibility of one’s righteousness is demonstrated by that faithfulness. I’m taking “faith” to mean “faithfulness” here, as the word can reasonably be translated. It is not merely mental ascent since justification implies that this is something demonstrable.
To ask how one is justified is to ask how one is declared to be “in the right” with God? What is the evidence? Paul says that one is “justified by faith apart from works of law” (Rom. 3:28). While Protestant theology has commonly taken “works of law” as referencing any attempt to merit salvation by moral effort, “works of law” is more narrowly defined as distinctively Jewish practices, not moral in nature, but more ritualistic. These are what Wright calls “Jewish boundary markers” which Jews used to set themselves apart from pagans in a world where compromise and assimilation were all too easy .
Some Jewish Christians apparently tried to hold on to such “badges” which they believed set them apart from the world, even to the point of binding the outward practices of circumcision, food laws, and the Sabbath on Gentiles coming into the church.
Paul’s argument is that this is not necessary. The justification of one’s claim to be right with God is simply faithfulness to Christ, without any of these distinctively Jewish add-ons. The distinctive feature of God’s covenant people is their faith in Christ and not works of the Law (Torah).
In contrasting faith with works, Paul does not address a situation in which some Jewish Christians were trying to pull themselves up by their moral bootstraps and depend upon legalistic effort to be saved. The question was whether Christians, including Gentiles, had to bear Jewish boundary markers such as circumcision, to demonstrate that they were now among the people of God. Paul’s answer is a resounding “no!”
It is not faith and good works that are pitted against each other in Romans. Faith and works are not mutually exclusive. How else could faith be a sign of anything if not by one’s works? How else would others know that faith exists? That is the whole point of a controversial passage in James 2.
If Protestants would accept the definition of justification as a “sign” or “declaration” that one is saved as opposed to the “means” by which one is saved, reconciling James with Romans ceases to be a problem. It has been touted by some that Paul and James are contradictory since Paul says that justification is not by works, but James insists that a person is justified by works (Rom. 3:28; James 2:24).
There is no contradiction if “justification” is seen as demonstrable evidence that one belongs to the people of God, rather than the very means of salvation. Justification means exactly the same thing in James that it does in Paul, but there is a contextual difference in how each author speaks of “works.” Paul is talking about “works of Torah,” those specifically Jewish boundary markers, whereas James is speaking of works of love toward others, especially the needy.
To Paul’s insistence that we are justified by faith, Luther’s translation added the word “alone,” to insure that Paul was not understood as advocating justification by works. But ironically, the only place in Scripture where the phrase “faith alone” is used is in James 2:24 where the author insists that one is justified by works and not by faith alone. By faith alone, James does not mean “faithfulness, but “mere belief” as consistent with his use of the term in regard to demons (James 2:19). No one is justified in their claim to be a Christian because of mere belief. Belief must be accompanied by faithfulness. Paul and James are not contradictory.
So if the New Perspective scholars are right, then how did Protestant theology and particularly Luther, come to misread Paul as attacking an alleged Jewish legalism and where did the notion of imputed righteousness originate? Stay tuned.
 Wright, Saint Paul, 115, 119; N. T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” In New Interpreter's Bible Commentary, vol. IX, edited by Leander E. Keck (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015), ,” 395.
 N. T. Wright, Letter to the Romans, 384-385.
 Wright, Justification, 215; N. T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: Romans, Part 1 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 60-61.
 N. T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus (Downer's Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 58-61.