Imputed Righteousness: The Evangelical Doctrine
At the heart of the controversy between Roman Catholic and Reformation theology is the nature of justification itself. It is a debate not merely about how or when or by what means a person is justified, but about the very meaning of justification itself.
Reformed theology insists that the biblical doctrine of justification is forensic in nature. What does this mean? In the popular jargon of religion, the word forensic is used infrequently. The word is not foreign, however, to ordinary language. It appears daily in the news media, particularly with reference to criminal investigations and trials. We hear of "forensic evidence" and "forensic medicine" as we listen to the reports of criminologists, coroners, and pathologists. Here the term forensic refers to the judicial system and judicial proceedings.
The term forensic is also used to describe events connected with public speaking. Schools hold forensic contests or events that feature formal debates or the delivery of speeches.
The link between these ordinary usages of forensic and its theological use is that justification has to do with a legal or judicial matter involving some type of declaration. We can reduce its meaning to the concept of legal declaration.
The doctrine of justification involves a legal matter of the highest order. Indeed it is the legal issue on which the sinner stands or falls: his status before the supreme tribunal of God.
When we are summoned to appear before the bar of God's judgment, we face a judgment based on perfect justice. The presiding Judge is himself perfectly just. He is also omniscient, fully aware of our every deed, thought, inclination, and word. Measured by the standard of his canon of righteousness, we face the psalmist's rhetorical question that hints at despair: "If you, LORD, should mark iniquities, ...who could stand?" (Psalm 130:3 NKJV).
The obvious answer to this query is supplied by the Apostle Paul: "There is none righteous, no, not one...." (Romans 3:10).
God commands us to be holy. Our moral obligation coram Deo (before the face of God) is to live perfect lives. One sin mars that obligation and leaves us naked, exposed before divine justice. Once a person sins at all, a perfect record is impossible. Even if we could live perfectly after that one sin, we would still fail to achieve perfection. Our sin may be forgiven, but forgiveness does not undo the sin. The consequences of the sin may be removed or ameliorated, but the sin itself is not undone.
The Bible speaks figuratively about the sin being washed, cleansed, healed, and blotted out. The sin, which is scarlet, may become white as snow, the crimson may become like wool, in God's sight. The sin may be cast into the sea of forgetfulness or purged with hyssop. But these images describe an expiation for sin and divine forgiveness or remission of our sin. Our record does not change, but our guilt does. Hence Paul declares, "Blessed is the man to whom the LORD shall not impute sin" (Romans 4:8 NKJV).
In our redemptive forgiveness God does not charge us with what we owe. He does not count our sins against us. If he did, no one (except Jesus) would ever escape his just wrath. No one but Christ would be able to stand before God's judgment.
Again, God in his grace may regenerate us, sanctify us, and even glorify us. He might make us perfect in the future. He really does change the elect and will eventually make the justified totally and completely righteous. But even the perfected saint in heaven was once a sinner and has a track record that, apart from the grace of justification, would send him to hell.
Thus, where temporal creatures are concerned, everyone who is once imperfect is always imperfect with respect to the whole scope of the person's individual history. This is what Thomas Aquinas meant when he asserted that justification is always of the impious (iustificatio impii). Righteous people have no need of justification, even as the healthy have no need of a physician.
Both Roman Catholic and Reformation theology are concerned with the justification of sinners. Both sides recognize that the great human dilemma is how unjust sinners can ever hope to survive a judgment before the court of an absolutely holy and absolutely just God.
If we define forensic justification as a legal declaration by which God declares a person just and we leave it at that, we would have no dispute between Rome and Evangelicalism. Though
Rome has an antipathy to the concept of forensic justification, this antipathy is directed against the Protestant view of it. In chapter 7 of the sixth session of the Council of Trent, Rome declared: "...not only are we reputed but we are truly called and are just, receiving justice within us, each one according to his own measure...."
Here Rome is jealous to distinguish between being reputed just and actually being just, yet it is still true that God calls the baptismally regenerated just. That is, for Rome justification is forensic in that justification involves God's legal declaration. A person is justified when God declares that person just. The reason or the ground of that declaration differs radically between Roman Catholic and Reformed theology. But both agree that a legal declaration by God is made.
Nor is it sufficient merely to say that Rome teaches that justification means "to make just," while Protestants teach that justification means "to declare just." For Rome God both makes just and declares just. For Protestants God both makes just and declares just -- but not in the same way. For Rome the declaration of justice follows the making inwardly just of the regenerate sinner. For the Reformation the declaration of justice follows the imputation of Christ's righteousness to the regenerated sinner.
R. C. Sproul is an author, chairman of Ligonier Ministries, and professor at the Orlando campus of Reformed Theological Seminary.