The Comfort of Forensic Justification

Forensic justification is that God makes us righteous by crediting to us the righteousness of Jesus.  He doesn’t make us righteous through a process that he works inside of us.  What He works inside of us is a consequence of applying to us the full obedience of Jesus, which He rendered to God on behalf of the whole world.

Speaking of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is the positive way of speaking of the non-imputation of sins.  For Christ’s sake, God does not impute our sins against us, as St. Paul says in 2 Cor 5:19.  Paul writes in verse 21 that the result of Christ becoming our sin is us becoming the righteousness of God.  In the context, this becoming of the righteousness of God must correspond to the non-imputation of sins spoken of in verse 19.  We see this same forensic nature of justification when we consider Romans 5:12ff.  In his lecture notes on Justification, Robert Preus discusses how Sebastian Schmidt explains this passage.  In his Romans commentary, Schmidt points out that in the text, dikaiosis is opposed to katakrima, an act of condemnation.  So dikaiosis “is the very act of justification whereby God justifies us.” (Sebastian Schmidt, Commentarii in Epistolas D. Pauli ad Romanos, Galatas & Colossenses, Hamburg, 1704, pg. 378; Robert Preus’ translation from his lecture notes, pg. 11)

When we consider the forensic nature of justification as it relates to faith, it is crucial that we understand the significance of faith as a passive instrumental means.  God justifies not after faith, not because of faith, but through faith (Justification non post, non propter, sed per fidem. from R. Preus’ Lecure notes, pg. 18).  So God does not impute the righteousness of Jesus to us apart from faith, yet this also is not done because of or after faith.  It is through faith.  The righteousness or non-imputation of sins is already acquired for us, indeed for the whole world, outside of us in the vicarious obedience of Jesus.
When the Lutherans have defended this teaching of justification by imputation they have shown the importance of being able to examine Scripture without infusing their own logical principles into a given text.  John Gerhard, for example, demonstrated this in his response to Roman Catholic theologian Cardinal Robert Bellarmine’s interpretation of Romans 5:16-18.  We read from the text:

For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.

Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.  (Romans 5:17-19)

Bellarmine argued that this text shows that the righteousness by which we are righteous before God is not a righteousness outside of us in the obedience of Jesus but rather a righteousness that is formed inside of us.  He writes:

From this passage we hold that to be justified through Christ is not to be regarded or pronounced righteous, but truly to be made (fieri) and established (constitui) righteous through the attainment (adeptionem) of inherent righteousness (inharentis iustitiae), and not an imperfect righteousness, but absolute and perfect.  For it is clear in this passage that to be justified is to be made righteous, not pronounced righteous.  Thus from these words “many shall be established (constituentur) as righteous,” where the Apostle himself declares; for they are established (constitui) as righteous; and they are likewise made (fieri) righteous; Thus from the contrast of Adam to Christ, the Apostle writes, “thus we are established (constitui) righteous through the obedience of Christ,” by which manner we are established (constituti sumus) unrighteous through the disobedience of Adam; for it corresponds through the disobedience of Adam we are established (constitutos) as unrighteous, that the unrighteousness is truly in us, and the thing itself is inherent, the unrighteousness of Adam is not imputed to us. (Robert Bellarmine, Opera Omnia, ed Giuliano 1858. vol 4. Justificatione, book 2, ch. 3. pg. 307)

Bellarmine’s argument may be summed up in the following syllogism:

  • Being made unrighteous by Adam’s unrighteousness corresponds to being made righteous by Christ’s righteousness.
  • Adam’s unrighteousness is in us.
  • Therefore Adam’s unrighteousness was not imputed to us, Christ’s righteousness is not either, and our justification in Christ is inside of us.
Gerhard responds to this by pointing out that we cannot go beyond the comparison given by Paul between Adam and Christ.  He writes:
The contrast [made by Paul between Adam and Christ] should not be extended beyond the comparison [given in the text]… The imputation of sin should not be denied… God says in Exodus 20:5 that he would visit the iniquities of the fathers upon the children etc… it is impossible to be made (fieri) thus; the sins of impious and impenitent parents are to be imputed to their children.  Romans 5:13, ‘sin is not imputed when there is no law,’ therefore the law is able to do this, namely, impute sin.” (John Gerhard, Loci, ed. Preuss 1865, loc 16 De Justificatione per Fidem, pg. 317)
Gerhard demonstrates a consistent adherence to the hermeneutical principle scripture interprets scripture.  He does not infuse his own logical principles into Paul’s comparison as to try and make a point that Paul does not wish to make.  Rather he pulls his argument from other passages in Scripture, including the very same chapter of the discussed passage.
Forensic justification is a great comfort that must always be defended against any and every attack.  It is in confessing this truth that we with Abraham believe against hope, trusting in the God who justifies the ungodly.  God makes us righteous by calling us righteous and not by the love that He pours into our hearts.  This article of faith demands that we walk by faith and not by sight as the Spirit bears witness with our faith that we are sons of God.
Naught have I, O Christ, to offer
Naught but Thee, my highest Good.
Naught have I, O Lord, to proffer
But Thy crimson-colored blood.
Thy death on the cross hath Death wholly defeated
And thereby my righteousness fully completed;
Salvation’s white raiments I there did obtain,
And in them in glory with Thee I shall reign.

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