Martin Luther in his revolt against the Catholic Church underwent soul-searching trying to figure out how a sinful man like him can be right before a holy God. The way man was saved was by doing rites that the Church commanded. So regimented and systematized was this path to salvation that, according to popular piety, merits were commodities that can be bought and sold as indulgences*. Something just felt wrong.
Clearly man cannot just buy salvation as if God were in need of money. And if God does not need money, then why does he need self-denial, fastings, confessions, holidays, and the like? How can these things compel God to do anything?
The Roman system taught that man is completely right before God the moment he believes…or is baptized…whichever comes first. Then, after baptism, sins still occur. These sins rack up a debt against God’s honor. By taking part in the sacramental life of the Church, one essentially erases theses debts.
These sacraments are not works outright, but they are the atoning grace from the cross re-applied to man, drawing him closer to God and erasing the new debts he accrues. If one dies with debt leftover, however, then he has to still pay God His due in Purgatory. Whether in this world or in Purgatory, God empowers man to do empowto do these holy works to right the wrongs. Whether in this life or Pugatory, God empowers man to do good works in order to both erase debt and attain to greater holiness. Then, when one is finally holy, he can see God, for without holiness no one can see God (Heb 12:14).
There had to be a better way to pay that debt, Luther figured. Then, one day it came to him. Man is accounted as righteous, because Christ paid all those debts on the cross. Christ’s payment on our behalf applies as long as we have faith. If faith is lost, then so is this payment. If one perseveres in faith, then one attains to heaven. Faith recompenses God. Man is in no need of works, even works performed in man by the grace of God, in order to be right with God. Only one work mattered–that of Christ on the cross. Only one thing makes that work matter for us–faith.
Luther’s solution intuitively made sense. It seemed to make unnecessary the needlessly complicated, and obviously extra-biblical (as it pertains to its litany of reasonings), Roman system of salvation. Here and there, Luther can find support for his idea in the Fathers (Augustine in On the Spirit and the Letter speaks of man being clothed in Christ’s righteousness in Chapter 31**), but mostly it did not matter what the Fathers said. The Scripture said it–we are saved by grace, through faith, not of works so no one may boast. “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Gal 3:27). Therefore, the Roman system could not work. The only alternative, Luther reasoned, was an alien righteousness that clothes man. God sees man as righteous, though man is not in of himself righteous at all.
Simply put, if God depended upon there being any actual righteousness within us at all then no one is holy and pure enough to stand before Him. Only Imputed Righteousness can make it all work.
Before Luther made his stand in the Diet of Worms, he actually took a day to think about his predicament. He was calling into question centuries of Catholic tradition. Cite the Fathers as he may, he knew that in reality Forensic Justification was not dwelt upon by any one them. Perhaps it was mentioned in passing, but ultimately he knew what Alistair McGrath (a Protestant theologian) recognized:
A fundamental discontinuity was introduced into the western theological tradition where none had ever existed, or ever been contemplated, before. The Reformation understanding of the nature of justification as opposed to its mode must therefore be regarded as a genuine theological novum.
The proverb “justification is the article by which the church stands and falls” has been ascribed to Luther. Even if he never said it, surely it was the motto of him and all of the Reformers subconsciously. The Protestant view, which is the Forensic view, was their weapon wielded against Rome. It was their justification for schism. Schism had to occur because Forensic Justification was so right and the Catholic view of infused righteousness so wrong.
However, shouldn’t it give us pause that we created a whole new branch of Christianity, a tragic schism, over a doctrine that no one ever held in the specific way the Reformers did? Even when we do our best to find Church Fathers saying something that sounds similar to the Protestant view of justification, nowhere do they specifically endorse the Forensic view (see pages 94 and 95).
Perhaps this is why some Protestant writers have speculated that the Church Fathers had not believed the Gospel in its purity as we supposedly do today. Thomas R. Thompson writes:
The doctrine of justification by faith alone gets so corrupted in the next few hundred years, it is essentially unrecognizable by 250 A.D. The shift started after the apostles. While some of the Apostolic Fathers give evidence they understood the doctrine of justification by faith alone, they certainly did not understand the need to fight for its purity.
In the same article, Mr. Thompson accuses Saint Clement (the accomplice of Paul himself and one of the earliest Bishops of Rome) of not rightly applying Paul’s teachings, leading to future misunderstandings. Just think about that for a moment. If Clement did not understand the immense importance of Forensic Justification and Protestant soteriology AND HE ACTUALLY KNEW PAUL, then we have to seriously question whether or not we are reading the Scriptures right. After all, Clement both read Paul’s letters and was a close confidant of him. I’d trust Clement over Luther.
Let me sum up this article not by definitively disproving Forensic Justification. I honestly do not think I can, or want, to do that. There is merit to the doctrine. However, I think it is theologically arrogant to say that those who ascribe to another theory of grace (“infused” in Rome, “imparted” in Orthodoxy) are somehow anti-Christian, when this was this the view of many of the Fathers and the Church up until the sixteenth century. Meanwhile, no one specifically held the Forensic view.
Further, the Scripture speaks of a righteousness that is not merely alien and judicially ascribed to man, but one that properly belongs to man. This righteousness is alien in as much as it properly belongs to God, but it is also properly ours–it literally resides within us.
For example, man is not merely ascribed righteousness judicially when:
I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me (Gal 2:20).
So when Protestants say phrases such as, “There is nothing righteous in me,” perhaps it is with an immense qualification because it is no longer the unrighteous man who lives anymore who is in Christ. It is Christ who lives. And so, man is not merely considered righteous, but he is righteous because He literally has God dwelling in him.
Perhaps even more clear is Paul’s statement that Christians are positively “holy” in their body:
Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are (1 Cor 3:16-17).
“In Augustine’s view, God bestows justifying righteousness upon the sinner in such a way that it becomes part of his or her person,” according to Alistair McGrath. We can see that, in light of the above, such a concept is Biblical. And if it is Biblical and widely accepted by the whole Church for centuries, to split the Church because the concept of justification is not as correct and nuanced as it can otherwise be appears to me questionable.
In addition to the preceding, there are theologians now who argue that Luther believed that “Jesus Christ’s righteousness… indwells the believer rather than his righteousness as imputed to the believer.” This means that Forensic Justification, where nothing righteous can be attributed to man, is a gross simplicification of his thought. And, if this is so, being that the Eastern Church already teaches this view of justification without the Roman view of merit, then why continue in schism if justification “is the article by which the church stands and falls?”
Lastly, let’s briefly discuss when justification occurs. There is obviously a sense that justification occurs the moment one has believed. However, to say that the Bible teaches this exclusively would be to misrepresent the Scriptures. The Hebrew term for “righteousness,” tsedaqah, is used 157 times. Sometimes, it is used in such a way where the implication obviously is that a work, or a set of works, results in God esteeming man as righteous:
When you make your neighbor a loan of any sort, you shall not enter his house to take his pledge….When the sun goes down you shall surely return the pledge to him, that he may sleep in his cloak and bless you; and it will be righteousness for you before the Lord your God (Deut 24:10, 13).
The Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness; According to the cleanness of my hands He has recompensed me. For I have kept the ways of the Lord, and have not acted wickedly against my God…I kept myself from my iniquity. Therefore the Lord has recompensed me according to my righteousness (2 Sam 22:21-22).
If he walks in My statutes and My ordinances so as to deal faithfully—he is righteous and will surely live…when a righteous man turns away from his righteousness, commits iniquity and does according to all the abominations that a wicked man does, will he live? All his righteous deeds which he has done will not be remembered for his treachery which he has committed and his sin which he has committed; for them he will die…when a wicked man turns away from his wickedness which he has committed and practices justice and righteousness, he will save his life (Ezek 18:9, 24, 27).
Now, the point of me citing the preceding is not to utterly disprove forensic justification, or justification by faith alone (which I do not reject). However, how do we determine our hermeneutic for interpreting these verses?
Many will try to explain them away by saying, presuppositionally, that works cannot save. But, on what basis do we have this presupposition? Certainly not from James 2:24. We would have to cite Gen 15:6, Eph 2:9, and Rom 4:5. Yet, the above passages, with James 2, outnumber these (and there are more by the way). We cannot cite passages such as Gal 2:16, because such passages are speaking of the Law, and not works of faith per se. So, ultimately, one arbitrarily picks one point of view (let’s say Eph 2:9) over another (Deut 24:13).
But, is this the right way to do it? Of course not. The Church has historically tackled this sticky subject, often coming to differing answers to some degree, but universally settling upon that we are saved by the virtue of our faith, but Christians must do good works, and that these works in some sense bless the righteous man in his righteousness. The Roman Catholic attempt to answer this question in Trent has Biblical merits just as the Forensic view has such merits (no pun intended…literally).
Personally, I have come to settle upon the Eastern Orthodox view. I will save my reasonings for a future blog.
*One can acquire indulgences by going on pilgrimages, fighting crusades, or even paying for them. Official Catholic doctrine states that the indulgence is only effective if there is genuine repentance and love behind the act. So, in effect, acquiring indulgences is just a fancier version of almsgiving and penance, though there are differences which are outside our purview here.
**Augustine in the same work explicitly endorses infused righteousness.
As a final note, it is worth noting that Protestants are fond of citing the Great Exchange–that Christ bears our sin and He gives us His righteousness. After all, Christ “who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree” (1 Pet 2:24). Well, if this is true, it is also true that we bear His righteousness in our bodies.