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The Righteousness of God

Posted in Uncategorized by victorchristensen on July 24, 2009

An Examination of the Doctrine of Forensic Justification

Forgiveness Apart from Works

The central teaching of the Bible is that God freely forgives sinners. He does not pretend they are anything other than what they are. God does not make anyone vicariously righteous so that He can forgive them. There is no such thing as forgiveness based on fake obedience. God forgives sinners by the primary means of not imputing sins. The non-imputation of sin is based on faith in Christ and the acceptance of His death as an atoning sacrifice according to what is written in Isaiah 53:6, “the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” Under the covering of the blood of Christ the sinner can make only one plea, “God be merciful to me a sinner”.[1] Forgiveness by its nature requires failure in order to be authentic.

If forgiveness was based on imputed obedience it would not be free grace, but merited grace based on an imputed obedience. If justification is based on obedience how could it be justification “apart from the law”, the “works of the Law”, a justification of the “ungodly”, or a justification of “sinners” “apart from works”?[2]

The forensic doctrine of justification is based on the concept that God forgives the sinner on the basis of the imputed works of Christ. The principle of justification by works is not a biblical concept. The Bible has no doctrine of imputed good works. Vine’s Expository Dictionary correctly says: “Righteousness is not said to be imputed to the believer”.[3] Forgiveness by an imputed good works is a denial of free grace.

Some claim Christ’s entire earthly obedience is imputed to the sinner, and God counts it that everything He did we did. Paul knows nothing of this. He teaches that the only thing Christ did on earth that is credited to us is His death. Romans 5:18 reads, “the issue of ONE just act is acquittal”. Only one act of Christ’s earthly obedience is imputed to the sinner, and that is His death on the cross. The idea that the earthly obedience of Christ represents a storehouse of merit is unbiblical and pure nonsense.

Christ’s death is the prime medium of reconciliation. “We were reconciled to God through the death of His Son.”[4] Substitution is a gospel principle, but only when it is applied to Christ’s death, not His daily life.

Those who teach we are justified by the imputed obedience of Christ rely on fiction to support the idea. According to the theory, God finds it necessary to trick Himself three times in order to save the sinner. In the first trick on Himself God pretends the sinner did not sin. That is the first lie. Then God allows Himself to descend deeper into self-delusion and He pretends the sinner is someone else. That is the second lie. Then God’s self deception increases, and He allows Himself to imagine that the sinner perfectly obeyed the law. That is the third lie. In the forensic gospel it takes three lies to make a sinner righteous.

In his version of the forensic gospel Archibald Hodge says, “Christ as our substitute assumed our law place”.[5] He then explains that our personal obligation to obey the law was transferred to Christ.

[T]he law demands personal and proper obedience, so it extracts personal enduring of the penalty. Therefore in order that a criminal should be absolved … it is necessary that there should intervene a sovereign act of the supreme lawgiver, which, with respect to the law is called relaxation, and with respect to the debtor is called remission.[6]

In this presentation God suspends the demands the law so that the switch in personal identity can take place. Christ’s obedience is then calculated to be the sinner’s merit which functions as a trade off against guilt. In this process forgiveness is based on the legal value of Christ’s good works. Hodge says,

Justification is a judicial act of God proceeding upon the fact that all the demands of the law upon the persons concerned are satisfied, and it pronounces the believers to be entitled to rewards conditioned upon obedience to the law as a covenant of life.[7]

What is the mechanism by which Christ is able to merit forgiveness? Hodge explains the matter further:

Because he was divine Christ was not Himself under the law, therefore, his obedience, both active and passive, was evidently, as far as himself was concerned, a work of supererogation; demanded not of himself; needed not for himself; and wholly accruing to the credit of those for whom he acted.[8]

This theory has three parts. First God relaxes the law at the level of personal demand. This allows the law to be tricked into thinking the sinner is Christ. Second, because in this theory Christ Himself was not legally obligated to keep the law His obedience can be turned into surplus merit. Third, because it has a plastic identity this merit can be presented to the law as the sinner’s own obedience and the sinner can then be justified because the law now thinks the sinner has perfectly obeyed the law. The forensic gospel is constructed on a theory in which forgiveness is made possible by legal trickery and deception.

In his Examination of the Council of Trent Martin Chemnitz also claims that the law has plastic properties that enable its demands to be transferred from one person to another. Chemnitz says,

However, the Gospel reveals and declares this mystery, which was hidden for long ages, that since the human race could not make satisfaction to the Law, and the Law could in no way be dissolved or destroyed, God made a transfer of the Law to another person …  Who should fulfil the Law both by satisfaction and obedience for the whole human race.[9]

Chemnitz’s transfer theory only works if the law’s personal demands can be suspended. In a context in which the law maintained its integrity Christ’s obedience could never be identified as something I did.

It is said we are justified because we kept the law in Christ. That is as near to being true as is the idea we built the ark in Noah and went fishing in Peter. Jesus kept the law when He preached the Sermon on the Mount. He kept the law when He fed the multitude with the loaves and fishes. He kept the law when He raised Lazarus from the dead. Is it imputed that we preached the Sermon on the Mount? Is it imputed that we fed the multitude with loaves and fishes? Is it imputed we raised Lazarus from the dead? If these acts of obedience are not imputed to us how can it be said that God imputes Christ’s obedience to us?

When Paul declared, “if righteousness comes through the law then Christ died needlessly”[10] he was saying that an obedience based would forgiveness would make Christ’s death unnecessary. A forgiveness based on obedience would mean Christ had no need to die but only to live a sinless life.

Consider this, if imputed obedience were the basis of forgiveness then God needed only to have imputed Christ’s obedience to the sinner before the cross and there would have been no need for the cross because the imputation of a sinless life would have eliminated the basis of the sinners condemnation.

The Cultural Conditioning of Truth

History shows that cultural conditioning influences biblical exegesis. When the Greek Fathers defined their Christology according to contemporary perspectives the biblical testimony became distorted, and Paul’s writings became a vehicle for conveying Aristotle’s ideas. When Gregory Thaumaturgus referred to the Father as “the one First Cause … of the Son” Christ’s very existence was determined on the basis of Aristotle’s metaphysics.[11] Also, when Origen invented the doctrine of the eternal generation metaphysical speculation replaced biblical revelation and Christ’s existence became identified with the same dynamics that gave existence to the created order. As a result heresy represented orthodoxy for a thousand years.

Romans 12:20 is another example where biblical imagery has been invested with a non-biblical concept. Paul says by responding kindly to the offences of an enemy “you will heap burning coals on his head”. In the thinking of many this phrase signifies condemnation. However, the imagery is taken from an old Egyptian ritual, which was a symbol of repentance. When ancient Egyptian’s wanted to demonstrate they were sorry for their actions they employed the cultic practice of approaching the offended party with a tray of hot coals on their head. W Klassen points out: “The coals were evident in the original (Egyptian) ritual that repentance had taken place and for Paul they probably signified that the enemy had been made into a friend”.[12] The Targum on Proverbs 25:22 supports Klassen’s interpretation. The coals of fire imagery was a positive symbol. But because such imagery is perceived to be negative outside its original context anyone unacquainted with its early Egyptian source would be inclined to misconstrue Romans 12:20.

Berkouwer highlighted a problem in established orthodoxy when he wrote; “Dogmatic study, like confessional expression, wears the image of its day”.[13] There is a good deal of input in accepted interpretations of Paul that wears the ”image of its day”, and has nothing to do with Paul. It does not require evil intention to falsify the law and the prophets. History shows good men through honest ignorance have done more damage to the Word of God than others achieved through calculated mischief.

When the Greek Fathers taught Christ had a temporal dependency on God for His existence their highest concept was that He was a replicated deity. This failure was not caused by any lack in their piety but was inevitable simply because the conceptional models available to them had locked them into such thinking.

Tuomo Mannermaa has pointed out key elements in Luther’s teachings were derived by “employing analogies from Aristotelian philosophy”.[14] This resulted in some of the most evangelical statements found in Luther’s writings actually being modelled Aristotle’s thinking and a faulty biblical exegesis. Alister McGrath shows how Melanchthon modelled his ideas on the Latin word acceptiliation.[15] Because of this Melanchthon based his forensic model of justification on Latin legal procedure rather than on Scripture. Martin Chemnitz frequently referred to the “Hebrew manner of thinking” but he actually made exclusive use of Greek sources such as Plutarch and Lysias to establish the “Hebrew” meaning of justification.[16]

Alister McGrath explains changing cultural environments and the process involved in language transfer can alter biblical meanings in the minds of those who honestly believe they are following the Bible only.

Tertullian has been frequently singled out as the thinker who shackled the theology of the western church to a theology of ‘works’ and ‘merit’, there are reasons for supposing that whatever blame is due may be fairly attributed to the Latin language itself. In the Greek ‘merit’ tends to be treated as a quality, so that it is essentially adjectival. Thus ‘merit’ is essentially a matter of estimation. The Latin term meritum, however, is a participle form of mereri, itself a deponent form of mereo, derived from the Greek verb [which means] – ‘to receive ones share’. The transferred meaning of this thus becomes ‘to deserve’ or ‘to be worthy of something’. There is, however, no Greek verb which bears quite this sense, for desert is treated as a matter of estimation, rather than a quality in itself. The ‘estimation’ in question cannot be transferred to its object. The Latin approach to the question, however, involves the identification of the qualities of the object which occasioned such an estimation. In other words, the Greek verb refers to something outside the person in question, (ie. the estimation by which he is held by others, and which cannot be treated as a quality), whereas the Latin refers to the qualities of the person in question.

[I]t is necessary to observe that the early theologians of the western church were dependent upon Latin versions of the Bible, and approached their texts and their subject with a Latin perspective which owed more to the Latin language and culture than to Christianity itself. The initial transference of a Hebrew concept to a Greek, and subsequently to a Latin context point to a fundamental alteration in the concepts of ’justification’ and ‘righteousness’ as the gospel spread from its Palestinian source to the Western world.[17]

Whereas in a Greek context merit is a matter of estimation rather than a concrete quality in its Latin context a person has merit as a matter of qualitative value. The Protestant concept of the “merits” of Christ corresponds to the Latin concept of merit because Christ’s obedience is identified as a currency that can be traded for something else. The Protestant concept of the merits of Christ is a replication of Roman Catholic works theology and is entirely unscriptural and alien to biblical thinking.

Meritum Christi and The Forensic Gospel

Most of the Reformers began as Roman Catholics and the sad fact is they never entirely abandoned Catholic modes of thought in their doctrine of justification. The Catholic doctrine of salvation is centred on the idea of merit, the key element being meritum Christi, or the merits of Christ. In Catholic thinking Christ’s obedience possessed a purchasing power that merited the grace of salvation.

Roman Catholics believe that grace is derived from merit. They therefore believe in merited grace rather than free grace. There are three sources of merit. There is the merit of sinners earnt through penance and good works, there is the merit of the saints acquire by their works of supererogation and there is the merits of Christ’s earthly suffering and obedience. The primary source of merited grace is Christ’s merits.

Catholic scholar Ludwig Ott writes, “Through the merits of Christ the supernatural riches of salvation were acquired which are dispensed in the subjective redemption”.[18] In this Roman Catholic formula salvation by meritum Christi is not salvation by free grace, but salvation by merited grace. The Roman Catholic concept is structured on the idea Christ merited the right for sinners to earn merit.

When the Reformers spoke of the “merits of Christ” they simply took on board in an unaltered form Catholic concept of meritum Christi. Whatever context in which it is found, whether Protestant or Catholic, salvation by the “merits of Christ” or by meritum Christi as a matter of principle is salvation by merited grace.  However, in any correct biblical exegesis the term “merit” can never be associated with free grace.

In Catholic teaching justification is based upon a synthesis of grace and merit. There are two components in the Catholic doctrine of merit. The first is the idea that “the good works of the just establish a legal claim (meritum de condigno) to reward on God”.[19] The second component is the idea a person can acquire merit on behalf of someone else. Ott speaks of “the possibility of meriting for others”, and says, “the justified man can merit de congruo for others”.[20] It is not generally recognised that the Reformers’ based their forensic gospel on two Roman Catholic principles: the claims that good works have merit and that one person can earn merit for another. In an attempt to objectify the gospel the Reformers corrupted the gospel by applying the principle of meritum de condigno to the work of Christ.

Martin Chemnitz claimed that justification is not based upon grace only but on a synthesis of grace and merit. According to him Christ’s earthly works created merited grace and this merited grace then became the basis of a forgiveness based on Christ’s sufferings (or penance) and His earthly good works.

Faith justifies solely for this reason and on this account, that as a means and instrument it embraces God’s grace and the merit of Christ in the promise of the Gospel.[21]

Chemnitz’s thinking, which is intrinsically Roman Catholic, works this way. Our relationship to Christ is one of grace, but Christ’s relationship to God as our representative is one of merit. Christ presents the merit of His obedience to the Father on our behalf and in response to Christ’s merits God bestows the forgiveness of sins. In this synthesis of grace and merit free grace has been replaced by merited grace and the doctrine of meritum Christi becomes the central component of a strictly forensic gospel. As an orthodox Calvinist Archibald Hodge also promotes the concept of justification by merited grace.

[Christ’s] obedience merits an eternal reward for us … all we have to do is to accept and appropriate his finished substitutionary work, and to trust upon it as the legal and meritorious foundation on which our entire hope is built.[22]

The proponents of the Protestant teaching of salvation by merited grace retain the Catholic distinction between types of merit expressed by the Latin term’s satisfactio and meritum. Hodge admits Protestants make use of the Roman Catholic formula when they refer to the active and passive obedience of Christ.

The principle, which lies at the bottom of this distinction, was first discriminated by Thomas Aquinas, and by him denoted by the terms satisfacto and meritum. … Both the Lutheran and the Reformed Churches, recognising the validity of this distinction, have maintained [it] in their Confessions.[23]

In his commentary on Galatians Luther speaks of “the merit of Jesus Christ” and refers to the “redemption of Jesus Christ the Son of God, which is our rich and everlasting merit”.[24] He also says; “What Christ has merited for us is not only gratia, ‘grace’, but also donum, the ‘gift’ of the Holy Ghost.” In spite of references to the merits of Christ and one reference to merited gratia the Catholic concepts of meritum Christi and merited grace do not occur in Luther’s writings. Luther employs the term meritum Christi as a metaphor and not as hard currency in the sense that it generally occurs in Protestant Confessions. There is no evidence that Luther transferred the basis of forgiveness from free grace to merited grace in the sense that Melanchthon, Chemnitz and the later Lutherans and Calvinists did.

The Bible emphasises the fact that God forgives sinners. The doctrine of meritum Christi departs from this principle and teaches that in the final analysis God only forgives the obedient. The concept of meritum Christi rules out real forgiveness because forgiveness can only occur in the context of failure. Meritum Christi enshrines the principle of righteousness by works of the law. Regardless of who teaches it anyone who employs the concept of meritum Christi remains within the conceptual orbit of Roman Catholic error.

Both the Catholic and Protestant doctrine of justification replace free grace with a synthesis of grace and merit but their concepts are not identical. In Catholic teaching grace creates the means of acquiring merit. In Protestant teaching it is the reverse, imputed merit creates the conditions of grace. The Protestant concept that merit creates grace is as much error as the Catholic concept that grace creates merit.

In Catholic teaching meritum Christi places God under obligation to “recompense” the sinner. Ott writes,

Christ’s work of redemption is … meritorious, inasmuch as, on the one hand, it removes the relationship of guilt between humanity and God, and on the other, establishes a claim to recompense on the part of God.[25]

Speaking as a Protestant Hodge agrees with Ott. He says that when the sinner receives the imputation of Christ’s merits the blessings of the covenant are no longer bestowed as a gift but become entitlements.

Justification is a judicial act of God proceeding upon the fact that all the demands upon the persons concerned are satisfied, and it pronounces believers to be entitled to the rewards conditioned upon obedience to the law as a covenant of life.[26]

No sinner ever receives the forgiveness of sins because they become “entitled to the rewards conditioned upon obedience to the law” as Hodge claims. On the contrary, Paul taught that justification comes “apart from the Law”. (Romans 3:21) Isaiah 53:6 teaches we are forgiven because on the cross “the Lord has laid upon Him (Christ) the iniquity of us all”. According to Hebrews 10:12 we are forgiven because Christ “offered for all time one sacrifice for sins”. Obedience is very necessary, but it is not ever necessary as the grounds of forgiveness. When Christ died on the cross He abolished death for all who receive Him. When He was raised from the grave He secured immortality for all who receive Him. When He entered heaven into God’s presence He secured forgiveness for all who received Him. In biblical teaching it is the person of Christ, not His good works that saves us. In Roman Catholic teaching and the Protestant forensic gospel we are saved by Christ’s obedience when it is converted into merit.

The Latin Origin of the Forensic Gospel

Except for Luther (and John Wesley) the Reformers never gave up the Catholic concept that the merit of obedience justifies. All of them made use of the Catholic doctrine that merit could be transferred from one person to another. These Catholic beliefs remained the basic assumptions of Protestant thinking so that at its centre the forensic doctrine of justification became structured on Roman Catholic principles.

The term forensic comes from the Latin forum, meaning courtyard, the traditional place where justice was dispensed in ancient Rome. The adoption of the term “forensic” identifies Roman civil law as the source for the idea, which provides the forensic doctrine with its structure. It is now recognized that after Jewish Christianity lost its influence New Testament teaching has been reconstructed on Latin forms of thinking.

Alister McGrath writes,

The influence of Roman law over the world in which the early theology of the Latin-speaking church was forged made it inevitable that Roman understanding of the nature of justice would be projected onto the term as and when it occurred in the Holy Scriptures.[27]

The change from a Hebrew to a Latin perspective led to a false interpretation of biblical words. McGrath says,

It is a well-established fact that the vocabulary of Christian theology contained a number of important concepts which originate from a Hebraic context, and whose transference to that of western Europe resulted in shifts of meaning which have quite unacceptable theological consequences. The Hebrew terms sdq and sdqh provide an excellent example of the phenomenon. The Hebrew root morpheme sdq is theological, rather than a secular term, which frequently assumes strongly soteriological overtones which simply cannot be conveyed by the mere substitution of iustitia at its every occurrence … The most appropriate designation of the Hebrew terms sdq or sdqh is that of iustitia salutifera: God, in His righteousness, acts to redeem and sustain His people. The Hebrew terms simply cannot bear the meaning, characteristic of western thought, of iustitia distributiva, as it is encapsulated in the Ciceronian thought.”[28]

Latin theology portrayed God as an automated dispenser of distributive justice. A G Herbert says: “The Reformation was far more than a mere protest against abuses. It was an endeavour to deliver the Christendom of the West from the dominion of a system, which had entangled the gospel of salvation in a rationalised theology and moralistic ethic”.[29] Herbert points out that Melanchthon’s borrowed imagery from Roman law locked Protestantism into the same legalistic view of God as Roman Catholicism.

Melanchthon led the people back into Egypt. The Protestant Churches had not, after all, found the way of deliverance from Babylonish captivity; Protestant orthodoxy was as legalistic as medieval scholasticism, and Christianity was as hopelessly in bondage as before.[30]

Gustaf Aulen book Christus Victor may not be an entirely accurate interpretation of Luther’s teachings but he is correct in saying that Melanchthon’s forensic gospel bears all the features of “the typically Latin idea of penance”.[31] Aulen says, “Melanchthon’s reintroduction of the Aristotelian philosophy brought his thoughts at once into line with medieval scholasticism”.[32] Melanchthon did challenge Catholic opinion at certain points but his concept of forgiveness by vicarious merit represents unadulterated Roman Catholic teaching and is in serious conflict with the Bible. As a Catholic Melanchthon believed that we are saved by Christ’s merits. As a Protestant his thinking had not changed. In his Apology he says, “to believe means to trust in Christ’s merits”.[33] It is standard Roman Catholic teaching to claim that salvation is made possible by the “merits” of Christ. Scripture speaks of the “grace” of Christ, but never the “merits” of Christ.

Melanchthon taught that when a sinner acquired Christ’s merits they became righteous before the law. The idea of the sinners themselves becoming righteous, albeit vicariously, was a radical break from Luther’s concept of the justification of the ungodly by an alien righteousness. Luther believed the sinner was forgiven, as a sinner, not made legally perfect in order that they may be forgiven. McGrath says, “Luther refused to allow that man could be said to become righteous in justification: If anything, he merely became increasingly aware of his unrighteousness, and was thus driven back to the cross to seek forgiveness”.[34] Melanchthon abandoned Luther’s core idea that forgiveness is God’s response to failure.

According to McGrath Luther believed the scholastic view of justice had “the most appalling theological ramifications when applied analogically to God, in that it led to a doctrine of the justification of the godly”.[35] McGrath rightly claims philosophers, jurists, and theologians ”employed a concept of iustitia which, when applied to God, destroyed the gospel message of a free forgiveness of sinners”.[36] He explains how Melanchthon’s use of legal imagery caused him to abandoned Luther’s original teachings.

In view of Melanchthon’s importance in establishing a forensic concept of justification as normative within Protestantism, it is appropriate to consider his contributions on this point. … [T]he 1523 Annotationes in Evangelium Iohannis develops the idea that justification involves a personal union between Christ and the believer. This contrasts significantly with his later emphasis upon the more abstract concept of the works of Christ associated with his forensic concept of justification, which becomes particularly evident from his writings dating from after 1530.

Whereas Luther consistently employed images and categories of personal relationships to describe the union of Christ and the believer, … Melanchthon increasingly employed images and categories drawn from the sphere of Roman law.[37]

Melanchthon made the Latin legal term acceptilation the model for his concept of justification. McGrath says,

‘Acceptilation’ is a Roman legal term, referring to the purely verbal remission of debt, as if the debt had been paid – whereas, in fact, it has not. … Melanchthon frequently uses classical legal analogies and categories in his discussion of theological concepts. … he could hardly have failed to notice the forensic implication of ‘imputation’ as the purely verbal remission of sin, without … the prior or concomitant renewal of the sinner.[38]

The term acceptilation may have been useful as an analogy to demonstrate the gratuitous nature of forgiveness but Melanchthon’s mistake was that he turned the legal structure invested in acceptilation into a method of justification. In that process he rejected the real break-through in medieval thinking made by Luther that God justifies real sinners. In Luther’s teachings the sinner loses their identity in Christ and the personal sinful condition is hidden from the law. In Melanchthon’s teaching the sinner is supplied with merit, which then equates as personal righteousness. This merit becomes the basis of acquittal within the framework of a fictitious legal process. Melanchthon has no justification of sinners. For him justification is recognition of an existing merit supplied by Christ. According to Melanchthon, at bottom, we are justified by the good works we performed in Christ. Such an idea does not exist in Scripture.

A A Hodge distinctly expresses the commercial nature of a forensic concept of justification. He says Christ’s law keeping was a meritorious satisfaction of justice that possessed real purchasing power.

The Lord Jesus, by His perfect obedience and sacrifice of Himself, … hath fully satisfied the justice of the Father; and purchased[39] not only reconciliation, but an eternal inheritance in the kingdom of heaven.

Where exactly is it taught in the Bible that justification consists of satisfying the principle of “justice” by an offering of merit? Forensic justification parallels the pagan practice Paul speaks of in Colossians of placating the stoicheia by a ritualistic observance of law.[40] In spite of a use of evangelical language the forensic gospel teaches that access to eternal life has been made possible because the “merits” of Christ have “purchased” grace. If that is not Roman Catholic teaching in an unadulterated form, what is?

Free Grace and Merited Grace

In his letters to the Galatians and Colossians Paul confronted a syncretic religion composed of a union of pagan and Christian ideas. This syncretic religion involved the cultic observance of food laws and the keeping of sabbaths dedicated to astral deities and the observance of “days and months and seasons and years” which involved enslavement to cosmic powers.[41] It is rather striking that Paul found the most offensive element in this pagan perversion of Christianity in the idea that law keeping is an appropriate means of approaching God. Paul condemned law keeping whenever it was employed as a means of approaching deity. He opposed rabbinic Judaism because it used the law to gain favour with God. He opposed his own Gentile converts who employed a perverted cultic use of the law to placate the astral powers. In each case, however, the fault was in the misuse of law and not the law itself. Paul is clear, law keeping, in any context, is not a legitimate means of approaching God. Paul’s problem is not with law as a revelation of divine will, what he opposed is the idea that law keeping mediates grace.

Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.[42]

We need to understand Paul’s position. The principle of righteousness “apart from observing the law” is the basis, not merely of our relationship to God, but more importantly, of God’s relationship to the world.

Martin Chemnitz’s was making distinct Catholic noises when he claimed that Christ merited forgiveness by His obedience then offered the merits of His obedience as a means of securing grace. He writes:

Faith justifies solely for this reason … it embraces God’s grace and the merits of Christ.[43] With respect to Christ, therefore, who makes satisfaction to the law for us, it is redemption, merit, and righteousness; but with respect to us it is grace or undeserved mercy.[44]

In Chemnitz thinking Christ merits our forgiveness and then offers it to us as an act of grace. Archibald Hodge thinks likewise, he claims Christ’s law keeping is the “meritorious foundation” of the whole gospel.

[Christ’s] obedience merits an eternal reward for us … all we have to do is to accept and appropriate his finished substitutionary work, and to trust upon it implicitly as the legal and meritorious foundation on which our entire hope is built.[45]

There are four elements to the Catholic doctrine of merit. At the bottom there is the merit of the individual acquired by sacramental grace. Then there is the merit of the saints, the merits of Mary and at the top the merits of Christ. Reformation theologians rejected only three of the four elements in the Catholic doctrine of merit Reformation theologians retained the Catholic doctrine of meritum Christi by teaching that the merit acquired by Christ’s obedience creates the grace of forgiveness. If the concept of merited grace is heretical when taught by Roman Catholic’s why is it less heretical when taught by Protestants?

Justification and the Righteousness of God in the Writings of Paul

Rudolf Bultmann claimed; “to the Christian faith the Old Testament is no longer revelation as it has been. … It is not in the true sense God’s Word”.[46] But Paul says righteousness by faith is “witnessed by the law and the prophets”.[47] Reginal Fuller says; “the New Testament is the reassertion of the authentic Old Testament tradition over against the rabbinic distortion of it”.[48] This means terms like “justification” and the “righteousness of God” needs to be interpreted by the Old Testament. If we are ignorant of Old Testament terms in their original context we cannot understand their meanings in the writings of Paul.

James Barr points out that the fundamental distinction between Hebrew and Greek thought is “the contrast between static and dynamic thinking.”[49] This fact brings us to the heart of the matter. The forensic gospel interprets justification as a static legal status. However, in biblical usage justification is an action word that describes a concrete redemptive activity. The biblical writers thought in dynamic terms and used visual descriptions to express their ideas. Harold Weiss writes; “For the Hebrews, righteousness could only be conceived of by observing actual manifestations of it in concrete action”.[50]

When Paul speaks of justification his focus is on an activity of God that had redemptive consequences for the believer. He does not use the term justification passively to describe the believer’s formal legal status.

Reginald Fuller points out the New Testament writers gave Greek words a new content. “Greek words were violently twisted in order to convey the biblical revelation”.[51] Vincent Taylor says; “It is for this reason that lexical enquires contribute so little to the determining of the Pauline conceptions”.[52] David Hill says that although Paul used the term dikaiosune theos “there is nothing in Greek thought lastingly comparable to the righteousness of God.”[53] Paul’s use of the term the righteousness of God reflects the dynamics of a Hebrew perspective. He employs the term justification in a soteric sense to convey dynamic meanings.

Norman Snaith points out that the Hebrew concept of tsedeq “is quite different from the Greek dikaiosune of the philosophers. Tsedeq is something that happens here and can be seen, and recognised, and known. It follows, therefore, that when a Hebrew thought of tsedeq, (righteousness), … he thought of a particular righteous act, an action concrete, capable of exact description, fixed in time and space. He could take note of tsedeq actually happening”.[54] David Hill says, “righteousness in Hebrew thinking … is a concrete and experienced thing.”[55] Paul thought of God’s righteousness as the power of God operating in human affairs. “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation … for in it the righteousness of God is revealed.”[56] Being justification is Paul’s term to describe the operational effects of God’s power as an event and to be justified in biblical terms is “a concrete and experienced thing.”

Paul often identified justification with the work of the Spirit. He writes; “you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God”.[57] Paul parallels the “renewing by the Spirit” with being “justified by His grace.”[58] He speaks of victory over sin as a justification from sin; ”he who has died is justified from sin”.[59] When Paul spoke of Christ being “justified in the Spirit” he had in mind the resurrection and of Christ being “taken up in glory.”[60] In Romans and Titus justification is a demonstration of divine power in the inner life. Justification is God’s power manifested in the resurrection of Christ.[61] For Paul justification is not something verbal, it is a dynamic manifestation of God’s power in a saving event. The concept of justification as a demonstration of God’s power is demonstrated in the Psalms.

I will proclaim Your righteousness … and to this day I declare Your marvellous deeds. … Your righteousness reaches to the sky, O God, You who have done great things. – they will tell of Your mighty acts …They will tell of the power of Your awesome works … and joyfully sing of Your righteousness. They recite the righteous acts of the Lord … I am going to confront you with the evidence before the Lord as to all the righteous acts performed by the Lord for you.[62]

The term righteousness by faith occurs five times in Paul’s writings, and there are eight references to the righteousness of God. These two expressions are merely abbreviations of “a righteousness of God through faith”[63]. Both terms are generic and cover the full range of the scope and meaning of salvation.

The imagery behind righteousness by faith in Romans 4:9-13 is the experience of Abraham who believed God would empower his body so he could father a son.[64] What legal process is involved in physical empowerment? Not one illustration of righteousness by faith in Hebrews 11 involves judicial procedure. Noah was declared righteousness because he built an ark. Is boat building a forensic exercise?

The content of righteousness by faith varies in different contexts. In Romans 4:3 righteousness by faith is employed in a relation sense and it means that God approved of Abraham’s conduct. In Galatians 5:5 the righteousness of faith has a soteric meaning and is resurrection from the dead made possible by union with the Spirit. Righteousness by faith points to something we now possess and to something for which we “wait” and will not possess until the parousia. Paul says; “we through the Spirit, by faith, are waiting[65] If we already have righteousness by faith and yet are waiting to receive righteousness by faith in the future this means righteousness by faith cannot be limited to a past forgiveness but must also embrace a future dimension in salvation that we have for the hope of righteousness.”not yet experienced.

Righteousness by faith in its full scope includes the forgiveness of sins, spiritual renewal and the glorification and immortality at the second coming.

Jesus said when the Spirit comes, ”I will come to you”[66]. Paul made the same identification. He taught that union with Christ in the Spirit provides our access to God. “[F]or through Him (Christ) we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father.”[67] Paul taught that to be “in Christ” is the work of the Spirit; “you were sealed in Him by the Holy Spirit[68]. “For by one Spirit we were all baptised into one body.”[69] “There is one body and one Spirit.”[70] What these texts are saying is that it is Christ coming to us personally in the Spirit who provides the identity of our being “in Christ”. It is the “Spirit of adoption” who establishes our union with Christ.[71] Paul often linked the Spirit to forgiveness. “But if you are led by the Spirit you are not under the law.”[72] In Paul’s teachings forgiveness is restricted to those who receive the Spirit. He says: “If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ he does not belong to Him”.[73] According to Paul Christ and the Spirit represent one undivided presence of God. That is why he referred to Christ as, “the Lord, the Spirit” because the Spirit conveys Christ to us.[74] Paul linked justification to Christ and the Spirit; He says, “you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.”[75]

Because divinity is indivisible every union with deity is a trinitarian action. That means it is not possible to make either an ontological or an existential distinction between the presence of Christ and the presence of the Spirit. Peter shows that outside the context of the incarnation Christ makes His approach to humanity as the Spirit.[76] James Dunn speaks of the unity between Christ and the Spirit; “so far as the religious experience of Christians is concerned Jesus and the Spirit are no different. The risen Christ may not be experienced independently of the Spirit”.[77] Calvin captured Paul’s idea when he wrote,

[U]ntil our minds are intent on the Spirit, Christ is in a manner unemployed, because we view him coldly without us, and so at a distance from us. Now we know that He is of no avail save only to those … who are clothed with Him. To this union alone it is owing that, in regards to us, the Saviour has not come in vain. … for it is by the Spirit alone that He unites us to Himself, by which we become bone of His bone, and flesh of His flesh, and so are one with Him (Eph. 5:30), for it is by the Spirit alone that He unites Himself to us.  By the same grace and energy of the Spirit we become His members, so that he keeps us under Him, and we in our turn possess him.[78]

According to Paul the believer receives forgiveness by becoming one entity with Christ in the Spirit. In justification a union occurs in which two personalities merge into a single dynamic organism that Paul labels “the body of Christ”. From this it ought to be clear that it is not imputed obedience but a bonding in the Spirit that causes the believer to be identified with Christ.y with Him. James Denny had every reason to write, “To say that the relations of God and man are forensic … is a travesty of truth”.[79] When the Spirit makes us one with Christ His death becomes our death on the basis of an actual solidarit

While forgiveness involves union with Christ through the Spirit the” fruits of the Spirit” are never a basis for forgiveness. Paul’s gospel of righteousness “apart from the law” is illustrated in the ministry of Jesus. On one occasion the Pharisees brought a sinner to Christ who had been caught “in the very act” of adultery. After He confronted the Pharisees with their own hypocrisy Jesus turned to the woman and asked; “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you? And she said, No one Lord. And Jesus said, neither do I condemn you; go your way; from now on sin no more”.[80] What is the picture here? Did Christ have to first impute His “merits” to the woman in order to make it legal for Him to forgive her? No. He confronted a sinner in sin and He gave her the unadorned word of pardon. No legal process involved, there was no forensic imputation, only an authoritative word of pardon empowered by Christ’s presence.

Conclusion

According to the forensic gospel the law acknowledges our vicarious obedience and we are pronounced righteous on account of that obedience. However in Paul’s description our condemnation is eliminated because “you were made dead to the law” and the law registers our death. There is no use of legal trickery to misrepresent the sinner as having perfectly kept the law. Rather, our sinful life is covered by Christ and hidden from the law. Paul says, “For you have died and your life is hid with Christ in God”.[81]

The conceptual distinctions between the teachings of Paul and the forensic gospel are clear. The forensic gospel teaches we are forgiven because the law acknowledges our vicarious righteousness. Paul teaches that the law acknowledges our death. The forensic gospel teaches that we are presented to the law covered by an imputed perfection. Paul teaches that we are hidden from the law in Christ. Paul teaches that forgiveness is not based on an external imputation but on a union with Christ in the Spirit. He says, “you were sealed in Him by the Spirit” and “we have our access in one Spirit to the Father.” (x)

Paul’s gospel makes no use of fake obedience. When the sinner is condemned by their own conscience they are led to call out in desperate unbelief, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” God hears that cry because He prompted it. To the one that desires faith but has none He imparts faith to heart. The gift of faith is no mere impartation of a virtue. Christ imparts faith by creating a living connection between the sinner and Himself. Through that union His own faith in God is poured into us in order to become our faith in God. Christ in us shares with us with His vision of God. In this dynamic union with Christ God is presented to a trouble conscience as a God who forgives real sinners. Against the backdrop of an imperfect faith and fractured obedience, which is all a sinner can offer, God bestows a forgiveness that guarantees eternal life. Let us make it know therefore, that in forgiveness the greater the moral collapse the more God is glorified by an unmerited pardon. Jesus’ enemies got it right: “this man receives sinners”.

In the heavenly realm there is an absolute directive that governs the universe but it is not a legislated code. There are no written articles that specify conduct. There is only a heavenly Torah, which is not juristic legislation but the spoken word of the Creator. Before sin humanity was not subjected to written law. According to the creation story the first human beings regulated their life by the spoken word of Yahweh.[82] In the kingdom to come it will be as it was before. There will be moral order but in the prescriptive sense that we understand law, heaven will be law free. In the higher realm there is no consciousness that life is subjected to law. And that is why the idea of merit is unknown in heaven. The concept of merit requires a particular type of mental structure; it requires a perception that life is controlled by rules. That kind of structure is not found in heavenly places, it exists only in the fallen world.

There is no forgiveness without a personal union with Christ in the Spirit. Union with Christ in the Spirit is a union that is grounded in the deepest recesses of the human personality. This union is modelled on the words of Jesus in John 17:21 “that they may all be one, just as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You, that they also may be in us.” It is expressed in Paul’s terms “Christ in you the hope of glory”. (     ) In such a union Christ becomes the origin of a new existence in which the believer shares inwardly in terms of will Christ’s own devotion to God. The goal of the gospel the faith of Christ reproduced in every believer.

There is no such thing as salvation by meritum Christi. The Bible knows nothing of the belief that God could be placated by an offering of merit. Any gospel that is based on fake perfection and legal trickery and that teaches salvation by a synthesis of grace and merit presents a perverted view of God.

Appendix A

The Catholic/Protestant Doctrine of Satisfaction

In his book Christus Victor Gustaf Aulen cites Tertullian to show the concept of salvation by merit had an early beginning. In the third century Tertullian wrote,
How absurd it is, to leave the penance unperformed, and yet expect forgiveness of sins! What is it but to fail to pay the price, and nevertheless, to stretch out the hand for the benefit? The Lord has ordained that forgiveness is to be granted for this price: He wills that the remission of the penalty is to be purchased for the payment which penance makes.[83]

Aulen demonstrates from Cyprian’s writings that in the third century Christians began to apply the concept of supererogatoria or excess merit to the work of Christ, and treated the atonement as a satsifaction rendered to God. Cyprian taught that the sinner’s relationship to God is a legal status based on justice.

Since God as Judge watches over the exercise and maintenance of justice, which for Him is the greatest care of all, and since He regulated His government with a view to justice, how can there be any room for doubt that, as in general with reference to all our acts, so also here with reference to repentance, God must act according to justice.[84]

Aulen describes what happened when the early Christians adopted this legalistic view of God.

This point of view, of a legal relationship between two parties, is now used to interpret the work of Christ; by His passion and death He earns an excess of merit, and this is paid to God as satisfaction or compensation. We have then here the whole essence of the Latin idea of atonement [85]

The doctrine of atonement by the satisfaction of justice focused on God’s attributes rather than on God Himself. Aluen says the Latin concept of atonement ”concentrates its efforts upon a rational attempt to explain how the Divine Love and Divine Justice can be reconciled.”[86] It was held that the reconciliation of justice and mercy is only partially possible by satisfying the demands of justice for retribution. In the Latin interpretation of atonement the satisfaction rendered to God by penal punishment must additionally be complimented by the meritum acquired by the fulfilment of the positive claims of justice. This scheme requires the merit of Christ’s death and the merit of His obedience to make the atonement. This means that Christ’s death needed to be supplemented by His good works in order for an atonement to occur.

Martin Luther opposed the principle of satisfactio and identified it as the source of all Catholic error.

And this matter satisfactio, “satisfaction”, is the source and origin, the door and entrance, to all the abominations of the papacy. … Had the notion of satisfaction not arisen, then indulgences, pilgrimages, brotherhoods, masses, purgatory, monasteries, convents, and most abomination would not have been invented, and the papacy would not have grown so rich and fat.[87]

Luther complained: “We have thought that we are not to trust God until we are righteous and have made satisfaction for our sins, as though we could buy God’s grace from him or pay him for it.”[88] Unfortunately Luther’s followers retreated to the belief that penal satisfaction merited forgiveness. They came to believe God must first make sinners vicariously righteous so that He could offer forgiveness based on a fake perfection. In spite of Luther’s assertion that the principle of satisfactio “is the source and origin … to all the abomination of the papacy” Martin Chemnitz promoted the Catholic view that God saves by merit.

Satisfaction is required for sins. [The Catholic principle] … Therefore He (Jesus) took on Himself in the place and in the name of all the satisfaction for sins. … in order that the power and efficacy of satisfaction and fulfilment might be infinite and sufficient for the whole world. … we are redeemed and justified by a foreign satisfaction and righteousness. God made the transfer of the law to another person … who would fulfil the law both by satisfaction and obedience for the whole human race.[89]

Chemnitz speaks of “the power and efficacy of satisfaction” in reference to the purchasing power of merit.  In the forensic gospel forgiveness is not free, according to Archibald Hodge it is a reward for good works.

Justification is a judicial act of God preceding upon the fact that all the demands of law upon the persons concerned are satisfied, and it entitles the believers to be entitled to the rewards conditioned upon obedience to the law as a covenant of life.[90]

How is the law tricked into confusing the obedience of one person for the obedience of another? According to Hodge the law is not so much tricked as it is temporally suspended in order that the switch can take place.

[Because] a vicarious satisfaction [has been] rendered by another hand it is necessary that there should intervene a sovereign act of the supreme lawgiver, which, with respect to the law is called relaxation, but with respect to the debtor is called remission.[91]

A forensic gospel requires some tampering with the law in order for its idea to work. The concept that Christ Himself is our ”guilt offering” is sound biblical teaching.[92] However, the concept we are justified by the legal substitution of Christ’s earthly obedience when it is converted into merit is error. Chemnitz argued that Christ took our “law place”, and that “God made the transfer of the law to another person”.[93] If the law has the plastic properties Chemnitz claimed then as a moral standard the law is worthless.

In forgiveness God makes an honest estimation of who we are and what we are not. He bestows an honest pardon. He does not pretend we obeyed because He knows our past and present failings. Even our future sins are open to Him. We have no perfection and God does not pretend that we do. In forgiveness God does not count it that we never sinned. He simply treats us as though we had never sinned. Any pardon based on a fake perfection and character substitution is based on lies, and is error no matter who teaches it. God recognises that we are ungodly, but He forgives us anyway. Scripture says,

Christ died for the ungodly.

While we were yet sinners Christ died for us.

While we were enemies we were reconciled to God.

But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been manifested.


[1]Luke 18:13 All Bible quotes, Old Testament , NIV, New Testament , NASB

[2] Romans 3:21, 4:5, 5:8

[3]W E Vine Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words art. Righteousness

[4] Romans 5:10

[5]Archibald Hodge The Atonement, Baker Book House, 1974  p.77

[6]Hodge Ibid p.36

[7]Ibid p.222

[8]Ibid p.244

[9]Martin Chemnitz Examination of the Council of Trent Concordia Publishing House (Art.VII,2) p.499

[10]Galatians 2:21

[11]The Ante Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson Vol.VI, p.43 Eerdmans

[12]W Klassen Coals of Fire: Sign of Repentance or Revenge, New Testament Studies 9, 162-63, p. 349

[13]G C Berkouwer Faith and Justification Eerdmans 1954 p.19

[14]Tuomo Mannerma Union with Christ, Eerdmans, 1998, p.11

[15]See Alister McGrath Iustitia Dei Cambridge University Press Vol.2. p.45

[16]Martin Chemnitz Examination of the Council of Trent Concordia Publishing Company pp. 471, 472

[17]Alister McGrath, Iustitia Dei, Cambridge University Press 1986, Vol.1, pp. 14,15

[18]Ludwig Ott Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma Tan Books 1960 p.177

[19]Ibid p.265

[20]Ibid p.269

[21]Martin Chemnitz Formula of Concord Concordia Publishing Company p.547

[22]Hodge ibid pp.230,231

[23]Hodge ibid p.253

[24]Galatians James Clark and Co. 1953 p.360

[25]Ott ibid p.189

[26]Hodge ibid p.222

[27]Alister McGrath Theology of the Cross Basil Blackwell 1985 p.101

[28]Ibid pp. 100,101

[29]Translator’s preface Gustataf Aulen, Christus Victor, SCM 1970, p.xxv

[30]Ibid

[31]Gustaf Aulen Christus Victor SCM 1970 p.78

[32]Ibid p.124

[33]Melanchthon Apology to the Augsburg Confession Art. IV Justification, 69

[34]Alister McGrath Luther’s Theology of the Cross Basil Blackwell 1985 p.135

[35]Ibid p.112

[36]Ibid p.140

[37]McGrath Iustitia Dei Vol. 2, pp.23,24

[38]McGrath ibid p.32

[39]A A Hodge ibid p.295

[40]Colossians  2:16-22

[41]Colossians 2:16-23

[42]Romans 3:27,28

[43]Formula of Concord Art. III, 43

[44]Examination of the Council of Trent, Art.VII, 5,

[45]Archibald Hodge, The Atonement, Baker Book House 1974 pp.230,231

[46]R Bultmann, ‘The Old Testament and the Christian Faith, ed. B W Anderson, N.Y. 1963, p.31f.

[47]Romans 3:21

[48]Reginal Fuller, The Book of the Acts of God, Duckworth, 1960 p.169

[49]James Barr The Semantics of Biblical Language, Oxford University Press, 1961 p.10

[50]Harold Weiss, Paul of Tarsus Andrews University Press 1989, p47

[51]Reginal Fuller, The Books of the Acts of God, Duckworth, 1960, p.179

[52]Vincent Taylor, Forgiveness and Reconciliation, p.35

[53] David Hill Greek Words and Hebrew Meanings Cambridge University Press 1967 p.103

[54]Norman Snaith, The Distinctive Ideas of the Old Testament, Schoken Books, 1964 p.77

[55] ibid p.103

[56] Romans 1:17

[57] 1 Corinthians 6:11

[58] Titus 3:5-7

[59] Romans 6:7

[60] 2 Timothy 3:16

[61] Romans 1:4

[62]Psalms 71:16,17,19, Psalms 145:4,6,7, Judges 5:11, 1Samuel 12:7

[63]Romans 3:22

[64]See also Genesis 15:2-6

[65] Galatians 5:5

[66]John 14:18

[67] Ephesians 2:18

[68] Ephesians 1:13

[69] 1 Corinthians 12:13

[70] Ephesians 4:4

[71] Romans 8:15

[72] Galatians 5:18

[73] Romans 8:9

[74] 2 Corinthians 3:18

[75] 1 Corinthians 6:11

[76]See I Peter 1:11, 1Peter 3:18,19

[77]James Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit, SCM 1975, p.323

[78] Institutes of the Christian Religion Bk 3, Chap. 1, 3

[79]James Denny The Atonement and the Modern Mind, Hodder and Stoughton 1903 p.46.

[80]John 8:10,11

[81]Colossians 3:3

[82] Genesis 2:16,17

[83]Aulen p.81

[84]Ibid

[85]Ibid

[86]Ibid p.156

[87]Luther’s Works Concordia Publishing House Vol.41:199

[88]LW, Vol.35:42

[89]Chemnitz Examination of the Council of Trent Art. VII, 2.

[90]Hodge ibid p.222

[91]Hodge ibid p.36

[92]Isaiah 53:10

[93]Chemnitz ibid

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  1. Resources for Psalms 71:16 - 17 said, on February 17, 2012 at 11:47 am

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