victor christensen's blog

Imputed Righteousness and the Forensic Gospel

Posted in Uncategorized by victorchristensen on May 14, 2010

(Part One)

Peter Wilenski – Victor Christensen


According to what the Bible teaches nobody is forgiven by the cross alone without the resurrection.

The resurrection is God’s verdict that Jesus’ death is accepted as an atoning sacrifice. This does not take anything away from the cross but shows that Jesus has abolished death for all who believe in Him. Our justification required that Jesus survive death and His resurrection from the grave proves it.

There was no forgiveness when Jesus was on the cross, it was only possible when He rose from the dead.

Luther said Jesus’ “resurrection from dead is our justification.”1 He said also, “In His sufferings Christ made our sins known and was crucified for them. By His resurrection He makes us righteous and frees from all sin.”2 (1WA 39:2; 237, 25, 2The Sermons of Martin Luther, Vol.2 p.185)

If Jesus did nothing more than die on the cross it would mean death had conquered Him and not that He had conquered death. The resurrection as proof of Jesus’ victory over death is central to the atonement.

“If Christ has not been raised your faith is worthless you are still in your sins.”(1 Corinthians15:17)


Just recently I read a story about Samuel Huber. Huber started out as a Calvinist in Switzerland but because he disagreed with the doctrine of limited atonement he joined the Lutherans in Germany and got posted to the University of Wittenberg in 1592. At first Huber made the right noises which kept the Lutherans happy but after a time he began to teach the doctrine of universal justification in the same format Desmond Ford has been teaching it for forty years.

Huber offended the Lutherans by saying that when Jesus died on the cross everyone was justified “whether they believed or not.” The Lutherans limited justification to faith in Jesus whereas Huber believed in a corporate justification of unbelievers that occurred once for all on the cross.

The Wittenberg theologians noticed a serious flaw in Huber’s teachings. Huber’s doctrine of justification was divided into two movements,  God’s approach to the sinner and the sinner’s approach to God. In Huber’s doctrine of universal justification although God pronounced universal forgiveness the heavenly decree remains suspended until each sinner ratifies their own forgiveness by their acceptance of it. The Lutherans soon saw that in this theory it is the sinner and not God who ultimately determines whether divine forgiven becomes a reality or not.

The Lutherans saw in universal justification a betrayal of the gospel because it meant that God’s proclamation of forgiveness is rendered ineffective unless the sinner empowers it by accepting it.

“Huber’s opponents discovered that the kind of individual justification that Huber confessed … was a move from man toward God, whereby the individual applied to himself the benefits of the once-forever event.” Because of this they concluded; “No real divine justification took place.”

What worried the theologians at Wittenberg was that Huber’s universal justification gave the sinner the power to neutralize the word of God. If God declares I am forgiven and I have the power to negate the word of God or make it effective by my choice I have power to save myself.

Jesus taught that every unbeliever is to be told “God’s wrath remains on him” until they believe.

“Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.” (John 3:36) It ought to be obvious if the wrath of God “remains” on an individual because they do not believe it is on them for the entire time they do not believe.


In order to be forgiven we must have faith in Jesus (John 8:24), be “born-again” (John 3:7) “keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17) and not “deliberately keep on sinning” (Hebrews 10:26)  Job says, “If I sin, You take note of me, and would not acquit me of my guilt.” (10:14)

Dietrich Bonheoffer identifies a problem in religion that has existed from the very beginning.

“Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of our church. Our struggle today is for costly grace. … Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. … Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”


The concept of the forensic gospel in its popular format contains two errors. The first is universal justification on the cross, the second is justification by the “merits” of Christ. These concepts are linked to a theory of “imputed righteousness” that is based on righteousness by works and surrogate legalism.

In Scholastic Calvinism the terms “active and passive obedience” of Christ, “merits of Christ” and “imputed righteousness” are all derived from the concept that Adam in Eden lived under the regime of righteousness by works which Calvinists call the “covenant of works.”According to them;

“The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam, and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.” (Westminster Confession, chap.7)

When Adam disrupted his relationship to God Calvinists believe Jesus took Adam’s “law place” and by fulfilling the requirements of the “covenant of works” He restored mankind to favour with God on the basis of His accumulated “merits.” In  their gospel Jesus’ presents His “merits” to God and “purchased” our forgiveness based on the fact we perfectly fulfilled the “covenant of works” in Jesus our substitute.

“Justification is ultimately by works, the works of Jesus Christ! They are received by the justified sinner as his own works. Christ justified His people by His works as their works; works done by them in their Substitute.” (John Gerstner, Justification is by Works in One Sense,

“[Christ’s] obedience merits an eternal reward for us … all we have to do is to accept it as the legal and meritorious foundation on which our hope is built.” ( AA Hodge, The Atonement, pp.230,231)

According to John Gill “imputation” involves an ontological reassessment of our inner workings; “not only the active obedience of Christ … but also the holiness of his human nature is imputed to us for justification.” (Sermon 37: The Doctrine of Justification, (Auburn, Ages Software: 2002, CD ROM) p.11)

If we are justified by our perfect obedience in Jesus we are justified by law because we kept the law and not by faith “apart from the Law” (Romans 3:21) or “by faith apart from works.” (3:28)  and “apart from works.” (4:6) Paul says; “If by grace it is not on the basis of works, otherwise grace is not grace.” (11:6)

According to Paul the doctrine of justification by “imputed obedience” makes Jesus’ death unnecessary. “If righteousness comes through the Law then Christ died needlessly.” (Galatians 2:21) If Jesus’ imputed His sinless life to the people before the cross there was no need for the cross because it was not necessary for Jesus to die for a people already “imputed” to be sinless.

We are not saved by the obedience of Christ or His merits but because we receive Jesus in the context of a personal relationship. To the extent the forensic gospel denies this it is a dumb idea.


The concept that forgiveness can be merited is not an aberration within Calvinism, it comes straight from the top. “Christ by his obedience purchased and merited grace for us with the Father.” (Inst.bk.2,17 sec.3) Since this is so the Calvinist concept of the gospel from its very beginnings has been a parody.

If forgiveness is a thing that can be “purchased” the one who is selling it does not deserve our respect.

In a context in which we offer nothing to God and receive everything from Him as a free gift any introduction of the concept of merit either on our side or even God’s side is a total perversion of truth.

Even though faith requires an act of the will and  involves a movement towards God its primary function is a surrender of our entire being to the mercy of God.  Faith is receptive before it becomes productive.

There is an intellectual component  and insight into history which requires an assertive faith response to Jesus yet even here faith is more an inward surrender than actually doing something. At the point where forgiveness takes place we are taking something in rather than giving something out. Ours is the prayer “God be merciful to me a sinner” and as we hand over our sense of hopelessness to Jesus He reaches out to lifts us up. Faith enables us to create a void so that Jesus can fill our emptiness with Himself.

To introduce the concept of merit into this context is an appalling perversion of the doctrine of free grace.


Calvin’s statement about  merit is a critical piece of evidence that demonstrates the fallacy of the forensic gospel. The proof of heresy in his teachings is found in Calvin’s use of the term “merited grace.”

The concept of salvation by merit appears in the writings of Tertullian as early as the third century. The terminology and modelling may vary at times but the theory of salvation by merit remains the same.

Tertullian shows that salvation by merit has a long history. “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 to stretch out the hand for the benefit? The Lord has ordained that … remission of the penalty is to be purchased for the payment which penance makes.” (De Pcenitentia, ch.6. cited Gustaf Aulen, Christus Victor p.81)

Whereas the concept of salvation by merit predates the Roman Catholic Church and Protestantism by hundreds of years the actual distinction between the “active” and “passive” obedience of Christ as a theological formula has its foundations in the writing of Thomas Aquinas who live in the 13th century.

In his History of Christian Doctrines (Vol.2, p.310) William Shedd makes the following observation.

“Aquinas … makes the technical distinction between the satisfaction which Christ made by his sufferings to justice, and the merit of his obedience to the law. … In other words, we find in the theory of Aquinas an anticipation of the later distinction between the ‘active’ and ‘passive’ righteousness of Christ.”

In an encyclical letter in 1879 Pope Leo xiii cited Aquinas’ theology as the “definitive exposition of Catholic doctrine.” At the First Vatican Council in 1868 Pope Pius ix cited Aquinas as the “teacher of the church.” Aquinas is the architect of classical Roman Catholic theology. It was Aquinas who quantified the active and passive obedience of Christ into different types of merit.

The terms “active” and “passive” obedience of Christ and justification by the “merits of Christ” (meritum christi) was created by Thomas Aquinas to explain the central elements in Roman Catholic teachings.

The following are a few of the many hundreds of examples that could be given as proof of this.

“Christ merited for us to be justified.”1 “It is God’s will that no one is forgiven except through the merits of Jesus Christ.”2 “Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ.”3 “Salvation can be acquired only by the grace merited by Christ.”4 (1Council of Trent, Chap. VII, Canons X, XXXII, 2John Hardon SJ, The Question and Answer Catholic Catechism (Doubleday, 1981) p.461, 3Catechism of the Catholic Church 1992, 4Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Tan Books, 1974), p. 185)

When Calvinist John Gerstner declares, “justification is ultimately by works, the works of Jesus Christ” he was teaching Catholic error. When AA Hodge wrote, Christ’s “obedience merits an eternal reward for us” he was teaching Catholic error. So when an Adventist teaches that we are justified by the works (obedience) of Christ and the “merits of Christ” make no mistake they are teaching Catholic doctrine.

Catholics believe Jesus’ obedience has justifying merit so if we agree Jesus’ obedience has justifying merit we are employing Catholic terminology to teaching Catholic doctrine regardless of our denials.


Protestantism interprets justification as an external event whereas Scripture describes it as an inner experience. Biblical justification is explained in terms of the internal dynamics as happens when we receive Jesus.  Whereas Protestantism is obsessed with the cross Paul’s gospel describes the justification of sinners in the context of each individuals personal history and personal faith encounter with Jesus.

What this means is that the atonement is not a single point in history or the  indiscriminate justification of entire humanity but rather the atonement is the time and place of personal encounter with Christ.

In justification Jesus approaches each one of us individually as if He and we were alone in the universe.


Impersonal notions such as justification by the “merits of Christ” and “imputed obedience” need to be consigned to the rubbish bin. It is not given to us to plead the “merits” of an historical Jesus crucified in ancient times but to receive the living Jesus personally and here and now as the “Spirit of Christ.”

There is no evidence in Scripture or in early Christian writings supporting a teaching saying that Jesus’ earthly sinlessness is imputed to us for justification. “Paul never states explicitly that the righteousness of Christ is imputed to believers.” (George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament p.491)

Robert Grundy points out that the 16th century doctrine of “imputed righteousness” based on Roman Catholic principles is rejected by most contemporary biblical scholars as medieval hallucination.

“In New Testament theologians’ recent and current treatments of justification, you would be hard-pressed to find any discussion of an imputation of Christ’s righteousness . . . The notion is passé … New Testament theologians are now disposed to talk about the righteousness of God in terms of his salvific activity …  not in terms of imputation of Christ’s righteousness in a bookkeeping framework. … [The] doctrine that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to believing sinners needs to be abandoned.” (Robert Grundy, Why I Didn’t Endorse The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration)

“The Calvinistic theory … affirms the active obedience of Christ is so imputed to believers they are as legally righteous as if they had been perfectly obedient to the law of God … Imputation of righteousness to us in the sense that Christ obeyed the law … and we merit the reward of that obedience is not supported by the Scriptures.” (Thomas Ralston, Elements of Divinity (Nashville: Cokesbury Press, 1924) p.377)

Paul says we are “ justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.”1

Biblical justification is not something that happens outside of us or merely an idea it is the experience of receiving Christ. The Bible links receiving Christ to the internal dynamics of faith and repentance. That is why Luther wrote, “justification is the work of God in us.”2 (11Cor. 6:11, 2LW Vol. 34, p.177)

Union with the “Spirit of Christ” is the only means by which Jesus’ redeems His people. “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.” (James Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit, SCM 1975, p.323)

How are we “justified” by the Spirit? Through an existential union created by the Spirit. When the Spirit of Christ dwells in our inner being and merges with our deepest parts we become one with Him. This new self is neither us alone or Jesus alone it is a new creation stamped with the image of Jesus. In this new creation we are buried so deep in Jesus that He alone and not ourselves is the source of our existence.

In this new creation Jesus becomes our higher self and God sees none of us and all of Him. The one we used to be longer exists and the one we are coming to be is reckoned to be the one who Jesus already is.

The Protestant tradition that justification consists of a legal transfer of merit based on the fiction that every unbelieving sinner is viewed by God as having perfectly obeyed the law “in Jesus” is manufactured nonsense. “If by grace it is not on the basis of works, otherwise grace is not grace.”(Romans 11:6)

The event for justification is when we receive Christ, the timeframe is the precise moment we believe.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: