victor christensen's blog

Imputed Righteousness and the Forensic Gospel (Part Two)

Posted in Uncategorized by victorchristensen on June 11, 2010

Peter Wilenski – Victor Christensen


There is a trend among biblical scholars to reject justification by the “imputed merits of Christ” and to present justification as an ongoing experience in faith based on an existential union with Christ. Justification is seen as a continuous process and not as a single event accomplished on the cross.

There is return to Luther’s thinking that justification is continuous and not a one off event at Calvary.

In his Disputation Concerning Justification (1536) Luther teaches that “daily we sin, daily we are justified.” Also, “We are justified daily by the unmerited forgiveness of sins.”  (LW 36, 167) He says, “The forgiveness of sins is a continuing divine work, until we die.” (Luther’s Works, Vol.34, p.190)

The claim that when Jesus died on the cross the all humanity was justified instantaneously and that all our future sins were forgiven even before we were born or commit them is delusional antinomian nonsense.

Moreover, the teaching that we “merited” forgiveness because we allegedly “kept the law in Jesus” is now widely seen as a theory indebted to hallucinatory fiction based on mass theological fantasy.

Does anyone really believe God forgave Manasseh because he perfectly kept the law in Jesus? Was the woman taken in adultery forgiven because in spite of appearances she remained a virgin in Jesus? I have not read a text which says in plain words that God forgave anyone because they kept the law in Jesus.

I have read it in the Bible where it says God forgives real sinners and doesn’t pretend they are anything else. God receives sinners as sinners and converts them into believers through Christ dwelling in them.


It is interesting to note that the Augsburg Confession used the Latin formula iustificatio est regeneratio which means “justification is regeneration.” Paul taught the same thing, “He saved us … by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” (Titus 3:59) You will notice also that in Romans 5:9 sōzō parallels dikaioō which means that to be “saved and be “justified” mean the same thing. This means that the term “justification” does not have any one particular meaning but covers all aspects of salvation.

In Colossians 2:27-28 Paul identifies “Christ in you the hope of glory” as God’s method of making “every man complete in Christ.” Since to be “justified” means to be “complete in Christ” Paul is saying that in his gospel of “Christ in you the hope of glory” is the causa exclusiva of our justification.

In Paul’s doctrine of justification we “put on the Lord Jesus” (Romans 13:14) like a garment and are “clothed” with Him. In the context of this personal relationship our oneness with Jesus is established by existential means and Jesus’ presence before God becomes our presence before God in Him. According to

Paul justification does not occur any time prior to when “Christ is formed in you.” (Galatians 4:19)

In Paul’s teaching on justification there are three clear existential descriptions of justification; “Christ in    you” (Colossians 2:27), “Christ formed in you.” (Galatians 4:19) and “put on the Lord Jesus.” (Romans 13:14) We also have a reference that links justification to an existential unity with the Holy Spirit.

1Corinthians 6:11 says, “you were justified (dikaioō) in … the Spirit.” Paul also links justification to union with Christ in the Spirit, He says, “there is one body [of Christ] and one Spirit.” (Ephesians 4:4)

If we become “one body” with Jesus in “one Spirit” there is no need for imputed righteousness since our identity with Jesus has been established by other means. Christ Himself in us becomes our righteousness.

In 1Timothy 3:16 Paul says Jesus’ was “justified in the Spirit” at His resurrection when He was “received up into glory.” In Galatians 5:5 the believers resurrection is not something distinct from justification. The resurrection is the eschatological manifestation of the believers justification and full confirmation of it.

In Paul writings justification by faith, righteousness by faith and salvation by faith are simply different labels for the same thing. Each one includes in its range of meaning more than forgiveness. Forgiveness, sanctification through living in the Spirit and the resurrection are all a part of righteousness by faith.


It seems to me too many are so focused on receiving  the “benefits” of Jesus’ “imputed righteousness” and  alleged “merits” they have failed to grasp the need for a personal relationship with Jesus Himself.

As I see it the Belgic Confession of Faith is teaching righteousness by works by proxy when it says faith “embraces Jesus Christ with all His merits… and so many holy works which He has done for us.” (The Belgic Confession of Faith, Article XXII, Our Justification Through Faith in Jesus Christ)

On the Lutheran side the corruption of the gospel can be traced to Melanchthon who originally spoke of justification as a personal relationship but later adopted forensic imagery and abstract terminology by identifying justification as a mere “benefit.” “To know Christ is to know the benefits of his salvation.” (Cited, Carl Michalson, The Gospel as Invocation and Benediction, Theology Today Vol. 23 No2 July 1966)

According to Alister McGrath in “the 1523 Annotationes in Evangelium Iohannis [Melanchthon] develops the idea that justification involves a personal union between Christ and the believer. This contrasts significantly with later emphasis upon the abstract concept of the works of Christ associated with his forensic concept of justification.” (Alister McGrath Iustitia Dei Vol. 2, pp.23)

The slogan that Jesus’ “active and passive obedience” or His “holy works” is est sola et totalis causa meritoria or the only source of saving merit sounds evangelical but any doctrine which claims we are justified by faith in “holy works” is a private invention that is impossible to defend from Scripture.

The doctrine of imputed righteousness might be a long-standing Protestant tradition but it is not a biblical teaching. Mark Seifrid writes, “It is worth observing Paul never speaks of Christ’s righteousness as imputed to believers, as became standard in Protestantism.” (Christ, Our Righteousness IVP, 2000 p.174)

William Newell expresses the convictions of many when he says, Jesus’ “was always obedient to His Father, but it cannot be too strongly emphasized that His life before the cross – His ‘active obedience’ … is not in any sense counted to us for righteousness.” (W. Newell Romans, Kregal (2004) Romans 5:19)


Paul identifies righteousness by faith as a “walk” with God. Romans 4:11-12 says “righteousness is credited to them who walk in the footsteps of the faith of Abraham.” To be a complete package righteousness by faith requires Paul’s “obedience faith” as the demonstrable proof of union with Christ.

The Hebrew for faith, ’emuwnah, means not only a trust but “faithfulness.” This faithfulness exists as the outward manifestation of faith in God and faith as emuwnah controls the conduct. Emuwnah is obedience from the heart. Abraham was declared righteous because he obeyed God from the heart (emuwnah) in a context where faithfulness is righteousness. “He [who] faithfully keeps My laws, that man is righteous.” (Ezekiel 18:9) “Abraham [was] found faithful … it was reckoned to him as righteousness?” (1Mac. 2:52)

According to Old Testament definitions it is impossible to impose a forensic concept of justification on  Abraham being declared righteous. One Jewish sources says; “It is Abraham’s demonstration of trust that God considers the equivalent of tsedaqah. … God assessed Abraham’s continual trust as righteousness.”

Jesus said; “if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.”(Matthew19:17) Since Jesus linked keeping the “commandments” to receiving “life” righteousness by faith must do that also. Paul said God has chosen us “to be saved through the … work of the Spirit.” This does not identify obedience in the Spirit as the cause of justification but it makes the gift of a new capacity to obey a part of justification.

McGrath says, “The doctrine of justification by faith declares that God makes available as a gift a new mode of existence, a new lifestyle, and enables believers to act in such a way their actions correspond to those of Jesus.” (Alister McGrath, The Evangelical Theological Society: (1991-2002) Vol. 34, p.296)

Any forensic interpretation of righteousness misrepresents Hebrew thinking. The reason is the Hebrews had no legal structure which allowed them to define “law” as we understand law. In the patriarchal model the will of God was the sole embodiment of authority. The Hebrews had no code of distributive justice which the community was required to observe or could appeal to. The only authority was what God says.

Israel existed under a “living word” which represented “hearing” God “speaking.” In this environment the people responded to the “voice” of God in the context of a personal relationship. Anyone who equates biblical forgiveness with the forensic workings of the modern justice system misinterprets the Scriptures.

When we ask for forgiveness we are to embrace the promises in Scripture as if we where hearing God speaking directly to us. Faith in Jesus will transform the historical moment and what we are reading will register in our minds as a personal word of assurance from God Himself which we heard for ourselves.

Jesus said there is “joy in heaven over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:7) Verse 20 says; “but when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his  neck, and kissed him.” If the father represents God there is no evidence of a law court or “forensic” forgiveness here.

Jesus said “the words I have spoken to you … are life.” (John 6:63) We should take this to mean that the entire word of God is a living thing and not mere legislation. When God speaks forgiveness to a sinner He is not passing legislation He is radically altering the order of things and transforming earthly and cosmic relationships. The forgiveness of even one sinner is a big thing and effects the entire universe.


The forensic gospel reduces the forgiveness of sins to what amounts to celestial paper work. According to the theory when Jesus died on the cross God placed all humanity in one indifferent lump and pronounce forgiveness on everybody whether they wanted it or not. To be forgiven you don’t have to accept Jesus you just have to accept the paper work. In this way people claim forgiveness without accepting Jesus.

In order to save us Jesus entered into the realm of the human experience so fully it was not possible for Him to be any more human than He was. Jesus experienced a daily encounter with sin within Himself not because He was a sinner but because He took on board the capacity to be tempted with all the force and power that fallen humanity is tempted. Jesus was placed where the human ego experiences the impulse to resist the will of God. In that way He was “in all points tempted like as we are.” (Hebrews 4:15)

As Paul tells the story in coming into humanity Jesus created a new humanity. Jesus became another Adam with the intention to produce offspring after His kind. Paul pointed to this in his gospel when he identified salvation as an actual participation in Jesus so that, “Christ is formed in you.” (Galatians 4:19)

The centerpiece in the Paul’s gospel is “Christ in you the hope of glory.” (Colossians 1:27) It’s counterpart is expressed in the words; “And Satan entered into Judas” (Luke 22:3) The choice for humanity is not an independent existence or personal freedom but only a choice of who will rule over us.

The backdrop to the gospel is cosmic warfare involving huge consequences even for minor decisions.

The Bible teaches that only God can declare a person “righteous” and that He does it for His own reasons. Ezekiel 18:9 explains what “righteousness” before God is, “He [who] faithfully keeps My torah, that man is righteous.” We should note that the declaration that a person is “righteous” occurs in the context of personal relationships. Secondly, we see that righteousness refers to an attitude of mind and not merely to a specific act. In terms of Ezekiel 18:9 righteousness (by faithfulness) refers to a whole of life experience.

The truth is only God can declare a person righteous, another truth is God’s declaration of righteousness must have a concrete basis. To be declared “righteous” a person must be righteous. On the basis of Ezekiel 18:9 we see the declaration a person is “righteous” is no “imputed” make believe but a reality.

Is there a connection between being “faithful” and declared “righteous,” if not what means this? “Phinehas … intervened and the plague was checked. This was credited to him as righteousness.” Abraham’s faithfulness demonstrated by a leap into the unknown was “righteousness.” “By faith Abraham when he was called obeyednot knowing where he was going.” (Psalm 106:30-33, Hebrews 11:8)

The teaching of righteousness by faithfulness in Ezekiel 18:9 is repeated in 1Kings 3:6 “David … was faithful to you and righteous.” You can also find this formula for righteousness in the book of Maccabees, “Abraham [was] found faithful … and it was reckoned to him as righteousness?” (1Maccabees. 2:52)

We know that Habakkuk 2:4 plays a pivotal role in Paul’s teachings. But how many people who claim to be biblical scholars ask themselves how does this Hebrew text reads in its original Hebrew setting?

In its original context Habakkuk 2:4 is not a formula for the afterlife but explains how believers should conduct themselves when their country is overrun by invaders and anti-God forces. It is saying only those who trust God and maintain moral integrity can survive catastrophic circumstances. This faithfulness is not mere external obedience but the believers heart commitment to God. “The one whose desires are not upright will faint from exhaustion, but the person of integrity will live because of his  faithfulness.”

Habakkuk 2:4 is saying that unconditional commitment to God in daily living is the formula for being considered “righteous” by God. Only those who practice righteousness are considered to be righteous. Ever since theologians got caught up in a mania for speculation confusion has distorted this truth.

Jesus said, “if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” (Matthew 19:17)  Paul wrote; “it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified.” (Romans 2:13) According to Hebrews 5:9 Jesus “became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey Him.”

Anyone who minimizes the role of obedience in justification is dangerous and should not be listened to.


The problem has been that as early as the third century Christianity dominated by Greek and Latin thinking has understood biblical directives in the distorted sense Paul refers to as the “letter” of the law.

When an English translation of the Old Testament employs the word “law” some misunderstanding is inevitable because the conceptual parameters that produced the biblical Torah have not existed for centuries. Even in Jesus’ day rabbinic Judaism’s oral law (now enshrined in the Babylonian Talmud)  was “teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.” (Matthew 15:9) The Pharisees in their acquired legalistic mindset developed a prescriptive list of do’s and don’ts amounting to around 630 separate laws.

The Pharisees mentality reflected in their passion for external observance is precisely what Paul described as the “letter” of the law. However, it has come about that the “letter” of the law is the only understanding of law that most Christians have. This deficiency has created an instinct to reject moral boundaries.

When the Calvinist invented their doctrine that Adam lived under a “covenant of works” they planted their heretical principle of righteousness by works in the Garden of Eden and demonstrated that their concept of the law was a return to the Pharisees’ concept of the law as “letter” that Paul spoke against.

The following insight into the correct approach to the commandments is encouraging. At the least it shows that some Jews have a more biblical understanding of the spiritual dynamics of commandments than hyper Protestantism has ever had. We have much to learn from the insights of biblical Judaism.

“The mitzvos (commandments) are not just haphazard actions which we are rewarded for performing. They are statements of God’s values. We do not simply (and blindly) perform them. We grow into them. We develop an appreciation for God’s values and grow to become people who appreciate those same values. By doing so we become more Godlike individuals, more capable of enjoying the resulting closeness we will have with our God in the World to Come. Thus, the mitzvos are not actions and restrictions alone. They are calls to greatness, goads to inspire us to higher levels of awareness.” (Rabbi David Rosenfeld

We need to realize that the concept of sinless perfection as a qualitative term is entirely unbiblical. When we understand that the commandments represent a perpetual call to a high level of spirituality we will not imagine that we can keep the commandments in the sense we can take obedience to its ultimate goal.

The commandments are like points on the compass, they point towards a particular direction and outline a path to follow but that path extends beyond the horizon of our perceptions. The commandments are not static rules for calculating conduct they are incitements prompting us to make a ceaseless approach to God. And just as God cannot be measured so also the commandments have no limits and no boundaries.

The commandments do not merely enunciate principles offering guidance for good living they are the words of Almighty God directing us to enter into the experience of an eternal becoming so that the more we assimilate them into our life the more like God we become. And since our assimilation of the image of God is without limits the keeping of the commandments which is the mark of our likeness to God is a journey with no end. The obedience God requires has no outer limits so there is always room for growth.

When the commandments are understood in the sense that they call for a ceaseless approach to God and a spirituality without limits the Calvinist concept of the “covenant of work” with its nefarious offspring the “merits of Christ” and “imputed righteousness” becomes the greatest absurdity in the history of religion.


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