victor christensen's blog

Imputed Righteousness and the Forensic Gospel (Part Three)

Posted in Uncategorized by victorchristensen on June 29, 2010

Peter Wilenski – Victor Christensen


Besides the gospel itself the next most important thing to be tenaciously defended is religious liberty.

It is a myth to say the reformers believed in religious liberty, they believed in it for themselves but not for those who disagreed with them. Their personal history also shows they did not believed in the principle of sola scripture because they were quick to force anyone under their control to conform to their Catechism.

In his Key to the Scriptures (1567) Matthaeus Flacius declared, “Every understanding and exposition of Scripture is to be in agreement with the faith. … For everything said concerning Scripture, … must be in agreement with all that the Catechism declares or that is taught by the [Church’s] articles of faith.”

Luther declared that it was the duty of  civil authorities to “punished by the sword” anybody who opposed “infant baptism” and “original sin” and for such awful “crimes” he demanded they be “be put to death.”

“That seditious articles of doctrine should be punished by the sword needed no further proof. For the rest, the Anabaptists hold tenets relating to infant baptism, original sin . . . Secular authorities are bound to restrain and punish avowedly false doctrine … we conclude that . . . the stubborn sectaries must be put to death.” (Martin Luther (1536) cited, History of the German People From the Close of the Middle Ages, 16 Volumes, translated by A.M. Christie, St. Louis: B. Herder, 1910 [orig. 1891]; Vol. X, 222-223)

In November 1552, the Geneva City Council declared Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion to be a “holy doctrine which no man might speak against.” When Calvin permitted civil authorities to legislate that his interpretation of Scripture was “holy doctrine which no man might speak against” he assumed biblical authority for his own “doctrines and commandments” (Mark 7:7) and thereby rejected sola scriptura.

According to Luther Calvin’s method of settling disputes was to kill off his opponents. “With a death sentence they solve all argumentation.” (Cited, Juergan Neve, Churches and Sects of Christendom p.344) Anyone who claims that this is a caricature of Calvin has not read his commentary on Exodus 22:20 which says, “God Himself has explicitly instructed us to kill heretics.” In their entire history Calvinists have never believed in or practiced religious liberty and they do not support it now if they control the government.


John Calvin was afflicted with an appalling sense of self-importance. Jacques Gruet an opponent of Calvin, was tortured for a month and beheaded for simply placing a letter on Calvin’s pulpit calling him a hypocrite. Gruet’s house was burned to the ground and his wife was dragged out into the street to watch. Calvin’s vindictiveness led to complete insensitivity towards human suffering. In 1534 thirty four women were put to death because Calvin imagined they had “made a pact with the devil” and brought the plague to Geneva.

If you look for an example of religious liberty you will not find it in the history of the Protestant reformers.

The Bible makes it clear God only works within the framework of personal relationships and it nowhere teaches that He forgave the entire world 2000 years ago in one impersonal undifferentiated lump. One dedicated defender of an “objective forgiveness” without any need to accept Jesus is Desmond Ford.

“The good news declares that all men have been redeemed, that justification has been secured for all, that the whole human race has been restored to favour with God and that all sins … are now cancelled for the whole world.” (D. Ford, Palmdale paper et al, cited Leroy Moore The Theology Crisis, p.52)

Contrary to this antinomian error Scripture teaches that God relates personally to each individual. In Genesis 18:23-32 God told Abraham; “If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare the whole place on their account.” This text shows God’s awareness of the spirituality of every individual.

In God’s world order nobody gets lost in the crowd or hidden in the shadows of obscurity. To everyone it is said, “the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear; you are valuable” (Matthew 10:30)

“To the Jewish mind, the understanding of God is not achieved by referring to a Greek way to timeless qualities of Supreme Being, to ideas of goodness and perfection, but rather by sensing the living acts of His concern, to His dynamic attentiveness to man. We speak not of His goodness in general but of His compassion for the individual man in a particular situation.” (Abraham Heschel, God in Search of Man p.21)

Heschel’s statement brings us to the heart of the matter. Forgiveness is never forgiveness for humanity “in general” but whenever it occurs it represents forgiveness “for the individual man in a particular situation.”

God’s relationship with Jeremiah was with “the individual man in a particular situation.” “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart.” (Jeremiah 1:5) The intimacy  of this relationship provides the only context for presenting God’s method of forgiving sinners by free grace.

If we seek to be forgiven the correct “particular situation” for us to be in is spelled out by Zephaniah. “I will leave within you the meek and humble, who trust in the name of the Lord. The remnant of Israel will do no wrong; they will speak no lies, nor will deceit be found in their mouths.” Isaiah shows that God has a preference for humility and is attracted to individuals who are not into self promotion and egotism; “I dwell on a high and holy place and also with the contrite and lowly of spirit.” (Zephaniah 3:12-13, Isaiah 57:15)


In the Old Testament justification is never merely a declaration by God that Israel is forgiven and nothing more. Justification is always a paranormal activity and a concrete event that has consequences for the Israel’s existential status. Justification is manifested in the “mighty acts” of God done on Israel’s behalf.

“O Lord God, You have begun to show Your servant Your greatness and Your strong hand; for what god is there in heaven or on earth who can do such works and mighty acts as Yours?” (Deuteronomy 3:24)

Forgiveness meant material prosperity, the rains came ending a drought, it meant victory in battle, deliverance from occupying forces, return from captivity in foreign countries, it meant their crops yielded an abundance of food, freedom from ravaging pestilence and disease and an inner sense of God’s approval.

“If I shut up the heavens and there is no rain, or I command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence and My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven forgive their sin and heal their land.” (2Chron. 7:13-14)

Paul’s concept of “forgiveness” is built on this broad OT understanding and includes the resurrection of the body. “For we through the Spirit, by faith, are waiting for the hope of righteousness.” (Galatians 5:5)

Paul does not isolate forgiveness as a thing by itself, he speaks of “righteousness” (dikaiosynē) from God in the framework of a salvation that has pluralistic aspects some of which are past and others in the future.

In Paul teachings the pinnacle of salvation is not the forgiveness of sin but a resurrection to immortality in union with Christ. Paul believed that in spite of forgiveness salvation is incomplete prior to “the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:11) Speaking of complete salvation Paul says; “Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but … reach forward to what lies ahead.” ( Philippians 3:13)

In NT soteriology salvation is “teleioō” meaning complete only at the resurrection. (Hebrews 11:40) As Luther says, “Our justification is not yet complete . . . . It is still under construction. It shall, however, be completed in the resurrection of the dead.” (cited, Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, p. 226)


There is other evidence Paul does not limit “justification” to the forgiveness of sin. His use of dikaioo in Romans 6:7 translated as “justify” and “ justified” in Romans 2:13, 3:20, 24, 28, 4:4-5, 25, and 5:18 is employed in Romans 6:7 in reference to cancelling the power of sin. Romans 6:7 literally reads. “He that is dead is justified (dikaioō) from sin.” For Paul justification includes deliverance from the power of sin.

Oscar Cullman insisted that the Bible must be interpreted in terms of its own cultural environment and that biblical “language must always bear the stamp of the period and of the individuality of the biblical writer.”1 He says also that, “my personal self-understanding and my personal experience of faith must not only be seen as exegetical aids, but also as possible sources of error.2” (1The Necessity and Function of Higher Criticism, The Early Church (ed. J. Higgins; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1956) p16.2p.38)

Krister Stendahl, a Swedish theologian committed to biblical theology also made the same point.

“From the point of view of method it is clear that our only concern is to find out what these words meant when uttered or written by the prophet, the evangelist, or the apostle – regardless of their meaning in later stages of religious history, our own included.” (Krister Stendahl, Biblical Theology, p.420)

A correct exegesis of Scripture requires the ability to escape from the shackles of our current cultural environment and interpret the Bible on its own terms. However history has shown that from the third century this has proved a virtual impossibility for nearly all leading representatives of Christianity. The gospel has changed its shape many times according to the existing pressures of time and place in history.

The gospel started out as a recital of the history of Jesus and has ended up a mixture of theories of religion.

It is widely accepted that the forensic gospel first put in a tentative appearance in Melanchthon’s 1521 Loci Communes. According to Alister McGrath the “forensic concept of justification … becomes particularly evident from his writings dating from after 1530.” (McGrath, Iustitia Dei Vol. 2 p.23)

The fact is the forensic gospel cannot be read back into the Scriptures but had its beginning in 1521. What this means is although it has been around for 500 years for 1500 years before that nobody was teaching it.

Paul refers to Jesus as the “new Adam.” “The first man, Adam, became a living being; the last Adam became a life-giving Spirit.” (1Corinthians 15:45) In Paul’s thinking Jesus the new “Adam” has established a new humanity that is reconciled to God and who live no longer in the flesh but in the Spirit who dwells in them as the Spirit of Christ. Justification is receiving the Spirit of Christ as a means of union with Christ.

We are not justified by an “imputed righteousness” externally applied as an “objective legal status” and nothing more. We are justified only when we receive Christ inwardly as the Spirit of Christ. Paul says clearly; “If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.” (Romans 8:9)

Imputed righteousness is part of the junk, along with predestination, that theologians pick up when they attempted to interpret gospel truth by human logic. But since “imputed righteousness” has in theory and practice replaced receiving Christ Himself as the central requirement of the gospel we need to get rid of it.


For those who cannot understand the issue involved the question to be decided is whether we are saved by having an attribute of Christ “imputed” to us so that we can fake obedience or by receiving Jesus Himself.

In the context of the forensic gospel salvation by imputed righteousness is the equivalent to salvation by paperwork and nothing else. There is no need for faith or accepting Jesus just believe you are saved and you are saved. In this scheme you are saved before you were born and all you need to do is to believe that is so. The forensic gospel will allow that Jesus made this possible but it is not accepting Jesus that saves you. What saves you in the forensic gospel is an alleged declaration that every sinner was forgiven when Jesus died on the cross. This theory is imposed arbitrarily on Scripture but the Bible certainly does not a teach it.

There was no universal justification on the cross because “if Christ has not been raisedyour faith is vain.” (1Cor. 15:14) In Paul’s gospel forgiveness is mediated by the risen Christ in heaven. “Christ Jesus is He who died, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us.” (Romans 8:34)

The prophecy in Daniel 8:11 says the “little horn” “took away the daily” (tamid) from the “Prince of the host” and “His sanctuary was brought low.” Since the heavenly tamid represents the mediatorial work of Jesus in heaven this means the” little horn” totally eliminated Jesus’ priesthood in heaven from its gospel.

The forensic gospel does exactly this, if it was “all done on the cross” there is no need for Jesus’ priestly intercession. Which means the forensic gospel has also cast down the heavenly “daily” and trampled on it.

What is called the “complete work of Christ” cannot be “complete” if it rejects the central element in New Testament teachings about Jesus concerning His resurrection and post resurrection activities in heaven.


One texts the forensic gospel has distorted is Roman 3:28; “A man is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” Some claim this text separates forgiveness from lifestyle. However, in Matthew 6:14-15 Jesus taught that personal forgiveness is connected to our choices. “If you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. If you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” This is an example where human behaviour determines whether forgiveness will occur or not.

Jesus is saying that in order for personal forgiveness to take place individual obedience is very necessary but “necessary” in no way means obedience is the cause of forgiveness. Luther can help us here; “We maintain that contrition does not merit the forgiveness of sins. It is indeed necessary for the forgiveness of sins, but it is not the cause. Many things are necessary which are not causes.” (L W, Vol.34 p.171)

Jesus told His disciples, “if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments”1 but this biblical synthesis between obedience and salvation is not in any way a theology of righteousness by works.1 (Matthew 19:17)

In the Old Testament the relationship between God as His people is one of “recompense” for obedience. But the “recompense” is a gift based on God’s promise to His people and not a reward for their obedience.

The scenario is we do not merit the “reward” by obedience but we forfeit the “reward” by disobedience. The recompense is a free gift based on God’s promise but “because you have … sinned against the Lord and have not obeyed Him or followed His law … this disaster has come upon you.” (Jeremiah 44:23)

The formula is, while the believers are “rewarded” on account of their obedience (according to the promise) the reward itself was only theirs to lose and never something they could merit by their own obedience. In this context the moral synthesis between “reward” and obedience is based on God’s promise not “works.”

God outlined this formula to Abraham; “I will bless you … because you have obeyed Me.” (Exodus 15:26) Hebrews 11:33 says those who “by faith … performed acts of righteousness obtained the promises.”

The teaching God “rewards” obedience with free gifts is taught in Genesis through to Revelation.

“The word of the Lord came to Abram, saying, Do not fear, Abram,  I am a shield to you; your reward shall be very great.” “The Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness; According to the cleanness of my hands He has recompensed me.” “Say to the righteous that it will go well with them, for they will eat the fruit of their actions. Woe to the wicked! It will go badly with him, what he deserves will be done to him.” “The Lord God will come … His reward is with Him and His recompense before Him.” “The Lord … comes; His reward is with Him, and His recompense before Him.”(Genesis 15:1, 2Samuel 22:21,  Isaiah 3:10-11, see also 40:10, 62:11)

“Your reward in heaven is great.” “Your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.” “Whoever … gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water to drink …  he shall not lose his reward.” “Be glad in that day … for your reward is great in heaven.” “Each will receive his own reward according to his own labor.” “Do your work heartily … knowing from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance.” “the doers of the Law will be justified.” “[God] will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, He will give eternal life.” “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” “Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done.”(Matthew 5:12, 6:4, 10:42,Luke6:23,1Corinthians3:8,Colossians3:23-24,Romans 2:13,2:6-7James 2:24,Revelation 22:12)

The formula that lifestyle determines our ultimate outcome is everywhere in Scripture; “what he deserves will be done to him.” “Each will receive his own reward according to his own labour” and God “will render to each one according to his works.” This applies equally to the righteous and the wicked.


One of the mistakes professional theologians tend to make, and there are many, is that they do not keep in focus the fact that the Bible does not use technical language but consistently employs the language of the street. So when Scripture says, “By faith Noah … prepared an ark … and became an heir of righteousness according to faith” (Hebrews 11:7) the building of the ark comes under rubric of “righteousness by faith.”

Righteousness by faith in its biblical context is a whole of life experience and anybody who denies this is either biblically illiterate or working with their own agenda. The believers obedience is part of righteousness by faith because it is the irrepressible manifestation of the existence of faith.


Getting the terminology right seems to be the least of the problems. The greater difficulty is getting some to believe that they must consciously and knowingly enter into a personal relationship with Jesus in order to be saved. As we have pointed out many times the forensic gospel is not based on personal faith in Jesus because it posits the idea that justification for the entire world took place 2000 years ago. Therefore, if the sins of this generation were forgiven 2000 years ago universal justification took place in a moral vacuum.

From the beginning it has been God’s intention that humanity would be a living temple for the divine Spirit and the whole design of this was for the sake of fellowship. “I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so the world may believe that You sent Me.” (John 17:20-21)

Paul associates righteousness by faith with receiving the Spirit who is the medium by which Christ dwells in the believer. “You were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit” and “strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.” (Ephesians 1:13, 3:16-17)

“The Christian religion is not a set of doctrines about Christ, neither is it a rule of life based on the teachings and example of Christ. … It is a continuation of the life of the risen Lord in His body which is the church and in the sanctified believer. “Christ lives in me” is the essence of the Christian religion as set forth in the New Testament. It is not a system but a Presence, the presence of the Spirit of Christ indwelling the spirit of man.” (Samuel Chadwick, The Way to Pentecost Hodder and Stoughton 1938, p.81).


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