At the end of the age, when we stand before the Lamb of God, the appointed Judge of all the earth who is a “just judge” (Psa. 7:11) who will “do right” (Gen. 18:25), and he reviews the evidence of our lives (i.e. our works) and makes his determination concerning our guilt or innocence, our unrighteousness or righteousness, on whether we are goats or sheep (e.g. Rom. 2:6; 2 Cor. 5:10; etc.), what will be his verdict in our case: justified or condemned?
If you say justified, upon what legal grounds will such a verdict be rendered? Will it be your own righteousness (i.e. your own satisfaction of the laws demands)? Unlikely. For as the Solomon observes:
Indeed, there is no one on earth who is righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins.
Because we have no righteousness of our own, we need what Luther called an alien righteousness (i.e. a righteousness from outside ourselves, to clothe us like a garment so that our unrighteousness might be hidden from sight).
10 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord;
my soul shall exult in my God,
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation;
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
This adornment in righteousness is foreshadowed in the garden of Eden when God sacrifices an animal to provide a covering for Adam and Eve’s nakedness. Today it takes place when a sinner comes into union with Christ.
2 Cor. 5:12
21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
What transpires in this inequitable exchange, according to this parrelelism, is what we might call a double imputation. Our sins, along with their guilt and penalty, are imputed to Christ. Meaning that they are reckoned or charged to his account so that they are now treated as his own. This is what Paul means in 2 Cor 5:21a when he writes: “For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin…”
Then, to complete the transaction, Christ’s righteousness (his satisfaction of the laws demands) is credited to our account through faith – “so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.”(2)
It is this vital transaction which makes an acquittal possible in our case.(3)(4)
A Legal Fiction?
However, not everyone has accepted this Lutheran clarification on the doctrine of justification. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, started what some have called the Counter Reformation in response to it. Their principle charge was that this new view boiled down to nothing more than a “legal fiction”. Catholic apologist Robert Sungenis well summarizes the objection:
The Church maintain[s] that if justification is only a legal category into which God places a man without being truly just in his own person, then the justification is not real. A “declared” justification (which is another term for a forensic justification) without a just object in view is merely a legal label, hence a “legal fiction.”(3)
Let me give an illustration of what Catholics mean exactly by a “legal fiction”.(5)
Some online stores have a policy where if you don’t return an item that was shipped to you within a certain period of time (let’s say five days) it is regarded as having been delivered. Even if it never shows up at your door step, nevertheless if it’s not returned within that period the company simply declares it delivered and considers itself free from any further obligation. This, or course, is a legal fiction. They are just saying that it was delivered even though it never really was. In other words, just declaring something to be true, doesn’t necessarily make it true.
Luther’s view of imputation, however, is not analogous to this kind of declaration because for Luther (and the Protestants who have come after him) when a sinner is justifyied he really is acquitted by God; he really is pardoned.(6)
A better analogy for this kind of status change would be marriage.
When a man and a woman are pronounced “husband and wife” by the officiant (i.e. the authorized representative of the law) at the wedding ceremony, there is an actual change of status which takes place. Why? Because the officiant has the authority to do so, and there is sufficient grounds to make such a change (e.g. the bride and groom are not brother and sister, they have paid the fees and filed the paperwork, etc.). No one would call this declaration of marriage a legal fiction because the couple really is married at this moment. It is official before the law.
Now, while the couple may feel exactly the same as they did before the declaration was made, their status has changed in view of it. In other words, what has taken place is an objective change not a subjective one.
Similarly, when we are justified by God, it is not as though God pretends that we are righteous or pretends that we are acquitted. Rather, he really does forgive us and pardon us and declare us to be righteous on the basis of Christ’s righteousness. In other words, God has the authority to make such a declaration and the grounds for it have been met by Christ.
Paul makes this very point in his letter to the Colossians:
And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.(7)
When a criminal was crucified, a list of his crimes was nailed to his cross. In the case of Jesus, says Paul, it was our record of debt that hung over his head. Jesus satisfying the demands of the law on our behalf is what makes it possible for God to cancel our guilt. Because the punishment due us has fallen on Christ (because he has served our sentence) we are now set free from the law’s demands for retributive justice.
1. My understanding of the doctrine of imputation has been significantly shaped by texts such as: Martin Luther’s Commentary to Galatians; John Calvin’s Institues of the Christian Religion; Leon Morris’ The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross and The Cross in the New Testament; John Stott’s The Cross of Christ; Jack Cottrell’s Set Free: What Does the Bible Say About Grace and God the Redeemer; and many others.
2. See also: Isaiah 53; Romans 4:1-8; Philippians 3:7-11.
3. A fuller exegesis of 2 Corinthians 5:21 is planned for a future episode.
4. Luther’s phrase to describe the results of this transaction was: simul justus et peccator (i.e. simultaneously just and a sinner).
4. Robert A. Sungenis, Not By Faith Alone: The Biblical Evidence for the Catholic Doctrine of Justification [2d ed; Catholic Apologetics International Publishing inc., 2009], 349.
5. I apologize for not remembering the source of this helpful illustration.
6. There are significant differences betweeen Luther’s view of justification and those of his fellow Reformers. For brevity sake such differences have been ignored.
7. Colossians 2:13-15.