|By: Dr. John Ankerberg; ©1999|
|This four-part series examines some of the differences in belief regarding the doctrine of Justification, especially as it relates to the Catholic church. Key terms defined are. “Forensic” vs. “Legal Fiction".|
In this article we will examine the doctrine of justification, the main issue that caused the Reformation and still divides Catholics and Protestants today. Only if you understand the terms surrounding this issue will you be able to come to a conclusion on: How can a sinful person be forgiven by a holy and righteous God? So to define the main terms and issues, I’m going to set before you six key terms that represent what the Protestant Reformers were asserting, and then across from each of their points six key terms that represent the Roman Catholic understanding of the doctrine of justification. To begin, the first word on the Protestant side that describes what they mean by justification is the term FORENSIC. Forensics has to do with speech. Maybe you were involved in a forensics club at school, so you know this term. The reason why Protestants label their position “Forensic Justification” is because their ultimate basis of justification is the “spoken declaration” of God. When God declares or pronounces that a sinful man is just, he is, in fact, just. The Protestant position is based on the Scripture passage of Romans, Chapter 4, where the Apostle Paul appeals to Abraham to prove his point of justification by faith. Paul says that “Abraham believed God”—(when God made certain promises to him), and WHEN Abraham believed God, as a result God reckoned, or imputed, or credited to him righteousness. That is, God declared Abraham’s status to be as one who was at that moment standing righteous in God’s sight. So, for Luther and the Protestant Reformers, the BASIS of Abraham’s justification is found in God’s DECLARATION concerning Abraham that he pardoned or justified him the moment he believed. Forensic justification, then, is a declaration, an act, that God does outside or apart from man. It is the judicial pronouncement of God about a sinful man, that he, as a result of placing his faith in Christ, now stands before God having the status of justness. In brief, the sinful man has been officially declared pardoned by God.
Now the Roman Catholic Church considers forensic justification to be a LEGAL FICTION; that is, this would involve God calling a man “just,” when in and of himself, the man is not just. This has its roots in the dispute stemming from Luther’s very famous slogan: “Simul Justus et Peccator,” which means “at the same time just and a sinner.” What Luther meant by this was that when God sees that a man truly believes He then declares that man justified legally in His sight. But at the same time, the pardoned sinner is still a sinner in and of himself. Catholicism objected to this, believing that God will not declare a man to be just until AFTER a man works in cooperation with God’s grace and has BECOME just. In other words, God will not call an ashtray a rose. So Catholicism believes that the Protestant concept of forensic justification involves a very serious problem in the righteousness of God—namely it involves God in a legal fiction of calling someone just, who in and of himself, is not just.
But this brings us to Point #2. To get a broader understanding of what Protestants meant by Forensic Justification, and why they said it did not involve God in a legal fiction, we need to look at the second word which describes their view. It is the word SYNTHETIC. By this term, the Protestant Reformers meant there is a synthesis, a combining or adding of something to the sinner’s account when he stands before God. Namely, the sinner appears before God, in UNION WITH Christ. The biblical imagery says that the sinner appears clothed with the righteousness of Christ; that is, the righteousness, the merits of
Christ are given or imputed to him, and cover him. God declares a sinner just, not because He looks at the sinner’s good deeds, but He declares him just IN CHRIST. It’s the unlimited merits of Christ stemming from Jesus’ perfect life and atoning death which constitute a man’s righteousness, not the merits of the man. Now to say that the merits of Christ are IMPUTED, which is Point #3 underneath the Protestant side, means that the merits of Christ are reckoned, credited, counted or transferred from the account of Jesus, so to speak, and placed over in the account of the sinner. The moment the sinner believes in Christ, God sees him standing “in Christ” where all the riches and merits of Christ overwhelmingly cancel out the sinner’s debts. The “synthesis” has taken place. That is, Christ and His merits have been added to the account of the sinner. The sinner offers and pleads nothing of his own before God, but everything that Christ has done for him. It is on the basis of the merits and riches of Christ ALONE which are imputed to the sinner, that allows God to declare him justified or pardoned.
Now, point number 2 across from Synthetic, on the Roman Catholic side, is the word ANALYTIC which describes how they understand justification. The word Analytic here means to analyze, to examine, to study in order to determine the outcome. Roman Catholicism believes God declares a person just only AFTER He analyzes the person and finds within the person REAL righteousness, REAL justness.
Now, HOW Catholicism says a person becomes truly righteous within is described by their word under Point #3, which is the word INFUSION. By Infusion Catholicism teaches that God’s prevenient grace, or the power of Christ, is infused or placed into the sinner. When this power is given, and the sinner cooperates with this power, then he can arrive in a state of justness. Only then will God declare him to be just because he has, in fact, become just. Now, Catholicism is NOT teaching a crass view of justification, that a man IN AND OF HIMSELF can live a holy and righteous life and earn justification in the sight of God. But Catholicism IS teaching that in the power of Christ, a man can arrive at a point where he will become just within, and THEN God will be able to declare him justified.
All right, let’s summarize: Catholicism believes the basis of a man’s justification is the righteousness which God finds within the person. For Protestantism, the basis of justification is Christ Himself, His righteousness. In Protestantism, a man’s righteousness within is NOT in any way THE BASIS upon which God pardons a man; rather, God pardons a man solely on the basis of Christ. In Catholicism, that which is called sanctification, or the inner transformation within a person, must come BEFORE a man can be justified. In Protestantism, sanctification or the transformation of the person’s inner life, comes only as the immediate RESULT of justification, and never is THE MEANS by which a man GAINS justification. Protestants believe Catholicism has not accepted Paul’s teaching in Romans and Galatians where he clearly defines the only basis upon which God says He will justify a man. Paul says, “To the one who does not work, but believes IN HIM who justifies the UNGODLY, his faith is reckoned [imputed, or counted to him] as righteousness” (Romans 4:5).