What is the Reformed doctrine of forensic justification? It is the view that one is made right, or justified by God, as a consequence of God’s gratuitously imputing to one Jesus’s righteousness. By dying on the cross in our stead and thus for our sins, Jesus paid the price to God for the punishment we deserve, eternal separation from him. One is justified at the moment one accepts Christ at conversion. But this acceptance, an act of faith on the part of the believer, is itself the work of God. Thus, justification is entirely a consequence of God’s grace. Accordingly, at conversion one is assured of salvation, for there is nothing that one can do or not do to lose or gain one’s redemption. [It should be noted that Luther seemed to believe that a Christian may fall from grace and “lose salvation.” How this squares with a forensic view of justification is unclear. This is why I believe that Calvin’s approach is more coherent. See, for example, Luther’s commentary on the fifth chapter of Galatians in Martin Luther, Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians, trans. Theodore Graebner (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1949; originally published in 1535), 194–216]. But the grace one receives is legal or forensic. This means that grace is not real stuff that changes nature, but merely the name given to God’s graciousness by legally accounting to us Christ’s righteousness. This is why it is called the imputation, rather than an infusion, of God’s grace. Sanctification, or as [Alister] McGrath calls it, regeneration, is a consequence of one’s conversion, the internal work of the Holy Spirit in one’s Christian journey. Good works, the exercise of the Christian virtues, and the change in one’s character over time are the natural outgrowth of one’s justification. But justification and sanctification are different events, though the latter, which extends over the lifetime of the converted sinner, follows from the former in the life of the authentic Christian. Although McGrath maintains that the Reformed distinction between justification and regeneration is only notional, it is the understanding of justification as exclusively forensic that requires this notional distinction. Thus, even if the distinction is merely notional, the idea that required it, “the Reformed understanding of the nature of justification” (i.e., forensic justification), is, according to McGrath, “a genuine theological novum.”
When I got around to reading the Church Fathers, the Reformation doctrine of justification was just not there, as [Norman] Geisler, [Ralph] McKenzie, and McGrath candidly admit. To be sure, salvation by God’s grace was there. To be sure, the necessity of faith was there as well. And to be sure, a believer’s “works” apart from God’s grace was decried. But what was present was a profound understanding of how saving faith was not a singular event that took place “on a Sunday,” to quote a famous Gospel song. Rather, saving faith, entirely the consequence of God’s grace, begins with one’s initial conversion, which incorporates one into the family of God. But at that point the journey is just beginning. For one then exercises one’s faith, itself a gift of God’s grace, in acts of charity, the spiritual disciplines, and prayer as well as in the partaking of the sacraments—all this in order to commune with God to receive his unmerited grace to conform one into the image of Christ. According to this view, justification refers not only to the Christian’s initial entrance into the family of God at baptism—which is administered for the remission of sins—but to the intrinsic work of both the infusion of that grace at baptism and all the subsequent graces that work in concert to transform the Christian from the inside out. It is in and through this ongoing transformation that one is made justified, in the same sense of being made righteous or rightly-ordered, and thus gifted to share in the divine life of Christ. Consequently, justification and sanctification are not different events, one extrinsic and the other intrinsic, as the Reformers taught. Rather, “sanctification” is the ongoing intrinsic work of justifying, or making rightly-ordered, the Christian by means of God’s grace, the same grace that intrinsically changed the believer at the moment of her initial “justification” (i.e., at baptism) into an adopted child of the Father. For the Church Fathers, as it seems to me obvious from Scripture (see chapter 6), justification is not only a matter of you getting into heaven, but also, and more importantly, a matter of getting heaven into you. This, it turns out, is the view of justification taught in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It seemed to me that the chief distinction between the Protestant view of justification on the one hand, and the Catholic and Church Fathers’ view on the other, rests on whether Christ’s grace is infused or merely imputed at the moment one becomes a Christian at baptism and/or conversion....
The beautiful articulation of God’s grace that one finds in these Fathers... is elegantly tied together in the account of grace and merit that one finds in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:The merit of man before God in the Christian life arises from the fact that God has freely chosen to associate man with the work of his grace. The fatherly action of God is first on his own initiative, and then follows man’s free acting through his collaboration, so that the merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God, then to the faithful. Man’s merit, moreover, itself is due to God, for his good actions proceed in Christ, from the predispositions and assistance given by the Holy Spirit.
My study of the Fathers led me to reexamine the Canons of the Council of Orange (AD 529), which, with papal sanction, rejected as heretical Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism. Having its origin in the Catholic monk Pelagius (ca. 354–ca. 420/440), the first heresy affirms that human beings do not inherit Adam’s sin (and thus denies the doctrine of original sin) and by their free will may achieve salvation without God’s grace. On the other hand, semi-Pelagianism maintains that a human being, though weakened by original sin, may make the initial act of will toward achieving salvation prior to receiving the necessary assistance of God’s grace. The Council of Orange, in contrast, argued that Adam’s original sin is inherited by his progeny and can be removed only by the sacrament of Baptism.
By the means of Baptism God’s unmerited grace is infused for the remission of sins. Then the Christian’s sanctification continues throughout his lifetime, entirely the work of the infusion of grace with which the Christian cooperates, for the Christian “does nothing good for which God is not responsible, so as to let him do it.” Even though Protestant thinkers sometimes portray the Council of Orange’s canons as a sort of paleo-Reformed document, it is the Reformation notion of imputed righteousness that, ironically, puts the Reformers partially in the Pelagian camp. This is because the Reformers and Pelagians agree that God’s infused grace is not necessary for justification.....
[A] Christian’s good works are performed in order that the grace that God has given us may be lived out so that we may become more like Christ.....The Catholic already believes that he is an adopted child of God wholly by God’s grace. For the practicing Catholic, good works, including participating in the sacraments, works of charity, and prayer, are not for the purpose of earning heaven. For good works are not meant to pay off a debt in the Catholic scheme of things. Rather, good works prepare us for heaven by shaping our character and keeping us in communion with God so that we may be “holy and blameless and irreproachable before him” (Col. 1:22)....
Once I abandoned methodological Protestantism, I could not find the substance of the Reformed view of justification in my reading of the New Testament without artificially forcing the text into Protestant categories. To be sure, I was fully aware how Protestant theologians made their case, and I was capable of following their reasoning. But I no longer found their case convincing. Moreover, the Reformed distinction between justification and sanctification, though seemingly defensible in light of certain biblical texts when isolated and explained by Reformed theologians, just could not be sustained in light of the entirety of the New Testament canon. Add to this the historical novelty of the Reformed doctrine of forensic justification as well as the development of sacraments, practices, and doctrines in both the Eastern and Western Churches that were totally oblivious to the Reformed view, and it seemed to me that Protestantism’s view of justification had an enormous burden that it could not meet.
Robert Wilken writes that “any effort to mount an interpretation of the Bible that ignores its first readers is doomed to end
up with a bouquet of fragments that are neither the book of the church nor the imaginative wellspring of Western literature, art
and music. Uprooted from the soil that feeds them, they are like cut flowers whose vivid colors have faded.” Thus, it did not surprise me that when I read the Catechism of the Catholic Church it seemed to tie together the scriptures and the Church Fathers in a far more elegant, rich, multilayered, and convincing way than could any Protestant account.
This is just a brief account of my understanding of the theological issues. It is not a case for why I came to believe that the Catholic view offers a better account of the Scriptural data. That is something I do in chapter 6 of Return to Rome. If you want to read that, you'll have to buy the book!