Updated: May 30
By Luke Lancaster
Many of our Protestant brothers and sisters will argue that justification is a purely legal and forensic declaration. They will point to Abraham's faith being "reckoned" as righteousness in Scripture as proof of this understanding. Paul says in his epistle to the Romans that "faith is reckoned as righteousness" (4:5), and in Genesis it says that Abraham's faith was "reckoned as righteousness" (15:6). Issue is, many Protestants understand this to mean that it was not Abraham's "faith" that was reckoned as righteousness, but rather Christ's righteousness. Huh? Abraham is declared to be righteous, and yet is not actually righteous? Yes. This is incorrect, for God would never declare something to be so, when it is not actually so. Justification is both a declaration to a sinner that he is just, and also an infusion of justice (so that God is not lying).
Protestants believe that man cannot possibly have any righteousness of his own. So, man's sinfulness is transferred over to Christ in exchange for His righteousness! They say it is a "great exchange," whereby Abraham's sinfulness was transferred to Christ, and Christ's goodness was transferred to Abraham. So when Abraham's faith is reckoned as righteous, it's Christ's righteousness that is being singled out.
Now, the word "reckoned" has the background of an accountant’s ledger book. In his ledger book, the accountant adds a credit entry representing a sum of money obtained as a gift, which adds up to a total amount. Similarly, under imputed righteousness, God credits the alien righteousness of Christ to the believer, in order to make his standing with God positive.
Man's ledger book starts off in the negative before Christ's righteousness comes, for the "wages" of sin is death (Rom 6:23). We work at our jobs as sinners, and get paid with death. Once Christ's righteousness does come, however, we are justified (in the Protestant's mind). Now, the Greek word (logizomai) for “credited” also means “considered.” So Abraham is "considered" righteous or just by God, yet in actuality, he is not righteous. He is merely covered with the white robe of Christ, according to Protestants.
This is an issue, for now that justification is not intrinsic, but extrinsic, then they can get their teaching on eternal security. This is also a problem because God is calling somebody "righteous" or "in the right relationship with Me," when in reality it is not true. Since when does God say that something is the case, when in reality it is not? Remember the Words of God,
"So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it" (Isaiah 55:11).
If God declares that somebody has good relations with Him, then that happens! Evil is infused with good! Or consider Exodus 23:7, which says that God will not acquit the guity. Biblical scholar Dr. Robert Sungenis says that the Greek word logizomai (translated as reckoned, credited, or considered) is used 41 times in the New Testament, and most refer to “what somebody is thinking as a mental representation of the reality they are witnessing” (Not by Faith Alone, p. 325). Consider an example: I consider myself to be dead to sin, for I have been baptized. I really am dead to sin, that is why I reckon it so. St. Paul agrees, "So you also must consider (Greek: logizomai) yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 6:11). Man cannot be said to be "just" in God's sight, and not actually be just in that moment! Psalm 106:31 shows an example of this as well, where Phinehas did a good work and it was "reckoned as righteous." Phinehas is put in the "righteous" category.
When Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness, Abraham’s faith really was righteous. Truly, “the quality which one has 'considered' actually exists within the object observed.” (Not by Faith Alone, p. 327). Abraham's faith had a righteous quality about it, and he demonstrated how righteous it was. For example, he was told by God that he, in his old age, would be the father of many nations (Rom. 4:17). This was an unbelievable statement, for Abraham and Sarah were past their biological ability to have children. How could Abraham have children who would form families? And those families grow into nations? YET ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD. In the words of St. Paul,
"No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was 'reckoned to him as righteousness'" (Rom. 4:20-22).
Abraham's faith really was righteous! Now, our Protestant brothers and sisters might object and say that Abraham would have to be perfect to have his own righteousness. However, that is not the case. Abraham was a sinner, but he still had a good relationship with God. Abraham was a friend of God, just as I might be a friend with Marcus. Friends can offend each other and still be friends. That is called "venial" sin. Abraham's imperfect faith could still be counted as "righteous" because he was in a good relationship with God.
So also we, although sinners, can follow Abraham's "example of faith" (Rom. 4:12). We can have inward faith in Christ's sacrifice for sin, then can have outward faith by getting baptized INTO Christ's sacrifice (Rom. 6:3), and be reckoned as righteous. It is Christ's righteousness infused into us, so that God declares a truth, and not a lie. In the words of Paul, we are "made righteous" (Rom. 5:19). As St. Robert Bellarmine said, “When God justifies the sinner by declaring him just, He also makes him just, for God’s judgment is according to truth.” (De iustificatione, # 3). God is not a liar. If you are reckoned as righteous, you really are righteous. There is no "great exchange."
P.S. A few Protestant Bible scholars acknowledge the fact that the imputation of Christ's alien righteousness is unbiblical:
-Justification: What's at stake in the current debates has a section written by Bible scholar, Dr. Robert Gundry.
-Barnes' notes on the Bible by Albert Barnes.