Theodore Jennings is death on forensic justification (Outlaw Justice, 62): “So-called forensic justification had God declaring people to be just who manifestly are not just., thereby vitiating the claim of justice itself.”

This violates the whole thrust of Paul’s argument in Romans, Jennings thinks: “It would be difficult to imagine a more effective way to understand Paul’s whole concern and argument because Paul’s issue is precisely that of justice, of how justice has become injustice and how justice is to be established.”

That’s on Romans 321-31. When he gets to chapter 4, he finds that he cannot avoid something that sounds like forensic justification.

He points, intriguingly, to the “mutual crediting” that is at work in Paul’s discussion of Abraham, and says, “Abraham credits the divine promise, and God credits Abraham as being or becoming just. In both cases, we have a way of conjoining future with present, as suggested by the economic term ‘credit.’ To say that Abraham credits the divine promise is to say that he regards it as entailing a future accomplishment. A bank that gives credit to a firm advances a sum of money with the expectation that it will be repaid. ‘To believe’ . . . in this case might have a similar structure. Abraham anticipates the faithfulness of God with respect to the divine promise. God anticipates the faithfulness of Abraham as leading to or as containing, in principle, justice” (73). God credits Abraham as just even though “Abraham is not yet complying with a divine command but with a divine promise” (73).

This may not be forensic justification in a classic sense, but it is a matter of God graciously crediting Abraham’s faith (for Jennings, Abraham’s loyalty) as equivalent to future justification. It sounds a lot like Wright’s idea of bringing forward the verdict of the final judgment into the present, and it sounds like Luther’s medicinal analogy of justification, according to which God treats the sinner as healed because He is determined to heal him in the future. 

Forensic justification isn’t as easy to expunge from Paul as Jennings would lead us to believe.

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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