Justification — Forensic and Real: How the East gets it wrong (and we Lutherans don’t get it…)

Formerly titled The Errors of the Christian East: Justification

Dear Robert,

I did my best to read through the comment section, though, to be honest, it came across as often unfocused, so I had a hard time finding for myself what exactly the points of contention were. I do wish I could offer to you some brilliant insights concerning the concept of Justification in both the Eastern Orthodox and Lutheran traditions, as well as among the Fathers, however, I am somewhat hampered at the current point in time, as I am back in Virginia, while the majority of my theological library remains in Fort Wayne.

With this said, I thought I would offer at least a few short thoughts, though none too interesting, to be sure.

These Eastern theologians have successfully pointed out a terrible weakness within the LCMS, which is our penchant for rejecting all theology and doctrine that is not in some way spelled out already in the Confessions. As Confessional Lutherans, we are prone to believe that the Confessions contain the fullness of the Christian religion. This is a misunderstanding. Rather, the Confessions offer certain decisions by the Evangelical churches over certain controverted articles. The articles in question are very specific and employ terminology in a very particular way in order to succinctly express a position.

It is surely true that the Formula of Concord and the Book of Concord in general speak much of a “Forensic Atonement” of sorts, but this is because both the Roman party and the Reformed had gotten into the habit of denying it in one way or another: the Romanists by claiming that man is only prepared for salvation in the atonement, but must complete the work himself through his own personal merits; the Calvinists by claiming that nothing truly “happened” in the work of the atonement, for salvation derives not from Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection, but from the pre-existent decree and decision of God before all time. To both of these errors the Lutherans respond that the atoning work of Christ truly does accomplish our salvation, and does not merely “show it forth” as a Calvinist might believe, nor does it only “begin it” as the Papists think. This, ultimately, is the “spirit”, if you will, of “Forensic Atonement.”

Now, by rendering this decision concerning the atonement, do the Lutherans deny all other aspects of soteriological theology? Not at all. It is a Lutheran conviction that the Church is always in a state of confession against the heresies of fanatics and schismatics, as well as against the godless ploys of pagans. The Church is constantly articulating the Biblical truth in relation to the untruth of the time; thus the writings of Irenaeus are a Christianity articulated in distinction to Gnosticism, the theology of Augustine one articulated against Pelagianism, and that of Concord, a theology as confessed against the heresies of Papism. The church does not merely “confess the gospel” but confesses it in a certain context, against the culture, and against the heretics; therefore one must always take into consideration “who is at the gates” when one analyzes confessional and theological documents of a period.


“The Meeting of Pope Leo and Attila” by Francesco Solimena, 18C.

With this said, it is a mistake of the Lutherans to believe that the Book of Concord is somehow “the end of the Christian religion and the perfection of Lutheran theology.” In the same way that the Apostles’ Creed left much unsaid, as does the Athanasian, so the Confessions leave much unsaid. They merely settle what has been “in controversy,” and in reality they settle only that. It is for this reason that Martin Chemnitz, who helped pen the Formula of Concord, still saw it fitting to write his Examen as well as his Loci TheologiciThe Lords Supper, and On The Two Natures in Christ, all of which seem to have no concern for the Concordia, and all of which seem to expound a vastly more expansive theology than that which is present in the Confessions. The reason for this is simple: these other writings of Chemnitz are theologies which expound the truth of Christian doctrine positively. The Confessions are a denunciation of heresy, to put it simply. Like the creeds, the Confessions do not profess what one ought to believe, but rather, what one must believe. It is the minimum truth which is attested ands set forth.

This is all to say that much of Lutheranism never makes an appearance in the Confessions simply because much of Lutheranism did not have a clear enemy to confess most of her doctrines against. If one wants to know Lutheran theology, one cannot stop at the Confessions, or even “The Confessions and Walther and Pieper.” If one does make this mistake, one is likely to fall into the trap that these Orthodox men have fallen into: a dissatisfaction with the seeming shallowness of Lutheran theology.

Nicaea II

The Second Council of Nicaea,
787 AD

With this said, I do not care if an opponent alleges, “Your Confessions fail to say anything about the X, Y, and Z of theology.” It is not necessary that they say anything about it. I do not mock the Eastern Orthodox, saying, “Your decrees at the Second Council of Nicaea talk about nothing but icons; do you only believe in icons? Why does it not talk about the Trinity more?” This of course is unfair, and so it is unfair to hold a Lutheran not simply “to the Confessions” but “to the Confessions to the exclusion of all else.”

Concerning Forensic Atonement:

I would like to give an analysis of the following quote, which seems to be the final articulation of the Eastern Orthodox contention:

There is no forgiveness without blood, because God is not interested in just turning a blind eye to our sins, nor in just treating us forensically righteous even though we are not actually righteous. Instead I suggest that God does not forgive sins without providing a way for the sinner to change and be released from the corruption and bondage that our sins bring upon ourselves. The shedding of blood and the forgiveness of sins are intertwined, because God not only wants us to become sorry, but to actually be able to change and return and abide with Him forever. The purification that comes from Christ’s blood does this, and is our pledge that God loves us and wants us to return to Him in righteousness and holiness. Maybe I’ll write another post on this topic when I have more time.

The argument seems to be as follows: it is ridiculous for God to charge us with a debt, then kill someone else (His Son) and so declare us not-guilty, since our guilt was somehow “transmitted” to another. This is not true justice, but really an affront to justice, for justice demands that goodness be rewarded, and evil punished. If those who do good are punished, and those who do evil saved, even though the evil have in no way become less evil, there is in no true sense “justice” being carried out here, but a miscarriage of justice. Furthermore, the fact that this miscarriage is carried out by the “judge” himself, that is, God, does not make it any less unjust. Rather, it only renders God Himself unjust, which is blasphemy.

The problem with this argument is that Lutherans do not believe that we are merely “declared righteous” despite being unrighteous by some legal trick. The Confessions say over and again that we are righteous because we somehow “have Christ’s righteousness.” What this means, the Confessions leave very vague. However, Lutheranism as a whole does not leave it unexplained. Lutherans believe that in Adam all mankind sinned. This is not because the sin of Adam was credited to all mankind, as a debt being forced upon the children of the one who acquired it. Rather, all mankind was in Adam sinning, and so therefore, we all truly did sin. All of us individually committed the original sin. It is for this reason that it is written, “sin entered the world through one man, and so death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned.” This “all sinning” does not refer to our private sins, but our “all sinning” in the Original Sin, for all mankind was summarized and contained in Adam. As Adam, being all mankind, sinned, so he would die, and all humanity in him.

Now the purpose of the Incarnation was this: that God not only became a man, but rather became all mankind. Just as we were all in Adam, we are now all recapitulated and summarized in Christ, not by way of analogy but in truth, which is to say, ontologically. When He does righteousness, so we do righteousness, for we are summarized in the one Who has done it. When He dies, so mankind dies with Him, thus satisfying the declaration of God: “You shall surely die.” Yet, Christ, being God, was not contained by death, and so rose again unto immortality, so all mankind being in Him shall rise again into immortality and be participants in the divine nature, as we already are, and all these things, not by transaction or legal agreement, or by the “decree of God” but because Christ truly now is all mankind. There is only one “sanctified” man, and only one “justified” man, and that is Christ. There is only one immortal, one infinite, one sinless, &c., and we cannot be any of these things merely by attribution. Rather, we must be joined physically into the one who is; and to our everlasting happiness, this very grafting into the infinite occurred in the act of the Incarnation.

This is the meaning of all the sacraments, that we are in and one with Christ. We know that by baptism, we were baptized into Christ. This is no mere Pauline metaphor. We must believe it says what it truly does say: we are in Christ, one with Him, joined to Him, woven into Him, never to be separated, participating in all that is His. We are baptized into His death, and so our death is accomplished, fulfilling God’s word, for if we do not die, then God was from the beginning a liar, unwilling to accomplish that which He determined in the beginning as the very first command and “promise” to mankind. In baptism we are “united in a death like His, so surely we shall be united with a resurrection like His. We know that our old self was crucified with Him… Now we know that if we have died with Christ, we believe we will also live with Him… We know that Christ, being raised from the dead will never die again…,” &c. Paul here endeavors to show us that Christ and the Christian are one, and that whatever is said of Christ is said of Christian, since they are now inseparable.

Similarly, the Sacrament of the Altar promises that whosoever eats the body and drinks the blood, Christ will abide in them, and they in Christ— which is to say, we are participants in God Himself through the hypostatic union wherein mankind has been assumed into the Deity in the two natures of the person of Christ which we have consumed and which has consumed us. In this sacrament we are “justified”— that is, made truly just— for “He is now our peace, who has made us both (Christ and mankind) one, and has broken down in His flesh the dividing wall of hostility.” There is no hostility between God and Man, for in the Incarnation, Man was taken into God.

For this reason, it is wrong to say that God “turns a blind eye to our sin” for He has not. Rather, He has killed all mankind for their sin, in accordance with His word, for He killed His Son, the Christ, who is mankind, Who is All in All. It is also wrong to say that God is “treating us forensically righteous even though we are not actually righteous,” for forensic merely means to declare righteous, which God does justly and in truth, for He declares Christ righteous, and so He is. He alone is the one who is “forensically justified.” Yet to say Christ is “forensically justified” must entail that we are actually righteous, for we are one with Christ, the righteous one, and if He is righteous, so are we, though sin clings on in the form of the Old Adam. But he is being put to death, daily mortified. Our (to misuse the term slightly) sanctification is not so much our growing in godliness (for we already possess the completion of all godliness) but rather it is the increasing death of the Old Adam.

The good subdeacon goes on to say that God does not merely want to forgive us, but to bring us out of our sin and corruption. But as is clear, this God has already done. Now we only wait this brief moment of life, that the evil of corporeal death, which once was the loss of all of man’s self, now has become sanctified in Christ’s death and has been transfigured into the death of sin in us and the final liberation of Christ from the shackles of our sin.

Our Eastern brother then finishes by saying that

the shedding of blood and the forgiveness of sins are intertwined, because God not only wants us to become sorry, but to actually be able to change and return and abide with Him forever. The purification that comes from Christ’s blood does this, and is our pledge that God loves us and wants us to return to Him in righteousness and holiness.

This is offensive to the Lutheran not because it is wrong per se, but because it assumes that such a “change” and “return” and “abiding” has not already been accomplished. We have been baptized into Christ, we eat His body and drink His blood, so we are already changed, deified. We have returned to Him in His Incarnation, for He has returned to us. We abide in Him now and forever, for His very flesh has “godded us through” (to use Luther’s colorful wording).

Herein lies the true contention between our Eastern Orthodox brothers and us: what they believe needs to be completed within ourselves, we believe to have been completed in Christ as the recapitulation of Mankind, i.e, the New Adam. They believe that Christ has begun and made possible what we believe He has finished, and it is for this reason that we find it entirely fitting that Paul always speaks of the consummation of our salvation as already having been accomplished. Christ is already “all in all”; we have already “died with Him”, &c. This is not something soon to come, nor is it something dependent on our action. Christ has done it, and all of us in Him.

Dr. David Scaer speaks thusly on the subject:

Narrow justification down to the one person of Jesus whom God finds and declares as righteous (Acts 3:14-15) and in this declaration he incorporates all of humanity. In raising Jesus from the dead, God found him righteous, and in that one act God found all of humanity righteous in him (1 Cor 15:22). Jesus, as the second, greater, and true Adam, possessed all of humanity in himself. So if all sinned in the first Adam and were condemned to death, how much more shall life and resurrection be given to all in the greater Adam, in and from whom God constituted a new humanity.

This is the crux of the Lutheran understanding of Forensic Justification, that in Christ, a “new humanity” was constituted and so “declared righteous” for this humanity truly is righteous, for it is Christ.

Luther writes in his Commentary on Galatians:

And all the prophets saw this, that Christ was to become the greatest thief, murderer, adulterer, robber, desecrator, blasphemer, &c., there has ever been anywhere in the world. He is not acting in His own person now. Now He is not the Son of God, born of the Virgin. But He is a sinner, who has and bears the sin of Paul, the former blasphemer, persecutor, and assaulter; of Peter, who denied Christ; of David, who was an adulterer and a murderer, and who caused the Gentiles to blaspheme the name of the Lord (Romans 2:24). In short, He has and bears all the sins of all men in His body — not in the sense that He has committed them but in the sense that He took these sins, committed by us, upon His own body, in order to make satisfaction for them with His own blood.

And again:

“But it is highly absurd and insulting to call the Son of God a sinner and a curse!” If you want to deny that He is a sinner and a curse, then deny also that He suffered, was crucified, and died. For it is no less absurd to say, as our Creed confesses and prays, that the Son of God was crucified and underwent the torments of sin and death than it is to say that He is a sinner or a curse. But if it is not absurd to confess and believe that Christ was crucified among thieves, then it is not absurd to say as well that He was a curse and a sinner of sinners. . . . [Isaiah chapter 52] Isaiah 53:6 speaks the same way about Christ. It says: “God has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” These words must not be diluted but must be left in their precise and serious sense. For God is not joking in the words of the prophet; He is speaking seriously and out of great love, namely, that this Lamb of God, Christ, should bear the iniquity of us all. But what does it mean to “bear”? The sophists reply: “To be punished.” Good. But why is Christ punished? Is it not because He has sin and bears sin? That Christ has sin is the testimony of the Holy Spirit in the Psalms. Thus in [Psalm 39] Psalm 40:12 we read: “My iniquities have overtaken Me”; in [Psalm 40] Psalm 41:4: “I said: ‘O Lord, be gracious to Me; heal Me, for I have sinned against Thee!'”; and in [Psalm 68] Psalm 69:5: “0 God, Thou knowest My folly; the wrongs I have done are not hidden from Thee.” In these psalms the Holy Spirit is speaking in the Person of Christ and testifying in clear words that He has sinned or has sins. These testimonies of the Psalms are not the words of an innocent one; they are the words of the suffering Christ, who undertook to bear the person of all sinners and therefore was made guilty of the sins of the entire world.

And again:

This is the most joyous of all doctrines and the one that contains the most comfort. It teaches that we have the indescribable and inestimable mercy and love of God. When the merciful Father saw that we were being oppressed through the Law, that we were being held under a curse, and that we could not be liberated from it by anything, He sent His Son into the World, heaped all the sins of all men upon Him, and said to Him: “Be Peter the denier; Paul the persecutor, blasphemer, and assaulter; David the adulterer; the sinner who ate the apple in Paradise; the thief on the cross. In short, be the person of all men, the one who has committed the sins of all men. And see to it that You pay and make satisfaction for them.”

And again:

Now that Christ reigns there is in fact no more sin, death, or curse — this we confess every day in the Apostles’ Creed when we say: “I believe in the holy church.” This is plainly nothing else than if we were to say: “I believe that there is no sin and no death in the church. For believers in Christ are not sinners and are not sentenced to death but are altogether holy and righteous, lords over sin and death who live eternally.” But it is faith alone that discerns this, because we say: “I believe in the holy church.” If you consult your reason and your eyes, you will judge differently. For in devout people you will see many things that offend you. You will see them fall now and again, see them sin, or be weak in faith, or be troubled by a bad temper, envy, or other evil emotions. “Therefore the church is not holy.” I deny the conclusion that you draw. If I look at my own person or at that of my neighbor, the church will never be holy. But if I look at Christ, who is the Propitiator and Cleanser of the church, then it is completely holy; for He bore the sins of the entire world. Therefore where sins are noticed and felt, there they really are not present. For, according to the theology of Paul, there is no more sin, no more death, and no more curse in the world, but only in Christ, who is the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world, and who became a curse in order to set us free from the curse. On the other hand, according to philosophy and reason, sin, death, &c., are not present anywhere except in the world, in the flesh, and in sinners. For the theology of the sophists is unable to consider sin any other way except metaphysically, that is: “A quality clings to a substance or a subject. Therefore just as color clings to a wall, so sin clings to the world, to the flesh, or to the conscience. Therefore it must be washed away by some opposing motivation, namely, by love.” But the true theology teaches that there is no more sin in the world, because Christ, on whom, according to Isaiah 53:6, the Father has laid the sins of the entire world, has conquered, destroyed, and killed it in His own body. Having died to sin once, He has truly been raised from the dead and will not die any more (Romans 6:9). Therefore wherever there is faith in Christ, there sin has in fact been abolished, put to death, and buried. But where there is no faith in Christ, there sin remains.

And again:

Therefore a Christian, properly defined, is free of all laws and is subject to nothing, internally or externally. But I purposely said, “to the extent that he is a Christian” (not “to the extent that he is a man or a woman”); that is, to the extent that he has his conscience trained, adorned, and enriched by this faith, this great and inestimable treasure, or, as Paul calls it, “this inexpressible gift” (2 Corinthians 9:15), which cannot be exalted and praised enough, since it makes men sons and heirs of God. Thus a Christian is greater than the entire world. For in his heart he has this seemingly small gift; yet the smallness of this gift and treasure, which he holds in faith, is greater than heaven and earth, because Christ, who is this gift, is greater.

And again:

This is truly a striking, beautiful and (as St. Peter says in 2 Peter 1) the dearest and the greatest of all promises, given to us poor miserable sinners, that we also are to take part in divine nature and be so highly ennobled, that we are not only to be loved by God through Christ — to have his favor and grace as the highest and dearest holiness — but to have the Lord Himself abide in us. Then it shall be (as he says) that we not only remain in His love and that He takes from us His wrath and offers to us a gracious Fatherly heart, but that we should enjoy the same love (otherwise it would be wasted, “lost love” as the saying goes, to love and not enjoy, &c.) and have great benefit and treasure from it, and such love proves itself in deeds and great gifts.

And again:

And we are so filled “with all kinds of God’s fullness,” that is so much spoken of in the Hebrew manner: that we are filled in all manner, that He makes full and we become full of God, overwhelmed with all gifts and grace, and filled with His Spirit, which makes us brave and illuminates us with His light, and His life lives in us, His blessedness makes us blessed, His love in us awakens love, in short, that all that He is and can do in us becomes total and works powerfully.

And again:

This is the true faith of Christ and in Christ, through which we become members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones (Ephesians 5:30). Therefore in Him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). Hence the speculation of the sectarians is vain when they imagine that Christ is present in us “spiritually,” that is, speculatively, but is present really in heaven. Christ and faith must be completely joined. We must simply take our place in heaven; and Christ must be, live, and work in us. But He lives and works in us, not speculatively but really, with presence and with power.

The summary of Luther’s position is as follows: that in Christ man and God are joined, and that all the misery of man is abolished in the divinity of God, and to man is accorded all the righteousness and perfection of God, not by some legality, but by a true unification, which is called “faith,” which is nothing else than the presence of Christ in the Christian. If one is to say, “Well, yes, Luther said these things, but they are not in the Confessions,” it should be noted that the Formula of Concord specifically cites Luther’s Commentary here as the authoritative understanding of “Forensic Justification.” Therefore, if one wants to truly understand what forensic justification is, let him deal with the quotes above.

The problem lies in that most non-Lutherans, and even many Lutherans, understand Forensic Atonement to be synonymous with the Reformed notion of the Atonement wherein on the cross only a man died and that by an arbitrary decree of God, the Father decides to accept his death as a sufficient payment for the sins of the world, even though of itself it is valueless, being only the death of a man.

As can be seen from the quotes from Luther above, this is most certainly not the case, for the Lutherans view salvation in terms of the recapitulation and recreation of mankind in Christ who both as God and as Mankind takes the guilt of mankind and is put to death for it, yet also bestows His life to the very mankind He has been joined to. All He has done we have done, and all we have done, our evil and sin, He has “done” and so has been punished.

Luther writes in the 26th thesis of the Heidelberg Disputation:

For through faith, Christ is in us, indeed, one with us. Christ is just and has fulfilled all the commands of God, wherefore we also fulfill everything through him since he has been made ours through faith.

Chemnitz writes:

Because human nature in Adam was turned from God through sin and alienated from the life and fellowship of God, therefore the Son of God in His own person again united it with the divine nature by the most intimate union, and thus restored it to fellowship with God.

And again:

The son of God wills to accomplish the work of our redemption in, with, and through his assumed nature, in order that we might be made certain that we are his brothers and heirs of all his merits.

And again:

The Son of God with all His fullness has bestowed all His benefits and gifts upon the assumed nature so that, since he is our kinsman, we who are His brothers may receive the things which the Head bestows upon its members.

And again:

The Son of God assumed a human nature in order that He might share his offices and duties of the kingdom, and the perpetual high priesthood of the Messiah, so that we might be sure that we have access to Him and that we embrace Him in His work as King and High Priest; for in the kingdom of God, His divine nature administers His kingdom and His priesthood in communion with the assumed nature, which is akin to us and of the same substance with us. For no one hates his own flesh, but nourishes and favors it. He is our King and High priest, and we are bone of his bones.

Here Chemnitz speaks of the reasons for the Incarnation. The idea presented above is that whatsoever Christ has done, we have done, and so we are rewarded for His merits, since they are ours by the fact that our “substance” has done them. Similarly, all that is ours is punished in Him. This is the meaning of “Forensic Justification,” that goodness is rewarded by God, and evil destroyed, for God is a righteous judge who by His judgments exalts all righteousness and condemns all wickedness. To take the Eastern Orthodox position that “God has always been willing to forgive apart from a punishment being incurred by anyone” is to say that, firstly, God does not seem to take these sins very seriously, and, secondly, that He seems unwilling to keep His own word and punish sin as He so often promises to do. According to the Lutheran doctrine, all sin is punished as God has promised, and all goodness is rewarded as God has promised, and yet perfect divine love is left intact after the completion of divine justice, for the act of justice accomplished on the cross was executed upon divine love Himself, who succeeds the execution of justice and bears all mankind within Himself as a sort of ark through the consuming fire of God’s righteousness.

Justification in the Thought of the Fathers

What follows is a series of quotations from the Fathers (quoted by Chemnitz) concerning the nature of justification. By quoting these passages from the Fathers, Chemnitz shows two things: first, that the Lutheran doctrine was espoused by the Fathers, and second, that that which the Fathers said is to be assumed as included in the Lutheran doctrine. Therefore, the Fathers quoted can be seen as proleptic “glosses” on the Book of Concord. This is to show that the Lutheran “Forensic Justification” is,  firstly, a very profound doctrine, and, secondly, that it does not properly contain the entire doctrine of the atonement; or perhaps it is better to say that the term “forensic justification” is a misnomer, since the doctrine contains much that is not strictly speaking forensic. The act of the Atonement is ineffable, and can not be entirely comprehended by any motif, whether that of a courtroom, or that of Christ conquering sin, death and the devil, or that of Jesus becoming an ark for us against the flood of God’s wrath, or that of any other. Therefore, to show that when the Evangelical churches speak of justification, they do not mean some Stalinist show trial with an untrue verdict, Chemnitz says effectively, “if you wish to understand our doctrine of the atonement more clearly, please see these passages from the Fathers, for what they have written, so we profess.”

Ignatius of Antioch writes: “The word was made flesh, the incorporeal was embodied in a body, the immortal in a mortal body, life was in destruction, so that He might free us from death and destruction.”

Irenaeus writes: “The Son of God was made the Son of Man that man might also be made the son of God.”

St. Irenaeus of Lyons

St. Irenaeus of Lyons

And again:

It was necessary that the Mediator between God and men should restore and produce friendship and harmony between them through the relationship to each, so that God might assume man and man might give himself to God. For how could we be sharers of His adoption unless we received that communion which is with Him through the Son and unless he had communicated to us His Word made flesh?

And again:

Sin dominated man. Therefore, it was necessary that He who put sin to death and redeemed man guilty of death should Himself become the same as he is, that is, a man, in order that sin might be put to death by man, and that man might thus escape from death. [NB the explicit reference to the guilt of man requiring a punishment of death.]

And again: “He who is the Son of God is made the Son of Man. For we could have received incorruption and immortality in no other way except by being united with incorruption.”

Athanasius writes: “If Christ were not the true and natural Son of God, then mankind would not have been fully attached to God.”

And again, writing as Christ: “I bear their body in order that they may have unity with My body and that they may be one in it just as those whom I bear may likewise become one body.”

Cyril writes in his Evangelium Joannis:

The Son of God joined our nature to Himself so that He might restore it to its original beauty in and through himself, and that he himself might be constituted as the heavenly man, the second Adam, the first of all men in righteousness and spiritual sanctification, and that through Himself He might bestow all good things upon our race.

And again:

The connecting link in our union with God is Christ. He is united to us as man and to God the Father as God by nature […] Thus we have been taken up and brought back to union with God the Father by the mediation of the Savior; for when we receive bodily and substantially the Son of God, who is by nature united with the Father, we are then honored, glorified, and made participants of the divine nature.

And again:

He is the Mediator between God and men, not only because He reconciled men to God but also because by nature and by substance He is God and man in one hypostasis. For that which as an intermediary joins together two things is touched by each, and in this way different things are joined together by an intermediary. Thus Christ is the Mediator of God and man because in the same single person God and man are joined together. And since He is joined to us by nature, our nature is joined to Him in the divine substance, and thus we are in communion with the divine nature.

Tertullian writes in De Trinitate:

It was necessary that God become flesh, so that in Him He might guarantee harmony equally between earthly and heavenly things, since He connects the pledges of each party and joins man to God and God to man.

Basil writes:

God is in the flesh because it was necessary that this cursed flesh be sanctified and this weak flesh be made strong, that this alienated flesh be made like God and this fallen flesh restored to Paradise.

Chemnitz goes on to quote perhaps another thirty passages from various Fathers. You may ask me, “That is all very interesting, but why do you speak so much about the Incarnation and union with Christ, when my question was about Forensic Justification?” The answer is that, according to Chemnitz, no one can understand the “sinner being declared righteous” unless he understands that this very same sinner is completely united to God himself and made a sharer of all His benefits, and that this “sharing” is not merely one of “give me that which is yours, that I might pretend that it is mine,” but rather it is a true union, that all that Christ has done, He has done as a man, and so man has done it, and can be judged as having done is justly by God. The “forensic justification” follows only from this understanding of the Incarnation, which is why for Chemnitz, Luther, and all of the orthodox gnesio-Lutheran theologians, there could be no justification, no atonement, without a full Incarnation (not the Nestorian incarnation proposed by the Calvinists), for if God did not truly become one with Mankind, then the sinner being declared righteous would truly be a miscarriage of justice — a lie put in God’s mouth, just as our modern Eastern brothers often say.

This is the meaning of the phrase “we are declared righteous on behalf of Christ” [propter Christum] which is to say “we are declared righteous because Christ was declared righteous in the Resurrection, and we are one with Christ, so we two participate in that declaration.” Similarly the phrase “we have Christ’s righteousness” does not mean at all that His righteousness is attributed to us. Rather, Lutherans would have the phrase mean exactly what it means semantically — that is, that we have His righteousness in the same way that we have an arm or a car or any other thing that we have; it is truly ours. We did not steal it, nor are we borrowing it, nor is it lent to us indefinitely. We have it; we possess it; it is ours, for it is Christ, who is, as Luther would say, in us by faith, for faith and Christ are identical, and to have faith means to have Christ and visa versa.

Another reason I point out the above quotations is to form a somewhat nuanced polemic against the Eastern Orthodox, for they believe that the way of our salvation is pointed out and made possible by Christ’s incarnation and atonement, and so now it is our opportunity to accomplish that which Adam failed to accomplish, that is, our deification through the application of our will in cooperation with the divine energies. However, one must note how all these Fathers seem to view our deification, our justification, our sanctification, our glorification, our being “honored”, &c., as having already been completed, done in the past, that is, done in Christ already. For the Fathers, all of these things are accomplished, for, as Jesus says, “It is finished.” It is this concept which defines the Lutheran doctrine of justification, that is, the completed nature of it, and also the doctrine of a “Forensic Justification”, for that which God has declared cannot be changed. In Christ’s death, God has already condemned sin. In His resurrection, He has forgiven mankind and raised it in Christ. The judgment is already given; man is forgiven and sanctified. We who are in time must “wait” for the Old Adam to die off, that we might procure the fullness of our verdict, but in God, who is beyond all time, the declaration is firm and eternal.

I have said enough for now. Concerning the requirement for a placation to the wrath of God, I could write about it another day, however, having explicated the doctrine of the Forensic Atonement, I am not sure if it is still necessary.


Subdeacon Harju responded to this piece here, the Rev’d Jordan Cooper responded to Harju in a podcast here, and the Rev’d Dr. Eric Phillips responded to Harju in a post here.

More from Quiet George on the topic of forensic atonement, etc., here.


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Appendix A: distinguo contra Dr. Tuomo Mannermaa

Dr. Tuomo Mannermaa, professor emeritus of ecumenical theology at University of Helsinki, Finland

The reason why Tuomo Mannermaa’s article is controversial is less theological than political and cultural, though there may be a theological component to it. Part of Mannermaa’s  thesis is that Luther’s very realistic understanding of the atonement was forgotten and therefore not present in the Formula of Concord, and that therefore there exists a chasm between Luther and the Formula, as well as Luther and Chemnitz, on the nature of deification. He finds this chasm to be spelled out particularly in the Formula’s condemnation of Osiandrianism.

What Mannermaa fails to see, according to my opinion, is that the Formula does not condemn Osiander’s soteriological realism, but rather it condemns Osiander on two points: firstly, that Osiander taught that Christ’s presence in us is only according to the divine nature, and not according to both, as Lutheran Christology would demand (this topic would be dealt with at length in Chemnitz’s “The Two Natures In Christ”), and secondly, that Osiander found that logical “reason” for our justification to be found not in the judgment upon Christ as mankind on the cross, but upon our inner renewal through the indwelling of Christ. The problem of Osiandrianism is that of “who is God looking at when he declares ‘not guilty'”? Is he looking at you with the divine nature renewing you from within (an idea which seems almost a Lutheranized form of Catholicism’s “infused grace”) or is he looking at Christ as the first and fullness of a new humanity?

The second reason for the controversy over Mannermaa is that since his entire theology was developed in the crucible of the dialogue with the Eastern Orthodox, there is suspicion that when Mannermaa speaks of Luther’s doctrine of deification, he is actively trying to make it sound just a little more Orthodox so as to make it appealing to them, as opposed to allowing it to sit in its full Lutheran glory. The main way he does this is in (seemingly) repeating Osiander’s mistake (and the mistake of the Orthodox) and finding the locus of justification in the presently-living Christian who has Christ within him by faith, and not in Christ on the cross, who has Mankind in Him.

The primary question of the Lutheran doctrine of the Forensic Atonement is this: where does God find you righteous?

If the answer is, “On the cross, where Christ was declared both guilty and righteous, Him becoming one with our guilt, us becoming one with His righteousness,” then you are a Lutheran.

If the answer is, “Within the sinner who possess Christ by faith and is renewed by Christ’s divinity,” then you are an Osiandrian.

If the answer is, “Within the sinner who has Christ within him, both as a renewal, and as a pledge of God’s good will,” then you are a follower of the Finnish Interpretation.

If the answer is, “Within the sinner who, by participation in the divine energies, is purified of all sin and so made pleasing to God,” then you are Eastern Orthodox.

I argue, of course, the first, and so you can see how it differs from the others.

The question would again be put: by what merits are you declared to be righteous?

If the answer is: “By the merits of Christ depicted in His Incarnation, obedience, passion, death and resurrection, in which we all participate through baptism in faith, and which are truly made ours,” then you are a Lutheran.

If the answer is: “By new merits gained by Christ through and in us by his indwelling,” then you are some sort of Osiandrian-Finn.

If the answer is: “By new merits (though they would never use the term merit…) gained by myself as a renewed man through theosis,” then you are Orthodox.

Again, I argue the first.

The final and abiding rule of “what makes it truly Lutheran, &c.” is the question of, “Did Christ finish it already, or is there something to be done, even if Christ ‘does it in or through us’?” The Lutheran answer is to say with Christ “It is finished.” Whether it be justification, sanctification, deification, glorification, we must be able to say that with Christ in His life, “It is finished.”



Quiet George


  1. George points to the heart of the matter when he asks: “Where does God find you righteous?” And the only possible answer to that question is on the cross. Extra nos. Not only sola gratia but sola fide. Nothing of our work but wholly God’s. Having said that I must confess that I am puzzled when George goes on say that sanctification and glorification are also “finished.” Perhaps I misunderstand him. To be sure St Paul in I Cor.1:30 says that Christ is our sanctification (hagiasmos), but surely Paul uses the word in a different sense than the the word sanctification is used in confessional and systematic and catechetical theology. I suspect that this is just one example of where the meaning of a word in Holy Scripture does not always correspond to the use of the same word in the Confessions, in systematic and catechetical theology. It seems to me that both the Symbols and the Catechism teach that sanctification remains incomplete in this life and that glorification is ours only after the death of the body. I would welcome a clarification of the “finishedness” of sanctification and glorification. Christ’s finished work is clearly source of both but how can one say they are in this life “finished”?
    Charles McClean

  2. Dear Father McClean,

    I have to admit I wrote with much unclarity to Trent when I first composed these words, thinking that they were no more than a friendly and somewhat casual correspondence between us alone.

    That being said, I was often a bit “rough and tumble” with terminology.

    By “finished” I merely meant that nothing more needed to be contributed to it by us. Everything that is essential for its consummation has been already given, so to speak, by Christ.

    I hope and pray you are very well.

  3. Christ is Risen! I would recommend reading J.D.C. Fisher’s book, “Baptism in the Medieval West”. It shows forth the disintegration of the Initiatory Rites in the Western Catholic Church, and the ensuing change from chrismating and communing all newly illumined, including infants. The Book of Concord’s definition of Church avers that it is that which “rightly administers the sacraments”. She who rightly administers baptism, chrismation and communion is the Orthodox Church. A blessed Eastertide to you. Fr. Daniel Hackney

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