Forensic justification is defined as strictly legal declaration as justified, rather than reckoning or acknowledging someone as righteous to justify him. In other words, a person is declared righteous despite being a sinner, and remain an ungodly sinner, but God overlooks justice for him and let him go. Is it acceptable if we characterize this as a false justification or forged justification - contrary to fact? As if a forged document of righteousness is given by God? And what is the origin of this theological jargon called forensic justification, who came up with it? The false justification characterization fits well with Luther's own description.

Luther’s “Sermon on Our Blessed Hope”:

We see grain sowed in the ground. Reason now asks: What happens to the grain in winter that has been sowed in the ground? Is it not a dead, moldy, decayed thing, covered with frost and snow? But in its own time it grows from that dead, moldy, decayed grain into a beautiful green stalk, which flourishes like a forest and produces a full, fat ear on which there are 20, 30, 40 kernels, and thereby finds life where only death existed earlier. Thus God has done with heaven, earth, sun and moon, and does every year with the grain in the field. He calls to that which is nothing that it should become something and does this contrary to all reason. Can He not also do something which serves to glorify the children of God, even though it is contrary to all reason?

In another quote:

Conceived in sorrow and corruption, the child sins in his mother’s womb. As he grows older, the innate element of corruption develops. Man has said to sin: ‘Thou art my father’—and every act he performs is an offense against God; and to the worms: ‘You are my brothers’—and he crawls like them in mire and corruption. He is a bad tree and cannot produce good fruit; a dunghill, and can only exhale foul odors. He is so thoroughly corrupted that it is absolutely impossible for him to produce good actions. Sin is his nature; he cannot help committing it. Man may do his best to be good, still his every action is unavoidably bad; he commits a sin as often as he draws his breath. (Werke, (Wittenberg Edition), Vol. III, p. 518.)

It is surprising that such a traditional fundamental Lutheran theology is not known by most common reformed believers, including Evangelicals; so I'd encourage the Lutherans not to rush in closing the question, but allow everyone to learn despite the disagreements. Neither Luther nor his followers are embarrassed in admitting their theology, and if one rejects them, they should be honestly realize that they reject the traditional reformed theology, rather than being defensive and attempting to censor the studies and debates on these topics. Had it been for N. T. Wright, we wouldn't have known about this, because the Lutheran scholars have responded to Wright's NPP interpretations of Rom 4:5, by defending the traditional view, and only then the laymen like us discovered these beliefs through them.

First, as many commentators note, God is here said to do what he forbids judges to do. In a striking parallel to Rom 4:5 the Greek text of Isa 5:23 pronounces a woe on οἱ δικαιοῦντες τὸν ἀσεβῆ (“those who justify the ungodly). In Prov 17:15 “he who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the LORD.” In Exod 23:7 the Lord himself swears that he will not justify the ungodly.

Daniel Wallace writes addressing to Wright's controversy.

Among his many points, Sprinkle notes that in the OT God did not justify wicked people, citing, inter alia, Exod 23.7 and Isa 5.23. In my class on the exegesis of Romans, which I have taught at Dallas Seminary for the past seven years, I have argued that these two texts are key to Paul’s thinking and that the Jews of his day would have realized this. Exodus 23.7 clearly involves legal language. It is this language which lies behind Paul’s points in Rom 3.23–24 and 4.4–5. In v. 7 we see δικαιόω used with ἀσεβής: ‘you shall not justify the ungodly for a bribe’ (οὐ δικαιώσεις τὸν ἀσεβῆ ἕνεκεν δώρων). This can only mean ‘you shall not declare innocent the ungodly for a bribe.’ Three things are significant here: (1) δικαιόω means, in this legal context, ‘declare righteous/innocent’; it does not mean ‘make righteous.’ (2) The person who might be declared innocent is in fact guilty (ἀσεβῆ), precisely the situation we have in Rom 3:23–24. (3) The word for bribe is δῶρον, a cognate of δωρεάν found in Rom 3:24. It would of course not do for Paul to say that God declares sinners righteous ‘for a bribe,’ so an appropriate substitute is needed—one that is a cognate of δῶρον, but does not use ἕνεκεν or imply anything except that God acts freely when he justifies sinners. δωρεάν is the accusative singular of δωρεά; as such, it is adverbial (always so in the NT) and means ‘freely.’ It is not insignificant that we again see in the LXX of Isa 5.23 the collocation of δικαιόω with ἀσεβής and δῶρον. And again, we see that δικαιόω must almost surely mean ‘declare innocent’ since the pronouncement is made on the ungodly who do not deserve it.

Dr. Craig quotes Henri Blocher and D. G. Dunn,

“That God’s righteousness towards the peoples he has created includes wrath and judgment as well as faithfulness and salvation is clearly implicit in the sequences Romans 1:16-18 and 3:3-6.”[8] Those who deny that dikaiōsynē is a forensic term, Dunn says, pay insufficient attention to Romans 4:4-5, “where the forensic background is clear in the allusion to the legal impropriety of a judge ‘justifying the ungodly’. . . , and where again the thought is entirely of attributing a righteous status to one who is unrighteous.”[9] Dunn’s point is that Paul’s referring to God as “him who justifies the ungodly” (Romans 4:5) recalls the Old Testament description of the unjust judge who justifies the wicked (Proverbs 17:15), which is an abomination in the Lord’s sight. French theologian Henri Blocher remarks on “the staggering audacity of Paul’s combination of words: God who justifies the ungodly (Rom 4:5)

The Cambridge Dictionary defines "impropriety" as: behavior that is dishonest, socially unacceptable, or unsuitable for a particular situation: financial/legal impropriety allegations of sexual impropriety.

  • 4
    The question has not established a link between Luther's quoted comments (above) and the doctrine of justification by faith. We need to know the context of Luther's above words and how they relate to the doctrine (or not). In any case, Luther emphasises that justifcation was by faith and not by works, but his understanding of justification was (at that stage in reformed doctrine) not yet clear and has been clarified, later, by others. It would not be expected that a former monk, coming out of spiritual darkness would get everything right all at once. Others followed on, more clearly.
    – Nigel J
    Jun 17, 2021 at 17:35
  • @nigelJ it has nothing to do with the mode of justification. Nobody's expecting perfection from Luther but your personal sentiments, and lack of understanding on theology for closing educational questions are unjustified.
    – Michael16
    Jun 18, 2021 at 7:46
  • This article will be highly informative for the laymen who are not aware of the Lutheran theology of forensic justification bible.org/seriespage/…
    – Michael16
    Jun 19, 2021 at 4:52
  • 2
    Moderators: why isn't this question closed down yet? The author moves from a premise he has not proven. He alleges Luther of impropriety. When people respond, he tells them that their scriptural conclusions are only "emotions." And when he is invited to actually learn about Luther instead of pretending to know about Luther, he turns a blind ear. What else does the guy have to do to have his question closed? Where is the accountability?
    – user24895
    Nov 23, 2023 at 14:41

2 Answers 2


In other words, a person is declared righteous despite being a sinner, and remain an ungodly sinner, but God overlooks justice for him and let him go. Is it acceptable if we characterize this as a false justification or forged justification - contrary to fact? As if a forged document of righteousness is given by God?

No, the Protestant doctrine of forensic justification should not be thought of in this way.

In this view, justification is a speech act, an act of speech which changes reality. Here are some other examples of speech acts:

  • "I now pronounce you husband and wife"
  • "You're fired"
  • "I promise to ..."
  • "I find you guilty and sentence you to ..."
  • "You are pardoned"

Each of these are declarations of a state which did not exist before. You are in one state before the declaration, and a different state afterwards: from unmarried to married, employed to unemployed, unbound by a promise to bound, free to a prisoner, guilty to pardoned.

The pardon of a king or president is the closest analogy to the justifying declaration of God, for in both the guilt of the guilty is set aside, and the guilty person becomes, in the eyes of the judicial system, innocent. And in both, this declaration doesn't change the nature of the individual: the criminal still committed their crime (aside for pardons for wrongful convictions) and the community still knows they did it, while the justified sinner is still afflicted by sin, still blinded by sin, still tempted by sin, still in a habit of sin.

But there is a great difference between the pardon of a king and the justification of God: a king's pardon probably can't change your heart, but the justification of God is only one part the multi-faceted salvation of the Gospel. Because God does not justify anyone through legal declaration who he does not also

  • give spiritual life
  • give the righteousness of Christ
  • unite to Christ
  • send the Spirit to indwell
  • adopt as his child
  • begin the lifelong sanctification process
  • promise to complete the sanctification process in the resurrection

All of these either take place or are initiated in an instant, at the moment when God saves a person.

I think the best image of salvation comes from Ephesians 2:

Ephesians 2:1-10 (NIV): As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

In sin we were dead. Just as a dead body cannot make itself alive, cannot breathe air into its lungs, cannot pump its heart to take blood to its extremities, so too can the spiritually dead not make itself spiritually alive, it cannot breath in the things of God, it cannot order its muscles to perform acts of righteousness. Dead is just dead. Dead remains dead unless God performs the miraculous, to breathe life into dead flesh, bringing it to life. And those God has made alive now cannot help but live, just as we cannot hold our breaths forever. Those who God has brought to life do not just hobble along in a state of necrosis relishing in new sins, but instead we are forever learning to cherish God more, to think the thoughts of God, to love with the overflows of God's own love. And this is why justification is not a forgery or contrary to fact: God's declaration that we are righteous becomes reality as he purifies us and conforms us to the image of Christ his Son.

  • 2
    +2 (wish I can vote more than once). Concise, clear, and precise explanation of forensic justification, especially being linked to speech-act and how the "act" portion of the speech-act makes that declaration becomes reality in the other aspects of salvation. I also appreciate the explanation because it is not cluttered with 3 ways of understanding how righteousness is given to us: imputed, infused, imparted Jun 19, 2021 at 13:50
  • Yes. God calls those things which are not as though they are. It is a uniquely Divine attribute. Dec 15, 2021 at 13:19

It is contrary to human reason for the Judge of all the Earth to exact legal (forensic) punishment on one who volunteered to be punished in the stead of many criminals. Especially as that volunteer was the very Son of God, utterly sinless in and of himself.

There is legal punishment for crimes. That is one thing.

There is righteousness manifested in carrying that punishment out so that all the crimes to be dealt with are dealt with at a stroke. That is a related thing.

There is a legal declaration of justification on those whose deserved punishment has been carried out so that there is no longer any case to answer. That is the concluding thing.

There is a logical as well as a legal (forensic) progression.

"There is no-one righteous, no not one... there is none that does good, no not one" says the Old Testament and the New (Ps.14:1-3; Isa.51:1-3; Rom.3:9-12). "Therefore, by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin" (Rom.3:20).

There we have God's righteous verdict on all sin, and (obviously) on all sinners. That is the condemnatory verdict of the righteous Judge. So, punishment must be exacted. How it is exacted is shown in the mind-blowing righteousness of God demonstrated to the whole world (whether or not they will see it) at Golgotha and then the empty tomb.

Unmitigated punishment was poured out from heaven upon the sinless one who bore in his body, on the tree, the immensity of sin. Christ yielded himself up to this demonstration of the righteousness of God. Here, and nowhere else is seen the righteousness of God as it was accomplished at Golgotha.

This is declared in the gospel. We did not have to be physically present to see with our own eyes how God dealt, once and for all, with sin. The gospel of grace tells us. We either believe and accept it, or we disbelieve and reject it. Those who reject it will have to bear their own punishment for their own sins on the Day of Resurrection and Judgment. Nobody gets off free with God, as if he 'overlooks justice' for any individual. Either they are punished personally for their own sins, or they accept God's just decree at Golgotha, that his righteousness was demonstrated to a sinful world in the way he dealt with his sinless Son.

Both Old Covenant prophet and New Testament apostle depict God as consuming fire. If one shall not be purged with God's holy fire, one shall be consumed by it. The purging fire fell at Golgotha. Come under that cleansing provision and be cleansed of all the dross of your sin. Disagree with it and be consumed by the burning wrath of God on the Day of Resurrection and Judgment. "Who shall dwell with everlasting burnings?" (Isa. 33:14 with Rev. 20:10)

So, never mind modern-day evangelicals. Go back and discover in the Bible the utter justice and righteousness of God in dealing with sin and with us sinners which Luther began to explain. Avail yourself of the mercy shown to us at Golgotha even while the Son of God willingly bore total punishment for becoming sin, for us (2 Cor.5:21).

Answer: God's legally just righteousness in punishing sin the way he did at Golgotha is not a false justification, but those who try to justify themselves by their own works will discover they are only justified in their own eyes.

  • Your appeal to Golgotha is purely emotional, and full of irrelevant points, it does not address the heart of the question. I was expecting a reason based justification. Nowhere does the apostles turn God into an evil abomination, nor undermine his justice in the msg of grace or mercy. biblescan.com/search.php?q=judge+according+work
    – Michael16
    Dec 16, 2021 at 11:08
  • Atonement ransom is not injustice but a traditional practice of restitution. Nothing illegal fraudulent about it, as with the doctrine of God's impropriety.
    – Michael16
    May 19, 2023 at 3:08
  • 1
    @Michael16 Well, you've completely lost me there! Nowhere do I even suggest that there's anything unjust, illegal or fraudulent about God's provision. Do re-read my last sentence in my answer, please.
    – Anne
    May 19, 2023 at 8:53
  • The answer only asserts it is not a false justification. You seem to assume that the que is asking whether substitutionary/atonement is a false justification. When it is about the Lutheran interpretation of justification which claims that God wrongfully declares the ungodly righteous, contrary to reality.
    – Michael16
    May 19, 2023 at 9:07

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