The Council of Trent taught that through baptism believers “are made innocent, immaculate, pure, harmless, and beloved of God.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church concurs: “Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man” (1989).
But Protestants argue that justification doesn’t include interior renewal—the idea that God’s justifying grace transforms the soul and gives an objective holiness that was not there before. This view is sometimes referred to as metaphysical righteousness or ontological righteousness.
For example, Paul teaches in Romans 4:3 that when Abraham believed God, it was “reckoned to him as righteousness.” Paul then says in verse five, “And to one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness.”
For Protestants, these verses show that rather than God infusing righteousness from Christ in a person’s soul, making it righteous in Christ, God “reckons” a person righteous in the sense that he imputes Christ’s righteousness to him, and therefore declares the person not guilty. It doesn’t make the person truly innocent on the inside, it merely puts him in right relationship with the law. In the case of the sinner, Protestants argue, God simply no longer holds the sinner condemned by the law, since Christ’s righteousness has been imputed to him. There is a change in the sinner’s relationship with God but not a change in the sinner himself (they call that sanctification).
What are we to make of this challenge? Here’s a few ways that we can meet it.
First, just because the Bible uses the language of God “reckoning” a person as righteous, it doesn’t follow that there is no ontological transformation—a change in what the sinner is. There is no reason why God’s declaration of our righteousness and our transformation by grace must be mutually exclusive. The two can be harmonized.
For example, God says in Isaiah 55:11 that his word shall not return to him empty, but it shall “accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it.” God’s word brings about the effect that he declares his word to bring about. This is manifest in God’s declaration, “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3). What his declaration signifies, light, is made actual.
Similarly, in the Catholic view, God “reckons” or declares us righteous, but that declaration effects what the declaration signifies—namely, our objective (metaphysical) righteousness. It makes us actually righteous, just like his declaration for there to be light made light actually exists. This is why we believe with St. Paul that anyone who is in Christ is a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). Whether the Catholic view is correct is another question. But at least the idea that God “reckons” us righteous is not mutually exclusive from God making us righteous. As such, Romans 4:3-5 poses no threat to the Catholic view of justification.
A second way to meet this challenge is to point out that the Greek word for reckon, logizomai, actually serves the Catholic view of justification. Paul was well aware of this term and used it quite frequently. And when he did so, he used it in the sense of making a mental evaluation or calculation about some thing having a certain quality.
Consider, for example, Romans 4:8, where Paul quotes Psalm 32:2: “Blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not reckon [Greek: logizomai] his sin.” David wrote these words in the context of having confessed his abominable sins of murder and adultery, for which he was forgiven. He writes in verse five of the same psalm, “I acknowledged my sin to thee, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord”; then thou didst forgive the guilt of my sin.” For David, this was why God didn’t reckon his sin.
But God’s forgiveness of David’s sins was not merely a legal declaration without some existential effect on David. To the contrary, David describes God’s forgiveness of his sins as being made “clean” and “whiter than snow” (51:7). And herein lies the key to God no longer reckoning David’s sin: the objective guilt of those sins had been removed. God’s reckoning was an evaluation that correctly corresponded to the objective reality of that which was being reckoned.
There are other passages that fit the same pattern. For example, in Romans 8:18 Paul “considers” [logizomai] that our current sufferings are not worth comparing with our glory that is to be revealed in heaven. Paul’s mental evaluation of our present sufferings compared to our glory in heaven matches the objective reality about the two. In Romans 9:8, Paul “reckons” [logizomai] Abraham’s spiritual children as God’s children. Paul’s evaluation about Abraham’s spiritual children corresponds to what they really are: God’s children.
1 Corinthians 4:1 is another example. There, Paul says that Christians should “regard” [logizomai] Paul as a servant of Christ and a steward of the mysteries of God. Paul really is a servant of Christ and a steward of the mysteries of God, and thus his mental evaluation corresponded with reality. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul “thinks” [logizomai] himself a full-fledged apostle (2 Cor. 11:5). Such an evaluation matches up with what Paul really is: a full-fledged apostle.
Notice that in each of the above examples a reckoning according to reality takes place—a mental evaluation that correctly corresponds to reality. Never does the reckoning in these verses suggest a mere declaration that is not intended to match up to the reality. There are some passages in Scripture where people “reckon” something in a way that doesn’t match the true nature of the thing being reckoned (see Mark 15:28; Rom. 2:3). But in these cases the reckoning is seen as flawed.
So, when we come to Romans 4:3, where God “reckons” Abraham as righteous, it’s reasonable to conclude, in light of the foregoing analysis, that God evaluates Abraham to be righteous because in reality his faith truly has a righteous quality to it, thus making Abraham ontologically righteous. To say that God “reckons” Abraham as righteous even though he’s not, you either have to say that God was wrong in his reckoning or that you’re using the term reckon in a way that Paul does not. No Protestant wants to concede the first horn of the dilemma. And I doubt that many want to concede the second. So, rather than undermining the Catholic view of justification, God’s reckoning of Abraham as righteous in Romans 4:3 supports it.