Objection: The idea of Justification as forensic imputation is a novelty invented by the Reformers, and was unknown in the early church.
Answer: In St. Augustine’s “On the Spirit and the Letter,” he describes the meaning of Justification. There, he states that to be justified is to be considered, or reckoned as just. There, he states:
When the allegation is, ‘The doers of the law shall be justified,’ what else does it mean than that the just shall be justified? For of course the doers of the law are just persons. And thus it amounts to the same thing as if it were said, The doers of the law shall be created,—not those who were so already, but that they may become such; in order that the Jews who were hearers of the law might hereby understand that they wanted the grace of the Justifier, in order to be able to become its doers also. Or else the term ‘They shall be justified’ is used in the sense of, They shall be deemed, or reckoned as just, as it is predicated of a certain man in the Gospel, ‘But he, willing to justify himself,’—meaning that he wished to be thought and accounted just. (Augustine, On the Spirit and the Letter, ch. 45.)
Latin text: Cum vero dictum est factores legis iustificabuntur, quid aliud dictum est quam ‘iusti iustificabuntur’? factores enim legis utique iusti sunt. Ac per hoc tantumdem est, ac si diceretur ‘factores legis creabuntur’, non quia erant, sed ut sint, ut sic intellegerent etiam Iudaei legis auditores indigere se gratia iustificatoris, ut possint esse factores. Aut certe ita dictum est iustificabuntur, ac si diceretur ‘iusti habebuntur’, ‘iusti deputabuntur’, sicut dictum est de quodam: Ille autem volens se iustificare , id est, ut iustus haberetur et deputaretur. (Source)
Notice that Augustine uses two Latin verbs here: “habere” (to hold/consider) and “deputare” (to account/reckon). His choice of verbs is highly significant, as both of these verbs are forensic in meaning, and imply imputation of righteousness. Thus, such language is not completely new to the 16th century, but can be traced at least as far back as the 5th.
Recommended further reading
- Dongsun Cho, “Divine Acceptance of Sinners: Augustine’s Doctrine of Justification,” Perichoresis 12, no. 2 (2014): 163-184, https://www.degruyter.com/downloadpdf/j/perc.2014.12.issue-2/perc-2014-0010/perc-2014-0010.pdf
- Luis Dizon, “De Iustificatione Dei: Luther as Interpreter of Augustine’s Soteriology,” Academia, https://www.academia.edu/32926015/De_Iustificatione_Dei_Luther_as_Interpreter_of_Augustine_s_Soteriology