Teaching once again on justification this Sunday, this time from Psalm 32, I felt like I needed to go back to 2 Corinthians 5:21 and settle in my mind, once and for all, its meaning, especially in regard to becoming “the righteousness of God in him.” In my searching through my Logos library, I found that John Owen had the most extensive, and best discussion (“Doctrine of Justification by Faith”, Works of John Owen, Vol. 5). His reasoning is sound, and comports with, and solidifies my own thinking, which, succinctly stated, is that while 2 Corinthians 5:21 presumes upon the imputation of Christ’s righteousness (and can thus be used to prove imputation), it is referring to God’s righteousness given to us, or made ours, in union with Christ. Thus, justification takes place as we are united to Christ, his righteousness is imputed to us by God, a righteousness that is God’s own, and we are thus made righteous before God. I have cited a few sections I found particularly helpful below.
But the one challenge of Owen’s view to my own is that he is happy to go beyond the narrowly juridical or forensic bounds of justification and to conclude that justification “makes” one righteous. Up until now, I have been reluctant to use this language. However, Owen is hardly alone in the Reformed tradition. John Murray comes to mind who, citing Rom 5:19, states, “The justifying act is constitutive. But since this cannot negate the forensic meaning, it must be within the forensic sphere that it is constitutive. Hence we may sum up by saying that justification of the ungodly is constitutively and imputatively declarative” (p535, Romans [NICNT] 1975)
So, as recently as a a couple months ago, I stated in conversation that I disagreed with Murray. But perhaps Murray is not going so far as I thought he was. He is not saying, it would seem, that justification transforms someone, but rather that in the law-room metaphor, we are made righteous in God’s sight, which would still be declarative rather than constitutional or transformative, which would cross the line into sanctification. And I say that as one wanting to strongly hold the line between justification and sanctification even though I emphasize monergistic sanctification in my theology.
I was also thankful for Owen pointing me to Isa 45:24-25: “Only in the LORD, it shall be said of me, are righteousness and strength; to him shall come and be ashamed all who were incensed against him. In the LORD all the offspring of Israel shall be justified and shall glory.”