Belgic Confession, Article 23: Legal Fiction!
by Rev. Martyn McGeown, Missionary-pastor laboring in Limerick, Ireland.
Article 23: We believe that our salvation consists in the remission of our sins for Jesus Christ's sake, and that therein our righteousness before God is implied: as David and Paul teach us, declaring this to be the happiness of man, that God imputes righteousness to him without works. And the same apostle saith, that we are justified freely by his grace, through the redemption which is in Jesus Christ. And therefore we always hold fast this foundation, ascribing all the glory to God, humbling ourselves before him, and acknowledging ourselves to be such as we really are, without presuming to trust in any thing in ourselves, or in any merit of ours, relying and resting upon the obedience of Christ crucified alone, which becomes ours, when we believe in him. This is sufficient to cover our iniquities, and to give us confidence in approaching to God; freeing the conscience of fear, terror and dread, without following the example of our first father, Adam, who, trembling, attempted to cover himself with fig-leaves. And verily if we should appear before God, relying on ourselves, or on any other creature, though ever so little, we should, alas! be consumed. And therefore every one must pray with David: O Lord, enter not into judgment with thy servant: for in thy sight shall no man living be justified.
Instead of imputed righteousness, Rome teaches infused or imparted righteousness, the idea that the Spirit works grace in the heart of the sinner who uses the sacraments of the church. Then on the basis of virtue in the heart—an acquired, internal righteousness—the church member is justified. The more grace in the heart, the more justified a person becomes, but even the most justified person in this life—with very few exceptions—must be purified in purgatory after death. The result is that no member of the Roman Catholic church can ever know if he has accrued enough grace in his heart to merit justification now and on the Last Day. The result for the sinner who understands sin and the holiness of God is and must be terror.
Rome scoffs at the Reformed, biblical and confessional view of justification by imputed righteousness as “legal fiction.” Rome is especially offended by the “as if” language of Reformed theologians. We believe that God views us in justification “as if [we] had never had had, nor committed any sin, yea as if [we] had fully accomplished all that obedience which Christ has accomplished for [us]” (Heidelberg Catechism, LD 23, Q&A 61). To “as if” Rome cries out “legal fiction!” Modern heretics have also criticized the doctrine of imputation, characterizing it as “the shuffling about of heavenly ledgers” (or accounting books); and have said that it is impossible for righteousness to be transferred to a guilty sinner from the sinless Christ.
The Reformed believer is not afraid of the charge of “Legal fiction!
First, if our justification is “legal fiction,” how can we possibly explain the cross of Christ? If it is impossible for God to impute Christ’s righteousness to us, it is also impossible for God to impute our sins to Christ, and for Christ to bear the punishment for them. Then we must satisfy God’s justice for our own sins, and that is impossible. Was God playing “legal fiction” at the cross? God forbid! Second, the “legal fiction” argument supposes that God is playing “Let’s pretend” in His judgment hall. God would be pretending that the sinner is righteous when the sinner is, in fact, not righteous. But God is not pretending because the righteousness which is the basis of our justification is not a “make-believe” righteousness but Christ’s righteousness. Christ’s righteousness is real! Christ’s lifelong obedience is real! Christ’s atonement on the cross is real! And God’s act of imputing that righteousness to us is real! Third, it is not that the demands of the Law are not met—they most certainly are—but the demands of the Law are not met by us. It is not that God agrees not to enforce the demands of His Law—He insists on them most strongly—but that God does not demand them from us. And the reason God does not demand perfect obedience from us is that Christ has already fulfilled the demands for us. That is not “legal fiction,” but grace!
Let us turn the “legal fiction” charge back on our detractors. All who deny that justification is by faith alone based on the imputed, alien righteousness of Christ alone must face this question. On what basis are you justified before God? On what basis can God declare you—here and now, and in the Final Judgment—to be righteous? If God—as Rome contends—justifies sinners on the basis of an imperfect obedience to His Law, God is unjust.
Imperfect righteousness as the basis of justification is the real “legal fiction”.