Reformed Christians believe that justification—the event by virtue of which a person comes to be saved—consists in the juridical imputation of righteousness. This is distinguished from God's sanctifying the person, where righteousness is induced in the person. Reformed Christians, of course, believe that sanctification comes along with justification, but want to maintain a distinction between the two.
What would justification consist in on such a view? What is the difference between being justified and not being justified? In this post I want to clear the way for further discussion by rejecting some accounts that I think are particularly problematic. While I myself reject the Reformed distinction between justification and sanctification, I want to offer these arguments in a friendly way to my Reformed brethren.
Problematic account 1: Justification consists in predestination.[note 1] On this account what makes Patricia justified is that God has predestined her for salvation. Thus, her being justified is not grounded in any intrinsic property of hers, but in a property of God—that God intends to save her.
The most obvious problem with this account is that then Patricia is justified from the first moment of her existence. But if so, then she does not change in respect of justification when she repents of her sins and accepts Christ as her savior. It seems plausible to suppose that justification does not precede faith. (One argument for this is that according to the Reformed, one is saved by faith, and hence being justified cannot precede faith; this is a bad argument because it neglects the possibility of backwards causation or causation mediated by God's foreknowledge.) It likewise seems plausible to connect justification and the forgiveness of sins. Something changes for the Christian. She was lost, and now she is found. And this change seems tied to justification. The correct thing vis-à-vis Reformed Theology (and probably the truth, too) to say seems to be that prior to receiving salvific grace, Patricia was predestined but not yet justified; after receiving salvific grace, she is predestined and justified.
Problematic account 2: Justification consists in a changing divine attitude. On this account, when Patricia becomes justified, God's attitude towards Patricia changes.
A major difficulty with this approach is that it is difficult to square with divine simplicity or immutability. Perhaps one can square it with immutability by positing that God eternally has one attitude towards Patricia-at-t for t<t0 and eternally has another attitude towards Patricia-at-t for t>t0, where t0 is the moment of justification. If so, then in some sense there is no real change at all in anything at the time of justification—it's simply that Patricia has reached a time at which she is favored, but any change here whether on the part of Patricia or of God is a Cambridge change. Can justification be a Cambridge change? Does it make sense to rejoice in a mere Cambridge change in the way in which one rejoices in one's salvation?
Moreover, this will not take care of problems of divine simplicity. God being omnipotent could, surely, have justified Patricia not at t0 but at t1 instead. Consider a world just like this one but where that happens. What is the difference between this world and that world in virtue of which in this world Patricia is justified at t0 but in that world she is justified at t1? Since justification is an extrinsic property of Patricia on this view, the difference must lie in God's attitudes: in one world God has one set of attitudes and in the other another. But this seems to violate divine simplicity: it suggests that God is not identical with divine attitudes. There is a way of handling this in general, and that is to suppose that the attitudes are extrinsic properties of God. But this solution raises the question of what properties of creatures are such that in virtue of them it is correct to talk of God having one attitude in one world and the other in the other? Since on the present account Patricia's justification was supposed to be solely a fact about God's attitudes, it does not seem that there is room for such properties of creatures.
Problematic account 3: Justification is a dispositional property: x is justified at t iff were x to die at t, x would go to heaven. Granted, before the time t0 of justification, it was true of Patricia that she will go to heaven (this is true in virtue of predestination, say). But if t-1<t0, it was not true that of Patricia that were she to die at t-1, she would go to heaven—predestination only ensures the indicative that she will go to heaven, and therefore that she won't die before t0.
This account has several problems. The first is that on this view, it seems one only has instrumental reason to desire justification: the value of justification consists in going to heaven. Moreover, it is not clear why it makes sense, given predestination, to rejoice at all at having acquired justification. After all, now having this dispositional property is of little value as such (except insofar as now might be the exact time of one's death, which is improbable, especially of the now is instantaneous). What is of value is having this dispositional property at the moment of death. It is true that Reformed Christians generally believe that once you have this dispositional property, you have it for the rest of your life. Thus, evidence for having the property now is equally evidence that one will have it at the moment of one's death. But then one does not have reason to rejoice even instrumentally in the present possession of the dispositional property. The true object of rejoicing is the salvation, rather than the present having of the property of justification. It is true that on some Reformed views one comes to have knowledge that one will be saved at the time that one becomes justified, and it would make sense to rejoice in this knowledge. But the knowledge is distinct from the salvation. Granted, we can talk of Martha rejoicing at the negative results of her HIV test. But it seems that the appropriate object of rejoicing is her being HIV negative, or her knowing that she is HIV negative, though we admittedly transfer our joy to things associated with the primary object of our joy, and so perhaps there is something to the idea that Martha rightly rejoices in the negative results of the test. But, in any case, the joy at being justified should not be joy by association.
Another problem is with the ground of the dispositional property. We can't just "jump into heaven" at our death. "To go to heaven" is to be placed in a heavenly state by God. The dispositional property is not, then, grounded in some kind of a power of the person who has it. Nor, on the Reformed view, is it grounded in the merits of the person. Rather, it seems to be grounded in God's will. But if so, then the problems of Account 2 come back.
Conclusions: These three accounts are problematic, especially for those who accept divine simplicity (as at least some classic Reformed creeds apparently do). What these accounts all have in common is that they make the imputation of righteousness be an extrinsic, Cambridge property of the person being justified. I suspect that this is what is wrong with all of these accounts. Instead, one needs an account on which justification consists in a real, grace-wrought change in the person. From a Reformed perspective, the difficulty with such an account is the danger that the change will then consist in actual righteousness in the person, and hence the distinction between justification and sanctification will be erased. Personally, I don't mind this danger at all—the distinction between justification and sanctification is shaky biblically and pretty much non-existent patristically. But Reformed folks do mind it. I think that what they might do well to do is to adopt a view according to which it is a genuine intrinsic property of a person that the person is guilty or innocent of something (there are suggestions to that effect in Wojtyla's The Acting Person, so it's a view that not just Reformed folks might find congenial), and then hold that in justification God directly produces a change in the person in respect of that property.