An excerpt from K. I. Onesti and M. T. Brauch, “Righteousness, Righteousness of God,” in Gerald Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid, eds., Dictionary of Paul and His Letters: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship (1993), pp. 827-837:
"3.5. Currents of Recent Discussion. The variations within the history of interpretation reflect two basic views: (1) that God’s righteousness is a quality of God (or Christ) imparted, making the sinner righteous; (2) that God, the righteous one, declares the sinner to be righteous in a legal transaction (imputed). These dominant views have increasingly been challenged (see Paul and His Interpreters). J. Reumann contends that there is a stronger basis in Christian hymnody for these views than in the NT.
...4. God’s Righteousness as Relation-Restoring Love.
The history of interpretation, including the recent perspectives sketched above, reveals two facets; (1) that the understanding of the righteousness of God has been largely dominated by Greek and Latin categories, where righteousness as a quality of God’s character is either given to us and makes us righteous, or is the basis for God’s judical pronouncement, declaring us righteous; (2) that the more recent discussion, in seeking to take more seriously Paul’s grounding in the OT, has found the earlier understanding to be an inadequate explication of Paul’s meaning. Particularly important has been the insistence on the OT covenantal context of the righteousness of God as an interpretive background for the Pauline formulations." See the whole article here (@ my blog: http://katachriston.wordpress.com/2011/09/03/dikaiosyne-theou-the-righteousness-of-god-in-contemporary-biblical-scholarship/
Orthodox Christians today can note that significant trends in major contemporary Protestant scholarship critical of classic Reformation models reflect, e.g., concise statements in the Orthodox Study Bible
that justification is not a one time not-guilty verdict, that to be justified is to be in communion/to be in covenant; that we are justified by ongoing faith (the just shall *live by* faith), that justification includes being or becoming righteous and is a covenant relationship centered in union with Christ (OSB pp. 1526-1529), and so on.
Forensic imputation is the idea that righteousness in justification is entirely extra se, i.e., it is completely external to the person and imputed in a moment of belief to the believer. Thus justification happens as a punctiliar event (not a process), and the justifying righteousness is completely external, imputed to a person "as if" he was perfect. According to the forensic view, any change in life is entirely ascribed to a categorically separate/isolated process named sanctification which is a great thing, but which has absolutely nothing to do with justification. According to this model all of one's salvation is predicated on the external righteousness of Christ judicially and forensically imputed, i.e., considered as if it belonged to the "believer" even though the believer has none. As Luther described it, we are dunghills covered with snow.
Interesting system, but certainly nonexistent before the Reformation, and in my view, unbiblical.
It is fairly difficult, for example, to reconcile certain views of forensic imputation with things like "neither will your Father forgive you if you don't forgive..." We should also note carefully that the manner in which fruitbearing, apostasy, etc. is related to imputed justification can vary considerably between major "classical" Protestant trajectories flowing from the Reformation, e.g. Luther/Calvin/Wesley/Dispensational etc.
From A. E. McGrath, " Justification," in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters: A Compendium of Contemporary Scholarship:
"How does justification relate to other Pauline soteriological terms? It is tempting to adopt a simplistic approach to the matter. For example, one could attempt to force justification, sanctification and salvation into a neat past-present-future framework (Donfried), as follows:
Justification: a past event, with present implications (sanctification).
Sanctification: a present event, dependent upon a past event (justification), which has future implications (salvation).
Salvation: a future event, already anticipated and partially experienced in the past event of justification and the present event of sanctification, and dependent upon them.But this is inadequate. Justification has future, as well as past, reference (Rom 2:13; 8:33; Gal 5:4–5), and appears to relate to both the beginning of the Christian life and its final consummation. Similarly, sanctification can also refer to a past event (1 Cor 6:11) or a future event (1 Thess 5:23). And salvation is an exceptionally complex idea, embracing not simply a future event, but something which has happened in the past (Rom 8:24; 1 Cor 15:2) or which is taking place now (1 Cor 1:18).
It is important to note that not all Paul’s statements regarding justification are specifically linked with the theme of faith. The statements appear to fall into two general categories (Hultgren): (1) those set in strongly theocentric contexts, referring to God’s cosmic and universal action in relation to human sin; and (2) those making reference to faith, which is the mark to identify the people of God."
A few additional observations from Alister McGrath:
"Whereas Augustine taught that the sinner is made righteous in justification, Melanchthon taught that he is counted as righteous or pronounced to be righteous. For Augustine, ‘justifying righteousness’ is imparted; for Melanchthon, it is imputed in the sense of being declared or pronounced to be righteous. Melanchthon drew a sharp distinction between the event of being declared righteous and the process of being made righteous, designating the former ‘justification’ and the latter ‘sanctification’ or regeneration.’ For Augustine, these were simply different aspects of the same thing... The importance of this development lies in the fact that it marks a complete break with the teaching of the church up to that point. From the time of Augustine onwards, justification had always been understood to refer to both the event of being declared righteous and the process of being made righteous. Melanchthon’s concept of forensic justification diverged radically from this. As it was taken up by virtually all the major reformers subsequently, it came to represent a standard difference between Protestant and Roman Catholic from then on…The Council of Trent…reaffirmed the views of Augustine on the nature of justification... the concept of forensic justification actually represents a development in Luther’s thought... Trent maintained the medieval tradition, stretching back to Augustine, which saw justification as comprising both an event and a process.. (Alister E. McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction
(Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 108-109, 115).
"The essential feature of the Reformation doctrines of justification is that a deliberate and systematic distinction is made between justification and regeneration. Although it must be emphasized that this distinction is purely notional, in that it is impossible to separate the two within the context of the ordo salutis, the essential point is that a notional distinction is made where none had been acknowledged before in the history of Christian doctrine. A fundamental discontinuity was introduced into western theological tradition where none had ever existed, or ever been contemplated, before. The Reformation understanding of the nature of justification—as opposed to its mode—must therefore be regarded as a genuine theological novum."(Alister Mcgrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, the Beginnings to the Reformation
(Cambridge University Press, 1993), Vol. 1, p. 184-5).
Be sure to check out the DPL link for further study if you have time; it's quite illuminating.