Romans 4:3-5 says: For what does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was counted (logidzomai) to him as righteousness." Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted(logidzomai) as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted (logidzomai) as righteousness (ESV).
This passage seems to teach that the believer's faith is considered or regarded (logidzomai) to be righteousness by God, thereby resulting in the believer being acceptable (i.e., justified) before God and not subject to his condemnation.
A question arises here as to whether the believer is truly righteous or just considered to be righteous by God. Some have argued that what we have here is a legal fiction. This was actually a major contention between the Reformers and the Catholics and remains today an essential difference in the soteriology (i.e., doctrine of salvation) of conservative Protestants (i.e, evangelicals) vs. the soteriology of conservative Roman Catholics. The Catholics maintain that the believer's justification is not an imputed righteousness which would be a legal fiction but is rather an infused righteousness, whereby the believer is in truth now righteous (or more accurately in the process of becoming righteous).
It has not only been the RCC that has seen this problem, however. John Nevin, a conservative Reformed theologian and perhaps the best student of Charles Hodge the noted Princeton theologian of the 19th century, argued that the doctrine of imputation as taught by the Reformers was in fact a legal fiction and could not therefore be a true doctrine. He wrote:
The judgment of God must ever be according to truth. He cannot reckon to anyone an attribute or quality that does not belong to him in fact. He cannot declare him to be in a relation or state that is not actually his own, but the position merely of another. A simply external imputation here, the pleasure and purpose of God to place to the account of one what has been done by another, will not answer. Nor is the case helped in the least by the hypothesis of what is called a legal federal union between the parties, in the case of whom such a transfer is supposed to be made; so long as the law is thought of in the same outward way, as a mere arbitrary arrangement or constitution for the accomplishment of the end in question. The law in this view would be itself a fiction only, and not the expression of a fact. But no such fiction, whether under the name of law or without it, can lie at the ground of a judgment entertained or pronounced by God. (The Mystical Presence and Other Writings on the Eucharist, pp. 190-91 cited in Real Union or Legal Fiction by Mark Horne).
I think Nevin is right. God cannot be considered just if he simply regards man as righteous without man in fact being righteous. Its a legal fiction and as Nevin says, the judgment of God must ever be according to truth.
How, then does Nevin resolve the problem without becoming a Roman Catholic? He believes that in the Eucharist, the believer mystically receives the body and blood of Christ, not the physical body and blood as the Roman Catholics teach (transubstantion), but the spiritual body of Christ. Nevin is following the Westminster Confession that in the Eucharist one partakes of Christ’s flesh and blood in a non-physical way.
The Westminster Confession (29.7) states:
Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements, in this sacrament, do then also, inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally but spiritually, receive, and feed upon, Christ crucified, and all benefits of His death: the body and blood of Christ being then, not corporally or carnally, in, with, or under the bread and wine; yet, as really, but spiritually, present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves are to their outward senses.
Thus, for Nevin, the imputation of righteousness is not a legal fiction but a spiritual reality. Interestingly enough, his renowned teacher, Charles Hodge was adamantly opposed to Nevin's teaching. He accused him of in fact resorting back to Roman Catholicism calling his doctrine, popish. The great majority of Reformed scholars today would agree with Hodge against Nevin. In addition, most evangelicals today, following the Baptist position, would see the eucharist (or as they prefer to call it, the Lord's Supper) as simply being a memorial and the elements as being purely symbolic. They would reject both the RCC doctrine of transubstantiation and the Reformed doctrine of the real presence.
I think Nevin was right, though, to see the problem of imputed righteousness being a legal fiction and therefore being impossible for a God whose nature is truth. Here is just another internal contradiction for evangelical theology.