God declares sinners to be just and also makes them just. The legal declaration of us being righteous (justification) is to be distinguished with the gradual process by which God makes us righteous (sanctification). God both erases our record of transgressions against Him and transforms us to live in accordance with His will. There is indeed an objective moral change involved in a forensic justification framework.
"But God’s forgiveness of David’s sins [Romans 4:8, where Paul quotes Psalm 32:2] was not merely a legal declaration without some existential effect on David. To the contrary, David describes God’s forgiveness of his sins as being made “clean” and “whiter than snow” (51:7). And herein lies the key to God no longer reckoning David’s sin: the objective guilt of those sins had been removed. God’s reckoning was an evaluation that correctly corresponded to the objective reality of that which was being reckoned."
The forgiveness of sins and the objective removal of guilt had an effect on King David. That is what forgiveness does by its very nature whenever it is extended to and received in humility by anyone. In the case of David and everybody else who trusts in God, it amounts to having a clean conscience. Forgiveness results in peace with our Creator. Forgiveness results in the removal of our guilt. Afterwards comes a changed life and a pursuit of holiness in gratitude toward God. Contrariwise, everything that surrounds justification is not to be conflated with justification itself. Forgiveness is an aspect of justification, but it does not make up its entirety.
"There are other passages that fit the same pattern. For example, in Romans 8:18 Paul “considers” [logizomai] that our current sufferings are not worth comparing with our glory that is to be revealed in heaven. Paul’s mental evaluation of our present sufferings compared to our glory in heaven matches the objective reality about the two. In Romans 9:8, Paul “reckons” [logizomai] Abraham’s spiritual children as God’s children. Paul’s evaluation about Abraham’s spiritual children corresponds to what they really are: God’s children."
Notice that in each of the above examples a reckoning according to reality takes place—a mental evaluation that correctly corresponds to reality. Never does the reckoning in these verses suggest a mere declaration that is not intended to match up to the reality. There are some passages in Scripture where people “reckon” something in a way that doesn’t match the true nature of the thing being reckoned (see Mark 15:28; Rom. 2:3). But in these cases the reckoning is seen as flawed."
The King James Version translates Strong's G3049 (logizomai) in the following manner: think (9x), impute (8x), reckon (6x), count (5x), account (4x), suppose (2x), reason (1x), number (1x), miscellaneous (5x). It has a slightly wide semantic range of meaning (For example: to reckon, count, compute, calculate).
The term logizomai does indeed have cases where something is accounted, reckoned, or regarded in a way that conforms with reality. The point is that it is an accounting term that does not always have to conform. This is the grounds for the Apostle Paul’s argument in Romans 4. Roman Catholicism has a different definition of logizomai that makes its transformational. But that is not what the word means. It is an accounting term. Following is a commentary by John MacArthur:
"The word accounted. ( vv. 5, 9, 10, 22). Used in both financial and legal settings, this Gr. word, which occurs 9 times in chap. 4 alone, means to take something that belongs to someone and credit to another’s account. It is a one-sided transaction—Abraham did nothing to accumulate it; God simply credited it to him. God took His own righteousness and credited it to Abraham as if it were actually his. This God did because Abraham believed in Him (see Gen. 15:6). righteousness."
Interestingly, the form of logizomai that occurs in Romans 2:26 is an instance that can clearly be understood in a judicial or declarative sense. It would be absurd to assert that circumcision is infused into somebody. God treats a righteous man who is uncircumcised as if he is circumcised.
"So, when we come to Romans 4:3, where God “reckons” Abraham as righteous, it’s reasonable to conclude, in light of the foregoing analysis, that God evaluates Abraham to be righteous because in reality his faith truly has a righteous quality to it, thus making Abraham ontologically righteous. To say that God “reckons” Abraham as righteous even though he’s not, you either have to say that God was wrong in his reckoning or that you’re using the term reckon in a way that Paul does not. No Protestant wants to concede the first horn of the dilemma. And I doubt that many want to concede the second. So, rather than undermining the Catholic view of justification, God’s reckoning of Abraham as righteous in Romans 4:3 supports it."
Romans 4:6-8 says, "just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” Paul emphatically stares that God counts someone righteous apart from works. Following is an excerpt from John Gill's Exposition of the Bible on the text of Romans 4:4:
"of debt: it must be his due, as wages are to an hireling. Now this was not Abraham's case, which must have been, had he been justified by works; he had a reward reckoned to him, and accounted his, which was God himself, "I am thy shield, and exceeding, great reward", Genesis 15:1; which must be reckoned to him, not of debt, but of grace; wherefore it follows, that he was justified, not by works, but by the grace of God imputed to him; that which his faith believed in for righteousness. The distinction of a reward of grace, and of debt, was known to the Jews; a the one they called פרס, the other שכר: the formerF4 they say is הגמול, "a benefit", which is freely of grace bestowed on an undeserving person, or one he is not obliged to; the other is what is given, בדין, "of debt", in strict justice."
We are not suggesting that God is wrong or that Paul is using the term incorrectly. The Lord already knows what is in our hearts. Believers are covered in the righteousness of Jesus Christ. His righteousness belongs to us. This "legal transaction" is not a lie just because it is a gift. This is not a matter of legal fiction. Christ is a real Mediator. Christ is truly our Advocate. He truly obeyed the Law perfectly. He paid the penalty for sin on our behalf. These points are all rooted in fact.