Christ, Our Righteousness: The Doctrine of Imputation
Topic: Reformation Sunday Passage: Romans 5:12–5:19, 2 Corinthians 5:21, Philippians 3:9
Reformation Sunday, October 30, 2016
Let me set the stage for where we’re going. It is Reformation Sunday. Next year on October 31 it’ll be 500 years since Martin Luther hung his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Wittenburg Castle Church. They weren’t written to divide the church, but to call the church to repentance where she had grossly erred in doctrine and practice. But not being received that way, it inspired the Protestant Reformation.
Today we look at a doctrine that strikes at the very core of why the Reformers protested against the Catholic Church. You may be thinking, “Aha, we’re going to talk about justification by faith alone.” Very close, but we’re getting more specific. We’re looking at the basis for our justification.
That is, what is it exactly that God does to sinners that enables him to declare us righteous? How can it be that the holy and righteous God declares ungodly people righteous? Not just forgiven, but righteous? As the Catholic Church has objected before, isn’t this a legal fiction? Isn’t it a false judgment? Wouldn’t we remove a judge, if he made false judgments and called guilty people righteous? How can it be said that God does this? He does it by imputing Christ’s righteousness to us.
The doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer strikes at the very heart of the divide between Protestants and Catholics. That’s still true to this day, despite ecumenical attempts to say that we’re just talking past each other. I’ll get to more on that in a minute. If you want to know how the church historically strayed from imputation, and what Luther’s own voice contributed to the Reformation, Bryan Walker is giving a talk this evening in the Fellowship Hall. Bring some good, German food at 6:00. We’ll eat together and then learn from some church history.
I hope to complement Bryan’s talk by defending the imputation of Christ’s righteousness from three passages. Then I want to sharpen the good news of imputation by comparing it to what Rome teaches in terms of infused righteousness. And finally we’ll close with how the doctrine of imputation affects our worship, community, and mission. But before we get to the key passages, let’s clarify what imputation is.
In his Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem gives the following definition:
To think of as belonging to someone, and therefore to cause it to belong to that person. God ‘thinks of’ Adam’s sin as belonging to us, and it therefore belongs to us, and in justification he thinks of Christ’s righteousness as belonging to us and so relates to us on this basis.”[i]
This is what we’re talking about: even though we’re guilty, in union with Christ God ‘thinks of’ Christ’s righteousness as belonging to us.
You may remember the vision of Joshua the High Priest from Zechariah 3. Joshua is standing before God with filthy garments. His filthy garments represent sin and guilt. Before God he has no hope. But then, God removes Joshua’s filthy garments. And then God clothes Joshua with new garments that are tailored for glory.
When we look at imputation, we’re not merely looking at the removal of our filthy garments; we’re talking about God clothing us with his own garments. Imputation moves beyond the righteousness of Christ that enables our pardon to the righteousness that is also our perfection. To use words from William Shedd, we need a righteousness that not only “saves a man from hell” but will also “introduce him into heaven.”[ii]
Biblical Basis for the Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness
This is what we take up in the doctrine of imputation. But where does this come from in the Bible? Let’s focus on three passages.
Christ’s obedience justifies those united to him (Rom 5:12, 18-19)
The first is Romans 5. We’ll concentrate on verse 12 and verses 18-19. Paul is dealing with how God reconciles sinners to himself (cf. Rom 5:1, 11). Verse 12, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned…” Now, we expect, something like, “so also righteousness entered the world through one man,” and so forth. But he breaks off to explain why he’s thinking the way he is about death reigning over all people.
The key thing to notice is the universal problem of sin and death because of our connection with Adam. No one who is born after Adam’s sin escapes this problem. Even worse, we’re all born into the world with the problem. We inherit guilt from Adam. Adam is the representative of all humanity. The proof that we inherit guilt from Adam is that we’re all dying (cf. Rom 5:13-14, 17). When Adam sinned, God views all of us as having sinned in Adam and are thus guilty and deserving of condemnation.
Look at the way he explains our problem throughout the passage by linking us with Adam. In verse 15, “for if many died through one man’s trespass.” Verse 16, “for the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation.” Verse 17, “if because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man.” Again and again, we see that our problem is not just that we do sins. Our deepest problem is that we’re born sinners and guilty because of our connection with Adam.
He says it again in verse 18, “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men…” Adam’s one trespass condemned us all. It’s true that our own individual sins condemn us; but that’s not his argument here. The argument is that we’re condemned because our connection with Adam’s disobedience. That’s our biggest problem.
If that’s our problem, how then can we be made right with God? The answer is not doing good works. He already established in 3:20 that “by works of the law, no human being will be justified in his sight.” Rather, we need another representative. We need a superior representative. We need a new Adam who would obey where the first Adam failed, and where we all fail (cf. “type” in 5:14). That’s who we get in Christ. Verse 18,
Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” So here’s the solution: “one act of righteousness leads to justification and life…by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.”
What is it that earns us a right standing with God? It’s not our own obedience. It’s Christ’s one act of righteousness; it’s Christ’s life of obedience climaxing in the cross that justifies us before God. God’s law required total obedience—obedience in action, heart, motivation, desires, longing. But wherever his law was not obeyed totally, the Law required punishment. So God’s Law had both positive demands and penal sanctions. Jesus obeyed in such a way that covered both for us. He totally obeyed God’s law for us and he suffered the punishment for our every infraction.
When we say that Christ’s obedience gives us a right standing before God; we’re not only saying that he obeyed to become our pardon. We’re saying that he obeyed also to become our perfection. Christ’s perfect obedience is the basis of our justification. And that means it’s not a legal fiction as Catholics might object. In the words of J. I. Packer, “God reckons righteousness to them, not because he accounts them to have kept the law personally (which would be a false judgment), but because he accounts them to be united to one who kept it representatively (and that is a true judgment).”
Now, it could be that you run into somebody who says, “Yeah, but there’s nothing in the passage that suggests Christ’s righteousness is something given to us in justification.” You’ll hear this objection even coming from some Protestants nowadays, who are embracing the “new perspective” on Paul.
I would patiently point them first to verse 17. “For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who [pay attention!] receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.” “The free gift of righteousness”—something we receive. Not something we do. But something we receive from outside ourselves as a gift.[iii]
Then I would point them to the parallel logic of the entire section. Just like it was not our personal sins, but our connection to Adam’s sin that leads to death and condemnation. It’s also not our personal obedience, but our connection to Christ’s obedience that leads to life and justification.
The Reformers were right to say that justification is extra nos, “outside ourselves.” There’s too much bad in here; too much bad even in my best deeds. I need a perfect, God-righteousness outside myself; and Christ alone has it. So give me Christ!
God imputes our sins to Christ & Christ’s righteousness to us (2 Cor 5:21)
Passage number two: 2 Corinthians 5:21. Let’s begin reading in verse 18, “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation. That is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” Stop there.
What’s the problem in this passage? We’re all transgressors. We’ve all committed cosmic treason against God. This alienates us from God, makes us enemies. But God has a solution to our problem: in Christ he reconciles the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.
This is book-keeping language.[iv] Even though we’re in the red—our side of the line shows nothing but sin; in terms of God’s righteousness we have zero—even though that’s our condition, God doesn’t count them against the people he reconciles to himself. How can he do that as a righteous Judge, if we’re truly sinful?
Verse 21 gives the answer: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Isaiah 53 foretold of a unique Suffering Servant who does two things for us. One, the Lord lays on him the iniquity of us all—he’s like the sacrifices in the Old Testament where the sins of the people are transferred to the animal before it’s slaughtered (Isa 53:6). Two, he would make many to be accounted righteous (Isa 53:11).
Paul is pointing out these two realities in Jesus. Some have called it “the great exchange”—all our sin for his righteousness. This is the answer to how the righteous Judge doesn’t count our trespasses against us and declares us righteous and upholds his own righteousness in doing so. God makes Christ to be sin—not meaning that Christ himself becomes a sinner but meaning that our sin gets imputed to him.
So he becomes our sin without himself being inherently sinful. That shapes how we then understand the next line: we become the righteousness of God without ourselves being inherently righteous. Meaning, the righteousness is again objective, outside of us, belonging to Christ, though God still counts it as ours.
This is why Luther coined the phrase simul justus et peccator, “simultaneously just and sinner.” Meaning, before God we, in and of ourselves, are still sinful people. We have nothing inherently righteous about us. But by imputing Christ’s righteousness to our account, God ‘thinks of’ us as righteous. It’s not that the righteousness gets personally disconnected from Christ and given to us, but that by our union with Christ God views his righteousness as belonging to us. Christ is both our pardon and our perfection.
The righteousness of God becomes ours through faith in Christ (Phil 3:8-9)
One more passage, Philippians 3:9. Paul is seeking to highlight the supreme value of Christ. But he does this by first listing many reasons he could boast in the flesh. Verse 5, “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; [and get this one] as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”
In terms of being the good religious guy, Paul had everyone beat. “As to righteousness under the law, blameless?” Don’t take that as not genuine. He’s serious. Anybody who observed Paul’s life could’ve said that Paul was a consistently religious and morally good person. He showed up on time; he always finish the job; he went to church, gave his money. But before God it meant zero; it was like a pile of mess.
What he needed was Christ himself. When God opened Paul’s eyes to Christ’s glory, he knew his own goodness didn’t stand a chance. Verse 7, “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, [get this!] not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.”
Notice, Paul is not trading one inner virtue for another inner virtue. He doesn’t want another inner virtue, he wants Christ himself! His problem is that all he would have without Christ is the kind of righteousness he has by his own law-keeping, and it is absolute rubbish before God. He needs not a righteousness that he performs in himself, but the righteousness Christ performed for him. He needs the “righteousness of God.”
And he gets it “by faith in Christ” or “on the basis of faith.” Faith is not what makes us righteous. Faith unites us to Christ, whom God makes our righteousness.[v] Faith is not the basis of our justification; it’s the instrument that unites us to the basis of our justification, namely, Christ. And what is faith? Here it’s renouncing all self-confidence before God. It’s calling the things you would put your confidence in a pile of mess, and placing your confidence solely on Christ as your only hope before God.
All that faith wants is to be “found in Christ” on the last day. When we stand before God, and he asks what makes us fit for an eternity with him, our only answer is, “Christ is all!” It’s not, well I was a good person, or I was a faithful deacon, or I was great at evangelism, or I was a pretty good parent, or I anything. It’s “Christ is all!”
You remember the parable Jesus told about the Pharisee and tax collector in Luke 18. Only one of those men went home justified, right before God. And it wasn’t the man trusting in all the things that he viewed as God working through him: He thanked God that he wasn’t like other sinners. And for placing his confidence there, he went home condemned. When we turn the results of God’s grace into reasons for self-glory, we condemn ourselves. It was the man who couldn’t even lift his eyes to heaven and asked God to have mercy on him who went home justified. Even the good things that God works in us cannot become the object of our faith. Christ must be all.
Contrasting Imputed Righteousness with Catholic Doctrine
Now, we’ll stop there with those three passages. There are others.[vi] But what I want to do now is highlight the good news of imputation further by contrasting it with the Catholic teaching on justification by infusion.[vii] To begin, we must remember that when the Catholic Church refers to “justification,” they mean God’s act of “making” someone righteous, not “declaring” someone righteous. Justification is a process for them.
In this process, Rome teaches that justification comes through the sacraments of the church. It begins with the sacrament of baptism. The Catechism from 1994 says this: “Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith. It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy.”[viii]
So, through baptism, they teach, God infuses grace into the soul, placing an individual into a state of justification. Moreover, justification for them is not a matter of God declaring us righteous on the basis of Christ’s objective righteousness. Rather, it’s God conforming us to his righteousness until we ourselves become inwardly just. But baptism is just the starting point into this “state of grace” or justification.
It’s also possible to sin in such a way that removes you from the state of justification. The grace infused to you at baptism can be lost if you commit mortal sins. These sins are mortal in that they lead to spiritual death: immorality, outbursts of anger, idolatry, and so forth. Committing mortal sin means you lose your state of justification.
That then leads to the sacrament of penance. In order to restore yourself to the state of justification, you practice penance and you must especially perform the works of satisfaction prescribed by the priest, such as good deeds for the poor, fasting, prayer, and so forth. By performing these works of satisfaction, which they also believe are by grace, a person merits God’s favor such that God restores that person to the state of justification.
Now, all of this still includes faith. Let’s do our best not to misunderstand them. Rome teaches that faith is necessary for any of this to count. The issue is that Rome does not view faith as a sufficient condition to be justified before God. It’s necessary but not sufficient. Faith must be accompanied by works, like those in satisfaction, to maintain or even to restore yourself to the state of justification.
So we’ve seen three pieces to Rome’s teaching: justification is a process instead of a declaration; it involves infusing grace that eventually makes a person inherently just, as long as they cooperate; and since faith isn’t sufficient we also need works to maintain our right standing with God. Compare that to what we saw earlier: justification is God’s declaration that we are righteous; he does this not based on a righteousness we inherently perform and cooperate with, but on everything Christ performed and finished for us; and all the righteousness that Christ is becomes ours by simply trusting in him. Which one is the good news?
Which message is the true gospel? Is it really good news that God will not accept me until I prove myself to be inherently righteous, even if by cooperating with grace? Is it really good news that I can somehow have faith, but if I die with any sins I have to go through the fires of purgatory until I possess an inherent righteousness of my own? I tell you, that’s not good news. Far better news is that God accepts me the moment I trust in Christ, because all that Christ is before God becomes mine in an instant.
How Imputation Affects Our Worship, Community, & Mission
Now, this has massive implications for our worship, our community, and our mission. So let’s talk now about how the doctrine of imputation functions in life. Doctrine is for life; theology like this is for mission to the world.
Imputation means acceptance with God & freedom to live righteously
Let’s begin with worship. By worship I don’t mean only singing hymns on Sunday. I mean living before God every moment to his glory—my life and your life being a living sacrifice. What does imputation have to do with worship?
For starters, it centers all worship on Christ. It keeps us from robbing him of glory by living as if his righteousness isn’t enough, as if we must still do more in our own righteousness to stand before God. To live this way is to rob him of glory.
The imputation of Christ’s righteousness also means that I’m accepted with God. He regards me as he regards his own Son. He has opened the way for me to approach his throne boldly and with confidence, Ephesians says. I can pray to him freely without fearing condemnation. When I sin, I can go to him trusting that I’ll stand on the last day not by my own perfect obedience but by that of Christ. And also when I obey, I’m reminded that even my best deeds don’t measure up to what I already possess in Christ—it keeps me humble before God and others.
Something else it means: Christ’s imputed righteousness has an inevitable external embodiment. We saw this a while back in James 2:23, where Abraham’s works fulfilled Genesis 15:6. Justification apart from works reaches its full expression in doing good works. The works do not increase the righteousness we’ve already received by faith alone. Rather, the works manifest the liberating power of Jesus’ perfect righteousness.
Obedience flows from a heart that’s amazed that God would love me this much as to hide me in his Son’s righteousness. Jesus’ righteousness won’t let us remain as we are. If we truly possess it—or rather, if he truly possesses us—then we’ll live our lives in accord with that righteousness. Our lives will bring God glory and honor.
Imputation kills self-righteousness & teaches us to regard others as God regards us
Imputation also affects community. It creates community by killing all kinds of self-righteousness and teaches us to regard others as God regards us? For example, Luke 18:9 says this: “[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” Self-righteousness breeds contempt.
You look with contempt on a particular ethnicity. You think “terrorist” just by seeing a Middle Eastern man. Somebody does something to you, and you say, “Oh, I know she didn’t just do that to me!” You compare yourself to others and tally up why you’re more faithful than they are. You make it your main business to criticize without imparting grace to the hearer. Self-righteousness kills community.
If you’re struggling to love someone in the church, because of who they are or something they did, one of the first questions to ask God is whether there be any self-righteousness in you. Any confidence that you’re placing in the flesh. Any impulse that says you’re better than them. Any thought that you’re righteousness is better than theirs. Because I’ll tell you something, it isn’t. You’re righteousness is nothing but a pile.
But Christ’s righteousness—it’s everything! And when we all have his righteousness in full, ain’t none of us better than the other. None of us possess more of Christ’s righteousness than the other. Christ needs nothing added to his righteousness. And that means the starting place for all our interactions with each other, no matter how we might offend each other—is in Christ’s righteousness. You’ve got to put on new lenses to see your brother and your sister in Christ—no matter who they are.
Let’s say that a fellow Christian offends you or does things you don’t like. On those occasions, can you look at them as not just forgiven, but clothed in robes of righteousness? Can you disagree over a non-gospel issue (e.g., method of education, medicine, food, some aspects of culture, music, politics), and walk away with the same fondness that God has for them in Christ? You both have the same clothes. Theirs are just as beautiful as yours. Do you see each other that way? Do you treat each other that way? Do you regard each other as God regards you in Christ?
Perhaps you haven’t been seeing someone in Christ. I have an assignment for you this week: go to that person, confess your self-righteousness, and seek to love them as God in Christ has loved you. If you will not view a fellow believer as righteous in Christ, not only will struggle to love, not only will you treat them with contempt, not only will you carry a critical spirit toward them, but you should question whether you truly possess Christ’s righteousness at all. And if that’s you—despite all your self-righteousness—God still offers his righteousness to you in full if you will trust in him.
Or, let’s apply imputation a little differently to conflict in marriage. We’ve been in a marriage series the last couple of weeks. What’s it look like there? Well, you know those pleasant moments when your spouse corrects your sin—maybe you were harsh, maybe you neglected something. How do you respond? Does everything in you cringe at the thought that you could possibly be a sinner in this situation? The flesh has its own defense attorney, doesn’t it? As soon as we get criticized, we start building our case to try to defend ourselves. And then we list all the reasons why you’re response was far better than your spouse’s response. That happens in all kinds of relationships.
What’s really going on in that moment? What’s really going on is that we’re trying to establish our own righteousness in the situation. What’s really going on is a failure to remember that Christ’s righteousness clothes you, and that’s enough. He doesn’t need your contributions, and to do so is to rob him of glory. It’s also possible in that situation that you’re not regarding your spouse as righteous in Christ. So instead of being a partner in grace working toward reconciliation, you just made them an enemy. We can’t be enemies if we’re wearing the same righteousness.
Imputation also helps us to hold out hope for each other when we have regrets and guilt. Imperfect parents are weighed down with guilt for poor decisions they made in the past. A sister cannot shake the haunting memories of the abortion she had, or the shame from the way she gave herself away in younger years. The enemy accuses a brother for his past immorality; and even though he’s walking out repentance, the guilt is sometimes unbearable. You know you should be sharing the gospel with others, but you keep running away from it all out of fear or out of a love for this world.
In all of these situations and others like them, our response is to hold out the hope of the gospel saying, “Righteous in Christ, brother/sister. The days ahead of you need not be filled with despair, but hope. If you have Christ’s righteousness, you have everything before God that you need. You’re not just forgiven; indeed, you have God on your side. Christ is all!” This is what we need to be doing in care group meetings and one on one meetings and daily—preaching Christ’s righteousness to each other. Our only hope for progress in sanctification is the rock-solid assurance of Christ, our justification.
Imputation means we have hope for & good news to proclaim to others
Finally, imputation also affects mission. Not only can we extend hope to each other, but we can extend hope to the world. We have good news to proclaim to all peoples. “The end of the law is Christ for righteousness to everyone who believes”—Romans 10:4 says. Everybody has the same problem—we’re all born sinners in Adam. But the good news is that by simply trusting in Jesus, relying on him to save us—God forgives all our sins and he imputes to us all his righteousness.
We have a gospel that says God justifies the ungodly. Do you have ungodly neighbors? Do you know ungodly family members? Do you overhear your coworkers boasting in ungodly things that they do on the weekends? Maybe you have a prodigal son or daughter. They’re running away as fast as they can from Jesus. Maybe you have a spouse that’s running away from God.
Our God is in the business of justifying the ungodly. Don’t underestimate the power of the gospel here. Announce the gospel far and wide. What an opportunity we have right now with all the discussions about racism to explain how the imputation of Christ’s righteousness kills ethnocentric self-righteousness! What an opportunity we have to hold out hope for the Hindu and Muslim peoples of the world—God can make them righteous in Christ too! God imputes righteousness to terrorists too—look at Paul.
Teach your Catholic family members and neighbors the distinctions we talked about today. Don’t just assume they’re okay. They’re gathering with a people feeding them a false gospel, and false gospels do not save. Help them to see. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ. And when faith comes, God declares people righteous in Christ. So, spread the news, brothers and sisters. Pick one lost person this week to pray for, and then share the goodness of imputation with them.
[i]Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 1244 (italics added).
[ii]William G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, 3rd ed. (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2004), 721. Actual quote is, “It [i.e., Christ’s passive obedience which atones for past transgressions] would save a man from hell, but would not introduce him into heaven.” Then Shedd goes on to discuss the necessity of the imputation of Christ’s active obedience to the believer.
[iii]Cf. Gen 15:6; Rom 4:3-6. Genesis 15:6 says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Abraham didn’t work for this righteousness. By simply trusting in God and his promises, God counted to Abraham a righteousness that wasn’t inherently his. God gave his own righteousness to Abraham by faith alone. Especially helpful is the treatment by O. Palmer Robertson, “Genesis 15:6: New Covenant Expositions of an Old Covenant Text,” WTJ 42 (1980): 259-89. In addition to Genesis 15:6, Robertson gives other examples from the OT where similar vocabulary appears, like Genesis 31:15 and Numbers 18:27, that also show how a person is reckoned something he is not. Moreover, Paul makes a big deal of this in Romans 4:3-6; and he uses bookkeeping language (i.e., wages and debts) to get the point across. In terms of righteousness, Abraham’s bank account is zero. And he doesn’t fill it up with righteousness by works. It’s impossible. God must do it for him. And by simply trusting in God who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited for righteousness. That is, his faith connects him to God’s promise of righteousness.
[iv]This is the same accounting, book-keeping, imputation language that Paul uses in Romans 4:5—Abraham’s faith is credited, or counted for righteousness.
[v]Some will argue that Philippians 3:9 is not teaching that we receive Christ’s objective righteousness. However, at least four observations counter this argument: (1) Paul wants to be “found in [Christ];” (2) the righteousness is “from” God and something he must “have,” much like the gift in Romans 5:17; (3) he contrasts a righteousness from within himself through law-keeping with the righteousness from God; (4) to be found “in Christ” or to have faith “in Christ” is what links him to “the righteousness of God”.
[vi]E.g., Rom 3:21-22; 4:3 (cf. with Gen 15:6); 1 Cor 1:30.
[vii]This entire section is indebted to R. C. Sproul, Are We Together: A Protestent Analyzes Roman Catholicism (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2012), 29-50.
[viii]Catechism of the Catholic Church (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1994), 482, par. 1992.