The Bible teaches that we are justified on the basis of works. But the works on account of which we are justified are not our own works. They are the meritorious works of our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. On account of His doing and dying we are justified before God.
But how do sinners appropriate this righteousness? How does Christ’s perfect obedience become theirs? How can they be assured of their standing before God now and in the Judgment Day? The answer of the gospel is by faith in Jesus Christ. By faith we are justified—faith alone.
We are justified by faith in Jesus Christ because it is through faith that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us so that it becomes our own. In what has been referred to as the great exchange, God imputes our sins to Christ and imputes Christ’s righteousness to us. The critical word is imputation. What is not our own—righteousness—God imputes, or reckons, or counts as our own. He does so in such a way that it is as though we had never sinned or made ourselves worthy of punishment. It is as though we had always kept God’s law perfectly.
If justification by faith is the “main hinge on which religion turns,” as John Calvin said,1 the hinge of the hinge is Christ’s imputed righteousness. Because we are guilty sinners, our righteousness must be an alien righteousness, that is, the righteousness of another. That other is Jesus Christ. Both Christ’s perfect keeping of God’s law throughout His life and His suffering the wrath of God in our stead constitute our righteousness. Christ satisfies all the claims of God’s justice, both preceptive and penal. His obedience to God’s law all His lifetime and His suffering the punishment that we deserved as it climaxed on the cross constitute our righteousness with God. That righteousness is imputed to us through faith.
A Reformation doctrine
As far as righteousness is concerned there are three options. Either righteousness is inherent, possessed by the sinner in himself. Or righteousness is acquired in someway or another; the sinner procures righteousness for himself. Or righteousness is imputed, the righteousness of another reckoned to the sinner’s account.
At the time of the Reformation, it was the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church that man’s righteousness, though in part the righteousness of Christ, is also partly inherent and partly acquired. By virtue of the goodness that remains in fallen man, at the very least the goodness of his will, man’s righteousness is inherent—within the grasp of man as he is by nature. It was also Rome’s teaching that righteousness is partly acquired. Righteousness could be obtained from the church and the treasury of merit at the church’s disposal, especially by the purchase of indulgences.
The Reformers repudiated Rome’s teaching concerning righteousness. Not only did they teach that we are justified by faith and by faith alone, apart from works. But they also taught that the righteousness that is ours by faith is the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ. John Calvin is representative: “He is said to be justified in God’s sight who is both reckoned righteous in God’s judgment and has been accepted on account of [God’s] righteousness.” A few sentences later, he writes: “Now he is justified who is reckoned in the condition not of a sinner, but a righteous man; and for that reason, he stands firm before God’s judgment seat while all sinners fall.” And he concludes the section in the Institutes by saying: “Therefore, we explain justification simply as the acceptance with which God receives us into his favor as righteous men. And we say that it consists in the remission of sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.”2
This teaching of the Reformation is encapsulated in the Reformed confessions. In the Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 56, which concerns the forgiveness of sins, we are taught that “God, for the sake of Christ’s satisfaction, will no more remember my sins, neither my corrupt nature” but “graciously impute[s] to me the righteousness of Christ” with the result that “I may never be condemned before the tribunal of God.” The 60th Q. asks, “How art thou righteous before God?” The answer teaches us that God “grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ.”
In Chapter 11, the Westminster Confession of Faith treats the truth of justification. In the first paragraph of the chapter, the confession teaches that those whom God effectually calls, “he also freely justifieth: not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous…by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness, by faith.”
What is imputation?
The Bible explains the idea of imputation. It does so by example. A few examples will help in understanding what imputation is.
One example is found in Genesis 31:15, where Leah and Rachel say concerning their relationship to their father, “Are we not counted of him strangers? For he hath sold us, and hath quite devoured also our money.” In actual fact, Leah and Rachel were the daughters of their father Laban. But as far as their experience was concerned, they were “counted,” “reckoned,” or “imputed” to be strangers. Such was the callous, unloving way in which he had dealt with them.
A New Testament example is found in the epistle of Paul to Philemon. While Paul was prisoner in Rome, Onesimus, a runaway slave who had fled from his Christian master Philemon, paid the apostle an unexpected visit in prison. Undoubtedly, Philemon had heard Paul’s preaching in Philemon’s household. While visiting Paul, Onesimus was brought to faith: “whom I have begotten in my bonds” (Phile. 10). Over the course of Onesimus’ visits with the apostle, Paul had convinced him that it was his Christian duty to return to his master. Along with him, Paul sent his epistle to Philemon, in the course of which he speaks of Onesimus returning to his rightful master, “not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved…both in the flesh, and in the Lord.” Then the apostle adds: “If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account; I Paul have written it with mine own hand, I will repay it” (vv. 18, 19). If Onesimus owed Philemon anything, either in property he took or lost work during his absence, impute that to me, Paul says. Even though he was not personally responsible, Paul assumes responsibility by insisting, “put that on mine account.” That is the idea of imputation.
In the Bible, there are three outstanding instances of imputation. First, Adam’s original sin was imputed to all humanity. Second, the sins of God’s elect people were imputed to Christ. And third, Christ’s perfect righteousness is imputed to all elect believers through faith.
Already in the Old Testament, the doctrine of imputation was set forth, both by type and by prophecy. One of the great Old Testament types was the scapegoat on the annual Great Day of Atonement. The high priest spoke all the sins of the people over the scapegoat, figuratively imputing them to him before he was released into the wilderness. Representatively, by imputation, the scapegoat bore the sins of the people. Isaiah 53 is one of the Old Testament prophecies that speaks of the imputation of the saving work of the Servant of the Lord. He will bear our griefs, carry our sorrows, be wounded for our transgressions (vv. 4, 5). In turn, with His stripes, we are healed (v. 5), and by His knowledge, He will justify many (v. 11).
However, the main support for the doctrine of imputation comes from a collection of New Testament Scriptures. We cannot in the space limitations of this article offer extensive explanation of these passages. We are only able to point out the main lines of their support for the truth of imputation.
Romans 4:3-5 says, “For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness. Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.” Here the apostle Paul is referring to the account in Genesis 15, in which God appears to Abraham and promises him a seed like the stars of the heavens. Verse 6 tells us that Abraham “believed in the Lord; and he [that is, God] counted it to him for righteousness.” Consistently, Paul refers to Genesis 15:6 using the language of imputation: “counted” (v. 3); “reckoned” (v. 4); and “counted” once again (v. 5). Of special significance in Romans 4 is Paul’s contrast between what is earned and what is reckoned. They are polar opposites. If something is imputed, it could not have been earned. And if something is earned, it cannot be reckoned.
In Romans 4:6-8, Paul points to the example of David, as he recounts it in Psalm 32. “Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin.” Twice the apostle speak of imputation: imputing righteousness and not imputing sin. Something was credited to David that he did not deserve: righteousness. In crediting him with righteousness, God did not credit to him his sin.
The apostle teaches the doctrine of imputation in II Corinthians 5:19-21. In verse 19, he writes that in Christ God was reconciling the world unto himself, “not imputing their trespasses unto them.” The implication is: but instead imputing their trespasses to Christ. In verse 21 he goes on to say that He made Christ “to be sin for us…that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” Again, our sins were imputed to Christ and Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us.
Another imputation passage is Philippians 3:9, “And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith.” These words were spoken by Paul in the context of his opposition to those whom he calls “dogs,” “evil workers,” and “the concision” who were putting their “confidence in the flesh” (vv. 2-3). In contrast to his opponents, the apostle was not putting his confidence in “his own righteousness,” but rather in “the righteousness which is of God by faith.” Clearly, his confidence is in the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ.
One of the clearest passages teaching the doctrine of imputation is Romans 5:12-19. In this passage, the apostle contrasts two imputations that rest on two distinct headships. Because he was created by God as the head of the human race, when Adam sinned, his sin was imputed to us all: “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.”3 Death passed upon all men because all sinned—in Adam. Just so is righteousness imputed to all of whom the second Adam, our Lord Jesus Christ, is the head and representative. “Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.” The obedience of Jesus Christ, like the disobedience of Adam, is imputed to all of whom He is the head. Who are they of whom He is the head, according to the appointment of God? All of the elect. How is the obedience of the second Adam imputed to them? Through faith and through faith alone.
Neither is the doctrine of imputed righteousness a “legal fiction,” as many have alleged. It is not a legal fiction because there is a real righteousness that is ac- tually imputed to believers: the righteousness of Christ. That is no legal fiction, but the blessed reality for all those to whom Christ’s righteousness is imputed, so real as to deliver them from death and from hell.
The fruit of the doctrine of imputation
There is wonderful fruit that results from the doctrine of imputation. This fruit must motivate us never to surrender the doctrine of imputation, though it is under intense assault today. The proponents of the New Perspective on Paul, and their leading spokesman, the Anglican bishop N.T. Wright, jettison the doctrine of imputation as a theological construct that is not taught in Scripture. Those who are involved in the movement known as Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) are also enemies of the doctrine of imputation, in the interests of placating the Roman Catholic Church, which has always been an enemy of this truth. The ECT publication entitled “The Gift of Salvation” makes no mention of imputation. The tactic appears to silence the truth to death. And as always, Arminianism is the avowed enemy of imputation. For if Christ’s death was imputed, the actual imputation of righteousness to all those whose sins were imputed to Him, He could not have died for all men.
The truth of imputation eliminates all pride and boasting in ourselves. We are not saved on account of who we are or what we have done. We are justified and saved on account of the finished work of our Lord Jesus Christ, His perfect righteousness imputed to us by faith alone.
Further, the truth of imputation extols the grace of God—the God who sends Jesus Christ and who imputes the righteousness of Christ to us. In Romans 5:15-18, no less than six times, Scripture refers to Christ’s imputed righteousness as “the gift,” “the free gift,” “the gift of grace,” and “the gift of righteousness.” Whose is this gift and by whom is it given? It is God’s gift, the gift which He has ordained and worked out in Jesus Christ. Because it is God’s free gift, God’s grace deserves to be extolled, now and forever.
And the fruit is joy and hope. We are righteous before God! What greater blessing could there possibly be? What other confidence could we have as we face the future? No saint on his death bed, eternity stretching before him, is going to put his trust in his own imperfect works. But he will die in hope, clinging by faith to the imputed righteousness of Christ. Then, and only then, will he be able to face the last enemy with confidence. Then, and only then, will he confidently face the judgment.
1 Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill and trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 3.11.1; 1:726.
2 Institutes, 3.11.2; 1:726-27. In every instance, emphasis is mine. This applies also to the confessional references.
3 It hardly needs to be said that the contrast between Adam and Christ presupposes that Adam was a real man and that what the opening chapters of Genesis teach about his creation and fall are historically accurate.