Imputed for Righteousness
Tom M. Roberts
Imputation describes a process that takes place in the mind of God, without which none of us could ever be judged sinner or saint. What may be known about this process must be known only by revelation through the scriptures, since God speaks through the Spirit to reveal His thoughts (1 Cor. 2:6-13). Difficulty in understanding our subject lies not in its obscurity or ambiguity; rather, generations of faulty exposition by sectarians and brethren alike have hidden its wonderful message. It will be our goal to learn proper definitions, relate this subject to other salvation terminology in a harmonious way, properly applying the truth to our situation.
It is true that our study of imputation is not milk but meat (Heb. 5:12-13). One cannot fully understand imputation without being cognizant of the entire scope of human redemption. Thus, imputation is related to the revelation of the divine wisdom of God, human nature (free will and responsibility), the nature of sin and of righteousness, justification, gospel and law, faith and works, the plan of salvation and, not in the least to be considered, grace. It encompasses the concept of how a righteous God can bring about the salvation of His sinful creature, man, and yet retain His own righteous nature (Rom. 3:21-26).
Generations of theologians have sought to understand mans history, from his fall to his redemption. Many have attempted to put this research into a systematic relationship, resulting in volumes under the general heading of Systematic Theology. Perhaps the first, certainly one of the most influential, of such theologians to address this question was Augustine (354-430 A.D.). Drawing upon a faulty concept of the nature of man (that man inherited a sinfully depraved nature by natural generation), Augustine set in motion theological concepts that influenced and influences man throughout history until today. Not only Roman Catholicism, but the entire Protestant Reformation took direction from his ideas, however defective they were and are. For us to understand imputation in its Biblical purity and simplicity, we must not allow our thinking to be persuaded by the common fallacies of Augustinianism (later, know more popularly as Calvinism). The confusion that has arisen among our brethren on this subject has been due to the direct influence of Calvinistic definitions and ideas which are to be found in nearly all the commentaries and religious source material. We must not permit ourselves to be influenced beyond what the bible teaches. The blessing to be received by understanding imputation is great, resulting in an assurance that Gods saving grace is commensurate with mans ability to receive it. Man is neither hereditarily morally depraved nor does he live sinlessly perfect; God is willing to extend His grace and man is able to receive it.
To understand our term properly, we must have a working and accurate definition. This is crucial since most Calvinists seek to redefine it more in line with their theology than their scholarship. But the lexicographers state that it means ...1. to reckon, count, compute, calculate, count over; hence, a. to take into account of; metaph. To pass to ones account, to impute...to lay to ones charge. B. to number among, reckon with... c. to reckon or account, and treat accordingly.(Thayer). Also, to reckon, take into account, or metaphorically, to put down to a persons account. (Vine). It is from the Greek logizomai and includes an activity of the reason which, starting from ascertainable facts, draws a conclusion...(J. Eicheler, The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, p. 822-826). Without limiting this definition to either sin or righteousness, its basic meaning provided the basis for God taking into account, or judging. Gods judgments, by His own imputations, determine whether one is considered a sinner or saint. One is not saved or lost, therefore, due to ones own emotional, subjective testimony but according to Gods judgment which is imputed, or put to ones account.
Lets illustrate this definition with regard to sin, first. Imputing one to be a sinner involves the process in the mind of God whereby He considers a persons actions, weighs them, makes a judgment, and puts that judgement to the persons account; it is imputed. Please note that in the light of the scripture, sin is imputed to the account of the transgressor; it is never transferred to or from another person or is never inherited. This is true of both sin and righteousness (Ezek. 18:1-20; 1 Jn. 3:4). Though a Calvinist, the commentator Albert Barnes saw the truth on this point and stated in his work on Romans: The word is never used to denote imputing in the sense of transferring, or of charging that on one which does not properly belong to him (Albert Barnes, Notes on the New Testament, pp. 102-103). Also, no doctrine of transferring, or of setting over to a man what does not properly belong to him, be it sin or holiness, can be derived, therefore, from this word (ibid).
Since the Bible is its own best expositor, it is possible to learn the meaning of some disputed passages by letting scripture speak to scripture. One of the proof texts of the Calvinists regarding the imputation of the sins of Adam to Christ is Isaiah 53:4-6 (cf. 1 Pet. 2:24; 1 Jn. 3:5). The key passages affirm that Jesus was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities, and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. As Peter affirmed, who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree.
Does this mean that God, in some fashion, transferred our sins to Jesus? In what way did the Lord lay on him the iniquity of us all? How did Jesus bare our sins in his body?
It is easy to take the Calvinists transfer in these instances, unsupported by any lexicon or dictionary, and make a case, arbitrarily. However, since no authority recognizes transfer to be an accurate definition, it is folly to permit it. Further, since one scripture will often explain these questions, we need to allow the Holy Spirit to intercede. This is exactly the case as Matthew records Jesus ministry and work. In Matthew 8:14-17, Jesus is said to heal Peters mother-in-law of a fever, cast out demons, heal all that were sick that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying Himself took our infirmities and bare our sicknesses. Now, when Jesus cured Peters mother-in-law of a fever, did Jesus become feverish, transferring the fever to Himself? When He cast out demons, did He transfer the evil spirits to Himself? In what way did Jesus take our infirmities and bare our sicknesses? We are told that He cast out the spirits and healed the sick. Metaphorically, it can be said that He took and bare these things by casting them out and healing them. In the same manner, when Jesus bare our sins, He forgave them, not transferred them. Hebrews 9:26b sheds light by stating, ...but now once in the end of the world hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself...So Christ was offered to bear the sins of man... As the writer of the Hebrew letter quotes our passage from Isaiah 53 where Jesus was to bear the sins of many, he explains by inspiration that it means to put away or forgive sin. So also does every other passage (where remission, forgiveness, covering, blotting out, etc. is mentioned) agree. Jesus never transferred sins from anyone to Himself. He bore them in the sense that He cause them to be forgiven by dying in our stead, being wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and with his stripes we are healed. Yes, Jesus took our punishment for us, was treated as a sinner would be treated and died on the cross as a substitute offering for sin. But the effect was to forgive sin, not transfer it. Any other position ignores divine testimony.
To illustrate the flaw of Calvinistic thinking, let us compare their use of impute to the Bible usage. In capsule form, they would have impute to mean transfer in the following sequence:
The difference is distinctive and immediately apparent. They attempt to transfer the guilt of Adam to mankind to support the doctrine of total hereditary depravity. We have seen the flaw in this (Ezek. 18). Next, they attempt to transfer sins to Christ to escape guilt. But the scriptural action here is forgiveness, as we noted in Isaiah 53 and Matthew 8, not transference (which incidentally, would not solve sin by shifting it elsewhere). Finally, they attempt to transfer righteousness from Christ to the believer, covering the sinner with a layer (covering, robe) of moral perfection, under which the depraved nature yet remains. This moral perfection of Jesus (called by some His doing and dying) supposedly provides the basis for the believer being saved and staying saved (salvation by faith alone, and once saved, always saved). Please note, however, that nowhere in the Calvinistic system is provision made for forgiveness of sins. Sin is moved about, shuffled around or said to be covered, but it is never cured. The Bible cures the sin problem by forgiveness through the blood of Christ.
Summarizing, we have been noting, to this point, that one becomes a sinner due to Gods imputation (considering actions, weighing, judging, and putting to ones account his guilt). But our study would not be complete without a consideration of the Christian who sins. Some claim that God imputes sin to the alien; but not the Christian. But we need to observe that God always charges transgressors with their sins, whether sinner or saint. Sin is not more palatable to God simply because the one committing it is a child of God. The Christian, therefore, may so sin as to be finally lost in Hell (Gal. 5:1-4; 1 Cor. 10:11-12; etc.). Cleansing Christians of sin is not automatic or continual, but conditional, as with aliens. Rather than to imagine some situation whereby guilt is not imputed (sins of ignorance, secret sins, doctrinal sins, etc.) We need to affirm what the Bible clearly teaches: all sin is imputed, charged, reckoned to the transgressor, whether sinner or saint. By Gods grace, provision is made for forgiveness in both instances, but let us not seek to avoid the truth on either.
Please note that our definition does not change as we now consider righteousness: it continues to be a divine process whereby God weighs our actions, judges us and puts to our account that which He judges. However, imputation for righteousness is not a wage (merit) as is sin (Rom. 6:23), but is according to grace. If we put to our account what we deserve, all would be lost. This is not to say that salvation is not conditional, for it is. God does not impute righteousness to men unconditionally, else all would be saved. Righteousness is imputed according to the conditions of grace, or as Paul stated it in Ephesians 2:8, For by grace are ye saved through faith... Grace is Gods part; faith is mans part. Grace provides, faith responds. Conditions of a gift do not pay for a gift, any more than faith pays for grace. As Jesus taught, When ye have done all the things commanded you, say, we are unprofitable servants (Lk. 17:10). Now, having established that imputation for righteousness is conditional upon faith, let us illustrate it.
When God gave up the world to a reprobate mind (Romans 1), He also instituted the plan of redemption by calling Abraham (long before the law was given) and promised salvation through the Seed (Christ), to those who believe. The faith of Abraham is used by God to illustrate how He will save all of us. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all the nations be blessed. So then, they that are of faith are blessed with the faithful Abraham (Gal. 3:7-9). In Genesis 15:6, it is stated: And Abraham believed God, and he reckoned it to him for righteousness. This passage is quoted three times in the New Testament as writers use Abraham as an example of imputed righteousness. It is found in Romans 4:1-25, Galatians 3:6-9 and James 2:21-23. This helps in our understanding of faith, righteousness, and impute. Faith never means faith only in an approved sense, but includes the works of Abraham (Jn. 8:39), or faithfulness, the proving of faith by works (James 2:18, 21-23). Righteousness simply means to stand in a right relationship with God. On at least three separate occasions in Abrahams life, God weighed the circumstances, judged Abrahams actions and pronounced him righteous. The test in Genesis 15:6 refers to the time of Abrahams life when he was given the promise of a child in his old age. It is also used of the time when he left to follow where God would lead him, and of the time when he was commanded to offer Isaac on the altar. As God saw Abrahams faith in action, He weighed the circumstances, considered, drew a conclusion about Abraham as He saw his faith, forgave his sins (Heb. 9:15) and imputed (put to his account) righteousness. Thus, salvation by grace through faith, foreshadowing our salvation of the same order. The basis of salvation: Christ (the Seed). The condition of salvation: faith. The method of salvation: imputation. The result of salvation: righteousness. The scope of salvation: to Jew and Gentile (all nations: Matt. 28:18-20; Gal. 3:7-9).
The text is clear that it is faith that is reckoned for righteousness (Rom. 4:5). Typical Calvinists seek to escape the force of the fact that God accepted Abrahams faith (since they believe that man is born totally depraved and unable to do anything to be saved). As a consequence, they teach that it is the faith of Christ that is imputed to the believer (a gift from God), not the believers own subjective faith, as with Abraham. But from Genesis 15:6 through all of the contexts where this passage is quoted in the New Testament, Abrahams faith, not that of Christs, is under consideration. True, Abrahams faith encompassed the Seed promise; he believed in the coming of the Messiah. But it was Abrahams faith (subjective) that was imputed, not the object of his faith. Faith is an act one does, it is not a gift. So then faith cometh of hearing, and hearing by the word of God (Rom. 10:17). Faith is a work of God that man must do. Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent (Jn. 6:29). Abraham believed on Christ, God saw his faith coupled with his obedience and, forgiving his sins, imputed or counted Abrahams faith unto him for righteousness.
This is clearly taught in Romans 4:1-12, where Abraham is used to explain salvation. The Jews sought salvation based upon a claim to proper lineage (sons of Abraham) and works (perfectly doing the law of Moses). To correct this thinking, Paul noted that Abraham was saved before there was either lineage or law. The righteousness that is imputed is not of works (perfectly doingall the law, Gal. 3:10) or of debt (Rom. 4:3-4). It is, however, of faith (trusting obedience, Rom. 4:56). David verifies this when he is introduced to tell us of a blessed man to whom God will not impute sin. Is he a man so perfect that he has no sins with which to be charged? No (Rom. 3:23). Is he a man who sins but whose sins God arbitrarily chooses to overlook? No (Ezek. 18:4, 20; Rom. 6:23). Is he a man with impeccable ties to Jewish lineage? No (Rom. 4:13). If none of these, who is this man? Clearly, the context of Romans 4 shows that the man to whom God will not impute sins is the forgiven man! The Psalmist is quoted as saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not reckon sin (vs. 7, 8; cf. Ps. 32:1). God does not impute sin where there are no sins to impute! But no sins exist only when a man is forgiven. Thus, it is the forgiven man to whom the Lord will not impute sins. Upon what basis is sin forgiven? Upon obedient faith in Christ (Rom. 1:5; 16:25), just like Abraham had faith in God and His promises and obeyed. When a sinner comes to God in faith, meetings the conditions of grace (faith, repentance and baptism), God cleanses the sinner through the blood (Acts 22:16; Rom. 6:1-7; Acts 2:38, etc.). In faithful obedience there is no merit; God is not put in debt. Faithful obedience is but the condition; the basis of salvation remains the blood of Christ. For we say, to Abraham his faith was reckoned for righteousness (Rom. 4:9). And as for us today, For this cause it is of faith, that it may be according to grace; to the end that the promise may be sure to all the seed; not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all... (Rom. 4:16). God imputed Abrahams faith for righteousness; our faith will be imputed for righteousness.
Having adopted the foundational fallacy that all men are born totally depraved, the consistent Calvinist is faced with the dilemma of accounting salvation to one so distant from God that he cannot read and understand the Bible or make a moral decision to change his life.
Consequently, these theologians deny man the ability to come to God, making salvation wholly of God without any conditions on the part of those to be saved. How is this to be accomplished? Again, they turn to a faulty definition of impute(having it to mean transfer) and combine it with yet another error, transferring the perfect life of Christ to the one being saved. In this imaginative view, the moral perfection of Jesus (called by some the deeds and doing of Jesus or the robe of Christs perfection), is said to be imputed (transferred) to the believer in such a manner that God no longer sees the depravity of the individual, this being hidden under Christs righteousness. God only sees this robe of Christs perfection and imputes this to the account of the believer. From this it is also evident that we are justified before God solely by the intercession of Christs righteousness. This is the equivalent of saying that man is not righteous in himself but because the righteousness of Christ is communicated to him by imputation - something worth carefully noting...For in such a way does the Lord Christ share his righteousness with us that in some wonderful manner, he pours into us enough of his power to meet the judgment of God...To declare that by him alone we are counted righteous, what else is this but to lodge our righteousness in Christs obedience, because the obedience of Christ is reckoned to us as if it were our own?" (Brief History of Calvins Theory, 1536 (first edition, 1559 final edition, Institutes of Christian Religion, John Calvin, Book, III, Chap. XI, Section, 23). Not only have those outside the church such unscriptural concepts, but some brethren have propagated this error. Thus every man who will be saved shall not be saved as Joe Doaks, but as Jesus Christ" (Burton Coffman, Commentary on Romans). To which R. L. Whiteside replied:
But the gospel makes men righteous, just as a soiled garment may be made clean, as clean as if it had never been soiled, by carrying it through the process of cleansing. So the gospel takes the sin-defiled persons through a process of cleansing that makes him as clean as if he had never sinned. The Lord does not play-like he is righteous; he makes him righteous by the gospel (R. L. Whiteside, Commentary on Romans).
This speculation about the perfect life of Christ being transferred to the account of the believer provides the basis for twin doctrines that have led millions astray; namely, justification by faith alone, and once saved, always saved. If a man is saved by the perfect life of Christ, it is reasoned, the perfect life of Christ will also keep him saved. The basic fallacy in this concept continues to be the idea that sin or righteousness can be transferred from one to another. It is not a scriptural position; in fact, it violates many Bible principles.
What, then? Does the perfect life of Christ have nothing to do with our salvation? Indeed it does. The perfect life of Christ (His deeds and doings) provide the basis for His spotless sacrifice for sin. Though sinless when born into the world, Jesus was perfected through His sufferings and temptations so as to offer to God a tried and tested offering for sin. He went to the cross as the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world (Jn. 1:29), tempted and tried yet without sin (Heb. 4:15). It was Gods merciful love that arranged to make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering (Heb. 2:10). Jesus was made perfect (mature, having reached a desired goal or end) by the things which he suffered becoming obedient unto death (Heb; 5:7-9). As a priest, Jesus prepared an offering (Heb. 8:3), His own body (Heb. 9:26), doing the will of God (Heb. 10:1-10). Thus, the perfect life of Christ provided what we could not, a sacrifice without spot or blemish. It stands as the perfect anti-type to all the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament types, made possible by the sinless deeds and doing of Jesus. Yes, the perfect life of Christ was essential to our salvation. Not, however, that His moral perfection could be transferred to our account or that he could live a life of legal and moral perfection in our place and for us. He was both priest and sacrifice, the One doing the offering as well as the Offering itself. By this one act, He shed the innocent blood needed for atonement for sin. It is through the blood that atonement is realized and by which reconciliation is offered. Surely no more basic foundational principle exists in the word of God than that the blood of Christ provides the basis for salvation. If we are saved by the perfect life of Christ, transferred by some mystical manner to believers, why did Jesus have to die? If His perfection becomes ours, the death on the cross is needless cruelty, a sadistic hoax. Like all false doctrines, it cannot be harmonized with the full gospel story. It must be rejected as both fanciful and erroneous while we continue to proclaim the true doctrine of imputed righteousness.
Admittedly, not a great deal of preaching has been done regarding imputation. Why? May I remind you that imputation is a divine process administered by God. Since He doeth all things well, He does not need exhortation from us in order to accomplish His will. He has been imputing sin and righteousness since Adam and Eve and will continue to do so until time is no more. However, our preaching, of necessity, must exhort men to the obedience of faith meeting the conditions of grace. We have the assurance that when men obey from the heart that form of doctrine (Rom. 6:17), God will impute righteousness in harmony with the divine will. When men transgress His will, He imputes their sin.
It is only when imputation is ill-defined and explained out of harmony with the will of God that we must deal with it more specifically. Now is one of these times and it has become controversial due to the gross misunderstanding among brethren and religionists alike. We should beware of becoming too excited about the error or too complacent about the truth. Rather, we should proceed calmly and prayerfully about our task of preaching the whole counsel of God to lost humanity. What God imputes will never contradict what the gospel promises so we should remain undeterred in our labor, being assured that our labor is not in vain in the Lord (1 Cor. 15:58). God has done and continues to do His part; it remains for us to be faithful in ours. This is accomplished as we preach the gospel, as in the past. Though charged erroneously that we do not preach about the grace of God or that we do not preach imputation, let gospel preaching be our answer to all such charges. This is the true grace of God (1 Pet. 5:12), and it is marvelous in our eyes.
e-mail this author at firstname.lastname@example.org
Return to Watchman Front Page
return to November index