Solid Food
Calvinism's Three-Fold Imputation

Tom M. Roberts


Editor's Note: Brother Roberts wrote this article in 1979 as a part of his and others' efforts to battle calvinistic tendencies among brethren. Those tendencies are still present in some today, and make this study as timely now as it was 20 years ago. We commend it to you for that reason, as well as its thorough treatment of the doctrine of Imputation.


The theological system known as Calvinism originated in the voluminous works of John Calvin entitled "Institutes of the Christian Religion." This man popularized concepts expounded earlier by Martin Luther and others dating back to Augustine (354-430 A.D.). In order to reduce these massive works to proportions that the average student can understand, Calvinism has been summarized into five major points that are usually represented by the acronym "TULIP." Each of these letters represents one of the five major points taught by John Calvin in his explanation of man's fall and his redemption. They are: Total hereditary depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace and Perseverance of the saints. The reduction of these concepts into the simplified five points has encouraged many to study this basis of the Protestant Reformation who would not otherwise have been able to do so.

Current events within the church of Christ, as well as a revival of Calvinism among Protestant churches, has caused a further study of another of Calvin's concepts: the imputation of the personal righteousness of Christ to the believer. Without a doubt, Calvin's idea about imputation is the glue that holds the five points together which were mentioned earlier. Since he denied the ability of man to do anything good due to his inherited depravity, Calvin was convinced that in some manner the personal righteousness of Christ, His moral excellence (in today's vernacular, the "doing and dying of Jesus") was transferred to the sinner so that, as man was lost due to Adam's sin, he was saved due to Christ's perfection. In this view, Adam's sin was a corporate sin (involving the whole race and not just himself) while Christ's perfection was corpporate perfection (involving all believers, not just Himself). As Adam was the fountainhead of sin for lost mankind, Jesus was the fountainhead of righteousness for all believers. And, Calvin taught, since the guilt of Adam became our guilt (by inheritance through the flesh), the righteousness of Christ became our righteousness through a process known as imputation. To be sure, the Bible speaks of imputation and the scheme of redemption includes this as an integral part of our salvation. But there is a vast difference between the scriptural doctrine of imputation and Calvin's doctrine. We need to be able to grasp the difference between what Calvin taught and what the Bible teaches. To do this, Calvin's concept of imputation has been summarized in to three main points even as his "Institutes" have been summarized into five points. The three-fold imputations of John Calvin are:

  1. the imputation of the sins of Adam to mankind,
  2. the imputation of the sins of mankind to Christ, and
  3. the imputation of the personal righteousness of Christ to believers.

Some preachers among churches of Christ have been guilty of teaching the third of these three points as though it is Bible doctrine. Either they fail to realize the implications of what they are accepting and teaching or they are just unwilling to be consistent and accept the entire trilogy. But to be consistent, all three of these points must stand or fall together. It makes absolutely no sense to teach that the personal righteousness of Christ is imputed to us unless we believe that Adam's sins are imputed to mankind. If I do not have Adam's guilt, I have no corporate guilt for Christ to bear, there is no corporate righteousness for Him to return to the believer. To understand these matters, let's study each of the three imputations.

Imputation Number One
The Imputation of the Sins of Adam to Mankind

The original fallacy in this system of theology is that the sin-guilt of one can be imputed to another. Augustine, Luther and Calvin all failed at this crucial point of their study. It is useless to speculate what direction their later views might have taken had they not been mistaken here, but it is safe to say that once they accepted this hypothesis, the rest of the system follows quite logically. In fact, the whole system is designed to explain their view of redemption based on the assumption of "original sin" and "inherited total depravity." Remove this error and the rest of "TULIP" become superfluous.

Briefly, imputation number one teaches that Adam's sin is "imputed" or "transferred" to all posterity by natural generation (by fleshly birth). Let us note here at the beginning that "imputation" never means "transfer" in the Bible but is so used by Calvinists. The Bible teaches that God does impute sin (Romans 4:8), but He never transfers sin from one person to another -- sin is imputed to (put down to the account of) the one who commits it. It is absolutely essential that this is understood by one and all. God puts sin to my account when I sin, but He never puts someone else's sin to my account -- Adam's or anyone else's. If I repeat myself on this point, I do so with the intention of stressing its importance.

In Galatians 6:5 Paul says that "each man shall bear his own burden." Ezekiel 18:4,20 states: "The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him." Underline the statement about the "righteousness of the righteous" and we will return to that later. For now, let us emphasize the part about "wickedness." From this passage (and others), it is quite evident that sin is not and cannot be inherited from a previous generation nor passed from one person to another. Being ignorant of this truth, Calvinism teaches total hereditary depravity by imputation of sin: the guilt of Adam's transgression is imputed (transferred) to us.

There are two points that need to be understood clearly right here. First, we need to see that when God imputes sin, He imputes sin to the sinner who commits it and no one else. "The soul that sinneth, it shall die." That I have sinned is undeniable. That sin has been put to my account is a fact. God saw my sins (not Adam's; not my father's; not somone else's) and imputed them (put them to my account) because the guilt was mine. Nothing has been transferred but something (sin) has been imputed. It is in this manner that my guilt is established.

Secondly, we need to pin down that "imputation" never means "transfer." If we permit an arbitrary definition of terms anything can be proven. Allow Calvinists to define "impute" as "transfer" and they will sutain their position. However, this is not an accurate definition in any of the three points under consideration.

Albert Barnes, who wrote a commentary on the entire Bible, was a Calvinist. However, his scholarship was such that when he came to the doctrine of imputation he defined it correctly. In his exegetical analysis of Romans he struck down the definition of transferring guilt or innocence from one to another. In his notes on Romans 4 (page 102), he states, "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 ... 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."

Now it is of the utmost importance to this study that every student of the Bible get what he said. Imputation never means transfer. It simply means putting down to one's account what is properly his -- whether sin or holiness! (Let none imply from this that we are saying that holiness is intrinsic to man. We will discuss this point later). Some brethren are trying to make impute mean one thing when talking about Adamic sin and something else when it refers to Christ's personal righteousness and man's salvation. However, there is only one accurate meaning for imputation and we have presented what it is and what it is not in its use in the scriptures.

It is interesting to note that some brethren of late have tried to make Barnes teach imputation to mean "transfer" when they quote from him. But by so using Barnes, they reveal the slip-shod method of their study and actually end up agreeing with those Calvinists who understand the importance of their definition and who take issue with Barnes. You see, after Barnes died, his commentaries were republished. However, the publisher disagreed wtih Barnes' definition of imputation and inserted editorial comments to that effect. The small print inserted beneath Barnes' original notes are those of a Calvinist editor who takes issue with Barnes and who seeks to establish a more orthodox Calvinist position. When our brethren quote from Barnes to the effect that imputation means transfer (and some have done this), they are in reality quoting from main-line Calvinists. In the Publishers' Preface to the volume on Romans, we find this statement: "The principal point, in which Barnes is supposed to differ from orthodox divines, in this country, is the doctrine of imputation; which occupies so conspicuous a place in the opening chapters of the Romans, and is argued at great length in the fifth chapter. In some points also, of less moment, he may be accused of using inaccurate or unguarded language. To rememdy these defects, supplementary Notes have been addded in several places throughout the volume..." (emph. mine, TR).

For this reason, when brethren refer to Barnes to prove their use of imputation to mean transfer, they are using men who regarded him "defective" as a Calvinist on this point or who felt him to be guilty of using "inaccurate or unguarded language." Barnes did not believe in this use of the word and went to great lengths to prove the proper definition. His list of scriptures where this word is used (also on page 102) is valuable to those who would like to do more research in your personal study.

We conclude our consideration of this first point by saying that Adam's sins were imputed to no one but himself (to whom they properly belonged). Our sins are imputed to us (to whom they properly belong). Imputation number one is simply denominational error.

Imputation Number Two
The Imputation of the Sins of Mankind to Christ

Fallacy number two in Calvinism's triad of error is that the sins of mankind are imputed to Christ. And it is quite amazine to see brethren quote scripture on one hand and then shift gears in their definitions of terms to read "transfer" instead of "impute". Many who would not accept Imputation Number One seek to change definitions and accept Imputation Number Two. They teach that in order for man to be free from the gilt of sin, sin must be transferred to Christ. Thus, one will hear them speaking of passages that refer to Christ taking upon himself our sins, bearing our offenses, our iniquity being laid upon Him (Isaiah 53, etc.) as teaching imputation even though the owrd itself is not used. Once a faulty definition is substituted for imputation, it is but a small step to accept words similar in meaning to "transfer" to mean the same as imputation itself. Improper word usage is a favorite dodge of false teachers and it is essential in this instance for all to realze that such is being done. But the Bible simply does not teach that the sins of mankind are transferred to Christ in any sense. All the Bible passages that refer to Christ taking upon Himself our sins, bearing our offenses, our iniquity being laid upon Him, etc., (Isaiah 53, et al) are simply teaching that Jesus Christ died for our sins. The "stroke was due us" (Isaiah 53:8); He died for "our transgression," was "bruised for our iniquites." But Note: the sins had been imputed to us -- put to our account. That is why the "stroke was due us." Jesus took our punishment upon Himself but He did not take our guilt upon Himself. To say otherwise is to deny that passage in Ezekiel 18:20. When Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:21, "Him who knew no sin he made to be sin on our behalf," he was showing that Jesus took the penalty and punishment for sin (death) that we might live. If sins were imputed to Christ, they properly belonged to Him and He would have been actually a sinner. He was sinless therefore no sins could be properly imputed to Him. But through love, He took our punishment for sins that were properly charged to us. Let us not destroy the beauty of the vicarious suffering of Jesus by teaching that He actually had sin imputed to Him.

Imputation Number Three
The Imputation of the Personal Righteousness of Christ to Believers

Like our studies on the two previous points, it will be shown that the basic mistake that is continually made on imputation is to define it as "transfer" instead of "put to one's account." With regard to the righteousness of Christ, much ado is made about Christ's moral excellence. To be sure, all agree that Christ was sinless, that He exemplified perfect obedience to God and that He was absolutely and infinitely pure. Had this not been true, the sacrifice he made on Calvary would have had no more effect on paying the penalty for sin than the deaths of the other two who were crucified at the same time. The difference between the two thieves (and all other men) and Christ was the difference between His innocence and our gilt. Since He was sinless, His death paid the penalty for sin in our stead -- in the words of the scripture: "But now once at the end of the ages hath he been manifest to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself ... so Christ also, having been once offered to bear the sins of many..." (Hebrews 9:26,28; cf. Hebrews 10:11-12ff). He was the anti-type of all the Old Testament sacrifices and it was to Him that they all pointed. His perfect life qualified Him for that sacrifice (Hebrews 7:26-28).

This clearly establishes that the perfect life and death of Christ paid the penalty for sin -- yet nothing in all the Bible indicates that the moral excellence of Christ (his perfect doing and dying) is put to our account (imputed to us) or that we wear a robe of Christ's righteousness which covers our sins. Through the death on the cross, Christ propitiated the wrath of God (Romans 3:24-26) and made reconciliation possible (2 Corinthians 5:18-21). When we penitently believe on Jesus Christ, becoming obedient to His will, God forgives us those sins which have been put to our account. It is in this manner that God imputes righteousness to me. Since our sins are forgiven, they can no longer be imputed ("...blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin", Romans 4:8). God thereby restores me to that condition of righteousness which I occupied beofre I sinned (Ecclesiastes 7:29), and pronounces me righteous on the basis of forgiveness. Thus, righteousness is not intrinsic to man, but supplied by God on the ground of pardon. Righteousness is not given to the sinner on the basis of Christ's own personal righteousness being transferred . Remember our use previously of Ezekiel 18:20: Neither sin nor righteousness can be transferred. Our third imputation of Calvinism is seen to be error like the other two. None of them will stand the light of investigation.


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