Doctrine of Salvation (Part 11)

March 23, 2014     Time: 00:35:18

Last time we looked at two alternatives to the Reformation view of justification. We talked about the Catholic view of justification, and then we looked at the New Perspective on Paul. I offered criticisms of both of those views.

There is one further aspect, however, of the New Perspective that I want to say a few words about because I think this is quite important, and it represents a significant challenge to the Reformers’ view of justification which a number of evangelicals find persuasive. That is the question of imputation.

On the traditional Reformation view, there is a kind of dual imputation involved in justification. My sin and guilt is imputed to Christ who bears that sin and guilt and pays the penalty. In turn Christ’s righteousness is imputed to me. So in Christ I am righteous; I am declared by God to be righteous on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ.

Part of the New Perspective which some evangelicals find persuasive is that although there is an imputation of our sin and guilt to Christ, they would deny that there is any imputation of Christ’s righteousness to me. Rather, justification simply involves the declaration of pardon on God’s part. On the basis of Christ’s atoning death Christ has taken our sin and guilt from us and now we are declared to be forgiven and we are redeemed by Christ. But they would deny that there is any imputation of Christ’s righteousness to me. What they will point out is that the biblical basis for the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is very thin. They claim that it is very difficult to find in the New Testament any sort of biblical basis for the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. This is a theological construct of the Reformers that some would say finds little or no support in Scripture.

For example, Robert Gundry, the same scholar who argued for the inferiority of the New Perspective on Paul, agrees that the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer is not a biblical doctrine, that this is not taught in the New Testament, and therefore he argues against this. Gundry looks at passages like Romans 4:2-5 and argues that these passages do not teach the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. In Romans 4:2-5 Paul says,

For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now to one who works, his wages are not reckoned as a gift but as his due. And to one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness.

So Gundry claims that the doctrine of justification by faith does not teach the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to Abraham or to the believer. Rather, what it teaches is that God counts, or reckons, one’s faith as righteousness. Since Abraham had no works by which he might be justified before God, God counted his faith as righteousness. God chose to reckon his faith to be righteousness, and therefore Abraham was righteous before God. So there isn’t really any imputation in these verses.[1] There is no suggestion in these passages that God reckons or attributes or counts to Abraham Christ’s righteousness. Rather what God does is, since the believer doesn’t have any meritorious works, he reckons the believer’s faith as righteousness and hence the believer is counted righteous in virtue of God’s counting faith as righteousness. So it is your own faith (that is, the faith in Christ that you have) that God then reckons as righteousness, and there really isn’t any imputation that is taught in these passages.

How might we respond to this critique of the traditional doctrine? Let me say that I haven’t devoted significant study to this question which I think certainly merits further exploration. But I will share just a few reactions off the top of my head to this criticism of the traditional Reformation doctrine. It seems to me that the passages in which faith is reckoned as righteousness, such as Romans 4, are not the relevant passages that we ought to be looking to for a doctrine of imputation. Indeed, it would seem in these passages there isn’t any imputation explicitly being taught. Rather, I think that it would be to other texts rather than these that one would turn for justification for a doctrine of imputation. I am thinking particularly of 2 Corinthians 5:21. Here Paul, speaking of Jesus Christ, says, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Now there I think a dual imputation may well be in view. Christ, for our sake who knew no sin, the sinless Son of God, was made to be sin. That seems to be teaching the imputation of our sin and guilt to Christ. The sinless Son of God was made to be sin for our sake. Then the second clause seems to teach the reverse imputation, “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” That is to say, insofar as we are in Christ we have God’s own righteousness. That would seem to be an imputed righteousness. It is not a righteousness that we have in and of ourselves. It is not our faith that is being reckoned as righteousness here, is it? Rather, insofar as we are in Christ we become God’s righteousness just as Christ became sin for us. So I think that on a basis of a passage like 2 Corinthians 5:21, one might well say that we have here this notion of a dual imputation – the imputation of our sin to Christ and then of his righteousness to us.

Gundry does discuss this passage. He responds: notice it does not say that Christ’s righteousness is ours. It says “in Christ we become the righteousness of God.” So it isn’t saying the righteousness of Christ. Paul could easily have said that. It says the righteousness of God. Therefore, this isn’t contemplating an imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us. Well, I guess I would say in response to that: since Christ is God, this seems to be quite a trivial difference to me. Insofar as we are in Christ, we have divine righteousness which is properly Christ’s. Remember we talked about (in our discussion of the mystical union that we have with Christ) how in Christ we are blessed with all of these spiritual blessings in the heavenly places. The righteousness of God would be one of those things we would have insofar as we are in Christ – united and identified with him. So I think it would not be at all inappropriate for Paul to say that in Christ we have the righteousness of God.

I noted that elsewhere in the New Testament sometimes Christ is spoken of as God.[2] For example, Acts 20:28 is a very striking example of this. In Acts 20:28, (which is interestingly a Pauline speech – it is Paul’s final address to the Ephesian elders), Paul speaks of how God has rescued us “by his own blood.” That is a striking phrase. God the Father doesn’t have any blood, right? Because he doesn’t have a body. This is clearly Christ’s blood; it is the blood of the human nature of Christ. It is Jesus’ blood. Yet, Acts 20:28 speaks of God’s own blood, which is clearly Christ’s blood. So I think it is not at all inappropriate to talk about the righteousness of Christ as the righteousness of God anymore than to speak of the blood of Christ as the blood of God as Acts 20:28 does. So I think that that is a rather desperate response to this passage. It seems to me that it in no way undermines the notion that insofar as we are in Christ the righteousness of God, that righteousness which is properly Christ’s, is attributed to us.

Moreover, by way of criticism of the non-imputation view, on the view that there is no imputation of Christ’s righteousness it seems to make faith a meritorious work, doesn’t it? If we have no works to justify us before God and God looks at us and says, “OK, I am going to treat your faith as though it was righteousness. I am going to count your faith as righteousness,” then isn’t our faith somehow turned into a meritorious work that makes us justified before God? It is because I put my faith in him that now faith becomes the means of my justification. God counts my faith as righteousness. Now Gundry responds to that by saying “No, Paul always opposes faith to works.” Paul doesn’t think of faith as a meritorious work. Paul always contrasts faith and works. But surely that is exactly the point! The contrast between faith and works only makes sense, it seems to me, on an imputation sort of view. If you are arguing that there is no imputation then it does seem to turn faith into a meritorious work which is incompatible with Paul’s contrasting faith and works. For Paul, our faith is not any kind of a work that we perform that merits salvation. So the opposition between faith and works in Paul doesn’t do anything to ameliorate the problem here that on a non-imputation view it seems to turn faith into a meritorious work. The notion that faith is opposed to works only seems to make good sense if the righteousness which we have in Christ is extrinsic to us. It is not my faith which is counted as righteous in the sense that now I am righteous because of my faith. Rather, there is an extrinsic righteousness which, in virtue of my union with Christ, I now come to share.

Moreover (and this would be the second part of my criticism), suppose faith isn’t a meritorious work as Gundry acknowledges – faith doesn’t do anything to save you. Then it seems that the non-imputation view makes justification into a legal fiction. Remember we talked before about, on the Reformers’ view, God’s declaring us righteous or just in Christ is not a mere legal fiction; we actually are acquitted by God. We actually do become righteous in Christ. But if you say that there is no imputation of Christ’s righteousness, and if my faith doesn’t work righteousness in some way, then God’s regarding my faith as righteousness does seem to turn justification into a mere legal fiction. It is like the example I gave of the company who says that if you don’t return the package within three days then it is counted as delivered to your house. Whether it ever was delivered, it doesn’t matter. If you don’t return it within three days it counts as delivered.[3] That is a legal fiction. Surely our justification in Christ, as Gundry would acknowledge, is more than a legal fiction. Yet, the non-imputation view, I think, does threaten to reduce justification to a mere legal fiction. If it is not, then I think it makes faith into a meritorious work that God counts as righteous.

So, although the biblical or exegetical justification for the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us I think needs further development (I would like to study it more myself), nevertheless on the basis of these considerations I am inclined to say that we ought to hold to it, and that it does make the best sense out of both forensic justification by God as well as passages like 2 Corinthians 5:21. I would say that even if the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us is a theological construct, that is perfectly fine. So is the Trinity. So is the doctrine of the two natures of Christ. But it would be a theological construct that makes good sense of the biblical data and of the doctrine of justification by faith through grace.


Question: How would Old Testament passages like Isaiah 61:10 – talking about being clothed in his righteousness – how would that enter into this discussion?

Answer: OK, let’s have a look at that passage. Isaiah 61:10,

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

Insofar as you think that that is talking about Christ or his redemptive work, I could see where you might use a passage like that to justify an imputation of righteousness. I suspect that these folks would say that these Old Testament passages are either not immediately applicable to Christ or that they are too obscure to be used. What we would need is some clear New Testament passages talking about the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.

Question: I think it is quite clear that the New Testament does teach double imputation. Turn over one chapter, go to Romans 5 which is all about justification, and particularly look at verses 17 through 21. If you will give me a minute I’ll read those:

For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.

So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous. The Law came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.[4]

I believe it is quite clear there that Paul . . . see, Paul is talking about there was a two-fold aspect of what Christ did. There was active obedience and then there was passive obedience. What he did on the cross, although it was great, it was wonderful, and an incredible act of love, it was a passive act. Anybody could have died a martyr’s death on the cross, but not anybody was worthy enough to do it. Only Jesus Christ was worthy enough to do it because he was righteous. And it says in the Scripture in Hebrews (I don’t know the verse) that he learned obedience. So Jesus Christ was righteous and he does impute that to us.

Answer: And that is the typical Reformation doctrine – Christ, through his sinless life, had an active obedience to God whereby he lived a righteous life before him, in addition to his passive obedience of submitting to the death on the cross.[5] But I am embarrassed that I didn’t think of these verses! Because you are right, the free gift of righteousness that he speaks of there – “those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness” – that could only refer to divine righteousness, not to some sort of righteousness that a person has himself. So, yes, I think that is very well taken. That is certainly a powerful passage for this.

Question: Continuing the piling on, I am very surprised at this argument. I have seen more than one commentary on the book of Romans where the theme was “A righteousness from God.” Also, if you look at Romans 1:17, it says, “For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’”[6] The fact that it uses the phrase “in the gospel” ties it to Christ because he is the heart of the Gospel. That would imply that the righteousness from God is associated with that.

Answer: Yeah, I think that there certainly those who deny the doctrine of imputation are aware of these passages and they, I take it, would interpret them more along Gundry’s lines that it is teaching that your faith is reckoned as righteousness to you. But they would say without imputation. So I think we need more passages like the one previously mentioned. Although here even in yours it talks about the righteousness of God – right? – which is ours. My translation puts it a little different. It is even more in favor of imputation than yours. It says, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Not that the righteous shall live by faith, but he who through faith is righteous shall live. It is the righteousness of God that is revealed by faith, he says in Romans 1:17. So, yeah, pile on! You are welcome to because I am inclined to agree with this. But I have been surprised, frankly, in conversations with New Testament colleagues at the Evangelical Theological Society meetings at how quickly they are ready to give up imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us. I am not ready to do that.

Question: I was wondering if you could comment on N. T. Wright’s system. It appears to be imputation-less. If you read Paul and the Faithfulness of God (it’s enormous) but . . .

Answer: Yeah, I didn’t mention N. T. Wright but you are quite correct to say that N. T. Wright is one of the champions on the New Perspective on Paul that we’ve been talking about. I chose E. P. Sanders as a representative of it; he is sort of the fountainhead. But among evangelicals, N. T. Wright would be one of the principal proponents of this view that I am criticizing.

Followup: I know with N. T. Wright in his speeches, he seems to indicate the question “How do I get to heaven?” is simply the wrong question regarding justification. It is not about going to heaven after you die. I think it is about some other, maybe more of a temporal or earthly justification. Do you have any comment on that?

Answer: I don’t. This New Perspective on Paul is very multifaceted and it is very difficult to understand. It is so ambiguous and so wooly in its different proponents that it is very hard to sort out. So what I’ve said here seemed to me to be the essential elements that would be important to deal with. Certainly with regard to justification, Paul very often connects forgiveness of sins with eternal life, which means going to heaven. It is being in Christ and therefore having eternal life and redemption. So I don’t see that as at all foreign to Paul’s concerns.

Followup: I sense a bit of postmodern hermeneutics in this method where you use a putative cultural context to sort of make the text putty in your hands. There is a little bit of that in Paul and the Faithfulness of God.

Question: You’ve said a couple of times just in the last few moments about a New Perspective on Paul, which is something I’m not understanding.[7] Perhaps you spoke about it in the past. As someone who believes Paul is phenomenally important, can you clarify that a little bit? Is this New Perspective a positive thing or a negative thing? Are they minimizing Paul or are they maximizing Paul?

Answer: I did talk about this during the last couple of weeks. So you might look at the podcasts if you are interested in following up on that. But the idea there was that people like E. P. Sanders claim that we have misunderstood Paul and that Paul actually was largely in agreement with the view of Palestinian Judaism; that it was through works that one stays in the covenant. You get in by grace but then you stay in by doing good works. I wanted to disagree with that point of view and say that this is not correct. For Paul, works are a necessary concomitant of faith because genuine faith necessarily issues in works but the works are not the instrumental means by which one stays in the covenant. They are evidence of the genuineness of one’s faith which is the basis of justification. But here we want to go then another step and say this faith is not some sort of meritorious work or a legal fiction when God reckons it as righteous. Rather, it is on the basis of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us that faith becomes the means of salvation. Faith is merely the conduit through which we access God’s righteousness and forgiveness. So, although this so-called New Perspective is making inroads among some evangelical scholars, I am skeptical of it, particularly these elements of it.

Question: I agree with you. I think if you have the imputation of our guilt and sin to Christ and accept his leadership as Lord and believe – you have to do all three – and believe he was raised again, then you automatically have of his Spirit and he is in you. Therefore, you have righteousness because he is righteous in you. So you automatically get it back if you do those three. You have to have the fact that you acquiesce to his Lordship, because that is not trusting without the Lordship. You are just believing like a demon. If you don’t believe he rose again, you will not place your hope in him.

Answer: Alright, you are talking there of the conditions that need to be in place to access this salvation. But it is important to keep in mind here that justification on the Reformation view is a forensic act. It is not that we are filled with the righteous Holy Spirit within us and therefore we have righteousness in it. This is a forensic righteousness whereby we are declared righteous on the basis of Christ or God’s righteousness being imputed to our account. It is as though you had a bank account in which all of your debts were placed in somebody else’s account and all of his assets were placed in your account now. It is a kind of transaction that takes place.

Followup: I understand what you are saying but I don’t believe God’s righteousness is what is imputed to any of the old self remaining. So when you do an act of sin, that is not righteous. That will be burned up in the judgment when we are all tried by fire. Works don’t keep you in salvation. It is acquiescing to his life. You are letting him be Lord. That is what Lordship is. You are hoping in him; you know he loves you just like you are. That’s what righteous is from our side. From God’s side, he always loves us unconditionally; he just wants us to accept his salvation.

Answer: Alright, what I hear you saying is the necessity of walking in Christ’s will, walking in the power of the Holy Spirit, and so forth, for having salvation.

Followup: The only life in heaven is God’s life and he is giving you the ability to live it again without condemnation.

Answer: We will talk some more about perseverance and sanctification later on.

It is very interesting, isn’t it?[8] We never think about these things sometimes until challenged. And then when we are challenged, it is good. It asks us, “Wait a minute. Why do I believe this? Should I believe this?” It is good to have these sorts of challenges occasionally.

Question: Hebrews 10:38-39 – I would like to hear what you think both sides would say about these two verses.

Answer: [starting to read from verse 37]:

“For yet a little while, and the coming one shall come and shall not tarry; but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.” But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and keep their souls.

It is not clear to me that that has direct relevance to the topic today, apart from just referring to Christian people as being God’s righteous ones. We would all, I think, agree with that. Whether this is a righteousness that is imputed to us or someone like Gundry would say God counts our faith as righteous, we are his righteous ones. But what I think you are concerned about, I take it, is that if this person shrinks back it looks like God is going to destroy him. The author of the book of Hebrews says to his readers, “But we are not among those. We are not going to shrink back and be destroyed. We are going to persevere and keep our souls to the end.” What that raises is the issue of the perseverance of the saints or what is sometimes called popularly “eternal security.” That is to say, can someone who is a regenerate believer lose his salvation? We will take that issue up in the next couple of lectures or so.

Followup: Maybe I misunderstood. I thought part of this (I had written down) that salvation is by grace but one remains in the covenant by good works. Was that not part of their position?

Answer: Ah. Well, I think I see why you would say that is relevant because it says the righteous shall live by faith, so it is through faith that he perseveres, right? Not by works.

Followup: I was trying to figure out where they get their Scripture for believing . . . what would they base it on? This verse on those “who shrink back and fall away.” . . .

Answer: Ah. Right. In what sense do they shrink back? You could say (if you are on the New Perspective view) that this shows that works are necessary for staying in. You shrink back and don’t do the good works then you are going to fall out of the covenant. So this shows that it is through good works that one remains in the covenant.

Followup: So we would say they were not a believer if they fell away, right?

Answer: Some would say that. But it depends on your view. If you are Reformed, Presbyterian, or a Baptist, you would say that. But if you were a Methodist or a Catholic you wouldn’t say that. You would say that that person was in a state of grace but then fell out of it and lost salvation. But I think, if I understand you right, what you are raising is the question, “How do you stay in?” Is it through faith as the verse 38 seems to say (“My righteous one shall live by faith”) or is it through good works as the second half of the verse might suggest (“If you shrink back and begin to live unrighteously then God will have no pleasure in you.”) You can see how this verse might be cited as a proof text for either side, which is part of what makes it difficult to interpret things. We will talk more about perseverance later on.

In conclusion, from what we said today, I think that there is good biblical basis and it makes good theological sense to say that not only are our sins imputed to Christ and our sin and guilt borne by Christ, but as a reflex action insofar as we are in Christ and united with him his righteousness (God’s righteousness) is imputed to us and God declares us to be righteous in virtue of our union with Christ.[9]


[1] 4:57

[2] 10:00

[3] 15:02

[4] This version of the text is from the NASB (New American Standard Bible).

[5] 20:13

[6] This version of the text is from the NIV (New International Version).

[7] 25:12

[8] 30:03

[9] Total Running Time: 35:18 (Copyright © 2014 William Lane Craig)