Doctrine of Salvation (Part 16): Imputed Righteousness

November 18, 2020

Imputed Righteousness

We’ve been talking about different views of justification. We’ve looked at the traditional Roman Catholic view of justification, the Reformation view of justification, and the view of the New Perspective on Paul with respect to justification.

Today we want to discuss a further challenge to the Reformers’ doctrine of justification which a number of evangelicals find persuasive. That concerns the question of imputation.

According to the traditional Reformation view, there is a kind of dual imputation involved in justification. My sin and guilt are imputed to Christ who then pays the penalty for my sin. 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.

Some evangelicals hold that although there is an imputation of our sin and guilt to Christ, there is no imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us. 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 so we are redeemed by Christ. But they would deny that there is any imputation of Christ’s righteousness to me. 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. It is regarded as 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, argues that the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer is not taught in the New Testament. 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.

Gundry claims that Paul does not here teach the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to Abraham or to the believer. Rather, what he 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 instead. 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. There is no suggestion in these passages that God attributes to Abraham Christ’s righteousness. Rather what God does, since the believer doesn’t have any meritorious works, is reckon the believer’s faith as righteousness, and hence the believer is counted righteous in virtue of God’s counting his faith as righteousness. So it is your own faith that God reckons as righteousness, and there isn’t really any imputation of Christ’s righteousness to you at all.

On Gundry’s view, then, God in effect adopts the legal fiction that our faith is righteousness. Although Gundry denies this characterization of his view as a legal fiction, it is difficult to understand why. We seem to have here a paradigm of a legal fiction: the divine Judge declares that for the purposes of this action he will adopt the assumption that Abraham’s faith equals righteousness, even though he knows full well that it does not. It is similar to a case in which the court adopts the fiction, as it did in Mosteryn v. Fabrigas, that the Mediterranean island Minorca is part of London, so that a resident of Minorca is, for the purposes of the action, a resident of London. Just as residency in London is reckoned to the plaintiff, so righteousness is reckoned to Abraham.

How might we respond to Gundry’s critique of the Reformers’ 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. Rather, over and over again Paul says that it is by means of our faith (in Christ) that God’s righteousness is reckoned to us. For example,  “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Romans 3:22); “effective through faith” (Romans 3:25); “we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works” (Romans 3:28); “he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith” (Romans 3:30); “we are justified by faith” (Romans 5:1); “much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life” (Romans 5:17); “Gentiles, who did not strive for righteousness, have attained it, that is, righteousness through faith; but Israel, who did strive for the righteousness that is based on the law, did not succeed in fulfilling that law. Why not? Because they did not strive for it on the basis of faith” (Romans 9:31).

I suspect that Paul would be surprised at Gundry’s attribution to him of so wooden a reading of the phrase “his faith was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Paul’s many statements about how righteousness is acquired through faith probably govern the other passages and are meant to explicate the Old Testament quotation about Abraham, rather than vice versa.

Moreover, the view that faith is the means of acquiring the gift of righteousness makes better sense of Paul’s not seeing faith as something meritorious in the believer. The view that there is no imputation of Christ’s righteousness seems to make faith a meritorious work. If we have no works to justify us before God, then God looks at us and says, “OK, I am going to treat your faith as though it were righteousness. I am going to reckon to you your faith as righteousness.” But then isn’t our faith somehow turned into a meritorious work that makes us justified before God? 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. 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 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, there are other texts to which one may turn for a doctrine of imputation. For example, Philippians 3:8-9 says,

For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith;

Notice that Paul speaks here of an extrinsic righteousness from God which he has through faith. It is a righteousness that comes from God not a righteousness which is his own.

Look also at 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 I think there is a dual imputation in view here. For our sake Christ, who knew no sin, the sinless Son of God, was made to be sin. 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 the basis of a passage like 2 Corinthians 5:21, one might plausibly say that we do have the notion of dual imputation – the imputation of our sin to Christ and then of his righteousness to us.

Gundry does discuss this passage. He responds that Paul does not say that Christ’s righteousness is ours. Rather Paul says “in Christ we become the righteousness of God.” So it isn’t saying the righteousness of Christ. Paul could easily have said that. But it says the righteousness of God. Therefore, this isn’t contemplating an imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us.

Well, I would say in response that since Paul believed Christ to be God, this seems to be quite a trivial difference. Insofar as we are in Christ, we have imputed to us divine righteousness, which is properly Christ’s. Remember in our discussion of our mystical union that we have with Christ we talked about 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 that we would have insofar as we are in Christ. So I think it would not be at all inappropriate for Paul to say that in Christ we have the righteousness of God.

Elsewhere in the New Testament Christ is spoken of as God. 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 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 in Acts 20:28. So I think that Gundry’s response in no way undermines the notion that insofar as we are in Christ the righteousness of God, that is to say the righteousness that is properly Christ’s, is attributed to us.

In conclusion, from what we said today, I think that there are good biblical grounds, and it makes good theological sense as well, to say that not only are our sins imputed to Christ and our sin and guilt borne by Christ, but also there is a reflex imputation in that 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.

Next time we’ll conclude our discussion of justification by looking at the grounds, the means, and the implications of justification. Until we meet again, have a great week.[1]


[1]           Total Running Time: 17:26 (Copyright © 2020 William Lane Craig)