Discussions of the doctrine of imputed righteousness often act as though the whole momentous subject swirls around a mere handful of texts, and as though the doctrine is not assumed in virtually everything Scripture says about the relationship of a holy God with sinful man. It reminds me of how geologists can find evidence of local floods all over the world but the idea of a global flood is an alien concept to them.
For those who accept the basic doctrine of the sinfulness of man (establishing the need for justification) and the existence of a holy God (establishing one who justifies), there are only two basic directions you can go. You can either assume that justification occurs as God infuses righteousness into us, or you can believe that it occurs as the result of righteousness being imputed, credited, or reckoned to us as a forensic act.
The doctrine of the Catholic Church takes the former position.
“The first work of the grace of the Holy Spirit is conversion, effecting justification in accordance with Jesus’ proclamation at the beginning of the Gospel: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Moved by grace, man turns toward God and away from sin, thus accepting forgiveness and righteousness from on high. “Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Chapter 3, Article 2, Section I)
The quotation at the end of this citation is from the Council of Trent. Justification is understood to be the remission of sins (which the Westminster Confession also affirms), but is also described as the renovation of the inner man. When a man “accepts” righteousness from on high, he is accepting it into himself.
Westminster agrees with the part about forgiveness, but everything else is radically different.
“Those whom God effectually calls, He also freely justifies; not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on Him and His righteousness by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God” (WCF 11.1)
Note that the issue is not whether there is a renovation of the inner man, which all serious Christians believe, but whether that renovation is to be understood as our justification. And of course, it cannot be.
For the Protestant, justification is a declaration in a courtroom, and it is the just declaration of “not guilty,” pronounced over a very guilty sinner. Now how this is possible — how God can be both just and the one who justifies — is vindicated by the high wisdom of God, and it is vindicated by means of imputation. If we succeed in dismantling the concept of imputation, we find at the end of the day that we have dismantled our only possible hope of salvation.
If the “not guilty” pronounced over me consists of my state of sanctification in “the interior man” (which is very imperfect indeed), then this means that my justification is at best a work in progress. But I don’t need a work in progress — I need a definitive declaration, and to be told by the bailiff that I am free to go. Anything less and I am not actually justified. I am just on probation, walking around town being followed by a censorious parole officer, and the ankle bracelet is starting to itch.
The prisoner in the dock who hears the words of the gospel is a man who hears a glorious “no condemnation” in the first words of Romans 8. Later on in that chapter, he is the same vindicated defendant who is now able to throw taunts at all the lawyers in the prosecutor’s office who are trying to dig up additional dirt on him. “Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth” (Rom. 8:33).
The reason I can be declared not guilty without God Himself ceasing to be just is because God reckons me to be represented fully and completely by my Head, the Lord Jesus. Not only so, but He represented me in the condemnation that I suffered in Him, and He represents me currently at the right hand of God the Father. “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21). This kind of thing can only happen by infusion or by imputation, and it can’t really be done by infusion. That narrows things down a bit, and we discover that the Holy Spirit has backed us into a good news corner.
There are three imputations that are an essential part of all this. The first is the imputation of Adam’s transgression to all of us. Then there is the imputation of all our transgressions to Christ. And last there is the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to those who have faith in Him. Now the reason imputation works — in all three cases — is that the human race is not made up of solitary and disconnected individuals.
If we were entirely distinct individuals, then it would make no moral sense at all for God to let me go free because there was an entirely innocent guy over there, and all that was necessary was for God to kill somebody, preferably somebody innocent. This is another case of great Sunday School illustrations actually being instances of high moral monstrosities. An evil twin is hauled before the court, and his good brother volunteers to take his place on the scaffold. What kind of judge would say, “Hey, that sounds like a plan to me”?
The human race is constituted as a race. Individual persons are not like individual rocks in the driveway, but rather like individual leaves on a tree. Each leaf can be made out distinctly, but anybody who seeks to understand leaves without reference to the tree is not following the path of wisdom. So when Adam and Eve were in the Garden, the whole human race was there, and in Adam the whole human race threw itself over the precipice of sin. When Christ died on the cross, the entire new human race was represented there in Him, and when Christ obeyed God throughout the course of His life, the new human race was there, in Him, represented (justly) by His obedience. Imputation works with us because human beings are defined by imputation. Imputation is a forensic, legal and covenantal action.
God has created us as a covenantally integrated unity. This is why imputation is not an outrage — if the imputation is between a covenantal, federal head and those represented in and through him. If we tried an imputation of righteousness (or unrighteousness) between Smith there and Murphy here, everyone would be rightly appalled. You don’t impute the characteristics of one leaf to another one. Everybody knows that.
I said earlier that the textual issue is like a vast series of local floods that somehow are not seen to add up to a global flood. Here is a passage that struck me on this subject recently:
“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:” (Phil. 3:9).
There are many things that could be said about this, here and elsewhere (there are many local floods), but I am interested in one phrase only — Paul says he wants to be found “not having his own righteousness.” Let us get one thing clear at the outset — if Paul is to be justified by righteousness, whose will it be? For starters, Paul says not mine.
Whatever else we say about justification, we need to fix it in our minds that we are put right on the basis of the righteousness of somebody else. There is absolute no other way to get to the liberation of no condemnation. And once we have been declared legally, forensically, covenantally not guilty, the Holy Spirit can infuse as much sanctifying righteousness as He wants, which is a great deal.
This is moral liberty — the opposite of antinomian licentiousness and the opposite of legalistic wowserism. It is a blast of mountain air after two hours in the sauna.
If you want a description of what the fruit of imputed righteousness tastes like, there is no better description than what C.S. Lewis provided:
“We want, above all, to know what it felt like to be an early Protestant. One thing is certain. It felt very unlike being a ‘puritan’ such as we meet in nineteenth-century fiction. . . In the mind of a Tyndale or Luther, as in the mind of St. Paul himself, this theology was by no means an intellectual construction made in the interests of speculative thought. It springs directly out of a highly specialized religious experience; and all its affirmations, when separated from that context, become meaningless or else mean the opposite of what was intended . . . All the initiative has been on God’s side; all has been free, unbounded grace. And all will continue to be free, unbounded grace. His own puny and ridiculous efforts would be as helpless to retain the joy as they would have been to achieve it in the first place . . . He is not saved because he does works of love: he does works of love because he is saved. It is faith alone that has saved him: faith bestowed by sheer gift. From this buoyant humility, this farewell to the self with all its good resolutions, anxiety, scruples, and motive-scratchings, all the Protestant doctrines orginally sprang” (C.S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, pp. 32-33).