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Improve your theological word power: Imputation

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Today we are going to conclude our series on biblical word power with something slightly different: a brief introduction to imputation. ‘Imputation’ is not actually a word used in the Bible. Nevertheless, imputation is still a very important word, because it can help us to plumb the depths of the issues surrounding the Bible’s use of words like ‘righteousness’ and ‘justification’, which we looked at in previous posts.

(Apologies to those who, like James, were hoping for a speedier conclusion to this series. As Sandy kindly noted, I’ve just moved to England with my family and so have been a bit too preoccupied to write!).

The issue: How can God justify the wicked?

If you’ve been following this series, you’ll notice that there seems to be a contradiction in the way that the Bible uses the closely related words ‘righteousness’ and ‘justification’.

Righteousness = being in line with a standard.

In particular in the forensic (law court) context,

Righteousness of a defendant = being in line with a legal and/or moral standard.

The job of the law court is to examine an individual and then declare whether that individual is in line with particular legal and/or moral standards. If the court finds that the individual is indeed righteous, then the court ‘justifies’ that individual:

To justify = to declare that a person is indeed righteous (usually in a forensic context, i.e. a law court).

The same is true, in an ultimate and cosmic sense, of God’s law court. God acts as judge of each individual, whom he has created. If God finds that the individual is in line with God’s own created moral standards, then God justifies that individual. If not, he condemns them.

However, we saw in my previous post that God can and does justify (i.e. declare righteous) people who are not actually righteous (e.g. 1 Cor 6:9-11; 1 Pet 3:18; Rom 4:5). He does this somehow because of atonement—atonement ultimately through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ (Rom 3:25-26). How can he do that?

The answer: Imputation

The answer is imputation. The concept of imputation was especially championed by the 16th-century reformers and their successors. But imputation is not just a 16th-century creation; imputation arises naturally from the biblical understanding of righteousness and justification. What is imputation?

Imputation = when God treats Christ’s righteousness as if it were my righteousness.

Imputation is the way that God can justify me. In his role as judge of the world, God examines me to determine if I am righteous (i.e. in line with his created moral standards). This is a problem for me (and you!), since I am not in line with his standards; I have sinned. So by rights, I should be condemned, not justified. But instead, God treats Christ’s righteousness as if it were mine. And so God justifies me (i.e. God declares that I am indeed righteous). This is the heart of imputation.

Imputation and union with Christ

The obvious criticism of imputation is that it sounds like ‘legal fiction’. How can God justify me on the basis of somebody else’s righteousness, and still remain a righteous judge?

Well, there are two excellent and closely connected answers to this objection.

Firstly, God can justify me because of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice. In Christ, my unrighteousness has already been condemned. My sin, and God’s righteous anger against my sin, has been dealt with (Rom 3:25-26). There is now no more condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:1-4).

Secondly, God can treat Christ’s righteousness as if it were mine because I am intimately connected with Christ through faith (e.g. Galat 2:20; Rom 3:26). As I trust in Jesus, and particularly in his death and resurrection, I become united to him through faith. And so God can justly impute Christ’s righteousness to me.

The reformer Martin Luther compared this idea to the way in which husband and wife share each other’s possessions and status. Because I am united to Christ, Christ takes my sin on himself, and I share his righteousness as my own possession.1

Calvin writes about imputation too, describing it as a “fellowship of righteousness”:

We do not, therefore, contemplate him [i.e. Christ] outside ourselves from afar in order that his righteousness may be imputed to us but because we put on Christ and are engrafted into his body—in short, because he deigns to make us one with him. For this reason, we glory that we have fellowship of righteousness with him.

(John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.11.10)

Questions about imputation

This post is only an introduction to the concept of imputation. There are lots of questions that we don’t have space or time to enter into. For example, what exactly is Christ’s righteousness? And how is it related to God’s righteousness?

These aren’t necessarily easy questions. But we need to realize that these questions about imputation are not just a matter of idle speculation; they are biblically based questions—questions that arise naturally from the way the Bible speaks about righteousness and justification. And we should expect that the more we consider such questions with the Bible open, and the more we take the Bible’s insights to heart, the more we will be able to know and love God for who he is and what he has done for us in Christ.

1 Martin Luther, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, edited by Timothy F Lull, Fortress, Minneapolis, 1989, pp. 600-604.

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