Q. How are you righteous before God?
A. Only by a true faith in Jesus Christ; that is, though my conscience accuse me that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God and kept none of them, and am still inclined to all evil, yet God, without any merit of mine, of mere grace, grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never had nor committed any sin, and myself had accomplished all the obedience which Christ has rendered for me; if only I accept such benefit with a believing heart. (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. & A. 60)
Though it is not always adequately appreciated, the principal difference between the classic Protestant and Roman Catholic views of justification relates to their respective understanding of the ground of the believer’s justification. The long-standing conflict between reformational and Roman Catholic teaching was never primarily about the nature of the justifying verdict.1 While it is generally acknowledged today that justification is a forensic act, which involves God’s pronouncing a verdict, the historic disagreement of the sixteenth century emerges at the point of the basis or ground for this verdict. Does God justify sinners partly on the basis of His grace in Christ and partly on the basis of their own works performed in cooperation with His grace? Or does God justify sinners wholly on the basis of the righteousness of Christ, which is freely granted and imputed to believers?
The nub of the issue can be stated in terms of the question: does the believer’s justification depend wholly and entirely upon an imputed righteousness? Or does it partly depend upon an infused righteousness, namely, the believer’s own works of obedience that stem from the prior working of God’s grace by his Spirit?
The Only Ground
No matter how one evaluates the older disputes between Protestant and Roman Catholic on the doctrine of justification, it is readily apparent that the issue of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer was the critical bone of contention. Whether one speaks of faith as the exclusive instrument of justification (sola fide) or of Christ’s mediatorial work as the exclusive basis for justification (solo Christo), the essential point remains the same: God’s righteousness in Christ is the gracious and only ground upon which the sinner can stand justified before God.
The righteousness by which sinners are justified is not their own but an alien or external righteousness. Only on account of Christ’s obedience to the requirements of the law and His substitutionary endurance of its liability (His so-called “active” and “passive” obedience) can the sinner find favor with God. Justification through faith on account of the work of Christ requires a gracious transaction, a granting and imputing of the righteousness of Christ to believers so that it becomes theirs as much as His. Only by way of a participation or union with Christ through faith, so that the saving work of Christ becomes beneficial to the believer, can anyone find acceptance or favor with God. In the traditional Protestant understanding, this participation is precisely what is effected by way of imputation.
Considering the principal importance of the doctrine of imputation to the historic dispute regarding the subject of the sinner’s justification, it is noteworthy that among authors of the new perspective on Paul, the doctrine of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to believers is generally neglected or openly repudiated.2
In a characteristic passage, N.T. Wright, for example, dismisses the idea of imputation as incompatible with the way the language of justification functions within Judaism:
If we use the language of the law court, it makes no sense whatever to say that the judge imputes, imparts, bequeaths, conveys or otherwise transfers his righteousness to either the plaintiff or the defendant. Righteousness stance or a gas which can be passed across the courtroom.3
According to Wright and others, since Paul’s understanding of justification was informed by the typical understanding of the way the law court functions in Judaism, Paul does not employ the idea of imputation as an essential part of what occurs when God justifies the believer. Though Wright affirms that justification is forensic—it relates to a person’s status in the judgment of the court—he rejects the idea that it involves an act whereby righteousness is granted and imputed to the justified person.
Due to the pivotal importance of the idea of imputation to the historic reformation view of justification, the dismissal of imputation by the new perspective requires our attention.4 Just as we considered previously the new perspective’s claims regarding the language of the “righteousness of God” and of “justification,” we need also to consider whether its dismissal of the idea of imputation is biblically warranted. Does the doctrine of imputation enjoy the kind of Scriptural warrant that the historic symbols of the Reformation claim for it?5
In our treatment of this subject, we will begin with a relatively brief examination of several key passages that teach the doctrine of imputation. After treating these passages, we will conclude by noting several theological corollaries, which are integrally related to the biblical understanding of imputation.
An Examination of Several Key Passages
A number of key passages have played a critical role in the classic Protestant understanding of justification on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ. Though any one of these passages deserves far more extensive treatment than we are able to give them in this brief article, we will simply identify them and provide a short account of their bearing upon the point at issue.
Romans 4:2–6 (Genesis 15:6)
The first passage that is of special importance for the doctrine of imputation is Romans 4:2–6.
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 counted to him for righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but trusts Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works.
In this passage, the apostle Paul directly links justification with imputation. In order to illustrate that Abraham’s (and, therefore, the believer’s) justification was not “by works,” the apostle appeals to Genesis 15:6 where Abraham’s faith is said to be “counted (logizetai) to him for righteousness.”6 Because God’s justification of Abraham involved his act of “crediting” or “accounting” Abraham’s faith for righteousness, he justified Abraham “apart from works.”
Though this passage places the idea of imputation in the center of Paul’s understanding of justification, it presents an immediate problem. When Paul quotes Genesis 15:6, “it [that is, faith] was counted to him for righteousness,” he seems to treat faith as though it were Abraham’s righteousness before God. On this reading of the text, Paul could be teaching that Abraham’s righteousness consisted of his faith. If that were the sense of the text, then the conclusion seems unavoidable that Paul understood justification to be based, not upon Abraham’s works (of obedience) but upon his faith, which stands in lieu of his works. This reading would mean that the righteousness that was the ground or basis for Abraham’s justification was not something external to him, but his own act of believing God. Even though imputation is central to Paul’s understanding of justification, the righteousness imputed so far as this text is concerned is not the righteousness of Christ, as in the historic Protestant view. Rather, it is a kind of subjective righteousness, a righteousness that is equivalent to Abraham’s act of believing God. In this understanding, we might say that Abraham was justified not only “by” but “on account of” his faith.7
There are several reasons, however, that decisively count against this understanding of Paul’s language and use of Genesis 15:6.8
First, it should be noted that the expression Paul uses, “counted for righteousness,” contains a preposition (eis) that is best rendered “with a view to” or “in order to.” If we were to render Paul’s language in literal, albeit clumsy English, we would read the expression to say that Abraham’s faith “was counted with a view to righteousness.” This is different than saying that Abraham’s faith “was counted in the stead of righteousness,” an expression that would suggest that his faith was his righteousness before God. In Romans 10:10, Paul uses the same preposition in a way that clarifies its meaning, when he says that “with the heart one believes unto (eis) righteousness.” In this passage faith is that which moves toward and lays hold of Christ himself as our righteousness. As J. I. Packer puts it, commenting on Romans 4:2,
When Paul paraphrases this verse [Genesis 15:6] as teaching that Abraham’s faith was reckoned for righteousness (Romans 4:5, 9, 22), all he intends us to understand is that faith—decisive, whole-hearted reliance on God’s gracious promise (vss. 18ff.)—was the occasion and means of righteousness being imputed to him. There is no suggestion here that faith is the ground of justification.9 (emphasis mine)
Second, in the context of Paul’s appeal to Genesis 15:6, he utilizes the connection between wages and debts to illustrate how the imputation that is central to justification occurs, not in the manner of wages earned but as a free gift. “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (vv. 4–5).
The point of this illustration is to draw a sharp contrast between wages that are accounted to a wage-earner, and the gracious gift that is accounted to a non-wageearner (one who does not work). When God accounts or reckons Abraham’s faith for righteousness, it is equivalent to his granting Abraham a free, unearned gift. This emphasis and understanding of God’s act of imputation in justification does not fit with the idea that the righteousness imputed to Abraham consists of his (subjective) faith. Though faith may be the occasion and instrument for the reception of this righteousness, it can hardly be the righteousness that is the ground of Abraham’s justification. If that were the case, the point Paul is making—that the imputation of Abraham’s faith for righteousness is like the free gift that is accounted to someone who has not worked for it—would be undermined.10
And third, there are several indications from the broader context of Paul’s argument in Romans 3-4 that the righteousness of faith is an external righteousness that is granted and imputed to believers, not a subjective righteousness. In Romans 4:16, for example, the apostle sets forth the great reason justification is “by faith” and not “according to works”: “That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his [Abraham’s] offspring—not only the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham.”
Faith is instrumental to receiving the gift of justification precisely because it looks outside of itself to God’s gracious promise in Christ. The apostle also insists that, because justification is an act toward the ungodly, it must occur apart from works (Romans 4:5). It requires a positive imputation of righteousness to the believer. Immediately after his appeal to the language of Genesis 15:6, therefore, he cites David as an Old Testament example of the way God “counts righteousness apart from works.”
Though David was a sinner, the Lord did not count his sins against him (v. 8, quoting Psalm 32), but accounted him righteous. The language Paul uses to speak of David’s justification, “counted him righteous,” is equivalent to his earlier language, “to justify the ungodly.” It is also equivalent to the language of Romans 3:28, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” The point of all these expressions is to exclude any thought of an inherent righteousness as the basis for God’s free justification. Justification involves a free and positive granting or imputing of righteousness to the believer, which is received by but does not and cannot consist in faith.
Admittedly, in these passages Paul does not explicitly identify the righteousness that God imputes to the believer as the righteousness of Christ. However, as we shall see in other passages yet to be considered, this is the obvious implication of Paul’s teaching. How could it be otherwise, when the faith by which sinners receive God’s gift of righteousness trusts “in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Romans 4:24–25)? The object of faith is the crucified and risen Christ, who is the believer’s righteousness from God (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:30).
1 Though the traditional Roman Catholic view confuses justification and sanctification, the Council of Trent’s definition of justification includes an emphasis upon the sinner’s “reputation” and acceptance with God: “… we are not only reputed, but are truly called, and are just, receive justice within us, each one according to his own measure” (Sixth Session, chapter 7; quoted from The Creeds of Christendom, ed. by Philip Schaff, vol. 1: The Greek and Latin Creeds [Grand Rapids: Baker reprint, 1985 (1931)], p. 95. Cf. Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, by the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), p. 13: “Justification is the forgiveness of sins …, liberation from the dominating power of sin and death (Rom. 5:12–21) and from the curse of the law (Gal. 3:10–14).”
2 See e.g. E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1977; and James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998). Neither Sanders nor Dunn make any significant use of the idea of imputation in their explanation of Paul’s understanding of justification. When the “righteousness of God” is viewed principally as God’s covenant faithfulness in action, as is the case for writers of the new perspective, it can hardly be viewed as a gift that is freely granted or imputed to believers. The idea of imputation is a corollary of the idea of Christ’s work as substitutionary. Since Dunn insists that Christ’s work is “representative” but not “substitutionary” (that would leave us with a “legal fiction”), it is not surprising that he does not affirm the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to believers. Cf. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, p. 386.
3 What Saint Paul Really Said. Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), p. 98. Not only does this comment present something of a caricature of the Protestant view, but it also misstates it. The Protestant view is not that the Judge (God) transfers His righteousness to us, but that He provides His Son as a substitute and surety whose righteousness becomes ours through imputation. Wright’s statement suggests that he regards imputation to be a kind of “infusion” ( or “transfusion”?) of grace. The Protestant view, however, is that imputation is a judicial act in which God credits or accounts the righteousness of Christ to the person who believes in Him.
4 It should be noted that the diminishment of the importance of imputation is widespread and extends beyond the orbit of the new perspective. For example, in the recent documents, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” and “The Gift of Salvation,” which purport to give a consensus statement of the doctrine of justification by evangelical and Catholic authors, the doctrine of imputation receives shortshrift. In the first of these statements, the subject of imputation is omitted, and in the second, it is mentioned as an item about which no consensus was reached. For a summary and critical treatment of these two statements, see R. C. Sproul, Faith Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995); and idem, Getting the Gospel Straight: The Tie That Binds Evangelicals Together (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999). For a recent defense of the doctrine of imputation against its contemporary critics, see John Piper, Counted Righteous in Christ: Should We Abandon the Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness? (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2002).
5 The Reformed confessions uniformly affirm that the justification of believers is upon the ground of the righteousness of Christ, which is granted and imputed to them from God and received by the hand of faith. See e.g. Heidelberg Catechism,
Q.& A. 59; Belgic Confession, Art. 22–23; Westminster Confession of Faith, 11.1; Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. & A. 70–73,77; Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. & A. 33.
6 For a treatment of the Old Testament background to the use of “to count” or “to reckon” in Genesis 15:6, see O. Palmer Robertson, “Genesis 15:6: New Covenant Exposition of an Old Testament Text,” Westminster Theological Journal 42 (1980): 259-289; and James R. White, The God Who Justifies (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2001), pp. 111–117.
7 This language and distinction was expressed by the older Protestant writers on justification in the following dictum:
fides iustificat non propter se, ut est in homine qualitas, sed propter Christum, quem apprehendit (“faith justifies not because of itself, insofar as it is a quality in man, but on account of Christ, of whom faith lays hold”).
8 For a more extensive argument against the view that the believer’s righteousness “consists of” his faith, see John Owen, The Doctrine of Justification by Faith, vol. 5 of The Works of John Owen (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1965 [1850–1853]; and John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, vol. 1 (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959), pp. 353–359. Though Murray holds the view that Genesis 15:6 takes Abraham’s faith for his righteousness (incorrectly, in my judgment, as I shall shortly argue), he argues that this cannot mean that Paul regarded faith as the ground or basis for the believer’s justification.
9 “Justification,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), p. 596. Cf. Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), p. 262: “The language [“counting Abraham’s faith for righteousness’] could suggest that his faith is considered as the ‘equivalent’ of righteousness— that God sees Abraham’s faith as itself a ‘righteous’ act, well pleasing to him. But if we compare other verses in which the same grammatical construction as is used in Gen. 15:6 occurs, we arrive at a different conclusion. These parallels suggest that the ‘reckoning’ of Abraham’s faith as righteousness means ‘to account to him a righteousness that does not inherently belong to him.’”
10 Cf. John Piper, Counted Righteous in Christ, p. 57: “Would not the wording of verse 4 rather tell us that in Paul’s mind ‘faith being credited for righteousness’ is shorthand for faith being the way an external righteousness is received as credited to us by God—namely, not by working but by trusting him who justifies the ungodly.”
Dr. Cornel Venema is the President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary where he also teaches Doctrinal Studies. Dr.Venema is a contributing editor to The Outlook.