Imputation: The Sinner’s Only Hope

Founders Journal · Winter 2005 · pp. 1-13

Imputation: The Sinner’s Only Hope

Thomas K. Ascol

J. I. Packer calls justification by faith the “storm center of the Reformation.”[1] Justification was at the heart of the gospel of God’s grace that the Reformers rediscovered and began to proclaim. Those 16th century Protestants recognized the importance of this teaching and saw what was at stake in having it firmly established in the church’s confession. Luther’s oft-quoted dictum declares justification to be that article by which the church stands or falls. If you are wrong on this doctrine, it does not matter how much you may have right. Luther went on to call it “the master and prince, the lord, the ruler, and the judge over all kinds of doctrines; it preserves and governs all church doctrine and raises up our conscience before God. Without this article the world is utter death and darkness.”[2] His fellow reformer, John Calvin, in his reply to Sadoleto, said, “Wherever the knowledge of it [justification] is taken away, the glory of Christ is extinguished, religion abolished, the Church destroyed, and the hope of salvation utterly overthrown.”[3] Three hundred years later Charles Spurgeon went so far as to say: “Any church which puts in the place of justification by faith in Christ another method of salvation is a harlot church.”[4] If for no other reason than out of respect for those fathers in the faith who have gone before us, we ought to think very clearly about and care very deeply for the Protestant doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone.

In recent years there has been a growing number of respected teachers who are giving up on this doctrine—at least on the way that it has been understood by our Protestant and Reformed forebears. Because this doctrine is so crucial and the growing challenges to it are so sincere (and, at some points, severe), all those who love the Word of God—and especially those whose calling it is to teach it—must be willing to reconsider what God has revealed to us about the way sinners are justified. If Luther, Calvin and Spurgeon are correct, then to misunderstand this doctrine is to contribute to the adulteration of the church.

Justification answers the most fundamental religious question that can be asked: How can a sinner ever become right with God? The answer that Luther and the other Reformers in the 16th century discovered from their study of the Word of God was this: Sinners are made right with God only by trusting in Jesus Christ alone.

God justifies sinners through faith alone. He declares them righteous in His sight when they submit themselves to Jesus Christ the Lord through faith. This is simply the meaning of the word justify in the Bible. As Packer writes, “Justification is a judicial act of God pardoning sinners (wicked and ungodly persons, Rom. 4:5; 3:9–24), accepting them as just, and so putting permanently right their previously estranged relationship with himself. This justifying sentence is God’s gift of righteousness (Rom. 5:15 –17), his bestowal of a status of acceptance for Jesus’ sake (2 Cor. 5:21).”[5]

The mechanism, or spiritual dynamic, that enables the righteous God to make such a declaration is imputation. Whereas justification is the declaration itself, imputation addresses the basis on which that declaration is made. God pardons sinners, He accepts them, puts them into a right relationship with Himself, by imputing righteousness to them. Or, as the Westminster Confession of Faith puts it: Those whom God calls, He freely justifies “by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness by faith” (WCF 11.1).[6] Answer 33 in the Shorter Catechism reads similarly: “Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.”

Given this understanding it is not too much to say that if justification is the heart of the gospel, then imputation is the heart of justification. So we should be alarmed when we hear statements from respected Christian teachers that are dismissive of imputation or, worse yet, reject it all together.

Consider, for example, the words of Mark Seifrid of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary:

It is fair to say that something of the “Christ-centered” understanding of justification which Luther and Calvin grasped was lost in subsequent Protestant thought, where justification came to be defined in terms of the believer and not in terms of Christ. It is worth observing that Paul never speaks of Christ’s righteousness as imputed to believers, as became standard in Protestantism.[7]

If Paul is silent on imputed righteousness then generations of Protestant churches and confessions and catechisms and theologians have seriously misrepresented him in their teaching on justification.[8]

Robert Gundry is even bolder in his assessment:

It is no accident, then, that in New Testament theologians’ recent and current treatments of justification, you would be hard-pressed to find any discussion of an imputation of Christ’s righteousness. (I have in mind treatments by Mark Seifrid, Tom Wright, James Dunn, Chris Beker, and John Reumann, among others.) The notion is passé, neither because of Roman Catholic influence nor because of theological liberalism, but because of fidelity to the relevant biblical texts. Thus New Testament theologians are now disposed to talk about the righteousness of God in terms of his salvific activity in a covenantal framework, not in terms of an imputation of Christ’s righteousness in a bookkeeping framework.

What a pity, then, that in its insistence on an imputation of Christ’s righteousness as the pivot of justification by faith, “Celebration” is deeply flawed at its self-proclaimed core! That doctrine of imputation is not even biblical. Still less is it “essential” to the Gospel. If sola scriptura outweighs all human traditions, including Protestant tradition, the doctrine that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to believing sinners needs to be abandoned.[9]

Is the insistence on the imputation of Christ’s righteousness “a pity”? And is it true that Paul “never speaks” of imputation, but that rather, it is simply an invention—something read into Paul—by post-reformation Protestants? If so, then the implications are staggering. If we have been wrong on imputation, then we have been wrong on the heart of the heart of the gospel.

Rather than try to engage directly the modern critics of imputation (which are not much different from ancient critics who have been energetically engaged and, in my opinion, amply refuted by the likes of John Owen and Frances Turretin), I will attempt to give in this article a positive exposition of the doctrine from the relevant Scripture passages. What I hope to do is show first that imputation is a biblical word and concept that relates to justification. Next I will consider the Apostle Paul’s use of this concept in explaining justification. Finally, I will suggest why this is so important to sinners.

Imputation Defined by Scripture

General Use

When we speak of imputed righteousness in relation to justification what we mean is that the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ (that is not ours by nature and is completely outside of us, or “alien” to us) is credited to us in such a way that God now regards us as fully righteous.

This is an idea that is firmly rooted in both the Old and New Testaments. The Hebrew word hashab has the basic idea of employing “the mind in thinking activity,” as in “making a judgment.”[10] It is often translated, “to count,” “account” or “impute.” For example, this word is used in Leviticus 7:18 regarding instructions about peace offerings: “And if any of the flesh of the sacrifice of his peace offering is eaten at all on the third day, it shall not be accepted, nor shall it be imputed to him; it shall be an abomination to him who offers it, and the person who eats of it shall bear guilt.” The worshiper will miss the benefit of the sacrifice—it will not be imputed to him—if he does not destroy the uneaten portions on the third day.

The same idea is found in Genesis 31:15 as Rachel and Leah reason to themselves about their father’s disposition toward them: “Are we not considered strangers by him? For he has sold us, and also completely consumed our money.” Though they were obviously not strangers to him, their father, Laban, regarded them as such.

When the Israelites began to commit adultery with Midianite women, Phinehas took a spear and impaled one of the men and his lover, ending the plague that God had sent. According to the narrative in Numbers 25, the Lord rewarded his action with promises of blessing. When the Psalmist recounts the event, he puts it like this: “And that was accounted to him [Phinehas] for righteousness to all generations forevermore” (Psalm 106:30–31).

The same idea is found in the Greek word logizomai. It is often translated “to count, consider, or impute.” It is a word that comes from the world of commerce and accounting and means “to charge” or “to reckon.” In Acts 19:27 Demetrius, a silversmith in Ephesus, spoke against Paul’s preaching by saying, “And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship.” Paul demonstrates his gracious spirit in 2 Timothy 4:16 when he tells of his indictment in the Roman court: “At my first defense no one stood with me, but all forsook me. May it not be charged against them.”

This Old Testament and New Testament family of words communicates the concept of crediting something to a person’s account, or regarding a person as if that which is charged to his account is true. To Demetrius, Artemis was the “great goddess” but, based on the preaching of Paul, she was being regarded as nothing. Those who did not stand with Paul were guilty—perhaps of cowardice, certainly of lack of loyalty and love—yet Paul does not want this guilt imputed to them.

Salvific Use

Beyond this common use of the word and concept, the Bible describes three salvific relationships in which imputation operates. First, Adam’s sin is said to be imputed to his posterity. Paul argues this point in Romans 5:12–19.

Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned—(For until the law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who had not sinned according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come. But the free gift is not like the offense. For if by the one man’s offense many died, much more the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abounded to many. And the gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned. For the judgment which came from one offense resulted in condemnation, but the free gift which came from many offenses resulted in justification. For if by the one man’s offense death reigned through the one, much more those who receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.) Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous.

As E. H. Gifford notes, “The master-thought of the whole passage is that unity of the many in the one, which forms the point of comparison between Adam and Christ.”[11] There is a clear solidarity between Adam and the whole human race. The nature of this solidarity is such that judgment and death have come on all men as a result of Adam’s sin—“because all sinned” (v. 12). Five times from verses 15–19 the universal judgment of condemnation and death on all men is attributed to the one sin of the one man Adam. All men (in addition to bearing their own personal sin and guilt) are therefore said to be judged guilty and liable to death on the basis of Adam’s sin. Adam is regarded as having sinned while standing as our representative, or as it is worded in covenant theology, our federal head. The judgment that results in universal condemnation is based on Adam’s sin being imputed to his posterity. So in verse 19, it is proper to judge the manner by which many were made sinners by one man’s disobedience to be the imputation of Adam’s sin. This is confirmed in 1 Corinthians 15:22, “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all shall be made alive.” Adam’s sin is imputed to people because they are “in him” in a covenantal relationship. He stood before God not only as an individual man, but also as a representative of all mankind. What he did affected all who are in him.

Second, the Scripture speaks of the imputation of the elect’s sin to Christ. All of the Scripture statements concerning our sin being placed on Jesus portray this kind of a relationship. In Isaiah 53 we are told that “the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (v. 6) and that “He bore the sins of many” (v. 12). Hebrews 9:28 says that Christ was “offered once to bear the sins of many.” Peter writes that Christ “himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). Each of these passages describe Christ taking our sin on Himself in His work of atonement. Granted, the method whereby He does this is not spelled out in such passages. However, Paul does identify the method in what is perhaps the most crucial text in this whole debate.

In 2 Corinthians 5:21 Paul provides important insight into the relationships between our sin and Christ, and His righteousness and us. “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” While the word “impute” is not used in this verse, the context suggests that Paul is indeed thinking in terms of imputation. He describes the non-imputation of believers’ sin in verse 19: “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them.” Verse 21 sets up a parallel idea between Christ being made sin for us and our becoming the righteousness of God in Him. The question is, “How did this exchange take place?”

Christ did not personally become sin for us. He “knew no sin.” In what sense, then, did He become sin? He did so representatively—as our substitute. He represented us on the cross by having our sins charged to Him and suffering the consequences for them. This is perhaps the most readily admitted relationship in which imputation operates.

The third relationship, however, is undoubtedly the most controversial and touches more directly on the nature of justification. Not only does Scripture speak of the imputation of Adam’s sin to us and our sin to Christ, but, as historic Protestant orthodoxy has always recognized, it also teaches the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to believers. Robert Gundry simply dismisses this idea as “unbiblical.” He argues that to insist on it as essential to the gospel is “flawed.”

Yet, even in the Old Testament divine righteousness is described as being provided for sinners. The idea is embedded in the very name of God—Yaweh Tsidkenu, “the Lord our Righteousness” (Jeremiah 23:6, 33:16). Isaiah 61:10 describes this provision in terms of clothing: “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, My soul shall be joyful 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 ornaments, And as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.” God covers His people with righteousness.

This idea is fully revealed in the New Testament. When announcing the theme of his letter to the Romans, Paul writes that in the gospel “the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith’” (Romans 1:17). After establishing the futility of trying to establish righteousness by our own works, he goes on to announce in Romans 3:21–22, that “now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe.” All who believe receive righteousness from God. It is revealed “to” them and “on” them.

This divine righteousness is provided only in Christ and is received only through faith. The verses already cited indicate this and Paul states it specifically in Philippians 3:8–9, “Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith.” Paul contrasts his own righteousness (from the law) to that which is “through faith in Christ.” Further, it is “from God by faith.” Thus, Paul does not conceive receiving the gift of righteousness from God except “in Christ” and “by faith.” “The just shall live by faith.” In other words, the one who can legitimately lay claim to the title “just,” or righteous, is the one who lives by faith in Jesus Christ. This is what the gospel reveals.

Paul has this understanding in mind in Romans 5:12–19. He shows the parallel between Adam and Christ. Just as Adam’s work affected his posterity so has Christ’s work affected those who are in Him. Adam’s sin brought death (v. 15), judgment and condemnation (v. 16) to the human race. Christ’s work results in God’s grace (v. 15), justification (vv. 15, 18) and righteousness (vv. 17, 19) coming to sinners. The “gift” that came “by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ” (v. 15) “resulted in justification” (v. 16). In verse 17 this gift is called the “gift of righteousness.” It is through the gift of righteousness from Jesus Christ that justification comes.

When Paul concludes his argument in verses 18 and 19 he does so by reiterating that it is through Jesus’ “righteous act”—that is, the whole of His life and ministry—that the “free gift” (the gift of righteousness) comes to sinners. This, Paul says, results “in justification of life” (v. 18). “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous” (v. 19). Christ’s obedience will result in many being “made righteous” in the same way that all men were made sinners by the disobedience of Adam. In other words, on the basis of the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ, righteousness is imputed to all who believe. This is the point of the parallel between Adam and Christ—just as Adam’s sin was imputed to all his posterity, so Christ’s righteousness is imputed to all who believe.

Consequently, it is impossible to concede the arguments of those who want to jettison imputation altogether or even remove it from its pride of place in the historic, Protestant understanding of justification. Both the word and the concept are clearly employed in the biblical explanation of salvation by grace.

Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness to the Believer
In Paul’s Doctrine of Justification

As has already been demonstrated by the Scriptures that have been considered, the most prolific biblical exponent of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness in justification, and consequently the subject of most of the modern studies that deviate from the historic view, is the Apostle Paul. By briefly tracing the contours of Paul’s thought in the first five chapters of Romans the role that imputation plays in his exposition of justification can be readily discerned.

Romans is Paul’s survey of the gospel, as he announces in chapter 1, verse 16. At the heart of this good news is the revelation of God’s provision of righteousness in justification (1:17). Paul’s explanation of this news (which was first revealed in the Old Testament, as his quotation of Habakkuk 2:4 indicates) includes two large categories.

Why We Need Justification

In Romans 1:18–3:20 Paul explains why we need to be justified before God. His basic answer is that we need this because sin has robbed us of the righteousness that God requires of us. This point is graphically described by elaborating the horrific tragedy of sin. Unrighteousness deserves God’s wrath (1:18) because of the guilt and foolishness that sinners incur. This is universally true leaving everyone “without excuse” (1:20).

From 1:18–2:16, the guilt and foolishness of sin are set forth. After announcing in verse 18 that God’s wrath is revealed against all present unrighteousness, Paul begins to focus first on the reality of this even for Gentiles, thus leaving all men, as he says in verse 20, “without excuse.” Despite the fact that creation testifies to the reality and character of God (1:20), people suppress the truth in unrighteousness (1:19) and have not honored God as God or given thanks to Him (1:21). Instead, they exchanged the glory of God for images of creatures (1:23) and the truth of God for a lie. Furthermore, they worshipped the creature rather than the Creator (1:25).

For all of these reasons God judged the unrighteousness of His creatures by justly, in displays of wrath, “giving them up” (1:24, 26, 28) to their own wickedness and foolishness. Sinclair Ferguson has suggested that there is a “subliminal motif” that runs through these verses which demonstrates the strict righteousness and justice of God in the ways that He pours out His wrath on sinners. If men are intent on worshiping objects rather than God, then He gives them up to be ruled and ruined by those very objects of their desires. It is a fascinating insight, worth meditating over and applying to our own day—a day of the manifested wrath of God in precisely the same way that Paul describes it these verses. The increase in sin is God’s judgment on sin. When seen in this light, the overthrow of moral restraints can no longer be regarded as the advance of freedom but rather as bondage of the most heinous sort. Those who keep pressing down that road and whom God keeps “giving over” to the just punishment of their sins are in desperate need of being rescued by an intervention that is both almighty and gracious—which is precisely what the gospel of sovereign grace does.

The situation is no better for those who possess written revelation from God. “For as many as have sinned without law will also perish without law, and as many as have sinned in the law will be judged by the law” (2:12). It is not enough merely to possess special revelation regarding God’s requirement of righteousness. One must not only “hear” the law, but “do” it (2:13).

Paul makes the same point in his letter to the Galatians. “Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not hear the law?” (Galatians 4:21). The law is strict and unyielding in its demands for perfect, perpetual obedience. “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them” (Galatians 3:10).

The need of those who have access to God’s special revelation is no less than those who do not. As Paul argues in Romans 3:9–10, Jews have no more native righteousness than Greeks because both are under sin. “As it is written, ‘there is none righteous, no not one.’” And furthermore, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (v. 23). Consequently, everyone is in need of a righteousness that God requires and that no fallen human can produce.

What is the conclusion of this desperate situation? As Paul puts it in 3:20, “that every mouth may be stopped and the whole world become guilty before God.” God created man in His own image so that we would live righteously and share in His glory. But sin ruined us. It has rendered us unrighteous and separated from God. Sin is not only wicked, it is tragic. And it has left us helpless ever to regain righteousness by way of the law.

How God Provides Justification

It is against this backdrop that Paul announces what, to those who have been convinced of their desperate condition as sinners, is the most amazing, hopeful message that could ever be heard: “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law” (3:21). What is this righteousness? From where does it come? It is a “righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ, for all who believe” (3:22).

Objectively, this righteousness is provided “in Jesus Christ.” Romans 3:25–26 describe Christ’s propitiatory sacrifice on the cross as a payment for sin, Through this death God demonstrates His righteousness not only as the just God, but as the God who justly justifies sinners. Prior to Christ’s death a question could be raised about this. How could God justify Moses and not Pharaoh? Both were sinners. Both lacked the righteousness that God requires. Verse 35 explains that the sins of Moses (and all Old Testament believers) were “passed over” by God, awaiting their full payment in the death of Christ. Now that Christ has died, that question has been answered forever and, by the cross, God has demonstrated that He is both personally righteous and that He righteously justifies those who have sinned.

The law requires death for lawbreakers. This is its curse under which all sinners naturally find themselves. By enduring God’s wrath against our sin Christ has redeemed sinners from “the curse of the law” having become a “curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). This secures the just forgiveness of our sins because our sins have been justly punished.

But the law reveals that not only does God require the punishment of sin, He also requires perfect righteousness. This was His requirement of man before the fall and it has not changed since the fall. Therefore, the justification that is found in Jesus Christ is accomplished not only by His sacrificial death but also by His representative life. This is Paul’s argument (as we have already seen) in chapter 5 of Romans. The “one Man’s righteous act” (5:18) and “one Man’s obedience” (5:19) are references not merely to the death of Jesus but to the whole of His work, including His obedient life. Just as the act of breaking the law brought judgment on all who are in Adam, so the act of keeping the law brings justification to all who are in Christ. And this justification comes through His perfect righteousness being imputed to us.

Both of these aspects of justification are brought together in the fourth chapter of Romans. Paul argues that to the one who believes, righteous is imputed (Romans 4:3–5). He uses Abraham as an illustration of his point. It was Abraham’s faith, not his works, that gained him access to imputed righteousness. Thus the righteousness that was imputed to him was outside him. He received it through faith, just as the wages of a worker are outside of him and received as a result of his works

Additionally, to the one who believes, sin is not imputed. David is the illustration of this point (Romans 4:7–8). Note, however, how Paul introduces David’s words in Psalm 32. The apostle quotes the first two verses of that Psalm as a description of the “blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works” (v. 6). Such a man’s blessedness consists of having his “lawless deeds forgiven,” “his sins covered” and having the Lord not impute his sin to him.

What is in Paul’s mind here? Is he simply speaking of forgiveness and the imputation of righteousness as synonymous? That is not likely because of the way he goes right back to Abraham’s example in Romans 4:9–13 to explain the blessedness David mentions in Psalm 32. As John Piper has put it, “Paul assumes there is no justification—no positive declaration and imputation of righteousness—where there is no forgiveness. Forgiveness is a constitutive element of justification…. Second, Paul assumes that if a saving ‘blessing’ is pronounced over a person, he must be counted as righteous. That is why he had no problem explaining David’s blessing with Abraham’s justification.”[12]

Objectively, righteousness is provided in Jesus Christ. Subjectively, it is received through faith. This means that it is free—absolutely free. Righteousness is not given as a reward to faith as if believing merited it. Nor is it that God sees faith and the resulting inclinations and efforts that accompany saving faith and decides that those inclinations and efforts are enough for Him to judge a believer righteous. Rather, faith receives righteousness that is imputed to us.

The great Princeton theologian, B. B. Warfield, wrote:

The saving power of faith resides thus not in itself, but in the Almighty Saviour on whom it rests…. It is not, strictly speaking, even faith in Christ that saves, but Christ that saves through faith. The saving power resides exclusively, not in the act of faith or the attitude of faith or the nature of faith, but in the object of faith…. We could not more radically misconceive it than by transferring to faith even the smallest fraction of that saving energy which is attributed in the Scriptures wholly to Christ himself.[13]

This is why Paul says in Romans 3:27 that God’s way of making sinners righteous removes all ground from our boasting. Boasting is excluded, not by the law of works (which is certainly true, but it is not his point), but rather by the law of faith. The way of faith shows that this justification comes to sinners through sheer grace. As he says in Romans 4:16 of the righteousness that comes to sinners in justification, “Therefore it is of faith that it might be according to grace!” Faith simply receives the gift of righteousness, it does not merit that gift.

Why is this so important?

The doctrine of imputed righteousness is important because it holds out the only real hope that real sinners have of finding real acceptance with the real God. There is an inveterate human tendency to think less of God than we should, in hopes that a less strident God will be more willing to accept less than perfect people. A God of strict justice and holiness is a fearful Being. How could sinners ever hope to be accepted by such a God?

That is the dilemma that the Bible sets before us in its teaching of salvation. God is strict in His justice and holiness. In fact, He is a consuming fire who is angry with the wicked every day (Hebrews 12:29; Psalm 7:11). It is amazing, then, to find this God coming to sinners in Jesus Christ and providing the very righteousness that He demands. News of such kindness engenders hope in the hearts of those who know themselves to be sinners.

The real God requires perfect obedience—perfect righteousness—of His image bearers. But we are all failures—miserable failures. All of our righteousnesses are as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). We are real sinners. But because Jesus Christ has secured a perfect righteousness through His life and death, God is able justly to justify real sinners. As Paul says, God justifies the ungodly (Romans 4:5).

A sinner does not have to pretend to be good enough for God. Nor does anyone have to wait until he is better before he can go to God for salvation. Are you ungodly? Then you qualify for the kind of salvation that God gives, because He justifies real sinners.

What an encouragement and aid this is in our evangelism. No one who is breathing should be past our prayers and our efforts to win to Christ. Why? Because God justifies the ungodly.

This understanding of imputation also holds out the only real hope that real Christians have of maintaining real acceptance with the real God. The reality of imputed righteousness is a real encouragement to ongoing sinners. Even as believers we must admit that sin is mixed with all we do. Even though we are justified believers, we still stumble and fall. We still make backward steps. What will keep a believer persevering in the face of remaining sin? Just this: the knowledge that the righteousness that renders us acceptable to God is not our own personal achievement. It is Christ’s righteousness achieved for us.

What is a Christian to do when he stumbles and falls in sin? He must keep looking to Christ by humbly repenting and starting over. This is how we battle discouragement. This is what keeps us from losing hope. On the believer’s worst day this thought can keep him from utter despair: Jesus Christ is my righteousness. To see, remember and believe that God has credited Christ’s righteousness to us and has on that basis accepted us once and for all, is to find the strength and the direction to fight against every form of discouragement and temptation and frustration in life.

This is precisely what happened to John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim’s Progress. He was tormented with uncertainty about his relationship with God until this truth broke in on his soul. But when he saw it, it changed everything. Bunyan described it in these words:

One day as I was passing into the field…this sentence fell upon my soul. Thy righteousness is in heaven. And me thought, withal, I saw with the eyes of my soul Jesus Christ at God’s right hand; there, I say, was my righteousness; so that wherever I was, or whatever I was doing, God could not say of me, he wants [=lacks] my righteousness, for that was just [in front of] him. I also saw, moreover, that it was not my good frame of heart that made my righteousness better, nor yet my bad frame that made my righteousness worse, for my righteousness was Jesus Christ himself, “The same yesterday, today and, and forever.” …

Now did my chains fall off my legs indeed. I was loosed from my afflictions and irons; my temptations also fled away; so that from that time those dreadful scriptures of God [e.g. Hebrews 12:16 –17] left off to trouble me; now went I also home rejoicing for the grace and love of God.[14]

This is the believing sinner’s great hope—to see his righteousness firmly, securely resting at the right hand of God the Father in the person and finished work of Jesus Christ His Son. To have such a faith-directed vision is to be set free.¦


1 J. I. Packer, Concise Theology (Carol Stream, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001), 164.

2 Cited in R. C. Sproul, Faith Alone (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1999), 67.

3 John C. Olin, ed. , John Calvin and Jacobo Sadoleto: A Reformation Debate (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1966), 66.

4 C. H. Spurgeon, Spurgeon at His Best (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1988), 116.

5 J. I. Packer, Concise Theology, 164.

6 The Second London Baptist Confession of 1689 is more explicit, stating that God justifies sinners “by imputing Christ’s active obedience unto the whole Law, and passive obedience in his death, for their whole and sole righteousness” (11.1).

7 Mark Seifrid, Christ, Our Righteousness (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 173–174.

8 A significant debate erupted last year after James White reviewed Seifrid’s book. For White’s review and responses from Seifrid, see

9 Robert H. Gundry, “Why I Didn’t Endorse ‘The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration’ . . . even though I wasn’t asked to,” in Books and Culture (January/February, 2001, Vol. 7, no. 1), 9. This article can be found at:

10 R. L. Harris, G. L. Archer, Jr. and B. K. Waltke, eds., Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 2 vols. (Chicago, Illinois: Moody Bible Institute, 1980), 1:330.

11 E. H. Gifford, The Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans (London: John Murray, 1886), 115.

12 John Piper, Counted Righteous in Christ: Should We Abandon the Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness? (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2002), 117–118.

13 Cited in R. C. Sproul, Jr., ed. After Darkness Light: Essays in Honor of R. C. Sproul (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2003), 87.

14 From John Bunyan, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners; cited in Piper, Counted Righteous, 124–25.