by Steve Jones
Throughout the Bible, God's people are referred to as "the righteous." This is true in both testaments. They are often contrasted with God's enemies, "the unrighteous." In many cases, especially in the book of Proverbs, the righteous are said to exhibit such-and-such behavior, but the unrighteous do the opposite. Conduct and character seem to determine who is who. The righteous keep God's commands, show mercy to the poor, fear the Lord. The unrighteous take bribes, lie in wait for the helpless and disregard their Maker.
Popular theology recognizes this about Old Testament righteousness. But it seems to shift gears when it considers the era following the birth of the New Testament church. Righteousness at that point in redemptive history suddenly becomes a thing, not of character, but of legal standing. God looks down at me and, despite all of my sin, views me as perfectly righteous. He treats me as if I had always and everywhere obeyed Him perfectly.
How can such a thing be? How can the all-knowing God look at a sinner and not see a sinner? Traditional Protestant theology has the answer immediately. God has legally, forensically imputed the believer with the very righteousness of Christ. When God looks at me, the argument goes, He sees Christ in all of His manifold perfections.
Merrill Unger writes, concerning Philemon 18: "This is a beautiful illustration of the principle of imputation by which the sinner's sins are reckoned or imputed to Christ's account, and His righteousness is credited or imputed to the sinner's account, all by faith."1 This accords perfectly with the Reformer Calvin: "Thus we simply interpret justification as the acceptance with which God receives us into his favor as if we were righteous; and we say that this justification consists in the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ."2 And again, "To declare that we are deemed righteous, solely because the obedience of Christ is imputed to us as if it were our own, is just to place our righteousness in the obedience of Christ."3 Notice that, for Calvin, it is not our obedience that makes us righteous, but the obedience of Christ.
According to this view, a mysterious transaction takes place the moment I believe. The impeccable law-keeping and merit of Christ is transferred to me as if it were my own. And so we hear of being sinful in state but righteous in standing. We are the unrighteous in condition but the righteous in position. This is the teaching of Luther and Calvin and many well-intentioned teachers in our own day. They tell us that Paul unfolded the doctrine in his epistles, especially Romans and Galatians.
But many of us cannot accept the popular view, despite the fact that it has encouraged Christians throughout the ages. We believe that it carries with it hopeless contradictions and has often served as a prop for carnality. Furthermore, when righteousness becomes something legal, something intangible that can be transferred here and there, it ceases to be a meaningful attribute.
One of the chief reasons for rejecting the idea of imputed righteousness is the fact that it is not a dominant theme in the New Testament. It is dug out of a small number of Pauline passages, all of them dwelling with difficult issues of the Jew and Gentile, law and grace. Supposed statements of the doctrine are taken from passages in which Paul is answering the questions, "Must we be circumcised and keep the food laws? Must we be Jews first in order to be Christians?" It is important to note that he is not answering the question, "How can a sinful man be just before a perfect God?" That, however, is the way in which Protestants treat the Pauline texts.
But suppose that Paul, in two or three instances, really was articulating the doctrine of imputed righteousness. What a staggering revelation! He would be in essence saying that the whole course of redemptive history had now been reversed. All of our conceptions of "righteousness" and "unrighteousness" would be forever changed. While a righteous man was formerly one who had a righteous character and life, he was now one who was righteous only in judicial standing. It would have been necessary to state such a foreign thing with plainness and precision.
If this amazing claim were true, we would expect every author of the New Testament to spell it out unequivocally. It would scarcely have been buried in the epistles, awaiting the skill of a Luther to unearth it. Jesus would have everywhere proclaimed the impending imputation of his righteousness, were this the core of the gospel message. James, the great exponent of deeds, would have written of it. John and Peter would have as well.
The preaching in Acts could hardly have been complete without a discourse on imputed righteousness, if this were a central truth of Christianity. The early preachers would have stood before the Jews, announcing a new conception of the word "righteousness." How many disputations they would have encountered over this radical change concerning the nature of righteousness. But, of course, we see no such thing. There is angry dissension over the matters of circumcision and Jewish law, but not over the nature of righteousness itself. Peter even says that God "accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right" (Acts 10:35). How careless that saying would have been, how detrimental to the new understanding of "position and condition," were the popular view correct.
It is true that Paul does mention the word "impute," at least in the King James Version. But here we have an example of a single term being so packed with theological meaning by Christendom that the student can barely get past the word without reading volumes into it. For many, "to impute" summons the meaning of "to transfer, judicially that which is not true of the one to whom it is transferred."
Simple language helps, however, can show us that this word means "reckon," "count," or "inventory." God counts us as righteous. Why? Because of a mysterious righteousness put to our account? Paul is never so specific. Many of us believe this instead: We are declared righteous because we are walking in the way of righteousness. Not perfectly. Not every second of the day. But we are striving to be disciples and are, therefore, numbered among the righteous, God's covenant people. Our sins are forgiven and we have a new principle of goodness within that gives us a right status.
Some may object that this is not perfect righteousness. But Paul never says that God imputes us with perfect righteousness. God accepts the righteousness of faith, imperfect as it may be, as He always has from His covenant people. It is so common to hear people say that God accepts only perfect, perpetual obedience to His commandments. Accepting this a priori, they present a doctrine of necessity: God must impute men with the perfect righteousness He demands, or they will never be saved.
But why did such an idea ever gain credence? Is it plainly taught in the Bible? Of course, God demands righteousness, but perfection? This would seem a strange demand from the one who "knows our frame and remembers that we are dust" (Psa. 103:14).
Some point to Habakkuk 1:13: "Your eyes are too pure to behold evil, you cannot look on iniquity." But this verse has been wrenched from its context. The prophet is here complaining about the fact that God's covenant people were being beset by their enemies. God was evidently allowing it. How could He do such a thing, the prophet asks, since He does not look with favor upon evil? This is the whole point of this passage. No one is laying down a metaphysical proposition about God's demand for perfect obedience.
Others will say that God's commandments upon Israel are proof that He demands perfection. Here is a law that no one could keep. God pronounced wrath and death upon all who wavered in the slightest degree. The law, they tell us, was clearly impossible to obey.
These people often overlook the passages that teach with crystal clarity man's ability to keep the law. Zechariah and Elisabeth, for example, "were both righteous before God, walking in all of the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly" (Luke 1:6). Here it is stated in language too plain to be misunderstood. The law could be kept, and was kept by at least two people. It was also kept by the psalmist (Psa. 119:97-102).
God Himself told the Israelites that the law was not too hard for His people to keep (Deut. 30:10-14). Why do so many fail to consider such texts when they build dogmatic theologies about salvation? Furthermore, the very fact that God included within the law sacrifices for disobedience is a denial of their propositions about God's demand of absolute, unswerving adherence.
Some may argue that tying righteousness to character and conduct sets up a system of merits, a thing proscribed by the New Testament. But it does no such thing. The righteousness found in the saints flows out of their covenant status with god, not some bootstrap effort. We walk in righteousness because He is righteous, and we are in covenant with Him. But we must walk in obedience to Christ, persevering in faith, confessing our sins when we fall. This idea is so prevalent in the New Testament it is amazing that it should have so many detractors.
There is no necessity prompting the idea of imputed righteousness. In fact, there is much to discredit such a concept. One is that it throws out the idea of forgiveness. It seems clear that God extends to us an ongoing forgiveness of sins (1 John 1:7-9; Matt. 6:12). But the question is, what sins? How can God forgive a sin that He cannot see? How can He extend pardon to one who, positionally, is just as righteous as Jesus Christ? If I am viewed as perfect, why is there ever a need that I be forgiven?
If imputed righteousness is true, it is doubtful that God could ever discipline His children, as the author of Hebrews says He does (Heb. 12:6). Discipline us for what? We are sinless in His eyes, according to the popular view. Some have tried to make an arbitrary distinction between our legal standing before God and our communion with Him as our Father. But this is contrived. The Bible does not teach that we have two relationships with God.
John, in effect, denied the idea of imputed righteousness when he wrote, "Let no one deceive you. He who does what is right is righteous, just as he [Christ] is righteous" (1 John 3:7). What could be further from the view that he who stands judicially righteous is righteous, just as Christ is righteous?
1Merrill F. Unger, unger's bible handbook (Chicago, IL: Moody Press), 1966, p. 745.
2John Calvin, institutes of the christian religion (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.), reprint 1983, Vol. 2, p. 38.