ARE WE SAVED BY IMPUTED RIGHTEOUSNESS?
There can be no doubt that we must be, in some sense, perfect before we can enter into God's presence. Revelation 21:27 teaches that nothing defiled or stained can enter heaven. God's holiness does not permit any sin in his presence. Consequently, sin separates us from God (Is. 59:1,2). In order to be reconciled to God, we must become or be regarded as perfect. The question, which this article raises, is this: from where does this perfection (righteousness or sinlessness) come? There are only two broad answers to that question: it either comes from ourselves or it comes from outside ourselves. In theological terminology, it is either inherent or imputed. Imputed righteousness is simply a righteousness, which is credited to our account even though we do not actually possess it. Inherent righteousness is what one has worked up for himself on the basis of his own deeds. Righteousness cannot be imputed to one who is inherently righteous since he has no need of imputation owing to the fact that he is already, in fact, righteous. If we are to stand in the presence of God, therefore, we will either be righteous within ourselves or righteous through his gracious accounting.
Our question, therefore, concerns the ground of justification. It is important to distinguish the ground of justification from its condition. The two concepts are distinct and should not be confused. In comprehensive terms, the ground of our justification is grace and its condition is faith (Eph. 2:8). Whatever the ground of justification is, it is that which earns or merits our righteousness before God. The condition of justification is the means by which that merit is personally appropriated. The condition of justification does not earn but accepts or receives the merit, which the ground has procured.
Is the ground of our justification imputed or inherent righteousness? Are we righteous before God inherently or by imputation? If we were justified on the ground of inherent righteousness, it would mean that we are justified because of the righteousness, which we have earned or worked up for ourselves. Paul explicitly denies that we are saved by "works done in righteousness which we did ourselves" (Titus 3:5). Isaiah argues that "all our righteous acts are like filthy rags" (Is. 64:6). No one is wholly righteous on the basis of his own works (Rom. 3:10,23). It is, therefore, evident that we cannot be justified on the ground of our own inherent righteousness. Sinners cannot earn their own justification since it is fundamentally a gift as opposed to a wage, which is earned (Rom. 4:4; 6:23).
If we are not justified on the ground of inherent righteousness, then we are justified on the basis of imputed righteousness (that is, on the basis of a righteousness which we do not actually possess within ourselves). This is the whole point of Romans 4:1-8. The ground of forgiveness is the imputation of righteousness. All this means is that one is accounted (declared) righteous without earning it! Paul explicitly states that Abraham's faith "was reckoned unto him for righteousness" (Rom. 4:3). Upon the condition of faith, God credits us with a righteousness, which we do not, in fact, possess. It is a righteousness "apart from works," that is, it is a righteousness, which we did not earn (Rom. 4:6). Abraham was declared righteous (justified) even though he was not, in fact, righteous (in the sense of heavenly perfection). God justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:6), not the godly. The imputation of righteousness is nothing more than God's acceptance of the ungodly as if they were righteous. This righteousness is credited to those who believe and not to those who attempt to work up their own righteousness (Rom. 10:3,4).
But how can God justify the ungodly and account the unrighteous righteous? On what ground does God impute righteousness to those who are inherently unrighteous? That ground is the life, death and resurrection of our sacrificial substitute Jesus. This is Paul's point in Romans 3:21-30. Christ is the propitiation for our sin, that is, he has turned God's wrath away from us and directed it toward himself. Christ became a curse for us in that he suffered the death we deserved (Gal. 3:10-14). Christ died in our place. He died because "he bore our sins in his own body on the tree" (I Pet. 2:25; cf. Is. 53:4-6,8,10-12). Our sin, in a legal and forensic sense (not in a personal sense), became his sin. Our sin was legally credited to his account and therefore he died. Consequently, Paul affirms that "him who knew no sin he made to be sin on our behalf" (II Cor. 5:21).
Therefore, we are justified (declared) righteous by an imputed righteousness on account of the work of Christ. Exactly how the work of Christ functions as a ground for our justification is the subject of the article in this series.
In Scripture, justification is defined as the imputation of righteousness and the non-imputation of sin. The ungodly are declared righteous. In Christ, God has reconciled the sinful world to himself. The life, death and resurrection of Christ has effectively dealt with sin in such a way that the guilty can be acquitted. This is the essence of the gospel's wonderful message: sinners can be accounted righteous and thereby have access to God's holy presence.
Therefore, we are justified (declared righteous) by an imputed righteousness on account of the work of Christ. But what righteousness is this that is imputed to us? How does the work of Christ on the cross function to legally make us righteous in God's presence? Some have argued that God graciously accounts our act of faith as righteousness. Faith is an obedient response to God's grace and is, in that sense, a righteous act. Yet the act of faith cannot be made the ground of justification or else it would become another form of inherent righteousness. The act of faith does not "make up for" all our unrighteousness. The righteousness inherent within faith itself cannot be the ground of justification or else faith can be said to earn our salvation. If faith were the ground of justification, there would have been no need for the death of Christ since there were many before Christ who had faith in God. Faith does not work up the righteousness. It appropriates that righteousness which is offered to us. The act of faith does not make us righteous because faith is imputed for righteousness (Rom. 4:3). Faith simply accepts the righteousness, which is from God (not from within ourselves--it is God who does the imputing) because of Christ's work (Rom. 3:22; Phil. 3:9).
Scripture never views faith as a ground of our justification, but always as a means or condition. It repeatedly says that we are justified through our faith. Faith accepts the merit, which has been earned for us as a means and not as a ground in which our righteousness is accepted in God's sight. That merit which is earned for us is none other than the righteousness of God's Son. Just as he died in our place (paid the penalty of our sin), so also he earned righteousness in our place (provides the ground of God's imputation of righteousness, cf. I Cor. 1:30). The correlative of our sin being legally imputed to Christ is that his righteousness is legally accounted as our own. Christ became sin so that we might be "the righteousness of God" (II Cor. 5:21). In justification we receive a free "gift of righteousness" because of the obedience of one declares us to be righteous (Rom. 5:17-19). We do not have a righteousness of our own by which we can enter into God's holy presence. On the contrary, that righteousness is one, which comes through faith and "from God" (Phil. 3:9). Just as Christ took our penalty for sin, so we take upon ourselves the rewards of his righteous life, that is, God credits us with the righteousness of Christ as if it were our own. This is not transference of personal moral qualities, but a legal transaction. Just as Christ died as if he were personally guilty of our own sin even though he was not, so we are righteous as if we were personally righteous of his own obedience even though we are not. We are righteous in Christ because when God looks upon us, he does not see the sinners we are in ourselves, but sees Christ and the righteousness with which he has clothed us when we were immersed into him through faith (Gal. 3:27; Col. 2:12). We are legally righteous in God's holy sight, not personally righteous (in the sense of moral perfection). Praise God for his gracious imputation of undeserving merit! Let us enthusiastically sing the verses of that wonderful hymn:
My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus blood and righteousness; I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus' name.
When He shall come with trumpet sound, O may I then in Him be found; Dressed in His righteousness alone, faultless to stand before the throne.
The imputation of Christ's righteousness does not mean that we actually become righteous in our own personal experience, but that God has declared us legally righteous in his sight. The latter concept is justification where we are declared righteous as if we had never sinned, but the former is personal sanctification where we seek to progress in holiness (cf. I Pet. 1:16; 3:15; I Thess. 4:1-3; II Thess. 2:13-15). The fact that we are accounted righteous in God's sight through justification does not mean that we need not obey God's law and progress in personal sanctification. On the contrary, if we fail to progress in our faith, it will die. If our faith dies, then we lose God's gracious imputation. The loss of a living, obedient faith entails the loss of imputed righteousness since that faith is the condition of imputation. As James 2:22-24 make clear, it is a faith that works which is imputed for righteousness.
Hebrews 10:14 expresses this important concept beautifully. It states that by Christ's sacrifice on the cross we have been perfected forever. The verb "perfect" is in the perfect tense, which refers to an action, which occurred at a particular point in the past but has present effects. At one particular point in the past we were perfected and we continue to be perfect and will be continually counted as perfect. But this perfection is limited to a particular group. Christ "has perfected forever those who are being sanctified." Only those who are presently (as the tense indicates) in the process of sanctification are those who have been perfected. We can, therefore, be confident and assured in this present life of our legal standing before God--we are righteous in his sight as if we had never sinned. But it is a confidence and assurance only for those who are continuing to progress in their faith and sanctification. Those who fall away have no hope of the promise of eternal rest (Heb. 4:1,9-11; 12:14-17) since they have lost their legal standing of righteousness before God. Without that imputed righteousness, they will never enter into the presence of God since God cannot permit any sin (however small or great) in his presence.
Originally published in two articles as "Are We Saved by Imputed Righteousness? (2)," Image 2.11 (June 1, 1986) 16, 20 and "Are We Saved by Imputed Righteousness? (1)," Image 2:10 (May 15, 1986), 10, 17.