Imputation is a beautiful doctrine

May 25, 2017

Speaking of John Piper, years ago he got into a public feud with N.T. Wright (both sides were polite and respectful) over the doctrine of imputation. Wright, as he often does, said, in so many words, “Yes, but…” He didn’t disagree that we are justified by grace alone through faith alone, only that the means by which the Reformers (and their ancient predecessors) arrived at this formulation was incorrect. Wright’s takeaway, as I recall from his book-length response to Piper, was that Christ’s righteousness is not imputed to us believers.

I don’t remember his argument. And nothing I say here detracts from my love and affection for Wright, whose book The Resurrection of the Son of God almost single-handedly (through the Holy Spirit, of course) returned me to the evangelical fold after many years wandering in the mainline Protestant wilderness. But Wright wrote as if imputation was some kind of alien concept foisted onto the Bible by the Reformers.

In the seven or eight years since I read Wright’s book Justification, I am even more Reformed in my thinking, and more evangelical. Therefore I’m much more sympathetic with the classic Reformation emphasis on imputation—I certainly hope it’s true!

Therefore, I was delighted to read in (United Methodist) theologian Thomas Oden’s systematic theology, Classic Christianity, that double-imputation (our sins to Christ on the cross and Christ’s righteousness to us through faith) represents the consensual teaching of the Church from the beginning. Allow me quote from his book at length. (I’m leaving out most of his citations of ancient, medieval, and Reformation-era sources. There are many.) I hope it’s helpful to my readers.

To impute (logizomai) is to credit as a virtue to another or to charge as a fault to another. The New Testament makes frequent use of the bookkeeping analogy: imputing or crediting to another’s account. God’s grace ascribes to our account what we do not deserve.

The language of imputation has entered conspicuously into justification teaching as seen in Paul’s crucial phrase “faith is credited [logizetai] as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5). Our debts are charged to Christ’s account. Christ’s obedience is offered for our deficient account. “Faith may be said to be imputed to us for righteousness as it is the sole condition of our acceptance” (Wesley, NUNT at Rom. 4:9…)

The imputation metaphors are found throughout classic Christian teaching: Adam’s sin has been reckoned to flow into the history of all humanity, so Adam’s debt is “charged to our account.” Oppositely, our sin has been reckoned to Christ. Christ paid the penalty for sin, becoming a curse for us. Our own sins are mercifully not being counted against those who trust Christ’s righteousness (Rom. 4:22-24; 2 Cor. 5:19), which is reckoned to the believer.

Justification teaching employs a twofold reverse in the bookkeeping metaphor. It indicates both the discharging (nonimputation) from sin and the crediting (imputation) of Christ’s righteousness. Debt is discharged; substitutionary payment is credited. The Epistle to Diognetus called this “the sweet exchange.”

Sin is not charged against the believing sinner, for “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them” (2 Cor. 5:19). Christ’s righteousness is accredited to the believing sinner, who is “found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith” (Phil. 3:9, italics added…).

The believer is treated as actually righteous in relation to God. This is why my ethical deeds are not the basis for gaining standing in God’s presence. Only in the cross of the Lord of glory is that possible, where sin is forgiven without offending God’s own righteousness.

But how can God remain holy if sin is easily dismissed? That is just the point: it is not easily dismissed. It required a cross, a death, a burial. The cross is an event in history, a sacrificial offering substituting Christ’s goodness for our sin. The burden of our sin is transferred directly from our shoulders to Christ’s cross (Rom. 3:21-25; 2 Cor. 5:21). On the cross there occurred a salvation event which constituted “a transfer from the Law to the Gospel, from the Synagogue to the Church, from many sacrifices to one Victim” (Leo I, Sermon 68.3).[†]

My favorite part is in that last paragraph: “But how can God remain holy if sin is easily dismissed? That is just the point: it is not easily dismissed. It required a cross, a death, a burial.” Amen! When too many contemporary preachers and teachers dismiss substitutionary atonement (as my clergy acquaintance did in our conversation last week), they are impugning God’s holiness: God’s forgiveness of us sinners comes at an infinitely high cost!

† Thomas Oden, Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology (New York: HarperOne, 1992), 594-5.

5 Responses to “Imputation is a beautiful doctrine”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    I agree with imputation. However, I would note that I think this relates to “guilt” for sin, and/or the price and means for the “change of destination.” In other words, I think God still “recognizes” our sins and takes action based on them. Although a limited example, assuming that the “for better or for worse” vow were without exception, still yet our spouse would think better or worse of us depending on our actions towards her, and act accordingly. I am just saying that our sins don’t “disappear” from God’s sight based on imputation.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I don’t know. I think I disagree in the sense that the guilt and penalty for our sins do disappear from God’s sight. Remember the scriptures about God’s “forgetfulness” of forgiven sin? But that isn’t to say that God will rescue is from all consequences. And if he doesn’t, then he is disciplining us. But that doesn’t change the fact that, from a “guilt” perspective, we remain “innocent.”

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Well, my point would be that the sins don’t “disappear,” but rather are “covered” when it comes to God’s receptivity to allow us in his presence and in heaven. I recognize the couple of “forget” or “as far as” verses, but that is “in one sense” (or more than one), but not all. Obviously God did not “overlook” David’s sin, and punished him for it, but also said, through Nathan, “God has forgiven your sin, YOU WILL NOT DIE.” My boss could promise me permanent employment, but might cut my salary if I became negligent and nonproductive. Again a weak analogy, but my point is that we can forgive “and forget” as to certain consequences, but simultaneously not for others. (It is not as though God suffers from amnesia!)

      • brentwhite Says:

        No, I know… and I think the analogy you describe falls under “discipline.” We’re on the same page. What do you believe about forgiven sin and final judgment for believers? Will God “bring up” sin for which we’ve already repented and received forgiveness? Do our blanket “confessions”—given that we sin, often unconsciously, all the time—suffice for these thoughtless, unconscious sins. I’ve wondered about this recently.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Well, that is a good question. I think Jesus says, “every idle word” (KJV). Also that we will be judged before the Judgment Seat of Christ for what we do, “whether good or bad.” Of course repentance will be taken into account as well, as something good that we have done. And think of the parable of the unforgiving servant–the king was willing to forgive, but not after he saw that the servant was not willing to forgive in return. The more we show mercy, the more mercy we will receive. “Judge not, that you be not judged, for with what judgment you judge, it will be judged against you.” So I think all this does get taken into account in one fashion or another, but we can “improve our standing.”


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