“Christ the bridegroom takes a wretched harlot and confers upon her all the riches that are His”

This past Sunday, to begin our celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation on October 31, I preached the first part of a new series on the Reformation’s five core convictions, often called the “Five Solas.” Part One was on Sola Fide, justification by faith alone. While I didn’t use the word “imputation,” I described it. But here’s a nice description of it from one of my favorite Christian thinkers (and pastors), Paul Zahl, from a 1991 article in First Things.

Moreover, the atonement has to be substitutionary, to use the classic language, or I fail to see how it can ensure the being forgiven. We need God’s substituting Himself into our frail, contingent world of judged living. We require a substitute, the deepest form of empathy, the “I’ll go in your place” quality of advocacy. The metaphor of God’s substitution is the only one of the familiar theories of atonement that provides for the full failed weight of human aspiration.

Moreover, substitutionary atonement has to be imputed. Imputation means the regarding as righteous of one who is not intrinsically righteous at all. It covers over the conflicted ambivalent character of human personality with a seamless robe, and gives us authentic security in the encounter with God.

Imputation is described tersely and truly by an English historian of the Reformation, Patrick Collinson: “[It is] a transaction somewhat like a marriage, in which Christ the bridegroom takes to himself an impoverished and wretched harlot and confers upon her all the riches that are His . . . . Therefore, the justified Christian man, in himself and of his own nature a sinner but not seen as a sinner by God, brings forth those good works which consist in the love of God and neighbor, not slavishly to win any reward but gladly, that service which is perfect freedom.” Imputation as an experienced principle is poignantly needful for a striving world.

3 thoughts on ““Christ the bridegroom takes a wretched harlot and confers upon her all the riches that are His””

  1. Generally in agreement. Two possible caveats. First, imputation grants us entry into heaven and the presence of God. It does not mean that for ALL purposes, God “sees Jesus when he looks at the Christian sinner.” Obviously God still “sees our sins”; otherwise, how could he judge us (as he says he will)? “Man shall give account of every idle word,” Jesus says. “Judgment begins with the house of God.” See also the letters to the Seven Churches.

    Second, there is nothing wrong with “win[ning] any reward” as a motivation. Jesus speaks quite frequently of rewards and God’s giving them based on our efforts. Paul speaks of winning the prize. It appears even Jesus looked to the reward. Hebrews 12:2. “He that comes to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him.” We might say that “love” is a “greater” motivation, but that is not excusive of seeking rewards, but rather complementary thereto. Indeed, one of the reasons why we love God is because he is the type of person who rewards good behavior. So we look forward to seeing God, and also to seeing all the good things this good God has stored up for us.

    1. I agree completely with the first paragraph. I’m not sure that the Hebrews passage you cite (actually 11:6) doesn’t rule out that the “rewards” are intrinsic simply to being a child of God. He rewards us with his love, grace, and mercy? The closer we grow to him, the more “rewarding” we find it?

      But I get your point: there are extrinsic rewards.

      1. Yeah, my main “beef” on this issue is that a lot of people totally discount any “extrinsic rewards” as either insignificant or a “crass” reason for obedience. I don’t see the Bible teaching that way whatsoever.

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