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.