Imputation is not “as if” we’re righteous—we really are!

March 21, 2018

The doctrine of imputation, a preoccupation of Lutheran and Reformed Protestants, receives little attention among Wesley scholars. My Wesleyan theology prof in seminary never used the word or discussed the concept, if memory serves. As best I can tell, Wesley didn’t like the word, in part because it wasn’t found in the Bible. (Of course, this objection reminds me of a Jehovah’s Witness I met last week who, with rhetorical flourish, asked me to find the word Trinity in “my” Bible.)

The question is not whether the word is in scripture: Is the concept there?

Indeed, it is—in Romans 4:3-8, perhaps most prominently. The Greek word logizomai, rendered “reckoned,” “counted as,” or “credited” in English (as in, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”) may as easily be rendered “imputed.” Just as our sins were imputed to Christ on the cross—such that he really did pay the penalty for our sins even though he, in himself, was without sin—so Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us when we believe in Christ, even though we, in ourselves, are not righteous.

From the book’s inside dust jacket

In her magisterial recent book on the Atonement, Fleming Rutledge, a retired Episcopal minister, agrees. In a footnote, she writes the following:

For Protestants of the Lutheran and Reformed traditions, the translation “it was imputed to him” has tremendous resonance, with its implication that the righteousness “worded” [the literal translation of logizomai] to us is always an “alien righteousness” (Martin Luther’s term) that never becomes our own possession but is always received gratefully from God as a gift. “Imputed righteousness” and “alien righteousness” are still concepts of tremendous importance because they protect the central theme of Paul in the Corinthian letters, panta ek tou theou (“all things [are] from God” – II Cor. 5:18), and they guard against works-righteousness—provided that the phrases are understood to refer to something that is truly happening, not just theoretically “counted as.” The righteousness of God is a gift that is received anew daily from the Giver, but it really is a gift, whereby the receiver participates in righteousness through Christ.[1]

Imputation is not, therefore, as some detractors say, a “legal fiction”—something only technically true because God has erased a few marks in his heavenly ledger. No: this righteousness is really ours through faith.

In other words, imputation is not “as if” we’re righteous: through our faith in Christ’s atoning work on the cross, we really are righteous. Do you see the difference? If anything, when we Christians sin, we do so as if we are still sinners.

Years ago I had a parishioner whose knowledge of the Bible—chapter and verse—put mine to shame. Once, in conversation, I referred to myself in passing as “a sinner.” She corrected me: “You sin, but you’re not a sinner. The old man was crucified with Christ,” she said, referring to Romans 6:6. And I remember thinking, “She’s nuts!”

But not so fast!

So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. – Romans 6:11

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. – 2 Corinthians 5:17

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. – Galatians 2:20

And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. – Galatians 5:24

But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. – Galatians 6:14

[P]ut off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires… – Ephesians 4:22

Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices… – Colossians 3:9

(Notice Paul’s insistence that the “crucifixion” of our old self happened in the past.)

But even as I reflect on these verses, the inner legalist is protesting: “But you are a sinner, Brent! Isn’t that the most obvious fact in the world?”

But think of the prodigal son: He could hardly get out the first words of his faltering apology before the father was ordering his servants to bring the “best robe” and put it on him, along with his signet ring and shoes (Luke 15:21-22).

That’s imputation—or call it whatever you want. We have a new identity! “Sinner” is no longer part of it!

“But you sin!”

Yes, I do. But consider the prodigal: he wasn’t an appreciably different person after his father put the best robe on him than he was before. The difference (aside from the son’s gratitude, I imagine) was his father’s gift. To say the least, he is no longer “prodigal,” even though he’s the same person (for now) on the inside.

I say “for now” because of course I’m not denying the power of sanctification: God can and will change us from within. But this change is not the basis on which we’re made acceptable by God. That change has already happened: we are already righteous because of Christ’s imputed righteousness.

Paul makes this point in 1 Corinthians. The Corinthians sinned in spectacular ways, as Paul points out over the course of the letter. Yet at the beginning of the letter, in verse 2, he writes the following: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus…” We are being sanctified, yet in a sense we are already sanctified.

I apologize for writing about something that I should have learned years ago. In my small defense, however, we Methodists tend to speak as if the imperative in sanctification is, “Work harder” and “Do better.”

But that’s exactly wrong. The imperative in sanctification, as Rutledge says, is, “Become the person you already are.”

Become the person you already are.

These are words I can live off of—without guilt or shame.

1. Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 333.

2 Responses to “Imputation is not “as if” we’re righteous—we really are!”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Good thoughts. However, James says we are to mourn for our sins. Also, “Wash your hands, you sinners.” I think we are “both” as opposed to only either. Paul seems to be getting at that in Romans 7, I think. It is true that our “ultimate identity” is that we are Christlike, but I think our “present” identify is a mixed bag. Anyway, you may be right, but it seems to me that the “practical” reality is that sin still “dwells within us.” “Putting off” the old man suggests he is still there currently.

    • brentwhite Says:

      “Simul justus et peccator,” as Luther said: Both righteous and sinner. I don’t disagree. The parishioner I quoted here made a point, however, that I too easily dismissed. In my own life, I need to remind myself that I’m “also” righteous, that this righteousness is real, not simply “as if.”


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