I’m back with a new podcast episode, my first in many months! It’s one that’s been “brewing” for a while, though. It’s about the classic Reformation doctrine of imputation, which has often been underemphasized or neglected in contemporary Methodism. But it is life-giving for me. It makes my heart sing. Maybe it will help you, too.
This podcast features the Keith Green song, “When I Hear the Praises Start,” from the album For Him Who Has Ears to Hear. Here he is performing it live in 1982. Listen to his introduction: He speaks to some of the same concerns I raise in this episode!
Speaking of Green, I mention in the podcast that the 12-year-old appeared in 1965 on the game show I’ve Got a Secret. Thanks to YouTube, you can watch it here.
You can listen to my podcast on your phone or tablet by subscribing in iTunes, Google Play, or Stitcher.
Here is the transcript:
Hi, this is Brent White, and podcast episode number 32. And you are listening to the late-great Keith Green and his brilliant, beautiful, theologically rich song “When I Hear the Praises Start.”
I was born in 1970, and I had two older sisters who listened to a Top 40 radio station in Atlanta called WZGC, Z-93. It’s now a sports-talk station. But back in the ’70s and early ’80s it was Top 40 all the way, which meant, for example, every Sunday morning at 10:00 and running until 1:00 or so, Casey Kasem counted down the hits on American Top 40.
We went to church on most Sundays; we were not the most faithful churchgoers growing up; but when we did go to church, if we timed it right, we would be driving home from the Morrison’s Cafeteria at just around time Casey was nearing the number one song in the nation. What fun! This was a magical part of my childhood.
Anyway, what does all that have to do with Keith Green? Only this: Keith Green was so talented, and such a good singer and songwriter, there’s no reason he wouldn’t have blended right in on the radio with so many other singer-songwriters of the ’70s… especially the piano-based guys that were popular at the time, certainly Elton John and Billy Joel. But back then there were plenty of other singer-songwriters of that mold… Leo Sayer! “When I Need You.” What a perfect ballad! Or how about Rupert Holmes: “Escape (Piña Colada Song).” Or… Andrew Gold, whose song “Thank You for Being a Friend” later became the theme song of the TV show Golden Girls. He also had that depressing hit song, “Lonely Boy,” with an unforgettable piano riff that reminds me of Keith Green.
My point is, by rights, the world shoulda-woulda-coulda heard Keith Green on the radio back in the ’70s. He was more than good enough! And the world probably would have… if Jesus hadn’t intervened first.
See, Green actually got a head start in the music industry long before he became the pioneering Christian rock performer we know him as today. He got a record deal with Decca Records when he was—I’m not making this up—twelve years old. They were trying to fashion him into a teen idol. In fact, I’ll put a link in the show notes to a YouTube video of 12-year-old Keith Green on the game show I’ve Got a Secret in 1965. It’s unbelievable. He performs one of his teenybopper songs.
During the late-’60s/early-’70s revival known as the Jesus Movement, which started on the West Coast with the Vineyard Church and Calvary Chapel, Keith Green, like many other hippies at the time, found Jesus. He got a record deal around 1977 with a Christian label called Sparrow. And this song, “When I Hear the Praises Start,” comes from his debut album, For Him Who Has Ears to Hear.
This album is so good. In 1979, no less a luminary than future Nobel laureate Bob Dylan named it as his favorite album. And during Dylan’s own gospel period, he befriended Green and played harmonica on the song “I Pledge My Head to Heaven.”
So why am I playing this song now? Well, first of all, it moves me deeply. It’s sung from God’s point of view—directed to Keith Green himself, or to any of us who have been born again—who have been adopted by faith into God’s family and have become God’s beloved sons and daughters. Listen to some of the words of this song:
My son, my son, why are you striving
You can’t add one thing to what’s been done for you
I did it all while I was dying
Rest in your faith, my peace will come to you
For when I hear the praises start
I want to rain upon you
Blessings that will fill your heart
I see no stain upon you
Because you are my child and you know me
To me you’re only holy
Nothing that you’ve done remains
Only what you do for me
This song illustrates a classic Reformation doctrine—the understanding of which has changed my life over the past five years or so. This doctrine has become a recurring theme in my preaching and teaching. It makes my heart sing. I simply can’t get enough of it!
So in this podcast, I want to tell you about it.
I’m talking about the doctrine of imputation. Imputation says that on the cross of Christ, a great exchange took place. The first part of imputation is something we Christians all know and talk about all the time, at least those of us who are traditional evangelicals: Jesus took upon himself our sins. Technically, our sins were imputed to him on the cross. He suffered the penalty for them; he suffered God’s wrath for them; he drank the cup of God’s wrath—the very cup that he prayed that his Father would take away from him, if possible, in the Garden of Gethsemane. This “cup of wrath” imagery comes from several places in the Old Testament.
Indeed, on the cross, Jesus experienced hell itself, for example, which is literally separation from God, when he quotes Psalm 22:1, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus experienced that separation for some period of time on the cross—in our place, on our behalf. And he was no unwilling victim: “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord,” Jesus said. “I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again.” John 10:18. Jesus chose to die for us, out of love, so we ourselves who believe in him wouldn’t have to die a death like that.
So that’s the first part of imputation, but the second part is what has captivated me recently: Remember, I said that imputation means an exchange has taken place: Christ receives our sins—God places our sins on Christ—and what does Jesus give us who believe in him in exchange? He gives us his righteousness… as a gift. In other words, Christ’s own righteousness is imputed to us. Our sins are imputed to him; his righteousness is imputed to us. The following is a cliché, but it’s true: “Jesus lived the life we were unable to live and died the death we deserved to die.” In other words, he lived the life of perfect, sinless obedience to the Father that we were unable to live—and that life, Paul says, using accounting language, gets credited to our account. Romans 6:11. Jesus’ faithfulness to his Father becomes our faithfulness. His righteousness becomes our righteousness.
One classic verse that summarizes this exchange is 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” But there are many more: 1 Corinthians 1:30, from the New Living Translation: “Christ made us right with God; he made us pure and holy, and he freed us from sin.” Please notice: he made us pure and holy,” past tense. Not “he will make us” or “he is making us.” It’s an accomplished fact: this is now who we are. Or consider Philippians 3:9: as part of a participial phrase, Paul writes of himself: “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ.”
This righteousness, Paul says, is not something that we’ve earned through our efforts; it’s Christ’s righteousness.
One of the most breathtaking scriptures that speaks to the reality of this second part of the imputation exchange is found in Ephesians 2:6… I’ll read verses 4 and 7 so you can get the complete sentence. This is from the English Standard Version:
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
Did you catch that? If we are in Christ, God has “raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places.” Past tense, please notice. This is a reality that has already happened. Somehow, even though you and I are walking around here on earth—just the ordinary, average, sinful people that we are—a deeper spiritual transformation has already taken place. We are already, at this moment, in a spiritual way that we can scarcely comprehend, seated next to God in the heavenly places, alongside God’s Son Jesus.
How on earth do we qualify for such an exalted position? Only in the fact that Christ has already made us perfectly holy, perfectly righteous. This righteousness is a gift from God, to be sure—the Reformers spoke of is as an “alien righteousness,” but like any true gift it really belongs to us. As the song says, “To me”—that is, from God’s point of view—“To me you’re only holy… You can’t add one thing to what’s been done for you…” Christ “did it all when [he] was dying.” Therefore, we “rest” in our faith and experience the peace of God.
As I said, it makes my heart sing!
And I’m sorry… I missed this truth somewhere along the way. Maybe you did, too. We Methodists emphasize the doctrine of sanctification, “being perfected in love” as we often say, that we don’t stop to appreciate these sense in which sanctification is an accomplished fact. Indeed, in her recent book on the crucifixion, no less a thinker than the traditionalist Episcopalian theologian Fleming Rutledge says, “Sanctification means becoming what you already are.” Becoming what you already are.
We Methodists often miss the “already” part.
Heaven knows I missed it in my seminary education at the Candler School of Theology. In fairness, Candler had so much liberation theology propaganda to teach me that they probably didn’t have time to get around to it! Nevertheless… I should have learned about the doctrine of imputation elsewhere, if not there! It would have helped me so much!
See, I lived most of my Christian life believing that I was a big failure in God’s eyes. I was always less than. By all means, I believed that God forgave me of my sins; he saved me and gave me eternal life—of course he did! I mean, his Son Jesus died for me; and I believed in Jesus; so of course God had to save me! What choice did he have… really? Even if God didn’t want to save, even if he did so reluctantly, he had to!
I realize it sounds awful to say it out loud…
My point is, I mostly had this sinking feeling that I was a big disappointment to my heavenly Father. I never measured up. I always let him down. So no wonder I wasn’t “getting ahead” in life the way I wanted to. No wonder I never felt as if God were blessing me. No wonder I had a hard time “rejoicing in the Lord always.” No wonder my career as a Methodist minister wasn’t working out the way I wanted it to.
Why would God go out of his way to bless me, to prosper me, to show me his favor; those gifts were for other, more saintly, more sanctified Christians than I am! Not for someone like me!
The way I thought about myself, the way I talked about myself, the way I cursed myself… It was inexcusable! “Love your neighbor as you love yourself,” Jesus said. O.K., but if I directed the same abusive language toward my “neighbor” that I so often directed toward myself, I would at least know that I was sinning; and I would know that I needed to repent. But I could think and say horrible things about myself, the sinfulness of which would never register with me! I simply never appreciated that the way I talked to myself and about myself—what I believed about myself—could also be a sin!
After all, do I not know who I am in God’s eyes? And this is why the underappreciated doctrine of imputation has been so life-giving for me!
“To me you’re only holy.” Thank you, Jesus!
God is saying to me, no less a sinner than Brent White, “You’re only holy in my eyes. You’re perfect in my eyes. You’re beautiful in my eyes. I couldn’t love you any more than I do. I’ve made you holy, perfect, and beautiful through Jesus. This is now who you are. So of course I want to shower you with blessings. Of course I want to show you my favor. Of course I want to prosper you. Of course I want to work supernaturally in your life! Of course I want to fill you with my Spirit. Your sin, your shortcomings, your failures… they are no obstacle to working my good plans in your life…To me you’re only holy.”
Jesus himself illustrates imputation in his parable of the Prodigal Son, when the younger son returns home. Notice the prodigal hasn’t yet changed his behavior in any significant way—when he returns home he’s pretty much the same callow, impetuous young man who left his home and family a few years earlier. And he returns home not mostly because he’s sorry for all the harm he’s caused his father and older brother; mostly he does so out of self-interest: he’s literally starving, while even his father’s servants, he thinks to himself, are well-fed. He could at least be as comfortable as they are. It seems likely to me that if he had found a well-paying job in that “far country,” rather than his menial job feeding swine, he never would have given a thought to returning home and making amends to his father.
Not that it matters… To say the least his father doesn’t hold a grudge. He doesn’t even let his son finish his well-rehearsed speech begging that his father treat him as one of his hired servants. Before he can finish getting the words out of his mouth, the father says, “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate.”
The prodigal son is already being treated as a full member of his father’s family. He’s wearing his father’s best robe; there is no better one to be had. He’s wearing his father’s ring; there is no other. He’ll soon be eating the fattened calf with his father; there’s no more sumptuous feast than the one that his father is preparing for him right now. The younger son has already received everything that his father can give him. It all belongs to him. Right now. Before… before… before the younger son has changed his behavior in any significant way, or improved his character, or become an appreciably “better” person. The younger son has not… to put it in theological language—the younger son has not yet been sanctified. Yet he has already been given everything.
This is imputation. This is our new identity in Christ. This is who we are right now. We are already full members of God’s family. We are already royalty. We are already highly-favored children of the King! Our Father already loves us exactly as much as he loves his only begotten Son Jesus. (See Jesus’ words, for example, in John 17:23 and 26.) We are literally brothers and sisters of Jesus. Our Father is not going to love us more later on—you know, after we’ve gotten our act together and proven ourselves worthy of his love.
Tomorrow is the 75th anniversary of D-Day. I notice that Stephen Spielberg and Tom Hanks have been making the rounds on TV and social media talking about their movie Saving Private Ryan. There’s even been a re-release of the movie. The best part of that film is the first twenty minutes, which depicts in deeply visceral terms the landing on the beach at Normandy. Breathtaking.
As powerful as the film is, however, I hope you’ll forgive me when I tell you that the movie includes a seductively dangerous idea—albeit one that is very popular:
If you’ve seen it, you’ll remember the dying words that Captain Miller, Tom Hanks’s character, spoke to Private Ryan, played by Matt Damon. After nearly everyone in the unit dies in order to save Ryan’s life, Miller says to Ryan, “Earn this… Earn it!” And next we see an elderly Ryan, decades later, near the end of his own life, standing beside the grave markers at Normandy beach—asking his children and grandchildren, “Did I earn it?”—in other words, did he live a life worthy of the sacrifices that Miller and his fellow soldiers made for him so long ago? Did he deserve the life that their deaths made possible for him?
And his family reassures him: “Of course you did, Dad!” What else are they going to say?
But did Ryan really “earn it”? I mean, a dozen men sacrificed their lives to save his. What could he possibly do to “earn” that. What a cruel thing for Capt. Miller to tell him with his dying breath! What an impossible burden to have live up to! What guilt to have to live with for your entire life!
This is absolutely opposite of the gospel message. When Jesus—the world’s one and only Savior—willingly sacrificed his life on the cross to save ours, he didn’t say “earn this”—as if any one of us could earn God-in-the-flesh suffering death and hell for us, in our place… No, our Savior didn’t say, earn this—“earn this forgiveness,” “earn this salvation,” “earn this eternal life.” Prove to me that I did not die for you in vain. Instead he said, receive this—“Receive this gift. Receive it! Take it for free! It yours! There’s no guilt. Not anymore! I did it for you. Out of love! Because I love you that much—and you couldn’t do it for yourself!
Receive this gift! Amen.
There’s much more to say on the subject of imputation, but I think I’ll stop here for now. In a future podcast, God willing, I will talk about how the doctrine of imputation dramatically changed the way I read the Old Testament—it has just made it come alive for me. And I hope it will for you. Next time.
By the way, in addition to my blog, which is revbrentwhite.com I’m posting much more frequently on Instagram. You can feel free to follow me there. My handle is @brentlwhite. It’s public; it doesn’t require my approval.
If you don’t know Keith Green’s music, you should start with a wonderful compilation album called The Ministry Years Vol. 1: 1977-1979. Green’s life and ministry were cut short by a plane crash in 1982. My son Townshend, a fan of Green’s, said that the devil just couldn’t stand having him alive; that his ministry was too powerful. Sounds about right! I look forward to meeting him in eternity.
Anyway, thanks for listening! Love you!
1. Luke 15:23-24 ESV