By Mike Grushon
In the past several years, one of the critical doctrinal controversies that has arisen among our brethren has to do with the nature of man’s righteousness. Some of our brethren have advocated the viewpoint that the personal righteousness of Christ is imputed to the Christian. This means in practical terms that when an individual becomes a Christian, he stands before God as righteous because he has Christ’s righteousness in the place of his own. The book of Romans contains the lengthiest single passage which discusses the concept of imputation. Therefore, it is appropriate that a small part of a special issue on the subject of the Book of Romans be dedicated to a study of what Romans really . teaches about imputation of righteousness.
The word “imputation” is but one way that translators render the two Greek words ellogeo and logizomai. These two words are found throughout the New Testament and are translated by many words including: suppose, reason, number, reckon, counted, thinkest, concluded and esteemeth. Obviously, these Greek words have a very common usage. However, it is when the word impute or one of its synonyms is used in relation to the concept of man’s righteousness before God that it becomes a part of the controversy between truth and error.
It is no easy task to briefly define the false concept of imputation which is being advanced by some brethren today. The concept is a part of the theology developed by John Calvin. Calvin’s concept of imputation is not an isolated belief. It is an integral part of a well-developed logical system. At the base of this concept is the idea that Christ’s perfect obedience must stand in the place of man’s inability to perfectly obey. Calvin says, “By his obedience, however, Christ truly acquired and merited grace for us with his Father . . . . if as a righteous man he suffered for unrighteous men – then he acquired salvation for us by his righteousness, which is tantamount to deserving it . . . . so by one man’s obedience many are made righteous (Rom. 5;19)”(1) Calvin’s concept of imputation is essential if one must justify man meriting salvation. We can recognize man’s shortcomings, so if he is going to merit salvation it must be on some basis other than personally achieved righteousness. Thus how does imperfect man become perfectly righteous? Listen to Calvin, “For if righteousness consists in the observance of the law, who will deny that Christ merited favor for us when, by taking that burden upon himself, he reconciled us to God as if we had kept the law? . . . What was the purpose of this subjection of Christ to the law but to acquire righteousness for us, undertaking to pay what we could not pay? Hence the imputation of righteousness without works which Paul discusses (Rom., ch. 4). For the righteousness found in Christ alone is reckoned as ours . . . . Now that power arises solely from the fact that the Son of God was crucified .as the price of our righteousness.”(2)
Thus, the concept is that the Christian is righteous because Christ lived as a substitute law-keeper and died perfectly righteous. That perfect righteousness is imputed, put to the account of the individual Christian and he, thus, stands before God righteous with Christ’s perfect righteous. Calvin’s system is very difficult to pick and choose portions to believe and portions to reject. So it is with the concept of the imputed righteousness of Christ. The consequences of man having Christ’s perfect righteousness seem obvious to nearly everyone but those of our brethren who are promoting it. What does Calvin view as its result? Listen, “Then he bids us take refuge in Christ’s blood, that having acquired righteousness we may stand secure before God’s judgment.”(3) The result of imputation of Christ’s righteousness is the impossibility of apostacy, the preservation of the saints. These two doctrines go together, the one is the basis of the other. It is only a matter of time that if an individual believes that one that he will be forced to the other, It is ironic that some of these brethren who act as if they have recently discovered the Biblical concept of grace have adopted a position that puts such emphasis upon merited salvation.
Of course, if the Bible teaches the doctrine that Calvin developed and some of our brethren are espousing is what the Bible teaches then we all ought to accept it. However, when we look at what the book of Romans says about imputation we find no mention of perfect obedience or the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.
The favor that Abraham received was riot merited by him or by the act of any other. Paul says, “For what does the Scripture say? And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness . . . . but to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness” (Rom. 4:3, 5). Notice the contrast, Calvin says that the perfect righteousness of Christ is imputed to the Christian. The Bible says that the believer’s faith is imputed for righteousness. The impact of Calvin’s doctrine is that once man has obtained Christ’s perfect righteousness, he is secure in salvation. After all, if Christ’s personal righteousness has been counted as your own how could you possibly be lost? On the other hand, Paul says that faith is imputed for righteousness: Standing right before God is conditioned on an individual’s faith, not merit whether obtained upon your own or from some other source. This is the vital difference between what the Bible says and what our brethren who have accepted Calvin’s concepts are teaching.
However, the book of Romans does not stop at simply affirming that faith is imputed for righteousness. Paul goes on to accurately describe the nature of such a faith. He discusses the nature of Abraham’s faith that was imputed to him as righteousness. In Romans 4:9-25, Paul demonstrates that faith that is imputed for righteousness is an active and obedient faith. Abraham completely trusted God and submitted to His will. The specific example Paul had under consideration was Abraham’s acceptance of God’s promise of a child when he and Sarah were well past child-bearing age. Paul says, “Yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief, but grew strong in faith giving glory to God, and being fully assured that what He had promised, He was able to perform. Therefore also it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Now not for his sake only was it written, that it was reckoned to him, but for our sake also, to whom it will be reckoned, as those who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was delivered up because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification” (Rom. 4:20-25). Abraham’s faith was such that he did God’s will. This does not mean that Abraham was perfect; it means that he was faithful. His faith was imputed for righteousness. Paul says our faith in Christ will likewise be imputed as righteouness. Again we stress not our sinless perfection; not our perfect obedience or that of any other (although we recognize Jesus’ perfection, we cannot accept that its purpose was to merit salvation through perfect righteousness); but our humble, active, obedient faith is what the Book of Romans says is imputed for our righteousness. For those who have such faith, Jesus died as a deliverer, the perfect sacrifice for our sins.
In an article this brief it is impossible to adequately describe the development of the Calvinistic doctrine of imputation, or to fully develop the scriptural position as it is set forth in the book of Romans. If the contrast between the two has been made evident, that Calvin lays stress upon the perfect obedience and meritorious life of Christ which is imputed to the believer resulting in the impossibility of any subsequent action of that believer resulting in his being lost, and the stress of the scriptures that faith on the part of the individual is imputed for righteousness thus resulting in the constant need for the individual Christian to live faithfully before God, then our time has been well spent.
In view of the purpose of this special issue on the book of Romans, we conclude by mentioning the place and doctrine of imputation plays in the overall message of the book of Romans. When Paul tells us that faith is imputed for righteousness, he allows us to see the means by which we can overcome sin which is common to us all and which results in the penalty of death (Rom, 3:23; 6:23). The solution to the problem of sin lies not with man’s ability to achieve righteousness upon his own. We are not going to merit salvation. However if God is going to grant such salvation, He may choose the basis upon which he is going to do so. Paul’s declaration that “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Rom. 4:3), is the declaration of what basis God has chosen. Thus, the gospel is God’s power of salvation to those that believe (Rom. 1:16) because God counts such humble, trusting, and obedient acceptance of His word and counts those who exhibit it as righteous. Every Christian can be thankful that God has so bestowed His grace upon us by sacrificing His Son for our sins and providing us with the gospel of salvation.
- Define the word impute or imputation.
- What New Testament book and chapter discuss at length God’s imputation of man’s faith for righteousness?
- Who is one of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation who included a doctrine of imputation in his theological system?
- What is the name of his book, containing the doctrines of his theology?
- The Calvinist and Reformation movement developed an explanation of how God can view man as perfectly obedient, as earning and deserving his salvation. State that explanation.
- Pure Calvinism aruges that no work of obedience to the gospel is essential to salvation because someone has done all the obeying for us. Who?
- What false idea of a Christian’s security goes along with the denominational dogma of imputation?
- Contrast what the Bible says must be put down, recorded, or imputed to the ungodly for righteousness with what Calvin said must be imputed.
- Contrast the nature of Abraham’s faith with the Calviniandenominational doctrine of justification by faith before and without any other obedience.
- Use Abraham’s life to illustrate the difference between justification by a life of absolute human perfection in works and justification by obedient faith.