Imputed Righteousness

By Johnny Stringer

No one lives a perfectly righteous life; all have been guilty of unrighteousness. How, then, may one be righteous in God’s sight? One theory is that we can be regarded as righteous by being credited with the perfect life of Christ. This theory says that Christ’s personal righteousness is imputed to the Christian. This was Calvin’s way of sustaining the doctrine of “once saved, always saved.” One may commit some sins after being saved, but those sins will not cause him to be lost, for when God looks at his child, he does not see that person’s sinful life; rather, he sees the perfectly righteous life of Christ.

Some advocates of the “Grace-Unity” movement among our brethren espouse this theory. They believe it applies not to those in high-handed rebellion against God, but to those in error who are sincere in their efforts to do God’s will and to those who commit sins of weakness. Hence, according to these brethren, people can persist in sins regarding the work, worship, and organization of the church, yet be righteous in God’s sight. God imputes the Lord’s righteousness to them; that is, God pretends that his children lived the life Christ lived.

This theory is contrary to biblical teaching about how we are made righteous. God has provided that we can be righteous not by getting credit for the life Christ lived, but by being forgiven of our unrighteousness on the basis of our Lord’s blood (Matt. 26:28). When we are forgiven of our unrighteousness, it is as though we were never guilty of unrighteousness; God regards us as righteous.

In order to be forgiven, we must have the faith to obey certain conditions (Gal. 5:6; Heb. 5:9). Whether one has never become a Christian or is guilty of sins after becoming a Christian, the conditions for forgiveness include repentance (Acts 2:38; 8:22). Hence, one cannot persist impenitently in sin and receive God’s forgiveness.

Paul quoted David’s joyful words expressing the bless dness of being righteous although our works are not perfectly righteous (Rom. 4:6-8). The quotation plainly attributes our righteousness to the fact that our “iniquities are forgiven” (v. 7). The statement of verse 8, “Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin,” must be understood in the light of verse 7. Hence, the one to whom the Lord does not impute sin is the one whose sins are forgiven.

Because forgiveness is conditioned on obedient faith, Paul stresses that faith is counted to men for righteousness (Rom. 4:3,5). The word rendered “counted” could be translated “imputed.” It was a term used in business to mean “to put to one’s account.” Hence, verse 3 is saying that God put faith on Abraham’s account. Abraham had faith, and God credited his faith to him.

He credited it to him “for righteousness.” The word rendered “for” is eis, the same word used in Matthew 26:28 and Acts 2:38. It points to a result. Hence, the point is that God’s crediting Abraham with faith resulted in Abraham being righteous. Verse 5 says that if a believer has not performed the work of perfectly keeping God’s law, his faith is credited to him, and as a result, he is righteous. We must understand these statements in light of the fact that forgiveness is conditioned on obedient faith. God took account of Abraham’s faith, and Abraham was forgiven; as a result, he was righteous. When we have the faith to meet God’s conditions for forgiveness, God takes account of our faith and forgives us our sins; as a result, we are righteous, having been forgiven of our unrighteousness.

According to the quotation from David, when this happens, righteousness is imputed to us although our works are not perfectly righteous (v. 6). God puts righteousness on our account, or credits us with righteousness, because, having been forgiven of all unrighteousness, we really are righteous. The word impute does not mean to give one credit for something he does not really have. God imputed faith to Abraham (v. 3) because Abraham really had faith. God imputes sin to those who are unforgiven (v. 8) because they really have sin. The same is true of righteousness. He imputes it to us because we are really righteous through forgiveness. The statement that God imputes righteousness to us, therefore, does not mean that he transfers righteousness from the Lord’s account to ours; it means that he puts on our accounts what which we actually possess: righteousness.

It may be difficult to think of us as actually being righteous even though we have been guilty of unrighteous conduct. Just think of dirty clothes which someone washes until they are clean. Though they were filthy, they are now clean. Similarly, though we were spiritually filthy, if we are washed in the blood of Christ, we are clean; the dirt (sin, unrighteousness) is gone; hence, the Lord credits us with being righteous because we really are righteous.

Inasmuch as we are forgiven of our sins through the blood of Christ, God does not have to pretend that we lived the life Christ lived in order to regard us as righteous. Suppose I get my clothes filthy while Mr. Spotless keeps his clothes perfectly clean. Then suppose someone uses some good detergent, spot remover, and water to cleanse my clothes so that every spot and stain is gone. In order for you to consider my clothes to be clean, do you have to pretend I am wearing Mr. Spotless’ clothes and give me credit for his clean clothes? No! And when I have been cleansed spiritually by the blood of Christ, God does not have to give me credit for Jesus’ clean life in order to consider me clean.

The theory that the only way God can regard us as clean is to give us credit for Jesus’ clean life depreciates the precious blood of Christ, for it denies that the Lord’s blood has the power to make us clean and pure.

Guardian of Truth XXXII: 12, p. 357
June 16, 1988