If there is one thing I love in life, it is the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. This is the biblical truth that liberates me from the crushing burden of ever having to stand before God on my own merit, but covers me instead with the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Justification by Faith
Stated simply, “Justification is an act of God’s free grace, in which he pardons all our sins, accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.” In justification the believer rests on Christ alone for salvation, and by faith receives his righteousness. Or, to say much the same thing at greater length,
Those whom God effectually calls, He also freely justifies, not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on Him and His righteousness by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God.
These definitions are adapted from the Westminster Standards. They represent a broad consensus of Anglican, Baptist, and Presbyterian theology. And they use a very important verb to describe the justification of the ungodly: impute.
The vocabulary of justification comes from the law court, where “to justify” is a declarative verb. In its theological sense, justification is the legal declaration of my righteousness before God. But on what basis can sinners like me be justified? Not on the basis of our own merit, but only on the merit of Jesus Christ. And the way this merit becomes our own is by imputation, which is God’s declarative reckoning that the righteousness of Christ belongs to the one who has faith in Christ.
The traditional Roman Catholic doctrine of justification maintained that we do not stand righteous before God by imputation but by impartation—an infusion of divine grace. According to official Catholic teaching, “Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man.” Yet the Reformers maintained that justifying righteousness is not something inside of us, but rather outside of us: the righteousness of Christ himself—an “alien righteousness,” as Luther so often called it.
The distinctive dimension of the Protestant doctrine of justification is imputation, and inherent to the concept of imputation is the transfer of something from one person to another. To impute is to attribute or to ascribe; it is to count or to credit. In its theological sense, imputation is the legitimate transfer of the righteousness of Christ to my own account. This transfer is a lawful entailment of the doctrine of justification by faith, which is simply a shorthand way of saying that we are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
As Thomas Oden has shown in his wonderful little book The Justification Reader, a theological emphasis on justification by free grace goes all the way back to the early church fathers. But this great doctrine has been one of the main hallmarks of evangelical faith since the days of the Reformation. John Calvin said that “a man will be justified by faith when, excluded from the righteousness of works, he by faith lays hold of the righteousness of Christ, and clothed in it appears in the sight of God not as a sinner, but as righteous.” Calvin thus defined justification as “the acceptance with which God receives us into his favor as righteous men,” consisting in both “the remission of sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.” We are acceptable to God on account of Christ, “inasmuch as he expiated our sins by his death, and his obedience is imputed to us for righteousness.” And Calvin called this doctrine “the main hinge on which salvation turns.” Similarly, the English Reformer and Oxford martyr Thomas Cranmer described justification as “the strong rock and foundation of Christian religion,” and went on to claim that “whosoever denieth it is not to be counted for a true Christian man . . . but for an adversary of Christ.”
Lest anyone think that this doctrine has only been held by Anglicans and Presbyterians, the words of John Wesley are also worth quoting at length:
If we take the phrase of imputing Christ’s righteousness, for the bestowing (as it were) the righteousness of Christ, including his obedience, as well passive as active, in the return of it, that is, in the privileges, blessings, and benefits purchased it; so a believer may be said to be justified by the righteousness of Christ imputed. The meaning is, God justifies the believer for the sake of Christ’s righteousness, and not for any righteousness of his own.
Perhaps most famously of all, Martin Luther said that in justification Christ “has made His righteousness my righteousness, and my sin His sin. If He has made my sin to be His sin, then I do not have it and I am free. If He has made His righteousness my righteousness, then I am righteous now with the same righteousness as He.” According to Luther, we have this righteousness of Christ because it is imputed to us by faith: “God reckons imperfect faith as perfect righteousness for the sake of Christ.” Christian righteousness, therefore, “is a divine imputation or reckoning as righteousness or to righteousness, for the sake of our faith in Christ or for the sake of Christ.” And this is the doctrine that “begets, nourishes, builds, preserves, and defends the church of God; and without it the church of God cannot exist for one hour.” “It is the chief article of Christian doctrine,” Luther said, so that “when the article of justification has fallen, everything has fallen.”
The Protestant Reformers firmly believed that this doctrine of justification was taught in Holy Scripture. They saw it in Romans chapter 3, which promised “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe,” so that we “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:22, 24). They found it as well in Romans chapter 4, which said that “the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5). Or consider Philippians 3:8-9, where the apostle Paul sought to “gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.”
Until very recently, at least, there was a broad consensus about this doctrine in the evangelical church—not only about what justification meant, but also about how it important it was in Christian theology. Indeed, as recently as 1999, in “The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration,” a consensus statement of evangelical theologians appeared in the pages of Christianity Today, asserting that “the doctrine of the imputation (reckoning or counting) both of our sins to Christ and of his righteousness to us, whereby our sins are fully forgiven and we are fully accepted, is essential to the biblical gospel.”
There is perhaps no clearer or fuller statement of the place of justification in evangelical theology than the one J. I. Packer made almost fifty years ago in his masterful introduction to James Buchanan’s classic work The Doctrine of Justification:
The doctrine of justification by faith is like Atlas. It bears a whole world on its shoulders, the entire evangelical knowledge of God the Savior. The doctrines of election, of effectual calling, regeneration, and repentance, of adoption, of prayer, of the Church, the ministry, and the sacraments, are all to be interpreted and understood in the light of justification by faith, for this is how the Bible views them. Thus, we are taught that God elected men from eternity in order that in due time they might be justified through faith in Christ (Rom. 8:29f.). He renews their hearts under the Word, and draws them to Christ by effectual calling, in order that he might justify them upon their believing. Their adoption as God's sons follows upon their justification; it is, indeed, no more than the positive outworking of God's justifying sentence. Their practice of prayer, of daily repentance, and of good works springs from their knowledge of justifying grace (cf. Luke 18:9-14; Eph. 2:8-10). The Church is to be thought of as the congregation of the faithful, the fellowship of justified sinners, and the preaching of the Word and ministration of the sacraments are to be understood as means of grace because through them God evokes and sustains the faith that justifies. A right view of these things is possible only where there is a proper grasp of justification; so that, when justification falls, true knowledge of God's grace in human life falls with it. When Atlas loses his footing, everything that rested on his shoulders collapses too.
Among the many things that rest on this Atlas of a doctrine is our own eternal salvation. I was reminded of this recently when my mother asked me why her church had recently tightened its theological requirements for career missionaries by asking them to articulate their views on justification. My mother was unclear as to why this was necessary. When I explained to her that it was because of recent attacks on the claim that the righteousness of Christ is imputed to sinners by faith, she said, rather wistfully, and very wisely: “You know, I was really counting on that.”
I too am depending on the biblical doctrine of justification, counting on God’s promise that what Jesus did will count for me.
Union with Christ
As important as justification is, it is not the only fundamental doctrine of our salvation. And if there is any doctrine I love as much as justification, it must be the magnificent doctrine of union with Christ.
For me this doctrine was one of the marvelous discoveries of my seminary education. I had at least some familiarity with the several doctrines of soteriology—the so-called ordo salutis, or order of salvation. I had certainly heard of election and regeneration, of justification and sanctification, and perhaps of adoption and glorification. I had also read—or at least skimmed over—those two little words that appear so frequently together in the New Testament: in Christ. Yet no one had ever articulated for me the doctrine of union with Christ, the spiritual and theological reality that holds together the various benefits of salvation.
Many theologians view this doctrine as one of the keys to understanding the message of salvation. John Murray called union with Christ “the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation.” A. W. Pink said, “The subject of spiritual union is the most important, the most profound, and yet the most blessed of any that is set forth in sacred Scripture.”
This was also the view of the Protestant Reformers, our forefathers in the evangelical faith. John Calvin considered union with Christ to be a matter of spiritual life and death. First Calvin asked this question: “How do we receive those benefits which the Father bestowed on his only-begotten Son—not for Christ’s own private use, but that he might enrich poor and needy men? Then he answered:
First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us. Therefore, to share with us what he has received from the Father, he had to become ours and to dwell within us. For this reason, . . . we . . . are said to be ‘engrafted into him’ and to ‘put on Christ’; for . . . all that he possesses is nothing to us until we grow into one body with him.
When we are united to Christ—united to him by faith, the Reformers said, and also by the Holy Spirit, so that we are in him and he is in us—then all that is his becomes ours. This is true of every single doctrine of salvation. Union with Christ is not simply one step in salvation; it is the whole stairway on which every step is taken. Or perhaps it would be better to say that union with Christ is the prism through which all the other colors of salvation are refracted. Our election is in union with Christ, for it is in Christ that we were chosen before the creation of the world (Eph. 1:4). Our regeneration is also in union with Christ, for the Scripture says we are created in Christ; and this re-creation is for good works, which means that our sanctification is in union with Christ as well (Eph. 2:10). In short, everything up to and including the doctrine of glorification is in union with Christ, for those who share in his sufferings will also share in his glory (Rom. 8:17).
Whatever we have or need, therefore, we will find it in Christ. It really is true that “God has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing” (Eph. 1:3). John Calvin expressed this in a marvelous way when he wrote:
If we seek strength, it lies in his dominion; if purity, in his conception; if gentleness, it appears in his birth. For by his birth he was made like us in all respects that he might learn to feel our pain. If we seek redemption, it lies in his passion; if acquittal, in his condemnation; if remission of the curse, in his cross; if satisfaction, in his sacrifice; if purification, in his blood; if reconciliation, in his descent into hell; if mortification of the flesh, in his tomb; if newness of life, in his resurrection; if immortality, in the same; if inheritance of the Heavenly kingdom, in his entrance into heaven; if protection, if security, if abundant supply of all blessings, in his Kingdom; if untroubled expectation of judgment, in the power given to him to judge. In short, since rich store of every kind of good abounds in him, let us drink our fill from this fountain, and from no other.
We could also add justification to Calvin’s list, for this too is in union with Christ. If we seek to be justified before God, we will find it in Christ’s righteousness. Many of the same passages that speak to us about justification by imputation also declare that we receive this grace in Christ: “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them. . . . For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:19, 21). Or again, “You are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness” (1 Cor. 1:30 niv). By virtue of our faith-union with Jesus Christ we are declared righteous. This is why the apostle Paul wanted to “gain Christ and be found in him.” It was because he was not content having what he called “a righteousness of my own that comes from the law.” What he wanted instead was “that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Phil. 3:9). To put it most simply of all, as Paul puts it for the Galatians, we are “justified in Christ” (Gal. 2:17).
To summarize, the great doctrinal realities of justification and union with Christ are closely inter-connected. Justification is one of the leading benefits of being united to Christ. The faith that justifies does so only and precisely because it also joins us to Christ. The very people who are united to Christ are the ones who are also declared righteous. This is part of what prevents justification by faith alone from being merely a legal fiction, as it is so frequently and so inaccurately alleged. Union with Christ is logically prior to justification by imputation. The declaration of our righteousness has a proper juridical basis in our true and covenantal connection to Jesus Christ. Indeed, union with Christ is the matrix in which imputation occurs. It is on the basis of our spiritual and covenantal union with Christ that our sins are imputed to him and his righteousness is imputed to us.
Current Distortions of Biblical Justification
How disheartening it is to see both of these saving doctrines misunderstood or even denied in the evangelical church today. I refer in part to evangelical leaders who embrace a doctrine of justification that is hard to distinguish from the Roman Catholic position that we are accounted righteous by infusion rather than imputation. I refer also to advocates of the New Perspective on Paul who believe that the Reformation doctrine of justification was mistaken in fundamental ways. To use J. I. Packer’s analogy, Atlas has shrugged.
These distortions take a number of different forms, which I mention only briefly. Some evangelicals are simply saying that justification is by grace, and leaving it at that. By avoiding saying that justification is based on grace alone or received by faith alone, they are able to make common cause with Catholicism, which has always said that justification is by grace. Other evangelicals want to say the same thing about Judaism at the time of Christ. It was not a religion of legalistic works-righteousness, they say, but a religion of grace. Therefore, the Reformers were mistaken to see Paul as standing against a religion of works rather than faith. Others are saying that justification is not so much about our standing before God as it is about our relationship to the church as a covenant community. Or they say that justification does have something to do with our standing before God, but our real and ultimate justification will only take place on the last day, when our good works will serve as part of the basis for (and not simply the evidence of) our righteousness before God. Thus our present justification is only provisional, which has the unhappy result of turning salvation into probation.
It is sad that these misunderstandings of biblical justification are having an influence on the church, especially at the seminary level, where any theological confusion will be multiplied many times over. It is sad but also strange—strange because these theologians are setting justification in opposition to union with Christ, whereas the Reformation position has always been that these doctrines are inseparable.
As a case in point, consider John Calvin, who said that our union with Christ “makes us sharers with him in the gifts with which he has been endowed. We do not, therefore, contemplate him outside ourselves from afar in order that his righteousness may be imputed to us but because we put on Christ and are engrafted into his body—in short, because he deigns to make us one with him. For this reason, we glory that we have fellowship of righteousness with him.” In other words, for Calvin it is the doctrine of union with Christ that provides the very context for justification by imputation. Calvin made this explicit when he said that God does not absolve us “by the confirmation of our own innocence but by the imputation of righteousness, so that we who are not righteous in ourselves may be reckoned as such in Christ.” John Owen said the same thing more succinctly, but equally emphatically: “The foundation of imputation is union.”
Yet today we are told that union and imputation stand directly in tension or even contradiction. Hence the title of a recent response to John Piper’s excellent little book Counted Righteous in Christ. The title asks: “Imputation or Union with Christ?” and then proceeds to argue that we must choose one doctrine or the other in articulating the theology of salvation.
The argument usually goes something like this. First it is denied that the Bible teaches the imputation of the righteousness of Christ, or even that this is a coherent concept. Imputation is something we read into the New Testament, we are told, not something we legitimately read out of it. Righteousness is something God demonstrates about his own character by keeping the promises of salvation in Christ, but not something that he gives to us.
Inevitably, such denials of imputation fundamentally alter the doctrine of justification. Sometimes it is further denied that justification has very much to do with the law, or with sin and the judgment of God. Justification becomes a relational rather than a legal concept. It is no longer primarily addressed to the problem of human sin in relation to a holy God. But we are reassured that at this point union with Christ will come to the rescue. Even if the Reformation doctrine of justification is flawed in fundamental ways, the reality of our being in Christ will supply all of the righteousness that we need.
My main interest here is not to engage in personal polemics, but to be clear and to help others be clear in preaching the biblical doctrine of justification. But in order to show that these are real theological issues, it may be helpful to give a few specific examples.
Denials of imputation are becoming fairly commonplace. The doctrine is conspicuous by its deliberate omission from the theological statements signed by Evangelicals and Catholics Together, which tried to define the doctrine of justification in a way that was acceptable both to Catholics and to Protestants. Necessarily, then, imputation had to be left out, for Roman Catholics explicitly deny the doctrine of imputation. The same omission is conspicuous in the Joint Declaration of Lutherans and Catholics, in which Lutheran theologians somehow managed to make a statement on justification without including Luther’s doctrine of imputation!
Another well-known example is N. T. Wright, who denies that it is possible for anyone to receive imputed righteousness because the very concept is incoherent. Wright says that the doctrine of imputed righteousness is not found in the apostle Paul, and that although the Bible speaks of the believer’s righteousness, this righteousness is not the righteousness of God, or of Christ: “Paul does not say that he sees us clothed with the earned merits of Christ.” Nor is righteousness “a quality or substance that can be passed or transferred from the judge to the defendant.” According to Wright, “It makes no sense whatever to say that the judge imputes, imparts, bequeaths, conveys or otherwise transfers his righteousness to either the plaintiff or the defendant. Righteousness is not an object, a substance or a gas, which can be passed across the courtroom.” Whatever righteousness we have must be our own; it cannot be God’s own righteousness, for this always remains God’s own property.
Then there is the position of Rich Lusk, who denies that there is any imputation in justification and says further that the doctrine of union with Christ makes the notion of imputation redundant. There is also the view of Robert Gundry, who accepts the imputation of sin, but not the imputation of righteousness. Gundry believes that our sins are charged to Christ’s account. However, he denies that there is any imputation in justification, that Christ’s righteousness can be transferred to us in any way. This doctrine is unbiblical, Gundry says: in the New Testament “nothing is said about a replacement of believers’ sins with the righteousness of Christ.” The only imputation involved in salvation is the imputation of our faith (see Rom. 4:5). Rather than serving as the instrument that enables us to receive righteousness, then faith itself is the righteousness that God requires. What is credited to our account is not Christ’s righteousness, but our faith (a view that runs the risk of turning faith itself into a work).
Here it must be said that when you deny imputation—when you ignore it or obscure it, when you argue that it is unnecessary or superfluous or incompatible with union with Christ—you end up with a very different doctrine of justification. Either the meaning of justification or the basis for justification has to change.
Sometimes justification itself is redefined. So for N. T. Wright, justification is not the doctrine that declares your standing with God—a vertical issue—but the doctrine that declares your standing in the covenant community—a horizontal issue. Wright says that in Galatians, for example, the central issue is not how a sinner can have a right relationship with God, but “how you define the people of God.” To use traditional theological vocabulary, justification isn’t “so much about soteriology as about ecclesiology; not so much about salvation as about the church.” What Paul means by justification “is not ‘how you become a Christian,’ so much as ‘how you can tell who is a member of the covenant family’.” To be justified is to be “declared in advance . . . to be within God’s true family.”
With these definitions, the meaning of justification has been redefined. We are no longer talking about justice but about belonging. And something very different is being declared: not that I am righteous before God, but that I belong to God’s people—the covenant community. It should be note that justification is redefined this way despite the fact that the dikaiosune word cluster refers to “righteousness” rather than “membership.” In its biblical sense, to justify does not mean “to declare that one is a member.” While these linguistic considerations are not decisive in themselves, they urge caution about redefining justification in terms of human relationships.
The other thing that happens when imputation is denied is that the basis for justification gets reestablished. According to the biblical doctrine of the Reformers, our justification is established in the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ, imputed by faith. Or to say this another way, our justification is established on the basis of the finished righteousness of Jesus Christ—his comprehensive obedience to the law of God, his complete atonement for sin through his sufferings and death on the cross, and his total triumph over sin and death by his glorious resurrection. But if there is no imputation of that divine righteousness, there must be some other basis for our justification. Christ’s own perfect righteousness has ceased to be the exclusive ground for our justification before God. So N. T. Wright has said that we are justified on the basis of “the entire life a person has led in the power of the Spirit.” After all, it is only the doers of the law who will be justified (see Rom. 2:13). But this has the unfortunate result of putting our justification in terms of what we offer to God (even if it is something that God does in us), instead of something that God gives to us in Christ. The only way we could agree that we are justified by the entire life a person has lived is if the life in question is the life of the perfect Son of God. Only then would we have a life that is good enough for God.
Nevertheless, many of the theologians and Bible scholars who urge a redefinition of justification think they still have a way of safeguarding the grace of God in salvation. Even though the Protestant Reformers got justification wrong, they say, we can still have a full and gracious salvation. The way we get it is by union with Christ—the doctrine that really does the work that some people think justification does.
On this view, how are we made righteous? Not by imputation, but by being united to Christ, so that it is a relationship that makes us righteous, not a declaration of God that is grounded in the finished work of Christ. This is essentially the thesis that Don Garlington advances in his response to John Piper: “The free gift of righteousness comes our way by virtue of union with Christ, not imputation.” So Garlington intends to offer an exegesis that “will steer us away from imputation to union with Christ.” Michael Bird says it more succiently: justification is by incorporation rather than imputation. And Robert Gundry concludes that for justification Paul uses “the language of union . . . rather than the language of imputation.” These and other writers thus propose justification without imputation—a non-imputational model of union with Christ.
A Theological Response
Given the close connection that evangelical theology has always made between justification and union with Christ, this proposal needs to be considered very cautiously, even suspiciously. Far from replacing the doctrine of justification, union with Christ historically has provided the proper context for imputation and thus for justification. There is no union without imputation and no imputation with union. To separate the two, therefore, is to defy the traditional logic of both doctrines.
Another reason to be cautious, or even suspicious, is that to my knowledge none of these theologians has given any clear doctrinal explanation of what it means for a Christian to be in Christ. They refer to union with Christ without clearly defining it. What kind of union are they talking about? Garlington says that “faith justifies because we are united to Christ and are ‘found in him’.” But what does it mean to say that we are found in Christ? Presumably not by deification—by actually becoming Christ or being absorbed into the essence of God himself—for such participation in the substance of the divine being would be in contradiction to biblical and evangelical orthodoxy. But if not by deification, how then are we joined to Christ? What, exactly, is the theology of union with Christ? What is the Christology of union with Christ? What is the ontology of union with Christ?
One reason this matters is because the New Testament talks about union with Christ in several different ways. Sometimes the connection between Christ and the Christian is made simply by using the Greek preposition en, which often (although not always) means “in.” But the idea of union with Christ is also present in some of the memorable images of the New Testament. For example, what Jesus says about the vine and the branches in John 15 is a picture of union with Christ; we are in Christ the way a fruitful branch is in a living vine. Or, to take another example, being in Christ is like being part of a body—a body of which Christ himself is the Head (see 1 Cor. 12:12-27). The New Testament also depicts union with Christ as a love union between a bride and groom (Eph. 5:22-32), or as a building that is bound together by its cornerstone (Eph. 2:19-22). It should also be noted that many New Testament passages present union with Christ in terms of Christ being in the believer (e.g. John 15:4; 1 John 4:13).
These examples alert us to the fact that the idea of union with Christ is a flexible concept that the Bible uses in a variety of different ways. Furthermore, many of these uses are metaphoric. The New Testament does give us some propositions to define the doctrine of union with Christ, but for every proposition there is an image—a more symbolic description of our union with Christ. Given the scope of its biblical usage, therefore, the concept of union with Christ is always in need of theological definition. Historically, Reformation theologians have defined our union with Christ as vital (a living union), spiritual (a union joined by the Holy Spirit), indissoluble (an eternal union), and mystical (a union that is as mysterious as it is real).
A careful definition of union with Christ helps to preserve the identity of the Christian as distinct from the identity of Christ. Garlington says that personal union with the person of Christ “means we take up residence, as it were, within the sphere of the other’s existence.” It is not entirely clear what this means, especially when Garlington uses the phrase “as it were.” But we need to be clear that our union with Christ does not mean our deification or divinization. It does not mean that we are joined to the divine being, or have a divine nature ourselves. Rather, our union is a spiritual union, established by the person and work of the Holy Spirit. And it is a covenantal union, established by the promises of God and the role of Christ as our representative.
This is where imputation fits in. In imputation, something that does not inherently belong to us (namely, the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ) becomes our own possession. It is reckoned to be ours. It is credited to our account. This transfer takes place on the basis of the legally legitimate relationship we have with Christ by virtue of our union with him. We do not become Christ, but we are identified with Christ and incorporated into his life by the bond of the Holy Spirit. To say this in another way, we are united to Christ by a faith union. Now, on the basis of his meritorious work on the cross and out of the empty tomb, in the context of our union with him, his righteousness is imputed to us. Union with Christ thus provides the proper framework for receiving justifying righteousness, and it does so by way of imputation. To say this in yet another way, justification is “derivative and aspectival” of union with Christ; it is “an aspect of the union with Christ, and is also derivative of that union.”
Now that we are spiritually and covenantally in Christ, this has implications for our legal standing as sinners before a holy God. A transaction takes place—the double imputation that theologians have often called “the wonderful exchange.” Because we are in Christ, God imputes to Christ the guilt of our sin. And because we are in Christ, God also imputes or attributes the very righteousness of Christ to us, and justifies us on that basis, declaring that we are righteous in Christ. Our sins become his and his righteousness becomes ours, and this is all because of union with Christ.
This description of justification preserves the proper distinction between Christ and the Christian—without mixture or confusion—while at the same time bringing us into full possession of the saving benefit of his perfect righteousness. Rather than setting justification in opposition to union with Christ, therefore, we should view the two doctrines in their proper theological relationship. It is not either/or, but both/and. To separate justification from union with Christ is to end up with doctrinal distortion. For as D. A. Carson wisely comments, “If we speak of justification or of imputation (whether of our sins to Christ or of dikaiosune being credited to us) apart from a grasp of this incorporation into Christ, we will constantly be in danger of contemplating some sort of transfer apart from being included in Christ, apart from union with Christ.” And by the same token, if we are said to be justified by union without imputation, we no longer have a proper theological basis for distinguishing Christ from the Christian. It is imputation that safeguards a sound Christology and ontology of union with Christ; the believer is united to Christ but does not become Christ.
We ought therefore to think of justification and imputation in terms of our union with Christ. As Carson goes on to say, the terminology of union with Christ “suggests that although justification cannot be reduced to imputation, justification in Paul’s thought cannot long be faithfully maintained without it.” This is not a theological abstraction, but a gospel reality that emphasizes our real connection to Christ. Justification is not a blessing we have apart from the Christ himself, but a benefit that flows from our life-giving union with him. The Scottish theologian Thomas Boston explained this well:
The believer is accepted as righteous in God’s sight. For he is “found in Christ, not having his own righteousness, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith” (Phil. 3:9). . . . Thus the person united to Christ is justified. . . . From this union with Christ results a communion with him in his unsearchable riches, and consequently in his righteousness. . . . Thus the righteousness of Christ becomes his; and because it is by his unquestionable title, it is imputed to him; it is reckoned his in the judgment of God, which is always according to truth. And so the believing sinner, having a righteousness which fully answers the demands of the law, he is pardoned and accepted as righteous.
What are some of the Bible passages that are most frequently discussed in connection with imputation? The biblical terminology for imputation—chiefly the verb logizomai, “to count” or “to reckon”—is only used in some of these passages (which are briefly considered here, giving only the broad outlines of a full exegesis). However, the concept of imputation is logically present in all of them. In each case God declares sinners to be what they are not in themselves, namely, righteous in his sight. In other words, God justifies them. He does this on the basis of the saving work of Jesus Christ, which is imputed to them by faith.
To begin with, consider the closing verses of Romans chapter 3. Don Garlington says that imputation is not present here at all. For N. T. Wright, the issue in these verses is covenant membership, not our standing before God. To be justified, he says, “means that those who believe in Jesus Christ are declared to be members of the true covenant family.” However, for Paul the issue from the beginning of Romans has been our unrighteousness before God, and not simply who is inside and who is outside his covenant community. Our fundamental problem is that “by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight” (Rom. 3:20).
But now God offers us saving righteousness in Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:21-22), on the basis of his propitiation and redemption—the offering of a blood sacrifice that turns away the wrath of God and secures our release through the payment of a price. This righteousness is not something we have or deserve in and of ourselves. Rather, it is something we receive, something that comes to us as a gracious gift. Indeed, the whole thrust of the argument is that when God justifies us, he is declaring something we do not deserve. Nevertheless, God does justify us, and he does so justly (Rom. 3:26), because he has credited us with his own righteousness, which we receive through faith in Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:22). Furthermore, there is a strong emphasis in these verses on the instrumentality of faith. It is not by any works that we are declared righteous, but only by faith (Rom. 3:26, 28). Righteousness imputed by faith is a logical entailment of the passage as a whole.
This argument is confirmed in chapter 4 by way of example. Abraham, too, was justified by faith instead of works. As the Scripture says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (Rom. 4:3). Here we do have the very language of imputation. Business terminology is used to make the calculation of salvation. Because Abraham believed, something was credited to him, or charged to his account, or reckoned to him—in a word, imputed to him: namely, righteousness.
Here in chapter 4 we also notice an important parallel. In verse 5 God is described as someone “who justifies the ungodly.” This is a curious combination because it is virtually a contradiction. To justify is to declare righteous. Yet here God is said to justify those who are not righteous at all (including Abraham). In the following verse God is further described as someone who “counts righteousness apart from works” (Rom. 4:6). Once again, the language of crediting, or reckoning, or imputing is used.
This justification of the ungodly is by the imputation of righteousness. God is justifying the ungodly (v. 5) and at the same time counting them righteous (v. 6). Yet this righteousness cannot be their own righteousness, for they are ungodly, and the reckoning of righteousness is explicitly said to be apart from works. What righteousness is it, then? It is the righteousness that God reckons to the believer by faith. Not that faith itself is the righteousness, of course. No, it is righteousness that is counted to the believer, as Paul makes clear in verse 11, where faith is presented rather as the instrument by which we receive righteousness (see also Rom. 3:28, 30). To say that “faith is counted as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5, 22), then, is really a shorthand way of saying that righteousness is reckoned to belong to the believer by faith. This righteousness is not reckoned on the basis of anything in the believer, for Paul has already thoroughly established that he is ungodly. Instead, it is an unmerited righteousness that is declared as a gift—the righteousness of God, as offered in the atoning death and justifying resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 4:24-25). Believing in Christ is thus portrayed as the instrument of the imputation of righteousness. And this preserves the graciousness of God in salvation. “That is why it depends on faith,” the apostle says, “in order that the promise may rest on grace” (Rom. 4:16).
Imputation is also entailed in the argument of Romans 5. Here Paul draws a contrast between Adam and Christ—the first Adam and the last Adam. The disobedience of the first Adam brings condemnation, which is a declaration of guilt and punishment (Rom. 5:16). It does this by the imputation of Adam’s sin to all his descendants: “one trespass led to condemnation for all men” (Rom. 5:18). The antithesis of condemnation is justification, and this too entails an imputation—in this case an imputation of righteousness. Paul thus speaks of “the free gift” that “brought justification,” and also “the free gift of righteousness” that comes through the life of Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:17).
“Therefore,” the apostle concludes, “as one trespass lead to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:18-19). Whereas our union with Adam condemns us, our union with Christ justifies us. And it does so because God gives us his righteousness as a gift—imputing it to us, to use the language of chapter 4. Indeed, that is virtually the language he uses here in chapter 5 as well, for to be “made righteous” may also be rendered to be “appointed righteous,” and this appointment is by imputation. According to the progression of Paul’s argument, it is righteousness that leads to justification. And we have this righteousness, for our justification is based on the active righteousness of Jesus Christ. Similarly, in chapter 10 Paul speaks of “the righteousness that comes from God.” By faith we are beneficiaries of the very righteousness of God—“righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:3-4).
Passages outside of Romans also illuminate the doctrine of imputation, including two critical passages in Corinthians. According to 1 Corinthians 1: 30, God “is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” Here we certainly find the doctrine of union with Christ, for our life is said to be in Christ. Here there is also a clear affirmation that Christ is our righteousness, which we could readily understand to mean that he is our righteousness by imputation. Yet N. T. Wright insists that if we maintain the imputation of righteousness in this verse then “we must also be prepared to talk of the imputed wisdom of Christ; the imputed sanctification of Christ; and the imputed redemption of Christ.”
This does not follow, however. Paul is simply listing the several benefits of our union with Christ, each of which bears its own connection to his saving work. We receive sanctification by the Spirit setting us apart for the holy service of God. We receive redemption by the purchase of blood. How then do we receive righteousness? To be more specific, How do we receive Christ’s righteousness? (for that is the righteousness in view). It is clear from the context that we receive this righteousness from God himself. And it is clear from other places in Paul that this righteousness is not something God works into us by infusion, but something he imputes to us on the basis of faith. All of that is not fully spelled out here in 1 Corinthians 1. What is spelled out, however, is that we have possession of the very righteousness of Christ.
The same point is established in 2 Corinthians 5:21. There we read that God “made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him [that is, in Christ] we might become the righteousness of God.” Some theologians quibble that “the righteousness of God” should not be equated here with the righteousness of Christ. But this is to ignore the union with Christ that is affirmed in the verse itself: it is in Christ that we become the righteousness of God.
Others, such as Robert Gundry, claim that Paul only uses the language of union in 2 Corinthians 5, and not the language of imputation. But notice that imputation language does appear in verse 19, where it is our sins that are counted or reckoned or imputed to Christ. And notice further that verse 21 plainly refers to a transaction—a transaction that takes place on the basis of our union with Christ. First God made Christ to be sin, not in the sense that Christ was infused with our sinful nature, surely, or that he somehow participates in our sin, but rather by imputation. Our sins were credited to Christ’s account, and in this sense he was made to be sin. The transaction becomes complete when we become righteous. By parallel logic, this cannot mean that we are infused with his righteousness, but rather that it is imputed to us.
Then, finally, we should consider Philippians 3:8-9, where the apostle does some accounting of his own: “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.”
Once again, the coherence of the passage depends conceptually on imputation. Paul is describing a righteousness that is not his own, but rather a righteousness that comes through faith and depends on faith. Where does this righteousness come from? It comes from God himself. How does Paul obtain it? By the instrumentality of faith. On what basis? Ultimately it is on the basis of his union with Christ in his saving work, of course, which is why Paul says he wants to be “found in Christ.” But in the context of that union, the saving righteousness of Christ must somehow be credited to his account—in a word, it must be imputed. It is only by imputation that a believer “has” a righteousness that is at the same time “not his own.”
Implications of Imputation
This formulation of our justification brings clarity to our understanding of theology. It also brings deep assurance of our salvation. It is not enough for us to know that our sins are forgiven through Christ’s death on the cross. We also need to know that we are fully accepted by God—even after everything we have done and failed to do in our relationships and our service to God. The people in our churches also need this assurance, that they are fully accepted by God.
During devotions at a recent pastoral staff retreat, one of my colleagues asked us to consider where we are finding the greatest encouragement for pastoral ministry. I find greatest encouragement from knowing that I do not have to be accepted on my own merit, but that by grace I am as a fully accepted as God’s own Beloved Son. Only a perfect righteousness can bring this kind of assurance, especially in the aftermath of sin and in the face of death. No one ever finds deathbed consolation on the basis of one’s own righteousness, but only by faith in the righteousness of Christ, imputed in all its perfection.
The biblical doctrine of justification, in which righteousness is imputed to us by faith, on the basis of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and in the context of our union with him, secures our full acceptance before God. What joy this righteousness brings to the heart of the justified sinner. Listen to how Richard Hooker celebrated the gift of imputed righteousness:
Christ hath merited righteousness for as many as are found in him. In him God findeth us, for by faith we are incorporated into him. Then, although in ourselves we be altogether sinful and unrighteous, yet even the man who in himself is full of iniquity, full of sin; him being found in Christ by faith, and having confessed his sin in hatred through repentance; him God beholdeth with a gracious eye, putteth away his sin by not imputing it, taketh quite away the punishment due thereto, by pardoning it; and accepteth him in Jesus Christ, as perfectly righteous, as if he had fulfilled all that is commanded him in the law: shall I say, more perfectly righteous than if himself had fulfilled the whole law? I must take heed what I say; but the Apostle saith, “God made him which knew no sin, to be sin for us; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” Such we are in the sight of God the Father, as is the very Son of God himself. . . . We care for no knowledge in the world but this, that man hath sinned, and God hath suffered; that God hath made himself the sin of men, and that men are made the righteousness of God.
But there is another, deeper reason for finding joy in justification by imputation. There is a joy even deeper than our own salvation. The deepest joy this doctrine brings is full honor to Jesus Christ. We honor him for his humble, servant-hearted incarnation. We honor him for his suffering, atoning death. We honor him for his triumphant, glorious resurrection. But we also honor Jesus for this: his perfect, obedient life. “For it is not enough to say that we are not guilty,” said the great Puritan theologian John Owen:
We must also be perfectly righteous. The law must be fulfilled by perfect obedience if we would enter into eternal life. And this is found only in Jesus (Rom. 5:10). His death reconciled us to God. Now we are saved by his life. The perfect actual obedience that Christ rendered on earth is that righteousness by which we are saved. His righteousness is imputed to me so that I am counted as having perfectly obeyed the law myself.
Having this perfect righteousness, we praise Jesus for it, as Paul does in Romans, where it is just because God justifies the ungodly as a free gift of grace (Rom. 4:5) that he alone deserves the glory forever (Rom. 11:36). Praise is also what Paul gives to God in 1 Corinthians 1, where it is just because Christ is our righteousness (1 Cor. 1:30) that our boast is in the Lord (1 Cor. 1:31). And this is what Paul does in Philippians as well, where the surpassing worth of knowing Christ and his righteousness by faith is what enables the apostle to “glory in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:3). This is our glory as well: justification by imputation, in which, by faith, God reckons us perfectly righteous in Christ.