In this next installment of our monthly series of articles on theological words, we look at “Imputation—Counted Righteous.” Our hope is that Christians will be encouraged to grow in their walk with Christ.
We hope these articles deepen their understanding of the theology found in the Bible. We recently did an article entitled “Am I a Good Person?” We discussed how those who place their faith and trust in Christ alone for the redemption of sins can know that they are clothed with Christ’s righteousness. This is a simple allusion to the doctrine of imputation. Let’s briefly consider what the doctrine of imputation is and why it is important for the Christian to understand.
“Imputation” means that something is credited to, counted as, or considered as belonging to someone else. We find three examples of this doctrine played out in the Bible which all have a direct relation to the gospel message.
First, Adam’s sin was imputed to all of humanity (Romans 5:15-17). All people are born in Adam and credited as having sinned, just as Adam sinned in the garden of Eden. The moment Adam committed that first sin, we were all legally counted guilty.
The second example of imputation is found at the cross of Jesus Christ. Jesus came to earth, lived a perfect life, and died on the cross to pay the penalty that we deserved for our sin. The punishment for sin comes from our personal sins, but also because of our identification with Adam. We are guilty in God’s sight even before the first sin we ever committed.
However, on the cross, the sin of all believers was imputed (or credited) to Christ. He paid the penalty for those sins, making forgiveness available to us (2 Corinthians 5:21). Isaiah 53:6 (KJV) says, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way, and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
But this forgiveness of sins is not enough, for God’s law demands not only innocence from sin on our part but also righteousness (Matthew 5:48). In taking our sins upon Himself on the cross, Jesus removed sin and its penalty, but that alone would leave us in a nebulous place of neutrality (not guilty, but not righteous, either). In Biblical Doctrine (MacArthur & Mayhue), it says:
“Without the positive provision of righteousness, mere forgiveness would leave us in a state of innocence or moral neutrality, as Adam was before the fall—reckoned as never having sinned but as never having obeyed either.
“For this reason, Scripture speaks of the justified sinner being counted righteous in addition to being forgiven. God’s people testify to this in Isaiah 61:10: ‘I will greatly rejoice in the LORD; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.’”
This leads us to the third example of imputation in the Bible—Jesus Christ’s righteousness imputed to all who put their faith in Him. Because of His work on the cross, Jesus not only took our sin upon Himself, accepting the punishment that we deserved, but His righteousness was credited to us as if we lived a perfect life, obeying every command given, “loving him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and loving our neighbors as ourselves.” (Biblical Theology, MacArthur & Mayhue, pg. 616).
Theologians refer to this trade-off of Christ being imputed man’s sin and man being imputed Christ’s righteousness as “The Great Exchange.” Martin Luther spoke of it this way: “Thou hast taken upon thyself what is mine and hast given to me what is thine. Thou has taken upon thyself what thou wast not and hast given to me what I was not.” (Instructions to the Perplexed and Doubting, To George Spenlein, April 8, 1516, Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel, Martin Luther, Theodore G. Tappert, Library of Christian Classics Vol 18. pg. 110)
So now, everyone who has the righteousness of Christ finds themselves no longer identified with Adam, but are “in Christ” (Romans 5:17). Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:21 (KJV), “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.”
This does not mean that Jesus actually became a sinner and that we actually were made righteous. It means that God counted Jesus Christ as sinful for our sake and then counted us as righteous. When we have been imputed Christ’s righteousness, God then declares us justified. At that point, He begins to transform us into His likeness. That is His work of sanctification (another theological word we will cover). Through sanctification the Holy Spirit takes our standing of righteousness and works it out in us, gradually making us righteous as we live for Christ’s glory (2 Thessalonians 2:13, Hebrews 10:14, Philippians 1:6).
This imputation of our sin to Jesus and His righteousness to those who trust in Him comes to us by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9, Titus 3:7). Imputation should be important to every follower of Jesus Christ because it means that there is a substitute for us at the cross. We are no longer counted as guilty in Adam, and thus we face no punishment for our sins. We also find ourselves clothed in Christ’s righteousness, not having a righteousness of our own (Philippians 3:9) because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).
Let’s celebrate this doctrine and praise our God whose redemptive plan made it possible. We will now leave you with a few of the lyrics from Chris Andersons’ His Robes for Mine, a wonderful reminder that we have been credited with Christ’s righteousness and He took our sins upon Himself.
His robes for mine: O wonderful exchange!
Clothed in my sin, Christ suffered ’neath God’s rage.
Draped in His righteousness, I’m justified.
In Christ I live, for in my place He died.
His robes for mine: what cause have I for dread?
God’s daunting Law Christ mastered in my stead.
Faultless I stand with righteous works not mine,
Saved by my Lord’s vicarious death and life.
I cling to Christ, and marvel at the cost:
Jesus forsaken, God estranged from God.
Bought by such love, my life is not my own.
My praise-my all-shall be for Christ alone.