4 May 2021
We have looked at the doctrine of Justification and the concept of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to those who believe and are born again. An objection to the idea that Christ’s righteousness can be imputed to us is the claim that one person cannot be good in another’s stead. Transferring credit, as it were, from one person to another is a very external and formal type of transaction inappropriate in the matter of our spiritual standing before God.
Our relationship with Christ is however not detached. The individual believer is actually united with Him. With regard to my spiritual status, a new entity has come into being; it is as if Christ and I have been merged to form a new corporation – this is what union with Christ means. The imputation of Christ’s righteousness is not so much a transferring of something from Him to me, as it is of bringing the two of us together so that we hold all things in common. In Christ I died on the cross, and in Him I was resurrected. Thus, His death is not only in my place, but with me (Rom. 6:5-9).
We may distinguish between the negative and the positive aspects of Christ’s work of satisfying the justice of God. In the atonement Christ satisfies the negative side of God’s justice. By imputation, Christ pays the penalty due to our sins. He receives, for us, the punitive wrath of God that our sin deserves. He takes the consequences of our demerits, our unjustness. He receives the judgement due to our guilt. In this regard God’s justice is satisfied. The atonement is vicarious because it is accomplished via imputation. Christ is the sin-bearer for His people, the Lamb of God who takes away (expiates) our sin and satisfies (propitiates) the demands of God’s justice. The cross displays both God’s justice (in that He truly punishes sin) and His grace (because He punishes sin by providing a substitute for us). God declares Christ to be ‘guilty’ of sin after the Son willingly bears for His people sins that are imputed or transferred to Him.
This may come as a surprise – the cross alone, however, does not justify us. We need not only a substitute to pay for our sins, but also positive righteousness. We are justified not only by the death of Christ but also by the life of Christ.
Christ’s mission of redemption was not limited to the cross. To save us He had to live a life of perfect righteousness. His perfect, active obedience was necessary for His and our salvation. He earned the merit of perfect righteousness, not only for His own humanity, but for all those whom He redeems. Christ perfectly fulfilled all demands of the law, meriting by His active obedience the blessing promised in the old covenant.
We are constituted as righteous by the obedience of Christ, which is imputed to us by faith. It is entirely by the intervention of Christ’s righteousness that we obtain justification before God. This is equivalent to saying that man is not just in himself, but that the righteousness of Christ is communicated to him by imputation, while he is strictly deserving of punishment.
The biblical gospel stands or falls with the concept of imputation. Without the imputation of our sins to Christ, there is no atonement. Without the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us, there is no real and true righteousness in us believers. The righteousness by which I am declared righteous is one that was achieved and merited before I was even born. It is the righteousness of Jesus Christ the Righteous. His righteousness is not my righteousness intrinsically; it becomes mine only by imputation. It is a righteousness that counts for me and is reckoned to pay my account, but it was neither achieved nor wrought by me.
We therefore can see that there is no other way of salvation for sinners except the way provided by the triune God. Without the imputation of our sins to Christ. there is no atonement; without the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us, we remain unjust before the throne of judgement, and God cannot declare us as truly righteous and deserving of His salvation. Even the perfected saint in heaven was once a sinner and has a track record that, apart from the grace of justification, would send him to hell. God will only declare just those whom He regards as just. The gospel teaches us that what could not be found in us and was to be sought in another, could be found nowhere else than in Christ, the God-man; who fully satisfied the justice of God by His perfect obedience and thus brought to us an everlasting righteousness by which alone we can be justified before God; in order that covered and clothed with that garment of righteousness, we may obtain under it the eternal blessing of our heavenly Father.
Indeed, we are justified not only by the death of Christ but also by the life of Christ. No one can fulfil what Christ fulfilled; for He alone as the God-man can make salvation possible for sinful wretched creatures like us. No one else can; and no one else qualifies to fulfil that mission of redemption. Let us be eternally grateful for what God has done for us in Christ Jesus; let us truly love Him who first loves us and live no longer for ourselves but for Him who died for us and rose again!