Imputation is a central feature of accounts of the Christian doctrine of salvation. The word ‘imputes’ is generally held to be equivalent to Paul’s words translated ‘counts’, in Romans 4.6, ‘count’ 4.8, and ‘counted’ 4. 3, 4, 5, 9, 10, 11 (These words are more often than not translated as ‘credits’ and ‘credited’ by the NIV, and I shall return to that fact later.) In Reformed thought justification occurs through the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, and sometimes these two distinct blessings are combined together. (Imputation is also applied to the relation between the Fall of Adam and his connection with the race, but I shall not be concerned with this in what follows.)
The following are some of the ways that Reformed theologians have standardly understood the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.
(a) ‘Those whom God effectually calleth he also freely justifieth; not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; not 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’. (Westminster Confession of Faith, Ch. XI.I)
(b) ‘Therefore when we say that the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us for justification, and that we are just before God through imputed righteousness and not through any righteousness inherent in us, we mean nothing else than that the obedience of Christ rendered in our name to God the Father is so given to us by God that it is reckoned to be truly ours and that it is the sole and only righteousness on account of and by the merit of which we are absolved from the guilt of our sins and obtain a right to life; and that there is in us no righteousness or good works by which we can deserve such good benefits which can bear the severe examination of the divine court’. (F. Turretin, Institutes, II. 648)
(c) ‘The imputation of Christ’s righteousness, moreover, is totally misconstrued by Bellarmine and his associates. They picture it as a fiction that is opposed to reality. Imputed righteousness, according to them, is a righteousness that exists only in the imagination, whereas infused righteousness, according to them, is the only real and true righteousness. That picture, however, is completely mistaken. Justification is as real as sanctification, and imputation is not less real than infusion. The only difference is this: in justification righteousness is granted to us in a juridical sense while in sanctification it becomes ours in an ethical sense. Both are very real and very necessary’. (H. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics. IV.213)
In the context of the Reformation there has been great concern to protect the idea that the righteousness which justifies is not transfused or translated. We see this in the quotations: the righteousness which justifies, is not inherent, it is not infused. Whatever is transfused or translated in connection with the business of being justified by faith alone (whatever that may be) is never the ground of justification. The ground of justification is what is imputed. But such imputed righteousness is not fictional, it is real.
Any doctrine which proposes that justification is on the basis of what is transfused to the believer, as in Roman Catholic accounts of justification in terms of the acquiring of subjective righteousness (or later Baxterianism’s justification through evangelical righteousness, the keeping of a new law, and the like), are wholeheartedly repudiated. So Reformed theologians readily write and speak of justification by an alien or external righteousness.
My aim here is to offer some elucidation of this Reformed position by examining the logic of the idea imputing external righteousness. The word ‘logic’ need not frighten anyone. I am not attempting to argue for the truth of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness ‘by logic’, only to spell out some of its features by attempting to show what the idea of the imputation of righteousness, or reckoning or counting someone righteous, implies and does not imply.
Internal and external changes
Suppose that a person has a child, becomes a mother or a father. As a consequence someone else becomes a grandparent, a grandfather or grandmother. What sort of a change is that of becoming a grandmother? It’s a different sort of change than that which occurs when, giving birth, the wife becomes a mother; or, learning of the birth, the grandfather reaches into his pocket and buys the newborn baby a gift.
Or suppose a person comes to weigh less than his friend simply by virtue of the fact that his friend has put on weight, while his own weight has not changed. That’s a different sort of change than coming to weigh less by dieting. Without doing anything, the person has changed. We can say that the person is reckoned to be lighter in weight by virtue of something purely ‘external’ to him, to the fact that his friend has become inherently heavier. By the action of another, by a woman giving birth, and by nothing else, her father has been changed, he has become a grandfather. By the action of another, by his friend putting on weight, and by nothing else, a person has been changed, he has come to weigh less than his friend. Here we have a good guide what is an inherent change – becoming a mother, putting on weight, are good examples - and what is an ‘external’ change - becoming lighter than the friend, becoming a grandparent. Something we might say is that the ‘external’ change is ‘purely relational’. It is in virtue of someone’s relation to another person, and no other fact, that he may be said to have changed, to have become lighter, to have become a grandparent. But in the case of ‘inherent’ change – such as becoming pregnant and giving birth, putting on weight - something other than a relation.
We can, if we are careful enough, distinguish between changes in A that result solely from factors external to A , and those that are due to internal changes to A. One person really changes, and as a consequence someone else changes, but not in the same sense. for I am going to argue, as you have guessed, that the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is best thought of as an ‘external’ change in the one to whom the righteousness is imputed.
Having righteousness imputed
As a result of what Christ has done, those to whom his righteousness is imputed change. But how Christ has changed, by procuring righteousness through his life and death, is very different from how the person to whom that righteousness is imputed changes. Something is true of him that was not true of him before. But the change, the new truth, is not brought about by a change within him, but by the establishing of a new external relationship for him, and by that alone.
Of course, there is one important difference between the examples of becoming a grandparent, and becoming less heavy than, on the one hand, and becoming righteous, in the case of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. There is a third party. There are two parties, Christ and the one who receives the imputation of his righteousness, but there is a third party, the one who imputes, or reckons, or counts that righteousness to another. That’s very important for the full statement of the doctrine, but it does not affect the point that those to whom the righteousness of Christ is imputed change in rather the way that the way in which a person becomes a grandparent or a person comes to be less heavy than his friend becoming more heavy.
They don’t thereby undergo any ‘internal’ change, but enter into a new relation of a purely external kind. This new relation has immeasurable consequences, and is accompanied by other sorts of change which are most certainly ‘internal’ and acquired, the changes that are associated with the acquiring of Christian graces, and the putting off of the old man, Christian sanctification, the work of the Spirit. Justification is distinct from but inseparably connected with the internal changes that sanctify. But this fact, vitally important though it is, does not alter the fact that in justification the only thing that changes about the one who is justified is that person’s external relation to God, the imputer.
Imputing and infusing
Sometimes it is said that the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is ‘fictional’ and by that is meant that it is ‘made up’. But it is no more made up than the friend’s becoming less heavy is fictional. Is he heavier or not? In relation to his friend, he is heavier. A person who is pronounced innocent on grounds that ensure his innocence (in the case of ‘reckoned’ innocence, grounds provided by another) is not ’fictionally’ innocent, though it is certain a fiction to suppose that someone has an inherent quality that he in fact fails to have. Some accounts of imputation make it seem less arbitrary by interposing the thought that the one whom Christ thus benefits is ‘in union with’ Christ. What the Head has done is reckoned to the members. (Just as, becoming a grandfather is due to what has happened to the grandfather’s daughter, and to no other).
In becoming a grandfather, or coming to weigh less (in the examples given earlier) what comes to be true does so purely in virtue of a real change in one of the parties to an already existing relation. That is all, that’s the full explanation. Nothing moves, nothing transfers from one friend to another. The father of the mother is not infused with grandfatherliness, nor the friend that comes to weigh less infused with weight loss. Nothing is infused, and nothing becomes inherent than was not inherent before. So it is with the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.
In imputation is Christ’s righteousness credited?
That’s why the terms ‘imputation’ or ‘reckon’ or ‘count’ as used in the doctrine of justification, are vitally different from ‘impartation’ or ‘infusion’, or even (unless used with great care) from ‘transfer’ or ‘credit’. If something is imparted to A, then what is imparted to A becomes A’s; what is infused into A is fused with A. But what is imputed or reckoned or counted does not – in the same sense – become a part of A. A is benefited or blessed by having the righteousness of Christ reckoned, but not because he thereby receives the righteousness of Christ internally.
I suggest that the NIV’s use of ‘credits’ (Rom. 4. 4,6 – but ‘count’ in 4.8) is potentially misleading at this point. For crediting (at least in the financial sense) is not merely or purely external. If I pay your cheque to me into the bank my bank account is credited with the amount and I become better off, financially speaking. That’s not the sort of reckoning that imputation is. The pulpit illustration of imputation drawn from Philemon, ‘if he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account’ is not apt. Our sin is not charged to Christ’s account. He does not become really guilty, as Paul would have become really poorer had to had to pay up. We must therefore be careful not to let accountancy trump theology at this point. Christ’s righteousness is not credited to our account. Never. It is reckoned to be ours, something quite different. Imputation is not a relation between God and a person’s account, but between God and a person. What is imputed remains external; hence the aptness of thinking of Christ’s imputed righteousness as a covering, and clothing. ‘Blessed are they whose sins are covered’. Do I change when I put a hat on? Only in the sense that I have a different relation with the hat than before. It was on the peg, now it is on the head. Am I inherently changed by being hatted? Not a bit.
I develop an illustration I have used before when discussing Bishop Tom Wright’s views. If I am given insurance cover against accidents, do I change? Do I possess something called accident-cover, a sort of weird substance that only insurance brokers have the power to discern? Obviously not. What then do I have when I have that cover? I possess certain possibilities that I do not have without it. The possibility of claiming for the expenses incurred should I have an accident. What do I have when I am covered with Christ’s righteousness? I have the warrant to go before the judgment of God and to claim Christ’s righteousness as mine. And in view of my need, that warrant will most certainly be exercised. The believer will be accepted in the Beloved.