Thursday, 23 July 2009

The imputation of Christ's righteousness

This is a post for the theologically minded.

Introduction: Some in recent years have begun to question whether Christ's righteousness is actually imputed to us. Instead they suggest, God deems our faith as righteousness and justifies us on this basis. Or he simply forgives us without the need of a positive standing of covenant obedience. Though some aspects of the discussion are complex or less certain, the general thrust that the righteousness of Christ is counted as our own because we are united to him and so represented by him is fairly clear. It is this that leads to life, for life can only be granted to those who fufil the stipulations of God's covenant.

The following are some thoughts this week on the issue from Romans 5v12-20.

Romans 5v13 sets up the idea of imputation/reckoning. The question is why people are dying if sin is not reckoned/credited to them (v14). The answer is “because of Adam’s transgression” (v12,15). And it would seem that this is not because it infected his descendents with actual sin (though it did), because we have just been told that their actual sin is not counted against them (v13). It would seem then that death came because Adam’s offence and lawbreaking was somehow counted as theirs (v14). This is confirmed by the continued focus on his sin for condemnation for the many, rather than on their own (v15,16,17,18,19). In doing justice to Paul's clear concern for parallel and contrast, we must conclude that what is received by those in Christ is therefore on the basis of imputation too. And it is thist that is described as “the gift of righteousness” (v15,16,17).

What then is this gift of righteousness? It is a righteousness given to us because of “the obedience” of Christ in a way that contrasts the way humanity were legally counted as sinners through the disobedience of Adam (v19), irrespective of the transmission of actual sin. It must therefore be the gift of a legal state of righteousness rather than an infusion of moral righteousness itself. This is consistent with what we learn of it in 4v1-11. Indeed, in Romans, "life" includes this transformation (chapters 6-8). Yet "life" is said to stem from the gift of this righteousness, not comprise it (v17). In short, the "gift of righteousness" is the gift of Christ's own righteous standing, which enables us to be justified or declared not guilty of failing to fulfil the stipulations of God's covenant.

The logic of this is extremely compelling. The only query is over v18. There we read of “one act of righteousness” by Christ, and the flow with verse 19 suggests this is akin to “the obedience of the one” just as the “one transgression” (v18) is akin to “the one man’s disobedience” (v19). This leaves us asking, is it only the obedience of going to his death that is imputed to us? Or is Paul for the sake of his parallelism likening Jesus’ entire life to one act of righteousness? We should add that either way the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is proved. Nevertheless, the answer I believe is that the “one act of righteousness” actually refers to the one act of giving Christ’s righteousness.

Here we should note that the language of transgression sets v18 more naturally amongst verses 15-17 than with v19, where the language changes to that of the less legal “disobedience.” And we can see (a) that from the start of v15 the issue is the comparison between the one “trespass” of Adam and the one “free gift” of Jesus Christ rather than the many acts of obedience that comprise it. So (b) in v15b and 17, “the transgression” is contrasted with “the abundance of grace” and “the gift of righteousness” suggesting the same contrast between “transgression” and “act of righteousness” in v18. Furthermore, (c) v16 places “the free gift” alongside “resulting in justification” paralleling “the one act of righteousness resulting in justification” in v19.

So v19 is explanatory, filling in the reasoning gaps. Ie. The one transgression resulted in condemnation (v18) because “by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners” (v19), and the one act of righteousness (the one giving of Christ’s righteousness) resulted in justification (v18) because through that giving “the obedience of the One the many were made righteous.”

Conclusion: It seems then that there are good reasons for holding that Christ's righteousness, or obedience, is imputed to us and so counted as ours. It is on this basis that God can justify us - declaring us to be not guilty of failure to fully fulfil the requirements of his covenant. Whereas the cross assures us that the penalty for our failure has been paid. It is therefore Christ's righteousness that assures us that we are actually counted worthy of eternal life.

(Philippians 3v9-10, 1 Corinthians 1v30 and less clearly perhaps, Romans 4v1-11, also make this case. See: