The Idea of Imputation in the Bible
When we speak of imputed righteousness in relation to justification what we mean is that the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ (that is not ours by nature and is completely outside of us, or “alien” to us) is credited to us in such a way that God now regards us as fully righteous.
This is an idea that is firmly rooted in both the Old and New Testaments. The Hebrew word hashab has the basic idea of employing “the mind in thinking activity,” as in “making a judgment.” It is often translated, “to count,” “account” or “impute.” For example, this word is used in Leviticus 7:18 regarding instructions about peace offerings: “And if any of the flesh of the sacrifice of his peace offering is eaten at all on the third day, it shall not be accepted, nor shall it be imputed to him; it shall be an abomination to him who offers it, and the person who eats of it shall bear guilt.” The worshiper will miss the benefit of the sacrifice—it will not be imputed to him—if he does not destroy the uneaten portions on the third day.
The same idea is found in Genesis 31:15 as Rachel and Leah reason to themselves about their father’s disposition toward them: “Are we not considered strangers by him? For he has sold us, and also completely consumed our money.” Though they were not strangers to their father, Laban, he regarded them as such.
When the Israelites began to commit adultery with Midianite women, Phinehas took a spear and impaled one of the men and his lover straight through, ending the plague that God had sent. According to the narrative in Numbers 25, the Lord rewarded his action with promises of blessing. When the Psalmist recounts the event, he puts it like this: “And that was accounted to him [Phinehas] for righteousness to all generations forevermore” (Psalm 106:30-31).
The same idea is found in the Greek word, “logizomai.” It is often translated “to count, consider, or impute.” It is a word that comes from the world of commerce and accounting and means “to charge” or “to reckon.” In Acts 19:27 Demetrius, a silversmith in Ephesus, spoke against Paul’s preaching by saying, “And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship.” Paul demonstrates his gracious spirit in 2 Timothy 4:16 when he tells of his indictment in the Roman court: “At my first defense no one stood with me, but all forsook me. May it not be charged against them.”
This Old Testament and New Testament family of words communicates the concept of crediting something to a person’s account, or regarding a person as if that which is charged to his account is true. To Demetrius, Artemis was the “great goddess” but, based on the preaching of Paul, she was being regarded as nothing. Those who did not stand with Paul were guilty—perhaps of cowardice, certainly of lack of loyalty and love—yet Paul does not want this guilt imputed to them.
Imputation in Salvation
Beyond this common use of the word and concept, the Bible describes three salvific relationships in which imputation operates.
The Imputation of Adam’s Sin
First, Adam’s sin is said to be imputed to his posterity. Paul argues this point in Romans 5:12-19.
Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned— 13 (For until the law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. 14 Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who had not sinned according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come. 15 But the free gift is
not like the offense. For if by the one man’s offense many died, much more the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abounded to many. 16 And the gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned. For the judgment which came from one offense resulted in condemnation, but the free gift which came from many offenses resulted in justification. 17 For if by the one man’s offense death reigned through the one, much more those who receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.) 18 Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one
Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life. 19 For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous.
As E. H. Gifford notes, “The master-thought of the whole passage is that unity of the many in the one, which forms the point of comparison between Adam and Christ.” There is a clear solidarity between Adam and the whole human race. The nature of this solidarity is such that judgment and death have come on all men as a result of Adam’s sin—“because all sinned” (v. 12). Five times from vv. 15-19 the universal judgment of condemnation and death on all men is attributed to the one sin of the one man Adam. All men (in addition to bearing their own personal sin and guilt) are therefore said to be judged guilty and liable to death on the basis of Adam’s sin. Adam is regarded as having sinned while standing as our representative, or as it is worded in covenant theology, our federal head. The judgment that results in universal condemnation is based on Adam’s sin being imputed to his posterity. So in v. 19, it is proper to judge the manner by which many were made sinners by one man’s disobedience to be the imputation of Adam’s sin. This is confirmed in 1 Corinthians 15:22, “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all shall be made alive.” Adam’s sin is imputed to people because they are “in him” in a covenantal relationship. He stood before God not only as an individual man, but also as a representative of all mankind. What he did affected all who are in him.
Imputation of Our Sin to Christ
Second, the Scripture speaks of the imputation of the elect’s sin to Christ. All of the Scripture statements concerning our sin being placed on Jesus portray this kind of a relationship. In Isaiah 53 we are told that “the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (v. 6) and that “He bore the sins of many” (v. 12). Hebrews 9:28 says that Christ was “offered once to bear the sins of many.” Peter writes that Christ “himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). Each of these passages describe Christ taking our sin on Himself in His work of atonement. Granted, the method whereby He does this is not spelled out in such passages. However, Paul does identify the method in what is perhaps the most crucial text in this whole debate.
2 Corinthians 5:21 provides important insight into the relationships between our sin and Christ, and His righteousness and us. “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” While the word “impute” is not used in this verse, the context suggests that Paul is indeed thinking in terms of imputation. He describes the non-imputation of believers’ sin in verse 19: “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them.” Verse 21 sets up a parallel idea between Christ being made sin for us and we becoming the righteousness of God in Him. The question is, “How did this exchange take place?”
Christ did not personally become sin for us. He “knew no sin.” In what sense, then, did He become sin? He did so representatively—as our substitute. He represented us on the cross by having our sins charged to Him and suffering the consequences for them. This is perhaps the most readily admitted relationship in which imputation operates.
Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness to Us
The third relationship, however, is undoubtedly the most controversial and touches more directly on the nature of justification. Not only does Scripture speak of the imputation of Adam’s sin to us and our sin to Christ, but, as historic Protestant orthodoxy has always recognized, it also teaches the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to believers. Robert Gundry simply dismisses this idea as “unbiblical.” He argues that to insist on it as essential to the Gospel is “flawed.”
Yet, even in the Old Testament divine righteousness is described as being provided for sinners. The idea is embedded in the very name of God—Yaweh Tsidkenu, “the Lord our Righteousness” (Jeremiah 23:6, 33:16). Isaiah 61:10 describes this provision in terms of clothing: “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, My soul shall be joyful 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 with ornaments, And as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.” God covers His people with righteousness.
This idea is fully revealed in the New Testament. When announcing the theme of his letter to the Romans, Paul writes that in the gospel “the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith’” (Romans 1:17). After establishing the futility of trying to establish righteousness by our own works, he goes on to announce in Romans 3:21–22), that “now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe.” All who believe receive righteousness from God. It is revealed “to” them and “on” them.
This divine righteousness is provided only in Christ and is received only through faith. The verses already cited indicate this and Paul states it specifically in Philippians 3:8-9, “Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith.” Paul contrasts his own righteousness (from the law) to that which is “through faith in Christ.” Further, it is “from God by faith.” Thus, Paul does not conceive receiving the gift of righteousness from God except “in Christ” and “by faith.” “The just shall live by faith.” In other words, the one who can legitimately lay claim to the title “just,” or righteous, is the one who lives by faith in Jesus Christ. This is what the Gospel reveals.
Paul has this understanding in mind in Romans 5:12-19. He shows the parallel between Adam and Christ. Just as Adam’s work affected his posterity so has Christ’s work affected those who are in Him. Adam’s sin brought death (v. 15), judgment and condemnation (v. 16) to the human race. Christ’s work results in God’s grace (v. 15), justification (vv. 15, 18) and righteousness (vv. 17, 19) coming to sinners. The “gift” that came “by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ” (v. 15) “resulted in justification” (16). In verse 17 this gift is called the “gift of righteousness.” It is through the gift of righteousness from Jesus Christ that justification comes.
When Paul concludes his argument in verses 18 and 19 he does so by reiterating that it is through Jesus’ “righteous act”—that is, the whole of His life and ministry—that the “free gift” (the gift of righteousness) comes to sinners. This, Paul says, results “in justification of life” (18). “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous” (19). Christ’s obedience will result in many being “made righteous” in the same way that all men were made sinners by the disobedience of Adam. In other words, on the basis of the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ, righteousness is imputed to all who believe. This is the point of the parallel between Adam and Christ—just as Adam’s sin was imputed to all his posterity, so Christ’s righteousness is imputed to all who believe.
Consequently, it is impossible to concede the arguments of those who want to jettison imputation altogether or even remove it from its pride of place in the historic, Protestant understanding of the justification. Both the word and the concept are clearly employed in the biblical explanation of salvation by grace.