By Keith Thompson
The biblical teaching on the imputed righteousness of Christ states that through the instrument of faith one receives Jesus’ righteousness imputed. His righteousness is not infused, but credited to the person’s account. Christians affirm they are justified (declared righteous/made right with God) by Jesus’ passive obedience (atonement) and active obedience (his life of personal righteousness), not either or but both. Scripture teaches that God, because He is absolutely holy and perfect, will accept nothing less than for His people to be absolutely holy and perfect in His sight (Deuteronomy 27:26; 32:46; James 2:10). Jesus perfectly obeyed the Law in the place of His people and was perfect (Matthew 3:17; John 4:34; 6:38; Galatians 4:4-5; 1 Peter 2:22; Hebrews 4:15). This is the only way they can be in eternal communion in His presence. The way men, with their fallen flesh, can be seen as perfectly holy in God’s sight is by receiving Jesus Christ’s holiness/righteousness credited to their account by faith. Thus, God views the believer as absolutely perfect in Christ – the same way He views His perfect Son.
My argument in this essay is that various texts speak of a foreign righteousness from God being credited to the believer’s account by faith and that other texts in the same conceptual world strongly indicate this foreign credited righteousness is Christ’s.
Examination of the meaning of “imputed” or “credited” (Gk. logizomai)
Those opposed to the doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ sometimes deny the word logizomai in the texts we point to (e.g. Romans 4:5) even refers to “crediting” or “reckoning” righteousness to a person’s account. They argue since the word can also mean “regard as” or “consider as,” this is what Scripture has in mind when someone is “logizomai righteousness.” However, although the word can mean what such critics claim in certain texts (e.g. Romans 2:26; 8:36), it can also mean “credit” or “impute” something to one’s account. In 2 Timothy 4:16 Paul mentions those who deserted him and did not stand with him. Then he says this sin “should not be charged against them.” Here logizomai must be understood as referring to something being charged or reckoned to someone’s account, the very thing we say when we argue Jesus’ righteousness is reckoned or credited to the account of the believer. Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words confirms the word can be “used for crediting something for or against someone (e.g., 2 Cor. 5:19)”(1). Moreover, it is difficult to avoid interpreting texts such as Romans 4:8 and 2 Corinthians 5:19 as God not crediting sin to the account of believers, that is, the non-reckoning of sin. This also supports the concept of righteousness being credited to the believer’s account. Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament notes the word carries “the idea of imputation (the noting of human achievements in heaven). . .”(2). This has to do with righteousness being reckoned to the person’s heavenly ledger account, just as we argue Christ’s righteousness is reckoned to the believer’s account.
Case for Imputed Righteousness of Christ
That a foreign righteousness from God is credited to the believer’s account by faith is seen in Romans 4:2-5 where we observe how Paul infallibly explained Abraham’s justification by faith alone:
"2For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’ 4Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Romans 4:2-5).
That righteousness is counted or credited, that is, “imputed” to Abraham’s account is seen in the fact that when discussing this crediting, Paul emphasizes a ledger theme where an employer credits wages to the employee's account. Nothing could more clearly demonstrate that what Paul has in mind is righteousness being credited to the believer’s heavenly ledger account. As Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words confirms: “Paul demonstrates that this teaching is not a new idea but has its roots in the OT, where Abraham believed God and it ‘was credited’ to him as righteousness (Gen. 15:6 in Rom. 4;3; see also Gal. 3:6; Jas. 2:23). This stands in contrast crediting wages to someone who has worked to earn them (Rom. 4:4)”(3).
Moreover, eminent exegete Douglas J. Moo has pointed out in his massive commentary on Romans that we must not interpret Paul to be saying Abraham’s faith was the equivalent of righteousness, that is, faith being seen as a righteous act. Instead “the ‘reckoning’ of Abraham’s faith as righteousness means ‘to account to him a righteousness that does not inherently belong to him.’ Abraham’s response to God’s promise leads God to ‘reckon’ to him a ‘status’ of righteousness”(4). Moo arrives at this conclusion because when examining texts with similar Hebrew grammatical constructions as Genesis 15:6, the text Paul quotes concerning Abraham believing and that being counted to him for righteousness, it is clear in similar texts sacrifices are reckoned to a person’s benefit (e.g. Lev. 7:18; Num. 18:27, 30), or a status or legal standing is reckoned to another (2 Sam. 19:20).
Thus, what we see in Romans 4:2-5 is by faith one receives a foreign righteousness from God credited to the person’s account or counting for them. Now that this is established we must consult texts in the same conceptual world as Romans 4:2-5 to grasp the nature of this foreign righteousness.
In 1 Corinthians 1:30 we are told very plainly that those who are “in Christ,” that is, united to Christ, are people who Jesus became righteousness for: “And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30). Thus, with a believer’s faith leading to a foreign righteousness in mind, we are now told Christ is the believer’s righteousness.
It is important to note how 1 Corinthians 1:30 stresses Jesus being the believer’s righteousness in the context of being “in Christ,” and how Romans 4:5 stresses a righteousness from God being credited to the person’s account by “believing.” This is because when we examine Philippians 2:8; 3:9 we see that being “in Christ” and having faith is connected to Christ’s obedience/righteousness, that is, a foreign righteousness from God being received.
“8And being found in human form, he [Jesus] humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. . . . 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Philippians 2:8; 3:9).
When we read Paul as a whole (originally there were no chapter divisions), we observe his emphasis on Jesus’ life of personal obedience (2:8). Shortly after he then mentions a foreign righteousness from God counting for the believer (3:9). Now, in light of Paul mentioning Jesus’ obedience in 2:8 and then mentioning the believer being in Christ and having faith in Christ, whose “righteousness from God” does Philippians 3:9 speak of? Answer: Christ’s.
2 Corinthians 5:19 first mentions God not counting or crediting sin to believers. Instead in v. 21 Paul notes those who are in Christ become “the righteousness of God”:
“19that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. . . . 21For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:19, 21).
There are a few points to consider here. First, Henri Blocher notes the importance of v. 19’s mention of sin not being credited to believers in relation to v. 21: “the symmetry in 2 Corinthians 5:21 is best understood of the imputation of our sin to Christ (v.19, it was not imputed to us) and of his righteousness to us. . .”(5). Second, it makes sense to say in light of the sin of believers being imputed to Jesus, the pure one, who was thus “made sin,” in turn His righteousness, “the righteousness of God,” is imputed to us. That the righteousness of God here refers to the righteousness of Christ is evidenced by the fact that according to the New Testament, what is God’s is Christ’s (e.g. John 5:19-47). Third, scholars note the subtext behind 2 Corinthians 5:21 is Isaiah 53 since sin, substitution, and righteousness are all themes present in both. The relevance of noting this is Isaiah 53:11 connects the justification of sinners with Messiah’s personal righteousness: “by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities” (Isaiah 53:11). Interestingly, in the Hebrew text the words “righteous” (ṣad·dîq) and “justify” (yaṣ·dîq) appear side by side here. This is purposeful. As Geoffrey W. Grogan notes, “The adjective ‘righteousness’ and the verb ‘will justify’ . . . are placed next to each other in the Hebrew, as if to stress their relationship”(6). Indeed, Jesus’ righteousness is what leads to the justification of believers just as Reformation Christians stress. By faith Jesus’ righteousness is credited to the believer leading to their justification.
Finally, in Romans 5:19 we read, “For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19). In order to understand how Jesus’ obedience leads to believers being made righteous, we must understand the negative counterpart: Adam’s disobedience leading to the many being made sinners. Here Adam’s sin was imputed to mankind making us sharers of his guilt. In the same way, Jesus makes people righteous by imputing his obedience to us so we may be sharers in it account wise. The word “made” in “made righteous” does not here mean “to make righteous morally.” It is katastathēsontai which comes from kathistēmi and it means to “appoint” or “bring” or “inaugurate into” in a legal sense (seven times in the Gospels; four times in Acts; three times in Hebrews; and Titus 1:5). Here believers are appointed or inaugurated into a state of righteousness in a legal sense in that they’re brought into a state of acquittal.
In closing it is befitting to quote the second century Christian document Letter to Diognetus: “For what else but his [Christ’s] righteousness could have covered our sins? In whom was it possible for us, the lawless and the ungodly, to be justified, except in the Son of God alone? O the sweet exchange, O the incomprehensible work of God, O the unexpected blessings, that the sinfulness of many should be hidden in one righteous man, while the righteousness of one should justify many sinners!”(7).
1.) William D. Mounce, Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, [Zondervan, 2006], p. 146
2.) Gerhard Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromily, Vol. 4, [Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1964-1976], p. 290
3.) William D. Mounce, Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, [Zondervan, 2006], pp. 145-146
4.) Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, ed. Gordon D. Fee, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, [Wm B. Eerdmans, 1996], p. 262
5.) Henri Blocher, Justification of the Ungodly (Sola Fide), eds. D. A. Carson, Peter O’Brien, Mark Seifrid, Justification and Variegated Nomism, Vol. 2, [Baker Academic, 2004], p. 499
6.) Geoffrey W. Grogan, Isaiah, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, [Zondervan, 1986], p. 305
7.) Letter to Diognetus, 9:3-5