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§ 5. Imputation of Righteousness.

The righteousness of Christ is imputed to the believer for his justification. The word impute is familiar and unambiguous. To impute is to ascribe to, to reckon to, to lay to one’s charge. When we say we impute a good or bad motive to a man, or that a good or evil action is imputed to him, no one misunderstands our meaning. Philemon had no doubt what Paul meant when he told him to impute to him the debt of Onesimus. “Let not the king impute anything unto his servant.” (1 Sam. xxii. 15.) “Let not my lord impute iniquity unto me.” (2 Sam. xix. 19.) “Neither shall it be imputed unto him that offereth it.” (Lev. vii. 18.) “Blood shall be imputed unto that man; he hath shed blood.” (Lev. xvii. 4.) “Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity.” (Ps. xxxii. 2.) “Unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works.” (Rom. iv. 6.) God is “in Christ not imputing their trespasses unto them.” (2 Cor. v. 19.)

The meaning of these and similar passages of Scripture has never been disputed. Everyone understands them. We use the word impute in its simple admitted sense, when we say that the righteousness of Christ is imputed to the believer for his justification.

It seems unnecessary to remark that this does not, and cannot mean that the righteousness of Christ is infused into the believer 145or in any way so imparted to him as to change, or constitute His moral character. Imputation never changes the inward, subjective state of the person to whom the imputation is made. When sin is imputed to a man he is not made sinful; when the zeal of Phinehas was imputed to him, he was not made zealous. When you impute theft to a man, you do not make him a thief. When you impute goodness to a man, you do not make him good. So when righteousness is imputed to the believer, he does not thereby become subjectively righteous. If the righteousness be adequate, and if the imputation be made on adequate grounds and by competent authority, the person to whom the imputation is made has the right to be treated as righteous. And, therefore, in the forensic, although not in the moral or subjective sense, the imputation of the righteousness of Christ does make the sinner righteous. That is, it gives him a right to the full pardon of all his sins and a claim in justice to eternal life.

That this is the simple and universally accepted view of the doctrine as held by all Protestants at the Reformation, and by them regarded as the corner-stone of the Gospel, has already been sufficiently proved by extracts from the Lutheran and Reformed Symbols, and has never been disputed by any candid or competent authority. This has continued to be the doctrine of both the great branches of the Protestant Church, so far as they pretend to adhere to their standards. Schmid160160Die Dogmatik der evangelisch-lutherischen Kirche, dargestellt und aus den Quellen belegt, 3d edit. Frankfort and Erlangen, 1853. proves this by a whole catena of quotations so far as the Lutheran Church is concerned. Schweizer161161Die Glaubenslehre der evangelisch-reformirten Kirche dargestellt und aus den Quellen belegt, Zurich, 1844, 1847. does the same for the Reformed Church. A few citations, therefore, from authors of a recognized representative character will suffice as to this point. Turrettin with his characteristic precision says: “Cum dicimus Christi justitiam ad justificationem nobis imputari, et nos per justitiam illam imputatam justos esse coram Deo, et non per justitiam ullam quæ nobis inhæreat; Nihil aliud volumus, quam obedientiam Christi Deo Patri nomine nostro præstitam, ita nobis a Deo donari, ut vere nostra censeatur, eamque esse unicam et solam illam justitiam propter quam, et cujus merito, absolvamur a reatu peccatorum nostrum, et jus ad vitam obtinemus; nec ullam in nobis esse justitiam, aut ulla bona opera, quibus beneficia tanta promereamur, quæ ferre possint severum judicii divini examen, si Deus juxta legis suæ rigorem nobiscum agere vellet nihil nos illi posse opponere, 146nisi Christi meritum et satisfactionem, in qua sola, peccatorum conscientia territi, tutum adversus iram divinam perfugium, et animarum nostrarum pacem invenire possumus.162162Institutio, loc. XVI. iii. 9, edit. Edinburgh, 1847, vol. ii. p. 570.

On the following page he refers to Bellarmin,163163De Justificatione, ii. 7; Disputationes, Paris, 1608, p. 801, b. who says, “Si [Protestantes hoc] solum vellent, nobis imputari Christi merita, quia [a Deo] nobis donata sunt, et possumus ea [Deo] Patri offere pro peccatis nostris, quoniam Christus suscepit super se onus satisfaciendi pro nobis, nosque Deo Patri reconciliandi, recta esset eorum sententia.” On this Turrettin remarks, “Atqui nihil aliud volumus; Nam quod addit, nos velle ‘ita imputari nobis Christi justitiam, ut per eam formaliter justi nominemur et simus,’ hoc gratis et falso supponit, ex perversa et præpostera sua hypothesi de justificatione morali. Sed quæritur, Ad quid imputatio ista fiat? An ad justificationem et vitam, ut nos pertendimus, An vero tantum ad gratiæ internæ et justitiæ inhærentis infusionem, ut illi volunt; Id est, an ita imputentur et communicentur nobis merita Christi, ut sint causa meritoria sola nostræ justificationis, nec ulla alia detur justitia propter quam absolvamur in conspectu Dei; quod volumus; An vero ita imputentur, ut sint conditiones causæ formalis, id. justitiæ inhærentis, ut ea homo donari possit, vel causæ extrinsecæ, quæ mereantur infusionem justitiæ, per quam justificatur homo; ut ita non meritum Christi proprie, sed justitia inhærens per meritum Christi acquisita, sic causa propria et vera, propter quam homo justificatur; quod illi statuunt.” It may be remarked in passing that according to the Protestant doctrine there is properly no “formal cause” of justification. The righteousness of Christ is the meritorious, but not the formal cause of the sinner’s being pronounced righteous. A formal cause is that which constitutes the inherent, subjective nature of a person or thing. The formal cause of a man’s being good, is goodness, of his being holy, holiness; of his being wicked, wickedness. The formal cause of a rose’s being red, is redness; and of a wall’s being white, is whiteness. As we are not rendered inherently righteous by the righteousness of Christ, it is hardly correct to say that his righteousness is the formal cause of our being righteous. Owen, and other eminent writers do indeed often use the expression referred to, but they take the word “formal” out of its ordinary scholastic sense.

Campegius Vitringa164164Doctrina Christianæ Religionis, III. xvi. 2; Leyden, 1764, vol. iii. p. 254, ff. says: “Tenendum est certissimum hoc fundamentum, quod justificare sit vocabulum forense, notetque in 147Scriptura actum judicis, quo causam alicujus in judicio justam esse declarat; sive eum a crimine, cujus postulatus est, absolvat (quæ est genuina, et maxime propria vocis significatio), sive etiam jus ad hanc, vel illam rem ei sententia addicat, et adjudicet.

17. Per justificationem peccatoris intelligimus actum Dei Patris, ut judicis, quo peccatorem credentem, natura filium iræ, neque ullum jus ex se habentem bona cœlestia petendi, declarat immunem esse ab omni reatu, et condemnatione, adoptat in filium, et in eum ex gratia confert jus ad suam communionem, cum salute æterna, bonisque omnibus cum ea conjunctis, postulandi.

27. Teneamus nullam carnem in se posse reperire et ex se producere causam, et fundamentum justificationis. 29. Quærendum igitur id, propter quod peccator justificatur, extra peccatorem in obedientia Filli Dei, quam præstitit Patri in humana natura ad mortem, imo ad mortem crucis, et ad quam præstandam se obstrinxerat in sponsione. (Rom. v. 19.)” “32. Hæc [obedientia] imputatur peccatori a Deo judice ex gratia juxta jus sponsionis, de quo ante dictum.

Owen in his elaborate work on justification,165165Justification, chap. 4, edit. Philadelphia, 1841, p. 144. proves that the word to justify, “whether the act of God towards men, or of men towards God, or of men among themselves, or of one towards another, be expressed thereby, is always used in a ‘forensic’ sense, and does not denote a physical operation, transfusion, or transmutation.” He thus winds up the discussion: “Wherefore as condemnation is not the infusing of a habit of wickedness into him that is condemned, nor the making of him to be inherently wicked, who was before righteous, but the passing a sentence upon a man with respect to his wickedness; no more is justification the change of a person from inherent unrighteousness to righteousness, by the infusion of a principle of grace, but a sentential declaration of him to be righteous.”166166Ibid. p. 154.

The ground of this justification in the case of the believing inner is the imputation of the righteousness of Christ. This is set forth at length.167167Ibid. chap. 7, p. 187. “The judgment of the Reformed Churches herein,” he says, “is known to all and must be confessed, unless we intend by vain cavils to increase and perpetuate contentions. Especially the Church of England is in her doctrine express as to the imputation of the righteousness of Christ, both active and passive, as it is usually distinguished. This has been of late so fully manifested out of her authentic writings, that is, the ‘Articles 148of Religion’ and ‘Books of Homilies,’ and other writings publicly authorized, that it is altogether needless to give any further demonstration of it.”

President Edwards in his sermon on justification168168Serm. IV. Works, edit. N. Y. 1868, vol. iv. pp. 91, 92. sets forth the Protestant doctrine in all its fulness. “To suppose,” he says, “that a man is justified by his own virtue or obedience, derogates from the honour of the Mediator, and ascribes that to man’s virtue that belongs only to the righteousness of Christ. It puts man in Christ’s stead, and makes him his own saviour, in a respect in which Christ only is the Saviour: and so it is a doctrine contrary to the nature and design of the Gospel, which is to abase man, and to ascribe all the glory of our salvation to Christ the Redeemer. It is inconsistent with the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, which is a gospel doctrine. Here I would (1.) Explain what we mean by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. (2.) Prove the thing intended by it to be true. (3.) Show that this doctrine is utterly inconsistent with the doctrine of our being justified by our own virtue or sincere obedience.

“First. I would explain what we mean by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. Sometimes the expression is taken by our divines in a larger sense, for the imputation of all that Christ did and suffered for our redemption, whereby we are free from guilt, and stand righteous in the sight of God; and so implies the imputation both of Christ’s satisfaction and obedience. But here I intend it in a stricter sense, for the imputation of that righteousness or moral goodness that consists in the obedience of Christ. And by that righteousness being imputed to us, is meant no other than this, that that righteousness of Christ is accepted for us, and admitted instead of that perfect inherent righteousness that ought to be in ourselves: Christ’s perfect obedience shall be reckoned to our account so that we shall have the benefit of it, as though we had performed it ourselves: and so we suppose that a title to eternal life is given us as the reward of this righteousness.” In the same connection, he asks, “Why is there any more absurdity in supposing that Christ’s obedience is imputed to us, than that his satisfaction is imputed? If Christ has suffered the penalty of the law for us, and in our stead, then it will follow that his suffering that penalty is imputed to us, i.e., that it is accepted for us, and in our stead, and is reckoned to our account, as though we had suffered it. But why may not his obeying the law of God be as rationally reckoned to our account 149as his suffering the penalty of the law.” He then goes on to argue that there is the same necessity for the one as for the other.

Dr. Shedd says, “A second difference between the Anselmic and the Protestant soteriology is seen in the formal distinction of Christ’s work into his active and his passive righteousness. By his passive righteousness is meant his expiatory sufferings, by which He satisfied the claims of justice, and by hie active righteousness is meant his obedience to the law as a rule of life and conduct. It was contended by those who made this distinction, that the purpose of Christ as the vicarious substitute was to meet the entire demands of the law for the sinner. But the law requires present and perfect obedience, as well as satisfaction for past disobedience. The law is not completely fulfilled by the endurance of penalty only. It must also be obeyed Christ both endured the penalty due to man for disobedience, and perfectly obeyed the law for him; so that He was a vicarious substitute in reference to both the precept and the penalty of the law. By his active obedience He obeyed the law, and by his passive obedience He endured the penalty. In this way his vicarious work is complete.”169169History of Christian Doctrine, New York, 1863, vol. ii. p. 341.

The earlier Symbols of the Reformation do not make this distinction. So far as the Lutheran Church is concerned, it first appears in the “Form of Concord” (A.D. 1576). Its statement is as follows: “That righteousness which is imputed to faith, or to believers, of mere grace, is the obedience, suffering, and resurrection of Christ, by which He satisfied the law for us, and expiated our sins. For since Christ was not only man, but truly God and man in one undivided person, He was no more subject to the law than He was to suffering and death (if his person, merely, be taken into account), because He was the Lord of the law Hence, not only that obedience to God his Father which He exhibited in his passion and death, but also that obedience which He exhibited in voluntarily subjecting Himself to the law and fulfilling it for our sakes, is imputed to us for righteousness, so that God on account of the total obedience which Christ accomplished (præstitit) for our sake before his heavenly Father, both in acting and in suffering, in life and in death, may remit our sins to us, regard us as good and righteous, and give us eternal salvation.”170170Hase, Libri Symbolici, 3d edit., Leipzig, 1846, pp. 684, 685. In this point the Reformed or Calvinistic standards agree.

It has already been remarked that the distinction between the 150active and passive obedience of Christ is, in one view, unimportant. As Christ obeyed in suffering, his sufferings were as much a part of his obedience as his observance of the precepts of the law. The Scriptures do not expressly make this distinction, as they include everything that Christ did for our redemption under the term righteousness or obedience. The distinction becomes important only when it is denied that his moral obedience is any part of the righteousness for which the believer is justified, or that his whole work in making satisfaction consisted in expiation or bearing the penalty of the law. This is contrary to Scripture, and vitiates the doctrine of justification as presented in the Bible.


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