The Bible sets forth two fundamental truths: God is righteous and man is wicked. Because of this, the most important question facing man has always been, “How can a sinful man find acceptance with a holy God?” Ex 23:7 and Dt 25:1 set forth the law which forbids the justifying of the wicked and the condemnation of the righteous which further exacerbates the problem of reconciliation between a holy God and sinful man. The gospel of Jesus Christ relieves this tension. The gospel of Jesus Christ answers the question of how a sinful man can find acceptance with God and it does so in a manner consistent with God’s holiness and righteousness.
The Apostle Paul deals with justification by faith alone in Rom 3:21—4:25. Justification by faith alone in Christ alone is his overarching theme in this section of the great epistle, but Paul also deals with a vital element of justification: the doctrine of imputation. The Westminster Shorter Catechism answers the question “What is justification?” by stating, “Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein He pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone” (WSC #33). In Rom 3:26, Paul says that God is “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” God is able to maintain His justice and justify sinners because God “imputes righteousness apart from works” (Rom 4:6) to those who believe the gospel by God’s grace.
The word “impute” means to reckon to one’s account; to credit to one’s account. The word is used in a forensic or legal way and destroys the notion of Rome’s transformation of character approach to justification. In other words, the Protestant reformers correctly understood Paul’s doctrine: we are justified by faith alone on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ alone, not an infused righteousness which Rome maintained. Concerning justification, the 1689 Confession of Faith says,
“Those whom God effectually calls, He also freely justified, 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 Christ’s active obedience unto the whole law, and passive obedience in His death for their whole and sole righteousness…” (Chapter 11, para.1, emphasis added).
Paul demonstrates this truth in Rom 4 with Abraham and David. In Rom 4:3 Paul writes, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” When he believed God, God reckoned him or credited him with righteousness that was not inherently his own. In Rom 4:6 Paul says, “just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works.” This righteousness that David celebrates is not inherent in man; it is imputed “apart from works” and therefore is a righteousness one can truly celebrate!
The Bible speaks of three specific instances of imputation. In the first place, Adam’s sin is imputed to his posterity. Adam stood in the covenant of works as the federal head or representative of all his posterity. As WSC #16 says, “Did all mankind fall in Adam’s first transgression? The covenant being made with Adam, not only for himself, but for his posterity; all mankind, descending from him by ordinary generation, sinned in him, and fell with him, in his first transgression.” This is not a theological construct developed by the Westminster Divines, but a biblical truth recognized by the church since its inception. Paul writes in Rom 5:18a, “Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation” and in Rom 5:19a, “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners” and establishes this link between Adam and his posterity. The NKJV translation “made” is better rendered “constitute” or “appoint” as Paul’s point is not that the sinner undergoes a moral change, but rather Paul establishes a legal or forensic unity between Adam and his posterity.
The second type of imputation is the sin of the elect imputed to Jesus Christ. Imputation lies behind the sacrificial transaction in Leviticus chapters 1 and 16: when the hand was laid upon the sacrificial victim, there was the transfer or imputation of guilt from the sinner to the sacrifice. Isaiah prophesied that such would be true when the Suffering Servant came into the world, “And the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Is 53:6). The Apostle Paul declares this imputation in 2 Cor 5:21, “For He [God] made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us…” The sense is legal or forensic – sin was imputed to Jesus; He did not actually commit sin.
The third instance of imputation is the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to His people. After stating that God made Christ to be sin for us, he goes on to declare the purpose behind this activity in 2 Cor 5:21, “that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” The sense is legal or forensic – righteousness is imputed to the elect; they are not transformed into sinless beings. We saw above that Paul says imputation of righteousness is “apart from works” in Rom 4:6. He speaks further to the imputation of Christ’s righteousness in Rom 5:18b and 5:19b as he concludes his argument concerning the two men in history that everything hinges upon: the first Adam and the last Adam. He writes, “even so through the one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life” (5:18b) and “so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous” (5:19b).
The doctrine of imputation is crucial for our understanding of justification. The doctrine of imputation explains how God is just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom 3:26) and how He is the God who “justifies the ungodly” (Rom 4:5). It is imperative that God’s people study the Apostle’s words and understand his meaning and give serious attention to the abstract theological truths that explain how a holy God saves sinful man. It is also beneficial for God’s people to see those abstract principles put into a practical context; Zechariah 3:1-5 is one such context. Joshua the High Priest is brought before the LORD God Almighty. As a public person, Joshua stands not only for himself, but for the nation. He stands before the LORD with Satan at his right hand to oppose him, and Joshua is described as being clothed with filthy garments. The LORD rebuked Satan and dealt most graciously with Joshua. The filthy garments are removed which demonstrate the pardon of sin, and Joshua is clothed with rich robes which demonstrates the imputation of righteousness. This blessed transaction is only possible because Jesus Christ was clothed in filthy robes as our sin was imputed to Him (2 Cor 5:21) and He stood in our place and receive the punishment we deserved at the hand of a righteous God. Thankfully He rose again and this was “because of our justification” (Rom 4:25).