May 10, 2012

DOES IMPUTATION MATTER?


Still, one may ask, “but why do we need the imputed righteousness of Christ?” Simply put: we are dead in sin. We can do nothing to help ourselves and must be rescued. We cannot accomplish anything towards our own salvation. We must rely entirely on an outsider to save us (Romans 3:23).

Paul writes in Romans 3:20, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” We have no means to earn our justification! However, as R.C. Sproul writes so clearly: “In a synthesis, something new is added to something basic. Our justification is a synthesis because we have the righteousness of Christ added to us. Our justification is by imputation. God transfers to us, by faith, the righteousness of Christ, to whom we now belong. It is a real imputation.”

On this last point of a real imputation, hear another non-imputation advocate from another era in Vincent Taylor, who says imputation is, “an ethical fiction” because righteousness cannot imputed to a sinner any more “than bravery to a coward or wisdom to a fool”. Taylor goes on to say that if a man is counted as righteous, it must be because “he is righteous, and not because another is righteous in his stead.”  This objection can be found in almost all NPP writings in some form or another.

When an NPP advocate calls the whole idea of imputation a fiction, they are overlooking the key concept of our union with Christ (Romans 6:1-11).  E.A. Knox, wrote beautifully on this nearly a century prior: “Why should he not speak of an imputed righteousness, or of Christ’s righteousness reckoned to him? If Christ lives in him, what should God see in him, of what should God take account in him, but of the living indwelling Christ in all His perfect righteousness?”   Millard Erickson is helpful here when he explains that imputation is not an external, arm’s length, two-party matter: “When looking at the believer God the Father does not see him or her alone.” Instead, “it is as if God says, ‘They are righteous’!”

How does God constitute “the believer one with Christ”? Erickson explains the "situation is somewhat analogous to what takes place when two people marry or two corporations merge: their separate assets are brought into the union and are thereafter treated as mutual possessions.”  I think this is a better portrait of our union with Christ than many of the NPP caricatures; I also think it is warmer, more intimate, more spectacular and ultimately, more biblical.  In my opinion, not only is imputation more theologically sound than the NPP on justification, it is also more awe-inspiring and praise worthy.

Most disconcerting of all is how the NPP sounds like salvation by works: “Justification, at the last, will be on the basis of performance, not possession.”   No one doubts there is an eschatological aspect to justification but to say that God acknowledges us as members of the covenant community because he “anticipates the future verdict”  basically sounds like Wright is saying God declares us “in” because he knows that on the last day we will have proven ourselves to have been “in”. Where is the assurance in that? Where is the objective basis of our salvation in that? Does this not diminish the radical nature of the gift of salvation, in that it was bestowed on us freely, despite ourselves? Salvation sounds less like an amazing rescue operation and more like a bland statement of fact based on God’s foreknowledge of our effort.

It is clear why imputation is vital: it is “the only hope of the sinful soul”. Theologian James White writes that “the one who knows the stain of his sin knows that he must have a righteousness that is not his own.” White continues: “Imputation is such a beautiful word to the sinner who feels so keenly his lack of righteousness and the perfection of the righteousness of Christ. Such a gift cannot be purchased, earned, or merited. It must be imputed by grace.”

This is it! A recognition of the sinfulness of sin will lead us to despair. This fearful dawning should drive us to humbly search for a rescuer outside of ourselves. Jesus is that Savior. And the realization of the gift he has given us – his righteousness – should lead us to be worshipful, ever adoring and eternally thankful.  

NOTES

[] R.C. Sproul, Essential Truths of the Christian Faith (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1992), 190. See the helpful diagram on this in Appendix A.
[] Vincent Taylor, Forgiveness and Reconciliation (London: Macmillan, 1952), 57. Taylor is an older source and not mentioned often in the current debates. I found the wording of his objection helpful, though, because the explicit way he denies imputation was so clear and telling.
[] Wright’s famous slam on imputation runs as follows: “It makes no sense whatever to say that the judge imputes, imparts, bequeaths, conveys or otherwise transfers his righteousness to either the plaintiff or the defendant. Righteousness is not an object, a substance or gas which can be passed across the courtroom.” Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 98. Douglas Wilson has a humorous and effective response to Wright’s category error here: http://www.dougwils.com/N.T.-Wrights-and-Wrongs/A-Category-Mistake.html . Wilson may have his own set of mistakes by holding to Federal Vision theology but this does not disqualify him from funny and accurate responses to NT Wright on justification!
[] Edmund Arbuthnott Knox, The Glad Tidings of Reconciliation (London: Longmans, 1916), 74.
[] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, Second Ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003), 971-972.
[] For more insight on this from the Reformers, see especially John Calvin, Institutes 3.11.5 and to a lesser (but still valid) extent, Martin Luther in Luther’s Works, ed. Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971), 31:298. In these places they speak of the relationship between imputation and union with Christ. They do this in contrast to later, more theologically liberal authors who create a false dichotomy between imputation and union. For more on that, see Chapter 18 “Union with Christ” in Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011).
[] NT Wright, The Letter to the Romans, Volume Ten, The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2002), 440.
[] NT Wright, “The Shape of Justification”, www.ntwrightpage.com/Wright_BR_Shape_Justification.htm
[] James R. White, The God Who Justifies: A Comprehensive Study of the Doctrine of Justification (Bloomington, MN: Bethany House, 2001), 116-117.


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