Aug 24, 2012

Is Imputed Righteousness a Biblical Category?

*this is my 9th post in the current series on the NPP  
The NPP denies forensic justification, teaching that the righteousness of Christ is not imputed or credited to believers. This is a serious problem because it “undercuts a truly ethical basis of atonement and inserts a controlling subjective element (i.e., covenant faithfulness).”[1] Do NPP scholars have a better handle on the Biblical data on justification? Are NPP proponents reading Paul and the New Testament in a more accurate and faithful way than Luther, Calvin and the Reformers? Is imputed righteousness a biblical concept? Let us look briefly at a three passages in relation to these questions ...
[#1.]  ROMANS 3:21–26 has usually been understood as a passage about how God “bestows a righteous status in sinners” and “puts them in the right before his judgment bar”.[2] Yet, NT Wright takes this passage to be about covenant membership: “The passage is all about the covenant, membership in which is now thrown open to Jew and Gentile alike.”[3] Lexically, this understanding comes up short, for it has not been established that the Greek word dikaiosune (“righteousness”) can be defined as “membership within a group” or that dikaioo (“justify”) means “to make or declare the member of a group”.[4]
Further, Paul uses the phrase “righteousness of God” nine times. It usually denotes the sinner’s new legal standing means he is seen as righteous even while a sinner. This is the origin of Luther’s famous Latin phrase simul justus ac peccator (“simultaneously righteous and a sinner”). F.F. Bruce notes verse 24 of Romans 3 demonstrates “God pronounces believers righteous at the beginning of their course, not at the end of it.”[5] This is very different from Wright’s (and especially Garlington’s) understanding: “Paul traces the route from justification by faith in the present to justification, by the complete life lived, in the future.”[6]  Wright suggests final justification is “on the basis of the entire life a person has led”. [7] Continuing on, in Romans 4:25-26, Piper makes an incisive observation:
Wright’s most common definition of God’s righ­teousness—God’s covenant faithfulness—does not, it seems, fit easily into Romans 3:25–26. On the contrary, in these verses God’s righteousness creates a problem for covenant faithfulness and must be satisfied in order that his covenant faithfulness may continue. Wright sees this and speaks of “the aspect of God’s righteousness that is called into question.” Yes. And this “aspect” is not most naturally, in this context, God’s covenant faithfulness. God’s passing over sin would seem to be not a problem for God’s covenant faithfulness, but an expression of it.[8]
Piper’s reasoning is sound. Centuries earlier, the Reformer Melanchthon wrote on this passage: believers “have forgiveness of sins, and Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us so that we are justified and are pleasing to God for the sake of Christ.”[9] I think he was right.[10]
[#2.]  On ROMANS 4:2–6, John Piper does a fine job of critiquing non-imputational interpretations of this passage: [11] “When Paul begins to explain in verse 4 what he means by ‘counted to him as righteousness’ in verse 3, he talks about it in terms of something external (a wage) being credited to our account, rather than something internal (faith) being treated as righteousness.”[12] This righteousness is not something we already possess, nor is it in us. On the contrary, it is foreign, or alien to us. God credits the righteousness of Christ towards us when we trust Christ. This is significant because it helps define Paul’s use of the term “faith”. As Piper writes later, “Justification in Paul’s mind is God’s imputing righteousness to us ‘by faith’ rather than faith being treated as righteousness within us.”[13]
[#3.]  2 CORINTHIANS 5:21 reads: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” This verse presents explicit testimony for a great exchange[14] that took place on the cross: I give Christ my sin and he gives me his righteousness. Hear Wright’s interpretation:  
The verse has traditionally been read as a somewhat detached statement of atonement theology: “we are sinners; God is righteous, but in Christ what Luther called a ‘wondrous exchange’ takes place, in which Christ takes our sin and we his ‘righteousness’.” … the difficulty ... is … there seems to be no good reason why [Paul] suddenly inserts this statement into a discussion whose thrust is quite different, namely, a consideration of the paradoxical apostolic ministry in which Christ is portrayed in and through the humiliating weakness of the apostle (4:7-6:13)…[15]

I disagree that the Reformed interpretation forces Paul to make an unrelated and merely parenthetical comment. Contextually, Paul is speaking about the gospel message he and the other apostles proclaim and how this makes them ministers of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18). Then he unpacks the message of reconciliation, explaining it in brief. Wright’s interpretation reeks of special pleading, as he arbitrarily restricts the ‘we’ of verse 21 to Paul and his apostolic colleagues.[16] It seems “more likely that the reference is to all believers, in view of the universal scope attributed to God’s reconciling activity in v. 19.”[17]
A parallel doctrine to imputation - substitutionary atonement - is presented in the plainest of terms in this verse.[18] This text alludes to Old Testament sin offerings (cf. Isa. 53; Rom. 8:3) and these carried with them the idea of substitution. This idea is front and center in the gospels as well, as Jesus was offered up as the sinless lamb (cf. John 1:29, 36). Interpreting this passage in the Reformed vein has the added benefit of making sense of the rest of the passage, especially the shocking idea of Christ knowing and becoming sin:
…the statement God made him who had no sin to be sin is balanced by the opposite statement, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. If becoming the righteousness of God means that God has pronounced judgment in our favor and put us in right relationship with himself, then to become sin, as the opposite of that, would mean that God had pronounced judgment against Christ (because he took upon himself the burden of our sins; cf. Is. 53:4–6, 12) with the result that his relationship with God was momentarily, but terribly beyond all human understanding, severed … for us. [19]

There is more that has been said about this and there is more that could be said but for now, I think one can see that Wright’s interpretation of 2 Corinthians 5:21 is unsustainable.

[1] Rolland McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity: Volume Three (Detroit: Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, 2010), 108.
[2] F.F. Bruce, Romans in the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1985), 106. This is not to say some of the ideas Wright and others express are absolutely foreign to the text. For example, see Bruce’s comments throughout Romans 3:21-5:21. Often, the NPP exegesis truncates, minimizes, atomizes, or reduces the full orbed meaning of key soteriological passages. This is not to say everything NPP scholars say has no foundation in the text whatsoever, for that would be an extreme and careless overstatement (most of the time).
[3] Wright, Saint Paul, 128.
[4] “N.T. Wright on Justification,” Charles E. Hill in IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 3, Number 22, May 28 to June 3, 2001, 2. For a thorough enough yet accessible talk on this – and other germane considerations – listen to Dr. Wayne Grudem’s two-part lecture on justification at dated March 02 and March 09, 2008, respectively.
[5] Bruce, Romans, 108.
[6] NT Wright, Paul in Fresh Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005). 148. 
[7] “New Perspectives on Paul,” in Justification in Perspective: Historical Develop­ments and Contemporary Challenges, ed. Bruce L. McCormack (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 260.  Wright also says this is on the basis of ‘works,’” but it is not exactly clear by what Wright means at all times. To my ears, it sounds too close to a salvation by works scenario.
[8] Piper, Future of Justification, 68.
[9] Phillip Melanchthon, “How Man Obtains Forgiveness of Sin and Is Justified before God” in Melanchthon  on Christian Doctrine: Loci Communes, 1555. A striking omission from much of NPP writing is the lack of emphasis on forgiveness of sins. To his credit, Wright has tried to set this aright in Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision. If he is able to swing the pendulum of the NPP in this area, it will be a pleasant surprise. By way of contrast, Krister Stendahl believed forgiveness is “spectacularly absent” in the Pauline corpus except in one place (Rom 4:7) where “poor Paul” just “had to quote Psalm 32:1”. Stendahl, Paul among Jews and Gentiles, 23.
[10] Brian J. Vickers shows the Lutheran Reformation trajectory of teaching imputation in Luther, his successor Melancthon and his student Martin Chemnitz in Jesus’ Blood and Righteousness: Paul’s Theology of Imputation, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 23-29. Neither he nor I think because they taught it that it is correct, per se. The idea is to further flesh out the traditional understanding to help moderns be more cautious in how they read both the Reformers and Paul.
[11] See, for example, Robert H. Gundry, “The Nonimputation of Christ’s righteousness,” Justification: What’s at Stake in the Current Debates, ed. Mark Husbands and Daniel J. Treier (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2004) and “Why I Didn’t Endorse ‘The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration?’ … even though I wasn’t asked to,” Books & Culture, vol. 7, no. 1, Jan-Feb 2001, 6.
[12] John Piper, Counted Righteous in Christ: Should We Abandon the Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness?  (Wheaton, IL: Crossway), 56.
[13] Ibid., 58.
[14] Luther called it the “happy exchange”; others have called it the “sweet exchange”. 
[15] N.T. Wright, On Becoming the Righteousness of God: 2 Corinthians 5:21. Originally published in Pauline Theology, Volume II, ed. D.M. Hay (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1993), 200-208. 
[16] I thank David P. Massey for pointing this out to me in An Exegetical Look at Second Corinthians 5:21, an unpublished paper given to me by the author in the Spring of 2012 at Phoenix Seminary.
[17] Margaret E. Thrall, 2 Corinthians in International Critical Commentary, Vol. 1 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark International, 1994), 431. 
[18] The phrase “for us” or “for our” in Greek can mean a term for substitution. Greek Grammarian Daniel B. Wallace has some ultra-technical input on the notion of substitution found in the relevant Greek proposition in Greek Grammar beyond the Basics, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 383-389.
[19] Colin G. Kruse, New Bible Commentary : 21st Century Edition, ed. D. A. Carson (4th ed.; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 2 Co 5:11–7:4.


  1. Hello Vocab,

    You said: "Are NPP proponents reading Paul and the New Testament in a more accurate and faithful way than Luther, Calvin and the Reformers?"

    If you look at the facts, Luther and Calvin did not believe in Imputation of Active Obedience and viewed Christ's Righteousness as strictly relating to "passive obedience" and justification consisting wholly in the forgiveness of sins. This is why Luther and Calvin appealed heavily to Romans 4:6-8, where Paul *equates* "imputing righteousness" with "not imputing sin". In other words, what you are saying is two imputations is actually just one in the minds of Luther, Calvin, and Paul.

    Also, I've written two recent articles on Romans 4:5 and 2 Corinthians 5:21, if you're interested.

  2. Nick,

    I am not sure you are reading the Reformers correctly there. Even if you were, our authority comes from Scripture, not Luther or Calvin.

    I looked at your articles - I am glad you are interested in this topic. Thank you for taking the time to send me these resources - I appreciate your diligence.

    However, I also realize that you have no choice but to *not* believe in imputation. You don't have that option because your Roman fellowship will not allow you! It is not as if you can come to these passages with an open mind and proceed to exegete them properly. You can not simply read and then 'let the chips fall where they may'. Why? Unfortunately, you are locked into a system which denies imputation and the finished work of Christ on our behalf.

    This is a tragedy.


  3. As a Catholic, I am *allowed* to believe in Imputation, just under certain conditions. I'd say the same for Protestants as well, since they must believe Imputation as the Confessions state, not as they personally want to define it.

    And more importantly, the argument from Romans 4:6-8 of Paul equating "reckoning righteousness" with "not reckoning sin" and calling these synonymous, that didn't come from me but from Luther and Calvin.


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