A forensic term that denotes the reckoning or placing to a person’s account the merit or guilt that belongs to him on the basis of his personal performance or of that of his federal head. While impute is used in Scripture to express the idea of receiving the just reward of our deeds (Lev. 7:18; 17:4; 2 Sam. 19:19), imputation as a theological term normally carries one of two meanings:
First, it describes the transmission of the guilt of Adam’s first sin to his descendants. It is imputed, or reckoned, to them; i.e. , it is laid to their account. Paul’s statement is unambiguous: “By one man’s disobedience many were made [constituted] sinners” (Rom. 5:19). Some Reformed theologians ground the imputation of Adam’s sin in the real involvement of all his posterity in his sin, because of the specific unity of the race in him. Shedd strongly advocates this view in his Dogmatic Theology. Others—e.g. , Charles and A. A. Hodge, and Louis Berkhof—refer all to the federal headship of Adam. The Westminster Standards emphasize that Adam is both the federal head and the root of all his posterity. Both parties accept that this is so. Thus, the dispute is not whether Adam’s federal headship is the ground of the imputation of his first sin to us, but whether that federal headship rests solely on a divine constitution—i.e. , because God appointed it—or on the fact that God made him the actual root of the race and gave the race a real specific unity in him.
The theory of mediate imputation* has never gained acceptance in orthodox expressions of the Reformed Faith.* It is subversive to the entire concept of the imputation of Adam’s sin upon which Paul grounds his exposition of justification by virtue of union with Christ our righteousness (Rom. 5:12–19; 1 Cor. 15:22).
Paul’s statement of the imputation of Adam’s sin to his posterity is stark: “By [through] one man sin entered into the world, and death by [through] sin; so death passed upon all men, for all have sinned” (Rom. 5:12). In the AV the clause “for all have sinned” may give the impression that Paul’s argument is that all die like Adam because all, like him, have sinned. But this is not the case. His statement is, “Death passed upon all humanity inasmuch as all sinned.” He teaches that all participated in Adam’s sin and that both the guilt and the penally of that sin were transmitted to them. However we explain the mode of that participation—whether on purely federal or on traducianist-federal grounds—the fact of it stands as a fundamental of the Christian revelation. As the Shorter Catechism says, “The covenant [of works] 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” (Question 16, emphasis added.)
Second, imputation has a second major use in Scripture. It describes the act of God in visiting the guilt of believers on Christ and of conferring the righteousness of Christ upon believers. In this sense “imputation is an act of God as sovereign judge, at once judicial and sovereign, whereby He—(1). Makes the guilt, legal responsibility of our sins, really Christ’s, and punishes them in Him, Isa. 53:6; John 1:29; 2 Cor. 5:21; and (2). Makes the merit, legal rights of Christ’s righteousness, ours, and then treats us as persons legally invested with all those rights, Rom. 4:6; 10:4; 1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 3:9. As Christ is not made a sinner by the imputation to Him of our sins, so we are not made holy by the imputation to us of His righteousness. The transfer is only of guilt from us to Him, and of merit from Him to us. He justly suffered the punishment due to our sins, and we justly receive the rewards due to His right-eousness, 1 John 1:8, 9” (A. A. Hodge, Outlines of Theology, chap. 30, Q. 15).
The fact of this imputation is inescapable: “By the obedience of one [Christ] shall many be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19). The ground of it is the real, vital, personal, spiritual and federal union of Christ with His people. It is indispensable to the biblical doctrine of justification.* Without it, we fail to do justice to Paul’s teaching, and we cannot lead believers into the comfort that the gospel holds out to them. That comfort is of a perfect legal release from guilt and of a perfect legal righteousness that establishes a secure standing before God and His law on the basis of a perfect obedience outside of their own subjective experience.
The double imputation of our sin to Christ and of His righteousness to us is clearly laid down in 2 Cor. 5:21: “He hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” Hugh Martin’s paraphrase catches the meaning precisely: “God made him, who knew no sin, to be sin for us, who knew no righteousness, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” That Paul means us to understand a judicial act of imputation is clear. God did not make Christ personally a sinner. The reference is not to Christ’s subjective experience. He was as personally sinless and impeccable when He was bearing our sins on the cross as He had ever been. What Paul is describing is God’s act of reckoning our sin to Christ so as to make Him legally liable for it and all its consequences. Similarly, while believers are not by any means righteous in their subjective experience, God reckons to them the full merit of Christ’s obedience in life and death (Rom. 5:18, 19). That righteousness, not any attained virtue, is the ground of a believer’s acceptance with God.
Various groups have vehemently denied the doctrine of imputation in one or both of the senses given above.
Pelagianism* is based on the supposition that Adam’s sin was not transmitted either as to its guilt or its corruption. It holds to the error that at birth every one of Adam’s posterity is born with the same sinlessness that he received at his creation.
The Neonomian* school of Richard Baxter adopted a novel view of justifying faith and of the righteousness by which a believer stands acceptable to God. That view is that faith is obedience to a new law of works and that on the ground of this obedience, God graciously accepts the believer as righteous. Thus, the only reckoning God does in our justification is to look on imperfect obedience as perfect righteousness. What this does for the doctrine of the absolute truth and holiness of God is unimaginable.
Another defection from within the Reformed camp came from the teachings of Jonathan Edwards’ pupil, Samuel Hopkins. Hopkins looked on sin and righteousness in men as nothing more than acts of their own will. He therefore rejected the imputation of Adam’s sin as a ground of condemnation and of Christ’s righteousness as the ground of justification.
A Modernist Denial
According to J. E. Davey, late Principal of Assembly’s College, Belfast, the doctrine of imputation is just “another Form of Transubstantiation.” In his book, The Changing Vesture of the Faith, Davey wrote, “Protestantism has unwittingly done exactly the same thing [as Romanism]. The centre of the orthodox system is a doctrine of atonement resting upon a theory of imputation which is only another form of transubstantiation. Guilt and righteousness are relative terms, which refer to the personal will, and cannot be disassociated from it by any mental jugglery.… These words simply represent states of the consciousness, and are in no sense transferable.”
Davey’s views, propounding a way of salvation almost divorced from what Christ did and attained by a “simple process of change,” are based upon unscriptural notions of guilt and righteousness. He denies any objective reality to them. They are to him mere forms of consciousness. They are to be forgotten, not atoned for. Thus, according to Davey, salvation is accomplished without any imputation of the righteousness of Christ to the believer, without any satisfaction made to divine justice, and without any legal ground for its being established. This is a typical “liberal” gospel, which is not a gospel at all, and can be arrived at only by a wholesale wresting, or ignoring, of Scripture. No more telling commentary on just how vital the doctrine of imputation is to the scriptural scheme of salvation could be given.
Arminian,* Lutheran, and Dispensationalist* Denials. Objections against the orthodox statement of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to believers come also from various evangelicals, including Arminians, some Lutherans, and dispensationalists. Reflecting aspects of the Neonomian view, their argument is usually that “faith is counted for righteousness” (Rom. 4:3, 5). That is, faith is regarded as righteousness. However, that is something the text quoted does not say. Faith is counted for or unto righteousness, not as righteousness. Paul is not teaching that God regarded faith as something it was not. Rather he shows that faith is the instrument by which this righteousness is received.
Faith is counted unto believers for righteousness. The question is, “Whose righteousness?” It certainly is not our own. The Bible makes it clear that it is Christ’s (1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Cor. 5:21).
Two Kinds of Words in Romans 5:18, 19. The Bible also makes it clear what it means by Christ’s righteousness. The terms Paul employs in Rom. 5:18, 19 are exact. R. C. H. Lenski draws attention to the -ma and the -is endings in this text: “Therefore as by the offence (paraptoma) of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness (dikaioma) of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification (dikaiosis) of life. For as by one man’s disobedience (parakoe) many were made [constituted] sinners, so by the obedience (hupakoe) of one shall many be made [constituted] righteous” (The Interpretation of Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Romans).
The significance of the -ma and the -is endings should not be overlooked. Paul has been piling up nouns with the -ma ending, six of them in verse 16 (dorema, “gift,” krima, “judgment,” katakrima, “condemnation,” charisma, “free gift,” paraptomata, “offences,” dikaioma, “justification”). In every case the -ma ending indicates not only the action but its effect: dorema is the gift with its effect; krima is the judgment result or verdict; katakrima is the adverse judgment result or verdict; charisma is the gift of grace and its effect; paraptomata means many falls with their results; dikaioma is righteousness with its result, namely a verdict of acquittal or justification on the ground of righteousness.
In contrast, the -is ending emphasizes the thought of action. Additionally, parakoe and hupakoe denote respectively the action of disobeying and obeying. With all this in mind, we are in a position to grasp the full significance of Paul’s statement. Adam’s paraptoma (v. 18) means his offence and its effects leading to katakrima, a verdict of judgment on all men. Even so by the dikaioma of Christ, or His justification because of His righteous actions, the charisma, or gracious gift, brought for all men a dikaiosis, an action declaring them righteous. The ground of these verdicts is stated in verse 19. By Adam’s act of disobedience, many were constituted sinners. By Christ’s action of obedience, many are constituted righteous.
Christ’s Personal Righteousness Imputed. The point Paul makes about our justification is vitally important: God declared Jesus Christ righteous on the basis of His personal righteousness. He declares believers righteous, not on the ground of any personal righteousness, but on the ground of the righteous action of Christ in His obedience. The entire action of Christ in obeying God, including what theologians term His active obedience as well as His passive obedience (i.e. , His obedience both in His life and in His death), is the ground of God’s verdict of justification on the believer. The claim that the Bible does not teach that Christ’s active obedience was vicarious, or that His personal obedience is imputed to us to constitute us legally righteous before God, is patently groundless. In the one place where the NT formally and extensively deals with the ground of our justification (Rom. 5:12–19), these truths are carefully expounded.
Further Textual Proof. Other texts carry the same message. As God “made him [Christ] to be sin for us,” so He made us “the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21). This signifies a legal imputation, not a moral infusion, of righteousness. The “righteousness of God in him” is the righteousness God has provided. And where may we find it? “In him,” not in our works, or even in our faith. By faith we receive Christ as our righteousness, but we must never locate the merit of our justification in our act of faith. No action of ours, even our believing, is perfect. Thus no action of ours, even our believing, can be the ground of our justification, which demands a perfect righteousness. It is Christ who “is made unto us righteousness” (1 Cor. 1:30). Thus with Jeremiah we properly call Him Jehovah Tsidkenu, “the Lord our Righteousness” (Jer. 23:6).
The truth of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness has important consequences for the believer’s assurance and serenity. The latter is discussed in contrast with a psychological counterfeit of it under Self-esteem.*
Understanding Imputation Yields Assurance. As long as Christians keep dissecting their own faith to see if they “really” believed, felt enough penitent emotion, prayed the right prayer, or have performed to a sufficiently high standard, they will destroy assurance. There is no perfection in the best we have done or can do. And yet assurance demands a perfect foundation on which to rest. We have that foundation in the perfect righteousness of Christ, which God has made over to the account of every believer. He who believes in Christ stands before God’s judgment bar as if he personally had rendered the perfect obedience of the Lord Jesus. We are in Him; He is the head and we are the body. The head suffered for the body’s sin; the body receives all the reward of the head’s righteousness.
This doctrine will have far-reaching effects in the life of the believer. It will set him free to serve the Lord in love. This is the essence of Christian liberty. As J. Gresham Machen long ago pointed out, this is the liberty from having to establish our own righteousness before God, or having to do something to gain His acceptance. Christ has done all that. Now we serve, not to be justified, but because we are “justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24).
Understanding Imputation Leads to Holiness. Some imagine that the doctrine of free justification and imputed righteousness takes away the motive for holiness and leaves a believer free to sin. Paul answers that objection with a simple question: “How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?” (Rom. 6:2)—rather, “How shall we who died to sin live any longer therein?” That is, we died in Christ and rose again in Him (v. 4), and that is the strongest motive for holiness we can have.
Cairns, A. (2002). In Dictionary of Theological Terms. Belfast; Greenville, SC: Ambassador Emerald International.
Return to Index of Concepts and Definitions