The Imputation of Christ's Righteousness to His People
We now arrive at one of the most important biblical teachings concerning the doctrine of Imputation. Not only were the sins and the punishment for sins imputed to Christ on our behalf, something else was imputed to us through the efforts and example of Christ Jesus. The fact is, the righteousness that Christ had while here on earth throughout His life can be imputed to you, me, and all in the world through our acceptance of Christ and His substitutionary role on our behalf.
Recall the illustration given earlier regarding the custodian who was sick and could not perform his duties. He asked his elder son to carry out his responsibilities for him. The son performed the duty for his father and the employer imputed the deeds of the son to the father who did no work while he was sick. The father received the wages through he himself did not work.
Paul had some similar things to say about Christ and what He did for us while on earth for some thirty odd years. It is the most glorious and wonderful teaching found anywhere in the Bible. Christ came not only to die for us, He also came to live for us. While on this earth He lived a sinless life. He obeyed the Father precisely. He performed all that God ever demanded of any human and in His perfect performance He was totally accepted by God.
Note this point. Not only were our sins taken away from us and the punishment for those sins endured by Christ, but the important third aspect of Imputation involved the placement of Christ’s perfect righteousness on the head of every Christian. This is one of the most important subjects found anywhere in the Bible. Why is it important? Because a man must demonstrate perfect righteousness and holiness in his life or he will never see the Eternal God or attain to the glory of God. Perfection in holiness is necessary for salvation. This truth is a recurring one in the Bible.
“Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in his holy place? He that has clean hands, and a pure heart; who has not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully.”
Throughout the Bible, God informs all people that His commandments must be obeyed for righteousness’ sake — and they must be obeyed precisely (Deuteronomy 32:46; Matthew 5:19). No one can enter into the resurrected life of the spirit unless he shows an active righteousness by keeping all the commandments. Christ himself taught, “If you will enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17).
While it is good and proper to endeavor to keep the commandments, this presents a problem for humans. Though the rich ruler said he had kept the commandments from youth, he refused to sell his goods and follow Christ. The man coveted his possessions and this was a disobedience to the very commandments he claimed to observe. Sadly, we are all in the same boat. We all fail to walk perfectly in the ways of God. No man has ever kept the commandments of God and shown absolute righteousness in daily life, whether he was a person of the Old Testament or one of the New. “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Yet, a strict performance of God’s commandments is necessary to get salvation.
The fact is, folks, we are all in the same human condition with Paul, the great apostle of our faith. Not one of us comes close to being moderately righteous, no matter how good we appear to be on the surface. Oh yes, we may fool lots of people into thinking that our behavior is goody-good and righteous, but we cannot fool God who has already consigned us to being continually evil in our thoughts and in our ways. Remember what God said (and He meant it for all humans), “The Heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). This includes all Popes, all Billy Grahams and all Mother Teresas.
You can judge for yourself if God’s appraisal is right for you, but I am wise enough (after years of experience) to state that God summed me up perfectly. At first I thought I was a nice guy until I began to read these appraisals of God about Ernest L. Martin some 45 years ago. In fact, at that time I disagreed with God about myself. Surely, I was not that evil; why my mother used to say what a nice boy I was. However, the longer I live and the wiser I get, I realize that God knows more about Ernest L. Martin than I know about myself. His judgment is on the bulls-eye with me even though I hate to admit it. The truth is, if we got into a contest to determine who is the greatest sinner, or even worse, who was the most righteous, all of us could easily pile up our sins of every variety in front of everyone in a football stadium. My wife Ramona is one of the nicest persons I have ever met, but I strongly suspect that the stack of sins she has committed will almost equal mine in height, and that both of our stacks will be about equal with all of yours. Such a contest would be a real embarrassment.
True, we do not need such a contest because we know that each of us is a sinner in almost every way. The stacks of sins visible on that football field would be about as high as those of any other person on earth (male or female), and we can include in the evaluation those who have given the worst spectacles of human behavior. Of course, you can disagree with me on this matter if you wish, after all, Grandma Moses was a pretty nice woman, as was my own mother. and your mothers were fine women too. But I stand by my understanding of God’s holy word. It is God who informs you and me of the truth.
These evaluations mean that no person, no matter how righteous he may think to be, can stand in the presence of God. This is a serious situation to be in. In fact, we are in a precarious and hopeless position. Without absolute and perfect righteousness, holiness and utter, absolute purity and obedience to God, one cannot obtain salvation. The Bible demands not the slightest tinge of sin or imperfection to be in a person. God the Father will save only perfect individuals, those who practice righteousness continually. The Scriptures are plain on this matter. “Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). So, we must obtain, in some way, a perfect righteousness. You and I are in need of it, as were Nero and Hitler.
Now note carefully: while the death of Christ on the tree of crucifixion cleanses us from sin, it does not constitute us as actively righteous. It gets rid of our sins and because of this God no longer recognizes us (in a legal sense) as now being sinners. Christ’s death on the tree of crucifixion puts us in the spiritual condition of Adam and Eve before they sin — perfectly sinless.
But something was lacking in Adam and Eve. Though they were sinless, they had no righteousness at all. Similarly, through Christ’s death we are reckoned as legally sinless, but we have shown no righteous performance in actively fulfilling the commandments, a necessary requirement of humans in the plan of salvation. An animal, such as a lamb, is sinless throughout its entire life; but it cannot be given salvation because of its sinlessness. Why? It is because such an animal is not capable of showing righteousness. Simply being sinless is not the only requirement for salvation. One must consciously practice a perfect righteousness — obedience to the commandments of God. Only humans (not animals) are consciously aware of God’s spiritual commandments and we are the ones who must show an utter obedience to God.
This teaching is found in the Old Testament. Moses wrote of righteousness being ascribed to a person who would show perfect obedience to the law (see Romans 10:5), but it is made clear in other scriptures that all people have broken God’s law through sinning (Romans 5:12). If a person breaks only one commandment of God, he would be guilty of breaking all (James 2:10). If a person tries to substitute normal lawbreaking with a heavy emphasis on good works, his efforts are unacceptable towards salvation because he remains a sinner. No one can keep the law perfectly, no matter how hard he tries.
Even though good works are essential for the Christian, they cannot be used to secure the righteousness God requires. A Christian’s salvation comes “not by works of righteousness which we have done” (Titus 3:5), nor does it come even by trying to obey the law on our own (Galatians 2:21). Indeed, Paul shows that the righteousness of God is manifested “without the law” (Romans 3:21) and it comes “to him that works not” (Romans 4:5). The apostle Paul writes about a “righteousness without works” (Romans 4:6). A man could be a constant performer of good works (and this would be commendable) but such actions would not secure the righteousness one must have to stand in the presence of God.
The remedy to the problem, as the apostle Paul saw it, was for mankind to have righteousness imputed to mankind by God. And this was exactly what God did for us through the righteous acts of Jesus Christ being imputed to us. This procedure was one of the most important aspects of Imputation.
Since righteousness is demanded of God, how do we receive it? Paul tells us plainly how it is obtained. It is through faith (belief). It is by having faith in God. “Abraham believed God and it was counted unto him for righteousness” (Romans 4:3). Yes, Abraham received righteousness by exercising belief. Paul called belief in Christ a “righteousness of faith” (Romans 10:6).
But whose faith really counts in granting us salvation? Is it our faith? Is it our own belief? Paul said it is not our own faith that gives salvation. It is the faith of Christ. Only the faith of Christ has the power to save you, me, and all mankind. And while we are told to express faith on numerous occasions in the New Testament it is not our own faith that is efficacious in God’s granting of salvation to us. Let us look at our personal faith for a moment.
Personal faith is important, but it has a problem. Though human faith is a precious possession, and though it produces a measure of righteousness that God will accept, 1 it still cannot produce a perfect righteousness! It cannot be perfect because our own faiths are not perfect. The righteousness that personal faith produces is not the faultless “righteousness of God” that we must possess, the righteousness that God has. We must have spotless purity, perfect holiness, and absolute righteousness. Can our own faith, no matter how strong, produce these virtues? How can it when we are constantly saying to God, as did the apostles, “Increase our faith” (Luke 17:5). We must look elsewhere for the faith that will grant us “the righteousness of God” to have a perfect holiness.
There is something even more urgent for us to know. Just what is the real “righteousness of God”? The phrase “righteousness of God” (or its equivalent) is found in Paul’s writings nine times: Romans 1:17, 3:5, 21–22, 25–26, 10:3 (twice); and 2 Corinthians 5:21. The apostle Paul shows that the right living that secures salvation for us represents nothing less than the “righteousness of God.” Through our own faith, we gain a certain justification in God’s eyes, but it is not possible to procure the perfect and spotless “righteousness of God” through our own faith. What kind of faith is necessary? The answer is made clear: it is the faith of Christ!
“Knowing that man is not justified by the works of the law but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Jesus Christ, and not by the works of the law.”
Examine carefully this important statement by Paul. It is not our own faith that makes us perfectly righteous in God’s eyes. It is Christ’s faith! His faith was and is a spotless faith. And while our faiths may waver from time to time, Christ’s faith has never diminished. He has constant faith to the point of perfection. The apostle Paul taught that Christ has the faith to get you, me and the rest of mankind saved. We may not have the proper faith, but He does! The faith that Christ extends to God the Father on our behalf is powerful enough and perfect enough to get us saved. If we wish to possess the righteousness which is of God, and not of ourselves, it is Christ’s faith and His righteousness that will secure it for us. Notice this:
“I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, and be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith [by Christ’s faith].”
Note the closing words in the verse above. We must ourselves have a personal belief. But our faith must accept the truth that “the faith of Jesus Christ” is the only faith that will allow us to have “the righteousness of God.” We cannot work up the righteousness of God into our lives through our own human faith. We have to be “made the righteousness of God” through the miracle of Christ working in our lives. This being made righteous comes from efforts done by God and not from our own works of faith. This is the cardinal teaching of the apostle Paul in regard to reaching the perfect righteousness of God. Paul said:
“For he has made him [Christ Jesus] to be sin for us who knew no sin; that we MIGHT BE MADE the righteousness of God IN HIM [in Christ].”
2 Corinthians 5:21
Yes, we are “made to be righteous” by God.
The truth is, God the Father imputes the righteousness and faith of Jesus Christ to each of us. It is not our own faith, or our own righteousness that counts in God’s appraisal of us. If we are in Christ and He is in us, then God the Father reckons each of us in the exact condition spiritually that Jesus Christ is in at the present time. We can be accounted righteous when Christ’s obedient life is imputed to us. This is made clear by the apostle Paul. “By the obedience of one [Christ] shall the many be made righteous” (Romans 5:19). We have to be “made righteous,” since we have no righteousness of ourselves. God simply says: “You are righteous, whether you or anyone else thinks you are or not.”
Paul makes it plain. It is possible for people to be reckoned as righteous, but only through the application of the obedience of Christ being imputed to us — not through our own works. This is why Paul said that righteousness comes to man as a gift. It is “the gift of righteousness” (Romans 5:17). All gifts, by the very nature of things, are free. And that is what Paul insists the procurement of righteousness is. “The free gift of many offenses unto justification” (Romans 5:16). Even the faith that we have to be saved is a free gift.
“For by grace are you saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is a gift of God: not of works lest any man should boast.”
Even the justification [our being made righteous] that we have in Christ is a free gift. So, God calls each of us righteous.
What is justification? Many people have missed the proper teaching of the apostle Paul on this subject. Paul said we have been freely justified in Christ, but many Christian people today are unaware what the term “justification” actually means. The biblical doctrine of Imputation is reflected in Paul’s teaching regarding our justification in Christ. Let us see what the apostle Paul really taught on this subject. We have been made holy and righteous. Though all people are naturally sinners, through Christ Jesus all can be justified. The King James Version mentions justification or to be justified in a number of verses. But what does “justification” mean? Let us now make it clear. The word “to justify” means in the literal Greek, “to make righteous.” 2 But with Paul, the usage is a legal one. It really means “to declare righteous.” 3 If one would substitute Paul’s clear meaning for the words “to justify” in all King James references, they would become understandable. Justification shows that Christians are now declared righteous by God — but not by their own works. Our justification comes as a free gift from God. Let us now substitute the true meaning of Paul by rendering ”to justify” by “to declare righteous.” Note what Paul said,
“BEING DECLARED RIGHTEOUS freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”
“Therefore we conclude that a man IS DECLARED RIGHTEOUS by faith without deeds of the law.”
“Seeing, it is one God, which SHALL DECLARE RIGHTEOUS the circumcision by faith, and the uncircumcision through faith.”
“Therefore being DECLARED RIGHTEOUS by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
“Knowing that man is not DECLARED RIGHTEOUS by the works of the 1aw but by the faith of Jesus Christ ... not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no person be DECLARED RIGHTEOUS.”
God DECLARES US RIGHTEOUS, even when we are not!
Just as Christ’s righteous character was not marred when our sins were placed on Him throughout His life, it is important to realize that the actual righteousness of Christ is not really infused into our natures by the imputation of His righteousness to us. Being justified, that is, being declared righteous, is only a forensic righteousness that we possess before the Father. But the legal standing we are given is real. Even though we are sinners by nature, Christ has nevertheless reconciled us to Him
“in the body of His flesh through death, to present you HOLY and UNBLAMEABLE and UNREPROVABLE in His sight.”
Yes, in the Father’s sight, though we are nothing more than sinners, we are still declared righteous [that is, justified]. It is God who “justifies [declares righteous] the ungodly” (Romans 4:5). The apostle Paul taught that God justifies the ungodly, the sinners, the blameworthy and those who by nature are evil.
Folks, he means you and me. You and I know we are not righteous, but God calls us righteous. All who are “in Christ” are declared righteous by God — righteousness is imputed to us — even when we are not righteous in any way. It is our position “in Christ” that allows God the Father to call us holy and righteous.
From clear New Testament teaching it is obvious that no Christian is righteous of himself. The Christian has to obtain righteousness and Paul said it was achieved by an exercise of faith. But whose faith? It is the faith of Christ! It is Christ’s expression of personal faith exercised on our behalf that secures a forensic righteousness for us. That is why the righteousness that God recognizes in us is called a gift. Had it been accomplished through our own faith, then we would be earning salvation by that meritorious faith. But it is not our faith that counts toward salvation. The New Testament shows it is Christ’s faith, His righteousness and obedience that God the Father recognizes as important. And God has imputed Christ’s faith, His righteousness and His obedience directly to us. Christ did the works, but you reap the rewards.
This is why we cannot earn the faith that saves us. While our own faith is important in believing in Christ, it is not the faith that brings a person to salvation. Only the faith of Christ can secure a perfect righteousness for us, faith that God legally imputes to Christians. But it is Christ’s faith that counts, not ours.
“For by grace are you saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God.”
1 See Matthew 9:29; Luke 17:19; Romans 1:8, 4:5, 12; 12:3, 6; 2 Corinthians 10:15; and Ephesians 1:15.
2 See Kittel, Theological Dictionary, vol. II, p. 211.
3 R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1936/1961), p. 269.
Order our Book: Essentials of New Testament Doctrine to read all the chapters.
© 1976-2021 Associates for Scriptural Knowledge - ASK is supported by freewill contributions