God’s Righteousness Imputed to the Believer

     RighteousnessGod alone saves.  He saves us in a way that satisfies His righteous demands toward sin and makes us acceptable in His sight.  He judged our sin at the cross where Jesus died a penal substitutionary death.  Jesus died in our place.  He bore the punishment that was rightfully ours.  Our guilt became His guilt.  Our shame became His shame.  The result of the cross is that God is forever satisfied with the death of Christ.  There’s no additional sacrifice or payment needed.  Jesus paid it all.  Subsequently, in exchange, God gives His righteousness as a gift to the one who believes in Christ as Savior.  The “gift of righteousness” (Rom. 5:17) is freely bestowed by God to sinners who do not deserve it (Rom. 4:5; 5:6-10; Eph. 2:1-9).  God’s gift of righteousness—received by faith alone—is the basis for reconciliation with Him. 

Clearly the testimony of the New Testament is that reconciliation comes about through the death of the Lord Jesus (Rom. 5:10). God made Him to be sin for us that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him. The death of Christ completely changed man’s former state of enmity into one of righteousness and complete harmony with a righteous God.[1]

     Sadly, many people exert themselves under the false notion that they can, by human effort, adhere to God’s laws and attain the standard of His righteous expectations.  The Biblical reality is that the righteousness of God can never be attained by human effort, no matter how much time or activity is involved.  Unfortunately, many are blind to this truth and seek to reconcile themselves to God by human effort.  In this way the Mosaic Law has been abused.  God never intended the Mosaic Law to be a means of attaining righteousness, as that has always been by faith alone in God and in His promises (Gen. 15:6; John 3:16; Eph. 2:8-9; Gal. 2:16, 21; 3:11).  However, sinful persons pervert the Mosaic Law into a system of works whereby they try to earn their salvation before God (Luke 18:9-14). 

By nature the Law is not grace (Rom. 10:5; Gal. 3:10; Heb. 10:28).  It is holy, righteous, good, and spiritual (Rom. 7:12, 14).  In its ministry it declares and proves all men guilty (Rom. 3:19).  Yet it justifies no one (Rom. 3:20).  It cannot impart righteousness or life (Gal. 3:21).  It causes offenses to abound (Rom. 5:20; 7:7-13; 1 Cor. 15:56).  It served as an instructor until Christ appeared (Gal. 3:24).  In relationship to the believer, the Law emphatically does not save anyone (Gal. 2:21).[2]

     Jesus alone satisfied every righteous demand of the Mosaic Law.  Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill (Matt. 5:17).  We could never fulfill the demands of the Law because of the weakness of our sinful flesh (Rom 8:3).  However, Jesus fulfilled the Law perfectly in all He said and did.  As believers, we fulfill the demands of the Law because of our identity in Christ, “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:4). 

     Our blessed position of perfect righteousness before God is based solely on the finished work of the Lord Jesus who atoned for our sin.  Jesus’ death was a voluntary action in which He paid the penalty for our sin.  Jesus was not guilty of personal sin.  He did not commit any crime against God’s character and laws.  We committed the crime.  We are guilty.  However, though Jesus did not commit the crime, He paid the price of punishment that was due to us.  “While it is unjust to charge another person for my crime, it is not unjust for them to voluntarily pay the fine. Christ was not charged by God with our crime—He paid it for us, but it was our crime and God charged us with it. Hence, rather than being immoral, a voluntary substitutionary atonement is the apex of morality.”[3]

The Meaning of Imputation

     Imputation is the Biblical teaching that one person is credited with something that rightfully belongs to another.  Biblically, there are three major imputations that relate to our standing before God.  First is the imputation of Adam’s original sin to every member of the human race (Rom. 5:12-13; cf. 1 Cor. 15:21-22).  This means that every biological descendant of Adam is charged/credited with the sin he committed in the Garden of Eden which plunged the human race into spiritual and physical death.[4]  Adam is the head of the human race and his fall became our fall.  This is the basis for death and for being estranged from God.  Second is the imputation of all sin to Jesus on the cross (Isa. 53:4-6, 10; 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 2:9; 1 Pet. 2:21-24; 1 John 2:2).  God the Father judged Jesus in our place (Mark 10:45; 1 Cor. 15:3-4; 1 Pet. 3:18), cancelling our sin debt by the death of Christ (Col. 2:13-14; 2 Cor. 5:18-19).  This was a voluntary imputation on the part of Christ Who freely went to the cross and took our sins upon Himself (John 1:29; 10:11, 15, 17-18).  Third is the imputation of God’s righteousness to those who believe in Jesus for salvation (Rom. 4:3-5; 2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 3:8-9).  This is the gift of righteousness that makes us acceptable to God (Rom. 5:17; 2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 3:9). 

     The word “imputation” itself is an accounting term used both in the Old Testament and the New Testament (Gen. 15:6; Ps. 32:2; Rom. 4:3-8; Gal. 3:6).  Moses writes of Abraham, “Then he believed in the LORD; and He reckoned [חָשַׁב chashab] it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6).  David writes, “How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered! 2 How blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute [חָשַׁב chashab] iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit” (Ps. 32:1-2).  Moses and David both use the Hebrew חָשַׁב chashab, which in context means “to impute, reckon to.”[5]  Moses uses the verb in a positive sense of that which God imputes to Abraham, namely righteousness, and David uses the verb negatively, of that which God does not credit to a person, namely iniquity.  God subtracts our sin and imputes the righteousness of God to our account.  Allen P. Ross comments on the meaning of חָשַׁב chashab in Psalm 32:2 and Genesis 15:6:

Not only does forgiveness mean that God takes away the sins, but it also means that God does not “impute” iniquity to the penitent: “Blessed is the one to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity.”  The verb (חָשַׁב) means “impute, reckon, credit”; it is the language of records, or accounting—in fact, in modern usage the word is related to “computer.” Here the psalm is using an implied comparison, as if there were record books in heaven that would record the sins. If the forgiven sins are not imputed, it means that there is no record of them—they are gone and forgotten. Because God does not mark iniquities (Ps. 130:4), there is great joy. The same verb is used in Genesis 15:6 as well, which says that Abram “believed in the LORD, and he reckoned it (וַיַּחְשְׁבֶ֥הָ) to him as (or, namely) righteousness.” The apostle Paul brings that verse and Psalm 32:2 together in Romans 4 to explain the meaning of justification by faith: when people believe in the Lord, God reckons or credits them with righteousness (Paul will say, the righteousness of Jesus Christ), and does not reckon their sin to them.[6]

     The apostle Paul cites Abraham’s faith in God as the basis upon which he was declared righteous before Him, “For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited [λογίζομαι logizomai] to him as righteousness’” (Rom. 4:3).[7]  Paul uses the Greek verb λογίζομαι logizomai, which means “to determine by mathematical process, reckon, calculate, frequently in a transferred sense.”[8]  Abraham believed God at His Word, and God reckoned, or transferred His righteousness to him.  After pointing to Abraham as the example of justification by faith, Paul then extrapolates that we are justified in the same way, saying, “Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited [λογίζομαι logizomai] as a favor, but as what is due. 5 But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited [λογίζομαι logizomai] as righteousness” (Rom 4:4-5; cf. Gal. 3:6).  Paul then references David, saying, “David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits [λογίζομαι logizomai] righteousness apart from works: 7 ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, and whose sins have been covered. 8 ‘Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account [λογίζομαι logizomai]’” (Rom. 4:6-8). 

     Paul twice uses the Greek verb ἐλλογέω ellogeo to communicate the idea of an exchange between persons (Rom. 5:13; Phm. 1:18).  The verb ἐλλογέω ellogeo means “to charge with a financial obligation, charge to the account of someone.”[9]  Paul tells his friend, Philemon, concerning his runaway slave Onesimus, “if he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge [ἐλλογέω ellogeo] that to my account” (Phm. 1:18).  Paul has not wronged Philemon, nor does he owe him anything; however, Paul was willing to pay for any wrong or debt Onesimus may have incurred.  

The word “imputation” means to “reckon over to one,” or “to set down to one’s account.” Paul is giving us an illustration of that which God has done for us in Christ Jesus. As the Apostle assumed the debt of Onesimus and invited Philemon—who had been wronged—to charge that debt to him, so the Lord Jesus Christ took the debt that we owed to the injured One—to God—and He charged Himself with our debt and set His righteousness down to our account.[10]

     In a similar way, Jesus paid for our sin so that we don’t have to, and in exchange, we receive God’s righteousness.  This idea of an exchange between persons means that one person is credited with something not antecedently his/her own.  Our sin is our sin, and Christ’s righteousness is His righteousness.  When Jesus took our sin upon himself at the cross, He voluntarily accepted something that belonged to another, namely us.  Jesus took our sin upon Himself.  On the other hand, when we receive His righteousness as a gift, we are accepting something that belonged to another, namely Christ.  By faith, we accept that which belongs to Jesus, namely, His righteousness.  Jesus’ righteousness becomes our righteousness. 

     Though the word “impute” is not used in some passages, the idea is implied.  Isaiah writes of the Suffering Servant Who “will justify the many, as He will bear their iniquities” (Isa. 53:11), and of God as the One Who “has wrapped me with a robe of righteousness” (Isa. 61:10).  And Paul writes of “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe (Rom. 3:22), and of being “justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24; cf. 5:17; 9:30; 10:3-4; 1 Cor. 1:30; Gal. 2:16; 3:11, 24).  Paul also references the exchange that occurred at the cross when Jesus died for our sin, saying, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21), and he personally spoke of the righteousness “which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith” (Phil. 3:9).

God’s Righteousness Imputed to us Results in our Justification

     The righteousness of God imputed to the believer at the moment of faith in Christ results in the believer being justified before God (Rom. 3:22, 24, 28; 4:1-5).  Paul writes, “to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5).  Here, “justified” means to “be acquitted, be pronounced and treated as righteous and thereby become δίκαιος, receive the divine gift of δικαιοσύνη through faith in Christ Jesus and apart from νόμος as a basis for evaluation.”[11]  This justification is the result of the work of Jesus Who died on the cross and established peace with God (Rom. 5:1).  He paid the price for our sin so that we don’t have to, and then gives us righteousness as a gift (Rom. 5:17).  The result is that we are justified in God’s sight.  “In justification God imputes the righteousness of Christ to the believer, which cancels God’s judgment on the believer.”[12]  One might argue that such an exchange is unfair, since a righteous person died so that a sinner might live.  There might be merit to such an argument if the righteous person was punished unwillingly; however, that’s not the case.  Christ willingly laid down His life.  He voluntarily went to the cross.  Also, the recipient of God’s mercy accepts it by faith.  The sinner is saved by grace, through faith, and not by any works at all (Eph. 2:8-9; Tit. 3:5).  This makes the matter completely fair.  “How is this fair? It was voluntarily given and it must be voluntarily received. It is fair because God’s justice was satisfied so His mercy could be released.”[13]  The sinner is justified by faith in Christ. 

     Justification is an instantaneous act on the part of God who forgives all our sins—past, present, and future—because Christ has suffered for those sins and been judged in our place, and then God freely and graciously credits His righteousness to our account, which righteousness is received by the one who believes in Jesus as Savior.  “By justification, the believer is declared righteous before God, because he is now in Christ. In this position there is imputed to him the righteousness of Christ and he is accepted as perfect in the presence of God.”[14]  Concerning our justification before God, Millard J. Erickson comments:

In the New Testament, justification is God’s declarative act by which, on the basis of the sufficiency of Christ’s atoning death, he pronounces believers to have fulfilled all of the requirements of the law that pertain to them. Justification is a forensic act imputing the righteousness of Christ to the believer; it is not an actual infusing of holiness into the individual. It is a matter of declaring the person righteous, as a judge does in acquitting the accused. It is not a matter of making the person righteous or altering his or her actual spiritual condition.[15]

And Louis Berkhof states:

Justification is a judicial act of God, in which He declares, on the basis of the righteousness of Jesus Christ, that all the claims of the law are satisfied with respect to the sinner. It is unique in the application of the work of redemption in that it is a judicial act of God, a declaration respecting the sinner, and not an act or process of renewal, such as regeneration, conversion, and sanctification. While it has respect to the sinner, it does not change his inner life. It does not affect his condition, but his state, and in that respect differs from all the other principal parts of the order of salvation. It involves the forgiveness of sins, and restoration to divine favor.[16]

Paul Enns adds:

To justify is to declare righteous the one who has faith in Jesus Christ. It is a forensic (legal) act of God whereby He declares the believing sinner righteous on the basis of the blood of Christ. The major emphasis of justification is positive and involves two main aspects. It involves the pardon and removal of all sins and the end of separation from God (Acts 13:39; Rom. 4:6–7; 5:9–11; 2 Cor. 5:19). It also involves the bestowal of righteousness upon the believing person.[17]

I. Packer writes:

Justification is a judicial act of God pardoning sinners (wicked and ungodly persons, Rom. 4:5; 3:9–24), accepting them as just, and so putting permanently right their previously estranged relationship with himself. This justifying sentence is God’s gift of righteousness (Rom. 5:15–17), his bestowal of a status of acceptance for Jesus’ sake (2 Cor. 5:21)…The necessary means, or instrumental cause, of justification is personal faith in Jesus Christ as crucified Savior and risen Lord (Rom. 4:23–25; 10:8–13). This is because the meritorious ground of our justification is entirely in Christ. As we give ourselves in faith to Jesus, Jesus gives us his gift of righteousness, so that in the very act of “closing with Christ,” as older Reformed teachers put it, we receive divine pardon and acceptance which we could not otherwise have (Gal. 2:15–16; 3:24).[18]

Merrill F. Unger states:

Justification is a divine act whereby an infinitely Holy God judicially declares a believing sinner to be righteous and acceptable before Him because Christ has borne the sinner’s sin on the cross and has become “to us … righteousness” (1 Cor. 1:30; Rom. 3:24). Justification springs from the fountain of God’s grace (Titus 3:4–5). It is operative as the result of the redemptive and propitiatory sacrifice of Christ, who has settled all the claims of the law (Rom. 3:24–25; 5:9). Justification is on the basis of faith and not by human merit or works (3:28–30; 4:5; 5:1; Gal. 2:16). In this marvelous operation of God the infinitely holy Judge judicially declares righteous the one who believes in Jesus (Rom. 8:31–34). A justified believer emerges from God’s great courtroom with a consciousness that another, his Substitute, has borne his guilt and that he stands without accusation before God (8:1, 33–34). Justification makes no one righteous, neither is it the bestowment of righteousness as such, but rather it declares one to be justified whom God sees as perfected once and forever in His beloved Son.[19]

And Robert Lightner comments:

To be justified means to be declared righteous. Because of our position in Christ (Eph. 2:13), whereby Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us (Rom. 5:17; 2 Cor. 5:21), God declares us righteous because we are clothed with his righteousness (Rom. 5:1). This is of course the work of grace (Rom. 3:24). God’s call precedes justification, and man’s glorification follows it (Rom. 8:28–30). Justification is more than simply God viewing the sinner as though he had never sinned. Instead, it is God looking upon the sinner to whom the righteousness of Christ earned at the cross has been added.[20]

     We accept the gift of righteousness at the moment we trust Jesus as our Savior and this results in our justification.  It is sometimes difficult to accept this concept, because our behavior does not always reflect our righteous standing before God.  However, God’s Word defines reality, and we are righteous because He has declared it so.  By faith we accept it as true.  It is a fact, not a feeling.  It is true because the righteousness of God has really been credited to our account. 

When we say that God imputes Christ’s righteousness to us it means that God thinks of Christ’s righteousness as belonging to us, or regards it as belonging to us. He “reckons” it to our account. We read, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Rom. 4:3, quoting Gen. 15:6). Paul explains, “To one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness. So also David pronounces a blessing upon the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works” (Rom. 4:6). In this way, Christ’s righteousness became ours. Paul says that we are those who received “the free gift of righteousness” (Rom. 5:17).[21]

     God’s perception of us is the most important thing.  It is what He thinks that truly matters.  And He sees us as being in Christ, and His righteousness as belonging to us.  It is a failure of faith for us to see ourselves contrary to God’s Word.  We have the righteousness of God.  By faith we learn to see ourselves from the divine perspective.   

Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us, and therefore God thinks of it as belonging to us. It is not our own righteousness but Christ’s righteousness that is freely given to us. So Paul can say that God made Christ to be “our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30). And Paul says that his goal is to be found in Christ, “not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Phil. 3:9). Paul knows that the righteousness he has before God is not anything of his own doing; it is the righteousness of God that comes through Jesus Christ (cf. Rom. 3:21–22).[22]

     The above theological statements are not merely a human invention.  They are not created by imaginative theologians who try to craft arguments that excuse their sin.  Rather, these arguments flow from Biblical passages that reveal the truth that sinners are justified by faith alone in God.  They are also based on a plain reading of the Biblical text in which the student of Scripture takes God at His Word.  It is Biblical reason that leads to faith. 

Summary

     God is perfectly righteous and can only justify those who measure up to His perfect character.  All mankind is fallen in sin and helpless to save themselves.  An imputation is an exchange in which one person receives that which belongs to another.  There are three major imputations in Scripture that relate our standing before God.  First is Adam’s sin which is imputed to the entire human race and is the basis for our condemnation before God (Rom. 5:12; 1 Cor. 15:21-22).  Second is our sin that was imputed to Jesus Who voluntarily went to the cross and was judged in our place and bore the punishment that was rightfully ours (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 3:18).  Third is the imputation of God’s righteousness which is freely gifted to us at the moment of faith in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17, 21; Phil. 3:9).  Once received, the sinner is immediately and forever declared just in God’s sight (Rom. 3:21-28).  The imputation of God’s righteousness to the sinner is a manifestation of His love and grace, for the sinner, by his/her own efforts, can never merit God’s approval.

Steven R. Cook. D.Min.

Related Articles:

[1] Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth, 337.

[2] Merrill F. Unger, Unger’s Commentary on the Old Testament, 125.

[3] Norman L. Geisler, Systematic Theology, Volume Two: God, Creation, 335.

[4] Jesus is the only exception, for though He is truly human (Matt. 1:1; 3:23-38), He was born without original sin, without a sin nature, and committed no personal sin during His time on earth (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 2:22; 1 John 3:5).

[5] Ludwig Koehler, Walter Baumgartner, M. E. J. Richardson, et al., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, 360.

[6] Allen P. Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms, Vol. 1, (Grand Rapids, Mich., Kregel Publications, 2011), 710-711.

[7] The translators of the Septuagint use λογίζομαι logizomai as a reliable synonym for חָשַׁב chashab both in Genesis 15:6 and Psalm 32:2. Paul then uses λογίζομαι logizomai when making his argument that justification is by faith alone in God (Rom. 4:3-5; Gal. 3:6).

[8] William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 597.

[9] Ibid., 319.

[10] J. Dwight Pentecost, Things Which Become Sound Doctrine, 40.

[11] William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 249.

[12] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 876.

[13] Norman L. Geisler, Systematic Theology, Volume Two: God, Creation, 335.

[14] John F. Walvoord, Jesus Christ Our Lord (Chicago, Ill, JFW Publishing Trust, 2008), 190.

[15] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 884.

[16] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 513.

[17] Paul P. Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology, 326.

[18] J. I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1993).

[19] E. McChesney and Merrill F. Unger, “Justification,” ed. R.K. Harrison, The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1988).

[20] Robert P. Lightner, Handbook of Evangelical Theology: A Historical, Biblical, and Contemporary Survey and Review, 203.

[21] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, 726.

[22] Ibid., 726–727.

About Steven R. Cook, D.Min.

Steven is a Christian educator. His webpages communicate evangelical Christian doctrines and topics. Steven earned a Master of Divinity degree in 2006 from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and completed his Doctor of Ministry degree in 2017 from Tyndale Theological Seminary. His articles are theological, devotional, and promote a biblical worldview. Studies in the original languages of Scripture, ancient history, and systematic theology have been the foundation for Steven’s teaching and writing ministry. He has written several Christian books, dozens of articles on Christian theology, and recorded more than three hundred hours of audio and video sermons. Steven worked in jail ministry for over twelve years, taught in Bible churches, and currently leads a Bible study each week at his home in Arlington, Texas.
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2 Responses to God’s Righteousness Imputed to the Believer

  1. larnewman says:

    Wonderfully clear and well-documented, thank you!

  2. Pingback: God’s Righteousness in the Future | Thinking on Scripture

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