Last Sunday, we talked about the crucial, but complex doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ on the lives of Christians. At first, it may seem like the kind of thing that only excites theology nerds, but when we see it as it truly is the implications of this doctrine are enormous. It makes all the difference in who gets the glory in salvation. Our assurance and eternal security hinge on this doctrine. And, it is directly tied to the way we share the Gospel with others and call them to faith in Christ. In light of its significance I wanted to put some of those thoughts in writing for you, hoping that it will further your understanding of imputation and cause you to glorify God all the more.
From Luke 23:1-25, we noted that three times Pilate says there was nothing in Jesus that deserved death. That was not only true in the context of the charges the religious leaders brought against Him, but it was true in every other moment of His life as well. Jesus never sinned. He never missed the mark of holiness. He was perfectly righteous before God the Father. Yet, He was put to death anyways. Jesus death was the only truly unjust death the world has ever seen. Every other person deserves death. Besides Jesus, no one has ever been or will ever be righteous before God on their own. Herein lies our most significant problem: only the righteous may inherit the Kingdom of God.
In His grace, God has made a way for us to be reconciled to Him. Though we can never be righteous on our own, God makes it possible for the righteousness of Christ to be credited to us as our righteousness. Most of Romans 1-5 is given to laying out this beautiful truth. There, the Apostle Paul says that, like the patriarch Abraham, those who place their faith in Christ (or in Abraham’s case, because he lived prior to Christ, he placed his faith in the God who makes these promises) have it counted to them as righteousness. The key question then becomes: What does it mean that our faith is counted as righteousness? There are two options in answering this question. First, it could mean that God looks on the faith we have and, though it is insufficient, is gracious and counts it as enough, thus crediting it to us as righteousness. The problem with this view is that it places too much emphasis on you and me. If this were to be true, you would deserve at least some credit for salvation because you had placed your faith, meager though it were, in Christ. You might think of it as bringing $20 to pay off a loan of $100, yet the lender released you from the loan anyways. While the lender is gracious, you would deserve some credit because you brought something of value—20% of the required sum. This answer also devalues the justice of God, because it does not demand perfect righteousness. In this scenario God overlooks unrighteousness. Taking the analogy of the loan again, you are still $80 short. A balance still remains.
Instead, I believe the letter to the Romans, the Gospel of Luke, and the rest of the Bible would answer our question another way. A second answer is that through our faith God places upon us Jesus’ righteousness. I much prefer this answer, because it is more biblical, gives God the glory, explains our salvation, and allows God to remain just all at the same time. In this answer, the debtor realizes he or she possesses nothing of value and is completely dependent on someone else to pay the loan. Do not make the mistake of thinking God simply forgives the debt, for that would not be just. While it is, regrettably, an imperfect analogy, for the most part it holds true. The loan must be paid. If we see the grace in someone else paying the debt for us and the lender accepting that payment, crediting it to us, but not simply as payment for the loan, but thinking in his mind that you or I was responsible for its repayment to the point of seeing us as having been the ones to pay in full, we may be getting near an analogy that fits this glorious truth.
This is what happens when the righteousness of Christ is imputed to those who place their faith in Him. Not only does God declare them not guilty, He does so on the basis of looking on you or me and seeing the perfection of Jesus. This is what Paul means when he says the righteousness of Christ was credited to us as our own through faith. It is not our faith that saves us, but the object of our faith, namely Jesus Christ. The relationship of faith to righteousness is best summed up in this way: Faith is the thing that unites us to Christ and His righteousness is the thing that allows us to be saved. I find the following quote from John Piper helpful:
He [the Apostle Paul] means that faith is what unites us with Christ and all that God is for us in him. When God sees faith in Christ, he sees union with Christ. And when he sees union with Christ, he sees the righteousness of Christ as our righteousness. So faith connects us with Christ who is our righteousness and, in that sense, faith is counted as righteousness. Faith sees and savors all that God is for us in Christ, especially his righteousness. That’s what faith does.
When we capture a vision for this truth and begin to see its sweetness, the glory of God abounds and His grace becomes all the more profound. The imputation of Christ’s righteousness is a doctrine that calls us to love God with all of our minds, but it is worth it. The implications are virtually limitless. When you grasp this doctrine, you will know it is not the quality of your faith that saves you, but you are saved because of the righteousness of Jesus, who was perfect. Even though it may seem like we are swimming in the deep end of the theological pool, this doctrine teaches us that all those who are in Christ swim in the pool of God’s sovereign grace. Christ will hold you secure and He will do it based on His life, death, and resurrection, not based on anything you do or fail to do. To God be the glory!
See you Sunday, for the crucifixion and burial of Jesus from Luke 23:26-56. Remember to pick up your copy of our Holy Week Devotional and the accompanying family guide.
For the sake of His name,