Why Imputation is Essential to Justification

The words “imputation” and “justification” are seldom used in the church today, but they are essential for understanding the Christian doctrine of salvation. Before explaining why the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is essential for justification, we need to define what justification and imputation are. Justification is the legal declaration by God that our sins are forgiven and will never be taken into account because Jesus has paid the penalty for those sins and his sinless righteousness is credited to us so that we stand in the presence of God with his righteousness and not our own. Justification involves both the non-imputation of sin in forgiveness and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness which is the basis upon which we are justified or declared righteous by God.

Imputation is the reckoning or crediting to our account the righteousness, obedience, and sinlessness of Christ to us. Christ’s righteousness is considered in two aspects: his active obedience in his perfect life of obedience to the Father and his passive obedience enduring the punishment of the law. His life is now our life and his death is our death. We were condemned with him on the cross and vindicated with him in his resurrection because we were in union with him from God’s perspective. Our sins which did not yet exist were imputed to him on the cross and his righteous obedience to God is imputed to us in justification. Christ took our sins and we receive his righteousness. This is the great exchange.

The imputation of Christ’s righteousness is essential for justification because otherwise God would be unjust to declare us to be righteous when we are not righteous in his sight. We need the righteousness of another, the righteousness of God. Just as Christ’s death is necessary for our salvation to satisfy God’s justice and wrath for our sins, Christ’s sinless life is necessary for God to have a basis upon which to declare us to be something we are not actually in ourselves. God “justifies the ungodly” (Rom 4:5) when it is an abomination for a judge to justify the wicked (Prov 17:15). God can only do this because of the propitiatory work of Christ which allows him to remain just when he justifies us (Rom 3:25-26).

Our problem as sinners is twofold: we have broken God’s law and are therefore deserving of punishment and we have no righteousness of our own to bring before God. We need forgiveness and we need righteousness because we have never kept God’s law as it deserves to be kept. The propitiatory death of Christ covers over our sins with his blood so that God does not take them into account and his righteous life becomes ours in justification so that God sees us through the lens of his Son. When God looks upon his children in justification, he sees no sin upon them because Christ bore those sins away on the cross (Col 2:13-14). And he sees them standing in the garments of Christ’s righteousness so that he cannot but accept them into his presence. The Father will never reject his Son and he will never reject those who come to him through his Son. The Father will never turn away those who are in union with Christ since they are part of his bride.

A key text for understanding imputation is 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” How do we become “the righteousness of God” in Christ? – The same way Christ became sin on the cross. Jesus never sinned in thought, word, or deed. He is the spotless Lamb of God who became sin through the imputation of our sins to him on Calvary (1 Pet 2:22-24). Our sins were laid on him and he bore them away never to be seen again (Lev 16:21-22; Isa 53:5-6). He never became a sinner with regard to himself, but legally and imputationally with regard to the sins of others in having their sins credited to him on the cross to satisfy God’s justice for them.

Likewise, we become the righteousness of God legally and imputationally in justification by having his righteousness credited to us. We do not actually become sinless in ourselves the moment we are justified just as Christ did not actually become sinful on the cross. Christ was treated as the greatest sinner of all time for our sins and we are treated the way Christ deserves to be treated. Christ was condemned for our sins and we are declared righteous on the basis of his righteousness. Christ bore our sins and we bear his righteousness. The sinless one was condemned even though he never sinned so that sinners might be declared righteous even though they have no righteousness of their own. For more on the doctrine of imputation, see Jesus’ Blood and Righteousness by Brian Vickers.


Sunday Meditation – Others May, You Cannot

If God has called you to be really like Jesus, He will draw you to a life of crucifixion and humility, and put upon you such demands of obedience, that you will not be able to follow other people, or measure yourself by other Christians, and in many ways He will seem to let other good people do things which He will not let you do.

Other Christians and ministers who seem very religious and useful may push themselves, pull wires, and work schemes to carry out their plans, but you cannot do it; and if you attempt it, you will meet with such failure and rebuke from the Lord as to make you sorely penitent.

Others may boast of themselves, of their work, of their success, of their writings, but the Holy Spirit will not allow you to do any such thing, and if you begin it, He will lead you into some deep mortification that will make you despise yourself and all your good works.

Others may be allowed to succeed in making money, or may have a legacy left to them, but it is likely God will keep you poor, because He wants you to have something far better than gold, namely, a helpless dependence on Him, that He may have the privilege of supplying your needs day by day out of an unseen treasury.

The Lord may let others be honored and put forward, and keep you hidden in obscurity, because He wants you to produce some choice, fragrant fruit for His coming glory, which can only be produced in the shade. He may let others be great, but keep you small.

He may let others do a work for Him and get the credit of it, but He will make you work and toil on without knowing how much you are doing; and then to make your work still more precious, He may let others get the credit for the work which you have done, and thus make your reward ten times greater when Jesus comes.

The Holy Spirit will put a strict watch over you, with a jealous love, and will rebuke you for little words and feelings, or for wasting your time, which other Christians never seem distressed over. So make up your mind that God is an infinite Sovereign, and has a right to do as He pleases with His own.

He may not explain to you a thousand things which puzzle your reason in His dealings with you. But if you absolutely sell yourself to be His slave, He will wrap you up in a jealous love, and bestow upon you many blessings which come only to those who are in the inner circle.

Settle it forever, then, that you are to deal directly with the Holy Spirit, and that He is to have the privilege of tying your tongue, or chaining your hand, or closing your eyes, in ways that He does not seem to use with others.

Now when you are so possessed with the living God that you are, in your secret heart, pleased and delighted over this peculiar, personal, private, jealous guardianship and management of the Holy Spirit over your life, you will have found the vestibule of Heaven.

G. D. Watson

What Is Our Role in Sanctification?

What role do we play in sanctification? Before we can answer this question, we need to define sanctification. Sanctification is the lifelong process of being conformed to the image of Christ. Scripture speaks of sanctification as both positional and progressive. We have been sanctified in the past in the sense that all Christians at the moment of justification are called out of the unbelieving world and set apart for service to God (1 Cor 6:11). At the same time, it is a process that will never be completed until we are glorified in the presence of Christ. Christlikeness is the goal of sanctification and therefore we must never take our eyes off of Jesus who perfectly obeyed God in our place. Sanctification must be distinguished from justification, but they are never separated from one another as if one could exist in the life of a Christian without the other.

Both God and man have a role to play in the process of sanctification. Whereas regeneration is monergistic, sanctification is synergistic in the sense that we have an obligation to pursue personal holiness. But we can only make progress in holiness because it is God who works within us (Phil 2:12-13). We work only because God first works in us and his working will not be finally frustrated (Jer 32:40; Phil 1:6; 2 Cor 3:18; 1 John 5:18). The exhortations and warning passages of Scripture are the effectual means by which the Holy Spirit works to bring Christlikeness to us (2 Cor 7:1; Heb 3:14). Our good works and holiness do not save us, but are the certain evidences and results of regeneration without which no man will see the Lord (Heb 12:14). As Paul Washer explains, “Our growth in holiness is the evidence of our salvation. We are not saved because we are holy, but true salvation will always lead to true holiness because as we have already learned, God is doing a perfect work in the life of every Christian” (The One True God, 73).

We have an obligation as Christians to take heed of the many admonitions, warnings, and exhortations of Scripture because they are the very words of God and a means God has ordained to sanctify us (John 17:17). Rather than seeing these commands as a burden, we should joyfully long to serve God with all that is within us. Because God is holy, we are called to be holy as he is holy as we walk in imitation of him (Eph 5:1; 1 Pet 1:15-16). The Christian life is a pilgrim journey and constant fight against sin that never ends. We can never be sinlessly perfect in this life as Paul says, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Phil 3:12). We press on because we are certain of our salvation. Since Christ has made us his own, we are eternally secure in him and our security should motivate us to love him more.

A key text that helps us understand the work of sanctification is Philippians 2:12-13: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” We must remember that salvation in the Bible is an umbrella term that encompasses election, effectual calling, regeneration, justification, sanctification, and glorification. The salvation Paul speaks of here is the work of sanctification rather than justification which is a past reality bringing us peace with God (Rom 5:1). But we can only work out our sanctification because God is at work within us. We do it with fear and trembling because we are in the presence of God whom we are called to fear. It is not a fear that we might lose our salvation, but the fear of standing in God’s presence as Isaiah once did (Isa 6:1-8). Sanctification will be effectual because God is at work in us and his work is perfect and cannot fail (Deut 32:4). We can err by denying that sanctification is our work to which we are called or by denying that God is ultimately behind it and causing us to walk in his laws (Jer 32:40). We must keep both God’s role and our role in sanctification in healthy tension without denying the reality of either one.

Sunday Meditation – Consider Your Estate

“By faith, put off your sackcloth and ashes and put on the garments of joy and gladness. Let your clothes be white, and your head anointed with oil. Live to the fullest. Live today, live tomorrow, live, O Christian, forever! This you can do if you learn to  use your faith. Do you desire to have a continual feast and rejoice always in the Lord? Let me prescribe a daily diet without ever neglecting it. Just as often as you refresh your body through rest and recreation, so cheer up your soul. Let your soul have two or three walks each day up Mount Tabor, that is in some retired place of meditation and prayer. Go to Isaac’s field to meditate, or David’s closet. What is to be done there? Make use of your faith. This is the chief mystery of our spiritual life. Stir up your soul to talk with Christ. Consider the promises and privileges you enjoy. Think of them, roll them under your tongue, chew on them until you feel their sweetness in your soul. View them together and individually. Sometimes contemplate one in particular, or another more deeply. Consider how wonderful that your debts are cancelled, and how wonderful that God’s wrath is satisfied. Consider how happy and safe a condition you are in as a son of God, and how pleasant a state not to fear death and hell. Mingle these thoughts with prayers for grace and aid. Do not leave the mountain until your heart has been cheerfully warmed and revived. This is using your faith. You will find your soul saying, ‘It is good to be here.’ Unstirred coals to do not glow or give heat. The beauty of faith is its use. Don’t just have muscles, use them. Let a man diligently and thoroughly improve his faith and the joy it will bring to him will be great.”

Samuel Ward

The Historicity of Genesis 1-11

The first eleven chapters of Genesis have become extremely controversial because of the prevalent acceptance of the theory of evolution. Since people believe that evolution is a proven fact, they dismiss the authority of Scripture altogether or embrace theistic evolution which teaches that God created all things by means of evolution. They argue that Genesis 1-11 cannot be interpreted literally because it would contradict what we know to be scientifically true. But when the beginning of Genesis is treated as an allegory or myth, it undermines foundational truths of the Christian faith such as original sin, the need for salvation, marriage, modesty, and human dignity. As we shall see, Genesis is the foundation for the rest of Scripture. And since the authors of the New Testament interpreted Genesis 1-11 literally, theistic evolution is not an option for Christians who know the Bible. We must either reject the inerrancy and authority of all of Scripture or embrace all of Genesis as literal history.

When asked about whether divorce is permitted for any reason, Jesus responded by appealing to the narrative of Genesis: “But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female'” (Mark 10:6). The force of Jesus’ argument is dependent upon the truthfulness of the first two chapters of Genesis. Because the original man and woman were designed to be together for life, divorce is not acceptable (Matt 19:4-6). Notice also Jesus’ use of the phrase “from the beginning of creation.” He believed that the creation of man and woman took place at the beginning of creation and not billions or millions of years after creation began. The truth that man was created on the sixth day while the Sabbath was made on the seventh is the basis for Jesus’ assertion that the Sabbath was made for man’s good and not the other way around (Mark 2:27). Jesus also believed that the story of Cain and Abel was real history when he speaks of the blood of Abel together with the martyrdom of Zechariah (Matt 23:35). Jesus taught that the flood of Noah was universal and is the paradigm for his own coming which will bring judgment on the whole world as Noah’s flood did (Matt 24:37-39). Just as Noah’s flood brought universal destruction, no one will escape on the day of judgment except those who trust in Christ – the one to whom the ark pointed. The Gospel of Luke even contains the full genealogy of Jesus going all the way back to Adam (Luke 3:34-38).

Paul is even more explicit in his affirmation that Genesis is real history. All men trace their lineage back to Adam: “He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth” (Acts 17:26). Adam was “the first man” which means he had no human parents (1 Cor 15:47). He is called the “man of dust” which shows that Paul believed Adam was created out of the dust of the ground (1 Cor 15:47-49). The fall of Adam and his disobedience is the reason why Christ had to obey God in our place to accomplish what Adam never could (Rom 5:12-19). Adam’s sin brought death to all mankind and Christ’s righteousness brings life to those who are in him (1 Cor 15:22). The fall of Adam not only had consequences for his descendants, but for all of creation which was subjected to decay because of his sin (Rom 8:19-23). The story of God creating Adam first and then Eve from Adam’s rib is also interpreted literally by Paul: “For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man” (1 Cor 11:8-9). Eve was deceived by Satan who transformed himself into a serpent (2 Cor 11:3). The order of creation is the basis for Paul’s teaching that women cannot teach or have authority over men in the church (1 Tim 2:13). The truthfulness of this order is reinforced by Satan’s attempt to undermine it by going to Eve instead of Adam (1 Tim 2:14). God created the one-flesh union of man and woman in marriage to be a picture of his eternal plan to unite the church to Christ (Eph 5:31-32).

The author of Hebrews bases his interpretation of the Sabbath as pointing to a future day of Sabbath rest in eternity based on God’s resting from creation on the seventh day (Heb 4:3-4). The stories of Abel, Enoch, and Noah are all interpreted literally as referring to actual people (Heb 11:4-7). Abel’s blood is contrasted with that of Christ (Heb 12:24). The apostle Peter uses the story of the flood as a picture for baptism (1 Pet 3:20). Only eight people were saved from Noah’s flood which destroyed the ancient world (2 Pet 2:5; 3:6). He describes the creation of dry land as coming out of the water just as Genesis 1:9-10 does (2 Pet 3:4-5). Jude tells us that Enoch was the seventh from Adam (Jude 1:14). The apostle John describes the murder of Abel by Cain as real history (1 John 3:12). The depiction of Satan as a dragon is an allusion to the deception of Eve by Satan when he transformed himself into a snake (Rev 12:3-4). And a dragon is nothing more than a snake with arms and legs (Gen 3:14). The end of the book of Revelation alludes back to the garden of Eden when it speaks of the tree of life in the New Heavens and New Earth (Rev 22:2).

For those who want to dig deeper into this subject, Walt Brown’s book In the Beginning contains a wealth of scientific evidence which points to God’s existence and the historicity of the events of Genesis.

Sunday Meditation – Sweet Hour of Prayer

“God reveals Himself most to His people when they have been in secret prayer. O the sweet meetings, the heavenly warmings, the blessed cheerings, and the choice communions with God, that Christians have found when they have been alone with God in a closet. God loves to load the wings of private prayer with the sweetest and choicest blessings. Ah! How often has God kissed a poor Christian at the beginning of private prayer, and spoken peace to him in the midst of private prayer, and filled him with light and joy and assurance upon the close of private prayer. Private prayer is a golden key to unlock the mysteries of God’s Word to us. The knowledge of many choice and blessed truths are but the returns of private prayers. God delights to make known His truth and faithfulness. His grace and goodness, His mercy and bounty, His beauty and glory to poor souls in their private prayers. God crowns private prayer with a discovery of those blessed weighty truths to His servants that are a sealed book to others. Private prayer crowns God with the honor and Glory due His Name, and the soul enjoys most communion with God in secret. When a Christian is in a wilderness, which is a very solitary place, then God delights to speak friendly and comfortably to him. A husband imparts his mind most freely and fully to his wife when they are alone, and Christ also to the believing soul. O the secret embraces, visits, whispers, cheering, and discoveries that God gives His people when alone. Ambrose often said, ‘I am never less alone than when I am alone, for then I can enjoy the Presence of my God most freely, fully, and sweetly, without interruption.’ Christ loves to embrace us not so much in the open street, as in a closet. Christ gives his richest gifts in secret when we are alone.”

Thomas Brooks

Explaining the Trinity

The Trinity is not a mere doctrine, but who God eternally is. God is the Trinity. We love and worship the Trinity. The Trinity is not something God has, but who God is. My definition of the Trinity is a modified version of the one given in James R. White’s book The Forgotten Trinity: The one true God exists eternally as three coequal and coeternal persons, namely, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit who share equally and indivisibly the one divine nature or attributes of God and are distinguished by various personal properties.

The three pillars of God as a Trinity of persons are: 1. Monotheism: there is only one God and object of worship who is simple or indivisible; 2. Distinction: the one true God eternally exists as three distinct persons with distinct personal properties; 3. Equality: the three persons of the Trinity share equally the one divine nature or attributes of God so that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. But the Father is not the Son or the Holy Spirit and the Son is not the Father or the Holy Spirit. To prove the doctrine of the Trinity, we must demonstrate that there is only one God, prove that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are distinct from each other (but not separated from one another), and prove that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God.

Monotheism is the belief that there is only one God. The word is derived from the Greek words monos “only” and theos “God.” The opposite of monotheism is polytheism or the belief that there are many gods. This one God is the creator of all things and is distinct from creation. Because there is only one God, he must be the sole object of our worship. Because God is simple or indivisible, the three persons of the Trinity are not “parts” of God, but three distinct persons who cannot be separated from one another. Christian monotheism is trinitarian rather than unitarian.

Trinitarians affirm that Jesus is God. He is the eternal Son of God who existed with the Father from all eternity and became human in the incarnation while remaining fully God. He is both fully God and fully man at the same time in one person. Jesus is not a lesser god or a created being, but the creator of all things and deserving of worship, honor, and prayer. He is equal in nature, being, attributes, and person to the Father. He came to live and die among us, “that all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him” (John 5:23). Only one who is fully God could satisfy the infinite justice of God on our behalf. Only a sacrifice of infinite worth could satisfy infinite wrath which results in eternal punishment. And only one who is fully man could die on our behalf since it was a man who sinned against God. Because we have the righteousness of Christ in justification, we have the righteousness of God (1 Cor 1:30; 2 Cor 5:21).

The Holy Spirit is God equal with the Father and the Son. He is the one through whom the Father and the Son carry out their work in the world. He is personal in nature rather than an impersonal force. He speaks, teaches, knows all things, can be sinned against and lied to, can be grieved, bears witness, creates assurance, brings regeneration, intercedes for, glorifies Christ, loves, and created all things. I have written about the deity and personality of the Holy Spirit in previous articles.

In contrast to trinitarianism are polytheism (many gods), modalism (the Father becomes the Son and then becomes the Holy Spirit), Arianism (the Son is not God), and binitarianism (the Holy Spirit is not God while the Son is). All human analogies fail when attempting to describe the Trinity. The analogy of ice turning into water and then into air is modalism, not trinitarianism. The analogy of a human father being both a father and the son of someone else is also modalism. Using a pretzel to depict the three persons of the Trinity is simply dishonoring to who God is. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are distinct persons, not holes in a piece of bread. Many evangelicals have a view of God that is functionally modalistic rather than trinitarian. I have never met a member of a church who was a polytheist or an Arian, but I have encountered more than one person who had a modalistic understanding of God.

For a helpful article on the Trinity, see this article by Matt Perman.