The Grace of God

That Brings Salvation Has Appeared to All Men (Titus 2:11)

Imputed Righteousness–A Transference of Righteousness?

A pastor recently told me that when I was born again, all my sin was transferred (imputed) to Christ, and all His righteousness was transferred (imputed) to me.  How much of my sin was transferred to Christ, he asked?–ALL of it.  Therefore, even future sins would never be “imputed” to me.

I do not believe this view of “imputed righteousness” is correct, and I believe it leads to a whole host of other sin-excusing doctrines, including the infamous “once-saved-always-saved.”  After all, if my future sins cannot be imputed to me, then I have no reason to even feel guilty for them. According to this version of “imputed righteousness,” I can be positionally righteous even while being practically wicked. Or, as some would say, God doesn’t even see my sin–all He sees is Jesus. (Please click here for a refutation of that doctrine.)

Because “imputed righteousness” is a term used in the Bible, and misused and abused by so many teachers, it is imperative that the Christian learn what this term means in biblical context.

Some of the most common verses used to support the doctrine of a transferred righteousness are Psalm 32:2,  Rom. 4:5-25, and James 2:23.  We will look at each passage separately, and I hope to show you that the word “imputed” does not mean “transferred” at all!  Nowhere in Scripture does it expressly say that the obedience or personal righteousness of Christ is transferred to believers, although it is true that Christ’s atoning sacrifice makes our forgiveness possible.

1. Psalm 32:2

Blessed is the man unto whom the LORD imputeth not iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile. (Psa. 32:2)

The context of this verse is David’s adultery with Bathsheba and murder of her husband, and his repentance after being confronted by the prophet Nathan. The previous verse (Psa. 32:1) states, “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” David was simply thankful for the blessedness of not having his past sins of adultery and murder counted against him AFTER he repented and was forgiven by God!  If David had not repented of his wickedness, his transgressions would not have been forgiven, his sin would not have been covered, and his iniquity would have been imputed to (counted against) him.

2.  Rom. 4:5-25

5But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.

6Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works,

7Saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered.

8Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin.

Here, Paul reviews Psalm 32:2, showing how God imputes righteousness without works. David was not counted as righteous because he worked off his sins of adultery and murder, but because he was forgiven after he repented. He, by faith, repented and believed that the Lord would cover his sins by mercy; and he was forgiven. The imputation of righteousness, then, happens at the moment of forgiveness.   A forgiven person is counted as having never sinned and is therefore counted as righteous.  The Scriptures do not say that David’s sins were unseen by God, but only that they were forgiven by God (and his forgiveness was contingent upon repentance.)

 9Cometh this blessedness then upon the circumcision only, or upon the uncircumcision also? for we say that faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness.

10How was it then reckoned? when he was in circumcision, or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision.

11And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also:

12And the father of circumcision to them who are not of the circumcision only, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham, which he had being yet uncircumcised.

13For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith.

Here, Paul is explaining to Gentiles that even “Father Abraham” was justified by faith, not by conformity to the law of circumcision, and he is the father of physically uncircumcised people who also walk in like faith.  Very important–Notice the use of the word “imputed” in verse 11, and that it carries the same meaning as the word “reckoned” in verse 9. The truth being taught here is that righteousness is imputed to (reckoned to) the believer by faith, not by keeping Jewish law; therefore salvation is open to all Gentiles who will exercise faith like Abraham. Anyone who repents and believes according to the gospel can have their sins forgiven, and righteousness imputed to (reckoned to) them.  In other words, they can be reinstated to a right relationship with God, and their debt of sin can be cancelled or erased–THIS is imputed righteousness.

Nowhere do we see a transference of God’s righteousness to the believer as a covering behind which they can continue in sin, but rather a righteousness (clean record) which belongs to the believer by faith and because of forgiveness. 

20He [Abraham] staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God;

21And being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform.

22And therefore it was imputed to him for righteousness.

23Now it was not written for his sake alone, that it was imputed to him;

 24But for us also, to whom it shall be imputed, if we believe on him that raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead;

25Who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification.

Again, we see that it was Abraham’s patient faith in God’s Word which was imputed to him for righteousness. He possessed “the righteousness of faith” (vs. 13).  It was not that God’s righteousness was being transferred to him, but that his own faith was counted for righteousness, and his sins were forgiven. And verse 24 tells us that we too can be considered or reckoned righteous if we have the same faith toward Jesus.

3. James 2:23

And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God.

This Scripture is right in the middle of James’ teaching that faith without works is dead. James reminds us that Abraham offered his son Isaac in obedience to God, and his faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect.  According to James, it was this faith made perfect by works that became the basis for righteousness being imputed to him!  Again, nothing here suggests that the “righteousness of Christ” or “Christ’s perfect obedience to the law” was somehow transferred to his account, so that his future sins could be ignored.  Imputed righteousness is simply reckoned righteousness. Abraham was considered righteous in God’s sight because God had forgiven his sins.

To briefly summarize this paper, I believe that “imputed righteousness” is not a transference of Christ’s righteousness to our account, but a personal righteousness that is granted when a person repents and exercises saving faith, and God forgives his sins and declares him righteous (unblemished by sin.)  If a person–after being forgiven and declared righteous by God–returns to his sins, his righteousness will not be remembered (Eze. 3:20; 33:13).  Therefore, to the one who thinks he can hide present-tense sins behind a transferred “righteousness of Christ,” I repeat John’s words, “Let no man deceive you: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous.” (I John 3:7)

For more in depth study on the subject of imputed righteousness, please read Imputed Righteousness by Jesse Morrell.  Jesse includes all the uses of the Greek word (logizomai) from which we get “impute” in the Bible,  as well as its equivalent in Hebrew (chashab)–this is very helpful in understanding the application of the word.

God bless you.

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