Is Christ's righteousness imputed to the believer?

When we are united to Christ, we share in him and his achievements. Now his obedience made him the spotless lamb, and the one worthy to be raised and inherit the kingdom. When we are united to him, his righteousness really is therefore counted as our in the sense that we are “in” the spotless lamb, meaning that we die with him and our sin is sufficiently punished in him, and we are treated “in” him as worthy of resurrection to eternal life. It is this latter worthiness that corresponds to the classic doctrine of imputation. Yet our formulation adds the workings. We do not just say that Christ represents us so that his righteousness is counted as ours leading to our justification. We acknowledge that it means that we are seen as worthy of the kingdom even though so clearly not.

A major proof of this is said to be Romans 4v1-11. First, in what way is faith not a moral work/righteous act that can be boasted in (v2)? The answer follows: (a) Faith is not relied upon in a meritorious sense as earning or deserving justification like a “wage” (v4). (b) Faith does not therefore presume itself godly, but is rather a recognition of ungodliness (v5). We might say that this doesn’t mean that faith is not the first fruit of godliness. It must be. For it is morally good to trust God, and be humble before him. It is therefore a righteous act. But it is not a “work” because it is not relied upon or assumed to be deserving.

Second, in what sense is faith credited to the believer? (a) The point above makes clear it cannot be in the sense of being seen as meritorious or especially godly. In this sense the “righteousness” must be alien to the believer. So it is not that faith is deemed righteous in a worthy or deserving sense. This would suggest that the fact that it is a righteous act at all, though correct, is far from Paul’s mind. Rather, it is (b) credited in a similar way that wages are, except that this is done not as payment for work done but simply as a favour or gift (v4). Moreover, (c) it is credited in a similar sense to which sin is not credited to those who are forgiven (v7-8). This is instructive. Sin is not counted as ours, we are not treated on the basis of having it, legally, it is not registered to us. So, Paul seems to be saying that faith registered to us in some legal sense, it is counted as ours, we are treated on the basis of it, but that treatment is given not in any meritorious sense, but as a gift from God. And it is not something that changes our nature as Roman Catholicism teaches, any more than forgiveness actually removes sin. No, this reckoning is a matter of the law.

The way in which faith is counted as ours in a non-meritorious sense is then qualified by numerous expressions in these verses.

  • V3 “Abraham believed God and it (his faith) was reckoned to him as/for righteousness.”
  • V4 “believing on the one justifying the ungodly, is reckoned his faith as/for righteousness.”
  • V6 “blessedness of the man to whom God reckons righteousness”
  • V9 “was reckoned to Abraham faith as/for righteousness”
  • V11 “for righteousness to be reckoned to them (those believing)”

Here we see that the stress of what is reckoned to the believer is “his faith,” separated in v3 from its qualifier “for righteousness.” This suggests that Paul doesn’t simply mean that “faith for/as righteousness” ie. a trust in God to make one righteous is what is reckoned to the believer. This would actually make no sense, because it tells us nothing of why it should be reckoned. Rather, v3 shows that “righteousness” is the reason or manner in which faith is reckoned to the believer. Ie. it is reckoned to them so that righteousness would result or in such a way that faith is counted as righteousness. This should govern our reading of v4 and 9. It is not “faith for/as righteousness” that is reckoned. But “faith is reckoned” and this “for/as righteousness.”

The way in which this reckoning or counting of faith to the believer in a way that results in/counts as righteousness is born out by v4,6,11. v4 teaches that the nature of this faith is belief in God as one who justifies, ie. counts as not guilty the ungodly. This hints that faith results in righteousness in the sense that it results in or counts as a righteous or not guilty standing. v6 and 11 seem to confirm this as “reckoning righteousness to the believer” becomes synonymous with “reckoning faith to the believer for/as righteousness.” Now this could mean that the faith is deemed inherently and sufficiently righteous in a way that it wouldn’t be if it were not for God granting this as a gift. Yet against this is (a) the hint of v4, (b) Paul’s rejection of any sense of merit or boasting, (c) the stress throughout the NT that our confidence is in Christ not our faith, (d) the NT assertion that justification is by or through faith rather than justification of faith, (e) the fact that throughout Romans to this point righteousness has entailed full covenant obedience, and faith cannot be pretended to be this without theological reason. More likely is the fact that faith somehow receives an alien righteousness, the state of perfect covenant obedience, as a gift, which is pretty much the classic doctrine of imputation. By union with Christ through faith, his perfect covenantal obedience is deemed as ours.

Having said this, we should note that this is more explicit elsewhere in the NT (see below), for in Romans 4 the stress is not on the reckoning or imputation of this righteousness per se, but of faith in such a way that results in/is counted as this righteousness. The reckoning of righteousness is only stated as shorthand for this. So the word “reckoned” is not necessarily one of crediting something alien, for our faith is ours. It is one of “counting something as ours in a particular way” – whether a reward counted as ours in a way that is earned or faith counted as ours in a way that receives righteousness as a gift or is counted as righteousness by way of a gift. Reformed theology doesn’t generally make this distinction. Yet this alone would seem to make sense of the odd structure in verse 4-5, where reward and faith are paralleled, rather than reward and righteousness as we might expect.

v4 To the one working
The reward is not reckoned
According to grace but according to debt
v5 To the one not working but believing God who justifies the ungodly
Is reckoned his faith
For righteousness

Finally, whether we translated “faith for righteousness” or “faith as righteousness” is to some extent insignificant, for if our faith is counted as righteousness then it results it in. And if it results in it, then there is a sense in which it is ultimately counted as it. Yet the latter makes it simpler and more common in translation and Reformed theology. Then faith is being credited to our account as righteousness rather like a cheque being credited to our account as money. On the promise of the writer who has given it to us, it guarantees the payment of something. And so we might say that by the promise and gift of God who grants our faith, he guarantees a righteous standing to be paid to us when we present it. This is certainly free from seeing faith as meritorious, and makes clearer sense of the idea of credit and money in Paul’s illustration. The problem is that the idea of faith being counted as righteousness can so easily be read as being somehow seen as the equivalent of righteousness, which is rejected by the context and wider NT. Moreover, “faith for righteousness” better stresses our faith looks to Christ for the righteousness. Having said that, it would seem that the idea of credited faith to our account as righteousness seems the best rendering as long as the exact meaning is understood.

This is somewhat clarified in Philippians 3v9-10. We note (a) Paul explicitly rejects any righteousness of his own. The focus is on that derived from the law. But this would be strange language if he had replaced this with faith itself being deemed as righteous, as this would still be his own. (b) His focus is in fact on righteousness as the object of faith not the faith itself. And this
holds whether he writes of righteousness that comes through “faith in Christ” stressing he is looking for righteousness from him, or through the “faith of Christ” stressing the faithfulness of Christ that comprises that righteousness. (c) By describing this alien righteousness as “the righteousness of God” in contrast to that of law, he can only reasonably mean God’s own righteous standing as owned by Christ, or at the least one that is given by God. Both expressions would again be odd, if Paul saw God deeming faith as somehow sufficiently righteous. (d) To say God’s righteousness is “upon faith” again suggest it less akin to faith, but more appropriated by it.

Other texts confirm further. 1 Corinthians 1v30 explicitly says that Christ is “our righteousness,” by virtue of our being “in him” and so united to him. This makes no sense at all if God has deemed our faith our righteousness. Less clear, but probably equivalent is 2 Corinthians 5v21 where the sinless Christ was “made sin” (which could only by representation and imputation), “in order that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” Again, faith-union is mentioned. And the suggestion in the light of 1 Corinthians 1v30 is that “righteousness of God” here and in Philippians 3v10 refers to Christ’s righteousness which is God’s righteousness.

The evidence is therefore compelling whatever one makes of Romans 5v12-20. Nevertheless, this passage is key: v13 sets up the idea of imputation/reckoning. The question is why people are dying if sin is not reckoned/credited to them (v14). The answer is “because of Adam’s transgression” (v12,15). And it would seem that this is not because it infected his descendents with actual sin (though it did), because we have just been told that their actual sin is not counted against them (v13). It would seem then that death came because Adam’s offence and lawbreaking was somehow counted as theirs (v14). This is confirmed by the continued focus on his sin for condemnation for the many, rather than on their own (v15,16,17,18,19). In doing justice to Paul's clear concern for parallel and contrast, we must conclude that what is received by those in Christ is therefore on the basis of imputation too. And it is thist that is described as “the gift of righteousness” (v15,16,17).

What then is this gift of righteousness? It is a righteousness given to us because of “the obedience” of Christ in a way that contrasts the way humanity were legally counted as sinners through the disobedience of Adam (v19), irrespective of the transmission of actual sin. It must therefore be the gift of a legal state of righteousness rather than an infusion of moral righteousness itself. This is consistent with what we learn of it in 4v1-11. Indeed, in Romans, "life" includes this transformation (chapters 6-8). Yet "life" is said to stem from the gift of this righteousness, not comprise it (v17). In short, the "gift of righteousness" is the gift of Christ's own righteous standing, which enables us to be justified or declared not guilty of failing to fulfil the stipulations of God's covenant.

The logic of this is compelling. The only query is over v18. There we read of “one act of righteousness” by Christ, and the flow with verse 19 suggests this is akin to “the obedience of the one” just as the “one transgression” (v18) is akin to “the one man’s disobedience” (v19). This leaves us asking, is it only the obedience of going to his death that is imputed to us? Or is Paul for the sake of his parallelism likening Jesus’ entire life to one act of righteousness? We should add that either way the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is proved. Nevertheless, the answer I believe is that the “one act of righteousness” actually refers to the one act of giving the free gift of Christ’s righteousness.

Here we should note that the language of transgression sets v18 more naturally amongst verses 15-17 than with v19, where the language changes to that of the less legal “disobedience.” And we can see (a) that from the start of v15 the issue is the comparison between the one “trespass” of Adam and the one “free gift” of Jesus Christ rather than the many acts of obedience that comprise it. So (b) in v15b and 17, “the transgression” is contrasted with “the abundance of grace” and “the gift of righteousness” suggesting the same contrast between “transgression” and “act of righteousness” in v18. Furthermore, (c) v16 places “the free gift” alongside “resulting in justification” paralleling “the one act of righteousness resulting in justification” in v19.

So v19 is explanatory, filling in the reasoning gaps. Ie. The one transgression resulted in condemnation (v18) because “by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners” (v19), and the one act of righteousness (the one giving of Christ’s righteousness) resulted in justification (v18) because through that giving “the obedience of the One the many were made righteous.”

Conclusion: Some in recent years have begun to question whether Christ's righteousness is actually imputed to us. Instead they suggest, God deems our faith as righteousness and justifies us on this basis. Or he simply forgives us without the need of a positive standing of covenant obedience. Though some aspects of the above discussion are complex or less certain, the general thrust that the righteousness of Christ is counted as our own because we are united to him and so represented by him is clear. It is this that leads to life, for life can only be granted to those who fufil the stipulations of God's covenant. We might ask why the cross is still necessary. But that means a discussion of Romans 3. In short, even if Christ's righteousness is counted as ours, justice must still be done when we actually sin. And this was done in Christ's death. We cannot therefore be justified on account of Christ's righteousness without atonement being made for our unrighteousnessness. And it is in this sense that we are "justified through his blood."