Imputed and Imparted Righteousness
Dr. Vic Reasoner
THE ARMINIAN MAGAZINE. Issue 1. Spring 2011. Volume 29.
Date Posted July, 2011

Roman Catholic theology teaches our righteousness is based on the sacramental infusion of grace. Thus, righteousness is imparted through the sacraments. The Eucharist is the means of our justification. Romanism rejects imputed or forensic righteousness as legal fiction.

However, Reformation theology emphasizes imputed righteousness. This emphasis is the result of the doctrine of original sin. If man is a sinner, any justification must be imputed to him. Luther called this an alien righteousness. It is not based on works or receiving the sacraments.

The historical debate between Roman Catholic and Protestant theology is focused on the question, does justification declare someone to be righteous or acceptable to God or is it a process whereby someone is made to be righteous?

John Wesley originally followed an Anglican-Catholic view that some measure of sanctification is required as the basis of justification. Yet under the influence of the Moravians, especially Peter Bohler, Wesley came to a biblical understanding of faith alone as the basis for justification. This led to his Aldersgate experience.

Two years after Aldersgate, Wesley explained that he had wandered many years in the "new path of salvation by faith and works, but about two years ago it pleased God to show us the old way of salvation by faith alone." Thus, John Wesley's theology stands with Protestant theology regarding the nature of justification as a forensic declaration by God by which he graciously forgives and accepts sinners.

In 1977 E. P. Saunders advanced a new interpretation on Paul. In 1982 James Dunn named it The New Perspective on Paul. The new perspective says Martin Luther assumed that Paul went through the same struggle that he went through. This struggle, for Luther was a shift from God's justice to God as the justifier who acquits the sinner. And the conclusion of the new perspective is that Luther assumed Paul was reacting against the same legalism as he was; that Judaism was the equivalent to Roman Catholicism. But the new perspective is that when Paul dealt with justification by works he was not addressing legalism. Instead, righteousness is seen in relational terms which produces good works. As God draws people into relationship with him, they are changed and the old questions about imputed righteousness become non-questions.

N. T. Wright teaches that justification is acceptance into the family of all who accept the gospel of the Lordship of Christ. For Wright, justification is not about "getting in" but "telling who is in." Thus, justification is more about ecclesiology than soteriology. Paul's doctrine of justification does not tell how sinners can find acceptance but explains how we can tell who belongs to the community of the true people of God. However, this seems more like a doctrine of adoption than the doctrine of justification.

Is righteousness transformative or forensic? The adjective dikaios can be translated "just" or "righteous." And so theologians debate whether the verb to justify (dikaioun) means "to make righteous" or "to count righteous?"

The New Perspective on Paul is popular among those who are not Calvinists. Its emphasis on imparted righteousness also provides a bridge in ecumenical dialog. In contrast John Piper, who represents the old Reformed perspective, defends the biblical doctrine of imputed righteousness. But then he stops. Forensic, imputed righteousness need not be abandoned but this emphasis on a declared righteousness must be kept in balance with the imparted, transforming righteousness. The New Perspective on Paul is popular among those who are not Calvinists. Its emphasis on imparted righteousness also provides a bridge in ecumenical dialog. In contrast John Piper, who represents the old Reformed perspective, defends the biblical doctrine of imputed righteousness. But then he stops. Forensic, imputed righteousness need not be abandoned but this emphasis on a declared righteousness must be kept in balance with the imparted, transforming righteousness.

In the current debate between the old perspective and the new, the classic Methodist commentators and theologians offer theological balance. Early Methodist theology held to the Protestant view that the basis of justification is faith alone. However, Wesley broke with the Protestant Reformers concerning the results of justification. While Wesley did not adopt Catholic theology, neither did he accept the majority Protestant view that the Christian is at once just and yet a sinner. While Wesley saw himself within the Protestant tradition, he disagreed with Luther's conclusion that the Christian is at the same time just and yet sinful.

Luther claimed that the saints are in reality sinners, but that they are righteous because God reckons them as such. "They are unknowingly righteous, and knowingly sinners. They are sinners in fact, but righteous in hope."

Wesley's concern was that an unbalanced emphasis upon imputed righteousness, without the corresponding imparted righteousness, can lead to antinomianism. John Wesley declared, "I believe God implants righteousness in every one to whom he has imputed it." We must also maintain this balance between imputed and imparted righteousness.

1. Wesleyan-Arminianism affirms imputed righteousness

In a letter to John Newton, John Wesley declared that he was in agreement with Calvin on justification. "In this respect I do not differ from him a hair's breadth." Methodist theologian Richard Watson agreed with John Calvin that the imputation of righteousness was simply the non-imputation of sin or the remission of sins. Justification is both positive and negative. Negatively, God does not count our sins against us. "There is now no condemnation" (Rom 8:1). Positively, God counts our faith as righteousness and we have peace with God (Rom 5:1).

In Romans 4 Paul uses logizomai eleven times. This key word means to reckon, credit, rank with, calculate, consider, deliberate, grasp, draw a logical conclusion, decide, or impute. Romans 4:3-8 teaches that faith in the atoning work of Christ is imputed to the believer for righteousness. Paul then argues that neither Abraham nor David was justified or accepted on the basis of their works.

Arminius declared that "faith, and faith only, (though there is not faith alone without works,) is imputed for righteousness. By this alone are we justified before God, absolved from our sins, and are accounted, pronounced and declared RIGHTEOUS by God, who delivers his judgment from the throne of grace." Arminius also declared,

I believe that sinners are accounted righteous solely by the obedience of Christ; and that the righteousness of Christ is the only meritorious cause on account of which God pardons the sins of believers and reckons them as righteous as if they had perfectly fulfilled the law. But since God imputed the righteousness of Christ to none except believers, I conclude, that in this sense it may be well and properly said, To a man who believes Faith is imputed for righteousness through grace, - because God hath set forth his Son Jesus Christ to be a propitiation, a throne of grace, [or mercy-seat] through faith in his blood.

2. Wesleyan-Arminianism denies the Calvinistic doctrine of imputation.

Arminius denied that "the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us for righteousness." Arminius argued that the obedience of Christ to the Father was not a substitute for righteousness, but was actual righteousness. If that obedience of Christ is then imputed to us as a substitution for righteousness, the word impute is being used two different ways and implies "that the righteousness of Christ is not righteousness itself."

Richard Watson concluded that imputation is never used in scripture "in the sense of accounting the actions of one person to have been performed by another." Instead, the imputation of righteousness is the non-imputation, or pardon, of sin. Miner Raymond wrote that in Romans 4:3-8 the terms justified, justifieth, forgiveness of sins, iniquities are forgiven, sins are covered, counted unto him for righteousness, imputeth righteousness, and will not impute sin "are used to designate the same thing." But Raymond rejected the Calvinistic doctrine that by faith the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us.

Thomas Coke taught that faith is imputed for righteousness, not in the sense that faith settled the debt or that faith is meritorious, but that faith "gives a man a claim to what Christ has paid." John McClintock explained that the Arminian employs imputation in the sense of accounting to the believer the benefit of Christ's righteousness; the Calvinist employs the same word in the sense of reckoning the righteousness of Christ as ours. Thomas Ralston explained,

Calvin teaches imputation in a strict and proper sense; whereas Wesley teaches imputation in an accommodated sense. He holds that the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us in its effects - that is, in its merits: we are justified by faith in the merits of Christ; or, in other words, we are justified "forgiven and accepted, for the sake of what Christ hath done and suffered for us." It amounts to no more than this: that the meritorious sacrifice of Christ is the ground upon which God pardons the sinner when he believes.

It is sometimes asserted that the active and passive righteousness of Christ is imputed to believers. The active obedience of Christ refers to his sinless life, while the passive obedience of Christ refers to his atoning death. An emphasis on the imputation of both active and passive righteousness of Christ leads to antinomianism. Joseph Sutcliffe concluded that if the active and passive righteousness of Christ is imputed to us, we do not need the sanctifying grace of the Holy Spirit to make us righteous. Fletcher explained that we are made righteous, not by speculative imputation of the works of Christ, but by being made partakers of the divine nature, begotten of God, and clothed with righteousness and true holiness.

The issue is whether Christ's active obedience to the precepts of the law is imputed to the believer in lieu of righteousness. Does God impute our faith in the atoning work of Christ to us as righteousness or is the obedience of Christ transferred to us in lieu of future personal righteousness?

Watson summarized and rejected the view that "Christ so represented the elect that his righteousness is imputed to us as ours; as if we ourselves had been what he was, that is, perfectly obedient to the law of God, and had done what he did as perfectly righteous."

The meritorious cause of man's justification is based on Christ's passive obedience unto death. We are saved by his atoning death, not through his sinless life. In his substitutionary death Christ did not become a sinner. Our sins were not transferred to him, but the penalty of our sins was laid upon him. He became a sin offering, not a sinner.

The active obedience of Christ's sinless life meant that he was not disqualified to become our substitute in the passive obedience of his passion and death. But if our sin was so imputed to him that he became a sinner, he would have been disqualified to have become our atoning sacrifice. The scripture is abundantly clear that Christ did not sin. Here again, the issue of imputation must be defined. Those who teach that he really became sin have moved beyond simply a legal concept of the transfer of penalty.

The first Methodist Conference in 1744 concluded, "We do not find it expressly affirmed in Scripture, that God imputes the righteousness of Christ to any; although we do find that 'faith is imputed' to us 'for righteousness.'" In 1765 Wesley also preached

In the meantime what we are afraid of is this: lest any should use the phrase "the righteousness of Christ," or, "the righteousness of Christ is imputed to me," as a cover for his unrighteousness. We have known this done a thousand times. A man has been reproved, supposed for drunkenness: "Oh, said he, I pretend to no righteousness of my own: Christ is my righteousness." Another has been told, that "the extortioner, the unjust, shall not inherit the kingdom of God." He replies, with all assurance, "I am unjust in myself, but I have a spotless righteousness in Christ." And thus, though a man be as far from the practice as from the tempers of a Christian, though he neither has the mind which was in Christ, nor in any respect walks as he walked; yet he has armor of proof against all conviction, in what he calls the "righteousness of Christ."

In 1773, after a debate with the Calvinist Rowland Hill, Wesley resolved never to use the phrase "the imputed righteousness of Christ" lest he be misunderstood to imply that the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us for obedience. Adam Clarke wrote in a letter

I am quite of Mr. Wesley's mind, that once "we leaned too much toward Calvinism," and especially in admitting in any sense, the unscriptural doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ. I never use the distinction of righteousness imputed, righteousness imparted, righteousness practiced. In no part of the book of God is Christ's righteousness ever said to be imputed to us for our justification; ... I have long thought that the doctrine of imputed righteousness, as held by certain people, is equally compounded of Pharisaism and Antinomianism.

In his Commentary Clarke explained

This doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ is capable of great abuse. To say that Christ's personal righteousness is imputed to every true believer, is not Scriptural: to say that he has fulfilled all righteousness for us, or in our stead, if by this is meant his fulfilment of all moral duties, is neither Scriptural nor true.

More recently Robert Gundry came to the same conclusion. Gundry also rejects the doctrine that the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us who believe. With the exception of Galatians 3:6, every text which explicitly refers to imputation in relation to righteousness is found in Romans 4. But Gundry concluded that none of these texts say that Christ's righteousness was imputed. Michael Bird also concluded, "There is no text in the New Testament which categorically states that Christ's righteousness is imputed to believers."

While J. I. Packer admitted that the phrase "the imputation of Christ's righteousness" is not found in Paul's writings, he argued that the concept was biblical. Calvinists such as John Murray and John Piper, who understand these texts to teach an imputation of Christ's righteousness, argue that Paul means, "Faith was counted, with the result that Christ's alien righteousness was imputed." But the lack of any reference in Galatians 3 and Romans 4 to Christ's righteousness confirms Gundry's observation that the counting of faith as righteousness is not Paul's shorthand expression in which faith is the instrument by which Christ's righteousness is received. Rather, this phrase "counted as" is used to describe an identification of what is counted - faith, with what it is counted as - righteousness. Gundry concluded that Paul wants to emphasize the obedient life of righteousness that we are supposed to live - and indeed will live if we are true believers.

In Romans 4 it is faith that is reckoned as righteousness. Yet John Piper believes that Paul is describing God's justifying work in terms of imputing or crediting the work of God. For Piper, righteousness is imputed to us, not our faith being recognized and considered as righteousness. He sees "faith imputed for righteousness" and "righteousness imputed apart from works" as synonymous phrases. Piper interprets "the seal of righteousness of faith" (Rom 4:11), not as a righteousness which consists of faith but imputed righteousness received by faith. Yet Michael Bird observed, "A uniform translation of ‘imputed' as applied by Piper does not fit the verses where faith is the subject, since it is odd to think of faith being imputed." Bird concluded,

Romans 4 does not assert that one is justified because of the imputed righteousness of Christ or that God reckons faith as covenantal conformity. Instead, God regards faith as the condition of justification (reckons faith as righteousness) and justifies believers (credits righteousness) because of their union with Christ (raised for our justification).

Faith, therefore, cannot be reduced to the righteousness of Christ which the elect passively have imputed to their account as evidence of their regeneration. The Westminster Confession of Faith that God justifies neither by infusing righteousness "nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness, but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them."

Thus it seems that faith, for the Calvinist, is passive. George Bryson concluded, "While Calvinists give theological lip service to the place and importance of faith, Calvinists do not see faith as a condition of salvation, but instead they reduce it to a mere consequence of election." In the Calvinistic order of salvation, faith and repentance come after regeneration. If regeneration comes first in the Calvinistic order of salvation, then why does imparted righteousness not come before imputed righteousness?

Wesley also objected to a distortion of the doctrine of imputation which results in God being deceived in those whom he justifies, "that he thinks them to be what in fact they are not, that he accounts them to be otherwise than they are.... He can no more in this manner confound me with Christ than with David or Abraham."

Fletcher explained that we are made righteous, not by a speculative imputation of the works of Christ, but by being made partakers of the divine nature, begotten of God, and clothed with righteousness and true holiness.

Thus, the real concern of early Methodist theology was with an unbiblical emphasis on imputed righteousness which led to lawlessness. And that concern is just as valid today. Recently Kevin DeYoung declared, "If people hear us talking about justification and don't almost think that we are giving them a license to sin, we aren't preaching grace strong enough." But grace must not be preached so as to result in antinomianism.

This is an edited version of a paper given at the Evangelical Theological Society in Atlanta on November 17, 2010. To be continued.