One of Wright’s most controversial arguments is that there is no Biblical basis for the doctrine of “imputed righteousness.” This is the view that we are saved because Jesus’ merits are credited to Christians.
Now, this should not be confused with substitutionary atonement, which teaches that Jesus accepted our punishment for us, which Wright plainly teaches. The question isn’t whether Jesus saves–it’s whether the means of salvation is our being credited with Jesus’ merits.
Wikipedia (okay, not a work of great theology, but it’s an easy place to start) cites in favor of this view 2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Corinthians 1:30; and Romans 4:6 (as do a number of articles posted in opposition to Wright’s views).
We’ll take them in that order.
(2 Cor. 5:21) God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Now, this verse doesn’t actually credit us with Jesus’ merits. Rather, it seems to credit us with God’s righteousness, which is quite another matter.
The key text, which is 2 Corinthians 5:21, has been read for generations, ever since Luther at least, as an isolated, detached statement of the wondrous exchange. When we do this we forget that the entire passage, for the three chapters that led up to it, and the chapter and a half that follow it (chapter six and the beginning of seven) are about apostleship. These are all about the strange way in which the suffering of the apostle somehow is transmuted into the revelation of God’s glory. In the middle of this the statement occurs that God “made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” After this I started to read dikaiosune theou (“the righteousness of God”) as “covenant faithfulness” in Romans. I then suddenly thought, “wait a minute.” What about 2 Corinthians 5:21? And then I realized that the whole thing here is 2 Corinthians 3, the new covenant. God has made us ministers of a new covenant. We are embodying the covenant faithfulness of God.
In short, Christ took on our sins, Paul says, so that Paul and the other ministers of reconciliation might become “God’s faithfulness,” that is, the very embodiment of the promise.
It’s an interesting theory. Wright lays out the alternative interpretations in more scholarly terms here, and they each have their problems.
Ultimately, it’s plain that that the passage simply does not say that Christians are credited with Jesus’ merits. It does say that Jesus is charged with our sins, which is quite the opposite.
Hence, whether you agree with Wright’s view or not, this verse is no proof text for imputed righteousness.
(1 Cor. 1:30) It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God–that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.
In What St. Paul Really Said, Wright says this passage is–
the only passage I know of where something called ‘the imputed righteousness of Christ,’ a phrase more often found in post-Reformation theology and piety than in the New Testament, finds any basis in the text.
Wright then goes on to argue that if we are to claim 1 Corinthians 1:30 as a proof text about the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, “we must also be prepared to talk of the imputed wisdom ofChrist; the imputed sanctification of Christ . . .” and so on.
Okay. Let’s take a breath. What does the verse really say? Obviously, imputation is not the overriding theme. It’s not really discussing Christ’s wisdom or redemption being imputed to us.
Plainly, the larger concept is this “wisdom from God.” We can’t even begin to understand what Paul says about righteousness until we understand “for us wisdom from God.” We have to go there first.
Paul is arguing that his converts are, in the eyes of the world, not wise, not influential, not noble, but rather foolish, weak, lowly, and despised. We are not to boast except in Christ.
This immediately follows–
(1 Cor. 1:20-25) Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.
Later on Paul declares,
(1 Cor. 2:7) No, we speak of God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began.
Now, plainly, the idea isn’t that Christ’s wisdom is imputed to us, making us appear wise in God’s eyes. It is, rather, that we’ve been given Jesus, and this gift is true wisdom, indeed wisdom from God. “Wisdom” is the truth about Jesus.
He has “become for us” wisdom, because we have faith, and so (through the Spirit) have an understanding that others do not share.
(1 Cor. 2:12-15) We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. 13 This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. 14 The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. 15 The spiritual man makes judgments about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man’s judgment:
Now, if Jesus is “our wisdom” because being in him gives us knowledge and insight that the world does not share, and because Jesus himself is the culmination of God’s secret wisdom, how is Jesus our “our righteousness, holiness and redemption”? Well, I suppose, because being in Jesus gives us righteousness, holiness and redemption that the world does not share.
Does this imply that we are credited with Jesus’ righteousness? No. After all, it is conceded–celebrated, really–that Christians are given righteousness that they do not earn, because of their faith, just as was true of Abraham.
The question is whether they are credited with Jesus’ merits–whether God only sees Jesus? And this verse hardly proves the case. After all, if that’s the point of the verse, then we are also credited with Jesus’ wisdom and redemption, which would make no sense at all.
No, the point is that we’ve been given these things through Jesus–indeed, that Jesus is these things and we have them because we have Jesus–but not by being credited with wisdom, righteousness, holiness and redemption earned by Jesus while walking the earth.
(Rom. 4:6) David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:
By now, the point should be obvious. Christians are reckoned righteous. But this verse hardly proves that the mechanism of this is crediting Christians with Jesus’ good works.
Reflections and conclusion
Why does this even matter? I have to say the doctrine of imputed righteousness has never greatly worried me. I have always been very glad to be credited with Jesus’ merits. I’ll take getting into heaven any way I can!
But the doctrine of imputed righteousness does raise some concerns. I quote this from blogger Matt Hartke,
Confusion: The doctrine of imputed righteousness is a subtly undermining distortion of the truth that gives the people of God confidence to approach Him in their weakness. The truth would say that God sees our sin (1 John 1:5-10, 3:20; etc), loves us (John 15:9; 17:23; etc) even in our weakness (Matt 12:7, 20; Rom. 4; 2 Pet. 3:9; 1 John 3:20; etc); He sees the end from the beginning (Rom. 4:17) and He is able to enjoy us in the present because He sees our sincere intension (Luke 15:20-24; 1 John 1:9; etc). Though indirectly, imputed righteousness says in essence that God doesn’t see our sin, all He sees is Jesus’ righteousness, and that He doesn’t love us in our weakness, all He loves is Jesus. It doesn’t warm my heart at all to know that God is so totally in opposition to me that He has to actually superimpose Jesus’ life over mine just so he can even tolerate me. This may seem overly humanistic, but I believe that in this case it’s God who is the “humanist”. The only way that imputed righteousness would be necessary, IMO, would be if sin had corrupted man so deeply that the two become synonymous. And that is not something I see in the Word.
Within an Augustinian, Lutheran, or Calvinistic worldview I would agree that it would be absolutely necessary for God to attach His Son’s history to the believing before they might be justified, simply because none of those men believed in a God who loves us in our weakness. What we would call the “bridal paradigm” was almost completely foreign to them. Coming out of the dark ages, being influenced by the stoic and irate view of God which accompanied that time frame, they had to build a theological construct by which they could explain why a God who (when you really get down to it) hates unredeemed humanity (which is the logical outcome of the doctrine of limited atonement) would be able to justify some of them. It is not enough, in this scheme, that the believing simply be given a clean slate; they would have to become something other than what they are in their essence. God would not be able to simply cleanse them from the corruption of their sin, because humanity is considered to be corrupted and flawed to their utter core (total depravity).
You see how the different ends of the system support each other. Each doctrine is intertwined with the logic of the whole, bringing validity to every other doctrine. This isn’t always a bad thing; but it is a dangerous one, and here’s why: It’s easy to begin with a theory which initially seems Biblical (In this case, pining the sovereignty of God up against the free will which He gave humanity) and then interpret all the surrounding evidence to fit that theory, even when the evidence may actually point in another direction. We want to observe the whole before we start interpreting the different parts. Induction, not deduction. If we start going down a path of reasoning and begin to find obstacles that don’t easily line up with our hypothesis, we should try another path instead of continuing down that one and (a) ignoring those obstacles, (b) manipulating them to fit our reasoning, or (c) formulating supporting theories in an effort to cancel them out.
Those who buy into imputation have no way of dealing with the dichotomy of their claims that we are completely morally righteous and then, at the same time, obviously not. Now granted, a doctrine bringing tension is not a sufficient reason to abandon it, Christianity is characterized by mysterious tensions; but this quite a bit more serious than a simple dichotomy. This is a contradiction in terms that produces significant confusion in the Body of Christ.
Passivity and licentiousness: To simply accept that upon Justification we retroactively inherit Christ’s righteousness can easily lead to badly abusing the message of grace and the empowerment to live righteous for ourselves, and to assuming that we can live unrighteous lives with a fictitious history of somebody else’s righteousness attached haphazardly to us.
A Christian is required to keep the new covenant. Not only out of thankfulness, as the Reformed would have it; but also out of duty, necessity, ones new nature and enslavement to Christ. It is not Jesus’ job. Or at least it is not Jesus’ job 2000 years ago. Jesus in you, now, will empower you to keep the law, but you still have to keep it. The glory of Romans 8:1 is not that we no longer have to strive for holiness because we are “in Christ”; it’s that we actually have the power to be holy because we are “in Christ”. “For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son… that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:3-4).
The hermeneutic which accompanies the reformed view deals with Biblical exhortations in such a manner that it robs the commanding nature and urgency of the author by saying Christ fulfilled it all for us. For instance, while I would read passages like Psalms 1, Isaiah 33:14-17 and Matthew 5-7 primarily as exhortations to walk out my faith in complete maturity, someone with a more Reformed lens would see those passages as nothing more than descriptions of Jesus and the perfect life he led in His first advent. You see the difference. Within that outlook, one doesn’t have to strive after righteousness out of necessity, but is supposedly just going to live righteously because they already are righteous. It’s second nature, they are completely new already and nothing else needs to take place. Salvation is no longer seen as the process that the NT clearly says it is, but it is reduced to a one-time event which took place in a ministry line five years ago.
And so, let’s venture a conclusion or two.
First, the doctrine of imputed righteousness is not essential to Protestant theology, and it certainly seems to be built on a weak foundation. Maybe it’s true, but the evidence seems remarkably sparse.
Second, however, the fact that Christians are reckoned righteous because of faith in Jesus is central to Christianity and is not under assault. Now, many have misunderstood Wright as contradicting this teaching, and they’ve become very upset, but they’ve simply misunderstood what he says.
Third, there’s an incredible comfort in knowing that God loves and forgives us despite seeing us as who we really are.
Fourth, works matter. It’s easy to get confused and sink into legalism–which I’ve lived through and don’t want to return to–but it’s important to be reminded that God expects us to actually live as though Jesus were Lord–because he is.