The New Perspective: Imputed Righteousness

newperspective.jpgOne 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.

As previously noted, Wright would translate “righteousness of God” as “God’s covenant faithfulness.” Wright discusses this verse here.

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.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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0 Responses to The New Perspective: Imputed Righteousness

  1. Alan says:

    This series of articles has caused me to look more closely at the question of imputed righteousness than I ever have before. What an interesting topic!

    All seem to agree that we are credited with righteousness, as the following passage clearly teaches:

    Rom 4:23 The words "it was credited to him" were written not for him alone,
    Rom 4:24 but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness–for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.

    The dispute seems to be over the question of whether that righteousness with which we are credited is the righteousness of Jesus. Someone might argue from the following passages that Christ's righteousness really is imputed to us::

    Rom 5:18 Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men.
    Rom 5:19 For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.

    Gal 3:26 You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus,
    Gal 3:27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

    From the above passages someone might argue that the righteous life of Jesus, culminating in the complete sacrifice of himself for us, becomes our righteousness when we are clothed with Christ at baptism. However, based on these passages, imputed righteousness is an inference, and perhaps not even accurately inferred. I really had no idea that this teaching lacks rock solid biblical support.

    It is also interesting how the idea of imputed righteousness leads toward Calvinism.

  2. Jay Guin says:

    In fact, it would seem essential to true Calvinism, because if God's unconditional election is without regard to our merits or our works, and if faith is Providentially, irresistibly given by the Spirit utterly and arbitrarily without our free will, then God can certainly not concern himself with who we are. Therefore, God must look solely to the merits of Jesus, arbitrarily assigned to the elect.

    It's a peculiar doctrine. That's not to say that imputed righteousness HAS to lead to Calvinism, just that it seems essential for Calvinism to make sense. And, pushed to its logical conclusion (which John Calvin ALWAYS did) would suggest that our merits are utterly beside the point, which does, in fact, lead to Calvinism.

    But most Arminian churches teach imputed grace (I wonder if Campbell did?)

    Wright certainly seems to teach the perseverance of the saints, and is a Calvinist to that extent, but it's not so clear to me how he sees the doctrine of election. He emphasizes the role of the Spirit pre-conversion but doesn't seem be truly a Calvinist in this sense–but I'm still studying the guy's work.

  3. Randall says:

    In you comment above you indicated that Calvinists believe that "faith is Providentially, irresistibly given by the Spirit utterly and arbitrarily without our free will…"

    Calvinists do not believe that anything God ever did anything "arbitrarily." This aspect of what non Calvinists say about Calvinists is very misleading.

    As to the imputation of Christ's righteousness to the Christian – this has been widely taught in the Churches of Christ for all of my 60 years. We sing songs to that effect and preach it from our pulpits. Your argument may be against Calvinism, but it is against a part of it that the CofC and nearly all conservative evangelicals accept. You mentioned that " [You] really had no idea that this teaching lacks rock solid biblical support." Isn't that because we all grew up on it and have believed it all our lives?

  4. Pingback: Neo-Calvinism: Abraham Kuyper, Criticisms, Part 1 « One In

  5. Jay Guin says:

    I agree that some within the Churches of Christ teach imputed righteousness, but they don't teach once saved, always saved. Therefore, the Churches don't teach a version where you can commit mass murder with impunity.

    I understand that most Calvinists teach no such thing. Rather, the more likely position is perseverance of the saints, that is, the elect will be shown to be such by their continuing to live a regenerate life until they die. Should they commit mass murder, they show themselves to have never been among the elect.

    As I asked in my last comment, explain how "unconditional" election isn't "arbitrary" election.

  6. Randall says:

    Hi Jay,
    Thanks for acknowledging that Calvinists do NOT teach that a person can commit mass murder with impunity. In any large group there may be a few idiots. For example, you may recall the massacre at Jonestown, Guyana. I think the leader's name was James Jones. At the time of the massacre he was a minister in good standing with the Disciples Of Christ (DoC). So he had a theological connection the the Stone Campbell movement. I do not know of any reasonable person that would say the influence of Campbell, or even the DoC was reflected in his actions taken to kill so many people.

    As to the meaning or arbitrary – I am a little disappointed you would even need to ask as you are well educated and know how to present an argument.

    My Webster's Dictionary uses the phrase "selected at random and without reason." Other sources used the word capricious as a synonym. An on line dictionary provided the following "Determined by chance, whim, or impulse, and not by necessity, reason, or principle."

    We don't know exactly why God has chosen to do things the way he has, but we do not believe he ever did anything capriciously. He does not always share his reasons with us, but that does not mean that he does not have them. Why would anyone jump to the conclusion that b/c he did not tell us why he chose Abraham or Israel (the nation) and apparently not Pharaoh or the Philistines that he did so "by chance, whim, or impulse, and not by necessity, reason, or principle."

    You know better than that and I am sure you do not want to present a caricature of what others believe. I am sure that you yourself make decisions and don't always tell others your reasons. That does not mean that you made them arbitrarily or capriciously as you may have simply not seen the necessity to share every last one of your thoughts with others.

    Men and women do, at times, make some decisions arbitrarily or capriciously, but not God. God never did anything arbitrarily. I am sure there are times we humans project our attributes onto Him. Thus the cliche' that "God made man in His image and man has returned the favor."

    I won't take the time to look up the word "unconditional." I trust all of us understand the meaning. To apply it to salvation the doctrine of unconditional election simply means that we were all fallen and w/o hope. God chose to save some of us, but not based on anything of merit he saw in us. Each was as undeserving as the other – or at least completely undeserving. To suggest it was on the basis of some foreseen desirable attribute implies two things. 1. that God had to look forward and learned something about you or me he had not known and then based his decision on his increase in knowledge – kind of ruins the omniscient argument. 2. He respected what he foresaw in the person e.g. the likelihood of coming to faith, intelligence, a "good" heart (none is good but God), a kind and loving nature, or whatever. This would, of course, make him a respecter of persons.

    Or he may have chosen to save us b/c it pleased him to do so and he didn't tell us exactly why. H also hardened Pharaoh's heart and then condemned him for having a hardened heart. God made one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable. I will not answer back to God "Why have you made me like this?" I will simply praise him for who he is and thank him for graciously saving me.

    I will close with an example. Why did God choose Abraham? About all that we know from scripture is that Abraham was in Ur and worshiped the God(s) his father worshiped – quite possibly the moon. God called him. Apparently he was chosen and I will assume it pleased God to do so and that it was in accordance with his eternal purposes – history tends to bear that out. But we are not told why God chose Abraham. I doubt very much that you would say God did it arbitrarily. Please let me know if I am mistaken in this regard.

    OK, one more last thing as I went back and read your previous comment. Speaking of Calvinism you said "…our merits are utterly beside the point, which does, in fact, lead to Calvinism." — Yes, our merits are beside the point in that they do not effect (i.e. cause) our election or justification. Of course, works are very much a part of the sanctification of a believer. Surely you are not presuming that our merits caused God to choose us in the first place. Please say it ain't so. Jay.


  7. Jay Guin says:

    Randall wrote,

    I am sure that you yourself make decisions and don't always tell others your reasons. That does not mean that you made them arbitrarily or capriciously as you may have simply not seen the necessity to share every last one of your thoughts with others.

    True — but not if I expect to receive glory for what I've done. If I choose to leave others perplexed, I hardly expect glory.

  8. Randall says:

    I know you don't mean to suggest that God does what he does in order that we will applaud.

  9. Jay Guin says:

    What does "to glorify Himself" mean if not that?

    Do the Calvinists not argue routinely that God elects to heaven or damnation unconditionally to show his glory?

  10. Randall says:

    You suggest that God glorifying himself means that God does things so that we will applaud. How could anyone be so mistaken? Are you really attempting to understand what a Calvinist believes and how he/she thinks or are you feeling so emotional about this subject matter that it is inhibiting your willingness to think and see rationally?

    We should never project our corrupt human attributes onto God! So often in the CofC I have seen people take a human emotion like jealousy or anger and think that God's emotions are the same. He reveals himself to us in language we can understand (to some extent) so that we can know him a little better. To ascribe human emotions to God is called anthropopathism just as ascribing human form to God is called anthropomorphism. I suppose we all do it to some extent, but we need to be careful that we don't fall victim to creating a God in our own image.

    God is glorious – it is his nature. Things that he does reveal his glory to us and we are in awe of him. But we should not regard him as a performer seeking or in need of our applause and appreciation. We do appreciate him, but he is in need of nothing from us. He is not incomplete w/o us. He existed quite happily (excuse my anthropopathism) enough from eternity past w/o us.

    I have provided a website here:

    This site contains a sermon by John Piper on the glory of God. If you read it you will understand better how a Calvinist understands the glory of God. I have no doubt you will be able to find a sentence that you can disagree with – especially if you will separate it from the larger context. I know you have been the victim of that type of thing in the past and pray you won't use the opportunity to create another straw man or caricature of what a Calvinist really believes.

    Over at GraceConversation you recently spoke of the "conservatives" and said the following:
    "And I don’t know any way for the two sides to reconcile except through dialogue — and it takes two to have a dialogue. If someone would rather debate than converse…"

    I hope you will read your own words and take them to heart. Do you want only to debate and win an argument or do you want to converse?