2 Corinthians 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.”
The third manner in which imputation has a part to play in our Christian lives concerns the righteousness of God in the Lord Jesus Christ – a righteousness completely outside of ourselves, or we may say “alien” to us – which is credited to us by God. In other words when we put our trust in God, when we profess to become believers in Jesus Christ then God justifies us; he declares us to be and regards us for ever as completely righteous in Christ. I remember at a conference of students in the Gower peninsula near Swansea one cold January week-end in 1959 we were taught this truth by the late Elwyn Davies who died two weeks ago. For that gift alone I’ve been in his debt for almost half a century (but there were other truths which he also helped me grasp).
There is a point I want to make from my experience and it is this, that in fact I had been justified for over four years before that 1959 conference, since the year I’d become a Christian. Do you understand? The righteousness of Christ had been imputed to me, unknown to me four years earlier. In fact I had not understood many of the implications of believing in Jesus Christ. I guess my idea of being a Christian was being forgiven because of the cross and then getting on as best I could in following Christ. Now my point is this, that God did not wait until I understood the imputed righteousness of Christ before he accounted it to me. He justified me; he clothed me with his Son’s righteousness. More than that, he adopted me into his family; he took away the lordship of sin over my life; he put me in union with Christ. I wasn’t aware he had done those things; I didn’t know that I needed those things to be done to me, but God did them as I put my trust in Jesus Christ, as God does to every Christian without exception, while I had no comprehension of those blessings at all.
Do you see what I am saying? That my teenage ignorance was no barrier to God doing these things for me. In other words for these essential blessings in the Christian life God does not first have to persuade us that they are true, and then further persuade us to agonize for them until finally he gives them to us. It is not like that at all. It is never like that. Rather he grants them to us in his grace, and then for the rest of our lives we come to understand more and more the many privileges we have in being a mere believer, an ordinary disciple of the Lord. The experience of discovering the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is like a man who is digging a hole in a field and stumbles across treasure. That greatly enriches our appreciation of the grace of God. So let me begin to examine the blessed teaching of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to everyone who believes.
1. IMPUTATION IS A COMMON CONCEPT IN THE BIBLE AND IN THE WORLD TODAY.
Let me remind you again of what this word ‘imputation’ means. It does not mean to infuse like a blood transfusion provides me with new energy. It does not mean inhale, like inhaling oxygen helps me to survive. It does not mean impart – as if God were supplying you with a part of Christ’s blessing. Imputation is different; it is a change of status. It is often translated, “to count as,” “to account,” or “to reckon as.” Imputation is a declaration that your sin has been dealt with by Christ and his righteousness has been credited to you. Let me again give you some examples to show you how in little details during the Old Testament the concept of imputation was a daily attitude and a common term, for example,
i] this word is used in Leviticus 7:17 and 18 regarding instructions about peace offerings. You brought an animal to the altar and you sacrificed it and its death brought pardon for your sin. You ate portions of it and the priest had a portion of it too. Then Moses writes: “Any meat of the sacrifice left over till the third day must be burned up. If any meat of the fellowship offering is eaten on the third day, it will not be accepted. It will not be credited to the one who offered it, for it is impure;” Moses is saying that the worshipper will miss the benefits of the sacrifice – forgiveness and reconciliation – if he hangs on to the sacrifice longer than two days. Those benefits of pardon won’t be imputed to him; he must destroy the uneaten portions on that third day. He needs to make fresh offerings for fresh sins.
ii] Again the same idea is found in Genesis 31:14 and 15 as Rachel and Leah reason to themselves about their father’s strange unloving attitude toward them. What is their Dad doing? “Do we still have any share in the inheritance of our father’s estate? Does he not regard us as foreigners? For he has sold us, and also completely consumed our money.” Though they were obviously not foreigners, their father, Laban, was treating them as if they were, selling them and taking all their money. He was imputing to them the status of an alien. In his mind and by his action he was changing the standing of his own daughters. He was regarding them as foreigners. That again is imputation.
iii] Again when the Israelites began wholesale adulteries with Midianite women God punished them with a plague. Then Phinehas the priest took a spear and impaled one of the men and his lover, and this judicial covenant act ended the spread of the plague. According to the narrative in Numbers 25, the Lord rewarded his action with promises of blessing. Later a Psalmist recounts the event, he puts it like this: “But Phinehas stood up and intervened, and the plague was checked. This was credited to him as righteousness for endless generations to come” (Psalm 106:30–31). “You are not a criminal murderer for ending their lives but a righteous man,” God said. That again is imputation.
iv] Again, Paul demonstrates his gracious spirit in his second letter to Timothy when he tells him of his indictment in the Roman court: “At my first defence, no-one came to my support, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them” (2 Timothy 4:16), in other words, may God be merciful and may their sin of abandoning Paul at his hour of need not be imputed to them. So here is a very common concept of crediting something to a person’s account, or of regarding a person as if what was charged to his account was now his. Those who did not stand with Paul were guilty, probably of cowardice, certainly of lack of loyalty and love, and yet Paul does not want this guilt imputed to them.
So here is a common enough concept both in the ancient world and also today. There is nothing phoney or contrived here. Imputation is not at all “like a substance or gas passing through a court room.” We ask the bishop who said that to come and live in the real world not the one his theology has erected. Imputation is everywhere. We have seen it in the New Testament, for example, when Paul writes a letter to Philemon telling this slave owner that if the run away slave is in debt to him for any valuables he might have stolen from him then reckon all that to Paul’s account. “Impute the debt to me,” says the apostle. Now you know how the Holy Spirit is always taking ordinary relationships and business transactions and comparing them to how it is between Jesus Christ and ourselves; [One], we were slaves, but our ransom place has been paid and we are free. ]Two] we are now married to Jesus Christ; from heaven he came and sought us to be his holy bride. [Three] as a branch is grafted into a tree we have been grafted into Christ the true vine. [Four] we have been adopted into God’s family; [Five] we have been made joint heirs with Jesus Christ. In these pictures from real life – and there are many more – we perceive how comprehensive and rich our salvation is. God has made creation with his beloved Son’s redemption in mind. So it is with imputation, there is this salvific picture firstly of Christ being credited with something – our guilt! Then secondly of our being credited with something – Christ’s own righteousness!
2. WE HAVE BEEN PREPARED FOR THE IMPUTATION OF THE MESSIAH’S RIGHTEOUSNESS BY THE OLD TESTAMENT.
Do we not see a hint of this in Genesis three when our first parents fell, and naked and ashamed hid from God. Then God took two animals and killed and skinned them and clothed Adam and Eve in those skins. God did it. He took the initiative. They did not suggest this to him. Doesn’t that action of Jehovah sow a tiny seed in your minds of the sort of God he is?
Again, you find the idea embedded in one of the very names of God – Jehovah Tsidkenu, “the Lord our Righteousness” (Jeremiah 23:6, 33:16). Some of you might remember how Robert Murray M’Cheyne took that divine title and made it the theme of one of his hymns, “I once was a stranger to grace and to God.” He wrote,
When free grace awoke me by light from on high,
Then legal fears shook me, I trembled to die;
No refuge, no safety in self could I see;
‘Jehovah Tsidkenu’ my Saviour must be.
Again, the prophet Isaiah tells us that something wonderful had happened to him. He had been clothed in the garments of righteousness: “I delight greatly in the LORD; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels” (Is. 61:10). God is going to cover all his people with righteousness, and again that picture of the mere Christian dressed in robes of righteousness has been taken and turned into doxology. How often in a prayer meeting do you hear a brother praising God that he has clothed him with the righteousness of his own son Jesus Christ? It is referred to in that precise way in many wonderful hymns;
What was the theme of Count Zinzendorf’s praise?
Jesus Thy blood and righteousness my beauty are, my glorious dress;
Midst flaming worlds in these arrayed with joy shall I lift up my head.
This spotless robe the same appears when ruined nature sinks in years!
No age can change its glorious hue; the robe of Christ is ever new.
Nicholas Von Zinzendorf, 1706-60 tr, John Wesley, 1703-91
Again Charles Wesley could sing;
No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus and all in him, is mine!
Alive in him, my living head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach the eternal throne,
And claim the crown through Christ my own.
Charles Wesley 1707-88).
Again, what was Edward Motes’ hope built upon? It was Jesus’ blood and righteousness:
When he shall come with trumpet sound,
O may I then in him be found,
Dressed in his righteousness alone,
Faultless to stand before the throne.
Edward Mote 1797-1874
What was M’Cheyne’s confidence?
When I stand before the throne
Dressed in beauty not my own.
Or there is the hymn of Isaac Watts, “Thy Works Not Mine O Christ” and again it’s not long before he is singing about the robe of righteousness;
Thy righteousness, O Christ, alone can cover me:
No righteousness avails save that which is of thee.
Isaac Watts 1674-1748
So we have been prepared for the imputation of the righteousness of Christ in the Old Testament.
3. THE IMPUTATION OF THE RIGHTEOUSNESS OF CHRIST IS CLEARLY TAUGHT IN THE NEW TESTAMENT.
Let me refer you to three passages in particular:
i] Think of the mighty letter to the Romans so logically and affectionately declaring the great achievements of Jesus Christ. The letter is like a great sermon and Paul sets out his text early on in the opening chapter that in the gospel “the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith’” (Romans 1:17). The gospel is about righteousness? How can that be good news to anyone? That is our problem, that we have none, while God is all righteousness. How can the righteousness of God be good news to any sinner? You know how Paul goes about this in the Romans’ letter, that he first establishes the futility of trying to construct a righteousness by your own efforts. It is like building a ladder out of sand; it will never reach heaven. Then he goes on to announce this remarkable message, that “now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe” (Romans 3:21–22). Do you see this righteousness that Paul is speaking about? It is not something flat and static like the ten commandments written on stone tablets. This righteousness is dynamic; it is living, stirring, moving and it’s coming to you. It’s on its way to every single believer; it’s coming right up to him and into his mind and heart as he hears this gospel, and as he embraces it then it embraces him and it covers him. This gospel righteousness comes to him, in him and is upon him from head to foot, inside and outside, and it’s upon all who believe. It is not the righteousness that smites us down and condemns us, no, it is the imputed righteousness of Christ that is revealed and received through faith. All who believe will certainly receive this righteousness as God’s gift.
ii] See again how Paul states this so specifically in Philippians chapter three and verses eight and nine, “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.” I ask Christian students what is the reason why 95% of the students at the university never darken the doors of churches or Christian Union meetings? “They think we are asking them to be more moral. ‘Straighten up! Sort yourself out!’ That is what they understand the message of Christianity to be all about – us telling them, ‘Live a more moral life! Stop your drinking and fornicating and taking drugs!’” But do you see what these words of Paul are saying? “I tried all that moralism. Been there. Done that. Lived a righteous life, and I was utterly lost. I turn away from that message and think of my morality as rubbish. There is just one thing I want, to gain Christ, to be found in him, to have his righteousness through trusting in him.” How far from moralism this message is. God’s righteousness comes to you – see it alive, vibrant, homing in on you, it is here to day in irresistible grace – through trusting in Christ – the first definitive time you receive it, and then henceforward day by day – from faith to faith.
iii] In Romans chapter five we have the two great solidarities spelled out, all mankind is in Adam or in Christ. Everyone here today is either in Adam or in Christ – no unaligned are to be found, no neutrals are permitted. There are just two camps one or the other. In Romans five we are shown the parallel between these two, how Adam’s work affected his posterity – Woe! – but Christ’s work has affected those who are in him. Adam’s sin brought death (v. 15), judgment and condemnation (v. 16) to the whole human race with no exceptions. There is no hidden valley in the Himalayas that nobody knows about whose inhabitants have escaped the effects of the fall. There is no tribe deep in the Brazilian jungle that have never seen a westerner and so are living in primitive peace and joy – no! In Adam all die. But Christ’s work is full of hope for all who are in him. It results in God’s grace (v. 15), justification (vv. 15, 18) and righteousness (vv. 17, 19) coming to sinners. The “gift” that came “by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ” (v. 15) “resulted in justification” (v. 16). In verse 17 this gift is called the “gift of righteousness.” It is through a wonderful divine present of righteousness from Jesus Christ that justification comes to sinners. Listen to the dignity and power of the language of verses 17, 18 & 19, “If, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. 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. 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.”
Do you see Paul’s insistence here? How strongly he declares this! You must grasp this, he is saying, that it is through Jesus’ “one act of righteousness” – that is, through the whole of Jesus’ life and ministry – that this “gift of righteousness” comes to sinners. This, the apostle says, results in “justification that brings life for all men” (v. 18). “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” (v. 19). Christ’s obedience will result in many being “made righteous” – by imputation – in that same way all men were made sinners by the disobedience of Adam – by imputation. The gospel of Christianity declares that on the basis of the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ, his righteousness is imputed to all who believe. This is the point of the parallel between Adam and Christ – just as Adam’s sin was imputed to all his posterity, so Christ’s righteousness is imputed to all who turn from unbelief and trust in him.
4. WHAT THIS RIGHTEOUSNESS OF CHRIST CONSISTS OF.
Let’s start at the most basic level, that this is the real day-to-day righteous life of a human being; it had nothing to do with a movement of a cloud of gas in a court of law. It was often a sweaty, painful, tough achieving of righteousness. For Christ to obtain it wasn’t a breeze. It is rather the kind of righteousness you can only obtain by sacrifice – a plucking out the right eye type of righteousness. The righteousness of the man Christ Jesus is the measureless accumulation of trillions of thoughts and feelings and words and deeds over 33 years by this one true and good man. This righteousness is not an attribute of God that Jesus brought into the world with him from heaven – that righteousness that had been eternally displayed up there, in his love to his Father and to the Holy Spirit, or in his graciousness towards the angels. Not that at all! Such righteousness was a reality but we are not first of all talking about that, we are considering real human righteousness.
Consider how Paul tells us that Jesus was born of a woman – just like us, bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. His birth gave his mother pangs and pains; he came painfully into the world like every baby, and the world he entered was a world of pain. The first Adam had been asked to fulfil righteousness in paradise; the last Adam was asked to fulfil it in a groaning creation. It was a world of human cruelty, and human weakness, and hunger and thirst. There was scourging in this world where Jesus was required to live a righteous life; there was torture, and mockery, and ridicule. They stoned women to death, and they crucified men. There were nails and hammers and gambling; demon possessed men were bound with chains and left to survive for themselves in a graveyard, and into one such cemetery Jesus went to fulfil all righteousness. Into that kind of world, in the concreteness of a human body, and in his flesh and blood reality, God the Son came, and he came to love God totally and to love man as himself. God did not build into the body of Jesus any immunity to pain. He was not sheltered from overwhelming grief. Pain came seeking him once his ministry began and it never left him. It was very taxing for him to fulfil all righteousness. There were times he needed to get away from it all if he were to keep sane. It cost him everything; he could hold back nothing.
I am insisting on this, do you see, that Christ fulfilled all righteousness with a human brain, and human arms, and human legs, and human physical energy. Day by day he presented his body as a living sacrifice to God. That was his reasonable service, and alongside that body was an inseparable human psychology. A human mind, a human soul, a human way of knowing and at times of not knowing, that was how the righteousness of Christ increased over his lifetime from one month old to thirty-three years of age. It was in his human body and mind that he maintained and created this righteousness, and I am saying that this human righteousness grew and developed by the whole range of human emotions and fears and sorrows and amazement and joy that he experienced. This righteousness was not ethereal like a shadow or a cobweb; it grew tough and strong as Satan came to him and tempted him without any restraints. It was a proved and tested righteousness. At every point Jesus was tempted not to live a righteous life, and yet he did live it day after day. So Paul reminds us that Christ was born of a woman.
Then he adds this, that Christ was born under the law. That constraint also structured his righteousness. First there was the moral law and he kept that: no other God beside the Lord; not making or serving any idol; not misusing the name of the Lord; remembering the Sabbath day to keep it holy; honouring your father and mother; not murdering; not committing adultery; not stealing; not giving a false witness; not coveting. This is how Christ lived each day. The law is of course inward in its demands, and Jesus kept it inwardly, from his heart, not reluctantly but lovingly; he desired no law breaking ever. Then secondly there is the Old Testament ceremonial law, in other words the Son of God submitted himself to circumcision, to the feasts in Jerusalem, to keeping the Sabbath day and going to the synagogue, to paying temple tax. He did all that throughout his life. Then thirdly there was the civil law, to keep the civil requirements of the books of Moses, to pay to Caesar the things that were Caesar’s, to carry a legionnaire’s bag for a mile – all the civil legislation and Jesus kept it. The God of Sinai became incarnate and he fulfilled all righteousness by keeping the law which he himself had given. That is the active obedience of Christ.
So when the Bible says that the righteousness of Christ is imputed to every man or woman who believes in him it is the righteousness of a human being that is being referred to, bone of our bones. It is the righteousness of someone born under the law who fulfilled all righteousness by keeping the law just as any other man must. However, he was not just like any other man, even though he was the best of men and the perfect man. Jesus, the Word made flesh, was not only human he was divine. The Word was in the beginning, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. Whatever constituted God Jesus had that. Whatever is the essence of God Jesus had that. Whatever God is then Jesus was that too. He had every single perfection of God and every attribute of God. He was infinite, eternal, unchangeable; he was omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient and omnicompetent. Jesus had the glory of God, the likeness of God, the nature of God, the being of God, the names of God and the prerogatives of God. So his righteousness also had all those qualities too. Remember it was a true human righteousness achieved by living in the same fallen world under the same pressures that we all live under. It was a tempted and tested righteousness, but it was also divine, an infinite, eternal, enduring and unchangeable righteousness because it was the righteousness of the God-man.
This righteousness is immeasurably vast. It is enough to cover every atom and electron and neutron in the cosmos. In the Old Testament there were holy pots and pans; holy garments; holy places; a holy city. That is those things were set apart to God. In the world to come everything will be set apart to God. The righteousness of the God-man could cover every grain of sand, every blade of grass, every drop of rain, every insect, bird and animal, ever planet, star, and galaxy. I am saying, that there is nothing in all creation that the righteousness of Christ could not come upon and transform into a righteous status, and one day it will do just that, when there will be a new heaven and new earth in which righteousness shall dwell – all the cosmos redolent with the righteousness of Christ. But even after it has done all that there will still be an infinite and endless righteousness in all the fullness of Christ that could cover another million fallen universes and then there will be yet more infinite righteousness to spare. Infinite righteousness, yet Jesus’ own, the carpenter’s from Nazareth, a real human righteousness, one we can identify with, one familiar to us, not the righteousness of spirits in heaven but of men and women who have to keep the law of God in this world. This is the divine-human righteousness of Jesus Christ.
Where is it today? It is where Christ himself is. That is a wonderfully safe place to be. John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim’s Progress was tormented with uncertainty about his relationship with God until the truth of the imputed righteousness of Christ broke in on his soul, but when he saw it, it changed everything. Bunyan described it in these words:
“One day as I was passing into the field . . . this sentence fell upon my soul. ‘Thy righteousness is in heaven.’ And me thought, withal, I saw with the eyes of my soul Jesus Christ at God’s right hand; there, I say, is my righteousness; so that wherever I am, or whatever I am doing, God could not say of me, ‘he lacks my righteousness,’ for that was there in front of him. I also saw, moreover, that it was not my good frame of heart that made my righteousness better, nor yet my bad frame that made my righteousness worse, for my righteousness was Jesus Christ himself, “The same yesterday, today and, and forever.” . . . Now did my chains fall off my legs indeed. I was loosed from my afflictions and irons; my temptations also fled away; so that from that time those dreadful scriptures of God [e.g. Hebrews 12:16 –17] left off to trouble me; now went I also home rejoicing for the grace and love of God
5. IT IS NOT ENOUGH THAT THE RIGHTEOUSNESS OF CHRIST HAS BEEN IMPUTED TO US.
It is indispensable, but it is not enough.
i] It covers our sins but it does not atone for our unrighteousness. It transforms our status for ever, but it does not obtain a pardon for our transgressions. For that the Lamb of God had not only to live blamelessly he must set his face to Jerusalem and die. It is not enough for his righteousness to be imputed to those who believe, our sins must be imputed to him and condemned in him. Not enough for him to obey the law for us; he must pay its penalty for us too. We need the Saviour to do both in our place. The life that I have not lived, as well as the death I dare not die were both his singular achievements, and that is my hope. On another’s life and on another’s death I stake my whole eternity. That is what the Lord Jesus has done, not only lived the blameless life I should live, but he has tasted the death I deserve to die.
Jacob tricked his father into giving him his blessing, covering his arms with skins and bringing in a dish of wild game, deceiving his father into thinking he was Esau and so receiving the first-born’s blessing. There is no way we can cover ourselves in anything that will deceive God. One robe of righteousness exists in all the universe. Be clothed in that today! One God-man alone. One Mediator beween God and man. One name given amongst men whereby we must be saved. In the gospel we don’t get God’s great blessings by deceit but by divine works of imputation. There is just one person to whom to go today. He is the one who was made sin for us, and the same one who was made the righteousness of God for us. Because of imputation God can justly look at me and in his sight my sin is all gone for ever, dealt with exhaustively and eternally on Golgotha; in Christ I am righteous for ever. No condemnation now I dread; Jesus and all in him is mine.
ii] It is sufficient to cover the sins of the whole human race but sinners will still perish unless they make Jesus Christ their only plea, their defence, their hope, their confidence for ever. Unless a sinner will say, “Nothing in my hand I bring to you; I plead his blood and righteousness,” and with that plea God is satisfied.
So what did Paul do? He pleaded with men to be reconciled to God. I then must say to you to go to God and cry mightily, “Please have mercy on me. Do not hold me guilty. Impute that righteousness to me or I will die. I need what Jesus did for favoured sinners or I have nothing at all. Regard me in Christ. Hold me answerable in Christ. Hold me up and set my feet on Christ the solid rock; all other ground is sinking sand.”
How good are you? How good are you before a holy God? Not very good at all. How good is Jesus Christ before a holy God? As good as God himself. Don’t you want to be treated as Christ himself? The devil will say to you, “Too good to be true.” Imputation will say “Yes you can be in Christ, a new creation, without condemnation, a new creation.” A glorious imputation is being offered to you this moment. God will impute your sin to his Son and his righteousness to you. Plead with him to do so I beseech you to be reconciled to God. May this great transaction be done today, done in you once and for all. Then live a life from one day of trusting to another, from faith to faith.
13th August 2007. GEOFF THOMAS