Imputation. Not a word you use very often I would guess. Don’t give in to the temptation to skip over words you don’t know instead of learning words that open up new worlds. Imputation is one of those words. It’s important not just because it will impress everyone at the Scrabble table, but imputation is the only hope a Christian has for grace and salvation. Now, and when it’s our turn to be judged by the just and holy God, you better have a perfect, impeccable righteousness that will result in a verdict of “justified,” or “accepted.” God will welcome with a warm embrace all those with such a righteousness to live with him on a restored earth forever.
The terrifying certainty behind that wonderful desire is the fact that we know we’ve got no shot at that type of righteousness. What do we do with this truck-load of sins we’ve committed? If we can’t do any good works apart from God’s help, then even the good we do is on borrowed credit. Our god-less attempts at goodness are measly attempts to buy God off and aren’t even done with the right motive, and thus we not only need forgiven of our wrongdoing but we need forgiven of the “right” things we do for the wrong reasons. We’ve got no obedience of our own but an extensive track-record of disobedience with nobody to blame but ourselves.
This is why imputation is so important. It is the doctrine capturing the simple but splendid reality that our only hope for righteousness stands outside of us—in Christ—but can be credited to us through union with him. We aren’t righteous, and won’t be this side of the grave, but Christ is righteous and we can become righteous in him. John Piper defines imputation as “the act in which God counts sinners to be righteousness through their faith in Christ on the basis of Christ’s perfect ‘blood and righteousness,’ specifically the righteousness that Christ accomplished by his perfect obedience in life and death.”
Imputation tells us how justification—the article on which the Church stands or falls according to Martin Luther—takes place in a real way without any sleight of hand tricks from God. God doesn’t declare us righteous apart from us actually being righteous, but we only become righteous through receiving the righteousness of Jesus Christ as our own. It is a righteousness found outside of us—an alien righteousness—in Jesus, but it truly belongs to us. This is the doctrine we humbly boast in with these lyrics: “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling. Naked, come to thee for dress; Helpless look to thee for grace.” We come naked, without adequate attire to get us into the banquet, but through the spotless robe of Christ’s righteousness we garner a seat at the head table.
Gaining in Christ what was Lost in Adam
Maybe the best place to begin looking at justification through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is Romans 5:12-21. In this passage Paul sets up a compare and contrast between Adam and Jesus, the two representative figureheads of humanity. All people are born “in Adam” and Romans 5:12 says because he sinned as the head of humanity the rest of us are born spiritually dead. It’s not just that we’re corrupted through Adam but it says “all sinned” when he sinned, which is to say that his sin was counted for the humanity he represented. Adam’s sin is imputed, meaning reckoned or counted, to them as if it were their own (see I Cor. 15:22, 45-49).
Paul purposefully painted this bleak picture that all are born into so the gospel counterpart would shine more brightly. Though all are born in Adam, Christ stands as the second and final Adam (I Cor. 15:45) to be the head of a new humanity of all who in faith receive him. When we turn from our sin and place our faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ for our salvation, we are united to him. In Christ, through this union, we have “every spiritual blessing” (Eph. 1:3) and we receive all that Christ is and has to offer, including his righteousness. “You see that our righteousness is not in us but in Christ, that we possess it only because we are partakers in Christ; indeed, with him we possess all its riches.”
Paul unpacks what makes the gospel good news by contrasting the glorious blessings we have in Christ by faith to the dark miseries we had in Adam by birth. Whereas Adam brought about sin leading to condemnation leading to death, Christ brings righteousness by which we’re justified and enjoy eternal life. Just as Adam’s sin is imputed or reckoned to all united to him so also the righteousness of Jesus is imputed to all those one with him. Because of Christ’s righteousness in his perfect life, which culminated in the great act of his death and resurrection, grace reigns in him because we are justified and brought from death to life (5:16-21).
This imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us means that we’re now clothed with his perfect righteousness so that when the Father looks at us we are accepted and loved. It’s not that God overlooks our sin but that he forgives our sin. But the forgiveness of sins isn’t enough. Though we must have forgiveness of sins we also must have a righteousness acceptable to God. Forgiveness might get us to the place of “just as if I had never sinned” but imputation carries us to the standing of “just as if I had obeyed.” And it is this obedience that gains the approving, affectionate, and accepting welcome of God we call justification. “We are invited to live our whole life under his benediction, his smile, his love.”
This isn’t any sort of “legal fiction” where God declares something to be true that isn’t. Instead, it’s a legal transaction where he graciously gives and therefore makes true what’s demanded, namely righteousness. In Christ, God provides what he requires. Through union with Christ we receive all his benefits, including his perfect righteousness. When God sees it He can rightly declare over us the verdict of vindication and acceptance. “Therefore, since God justifies us by the intercession of Christ, he absolves us not by the confirmation of our own innocence but by the imputation of righteousness, so that we who are not righteous in ourselves may be reckoned as such in Christ.”
Getting the Law on Our Side
We see this reaffirmed in Philippians 3:8-9 as Paul considered his own good works as worthless, counting them as nothing “in order 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 comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” There is a righteousness from the law that God demands, and every time we sin our conscience remind us of both the requirements and our bankruptcy. And yet, the good news of the gospel is that by faith we have this righteousness the law demands; not in ourselves but found in the law-keeping Jesus. The very thing that terrifies a sinner—God’s righteousness—becomes by grace the thing a sinner exults in through imputation.
This is wonderful news. For all those in Christ Jesus there is no condemnation. The voice of the Judge—now our Father—isn’t “guilty and condemned” but “righteous and justified.” God is now for us, fully and forever. When we sin and are tempted to despair or worry that God might stand against us in anger we cling to the promise that our righteousness is in Christ. We confess our sin and seek to forsake it but we rest in Jesus’ obedience to earn God’s eternal favor towards us. Imputation and justification mean we are reconciled to God, loved and accepted by Him, given access to approach Him, and freed from fear in life or death. Imputation gives a rock-solid hope that when we wake up and when we fall to sleep—and every tick of the clock in-between—we can know God loves us and welcomes us. It’s the type of doctrine that fuels the passion of our worship, propels grateful obedience, and even comforts the Christian in their last breath. One of my favorite figures from Church History, J. Gresham Machen, understood the wonders of this truth. His dying words were a telegram to a friend—John Murray—saying, “I am so thankful for the active obedience of Christ [Christ’s righteousness imputed to us]. No hope without it.”
 John Piper, Counted Righteous in Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 2002), 42.
 Augustus Toplady, “Rock of Ages”.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. J. T. McNeill, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), III.XI.23: 753-54.
 Elyse M. Fitzpatrick, Found in Him (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013), 140.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. J. T. McNeill, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 728.
 Stephen J. Nichols, J. Gresham Machen (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 2004), 73.