In different phases of church history, different doctrinal phrases and concepts become more or less central. Consider how you have heard people talk about the word “inerrancy.” Sometimes that word is all over the place. Other times, it is a part of our doctrinal foundation, even if we are not talking or writing about it. The same can be said for trinity, homoousious, election, or just about any concept.
One word that I have not heard much about in recent days is “imputation.” The theological concept of imputation includes the idea of God granting to those he has saved the righteousness of Christ. Imputed righteousness allows us to be people who are still imperfect, still struggling against sin in this fallen world, but who are simultaneously seen by God as bearing the perfection of Jesus. The perfect record of Christ’s righteousness is credited–imputed—to our accounts. Thus, God can look at us, correct us for our sin, sanctify us step-by-step, call us to repentance, and at the same time he looks at us and sees that we are fully forgiven and granted the perfection of Jesus and thus are his children, welcomed into his presence, and ready to be rewarded by him for the perfect obedience of the Savior.
Imputation is a beautiful, soul-comforting doctrine. It helps us to be able to confidently seek the Lord and approach him as his adopted children even while we know we must repent of sin. Imputation allows us to rest in the grace of Jesus instead of trying to work enough merit into our lives to earn God’s favor.
In my daily reading this morning, I saw the significance of imputation in an odd place. I found myself reading through Psalm 18, and I found that I could not imagine praying what David prayed. How could I say those words? Then I recognized that, on my own, I could not. But, with the imputed righteousness of Christ, I most certainly must. Read the psalm, And see how uncomfortable it makes you feel.
20 The Lord dealt with me according to my righteousness;
according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me.
21 For I have kept the ways of the Lord,
and have not wickedly departed from my God.
22 For all his rules were before me,
and his statutes I did not put away from me.
23 I was blameless before him,
and I kept myself from my guilt.
24 So the Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness,
according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight.
Can you imagine writing a song in which you declare that the Lord has rewarded you according to the cleanness of your hands? Can you imagine singing about God favoring you because of your righteousness? If you have no struggles here, I would guess that your picture of your own perfection is a little clouded. We are sinners. None of us is righteous enough before the Lord on our own to claim that God owes us goodness because of our own goodness.
But, bring in imputation. When God looks at my record, he sees the record of Christ. When God looks at my test scores, he sees the perfect answer sheet filled out by Christ. When God looks at my life-evaluation, he reads the life-evaluation of Jesus. Then, yes, I can say that God will reward me based on my righteousness, the righteousness imputed to my account in Christ.
2 Corinthians 5:21 – For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
What joy must we find in imputation! How awesome it is to think that God is not looking at me, mad at me, disappointed in me, but instead sees the righteousness of Christ. This is a good doctrine, and one we must not lose.
Now, let’s have the disclaimers. First, David knew that he was not perfect. Contextually, I also do not think David was seeing imputation. What David was dealing with specifically was the fact that he, as a leader, had not wronged those who were attacking him and trying to kill him. Because David had been faithful to the Lord and not a villain, he could say that God rewarded him with battle victory because of his righteousness.
Second, may we never allow the doctrine of imputation to lead us to a quietism that no longer strives against sin. Never has Christianity, biblical Christianity, been a willingness to continue in sin simply because grace has been applied. Those who know Jesus and grasp imputation will, because of the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives, battle against the evil still indwelling in our lives. Like a land owner who finds squatters on our claim, we battle against sin until our claim is free of those who do not belong there. We fight sin until it is gone. We participate in sanctification until our lives match the picture of imputation that God has already given us. So, please, do not allow yourself or anyone else to continue in sin out of a lazy acceptance of imputed righteousness; God never called us to live like that.
But, with disclaimers aside, may we all learn to love the truth that God has imputed to our accounts the righteousness of Jesus. We can trust in the resurrection of Jesus as our future resurrection too, because God already sees us with the perfect life of Jesus credited to our own records. We can trust that God will care for us, because he cares for his perfect Son.