One of the key results of the Protestant reformation is our modern understanding of the concept of imputation. Yes, that’s one of those theological terms that some have heard often and others ignore right away. So, let me try to make it simple, because it is a term you need to understand in order to understand the gospel.
Sometimes the concept of imputation is shown to us in our translations with the word “counted.” Here I do not mean counting, 1-2-3-4-. Instead, I mean counting as in crediting something to your account.
Think of these lines from the Old Testament.
Genesis 15:6 – And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.
Psalm 32:2 – Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
Notice how the word counted is used. In Genesis 15:6, Abraham simply believed God, and God counted that belief as if it were righteousness. In Psalm 32:2, David exults in the concept of God not counting iniquity against him. These are two sides of the same coin. In Abraham’s case, God credits or counts to Abraham a righteousness that he had never lived. In David’s case, God does not count against him the sin that he had actually committed.
The concept of imputation is this counting that we see here. Imagine your life on a balance sheet, positive and negative acts and thoughts all laid out in columns. In order to please the Lord, you must have all positives and no negatives. Not only must you have no negatives, but the positives have to add up to a perfection that equals that of the holy God of the universe. Thus, left to ourselves, we are hopeless. WE cannot get rid of our negatives, and our positives do not add up to infinite perfection.
Thus, we need God to impute to us a perfection that is actually foreign to our existence. We need our sin to be forgiven, and we need the righteousness that will please God to be credited to our accounts, even though we cannot possibly live that righteousness on our own.
One of the major issues at stake during the reformation is this issue of counting, of imputation. Does God credit us with righteousness by his grace through faith alone, even if we have never been able to live that righteousness? Or does God forgive our sins, but then require us to live out a certain level of goodness through participation in sacraments in order to actually walk into the righteousness that will please him? Is salvation a gift that is by grace alone through faith alone, or must the good works of ourselves and others be added to faith to bring us into heaven?
Interestingly, Paul uses the two Old testament passages that we read earlier to help us know the answer to this question. The apostle was particularly talking about the question of whether or not a gentile must be circumcised to be saved. But the ultimate question at hand is whether or not our doing good works has anything to do with our justification.
Romans 4:1-8 – 1 What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, 6 just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: 7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; 8 blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”
Romans 4:23-25 – 23 But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, 24 but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, 25 who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.
Notice the point that Paul makes at some length. Our salvation is not about works. Works would earn something, earn a payment. But having righteousness credited to us shows us that it is a gift from God apart from works.
Thus, salvation is a gift. When God brings us to a point where we believe in Christ for salvation, God credits us with a gift. He erases our negative side of the ledger because of the sacrificial death of Jesus. He also fills the positive side of our ledger with perfection, crediting us with the perfect life that Jesus lived. But you and I have never lived that perfection. The crediting is imputation, and it is a beautiful and marvelous thing.
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.
God treated Jesus as if he had committed our sin. He treats us as if we lived Jesus’ perfection. This is biblical Christianity. This is cause for worship. This is a God worth loving.