Crossway Books Interview With John Piper on “Counted Righteous in Christ”

CB: Terms like righteousness and imputation can be difficult to define. Can you help?

JP: By imputation I am referring to the act in which God counts sinners to be righteous 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.

CB: In what way has Christ become our substitute?

JP: Christ has become our substitute in two senses: In his suffering and death he becomes our curse and condemnation (Gal. 3:13; Rom. 8:3). And in his suffering and life he becomes our perfection (2 Cor. 5:21). On the one hand, his death is the climax of his atoning sufferings, which propitiate the wrath of God against us; on the other hand, his death is the climax of a perfect life of righteousness imputed to us.

CB: What factors led you to answer the challenge against the doctrine of the imputation of Christ?

JP: First, I have been preaching through Romans. This means that my mind and heart have been steeped in Paul's teaching on justification day and night for a long time. The effect on me has been significant. Christ's righteousness-fulfilling life and freely chosen death are more precious to me than ever. The doctrine of the imputation of God's righteousness in Christ has become clearer to me than ever.

Second, I have watched this doctrine of justification ignite both storms of controversy and great awakenings. I have noticed that these two are not neatly separated. So, with a passion for reformation and revival, I long to see this precious truth of the imputed righteousness of Christ defended, known, and embraced for the salvation of souls, the good of the church, and the advancement of Christ's kingdom in the world.

Third, the challenge to the imputation of Christ's righteousness reached a climax for me in a very unlikely place. In two successive issues of Books and Culture, Robert Gundry advanced a very questionable view of imputation. These two articles gave me the push I needed to respond, but he is not the sole or even main exponent of the challenge. He simply seems to be one of the most courageous and straightforward and explicit and clearheaded. He puts forward the relevant evidence and lays down the challenge unlike anyone else has.

CB: Some readers may not be up-to-date on this debate. Would you explain the current ideas concerning justification?

JP: Gundry's revision of the historic Protestant understanding of justification goes further than his rejection of the imputation of Christ's righteousness. For example, while he does affirm "justification as a forensic declaration of believing sinners to be righteous," he does not see justification as involving any positive imputation to the believer of divine righteousness-whether God's or Christ's.

He also says that our faith itself is our righteousness, because God counts it to be such. But this "righteousness"-this faith-is not imputed to us, but really is our righteousness in that we respond to God in faith (by grace) and God counts our faith to be what it is-righteousness. This is different from the traditional Protestant view that sees faith as the instrument that unites us to Christ in whom an alien righteousness, not our own, is imputed to us.

One further revision of historic Protestant teaching on justification follows from these revisions. Gundry understands justification to include liberation from slavery to sin. In other words, he blurs the distinct operations of God in justifying and sanctifying. On this view, justification is not purely God's bestowal of a right standing with him, but is also God's liberation of the believing sinner from the dominion of sin.

CB: To many, there's no apparent difference between justification and sanctification. Does it really matter?

JP: It does. Our only hope of progress in gradual sanctification (growing in likeness to Jesus) is that we already have a right standing with God by faith alone. By this justification we are accepted into God's favor and enjoy a reconciled position. This right standing establishes the very relationship in which we find the help and power to make progress in love.

CB: Are there a few key Scripture passages that illumine this subject?

JP: Romans 4:2-6 is the primary passage for considering the evidence that the righteousness imputed to us is external and not our faith. When Paul says of Abraham, or of those who believe like Abraham, that their faith "is credited for righteousness," he does not mean that righteousness consists of faith. He simply means that their faith connects them to the promise of God's imputed righteousness.

When you examine the flow of thought from Romans 3:20 to 4:6, it also becomes apparent that the external righteousness credited to us is God's. We have strong contextual evidence not only that Paul conceived of justification in terms of an imputation of external righteousness, but also that he thought of this righteousness as "the righteousness of God" that has been manifested now through the work of Christ and is received through faith as the remedy for us who cannot perform our own righteousness by works of the law. God reveals his own righteousness that we receive through free and gracious imputation by faith.

I think Romans 3:24-26 supports the idea that justification is not liberation from sin's mastery. The issue in this passage is how God can pass over sins (past, present, and future), not how God can transform sinners.

Overall, what gives some measure of plausibility to the rhetorical questions in Romans 6:1 and 6:15 is the doctrine of Romans 3-5 that justification is emphatically not liberation from the mastery of sin. It does not include sanctification. That is precisely what creates the need for Paul to write Romans 6-8: to show why God's imputing his own righteousness to us by faith apart from works does not result in lawlessness, but in fact necessarily leads to righteous living.

As to the question of whether the divine righteousness that is imputed to believers is the righteousness of Christ, I would go to Romans 5:12-19. This is one of the most crucial texts for the traditional Protestant teaching that Christ's righteousness and obedience are the expression of God's righteousness that is imputed to us by faith. This passage brings Paul's exposition of justification in Romans 3-5 to a climax with a stunning comparison between the effect of Adam's disobedience on those who are in him and the effect of Christ's obedience on those who are in him.

CB: In the day-to-day of life's struggles, what does an understanding of justification give to a believer?

JP: The full meaning of justification, as pardon and imputed perfection, has proved to be a mighty antidote to despair for the saints. John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim's Progress, was tormented with uncertainty about his standing with God until this doctrine broke in on his soul. We know that our measure of obedience, even on our best days, falls short of this standard. Our hope for acceptance with God and eternal life is the provision of Christ.

Alongside the pastoral preciousness of the doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ is the great truth that this doctrine bestows on Jesus Christ the full honor that he deserves. Not only should he be honored as the one who died to pardon us, and not only should he be honored as the one who sovereignly works faith and obedience in us, but he should also be honored as the one who provided a perfect righteousness.