A steady river of questions arrive from listeners seeking clarity on where Protestants differ from Roman Catholics. And there’s much to talk about. Today’s question comes from a listener named Jordan.
“Pastor John, hello, and thank you for this podcast. I’ve recently discovered that a ministry I closely associated with in the past does not believe that Jesus’s righteousness is imputed to us, but is imparted to us. Can you explain the difference between imputation and impartation? And how does the Bible explain these concepts about us in relationship to Christ?”
Ground of Our Acceptance
The Roman Catholic Church pronounced anathemas, curses, on the Reformers — like Luther, Calvin, Zwingli — and their Protestant heirs, like me, because the Reformers understood that the way we are justified before God is through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, his perfection, to us through faith alone.
“The work of Christ is the foundation for our acceptance, our forgiveness, our justification before God.”
The language of imputation comes especially from Romans 4, where Paul says, for example, in verses 4–5, “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted [or imputed] as righteousness.”
Or take Romans 4:6 as an example: “David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works.” The picture is that the work of Christ is the foundation or ground for our acceptance, our forgiveness, our justification before God.
The way it is the foundation is that it provides a historical moment in time when God imputes our sin to the sinless Jesus on the cross, and establishes his perfection and his righteousness with a consummating act of obedience, so that he could then impute to us, through faith, that righteousness when we believe.
We read in 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.” That’s the massive, unshakable, historical, once-for-all foundation and ground and basis for our justification.
A Glorious Moment
The way we participate in that great exchange — or substitution — is through faith. Paul says in Philippians 3:8–9, “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, 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.”
Faith is the instrument or the means through which God unites us to Christ. Paul’s words are “be found in him,” so that in him, in union with him, through faith, his righteousness is counted or imputed as being ours — though it’s not ours in the sense that we performed it or that we have become intrinsically good or virtuous or righteous.
Imputation is the work of God, through faith, by which we are declared or counted or imputed righteous because of Christ’s blood and righteousness. He bore our punishment and provided our righteousness. We get in on that by imputation through faith. This happens in the twinkling of an eye.
When God creates saving faith in the fallen human heart, in that instant the believer is united to Christ. All the benefits of Christ are counted as his. He has accepted us and loved us and forgiven us and counted us righteous so that we’re legally adopted into his family, secured forever.
As he says in Romans 8:30, “Those whom he justified he also glorified.” It’s as good as done. If you’re justified in the twinkling of an eye, you are as good as glorified in the last day. God will see to it that you maintain the faith and enjoy the benefits of union with Christ forever.
Now, one of the reasons that the Roman Catholic Church rejected this understanding of the Bible, this understanding of justification by faith alone through imputation, is that it seemed to them to lead to lawlessness. If Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us by faith alone, why should we pursue a daily, practical, righteous life — a holy life?
“Imputation is the work of God through faith by which we are counted righteous because of Christ.”
The way the Roman Catholic Church conceived of justification to prevent that lawlessness was to conceive of justification and sanctification — the becoming of practical holiness — as virtually the same.
Here’s what the Roman Catholic Council of Trent said: “Justification is not remission of sins merely, but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man, through the voluntary reception of . . . grace.” In other words, justification is not the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, but the impartation.
Here’s why this is such a big deal and why those two words matter hugely. The Roman Catholic Church would say that justification is the impartation of goodness or righteousness or holiness. It is a gift, but it is a real human virtue, a real obedience, a real transformation, a real sanctification. Justification is not a legal transaction; it is a moral transformation.
In view of what we’ve seen in the Bible, I agree with the Reformers that this is not what the New Testament teaches about justification. Romans 5:19: “As by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners [counted sinners, sin imputed them], so by one man’s obedience [Christ’s] the many will be made righteous.”
Growing in Righteousness
Now, besides being contrary to the Bible, there are two other problems with treating justification and sanctification as the same or treating justification as the impartation of righteousness instead of treating it as the imputation of righteousness. One of the problems is that if you do that, it destroys the New Testament way of life, the New Testament way of pursuing sanctification. It destroys the gospel way — the confident, hope-filled way of pursuing sanctification.
According to the New Testament, our sins are forgiven by grace through faith in an instant. We’re accepted by God. We’re counted righteous. We are secure in an instant. On the basis of that new standing with God, we are secure forever. Now, with that footing, we fight sin and pursue holiness as those who are already accepted, already secured, already perfected. Listen to two texts.
“The glory of Christ is diminished when impartation replaces imputation.”
Here’s 1 Corinthians 5:7: “Cleanse out the old leaven” — picturing sin as leaven in a lump of dough — “that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened.” That whole dynamic of Christian living is destroyed if justification is that all our sin is taken out of us already. We are supposed to get the leaven of sin out of us, so it must be there in a practical sense, because we are unleavened — that is, we are counted as having no leaven.
Let me say it even differently — and better, maybe — from Hebrews 10:14: “For by a single offering he [namely, Christ] has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” Amazing. In other words, you are now being sanctified — that is, you are practically being made holy, or perfect — and that is an evidence that by a single offering, you’re already perfect.
Study 1 Corinthians 5:7 and Hebrews 10:14. That whole way of life — of fighting sin and pursuing holiness — is on the basis of already being accepted, loved, holy, righteous, secure. That whole way of living is undermined by replacing imputation with impartation. This is no small thing. This is a very, very, very big deal. The Reformers didn’t risk their lives for nothing.
The last thing I would say that makes it a big deal is that the glory of Christ is diminished when impartation replaces imputation because that view does not honor Christ as having achieved a justifying righteousness that provides for the complete acquittal and vindication of all God’s people in the instant they believe. That is a glorious truth to be lost.