Faith and the Imputation of Righteousness

Therefore IT WAS also CREDITED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS. 23 Now not for his sake only was it written that it was credited to him, 24 but for our sake also, to whom it will be credited, as those who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, 25 He who was delivered over because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification.

What Does "Credited" Mean?

One more question before we leave chapter four of this great letter to the Romans. It comes from verse 22: "Therefore, it [faith] was credited to him [Abraham] as righteousness." So it says that faith is counted as righteousness. We saw this in verse 3: "Abraham believed God and it [his believing] was credited to him as righteousness." And we saw it in verse 5b, "His [the one who believes in him who justifies the ungodly] faith is credited as righteousness." We saw it in verse 9b: "Faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness."

Now what does this mean? Does it mean that faith itself is the kind of righteousness we perform and God counts that as good enough to be our righteousness - or our part of the righteousness - in justification? Does he mean that justification, let's say, costs five million dollars and I can come up with one million dollars (namely, faith), so God mercifully says he will count my one million as five million and cancel the rest? That would make my faith the righteousness imputed to me - or a significant part of it. So justification would be God's recognizing in me a righteousness that he put there and that he acknowledges and counts for what it really is. Is that what Paul means when he says, "faith is credited as righteousness"?

Or is justification something very different - not God's seeing any righteousness in me, but his crediting to me his own righteousness in Christ through faith? And if so, what does it mean to say that faith is credited as righteousness?

And Why Does It Matter?

Before I answer, let me tell you why I am giving an entire sermon to this question before we launch into chapter five, Lord willing, next week.

First, it's because the phrase is so liable to misunderstanding: "Faith is credited as righteousness" sounds like faith is recognized to be righteousness. But I am persuaded that is not what it means.

Second, because Paul spends so much time on this phrase from Genesis 15:6 -a whole chapter. As if, to get this wrong would be to go wrong on something very important. And that is true. Is your legal standing with God as righteous based on what he is or what you are? You may not see why this is very big, but it is big. On this hangs the fullness of the glory of God's grace in your justification, and on this hangs the fullness of the enjoyment of your peace in justification. And not only yours but all those you should bless with the gospel. So God's glory and your peace are at stake in this question.

"Imputation" - an Important Word to Understand

Third, because Ephesians 4:14 says the goal of my preaching ministry should be that you "are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine." I want you to be strong and stable and mature. In particular, I want you to know the doctrine of the imputation of God's righteousness in Christ. I know "imputation" is a big and unusual word. But this is the word that has been used for hundreds of years to describe the truth that God "imputes" his righteousness to us through faith because of Christ's obedience. Why should you be denied what tens of thousands of strong Christians have been strengthened by for centuries - the "imputation" of God's righteousness in Christ? It's a glorious truth that will change your life if you see it and savor it for what it is.

"Imputation" is different from "impartation." God does "impart" to us gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit, so that we have them and they are in us growing and they are ours. But all of that gracious impartation through the Spirit is built on an even more firm foundation, namely, imputation - the work of God outside of us: God's own righteousness, not imparted to us, but imputed to us. Credited to us, as Romans 4:6 and 11 say. Put to our account. Reckoned to be ours. I ask myself as a pastor, Why should the people of Bethlehem be denied the knowledge of this great doctrine that has sustained saints for centuries? Why should we cave in to the modern pragmatism that says doctrine is impractical? And I answer: we shouldn't.

Fourth, the experience of God's people through the centuries has shown what a treasure this truth is in bringing people from the darkness of unbelief to the light of hope and joy in Christ. One example is John Bunyan, the writer of Pilgrim's Progress, who struggled terribly before he came to a settled faith in Christ. Here's what he wrote:

One day as I was passing into the field . . . this sentence fell upon my soul. Thy righteousness is in heaven. And methought, withal, I saw with the eyes of my soul Jesus Christ at God's right hand; there, I say, was my righteousness; so that wherever I was, or whatever I was doing, God could not say of me, he wants [lacks] my righteousness, for that was just before [in front of] him. I also saw, moreover, that it was not my good frame of heart that made my righteousness better, nor yet my bad frame that made my righteousness worse, for my righteousness was Jesus Christ himself, "The same yesterday, today and, and forever" (Hebrews 13:8).

Now did my chains fall off my legs indeed. I was loosed from my afflictions and irons; my temptations also fled away; so that from that time those dreadful scriptures of God left off to trouble me; now went I also home rejoicing for the grace and love of God. (John Bunyan, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, [Hertfordshire: Evangelical Press, 1978, orig. 1666], pp. 90-91)

Perhaps the most pointed way I could put it would be this: I linger over this issue of the imputed righteousness of God in Christ because when I stand by your bed in the hour of your death, I want to be able to look down into your face and remind you of the most comforting words in all the world, and have you rejoice with solid Biblical understanding in what I mean when I say: "Remember, Christ is your righteousness. Christ is your righteousness. Your righteousness is in heaven. It's the same yesterday today and forever. It doesn't get better when your faith is strong. It doesn't get worse when your faith is weak. It is perfect. It is Christ. Look away from yourself. Rest in him. Lean on him."

And not only do I want you to cherish this for the sake of your death, but also for the sake of your evangelism and for the sake of missions. The gospel is the power of God unto salvation, Paul says in Romans 1:16-17, because in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith. I believe this refers to the gift of God's imputed righteousness that we receive by faith. Paul says that the gospel has power because this is what it reveals. This is what I want the Maninka people of Guinea to hear and understand and believe. And the Uzbeks and the Kazaks and the Sukumu and the Somali and your children and your parents and neighbors and colleagues.

Does Paul Mean "Our Faith Is Our Righteousness?

So here is my answer to the question. No, when Paul says "Faith is credited to us as righteousness," he does not mean that our faith is our righteousness, or any part of our justifying righteousness. He means that faith is what unites us with Christ and all that God is for us in him. When God sees faith in Christ, he sees union with Christ. And when he sees union with Christ, he sees the righteousness of Christ as our righteousness. So faith connects us with Christ who is our righteousness and, in that sense, faith is counted as righteousness. Faith sees and savors all that God is for us in Christ, especially his righteousness. That's what faith does.

Now what is the Biblical basis of that interpretation? John Owen, in volume five of his Works (pp. 318-319) gives five arguments, and John Murray in his commentary on Romans gives nine arguments (pp. 353-359) why "faith credited as righteousness" does not mean that faith is our righteousness. I will give a few of these.

First, notice that at the end of verse 6 and at the end of verse 11 in Romans 4 you have a very different way of expressing "imputation" or crediting. At the end of verse 6 it says, "God credits righteousness apart from works." And at the end of verse 11 it says, ". . . that righteousness might be credited to them." Notice: in both of these, faith is not the thing credited as righteousness, but righteousness is the thing credited to us. "God credits righteousness," not "God credits faith as righteousness." What this does is alert us to the good possibility that when Paul says, "Faith is credited as righteousness," he may well mean, "God credits righteousness to us through faith."

Second, look at Romans 3:21-22, "But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe." Notice that it is God's righteousness that comes to us through faith. Faith is what unites us to God's righteousness. Faith is not God's righteousness.

Third, 2 Corinthians 5:21, "He [God] made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him." Here we have a double imputation. God imputed our sins to Christ who knew no sin. And God imputed his righteousness to us who had no righteousness of our own. The key phrases for us are "the righteousness of God" and "in Him." It's not our righteousness that we get here. It is God's righteousness. And we get it not because our faith is righteous, but because we are "in Christ." Faith unites us to Christ. And in Christ we have an alien righteousness. It is God's righteousness in Christ. Or you can say it is Christ's righteousness. He takes our sin. We take his righteousness.

Fourth, consider 1 Corinthians 1:30. John Bunyan said that, after that experience in the field where the imputed righteousness of Christ hit him so powerfully, he went home and looked for Biblical support. He hit upon 1 Corinthians 1:30. "But by His [God's] doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption." "By this scripture," Bunyan said, "I saw that the man Christ Jesus . . . is our righteousness and sanctification before God. Here therefore I lived for some time very sweetly at peace with God, through Christ" (Grace Abounding, p. 91).

Christ Is Our Righteousness

This text says that Christ became to us (or for us) "righteousness." And the reason Christ is our "righteousness" in this way is that we are "in Christ Jesus." "You are in Christ Jesus who became to us . . . righteousness." Christ is our righteousness, not faith. Faith unites us to Christ and all that God is for us in him. But what he is for us in him is righteousness.

So then what is the point of all this? The point is this: When Paul says in Romans 4:22 (and verses 3, 5, and 9) that "faith is credited as righteousness," he does not mean that our faith is our righteousness. He means that our faith unites us to Christ so that God's righteousness in Christ is credited to us.

Here's a very imperfect analogy. But I will risk it in the hope of greater understanding. Suppose I say to Barnabas, my sixteen-year-old son, "Clean up your room before you go to school. You must have a clean room, or you won't be able to go watch the game tonight." Well, suppose he plans poorly and leaves for school without cleaning the room. And suppose I discover the messy room and clean it. His afternoon fills up and he gets home just before it's time to leave for the game and realizes what he has done and feels terrible. He apologizes and humbly accepts the consequences.

To which I say, "Barnabas, I am going to credit your apology and submission as a clean room. I said, 'You must have a clean room, or you won't be able to go watch the game tonight. Your room is clean. So you can go to the game." What I mean when I say, "I credit your apology as a clean room," is not that the apology is the clean room. Nor that he really cleaned his room. I cleaned it. It was pure grace. All I mean is that, in my way of reckoning - in my grace - his apology connects him with the promise given for a clean room. The clean room is his clean room. I credit it to him. Or, I credit his apology as a clean room. You can say it either way. And Paul said it both ways: "Faith is credited as righteousness," and "God credits righteousness to us through faith."

So when God says, this morning, to those who believe in Christ, "I credit your faith as righteousness," he does not mean that your faith is righteousness. He means that your faith connects you to God's righteousness.

Peace, Security, Freedom

Now what difference should this make in your life?

For Martin Luther and John Bunyan the discovery of the imputed righteousness of Christ was the greatest life-changing experience they ever had. Luther said it was like entering a paradise of peace with God. For Bunyan it was the end of years of spiritual torture and uncertainty. What would you give to know for sure that your legal acceptance and approval before God was as sure as the standing of Jesus Christ, his Son?

It's free. This is what Christ came to do: fulfill a righteousness and die a death that would remove all your sins and become for you a perfect righteousness. He offers you this today as a gift. If you see him as true and precious, if you take the gift and trust in it, you will have a peace with God that passes all understanding. You will be a secure person. You will not need the approval of others. You will not need the ego-supports of wealth or power or revenge. You will be free. You will overflow with love. You will lay down your life in the cause of Christ for the joy that is set before you. Look to Christ and trust him for your righteousness.