The Very Serious Matter of Imputed Righteousness

© David H. Linden
Action International Ministries
Alberta Reformation Fellowship

February 1999

The Background of this Letter

In 1998 I was with an ACTION colleague and a Filipino brother in Manila discussing Roman Catholic doctrine. This paper was written for them. In North America, evangelical and Roman leaders, scholars and teachers have met to declare a common viewpoint on salvation including the most sensitive matter of all, the doctrine of justification. This paper addresses mainly one serious difference in the two doctrines.

Justification in the Doctrine of the Reformation

  1. Justification is an act of God, not a work in progress. However, Godís act of justification always results in His work of sanctification.

  2. In justification, God declares the sinner righteous; in this forensic doctrine, God does not make the sinner righteous, but gives him first a standing with Himself. The basis of this declaration is Christís obedience, not the progress the Christian is making in holiness.

  3. God pardons the sinner in a decree so absolute it has the finality of the final judgment. This decree of God is certain and irrevocable.

  4. The basis of our pardon is the atoning blood of Christ alone.

  5. The means to justification is faith. "Faith alone" means there is no consideration of our works whatsoever in Godís declaration of righteousness. It does not mean that faith can be devoid of good works, because real faith always results in obedience to God.

  6. The principle of grace excludes all participation and cooperation by the believer in the bestowal of a gift. All sense of merit or contribution by sinners toward the decree of "righteous" is excluded. Such contribution would destroy the nature of a gift.

  7. Since our pardon is based only on Christís sacrifice on the cross, all penance and atoning activity by sinners is contrary to this basis. Scripture says, "I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!" Galatians 2:21

  8. The faith by which we are saved is by nature one that embraces Christ for cleansing, not a false faith that seeks to have the benefit of a pardon, so that indulgence in sin may be perpetuated. (Here on #8, the Roman Church would agree.)

The Doctrine of Rome

The concept of faith, grace, pardon and righteousness are all present in Roman Catholic theology. Yet the product we are presented with in its teaching on justification is like taking all the pieces of a Lego set and building a different thing with the same parts. Because of this likeness of terminology, many are confused. Though the definitions sound alike, they are very different.

  1. In Roman theology, justification is not a settled final act of God, though Romans 5:1,2 presents it this way. It can be lost and the person would need to be rejustified. If it is lost, this can only be from a failure in the believerís obedience. And therefore, in Roman thinking, the believerís obedience really is part of the foundation of justification. But please note: When the Roman church speaks of rejustification, it is never viewed as arising from some failure on Godís part, only ours. But since it is seen as a failure on our part, then it is inescapable that we have a part in maintaining our justification. Human merit is not totally excluded.

  2. This pardon begins not by faith but by baptism, and is maintained by faith, prayers, confession of sins, and works of contrition. The sinnerís cooperation with the grace of the Holy Spirit is necessary to sustain justification, even though it can begin only by the grace of God. Such cooperation with grace is good works. These works are viewed as a result of Godís grace, and grace is totally necessary to begin them. But such works occur in a cooperating human will, helped by God without any violation of manís will, so that the human person is assisted by God to obey God. This fruit of the sanctifying Spirit merits eternal life for the Christian. Our works are not excluded.

  3. Justification is not possible without faith, the grace of God, the sacrifice of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit. All are said to be necessary. The Roman doctrine still includes and fails to exclude the cooperation of the believer in a life of good works as a basis to attain the final prize of eventual acceptance by God. Such good works are not seen as flowing from justification, yet distinct from it, but are works that are injected into this doctrine as a participatory cause of justification. Justification is not by "faith alone".

  4. The last vestiges of sin are removed not by the work of the Savior who has suffered for us. For many our work must be added to Christís work for the removal of remaining venial sin, purged not by His atoning sacrifice, but by the sinner suffering the pains of purgatory after this life. Therefore the cross of Christ by itself is an incomplete basis for the removal of sin, because the sinner also makes an atoning contribution. Those of us of reformation theology say that Christ alone provided purification for sins. We object to this complementary purging since we read in Hebrews how fully adequate Christís sacrifice is. There is no denial in Rome of the necessity of the cross. Our objection is that Rome maintains a view that the cross alone is inadequate to atone fully and completely. We would be happy to see such a high view of the cross affirmed, but to do so will require deserting the doctrine of purgatory, which Rome has not done. Reformation theology has one means for removing guilt, namely the cross. Rome has multiple atonements.

  5. In Roman theology, the righteousness upon which God bases His ongoing or eventual pronouncement of "righteous" is the righteousness produced in the Christian by the Holy Spirit. Justification is seen in terms of sanctification as the words of Paul are applied in this example: The recent Catechism of the Catholic Church treats Philippians 2:13 as justification: Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you the willing and the doing of His good pleasure. (We reply that this text is not referring to the obedience of Christ for us. The Philippians verse speaks of our obedience as Christians, which is far from being the same as the righteous behavior of Jesus Christ.) Christís obedience and ours are not the same.

We must always be clear on whose righteousness we are speaking about. It is this point that will occupy our attention in this paper. Many of the things above have a halfway character to them. Faith is necessary for justification in Roman theology, a true statement, but not faith alone, which to the Council of Trent is a false view. The cross is necessary, true we agree, but so is penance, and we must disagree. In spite of some progress in affirming "faith alone" by some Roman Catholic leaders, the magisterium of the church still avoids the plain language of Galatians 2:15-21. Galatians 2 is teaching that greatly affected the Reformersí doctrine. With "grace", "faith" and even "justification" all used with a different meaning, my earlier analogy of a different Lego construction being made from the same parts is inadequate. The product is different because even the parts are different. The parts are labeled the same, yet the content of these words is so different, we are faced with two doctrines, not two versions of the same thing. Yet I do not assert that every Catholic truly holds to official Roman teaching. I once heard a priest turn all attention to Christ alone as the object of faith. That kind of instruction may well make its recipients hang on to the righteousness of Christ for them. I hope so. If any Catholic is not hoping for divine acceptance on the improvements in himself but on Christ alone, then he is a Christian.

Different meanings make conversation difficult. If one speaks of a car and thinks that wheels are round things to decorate a car, or that an engine burns fuel in order to keep passengers warm, then words like "wheel" and "engine" will not mean the same thing. In Roman Catholic and Protestant doctrine on how to be accepted by a holy God, the counsel given to children will turn out to be very different, so different as to be flatly contradictory. One will inevitably point to the sinnerís obedience to God as part of his hope, and the other will point to Christís alone. Whatever words are employed, if faith is turned back in to the merits of the sinner, the difference becomes the difference between heaven and hell. That is why we must pay attention to the very serious matter of imputed righteousness.

Similarity in Roman and Reformation theology evaporates when we speak of imputed righteousness. This is not a half way issue. Here is one place where the Roman and Protestant doctrines stand in sharp contrast. We are not splitting hairs. The difference is not one of emphasis but substance.

What is the issue? What righteousness does God accept?

The answer is simple. We are saved by Christís obedience not ours. He was born under the law in His incarnation. He was tried and tempted. He obeyed and His obedience is perfect. His is the sinless obedience of His entire human pilgrimage on this earth. The sacrifice on the cross is His final culminating act of righteousness in our place. Since this obedience is perfect, God approves of it fully. His is sinless, and ours is not. And His is an accomplished historical fact and not a repeat chapter to be played out in our experience. It is done, finished; all of it occurred in one completed timeframe of the Savior Who no longer lives here under the law. Only one man in history has obeyed God. And that is the righteousness God looks at when He pronounces a sinner righteous. That is the ONLY righteousness God looks at when He declares the sinner who believes in Him, righteous. The obedience done for us must not be equated with later obedience in us.

The other kind of justification, the Roman view, is different in kind, because the righteousness being performed is now in our experience, not back then in His. Rome asserts that Christ produces justifying righteousness in us as the Spirit sanctifies us, but it is not the righteousness of Christ for us, apart from us, outside us, and before our time. When the Roman view focuses on the sanctifying Spirit producing righteousness in the Christian, it has been deflected from the perfection of Christ obeying for us. Rome is clearly sensitive to the fact that righteousness in us is not perfect, because it is mixed with sin. But without righteousness being imputed to us, the current improvements in us are all Rome has to offer for justification. Therefore, in place of that perfection, one faces a vast array of duties, rituals, religious exercises, devotion, prayers and sacraments, and even the unBiblical intercession of Mary, none of which brings perfection to the Christian who still has sin! The gospel is that God declares us righteous based on the righteousness of Christ. This righteousness is the obedience of Christ in His body, not the obedience Paul insists on in ours. (Romans 6:11-13)

What is lacking in a kind of vacuum at this point, is the kind of righteousness God will put His imprimatur of perfection upon. To this, we say that all along it was available in the gospel. Jesus Christ in His human flesh has obeyed the law. He, like Adam, is the new father of the new race of man. In Adam all die, because when Adam sinned, we sinned in him. His transgression became ours; therefore his sentence became ours, and his experience of death became ours. Ours is Adamís sin by representation; ours is Adamís sin by imputation, and ours is Adamís experience in death. His sentence of death was upon us all. In Christ, all live because the sentence of "just" is upon all who believe, and they receive a righteousness performed for them long ago, and imputed to them when they believe.

Romans 5: 12-21

Justification is brought by the gift of God, "the gift ... brought justification" (Romans 5:16). Someone may say, "Yes, God sent His gift and that started this entire chain of salvation." In saying this, my hypothetical speaker may have in mind that the righteousness on which justification rests will eventually be produced in us, so that God will eventually receive us.

But what is Paul saying? He says the righteousness of justification comes to us as a gift. This Scripture does not present it as what is produced in us. (Romans 5:17) Paul points to the past act of Christ. The Reformers spoke of this righteousness as "outside us." Note:

Ö Just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:18,19)

So Adamís sin and Christís obedience are parallel. We did not participate in the decision of Adamís act. Yet Adam disobeyed for us and the guilt of his act is ours by imputation because God set him up as the one who would represent us and act for us. Adam chose for us that each of us would be what he chose to become, namely a guilty sinner. The condemnation in which we begin our human existence preceded our sins and rests solely on his. [1]

Christ, the new Adam, obeyed for us. We did not participate in His obedience whatsoever. Yet He acted for us, because God sent Him to be the new father of the redeemed race. And in this role, He chose for us that we would be what He is, righteous! The acceptance in which our new life in Christ begins, was secured for us by His obedience alone, and rests solely on His action, not ours. We receive the merit of this perfect obedience performed so long ago, by a faith that contributes nothing to it at all. It is a faith that receives. In the gospel God provides, and we receive.

The parallel of Romans 5:12 -21 revolves around this theme:

Response to the law of God The judicial ruling of God on each representative and the ones represented Resulting human Experience
ADAM: Disobedience/Sin --> Condemnation --> Death
CHRIST: Obedience/Righteousness Justification --> Life

Having been justified by faith, we have a standing with God, Romans 5:1,2 so we receive the Holy Spirit who produces the fruit of a new life in us. One may call this different righteousness in us real, as long as it is seen to be mixed with real sin. But it is pure folly to think of it as the basis of Godís pronouncement of us as righteous, since our righteousness is contaminated by our sin every day. Purity and perfection is not a description of our behavior yet. But it is a worthy description of His. His is a righteousness we can boast of and still have humility. In justification, we NEVER look at justificationís results in us as its cause. That righteousness was all imputed to believers; we did none of it and could not. And this is why we have a doctrine of resting completely on Christ, a rest not tampered with by our works. I did not cooperate at Calvary, Gethsemane or in the Temptation in the wilderness. All the righteousness is His, and was done external to my life, and came to me by God imputing it to me when I believed His promise. True faith is in Christ, not ourselves, and assurance rests in His perfection.

Faith cannot be placed in Christ and in ourselves.

With this we strongly disagree since the Christianís is an inadequate and imperfect righteousness. Because of our sin, it is unacceptable to God as even a partial reason for Him to declare anyone righteous.

Rome embraces a serious and even fatal error. This error Paul spells out in Romans 9:30 Ė 10:13. Paulís Jewish brothers did not accept Godís gift and set about to establish their own. This lack of submission to God was a sin against the grace of God in Christ. When they turned it down by establishing their own, they rejected Christ Himself and were lost. Righteousness as a gift from God (Romans 1:17) is the core of the Christian gospel and thus at the core of the entire Christian faith. God accepts me only because He approves the righteousness He gave me. If He justified me on the ground of any human righteousness rising in my obedience, He would be untruthful to declare such unacceptable righteousness acceptable. He would violate His character. We must learn to keep our dirty little hands off the righteousness of Christ.

That God accepts lawbreakers based on Anotherís righteousness does seem strange to one of another religion, but Godís ways and thoughts are higher than ours, (Isaiah 55: 8,9) and we ought to believe Him as to the doctrine and believe in Him for such a gift. "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Corinthians 5:21) This famous text was preceded with the gospel truth that, in the case of those He saves, God was not imputing menís sins against them. (2 Corinthians 5:19)

There are three great imputations in the Bible:

  1. Of guilt Ė Adamís sin to those Adam represented.

  2. Of sin Ė our sin to Christ Who represented His people.

  3. Of righteousness Ė Christís righteousness to all He represented.

The Relation of Imputed Righteousness to other Vital Aspects of the Christian Faith

Godís Holiness He never pronounces our contaminated righteousness acceptable, so He has not compromised His holiness.
Our Confession of Sin We may confess sin honestly, since admitting it does not change the foundation of our justification.
Evangelism The good news for sinners who say, "I canít meet Godís standard," is that Christ has. Since Christ has satisfied God, all you need is to be satisfied with Christ and you shall be saved.
Good works These have always been required, never as the way to become a Christian, but having been accepted as a response of gratitude. (Ephesians 2:8-10, Romans 12:1)
Assurance Our confidence is in the perfection of the One Who has already died for us and obeyed for us. Since we contribute nothing to this, our confidence is not pride in ourselves but in Christ who represented us.
Worship Worship is not contaminated by pretense that we meet standards we do not, rather we are moved by a sense of wonder at what Christ has done. We submit to the law, confess sin, rejoice in Christís sinless obedience, rely on the Spiritís work in us, receive the Word and sacraments; and praise God for such love and grace.

The Contrasts stated or implied in Ephesians 2:8-10

Principle Means Result
False system: Merit Works Boasting
The gospel: Grace Faith Gratitude shown in good works

I have called this paper The Very Serious Matter of Imputed Righteousness. It is serious because the issue is whether we will trust completely in Christ or will reject Him as the Savior by adding in elements of our own righteousness. To insert ourselves at any part of Godís justifying decree reveals a terrible misunderstanding of the holiness of God, and is a horrible way to treat Christ when He was sent to obey for us, and did so perfectly. The solution is to exalt His righteousness as unimpeachable, and to treat ours as contemptible beside His.

The Lord warned against confidence in our righteousness, Luke 18:9. In Philippians 3:1-11, Paul tells that he turned from all confidence in his own righteousness, even viewing it as rubbish. Instead, he placed his hope in the righteousness that comes from God and is received by faith. We cannot have the righteousness that comes from God if we insist on presenting Him with the kind that comes from us. I repeat that this is very serious.

It is received by faith, but how? The Bibleís answer is that God imputes (See Romans 4) or sets a benefit to the account of the person who trusts Christ. In other words, the obedience was Christís but the benefit or credit for it, becomes ours when we receive Christ. Just as the sin was ours and the penalty became His, so in imputation, the obedience was Christís, yet the merit of it becomes ours since He was sent for the purpose of standing in for His people. He has died and obeyed for me, so I will trust Him and never try, in the slightest, to be accepted by God in any other way. And this is what God had in mind when He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him will most certainly have everlasting life.


1. That we all subsequently merit condemnation on our own in our own behavior, is agreed to, but is not the point here. We are only speaking now of the condemnation Adam secured for us in contrast to the justification Christ obtained for us. Return