What is biblical imputation?

Think about it and take it on credit.

It’s about the Grace Revolution.

Imputation is considered by many to be an unimportant doctrine, without much biblical support. I agree that the key Hebrew and Greek words do not occur as often as, say, righteousness and salvation do, or for that matter, as often as wrath or anger.

But it is an important theme that appears at key times in Israel’s history, an individual’s life and at important turning points in the NT.

BASIC DEFINITIONS

Linguistic Meanings

The Hebrew verb ḥāšab and the Greek verb logizomai both have the basic meaning of “thinking” and “considering.” They denote mental activities, but they are verbs nonetheless.

Sometimes in this study, however, we look at the concept behind the verbs even though they do not appear in a passage of Scripture.

Another basic definition of the verbs is seen in a business context: credit, reckon, or calculate. However, the main uses are when people think or consider.

We will discover the two basic meanings (thinking and commercial crediting) as we go along.

Sources: TWOT 330; TDNT vol. 4, 284.

Theological Meanings

The OT and NT put theological meanings to the verbs.

Reformed Theologian Charles Hodge writes about imputation:

In the juridical and theological sense of the word, to impute is to attribute anything to a person or persons, upon adequate grounds, as the judicial or meritorious reason of reward or punishment, i.e., of the bestowment of good or the infliction of evil. … To impute is to reckon to, or to lay to one’s account. So far as the meaning of the word is concerned, it makes no difference whether the thing imputed be sin or righteousness; whether it is our own personally, or the sin or righteousness of another. (Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 2, 194, Logos Research Systems, orig. pub. 1871-73)

So according to Hodge God can lay or charge or reckon to our account either righteousness or sin. God’s thought makes it so. He is the ultimate arbiter of the universe, and he controls spiritual reality as well. So when he imputes Christ’s righteousness to us, for example, it belongs to us.

A more succinct definition (and I believe a better one), with two examples, is offered by Wayne Grudem.

To impute is:

To think of as belonging to someone, and therefore to cause it to belong to that person. God “thinks of” Adam’s sin as belonging to us, and it therefore belongs to us, and in justification he thinks of Christ’s righteousness as belonging to us and so relates to us on this basis (Systematic Theology, 1244, Zondervan, 1994)

As noted, when God thinks of us as righteous in Christ, his righteousness belongs to us, in his sight. Therefore, what God thinks matters, as the biblical texts affirm (see below). Our personal feelings of righteousness one day and unrighteousness the next do not matter. And that is a blessing to us because everything flows from God through Christ; everything is based on them, not us. Now we are secure in our salvation.

When God thinks or imputes something, then that matters in his sight (Rom. 2:13; 3:20; 4:17; 1 Cor. 1:29).

8 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts … 9 As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Is. 55:8-9)

Let’s look at some Biblical passages to see how the Hebrew and Greek verbs are used in various contexts.

THE OLD TESTAMENT

The NT is rooted in the OT and grows organically out of it. However, the New Covenant often redefines or recasts the concepts, so we must be judicious in how we use the OT.

  1. God Honors Faith: Genesis 15:6

God called Abram (his name will be changed later to Abraham in 17:5), out of the blue, so to speak (Gen. 12:1-3). He required him to leave his family behind and go to a land the Lord would show him, which turned out to be Canaan (Gen. 13:14-17). Then God makes a covenant of promise to childless Abram. God will grant him a son (Gen 15:1-5). Abram simply believed God and then a blessing ensued.

6 Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness. (Gen. 15:6, NIV)

God honors faith. Abram did not have to work to get this righteousness. God thought of Abraham as righteous, and it was so. This credit to his account took place before his circumcision (Gen. 17:9-14, 23-27). This gift was bestowed on him 400+ years before the law of Moses was thundered from on high on Mt. Sinai. In fact he had misled the Pharaoh earlier, which broke the moral law (Gen. 12:10-20). “Misled” is a euphemism for “lied.” And after that, he did not learn his lesson, for he “misled” Abimelek, the king of Gerar, and told him that Sarah was his sister (Gen. 20), which was partly true (20:12). Nonetheless, Abraham passed the most difficult test of his life, (nearly) sacrificing his son Isaac (Gen. 22).

Therefore this gift of righteousness was not based on his own character or inner righteousness or the good or bad that he did. It was based on faith and God’s grace in granting his righteousness.

All of this agrees with Paul’s basic theology. God credits us with righteousness, even though we may not feel righteous. Nonetheless, he imputes it to us by faith alone, regarding it as ours, and therefore it is (Rom. 3:21-26; 4:1-25). God thinks of us as righteous in Christ, and therefore this righteousness belongs to us. We are righteous in his sight.

It is God’s sight that matters most.

  1. Foreigners: Genesis 31:14-15

Jacob was a trickster, but his father-in-law Laban was more than a match for him. But God blessed Jacob with prosperity to make up for the conniving of Laban. Finally, the Lord called Jacob to return to his homeland, and his two wives were glad to go, for their father had manipulated them as well.

14 Then Rachel and Leah replied, “Do we still have any share in the inheritance of our father’s estate? 15 Does he not regard us as foreigners? Not only has he sold us, but he has used up what was paid for us. (Gen. 31:14-15)

Rachel and Leah really were Laban’s daughters, but they believed he regarded them as foreigners by his behavior towards them. So in his sight it is as if they were foreigners, even though they never went through an inner transformation or a legal proceeding to be disowned. Thinking has great significance and impacts the outcome.

  1. No Credit Accepted: Leviticus 7:18

In the context of the fellowship or peace offering, one must eat the meat on the first or second day; otherwise, the offering will not be credited to the person.

18 If any meat of the fellowship offering is eaten on the third day, it will not be accepted. It will not be credited to the one who offered it, for it is impure; the person who eats any of it will be held responsible. (Lev. 7:18)

So God did not count or impute or think that the benefit that accrued from the offering belonged to the person who offered it. And so it was, in his sight or opinion.

  1. Carrying by Imputing. Wait. What? Leviticus 16:22

On the day of atonement, Aaron (or the high priest) is to keep one goat alive, lay hands on it, confess all the sins of Israel, put their sins on it, and send it into the wilderness under the supervision of someone appointed to the task. Since the goat was leaving or “escaping” from the people, it was called the scapegoat.

22 The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a solitary place. (Lev. 16:22)

The verb “carry” (nāśā’) in Hebrew is not the typical verb for “impute,” but the concept is the same in this context. The goat did not commit the sins of the people. It was not a moral sinner by inner transformation. How could it be? Yet God thinks of the goat as carrying their sins, and therefore it does. Thus, the sins belong to the goat by imputation or reckoning, from God’s point of view.

This “carrying” or “bearing” is exactly what Jesus did. The same verb nāśā’ is in italics font:

4 Surely he took up our infirmities … (Is. 53:4)

12 For he bore the sin of many … (Is. 53:12; 1 Peter 2:24)

Jesus did not actually commit our sins, and he did not actually have our infirmities. He had none at all. He was not a moral sinner by inner transformation or by being infused with a sin nature. While on the cross, he did not get the flu or cancer. Yet he carries and takes up our sin and infirmity. How? Because God thinks of Jesus, who became the once-and-for-all sacrifice, as carrying and taking them up them and therefore he does in God’s sight or opinion. Thus Jesus carries or bears them only by imputation or reckoning.

  1. Considered Guilty: Leviticus 17:4

The ancient Israelites were forbidden to religiously sacrifice an animal in private because they might follow after the gods of the Canaanites in their pagan rituals and thus get corrupted (which eventually happened for many). Instead, the people of God were required to sacrifice at the tent of meeting, where they could be supervised by the priest.

3 Any Israelite who sacrifices an ox, a lamb or a goat in the camp or outside of it 4 instead of bringing it to the entrance to the Tent of Meeting to present it as an offering to the Lord in front of the tabernacle of the Lord—that man shall be considered guilty of bloodshed; he has shed blood and must be cut off from his people. (Lev. 17:3-4)

If the Israelite does not obey the command, he is considered or counted or charged with shedding the blood of a human, even though the disobedient Israelite actually did not shed human blood. Nonetheless, bloodguilt was imputed or charged to him because God thought as much, and therefore the bloodguilt belonged to the disobedient Israelite in God’s sight or opinion. The Israelite was therefore to be cut off from the people.

  1. What’s Yours Is Mine: Numbers 18:20, 25-27, 31

This illustration is physical (grain and wine), so we should not take it too far. But it does yield some interesting insights.

The priests and Levites were not to have the share of the land; that is, they were not farmers.

20 The Lord said to Aaron, “You will have no inheritance in their land, nor will you have any share among them; I am your share and your inheritance among the Israelites. (Num. 18:20)

They were not to sow the crops or plant the vineyards; they were not to harvest the grain or pick the grapes from the vine. They were not to thresh the grains or press the grapes into wine. Instead, their sustenance was to come from the offerings that the Israelites gave them.

However, when the crops were offered to the priests and Levites, they were to give a tenth as the Lord’s offering. That tenth was then to be credited or counted or reckoned to them as grains from the threshing floor and juice from the winepress.

25 The Lord said to Moses, 26 “Speak to the Levites and say to them: ‘When you receive from the Israelites the tithe I give you as your inheritance, you must present a tenth of that tithe as the Lord’s offering. 27 Your offering will be reckoned to you as grain from the threshing floor or juice from the winepress. … 30 “Say to the Levites: ‘When you present the best part, it will be reckoned to you as the product of the threshing floor or the winepress.”  (Num. 18:25-27, 30)

Thus, this context is a business calculation. The priests and Levites get credit for the grain and juice. This reckoning or imputation does not come from any practical act that the priests and Levites did. They did not actually thresh the grains or press the grapes into juice. But the fruit of the land is counted or imputed as theirs, “as the product of the threshing floor or the winepress.”

But let’s not overlook the basic meaning of thinking, either. In God’s mind the work it took to get the finished product and the product itself (threshed grain and pressed juice) are considered as belonging to the priests and Levites, and therefore the labor and finished product do belong to them. They present it as an offering to God. But this physical example should not be taken too far.

  1. Counted Forgiven: Psalm 32:1-2

David had a sense of sin, but he said it was blessed when anyone was forgiven.

1 Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. 2 Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord does not count against him. (Ps. 32:1-2)

The sin and transgression are not counted or imputed or charged against the person; therefore, forgiveness belongs to him. God thinks of us as forgiven as well. He imputes forgiveness to us through Christ, and therefore it belongs to us. But David kept on sinning in his life, and so do we. But he was forgiven, and so are we.

  1. Sheepish Qualities: Psalm 44:22

This is another physical illustration that we should not take too far. Believers are considered as sheep.

22 Yet for your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered. (Ps. 44:22)

Believers are not real sheep. They have not been transformed into sheep or infused with the entire nature of sheep. They do not have to live like them or do their “work,” like giving wool or milk. They don’t have to bleat like sheep either.

Rather, they are counted or reckoned or considered as sheep. This is done by imputation both in God’s sight or way of thinking, and in the sight of humans who watch God’s people go through extreme difficulties (see Acts 8:32 and Rom. 8:36).

  1. Feel the Zeal: Psalm 106:28-31

These verses credit righteousness by a zealous act – or so it seems at first glance. So we need to spend more time here, since it is appears to be at odds with Gen. 15:6 and Paul’s theology in Romans. But is it really?

Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron, intervened to stop God’s plague of judgment against sinful Israel that had followed another god.

28 They yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor and ate sacrifices offered to lifeless gods; 29 they provoked the Lord to anger by their wicked deeds, and a plague broke out among them. 30 But Phinehas stood up and intervened, and the plague was checked. 31 This was credited to him as righteousness for endless generations to come. (Ps. 106:28-31)

Verse 31 is the same language used of Abraham in Gen. 15:6, which says Abram’s faith was credited as righteousness. Is there a contradiction?

Background to Psalm 106:28-31

In the original context, the children of Israel yoked themselves to the god Baal (Num. 25). An Israelite man brought a Midianite woman before the tent of meeting and began “weeping” before it. One scholar suggests the word “weeping” is a euphemism for committing some kind of sexual act.

Commentator Ronald B. Allen writes:

It seems likely to me, however, that the subject of the verb “weeping” is not Moses and the congregation but the sinning Israelite and his Midianite partner. The focus of action in the verse is on them, not Moses. What they did was before Moses, in his presence – under his nose! And what they did was to engage in a sexual embrace in the manner of Baal worship – right at the entrance of the holy Tent of God! (Ronald B. Allen, Numbers, Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 2, 919, Zondervan, 1990)

He explains the reason for the euphemism:

The scribes, I suggest, have made a deliberate substitution of an opposite word, “weeping,” to connote “caressing,” an unusual form of euphemism to stress the heightened enormity of this act. They are not weeping; they are laughing – that is, engaged in delirious love-making (cf. Gen 26:8; Exod 32:6). Just as to say “curse God” is for the godly scribe too much; so “bless God” is stated when “curse God” is intended (see 1 Kings 21:10, 13; Job 1:5, 11; 2:5, 9; Ps 10:3); here, to “cry” in the sacred precincts (as in a cry of remorse) is used to present the antithetical meaning, “to laugh in sexual pleasure” – at the opening of the sacred tent. (ibid.)

He describes the monstrosity of the act:

The audacious action of this Israelite man is unparalleled and totally unexpected. The contempt for the holy things and the word of the Lord shown by Zimri and his Midianite lover, Cozbi (v.15), is unimaginable. This is a climax to the first section of the Book of Numbers; here is Israel at her very worst. This provides an unhappy justification for the ways of the Lord; it also provides a theodicy of his judgment of the entire first generation. (ibid)

In the Old Covenant, a blasphemer had to die (Lev. 24:10-23). The scholar again explains why the ancients used a euphemism or hid the meaning in code for some enormities.

The man is a blasphemer in the strongest sense. His sin is a deliberate provocateur of the wrath of the Lord, flaunting and taunting holiness in an almost unbelievable crudity. The issue was so blatant, so outrageous, so unspeakable – I suggest – that the ancients had to hide the meaning somewhat in code words. Those who read the text today find between the words that stand (which are awful enough) something that is truly an outrage against Majesty that is nearly unbelievable. (ibid)

But this background,  though relevant, does not exactly and completely explain how Phinehas’ zeal would be credited to him as righteousness. As noted, this is the same language used of Abram, whose faith, not zeal, was credited to him as righteousness. So now we turn to classical commentaries.

Classical Commentaries

The older commentators say Phinehas was already justified by faith first, so God, out of pure benevolence, imputes or counts or credits an act as righteousness.

John Calvin in his commentary on the Psalms writes about 106:31:

First of all, let us examine, whether or not Phinehas was justified on account of this deed alone, Verily, the law, though it could justify, by no means promises salvation to any one work, but makes justification to consist in the perfect observance of all the commandments. It remains, therefore, that we affirm that the work of Phinehas was imputed to him for righteousness, in the same way as God imputes the works of the faithful to them for righteousness, not in consequence of any intrinsic merit which they possess, but of his own free and unmerited grace. And as it thus appears that the perfect observance of the law alone (which is done nowhere) constitutes righteousness, all men must prostrate themselves with confusion of face before God’s judgment-seat. Besides, were our works strictly examined, they would be found to be mingled with much imperfection. We have, therefore, no other source than to flee for refuge to the free unmerited mercy of God. And not only do we receive righteousness by grace through faith, but as the moon borrows her light from the sun, so does the same faith render our works righteous, because our corruptions being mortified, they are reckoned to us for righteousness. In short, faith alone, and not human merit, procures both for persons and for works the character of righteousness. … (John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, trans. James Anderson, vol. 4, 232-33, Eerdmans, with my minor mechanical adjustments)

What Calvin is doing here is interpreting the OT by the NT, a legitimate hermeneutical method. Phinehas had to have been already justified by faith alone, and that is his deepest source of righteousness.

Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown say another way of translating v. 31 is that Phinehas’ intervention was counted as a righteous act, which was rewarded with a perpetual priesthood.

That was counted to his credit as a righteous act, to be rewarded by God with His “covenant of peace … even the covenant of an everlasting priesthood because he was zealous for His God and made atonement for the children of Israel.” No act of man could be counted as righteousness, justifying him before God unto eternal life. Phinehas already was justified by faith. Now his good work obtains from God, who recompenses all men according to their works, a reward of grace viz., the continual priesthood, in contrast to the other descendants of Aaron, from whom it passed away (Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, A Commentary on the Old and New Testaments, vol. 3, 335, Eerdmans, orig. pub. 1871)

They add that “credited to him as righteousness” means “a just and rewardable action.” …

Here it was a particular act, not faith, nor its object Christ; and what was procured was not justifying righteousness, or what was to be rewarded with eternal life; for no one act of man’s can be taken for complete obedience. But it was that which God approved and rewarded with a perpetual priesthood to him and his descendants … (ibid, electronic version)

So Phinehas was already justified by faith, and his righteous act is rewarded through his descendants with a perpetual priesthood, not eternal life. And this reward was an act of grace from God.

Finally, these two classical commentators write that Phinehas already had constant faith and proved it with his work or action:

This accounting of a work for righteousness is only apparently contradictory to Gen. 15:5f.: it was indeed an act which sprang from a constancy in faith, and one which obtained for him the acceptation of a righteous man for the sake of this upon which it was based, by proving him to be such. (Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 5, 671, Hendrickson, orig. pub. 1866-91)

Those commentaries set up these elements in sequence:

(1) Phinehas already had saving faith – (2) his priesthood is by grace and election – (3) therefore he was already righteous – (4) his zeal again counts as righteousness or a righteous act – (5) he is rewarded with perpetual priesthood through his descendants

Phinehas had already received saving faith and right standing with God. His priesthood was an act of grace to begin with. He demonstrated his righteous standing with a zealous work, which counted as righteousness or a righteous act. His reward, also delivered by God’s grace, is an everlasting covenant of priesthood.

This sequence is no different from Paul’s doctrine that begins with saving faith. We are called by God’s grace to this saving faith through Christ (Rom. 3:21-26). This faith is credited to us for righteousness (Rom. 4). Then we demonstrate our salvation by behaving righteously (Rom. 6-7). We have the priestly duty to proclaim the gospel (Rom. 15:16).

But today we’re credited with righteousness, not by spearing someone, but in the New Covenant by believing. So we should not use Phinehas’ unusual example as an exception that disproves the rule. No, it is an exception that shows that we are on a new path, the path of love and grace.

The Simpler Answer

In Rom. 4, Paul discusses Abraham being credited with righteousness because he believed before the law was given (vv 1-3, 9b-24). Paul also remembered David’s declaration of faith in God to forgive his sins and not credit it to his account in Ps. 32:1-2, so Paul briefly discusses David, also in Rom. 4:4-9a and quotes the Psalm. David lived under the law and sought forgiveness. If Paul knew about David in the Psalms, then surely he knew about Phinehas in the Psalms. Why didn’t Paul refer to Phinehas?

Still in Rom. 4, Paul might have obliquely alluded to the grandson of Aaron: “The law brings wrath” (v. 15). Phinehas acted wrathfully under the law. As high priest, Phinehas acted under the law’s power to express the wrath of God, and this act of piety was credited to him as legalistic righteousness, to maintain the priesthood for ten generations under the law’s power.

So Paul deliberately avoided the law and its necessary wrath as the path towards righteousness (Phinehas), but he highlighted faith before the law was thundered from on high on Mt. Sinai (Abraham) and forgiveness from the scope and power and sting of the law (David).

See the article “The Wrath of God in the Old Testament: ‘The Law Brings Wrath’”

THE NEW TESTAMENT

We stay with Paul’s epistles, except one passage from James.

  1. You Are Circumcised (whether you feel it or not): Romans 2:26

This verse is conditional (if).

26 If those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? (Rom. 2:26)

Hypothetically, if someone could keep the law, then he would be regarded or considered or thought of as circumcised in God’s thoughts and sight, and circumcision would belong to the person, despite the outward appearance. It is those who are circumcised in the heart who belong to God, Paul goes on to say (vv. 28-29; cf. Deut. 10:16; 30:6).

  1. Abraham Again: Various Passages

A Free Gift

Paul uses logizomai three times in these verses, quoting Gen. 15:6 and using a business accounting image:

2 If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. 3 What does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” 4 Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. 5 However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness. (Rom. 4:2-5)

We have already discussed Gen. 15:6, above. Now we can turn to the business metaphor.

When a man works at a company, the employer is required or obligated to pay him. That’s the law. It’s not a donation or gift. Then Paul switches up the metaphor in midstream and says when someone who does not work trusts God, his faith or trust is credited (donation) to him as righteousness (payment). If his boss were to credit or deposit money into a man’s account who is not working for him, that’s a gift. And that gift belongs to the man.

Apart from Works

In Paul’s days some Jews converted to Christ, just as he did. They looked around at the Gentile converts and concluded they needed to keep some portions of the law, particularly circumcision, which was the sign or seal of being part of the people of God in the Old Testament. However, Paul reasoned that Abraham was credited with righteousness by faith (Gen. 15:6) before circumcision was commanded (Gen. 17:9-14, 23-27). The fifteenth chapter of Genesis comes before the seventeenth chapter.

Paul writes:

9 Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. 10 Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before! 11 And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. 12 And he is also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. (Rom. 4:9-12)

That is, righteousness by faith was imputed or credited before circumcision; therefore Gentiles did not have to be circumcised in order to be credited with righteousness. Abraham is the father both the circumcised who believe in Christ (Messianic Jews) and the uncircumcised who believe in Christ (Gentile Christians). They are one family (Rom. 9, 10, 11).

Promise and Resurrection

Paul observes from Genesis that Abraham’s and Sarah’s bodies were as good as dead, but God was able to work a miracle and energize their bodies, just as God raised Christ from the dead.

20 Yet he [Abraham] did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, 21 being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. 22 This is why “it was credited to him as righteousness.” 23 The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, 24 but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. 25 He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification. (Rom. 4:20-25)

When we believe in Christ and his resurrection, we will have justification – a legal declaration that we are righteous. So now we have come to the climax of Paul’s thought about Abraham in Romans. When we have the faith of Abraham who believed God could work a miracle in his and Sarah’s dead bodies, and when we believe that God raised Christ from the dead, our faith is credited to us as righteousness and we are justified (declared legally righteous). God thinks of us as righteous, and therefore we are in his sight.

Who Are God’s Children?

Paul clarifies:

In other words, it is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring. (Rom. 9:8)

This reinforces the theme that Gentiles (and Jews) who have faith in Christ are counted or thought of or considered the children of God. Therefore that status belongs to them, from his point of view, even though Gentiles do not biologically descend from Abraham. They descend from him by faith and promise, fulfilled in Christ.

The Man of Faith

In this passage Paul puts a slightly different twist on the faith of Abraham.

Consider Abraham: “He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” [Gen. 12:3; 18:18; 22:18] So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. (Gal. 3:6-9)

Isaac was the child of promise, and through this offspring of Abraham, all nations would be blessed. “Nations” speaks of Gentiles. When they have the same faith as Abraham’s, they too are included in the promise of righteousness or justification (legal declaration that we are righteous in Christ). The promised child and the subsequent blessing to the nations were all triggered by Abraham’s faith. “So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith” (v. 9). To repeat, Gentiles are not biologically the offspring of Abraham, but are considered as having that status by imputation. God considers that they are Abraham’s offspring by their faith or believing in the promise of Christ.

Abraham’s Good Works

James takes the example of Abraham in a different direction.

20 You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? 21 Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. (Jas. 2:20-23)

Abraham (nearly) sacrificed Isaac (Gen. 22) long after God credited righteousness to him by faith (Gen 15). The fifteenth chapter of Genesis comes before the twenty-second chapter.

So this fits Paul’s distinctions. (1)  God declare us righteous; that’s imputed righteousness. We receive it by faith, not by works. We don’t earn it by our own merits. (2) Then we walk in God’s imparted righteousness; that’s sanctification or God’s Spirit dealing with us and leading us to live a righteous life.

Imputed righteousness is distinct from imparted righteousness worked out in love. Justification (a legal declaration that we are righteous) is by faith alone, not faith that is alone or by itself or solitary. Good works done for God come along with justification by faith. It’s a one-package deal.

For more information, please read Paul and James on faith and works.

  1. David Again: Romans 4:6-8

Paul quotes from Ps. 32:1-2:

6 David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:

7 “Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. 8 Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him.” (Rom. 4:6-8)

God does not count or regard or impute or charge our sins against us; therefore his forgiveness belongs to us, all the days of our life, every moment, every second. Note that God credits righteousness (v. 6). Righteousness is the direct object of crediting. When God considers such a thing, it is a reality, not a fiction. We are righteous through God’s action of imputing his righteousness, not from our own righteousness. It’s a wonderful gift from God, not from ourselves.

  1. First consider yourself dead to sin, and then alive again for righteousness: Romans 6:8-14

The key verses are 11 and 14. We got to get the distinctions down.

8 Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. 10 The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11 In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. 12 Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. 13 Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. 14 For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace. (Rom. 6:8-14)

First, Christ conquered death by his resurrection (“raised from the dead”). Second, he also conquered sin (“He died to sin once for all”). Third, “he lives to God.”

Now Paul applies this to our life. First, we count or consider ourselves dead to sin. This is imputation. We are not actually sinless; we have not achieved moral perfection in our behavior. Second, we live in sanctification or practice holiness. “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body.” “Sin shall not be our master, because … we are under grace.”

Paul’s main point is that sin not mastering us is not the same as our actual moral perfection every minute of every day. Rather, sin not dominating us means we don’t have to allow its lordship over us. We have a new lord – the Lord.

But Paul’s big point: imputation of righteousness (declared righteousness) and impartation of righteousness (sanctification). Those are the proper distinctions.

  1. Sheep to Be Slaughtered: Romans 8:36

Paul quoted Ps. 44:22 (see above):

36 As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” (Rom. 8:36)

We are not actual or literal sheep, so this passage is metaphorical. We do not undergo an inner transformation to become sheep. We are considered or counted as being them while we are “slaughtered” by tough times and persecution, possibly leading to literal death.

  1. Food for Thought: Romans 14:14

In the context of food, Paul writes:

14 As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean. (Rom 14:14)

This is a clear verse about logizomai and imputing. We are so free in Christ, and we have so much of his authority in him that our thoughts can determine the uncleanness of food, and for us it is so. This quality of uncleanness belongs to the food in an imputed sense according to the point of view of the person who imputes. But food is actually morally neutral in its physical makeup: “No food is unclean in itself” (food is a pile of chemicals and cells). It does not go through an inner moral transformation that renders it unclean in itself.

The best example of how food is not clean or unclean is seen in Acts 10:9-23. Peter believed (a mental term) that the animals on the gigantic sheet coming from heaven were unclean or unkosher, and this belief was based on Leviticus, but God now called them clean.

It was a decree flowing from God’s belief. The animals did not have to go through an inner transformation. They are now considered clean by God.

  1. Can God Count? 2 Corinthians 5:18-19

God reconciles the world to himself.

18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. (2 Cor. 5:18-19)

These verses are very much like Ps. 32:1-2 and Paul’s quotation of them in Rom. 4:6-8. As noted, God was not counting or reckoning or regarding people’s sins against them in Ps. 32:1-2. Therefore, reconciliation and forgiveness belong to them. The same is true in 2 Cor. 5:18-19. So God can count, but sometimes he judicially chooses not to do so (see point no. 11, below).

  1. Desertion and Forgiveness: 2 Timothy 4:16

Paul’s friends deserted him during his first trial.

16 At my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them. (2 Tim. 4:16)

Paul asks God not to count, charge, impute or consider his friends’ desertion and hold it against them. This is like David’s thought about God’s forgiveness. Blessed is the man when God does not count his sin and transgression against him (Ps. 32:1-2). Paul also expressed forgiveness. As it turns out, his friends joined him later (vv. 9-11). Forgiveness often brings restoration.

  1. Send Me the Bill: Philemon 18-19

In this passage a cognate verb of logizomai is used: ellogaô (note the log– stem), but it still conveys the same concept.

Philemon was a slave owner, and Onesimus was his runaway slave who possibly stole something. However, he ran away into the arms of Jesus. That is, Paul preached the gospel to Onesimus, and he got saved. Paul says to Philemon that if Onesimus has done anything wrong, then Philemon should charge (ellogaô) it to Paul.

18 If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. (Phm. 18-19)

This is clearly a business context. Paul says to send him the bill or put it on his account. Then he will pay it back – except he reminds Philemon that he owes Paul his life, meaning Philemon also got saved under Paul’s ministry. So he implies the account is now even. Paul uses the spiritual to balance out the material. Think of us as even, and it is so – by calculation.

  1. Counted Guilty: Romans 5:13-14

Now we get into complications. Theologians teach that we inherit a corrupt nature from Adam’s sin at the Fall. We don’t need to get into the details of the various theories: Realism (in the first sin man became corrupt and guilty, and this was transmitted to Adam’s descendants; humans co-sinned with Adam); federalism (Adam acted as the representative of all humanity, so his guilt was imputed to humanity); corporate personality (God see humanity as a collective in solidarity, so Adam’s sin was imputed) on that basis.

Instead of deciding on any of those theories or a middle position, which theologians have not settled, we look at the verb used in one passage.

Once again ellogeô is used, conveying the same idea as logizomai (note the same log– stem)

13 For before the law was given, sin was in the world. But sin is not taken into account when there is no law. 14 Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come. (Rom. 5:13-14)

Sin is not taken into account (as an infraction of the law) where there is no law. In the logic of those two verses, the sin of Adam brought death, and people died, even though humans did not break a specific command as Adam did. Those two verses imply that God thinks of Adam’s sin and guilt as belonging to his descendants, including us, and therefore they do.

Some argue that the parallel between Adam’s sin and Christ’s righteousness, which we discuss next, is not exact. The imputation of Adam’s sin to us is personal and inherent, while the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us is a legal (forensic) status.

We should leave it at this: Adam’s sin and guilt is imputed to us (the scope of this study, but only in one Greek word, ellogeô). And they are passed on to us inherently and personally (beyond the scope of this study). Theologians get this latter idea throughout Rom. 5, not just the one Greek verb.

Now we can focus on the good news. Best of all, we get his righteousness in exchange – the next point.

  1. The Blessed, Divine Exchange (what’s his is ours and what ours is his): Romans 4:6 and 2 Corinthians 5:21

Our sins and guilt were imputed to Christ, and that’s good news in itself. However, we need something more. We need God’s gift of righteousness. But how do we get it? Do we work for it? We could never measure up to God’s infinite holiness. We sin daily. So how then do we get it? It’s out of our price range. We can’t afford it.

The greatest news of all is that God imputes Christ’s righteousness to us. Christ – the sinless one – obeyed the law and so he accrued or compiled all the merits we will ever need. He took the penalty of our law breaking on himself, and he fulfilled the positive demands of the law that we could not do.

We also get his righteousness as his gift to us.

New Legal Credit Rating

We already saw that Abraham believed God, and Abraham’s faith was credited to him for righteousness. If it’s good enough for him in the OT; it’s certainly good enough for us in the NT.

Paul also says God credits righteousness to us.

6 David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works … (Rom. 4:6)

Righteousness is the direct object of the crediting or imputing. God thinks of this righteousness as ours, and therefore it belongs to us in his sight or opinion. It is a legal status, declared and bestowed by God, coming out of his heavenly courtroom.

New Legal Status

In the next verse we see a perfect description of imputation and the Blessed, Divine Exchange.

21 God made him [Christ] who had no sin [to be] sin for us, so that in him [Christ] we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Cor. 5:21)

Perhaps Paul had this verse in Deut. in mind:

25 And if we are careful to obey all this law before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us, that will be our righteousness [Hebrew tsdaqah; LXX oddly translates it as eleêmosunê “mercy”] (Deut. 6:25, NASB).

Obedience to the law is the ancient Israelite’s righteousness. Not so for the believer in Christ, Paul would argue. Christ is our righteousness.

In any case, here’s the context of 2 Cor. 5:21:

God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. (v. 19)

The word logizomai in v. 19 is translated as “counting” (see point no. 7, above). God does not think or reckon or consider that those who are being reconciled to him should be held accountable to sin, since the believer is a new creation (v. 17) and because of what is said in v. 21.

Because imputation was on Paul’s mind, v. 21 says Christ did not know sin, but God made him sin, a noun, not a verb (“to be” is not in Greek). This “making” can only be done by imputation.

The second word “sin” in v. 21 could be translated – so some scholars argue – as “sin offering,” which is described in detail in Lev. 4 and 6:24-30. The animal’s carrying people’s sins was done only by imputation because it cannot rightly be said that the animal sinned morally as humans do. And how is imputation done? God thinks of the animal as carrying the sins of the people, and it is so, in God’s sight or from his point of view (cf. Lev. 16:21-22).

In a similar way, Christ is our sin offering. Just as the sins of the people were imputed to the sacrificial animal, so our sins are imputed to Christ. But it cannot be said that Christ is literally a moral sinner. So, again, how is this “making” done? Only by imputation, for Christ is not transformed inwardly by sin or infused with sin. Rather, God imputes sin to him, and so this status belongs to him, but this new status is alien or foreign to him. It comes from the outside by imputation. It is legal or forensic, emerging out of God’s heavenly courtroom.

In a parallel way, God’s righteousness comes from the outside of us. It is alien or foreign to us. It is God’s righteousness in Christ, and God imputes it to us, and therefore it belongs to us. It becomes ours, in God’s sight. And to keep the parallel to Christ and sin in the first half of the verse, God’s righteousness is not a transformation of us or an infusion into us. It is a status or position by imputation. It is legal or forensic, emerging out of God’s heavenly courtroom.

CONCLUSION

Imputation is an important doctrine in the Bible. By it God considers or regards something physical – humans, animals, grain and so on – as having a different or new status.

For example, God thinks of animals as carrying the sins of people, and therefore they do – by imputation. God considers Christ as carrying our sins, and therefore he does – by imputation. God thinks of Adam’s sin as belonging us, and it does – by imputation and shared humanity. God accepts or rejects certain offerings because he regards them as acceptable or not – by imputation. God imputes righteousness to Abraham by his faith. God imputes righteousness to us by our faith.

All of this is done in the sight or opinion of God. It is not necessary that the object or human go through an inner moral transformation. Specifically, the animals that carry the sins of the ancient people do not have to become inwardly and morally sinful. How could an animal be sinful in the way humans are? Rather, animals have the status of bearing humans’ sins. God considers the animals as doing this, and therefore it is so. People’s sins now belong to the animals – by imputation. When Christ took on the sins of the world, he did not go through an immoral inner transformation, and sin was not infused into him. He took on the sins by imputation.

Humans can impute as well. Laban’s daughters thought their father considered them as though they were foreigners, but his daughters did not go through an internal moral transformation so that they ceased being his daughters whom he begat. Next, humans regard some foods as clean or unclean, even though the food does not go through an inner moral transformation; it is not substantively changed. Food in itself is neutral, but its status changes when humans regard it as clean or unclean.

The reason for this mystery of a changed status by imputation finds its roots in the Hebrew verb ḥāšab and the Greek verb logizomai; both have the basic meaning of “thinking” and “considering.” They express mental activities. When God considers something as having a status, then in his sight it has that status. If God considers us declared righteous, then we have the legal status of righteousness, even though we may not feel righteous from one day to the next.

8 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts … 9 As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Is. 55:8-9)

We now turn to Paul’s theology.

Someone had to pay for our sins. Either we do it or someone else does. If we pay for our own sins, we won’t survive God’s judgment, for he is infinitely holy. Paying for our own sins is out of our price range. We can’t afford it. Therefore, for the same reason, someone else who does it cannot be just any old person, like your wife or brother. He has to be God’s best. He has to be divine. He has to be from heaven. Most of all, he cannot be part of God’s created order or universe. He cannot be created, for creation suffers from decay and groans (Rom. 8:21-22). Only one person fits that description: Jesus Christ, the Son of God and God the Son.

The deepest part of our sin problem originates long before we were born. Humans die, and death is the result or wage of sin. Why are we born to die? When God imputes Adam’s sin and guilt to us, God considers it as belonging to us, and so it does, even though we did not sin in the specific way Adam did. We share an unbreakable human bond with our First Parents, in Paul’s theology.

But the good news of a solution: when God imputes Christ’s righteousness to us, God considers it as belonging to us and so it does, even though we have not done any works of righteousness in ourselves that merit or earn God’s free and loving gift of righteousness. It is our new legal status before God, bestowed by him. It was declared in God’s heavenly courtroom.

God’s declaring us righteous, and his imputing righteousness to us does not depend on our inner moral transformation; it depends on him and his opinion. And his thinking or imputing depends on his grace and love for his Son. It would be inconsistent for God to send his Son as an atoning sacrifice and then withdraw its reality. God is perfectly consistent. Therefore the efficacy (getting the job done) of Christ’s death is like unshakeable bedrock. Now we are secure because we don’t depend on our own faith, which sometimes can become a new kind of work.

While it is true that my faith wavers and fluctuates, God’s gift does not. Once we exercise this saving faith, which was energized by the Spirit in the first place, God imputes or credits his righteousness to us as a free and once-and-for-all gift. So now it is not sustained by my faith, which might be weak one day or strong the next. Rather, it is sustained by God’s grace and love – for his Son first and then for us. Therefore we are secure in our walk with him.

God is a living person, not an abstract principle. He will help us stand in faith, as he sees us through the atoning work of his Son, a work that God initiated before the beginning of time. So it does not depend on the man who runs or the man who wills, but on God who has mercy (Rom. 9:16).

That’s God’s radical love and grace. And that’s the good news of the Gospel. By it the church stands or falls – and stand she will, if she remains in God’s grace alone apart from works.

This article, titled “What is biblical imputation?” first appeared at bible.org on August 31, 2015.

Related:

Righteousness language in the Old Testament and Paul;

Two kinds of righteousness;

Law v. grace;

Law v. gospel;

Being justified in Paul’s epistles;

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