The Faulty Foundations of Faith Alone – Part 7: Imputed Righteousness?

For Part 6, click here: The Faulty Foundations of Faith Alone – Part 6: Jesus’ Death Appeased the Father’s Wrath?

Or start at the beginning: The Faulty Foundations of Faith Alone – Part 1: God is a Trinity of Persons?

The traditional theological name for the mechanism by which Christ’s death supposedly makes us righteous in God’s eyes is “imputation,” or “imputed righteousness.”

The idea is that the righteousness and merit of Christ are credited to believers as if it were theirs, so that they are considered righteous because of Christ’s righteousness.

Why is this considered necessary?

7. Christ’s righteousness is “imputed” to those who believe in him?

Imputed righteousness is considered necessary because, as pointed out in earlier sections, according to faith alone theology we humans are sinful, guilty, and incapable of being righteous, and we are therefore condemned by God the Father to eternal hell. And precisely because there is no way for us to become righteous, in order for us not to be sentenced to hell Christ must impute, or credit, his righteousness to us so that we can be declared innocent.

Now, there is a germ of truth to this. It is indeed impossible for us to be righteous on our own. If we are righteous, it is not from ourselves, but from God’s presence and power acting in us.

But here’s the problem with the doctrine of imputed righteousness. This imputation of righteousness is said to happen to us while we are still sinners.

In other words, under the doctrine of imputed righteousness, people who are actually sinners are considered to be righteous because Christ’s righteousness is credited to them.

It should be clear by now that this is simply another version of something the Bible flatly rejects: the guilty being declared innocent. In fact, in so-called “double imputation,” not only is the righteousness of Christ imputed to sinners, but the sinfulness of sinners is imputed to Christ. This, of course, violates both biblical principles: that the guilty shall not be declared innocent, nor shall the innocent be declared guilty.

The fallacy in this whole concept is that people can simply be declared to be righteous regardless of their actual character.

Consider a confirmed murderer, rapist, thief, or embezzler. People who regularly and persistently engage in these crimes do so because it is a part of their settled character. What others see as horrible and evil, they see as enjoyable and profitable. They don’t even believe it’s wrong. In fact, if they manage to make an especially lucrative score, or to hit an especially juicy victim, they elated and exhilarated—even as the news is reporting an especially heinous crime, and ordinary people are shuddering at the horrendous things criminals do.

Can such a person be magically made righteous just because Jesus Christ died to pay the penalty for his or her evil actions? Can Christ’s righteousness be credited to such a person so that even while still being a murderer, rapist, thief, or embezzler (in other words, a sinner), he or she is now considered righteous?

The whole idea is ludicrous.

And it has no support whatsoever in the Bible.

The Bible never says that Jesus came to take away the penalty for sin, and to declare sinners righteous even while they are still sinners.

What the Bible says, instead, is that Christ loved us even though we were sinners, and therefore came to save us from our sins and to take away our sins:

She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. (Matthew 1:21)

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (John 3:16)

And so all Israel will be saved; as it is written, “Out of Zion will come the Deliverer; he will banish ungodliness from Jacob.” “And this is my covenant with them, when I take away their sins.” (Romans 11:26–27)

Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. (1 John 3:4–5)

It does not say that he saves us from the penalty for our sin, but that he saves us from our sins.

It does not say that he takes away the penalty for our sin, but that he takes away our sins.

And this, according to the Bible, can happen only through “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (see, for example Mark 1:4–5; Luke 3:1–3; 24:45–47; Acts 5:30–31). In other words, it can happen only if we stop being sinners, and start being righteous people instead.

  • For murders to become righteous, they must repent by recognizing that murder is wrong and against God’s commandments, and stop murdering people, but respect the life and the integrity of other people instead.
  • For rapists to become righteous, they must repent by recognizing that rape is wrong and against God’s commandments, and stop raping people, but respect other people’s physical and sexual integrity instead.
  • For thieves to become righteous, they must repent by recognizing that theft is wrong and against God’s commandments, stop committing theft, and instead make all of their money in honest and constructive ways.
  • For embezzlers to become righteous, they must repent by recognizing that embezzlement is wrong and against God’s commandments, stop embezzling money, and instead do an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.

There is no other way for sinners to become righteous people. And there is no way we can, from the heart and in reality, stop our evil and sinful ways without God’s power and presence working in us. For Christians, this means that without Christ’s saving power working in our heart, mind, and soul, we can never break out of our old, destructive ways and become new people who are good, thoughtful, and loving toward our fellow human beings.

The idea that sinners can be considered righteous because Christ’s righteousness is “imputed” or credited to them even though they are still sinners is the seventh faulty, non-Biblical foundation of faith alone.

For Part 8, click here: The Faulty Foundations of Faith Alone – Part 8: God Accepts Sinners as Righteous?

For further reading:

About

Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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Posted in All About God, The Bible Re-Viewed
2 comments on “The Faulty Foundations of Faith Alone – Part 7: Imputed Righteousness?
  1. Hi Lee,

    What are your thoughts on Romans 4:2 “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” I assume this is the source of the Protestant concept of imputed righteousness.

    David

    • Lee says:

      Hi David,

      Romans 4:3 does not speak of God’s righteousness being credited to Abraham, but of Abraham’s belief in God as being credited to him—or probably better, “counted as”—righteousness. So this is not a case of “imputed righteousness” as Protestants define it.

      Beyond that, if we keep reading, we find that this is leading up to an argument that it is not necessary to be “circumcised,” meaning to keep the ritual Law of Moses, in order to be saved:

      Is this blessedness, then, pronounced only on the circumcised, or also on the uncircumcised? We say, “Faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness.” How then was it reckoned to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the ancestor of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them, and likewise the ancestor of the circumcised who are not only circumcised but who also follow the example of the faith that our ancestor Abraham had before he was circumcised. (Romans 4:9-12)

      Put in context, it’s clear that “works” in in Romans 4:2 doesn’t mean “good deeds,” but rather “the works of the Law,” meaning adherence to the ritual and sacrificial Law of Moses.

      If we understand it this way, then the commonly identified “conflict” between Paul and James about Genesis 15:6 is resolved. James says:

      Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (James 2:20-24)

      Now, if by “works” in Romans 4:2 Paul means “good works,” then he and James are flatly contradicting one another about Abraham. And that’s a problem for those who look to those books as Scripture.

      But if in Romans 4:2 Paul means “the works of the Law”—i.e., being an observant Jew in addition to being a Christian—then the outright conflict between Romans 4 and James 2 disappears, and it becomes more of a difference in emphasis than a straight-up contradiction.

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