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Righteousness by Faith (Part 3)

CHAPTER 6 — Imputed Righteousness: The Rock of Offense
    But to him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. —Rom. 4:5.
Christianity is absolutely unique in that it proclaims the gospel of the God who justifies and forgives the ungodly. Many from within the church have tried to soften the blow of this scripture and to take away its force.

It was the Reformation which revived the Pauline message of God's grace—a grace which accepts the unacceptable. All Christians believe that Christ died for the ungodly. But many will not accept that God justifies—declares righteous at His tribunal—the man who in himself is not righteous but a sinner.

Of course, this raises the question of the righteousness of God's verdict. After all, did not God instruct the judges of Israel that they should justify only the righteous and condemn the wicked? (Deut. 25:1). How is it that a Judge who is supremely just can justify the ungodly?

Paul's answer is in the doctrine of imputed righteousness. While it is true that the repentant believer is every whit a sinner in himself—and will in this life continue to fall short of God's glory (Rom. 3:23)—God imputes to him the righteousness of Jesus. It is on this basis that God can declare him righteous and treat him as if he were actually righteous.

The Reformers did not hesitate to talk about this "as if" element of the divine jurisprudence. The doctrine of Christ's substitutionary work demands it. (He was treated as if He were a sinner.) The doctrine of imputed righteousness demands it. (The repentant believing sinner is treated as if he were the One who lived that sinless life and died on the cross.) Listen to how boldly Luther and Calvin affirmed this "as if."

    Therefore a man can with confidence boast in Christ and say: "Mine are Christ's living, doing, and speaking, his suffering and dying, mine as much as if I had lived, done, spoken, suffered, and died as he did." —Luther's Works, American ed. (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press; St. Louis: Concordia, 1955 -        ), Vol.31, p.297.
This is the inevitable confession of a man who believes in substitution and imputation.

    For if righteousness consists in the observance of the law, who will deny that Christ merited favor for us when, by taking that burden upon himself, he reconciled us to God as if all had kept the law.—Institutes, Bk. 2, chap. 17, sec. 5.

    We define justification as follows: the sinner received into communion with Christ, is reconciled to God by his grace. While cleansed by Christ's blood, he obtains forgiveness of sins, and clothed with Christ's righteousness as if it were his own he stands confident before the heavenly judgment seat. —Ibid., Bk. 3, chap. 17, sec. 8.

The "as if" is the inevitable result of believing in the gospel of salvation by substitution and imputation.

Rome fought this concept bitterly. She maintained that God could not declare a man to be righteous unless he was personally righteous; otherwise God would appear to be a liar.7 From that day to this, Roman Catholic scholars—whether Bellarmine, Newman or Hans Kung—will not accept what even Kung caricatures as "a pasted on 'as if' righteousness." The Reformation defenders replied that if Rome were correct, no one could be justified in this life, for no one is sinless or can be called righteous if the verdict has to rest on his own experience.

The justification of the ungodly through the imputed righteousness of Christ does not mean that God's verdict is a fiction which is based on no reality. Before God, Christ's atonement is a reality which is all-sufficient. It does not need to be supplemented by any other reality. God's verdict of justification is not grounded on any reality within the believing repentant sinner. This is the rock of offense on which Rome stumbled. But not only Rome. It is a rock of offense within some quarters of Protestantism too. There is the continual temptation to ground God's verdict of justification on some reality within the believer. This really means injecting something of the subjective element of sanctification into justification, which immediately corrupts the doctrines of both justification and sanctification.

Attempts to Get Rid of the Offensive "As If"

1. The Subordination of Justification to Sanctification. At least earlier in his ministry, John Wesley had some real reservation about the Reformation understanding of imputed righteousness. in his Letters to Hervey he denied that Christ's righteousness was imputed, but merely said that faith was imputed for righteousness. Yet there is some evidence that Wesley later became fully reconciled to the Reformed doctrine of Christ's imputed righteousness. First, this is indicated in his sermon of 1765 called "The Lord Our Righteousness" (see Sermons on Several Occasions, Vol.1, pp. 169-177). And in the same year, Wesley wrote in a letter to John Newton: "I think on justification just as I have done any time these seven and twenty years, and just as Mr. Calvin does. In this respect I do not differ from him one hair's breadth."—Cited in Albert C. Outer, ed., John Wesley (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), p.78.

Wesley's sermon on 'Justification by Faith," however, does show a shifting away from the Reformation position in one important respect. In this sermon Wesley refutes the Roman Catholic position that justify means to make righteous. He is clear that justification is what God does "for us." Wesley is not guilty of injecting sanctification into the article of justification. But at the same time, he denies the Reformation position which says that justify means to declare righteous. God cannot declare a person to be righteous if he is not personally righteous, says Wesley, adding, "Such a notion of justification is neither reconcilable to reason nor to Scripture."—Sermons, Vol.1, p.47. How does he therefore deal with Paul's statement that God justifies the ungodly? Wesley says that "the plain scriptural notion of justification is pardon, the forgiveness of sin."

To say that Romans 4:5 means that God "forgives the ungodly" avoids the whole problem of imputed righteousness, but it does so at the expense of having a very weak doctrine of justification. Justification only has the negative element of forgiveness left in it and is bereft of the positive element of being declared righteous before the tribunal of God. It becomes a very real temptation to put the sanctified life of the believer in the room of the imputed righteousness of Christ as that which obtains God's favorable verdict in the final day of judgment.

It does not help matters just to say that this sanctified life is made possible by God's grace. Niebuhr points out that the Wesleyan tendency is to subordinate justification to sanctification in such a way that salvation ultimately comes to rest on sanctification. To do this, says Niebuhr, is to land right back in the camp of Roman Catholic soteriology (see The Nature and Destiny of Man, Vol.2). We do not say that Wesley does this. But he certainly opens the door to it, and many of his followers have moved in that direction.

Then there are others who may even admit that justify means to declare righteous, but imputed righteousness does not seem to be as real to them as does imparted righteousness. They confess that imputed righteousness is necessary for Christian beginners who have nothing else. But sanctification is seen by them as the higher stage of the soteriological process, and justification is very decidedly subordinated to it. They would not be so irreverent as to say this, but it seems that imputed righteousness is to them a sort of make-believe "abracadabra" righteousness that somehow gets you by until you can acquire the real internal righteousness of sanctification. They seem to say: "It would be a bit too presumptuous or too uncertain to rest on this invisible righteousness alone for salvation. At least the safest thing would be to have some of both—and the more of the second, the safer you would be." Of course, no one would express it as crudely as that, but how can we help suspecting that this is the way they feel when a little justification is swallowed up by an overwhelming preoccupation with inner experience?

One writer who represents this stream of thought is bold enough to say, "With the passage of time, we should require less emphasis on Christ's imputed righteousness and should actually possess more and more of imparted righteousness." —Don Hawley, Getting It All Together, p.35. Not surprisingly, this author's system winds up advocating that, in the final analysis, salvation is by character instead of by faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ. Or to put it another way, the writer really means that justification does not actually put a believer in possession of full salvation, but sanctification does. Here sanctification is not injected into the article of justification by faith, but justification is shorn of real saving efficacy, with the result that sanctification comes along, first to supplement it, and finally to supplant it altogether. All this is a far cry from the mighty Pauline doctrine of justification by faith, and it is a far cry from the Reformation.

2. Justification in Prospect of Future Righteousness. Early in this century, Luther scholar Karl Holl tried to get rid of the offensive "as if" by asserting that God justifies the believer because, being eternal, He sees what the believer will eventually become by Christ's renewing power. God acts like the sculptor and sees in the raw block of marble what He can make of it. Holl even asserted that this is what Luther actually taught.

More recently, James Stewart declares that God sees the new direction in which the sinner turns:

. . . his heart [if not his feet] is in the law of promise. . . . That is what God sees; and on the basis of this, God acts. . . . His [the sinner's] position may not have altered much, but his direction has been changed completely, and it is by direction, not position, that God judges. Once the sinner had his back to Christ; now his face is Christward. This is faith, and it holds the potency of a glorious future. This is what God sees; and seeing it, God declares the man righteous. God "justifies" him. Is this a legal "fiction"? The question answers itself. There is nothing fictitious about it whatsoever. It is the deepest and most genuine of realities.—A Man in Christ (New York: Harper & Bros.), pp.256-257.

This is not justification on account of what Jesus Christ has done and on the basis of His finished work alone. It shifts the ground of salvation from the vicarious righteousness of Christ to the personal righteousness which the believer will possess—one day.

Why is this done? At the end of the last century (1895), Sanday and Headlam, in their great commentary on Romans, proposed that the doctrine of justification by an imputed righteousness looks as if the Christian life had its beginning in a legal fiction. That is what Rome has always said. But it seemed that Sanday and Headlam's comment began a chain reaction to the supposed horror of a legal fiction. Protestant scholars started a stampede to get rid of this offensive "as if." Today it is hard to find a scholar who stands stiffly for the old doctrine of imputed righteousness. But what is done by way of an alternative? Justification ends up being based, in one way or another, on a reality within the believer. Justification is fused with sanctification. In grounding justification on an internal reality, different roads may be taken, but they all lead to Rome.

While Holl and Stewart say that God's verdict of justification is based on a future righteousness within the believer, authors like. C. H. Dodd and Vincent Taylor say it is based on what the believer has actually become in principle. Dodd says that the basis is not the believer's quantitative righteousness but his qualitative righteousness—his "attitude of mind and will."—The Meaning of Paul for Today (Collins: Fontana Books), p. 121. Taylor says:

He can be accepted by God as righteous, because, to the full extent of his present apprehension of the divine purpose for himself, and the world, an apprehension ever growing from this focal moment in rightness and insight, he has identified himself with that purpose. —Forgiveness and Reconciliation (London: MacMillan, 1941), p.65.

N. H. Snaith repudiates the whole notion of imputed righteousness and grounds justification on the quality of faith in the believer (see The Distinctive Ideas of the Old Testament [New York: Schoken Books, 1964], p. 164). And even James Denney suggests that
    the distinction of imputed and infused righteousness is unreal. The man who believes in Christ the propitiation, who stakes his whole being on sin bearing love as the last reality in the universe—is not fictitiously regarded as right with God, he actually is right with God, and God treats him as such.—The Christian Doctrine of Reconciliation, p.164.
Again Denney says:
    When He pronounces the sinner dikaios [righteous] he is dikajos. . . . Now on virtue of his faith, he is all right with God, and there is henceforth no condemnation for him. Nor in all this is there anything unreal, anything akin to legal fiction.—Ibid., p.292.

The irony of all these formulations, designed to get rid of legal fiction, is that they end up with a real legal fiction. The fact of the matter is that even the believer is beset by many inner contradictions, as Romans 7:14-25 amply testifies. There is nothing in him—not even his best intentions—which is entirely free from the taint of original sin. His faith is not unmixed with the alloy of unbelief. ("Lord, I believe; help Thou mine unbelief.") If God pronounced him righteous on the basis of any reality in him, this would call the truth of God into serious question. Justification is a declaration that the believer possesses an absolute and perfect righteousness. It ought to be clear that such righteousness is not found in the believer's good intentions, his attitude, his faith or in anything within such a poor worm of a creature. He needs a far better righteousness than anything within him to stand in the tribunal of Almighty God. Such a righteousness is found nowhere else but in Jesus Christ, and therefore to base justification on any reality within the believer is a horrendous legal fiction.

3. Justification on the Basis of the Believer's Relationship with God. The most plausible way of bypassing the doctrine of justification by the imputed righteousness of Christ is to propose that justification means God's declaration that the believer is now in a right relationship with Himself. This line of reasoning uses so many right words, and says so many true things, that we need to be wide awake lest we embrace the counterfeit article while all the while thinking it is the genuine Pauline and Reformation article. The argument goes something like this:

Righteousness belongs to the language of relationships. God's grace brings the believing sinner into a right relationship with Himself. Justification is simply God's declaration that a right relationship exists. This is real righteousness. There is no "as if" about it, for it is purely relational. The problem of talking about imputed (fictional?) righteousness disappears, because if you talk about having a right relationship with God, the distinction between imputed and imparted righteousness is irrelevant.

This is the line taken by Bultmann, Whiteby and many others. Ladd's otherwise excellent A New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), falls for this argument too. Says Ladd:

    A man's relationship to God is no fiction. God does not treat a sinner as though he were righteous; he is in fact righteous. Through Christ he has entered into a new relationship with God and is in fact righteous in terms of this relationship. —p. 445.

If we here pause to clear the air, we should have no trouble taking off the mask of this theory and showing that hiding beneath its plausible terminology is the principle of Roman Catholic justification. We will make three brief points.

1. Righteousness is certainly a relationship, and as we have already shown, it means having a right relationship with God, with man and with the whole created order.

2. We have also shown that righteousness is not a relationship in the abstract, but it is a living, dynamic thing which is expressed in concrete behavior. It has real ethical content. Thus the man who has a right relationship acts right toward God, toward his neighbors and toward the world around him.

3. Since God's justification is not piecemeal but is entire and absolutely perfect, it is a declaration that the believer has a perfect relationship with God, man and the world.

It ought to be clear that no believer has this perfect relationship existentially. If he had, then he would pray perfectly, praise God perfectly, and his heart would never wander in the slightest from loving God with the whole soul, mind and strength. Luther confessed that he never was able to say one Lord's prayer perfectly. He said that we should not doubt that our best and holiest duties are defiled with the secret vice of pride. God's declaration that perfect righteousness exists is not to be identified with our personal relationship to God. Let any man honestly look into his heart, and he will confess that his heart-relationship with God is far from what it should be or could be, and he must needs cry for forgiveness.

But does not the believer have a perfect righteousness? Yes, he has! Does not a perfect righteousness mean a perfect relationship? Yes, it does! How then does the believer have a perfect relationship? He has it by faith and by imputation. On his behalf, Christ has a perfect relationship to God, to man and to the whole created order. All that was lost in Adam is restored in Christ.

The relationship which Christ our Representative has with the Father on our behalf must be distinguished from our own heart-relationship with Christ, which the Bible calls faith (that is, faith-union with Christ). This is not the efficacious, meritorious union. Faith always points away from itself to rest for salvation on Christ's union with God.

It is often said that the most important thing in the Christian religion is the believer's heart-relationship with the Lord. But as important as that is, it is not the most important thing. The most important thing is Christ's relationship with God. This is the believer's guarantee of acceptance unto eternal life. Justification is based on this reality which is completely outside the believer. It is the righteousness or the relationship of Another. The believer is not accepted because of his faith—even though he will not be accepted without it. He is accepted because Another is accepted. He is declared righteous because Another is righteous on his behalf.

The objections about legal fiction are really only a "red herring." Neither a good Catholic nor a good Protestant will say that God declares a person righteous without the existence of a real righteousness. As Chemnitz points out in his Examination of the Council of Trent (St. Louis: Concordia, 1971), the Reformation acknowledges that righteousness is necessary to secure God's verdict of justification. So let us not be diverted by the non-question as to whether a real righteousness must exist. That is not the issue. The issue is, Where does this righteousness reside? As Buchanan in his masterful treatise on The Doctrine of Justification (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1961) asks again and again, "Is this righteousness vicarious, or is it a personal righteousness in the believer?"

The Issue behind the Issue

What is behind all the efforts to rework the doctrine of justification—efforts which lead in one way or another to grounding God's justifying verdict, at least in part, on some reality within the believer? Back of them all is a dissatisfaction and uneasiness about the plain Pauline and Reformation doctrine of imputed righteousness. It is disappointing that even many good authors, who confess that salvation is based on an objective foundation, seem to be soft on the old doctrine of imputed righteousness.8 Commenting on the current scene, Ziesler says:

More commonly today, the language of imputation is avoided, partly because of the difficulties to which it has led [legal fiction] and partly because its use in Romans 4 and Galatians 3 seems very much due to the exigencies of polemic. —The Meaning of Righteousness in Paul, p.8.

As we have pointed out, all this talk about legal fiction is a "red herring." So is the argument which says that we must make allowances for Paul's polemic against the Judaizers. The whole concept of imputation is tied to the biblical doctrine of a substitutionary atonement. These two things—imputation and the substitutionary atonement of Christ—stand together. An attack on one is an attack on the other.

The center of the apostolic message was that Christ died for our sins (1 Cor. 15:3), was made a curse for us (Gal. 3:13), suffered for the unjust (1 Peter 3:18) and gave His life "a ransom for [Greek, anti, meaning in the stead of] many" (Mark 10:45).
    . . . God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them. . . . For He hath made Him [Christ] to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him. —2 Cor. 5:19,21.

God laid our sins on Jesus Christ by imputation. ". . . He was numbered with the transgressors . . . " (Isa. 53:12). This is how He was "made . . . to be sin for us." There was nothing in Him worthy of death. But having been made to be sin by imputation, He was condemned by the righteous judgment of God. In this sense it was right and proper that Christ should suffer the wrath of God. He had to be treated as if He were a sinner. It is on this same basis that God deals with the believing sinner. Having made him righteous by the imputed righteousness of Christ, God pronounces him just and treats him as if he were righteous. Those who repudiate imputed righteousness are really repudiating the central truth of the cross of Christ—that is, substitution.

But let us press this further in order to get back to the ultimate source of the problem. Why have many biblical scholars begun to look for the meaning of Christ's atonement elsewhere than in the concept of substitution. They talk about Christ's solidarity, identity or oneness with the race. Markus Barth gives an excellent presentation of Christ's representative role. But Barth cannot bring himself to acknowledge substitution. To many, the whole substitution-imputation concept is unreal or unnecessary. They are critical of the typical "Fundamentalist" portrayal of Christ's substitutionary work—and often for some very good reasons, we must admit. For is it not all too true that some presentations of Christ's substitutionary atonement appear to be arbitrary, artificial and not wholly unlike a pagan appeasement? Why does not God simply forgive without having to be "bought off" by the blood sacrifice of Jesus Christ?

The atonement cannot be explained except by an appreciation of the binding claims of the law of God. The Ten Commandments are the words or the stipulations of the everlasting covenant (Ex. 34:27-29; Deut. 4:13 Rev. 11:19; 15:5). The covenant guarantees the blessing of life to the obedient and invokes the curse of death upon the disobedient. This law is the constitution of the universe. It cannot be changed, modified or relaxed. God must uphold the moral order of the universe. The law's demands must be honored by perfect fulfillment and by the most complete satisfaction for sin. If this appears rigidly severe, let it be understood that we are dealing with an exact and omnipotent justice which will not abdicate the rule of divine law. Ultimate stability and freedom are not found in weakening, much less abolishing, the law of God.

When we acknowledge that this "law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good" (Rom. 7:12), that it requires of us the most perfect and exact obedience, that its penalty for any default must be carried out, and that it would be easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one jot or tittle of this law not to be carried out, then we will bless God that means have been devised that a Substitute stand in our stead. We will bless God for His sinless life which met our obligation. We will thank grace that He was willing to make reparations for the damage done. We will know why God could not spare His own Son if He was to save us from eternal ruin (Rom. 8:32). The sufferings of Christ will impress upon us what a tremendous evil it is to transgress God's commandments.

We submit that such a view of the atonement shows us that there is no salvation other than by substitution and imputation. More than that, it is a salvation which will lead to a life of penitent, grateful submission to the law of God—apart from which all freedom is an illusion. It is not the Reformation doctrine of justification by Christ's imputed righteousness which is a cul-de-sac with no road from it to ethics. Rather, the blind alley is found in the theories of atonement that are not grounded on the moral necessities of the law of God.

We live in an age which has become notorious for its spirit of lawlessness. That spirit has permeated the church as well as the world. Multitudes of proposed Christians do not want to submit to the outside law of God any more than they want to submit to the outside righteousness of faith (Rom. 10:3). They want to live by some 'Spirit-ethic" (the uncertain voices within, "sanctified" human intuition) just as they want to be justified by some "real" righteousness within. But it is "the man of lawlessness" (2 Thess. 2:3-8, RSV) who opposes justification by faith by crying up the need for real inward righteousness while all the while his heart thinks to "change the times and the law" (Dan. 7:25, RSV).

In short, all this opposition to imputed righteousness stems from the spirit of rebellion against the law of God. Let the law of God be upheld and its claims urged home upon the conscience, and then Christ's substitutionary atonement stands, and troubled consciences will be glad to find shelter under His imputed righteousness.

God's verdict of justification, therefore, is grounded on the reality of the law of God and the cross of Christ. Those who want to ground it on their own reality dishonor the law and despise the all-sufficiency of the cross. All this is implicit in Paul's argument in Romans 3:21-31.

Then, in Romans 4, Paul presses his argument further against those who want to base God's justifying verdict on a reality within themselves.9 The God who justifies the ungodly (v.5) is the God who creates out of nothing and who raises the dead. Paul shows that this is the God in whom Abraham believed. When his own body was procreationally dead and Sarah's womb was dead, God pronounced him a father, saying, "I have made thee a father of many nations" (v.17). This was not said after Isaac was born but before Isaac was born (see Gen. 17:5). God's declaration that Abraham was a father was not based on a reality in Abraham. The God who creates out of nothing (Heb. 11:3)—not being dependent on any reality save the reality in His own Word, who is Jesus Christ—is the God "who quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were" (Rom. 4:17). This assertion of Paul is a thunderbolt against those who say that a man has to be righteous before God can declare him righteous. And when God raises the dead, He is not dependent upon some supposed immortality of the soul.10 God's word calling the ungodly righteous and the barren woman a mother is, like election itself, not grounded even on the foreseen righteousness or fruitfulness of the human subject, but on the reality of Jesus Christ and His work alone. God finds in Jesus an adequate reason and justification for all His decrees.

To insist that we must be righteous before God by a righteousness within us is as foolish as thinking vain thoughts about surviving the disaster of death by our supposed immortality. Saying that the righteousness which we have within is by the grace of the Holy Spirit does not improve the situation. If anything, it makes our situation worse. It means that we use God's gift to steal His glory.

(To be continued)



7 F. Pieper, in his Christian Dogmatics (St. Louis: Concordia, 1951), Volume 2, page 524, says: "It is characteristic of all good papists and poor Protestants to set up the principles that God can declare only such people righteous as are righteous in themselves. . . . It would [they say] be unethical for God to employ any other method of justification." On page 526, Pieper cites Osiander's objection, "God would not commit the injustice of declaring a man to be righteous in whom there is nothing whatever of true righteousness."
8 Even Leon Morris (The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, pp.271-272. 282) is disappointingly weak on imputation.
9 Logizomai (impute, account, reckon) is used 11 times in Romans 4.
10 Thielicke is quite right when he observes that the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification by infused righteousness and the doctrine of the immortality of the soul belong together.