David W. Hegg
Sin and Righteousness
Introduction: The doctrine of Justification insists that those who are “in Christ” no longer have a penalty to pay for their sin. In contrast to regeneration, which is an act of God whereby new spiritual life is granted, justification is a declaration by God that those “in Christ” are no longer guilty before the court of heaven, but now are considered declared as righteous.
But this bring up the important question of how a holy God can consider the guilty to be righteous before him? How has their bad record been wiped clean? How has the sentence their sins have earned taken out of the way? And how can the justice of God be fully met if the criminal’s sentence is not fully carried out?
To answer these questions we must examine the Doctrine of Imputation, both of sin and righteousness.
1. The Problem:
• God’s Declaration:
Rom. 5.1 Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Rom. 8.1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
Thus, those in Christ are justified – declared righteous – in the sight of God. This involves two aspects:
1) The declaration that those in Christ are no longer subject to any charge of guilt.
We may it this way: The bad record of those in Christ is now no longer held against
2) The declaration that those in Christ are now considered righteous in the sight of God.
We may think of it this way: The bad heart of those in Christ is no longer held against
• The Problems:
1) God’ Holiness:
God is infinitely holy, and just. As such, he cannot overlook sin, nor can he forgive it without the full penalty being paid.
Psa. 5.4 For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you. 5 The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers.
Prov. 11.21 Be assured, an evil person will not go unpunished, but the offspring of the righteous will be delivered.
Rom. 3.23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,
Rom. 6.23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
2) Mankind’s Fallenness and Inability:
Rom. 3.9-26 What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, 10 as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; 11 no one understands; no one seeks for God. 12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” 13 “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” 14 “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” 15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 in their paths are ruin and misery, 17 and the way of peace they have not known.” 18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
19 Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
Note: On the inability of fallen mankind to please God in any way that would merit God’s saving grace, see:
Eph. 2.1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
Rom. 8.7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.
1Cor. 2.14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.
2Tim. 2.24 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, 25 correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.
• Key Point: Christ was “put forward as a propitiation”
Propitiation (i˚lasth/rion, ilastarion): 1. means of expiation In Greco-Roman literature that which serves as an instrument for regaining the goodwill of a deity; a ‘means of propitiation or expiation, a gift to procure expiation’.
1. means of expiation, of Christ, whom God set forth as a means of expiation Ro 3:25 The unique feature relative to Greco-Roman usage is the initiative taken by God to effect removal of impediments to a relationship with God’s self. In the passive it has also been taken to mean 2. place of propitiation (as Ezek 43:14, 17, 20) The Septuagint uses this word of the lid on the ark of the covenant, which was sprinkled with the blood of the sin-offering on the Day of Atonement (Ex 25:17).
• Summary: The Bible is clear, while seemingly paradoxical: mankind both sins, and can achieve a status of righteous before God, even while God’s perfect holiness and justice are preserved without compromise. The answer to the problem is Jesus Christ, whom God has “put forward as a means of expiation (propitiation, satisfaction). What remains to be seen is exactly how Jesus Christ can both satisfy God’s justice and save sinners from the bad record and bad heart that inflicts them all.
(Note: We will delve further into the idea of “propitiation” in our next lesson on The Substitutionary Nature of the Atonement.)
2. Jesus Christ as Our Propitiation
If Jesus Christ has become the means by which the demands of God law and justice are now met and satisfied, then the next set of questions is as follows:
1) How did Christ satisfy God’s justice in regard to our bad record, the full accounting of our sins?
2) How did Christ satisfy God’s justice in regard to our bad hearts, the depravity of our unrighteous nature?
Answer: In God’s economy, our bad record was imputed to Christ, and he suffered the whole, unobstructed wrath of God that our sins deserved. This took care of our bad record. Then, the righteousness of Christ was imputed to our account so that our standing before God is based on his righteousness and no longer on our bad heart. Thus, we have double imputation: our sin to Jesus, and his righteousness to us.
• Imputation: Defined
Imputation: to reckon, or lay to account; to consider as now belonging to the account of someone.
Negative Instances: (not laying to account):
Psa. 32.2 Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
2Cor. 5.19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.
Gen. 15.6 And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.
3. Imputation of Sin
• The act of God whereby the sin of one is laid to the account of another:
a) Adam’s sin to all humanity:
When Adam sinned, he stood as a representative for all mankind. Thus, the consequences of his sin were more than merely personal. The consequences of Adam’s sin fell to all creation. In the case of humanity, both the depravity of Adam’s nature as a result of his sin, and the guilt of sin, were passed on to all for whom he was a representative. Romans 5:12-19 is Paul’s magisterial presentation comparing and contrasting Adam and Jesus Christ (the 2nd and last Adam) in terms of the way the effects of their actions affected those for whom they were seen by God as representative.
Rom. 5.12-19 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— 13 for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. 14 Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.
15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. 16 And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. 17 For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.
18 Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. 19 For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.
b) Human Sin to Christ
A second example of the imputation of sin is found in the biblical assertion that human sin was imputed to Christ as the sin-bearer, and that on the cross he fully discharged the guilt and penalty associated with those sins, as God’s propitiation.
Is. 53.6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
2Cor. 5.21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Gal. 3.13 Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree:
Col. 2.13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.
1Pet. 2.24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.
1Pet. 3.18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God …
Summary: The first part of the “problem” (our bad record) is solved through God’s justifying plan whereby human is sin is imputed or laid to the account of Jesus Christ who then, on the cross, fully served the sentence those sins demanded. In essence, for those who are “in Christ”, God has accepted Christ’s death for sin as though it were theirs!
4. Imputation of Righteousness
As we have seen, dealing with our sin was only the first half of the problem. While the record has now been “paid in full”, the fact remains that we are still unrighteous people. We have bad hearts.
God’s answer, as stated above, is to impute or lay to our account the righteousness of Christ, thereby completely covering our unrighteousness with his eternally accepted righteousness. Thus, in a real sense, God now accepts Christ’s righteousness as though it were mine.
2Cor. 5.21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Phil. 3.8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—
5. The Present Controversy:
Currently in some circles there is a raging controversy over the righteousness of Christ. In Reformed theology, the matters about which we have been speaking (the imputation of sin and righteousness) are known as:
• Christ’s Passive Obedience: Christ passively taking upon himself the penalty our sin deserved.
• Christ’s Active Obedience: Christ’s actively keeping the law as a man in our place, and imputing the righteousness he gained by keeping the law to our account.
These parallel ways of describing Christ’s “propitiatory” work have been held by a majority of Reformed theologians going back to the Reformers themselves.
Is the “alien” righteousness – the righteousness of Christ – imputed to the believer “earned” by Christ’s obedience to the law? Or is the righteousness imputed to the believer simply that righteousness belonging to Christ intrinsically into which we are “incorporated” as a result of union with Christ?
The Argument: Recently some (eg. Norm Shepherd, Michael Bird, Andy Snider, N.T. Wright) have argued that, if the righteousness imputed to the account of those who believe was “earned” through law-keeping, then this is equivalent to the “fountain of merits” of the Roman Catholic church. Further, they argue that the active righteousness doctrine does not rest on Scripture, but on theological inference. Lastly, they suggest the better understanding of the “believer’s alien righteousness” is that the believer, being “in Christ” is “incorporated” into all Christ is, including his righteousness.
It also turns out that, when the Westminster Confession of Faith was being put together there was a contingent of theologians who were not in favor of saying that the life of Jesus Christ was propitious, but only his death. While his perfect life made him the perfect sacrifice, and was therefore, necessary, it was his death and not his life that was salvific. (See: The Active Obedience of Christ and the Theology of the Westminster Standards, in Justified in Christ, K. Scott Oliphint, ed.)
An alternative has been proposed that simply says the righteousness imputed to our account, and in which we stand as justified before God, is the righteousness of Christ that is intrinsic to him, and into which we have been “incorporated” in our union with Christ. To be “in Christ” is to be seen by God as having died with Christ, been raised with him to walk in newness of life, and as well as to be the beneficiary of the righteousness of Christ.
The question remains to be settled through close examination of Scripture.
Note: Everyone agrees that it is Christ’s righteousness that is imputed to the account of those who believe. What is at issue is the source of that righteousness: is it earned by law-keeping or intrinsic to God the Son?
2Cor. 5.17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Rom. 4.4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness,
Rom. 516-18 And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. 17 For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. 18 Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.
Phil. 3.7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—
John Frame: “ … we are saved ‘in Christ’, and therefore by union with his righteous character, displayed in all his works. That character is constituted by everything in his nature and all his works, including his active righteousness … The Reformed Confessions have not been unanimous on this issue … So neither position should be made a test of Reformed orthodoxy.” (Systematic Theology, pg. 975; emphasis in the original)
Michael Bird: “I wholeheartedly agree with the Reformed position on justification about a forensic and alien righteousness. Yet, I have one primary objection to the Reformed scheme, namely, that the emphasis on the imputation of Jesus’ active obedience needs urgent qualification…We are stuck with the medieval mind-set of a treasury of merits that we somehow have to acquire, and the only options on the table are impartation (Roman Catholic) or imputation (Reformed). I think this whole theology of merit is asking the wrong questions about the text. The problem humanity has is not a lack of moral merits. The problem is a broken relationship. What is needed is not merit, but reconciliation… Don’t get me wrong, Jesus’ obedience matters immensely and without it no one can be saved. But that is not because Jesus was racking up frequent flyer points that can (be) transferred into our account… Rather than imputation, a better description of the biblical materials is incorporation into the righteousness of Christ. The verdict that God the Father executes on the Son is shared by those who are united to the risen Jesus… So Jesus’ obedience does become ours –but not through artificially dividing Jesus’ obedience into active and passive varieties, not through a medieval concept of ‘merit’ that is imputed instead of imparted, not because Jesus is the exemplary Pelagian who earms salvation when we cannot, not by fulfilling a covenant of works that required meritorious fulfillment, not by way of righteousness molecules floating through the air to us; rather, we become ‘righteous’ in Christ when by faith we participate in the vicarious death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are incorporated into the righteousness of Jesus Christ.” (Evangelical Theology, Michael Bird; pg. 563, 564; emphasis in the original)
John Murray: “This obedience has frequently been designated the active and passive obedience… The real use and purpose of the formula is to emphasize the two distinct aspects of our Lord’s vicarious obedience. The truth expressed rests upon the recognition that the law of God has both penal and positive demands. It demands not only the full discharge of its precepts but also the infliction of penalty for all infractions and shortcomings. It is this twofold demand of the law of God which is taken into account when we speak of the active and passive obedience of Christ. Christ as the vicar of his people came under the curse and condemnation due to sin and he also fulfilled the law in all of it positive requirements. In other words, he took care of the guilt of sin and perfectly fulfilled the demands of righteousness. He perfectly met both the penal and the preceptive requirements of God’s law. The passive obedience refers to the former and the active obedience to the latter. Christ’s obedience was vicarious in the bearing of the full judgment of God upon sin, and it was vicarious in the full discharge of the demands of righteousness. His obedience becomes the ground of the remission of sin and of actual justification.” (Redemption Accomplished and Applied, pg. 20-22)
R. C. Sproul: “We’ve seen that in the work of redemption God didn’t send Jesus to earth on Good Friday and say, “Die for the sins of your people and that will take care of it.” No. Jesus not only had to die for our sins, but He had to live for our righteousness. If all Jesus did was die for your sins, that would remove all of your guilt, and that would leave you sinless in the sight of God, but not righteous. You would be innocent, but not righteous because you haven’t done anything to obey the Law of God which is what righteousness requires.” (Jesus and His Active Obedience - Ligonier Ministries
This much we know for sure:
• All have sinned, and fall short of God’s demanded standard.
• This has incurred in every case a penalty that can neither be paid nor laid aside.
• Any justification of sinners must deal conclusively and eternally with the penalty and corruption sin has brought without in any way compromising the holiness and justice of God.
• This has been done in Jesus Christ, whom God put forward as a “propitiation” for our sins.
• For all who would ever believe, Christ took upon himself their sin and fully paid the penalty they had earned, while also covering them with his righteousness so that they stand justified before God.
• The imputation of our sin to Christ, and of Christ’s righteousness to us simply means that, for all who are “in Christ” God has accepted God the Son’s death and righteousness as though it were theirs. Thus, they stand justified before God eternally, because of Christ.
The Active Obedience of Christ - Monergism (Wayne Grudem)
Examining the Imputation of the Active Obedience of Christ. A Study in Calvinistic Sacred Cow-ism. By Steve Lehrer and Geoff Volker.
Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem
Systematic Theology, John Frame
Evangelical Theology, Michael Bird
Justified in Christ; K. Scott Oliphint, ed; Christian Focus Pub; 2007
Redemption Accomplished and Applied; John Murray, Eerdmans,1955
The Imputation of Adam’s Sin; John Murray, Eerdmans, 1977