“Imputation” — The Way it Works

That’s “imputation,” not “amputation.” 🙂 It’s not a common word, so I’ll try to explain what it is, and what it has to do with our salvation.

I said a few days ago I wanted to sharpen our thinking on aspects of the doctrine of salvation, and wrote on the basis and cause of condemnation in relation to our pardon.  This post looks at some of how it works, as revealed in Scripture.

Imputation Defined

A formal definition (Cambridge Dictionary) is “to say that someone is responsible for something that has happened, or that something is the cause of something else.”  This modern non-technical usage differs little from “attribute” — saying something good or bad about a person.  To “attribute motives” or “impute motives” is to say that you know what their motives are.

“Imputation” has technical meanings in statistics and modern law, but perhaps it will help to think of it as similar to an accounting term as we look at the way the Bible uses it.  Something “imputed” is credited / charged to your account.

A few days ago, I paid a bill online.  I was told the other bank received payment, but they could not yet confirm it was credited to my account.  The payment was imputed (charged) against my current account immediately, but not yet imputed (credited) to the account being paid.  That imputation (credit) did not take place until a few minutes later.  My bill was not cleared, even though payment was made — it had to be imputed (credited) to clear the bill.  (I once paid a bill on the due date, but it was not credited until the next day.  I had to pay a late fee. 😦  It was not the payment, but its crediting / imputation, that mattered.)

Imputed Righteousness

This is not always understood by believers, but a wonderful aspect of our salvation is that the righteousness of God is credited, or imputed, to our account when we trust in Christ.

Romans 3:21-22

21 But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets;
22 Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference:

This verse says God’s righteousness is not only “to” those who believe, but “upon” them.  The righteousness of God was put on us when we trusted in Christ.

Philippians 3:9

And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith:

Here Paul says that by faith he has / possesses the righteousness which comes from God.  In Romans 4 we find this described more in accounting terms (counted, imputeth):

Romans 4:3-6

3 For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.
4 Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt.
5 But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.
6 Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works,

Trying to earn righteousness will never work, but belief is counted for righteousness, and God imputes (credits) righteousness to us.  The previous chapter tells us which righteousness this is — the righteousness of God.

Not Just Removal of Sin

Sometimes, believers think that Christ’s work can be summed up as removing our sin, but it is more than that.

II Corinthians 5:21

For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him

“Who” in this verse refers to “him” (if anyone wants grammatical details I can explain in the comments).  Jesus, who knew no sin, took our sins so He could take the punishment for them, and His righteousness is put on us.  It is a straight-across transaction, sin for righteousness — but the righteousness of Jesus was more than just the absence of sin.

Matthew 5:17

Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.

Jesus did not merely avoid breaking the Old Testament Law, He completed the fullness of it.  He completed every righteous requirement of the Law.  This brings us to another verse which is sometimes only partially understood.

Matthew 3:14-15

14 But John forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?
15 And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness. Then he suffered him.

Here, Jesus is talking about baptism, but expands to a larger principle.  He came to fulfil all righteousness, not just the Law, but baptism and all other righteousness as well.  His righteousness covered all the bases, not only avoiding every evil thing but completing every good thing — and it is credited to us.

This clears up another misunderstanding some have.  You don’t need to be baptised or circumcised or keep the Law to be saved — but you do need the righteousness of baptism and the Law.  (If you think I just contradicted myself, read on. :))  Jesus fulfilled all, and His righteousness is credited to us by faith.  You need that credit.  If you have trusted Him for forgiveness and righteousness, you possess the righteousness of the Law, of baptism, of every good thing.  You either have all the righteousness He gives, or none of it.

That’s a good thing, because our righteousness isn’t very satisfactory to God.

Isaiah 64:6

But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.

Our righteousnesses are weak and pathetic and dirty in God’s eyes — but He isn’t looking at them, in the case of believers.  The transaction was made, the righteousness of God has been imputed.

It’s impossible to be partially righteous, because you either have only “filthy rags” or you have the fully given righteousness of God.  This zaps pride.  Think you are pretty good?  God calls it “filthy rags” — worthless.  The only righteousness that is worth anything is worth everything.  There’s no difference between us — we all sinned, we’ve all been given this righteousness of God.  Imputed righteousness makes pride ridiculous — you aren’t better than someone who has the righteousness of God!  There aren’t good Christians and bad Christians, there are righteousness of God Christians and false Christians.

Immense Debt, Immense Wealth

Giant_IrisesSuppose I take Leslie Roundabout too fast, and the car rolls between the giant irises, and burns.  The fire spreads rapidly.  Forester’s Lodge, across Western Avenue in Balgeddie and Whinnyknowe, everything burns.  Nine hundred homes gone, thousands homeless, hundreds of millions of pounds of damage, and it’s all my fault.

I’ll never be able to pay what the insurance companies will want from me.  It’s beyond anything I could ever cover — it might as well be an infinite debt.

Suppose a kind billionaire (anyone know one? :)) hears about it and sends a cheque to pay the debt I never could have paid.  It won’t be imputed / credited to my account unless / until I believe it and take it to my bank, but once I do, I can pay the whole debt.

That’s similar to, but less than, what Jesus did.  He not only wiped out our immense debt of sin, He gave us His righteousness.  It’s as if the billionaire said, “By the way, you are my heir.  You’ll receive the whole lot soon — but for now, I put so much in your account that you’ll always have enough.”  The debt is gone, and the wealth of the righteousness of God is in our account.  That will always be enough.

One More Thing on Imputation

This is the other side of it.  If you’ve never trusted Christ for cleansing, forgiveness, and righteousness, if you’ve never been born again in Christ, another imputation takes place.

Psalm 32:1-2

1 Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
2 Blessed is the man unto whom the LORD imputeth not iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile.

Romans 5:13

For until the law sin was in the world: but sin is not imputed when there is no law.

Iniquity / sins are imputed, too.  Imputed righteousness is an undeserved free gift, like the billionaire’s gift.  This imputation is deserved — for those whose sins are not forgiven, their own sins are imputed (charged) against them.

By faith we receive the gift of God’s righteousness credited to our account, and move from immense debt to immense wealth.  Without faith, the Righteous Accountant enters our sins on our account — and one day, the books will be opened by the Righteous Judge.

Here is the connection to Condemnation, Why and for What?   Imputation is “the way it works,” the way pardon or judgment are applied.  Either sin or God’s righteousness is imputed.  For believers, it is God’s righteousness, instead of our sin being charged against us we are pardoned, and we receive “all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3).  An unbeliever’s sins are imputed, charged to his account.  He is condemned to receive the fitting penalty for them, for they are “on account.”

Imputation happens in every life — imputation of sin, or of righteousness.  Your sin (and its fitting condemnation), God’s righteousness (and life) — one (and only one) will be imputed.  Something goes on your account, something will be written.

Revelation 20:12-15

12 And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.
13 And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works.
14 And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.
15 And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.

Follow-up:  “Justification” — “Just as if I Never Sinned?”

About Jon Gleason

Pastor of Free Baptist Church of Glenrothes
This entry was posted in Grace and Forgiveness and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to “Imputation” — The Way it Works

  1. L says:

    God’s Word to us is so wonderful! Too often we skip over words like imputation without ever having even the smallest glimpse of who God is and what He’s done on our behalf.

    • Jon Gleason says:

      Amen. It is good for us to step back and see the overview, so we don’t miss the forest for the trees, but it is also a blessing to look closely at the details of His truth.

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