Many critiques have been launched against the Protestant doctrine of divine imputation within the last century. Some of these critiques are understandable and even valid. For instance, some say that, within Paul’s thought, the transformative — sanctification — is not completely separated from the legal — justification. This is true. Luther himself saw this, and acknowledged that the legal leads to or even causes the transformative. When a judge acquits a criminal, this inevitably leads to a change in his life. He doesn’t return to jail after he has been acquitted! He is freed by the acquittal. It is the same with believers: if God acquits, he transforms. Those whom God has justified he necessarily sanctifies. The two are integrally connected, even organically connected.
With that said, justification within the Reformation tradition is still necessarily distinct from sanctification. Justification relates properly to something outside of the believer that is “accredited” or to the believer. Christ is the true just one, and thus his obedience and death are said within the Reformation tradition to be “imputed” to the believer. Imputation is not a legal fiction: it is something very true of Christ, but this truth of who Christ is is done on our behalf and thereby credited to our account. Christ obeys for us, and dies for us. This obedience and death is accounted to sinners who don’t have obedience and who deserve to die in their sins.
This is principally what Paul means in Corinthians when he says that “Christ died for our sins“. Christ’s death was not for himself, but for us! Imputation comes from the logic that our “moral account” is bankrupt. Language of course falls short here. But the point is that we have not obeyed God. Thus, we are said to be in a “debt”. Christ approaches the Father on our behalf, one might say as our defense lawyer, and offers the Father on our behalf, within our skin, what we didn’t. The apostle John uses this imagery when he calls Christ our advocate before the Father (1 John 2:1-2). This is what the priestly office of Christ is all about: he becomes our advocate and offers himself on our behalf. This offering is his entire life and death; and it covers and amends our wrongdoings.
What is important to realize, is this advocacy doesn’t cover simply initial justification. It also covers the believer’s sanctification. Even though in sanctification we are made intrinsically holy, we do not reach complete holiness in this life. Even our best works are “stained”, as it were, with impure motives or weaknesses. Even the best works we give to God are really not good enough. It seems in my mind that this should be obvious.
It is for this reason that Christ’s priestly obedience is imputed even to our own intrinsic holiness in sanctification. This is the reasoning of Christ’s continued priestly intercession: he continually and always offers his saving work on our behalf to the Father. Based on this intercession, the Father graciously receives and accepts even our weakest efforts toward holiness. If our holiness were not stained with unholiness, why would Christ need to continually intercede on our behalf?
The Westminster Confession of Faith articulates this reality quite well:
Notwithstanding, the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblamable and unreprovable in God’s sight; but he, looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections (WCF, 16.6)
God looks at our works with a filter, as it were. Because believers are in his Son, he receives sincere works of obedience even if they are not entire holy. In fact, he receives them and imputes them as if they were his Son’s obedience. That is to say, he treats and delights in our works as he treats and delights in his Son’s work.
Now, at this point, many may read this and say: isn’t that a legal fiction? Can God really be said to be honest if he accepts impure works as if they were pure?
But this is a principle that everyone practices whether we know it or not. I enjoy my 4 year-old daughter’s crayon drawings, not because her sketching technique is on a professional level, but because she’s my daughter. I judge her talent through a filter: because she’s my daughter, I delight and reward her efforts even if they aren’t very good!
Or take another example: I am said to be a “son” of my wife’s parents, not because I am biologically their son, but because they receive me as their son by virtue of my marriage to my wife. This is the logic of imputation: we receive things or persons by virtue of some other reality. It isn’t fiction, it’s imputation.
Just the same, God receives and even delights in our sincere works of holiness “for the sake of Christ”. Our works are, as it were, graded on a curve, and received joyfully when we offer them up in the Son. We are like little children scribbling with crayons; and God takes great delight in those scribbles!