Imputation and Obedience


Saint Paul, teacher of justification by faith

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!

Are Christians Called to Grow in Holiness?


I’ve been considering this issue for the past few weeks as I’ve read many different posts on this topic of holiness. Specifically, this question has been debated on the Gospel Coalition site, with a lot of interaction between people like Tullian Tchvidjian (post), Kevin DeYoung (post), and one very refreshing post from Jen Wilkin (post).

Because of this whole exchange, I was forced to think over what exactly God expects from his people. If salvation is by grace through faith alone, isn’t striving toward holiness against that very grace?

I think this question can be understood better if we get a real grasp for the point of the gospel. What is the purpose of the gospel? Why did Jesus die for sinners like us? Why did he experience the wrath of God on my behalf? Why did he bare my sins in his body?

Paul tells us that the reason for Christ’s death was that God might have a people for himself that are “holy and blameless” (Eph 1:4), and who are pure and “zealous for good works” (Titus 3:14). Peter adds to this, saying that Jesus died under our sins that we might be holy as God is holy (1 Peter 1:14). John says that Jesus “appeared to take away sins” (1 Jn 3:5), and that by faith in him we become “God’s children” (1 Jn 3:2). And one day Jesus will appear, and we will be “made like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he (Christ) is pure” (1 Jn 3:2-3).

The New Testament gospel overwhelmingly tells us that part of the purpose of the gospel is to purify a people for God. The gospel makes people who are inherently sinful, holy — both positionally and practically. Paul says this, that in salvation we were “washed, …sanctified, …[and] justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of God” (1 Cor 6:11). Paul also tells us that we are regenerated and given a new heart with new-creation abilities, expected to live like Jesus (2 Cor 5:17-21, Titus 3:5-7).

It seems to me that the gospel itself enables us to be willing and ready to obey God in all areas of life. This doesn’t mean we will be perfect of course — but we should at least desire to obey God (when we do sin, Jesus is always and will always be our advocate and our basis for our continued security and forgiveness. God always gives grace to those in Christ). The gospel itself is the very foundation for our holiness, because that is its very purpose!

What this tells me is that growth in holiness is not something we should cringe at. Holiness is not opposed to grace. Rather, it is the inevitable fruit of the gospel. And so we should yearn for holiness. We should hunger for holiness. Because we know that holiness is the end for which we were redeemed. This type of gospel-founded aspiration for holiness is not legalism. It is simply aspiring for what God himself has enabled for us in the gospel. In the gospel, God enables, empowers, and guides us into all obedience. That’s why he sent Christ. That’s why he gave us his Spirit. That’s why he cleansed us and regenerated us. That’s why he redeemed us. It’s all so that we might be his people, desiring his glory and his holiness. 

As Jen Wilkins said in her very apt post, “the gospel grants both freedom from the penalty of sin and freedom to begin to obey”. The gospel itself is the freeing power by God’s Spirit to obey as we have never been able to obey! Why then would we not want to obey? 

For this reason, I see no reason not to expect Christians to grow in holiness. The message of the gospel itself points to that. God has saved a people for himself, unto holiness. And if we have been redeemed by Jesus, made clean and empowered by his Spirit, we should be people who yearn and thirst for righteousness, knowing that God has already provided it in Christ Jesus. It is not legalism to trust that God will empower us each day to live obedient to Christ. It is not wrong to want to honor Jesus. It is not wrong to take up our cross and die to the old man. In fact, the gospel itself propels us into this type of holiness!

As Paul said in Romans 6:2: “how can we who died to sin still live in it?”.




What a Weariness this is!

Mediocrity in the Christian life is not an option. Not only is it not an option, it is simply not possible. A mediocre Christian is someone that does not understand the God with whom they have been reconciled. They are a paradox. They are blind sighted, having forgotten the glory of their own inheritance in Christ Jesus (Col 1:9-14, 2 Pet 1:3-11) And, well–I too am a paradox. We are a paradox. When mediocrity, corner-cutting, joyless singing, lazy Bible reading, prayerlessness, and coldness creeps into the Christian life, are we not living like those with no hope? Are we not living in the flesh, like the rest of the world? Living in the flesh is what everyone does naturally (Rom 8:5). Living in worshipless humdrum spirituality is not Christian.

And yet, everyone cuts corners, even Christians. Everyone lives in the flesh, ungrateful, cold, removed, unmerciful, and not in absolute awe of the glory of God–yes, even Christians. And often, the Christian life becomes but a weary and troublesome endeavor. Weighed down by the commands of God to rejoice always (Phil 4:4) in him, and to glorify him in all that we do (1 Cor 10:31), we become lazy in our pursuit of him. Yet, lazy Christianity is simply not an option. God will not have it. He does not delight in it. In fact, he despises a life of wishy-washy-ness (Rev 3:16). In his rebuke of Israel for their own “cheating” (Mal 1:14) during worship, God says in Malachi 1:11-14:

For my name will be great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts. 12 But you profane it when you say that the Lord’s table is polluted, and its fruit, that is, its food may be despised. 13 But you say, ‘What a weariness this is,’ and you snort at it, says the Lord of hosts. You bring what has been taken by violence or is lame or sick, and this you bring as your offering! Shall I accept that from your hand? says the Lord. 14 Cursed be the cheat who has a male in his flock, and vows it, and yet sacrifices to the Lord what is blemished. For I am a great King, says the Lord of hosts, and my name will be feared among the nations.

Perhaps bringing flawed offerings to the temple was a “reasonable” thing for the Jews. I mean,  finding a pure lamb that wasn’t lame or sick (Mal 1:13b) is hard! And because it was a weary thing (Mal 1:13a) to worship God as he saw fit, the standards for worship were lowered, twisted, and “OK’d” by the priests (Mal 2:7-8). But to God, lowering the standards will not suffice. In fact, lowered standards are evil (Mal 1:8) in his eyes. Mediocrity, in other words, is not ok. God is not happy about it, and neither should we be. In fact, we should despise the fleshly tendency in our hearts to offer God compromised worship. It should simply not be ok with us.

And yet, we are ok with it. And why? Because, like the Jews, God’s standard and demands of whole-hearted worship to him is a “weariness” to us (Mal 1:13). What a weariness it is to give our all! When we have so many other things biding our time? When there are so many other things pushing and pulling at us? I mean, isn’t worship about having the “right heart”? No. It is not just about our hearts. To be sure, we all worship in different ways, and through different means. Paul says in Romans 14 that we all live to the Lord–whether we abstain or partake, we do it to the Lord (Rom 14:5-9). But this not mean lowering the standard of true and uncompromised worship.

No, worship is not so much about our heart in the matter so much as it is about the value of that which we admire. For what does the Lord say to his people in his rebuke of their “polluted” sacrifices? He says, “Cursed be the cheatFor I am a great King” (Mal 1:14-15). Those who bring deluded and blemished worship are cheating God. 

You see, cutting corners doesn’t only say something about you–it says something about the worth of that which you worship. God is infinitely, unendingly, eternally, exhaustively, and truly worthy of all of you. He is a great King. He is worthy. He is gloriously and supremely right to demand real worship from you. And he is not being self-centered here. No, God understands that he truly is great. He is greater than any other thing that we could or ever will give our adoration to. In fact, in offering himself for you to worship, he is offering you an endless spring of joy! John Piper once wrote,

Love is helping people toward the greatest beauty, the highest value, the deepest satisfaction, the most lasting joy, the biggest reward, the most wonderful friendship, and the most overwhelming worship— love is helping people toward God. We do this by pointing to the greatness of God. And God does it by pointing to the greatness of God.

God despises a Israel’s polluted sacrifices, because they are devaluing the most enjoyable, life-giving, supremely majestic thing ever to be beheld: Himself. In exalting himself above all other things, and in demanding a life of true and real worship, God is both offering the most glorious and most enjoyable thing that could ever be given, and devaluing all that could retract and remove the enjoyment of himself. God is most supremely valuable and glorious, and anything short of true and whole worship detracts from this value. And this is why God is disgusted at the Israelites’ polluted sacrifices. They are saying in the offering of those sacrifices, “God, you are not truly and supremely valuable”. And this is blasphemy.

This is why the life of a Christian should be brimming and full of worship to God. It should be full of joy, overflowing with praise, and ripe with truth and love. We have inherited in Christ fellowship into the fulness of the Godhead. We are caught up into a reconciling love that is absolutely tireless and unending. And Christian, if we respond as the Israelites did at the costliness of the Christian life saying, “What weariness this is!”, God will and does rightly say to us, “I am a great King, and I will be feared among the nations”.