Imputation and Obedience

paul-faith-and-works

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!

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Can God Impute Righteousness?

One constant objection to the doctrine of imputed righteousness — that God accredits the righteousness of Christ to sinners — is that for God to be just, he cannot simply call sinners righteous. He must make them so. Thus, God has to infuse righteousness, not impute it. Sinners must be made ontologically righteous. “Legal fiction”, as some call it, is not sufficient for the redemption of sinners. God cannot “dress up” a sinner and call him just.

Charles Hodge has a helpful response to this objection. He says,

Another standing objection to the Protestant doctrine has been so often met, that nothing but its constant repetition justifies a repetition of the answer. It is said to be absurd that one man should be righteous with the righteousness of another; that for God to pronounce the unjust just is a contradiction. This is a mere play on words. It is, however, very serious play; for it is caricaturing truth. It is indeed certain that the subjective, inherent quality of one person or thing cannot by imputation become the inherent characteristic of any other person or thing. Wax cannot become hard by the imputation of the hardness of a stone; nor can a brute become rational by the imputation of the intelligence of a man; nor the wicked become good by the imputation of the goodness of other men. But what has this to do with one man’s assuming the responsibility of another man? If among men the bankrupt can become solvent by a rich man’s assuming his responsibilities, why in the court of God may not the guilty become righteous by the Son of God’s assuming their responsibilities? If He was made sin for us, why may we not be made the righteousness of God in Him? The objection assumes that the word “just” or “righteous” in this connection, expresses moral character; whereas in the Bible, when used in relation to this subject, it is always used in a judicial sense, i. e., it expresses the relation of the person spoken of to justice. Δίκαιος is antithetical to ὑπόδικος. The man with regard to whom justice is unsatisfied, is ὑπόδικος, “guilty.” He with regard to whom justice is satisfied, is δίκαιος, “righteous .” To declare righteous, therefore , is not to declare holy; and to impute righteousness is not to impute goodness; but simply to regard and pronounce those who receive the gift of Christ’s righteousness, free from condemnation and entitled to eternal life for his sake.

Hodge explains that the concept of imputation exists in relation to justice, which is legal, or juridical. In other words, justice has to do with the sinner’s record in relation to God’s law and justice, not his subjective holiness or interior state. This is another subject altogether.

Hodge explains this, saying,

[Many] theologians in many instances object to the Protestant doctrine of justification, that it is outward; concerns only legal relations; disregards the true nature of the mystical union; and represents Christ and his righteousness as purely objective, instead of looking upon Christ as giving Himself, his life to become the life of the believer, and with his life conveying its merits and its power… What is urged as an objection to the doctrine is true. It does concern what is outward and objective; what is done for the sinner rather than what is done within him. But then it is to be considered, first, that this is what the sinner needs. He requires not only that his nature should be renewed and that a new principle of spiritual or divine life should be communicated to him; but also that his guilt should be removed, his sins expiated, and justice satisfied, as the preliminary condition of his enjoying this new life, and being restored to the favour of GodThe Bible makes quite as prominent what Christ does for us, as what He does in us. It says as much of his objective, expiatory work, as of the communication of a higher spiritual life to believers. It is only by ignoring this objective work of Christ , or by merging justification into inward renovation, that this objection has force or even plausibility. Protestants do not depreciate the value and necessity of the new life derived from Christ, because, in obedience to the Scriptures, they insist so strenuously upon the satisfaction which He has rendered by his perfect righteousness to the justice of God. Without the latter, the former is impossible.

What Hodge is explaining here, is that while sanctification or regeneration are important points in scripture, they are not the same as justification. In fact, they are concerned with different things. Imputation is concerned with the believer’s legal state: How can a sinner have perfect obedience before a holy God? Regeneration is concerned with the believer’s inward state: How can a sinful person be made new? This makes justification by definition extrinsic, and regeneration intrinsic. They are two actions of God, not one.

Catholicism verses Protestantism: What’s the main difference?

difference

I have been studying Catholic theology lately, examining the major disagreements it has with my Protestant theology.

While there are major differences, things like the sinlessness of Mary, or the veneration of saints and icons, or papal authority, this was not the largest difference I saw. And to be honest, there are explanations for these practices that aren’t altogether outlandish (though I would still disagree).

Another difference that some might point out is how the Catholics view the sacraments. According to the Catholic Catechism, Catholics understand the sacraments to be “‘powers that comes forth’ from the Body of Christ, which is ever-living and life-giving”. In other words, Jesus himself gives life to his church in the sacraments. So in baptism, Jesus himself effects regeneration. In confirmation, Jesus gives the fulness of the Spirit. In the Eucharist, Christians quite literally are nourished by Jesus’ body. And this is because, according to Catholic theology, the church is a continuation of the incarnation of Christ. And through his body, in the sacraments, he saves his people. Nevertheless, Protestants, healthy ones at least, understand the importance of the sacraments, and that Jesus really does impart grace through them (although we would understand them differently of course).

I wouldn’t even see grace as the primary difference. All too often, Catholic theology is seen as works-based, religious, dry. However, every Catholic I know would deny that. In fact, grace is central to Catholic theology. The Catechism states that salvation “has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men”. Who could disagree with that? Grace really is present in Catholic theology.

So then, what is the big difference? 

To me, the thing that makes Protestants and Catholics diverge; the rub, as it were, is what “justification” means. Justification means two different things in Protestant and Catholic theology — did you know that?

For Protestants, justification is the declaration that sinners, though they be sinners, are righteous because of the righteousness of Christ. Because Christ was obedient in our place, on our behalf, we are given, or imputed Christ’s righteousness. We are saved by the righteousness of another, not our own. As Luther says, justification is the gift of an “alien righteousness, that is the righteousness of another, instilled from without. This is the righteousness of Christ by which he justifies through faith”. We are saved not because we are actually righteous (though we will be righteous in glory), but because Jesus is. So that is Protestant “justification”.

But Catholics do not see justification this way. Though they would still hold to justification, they would define it as the transference from being a child of wrath to being a child of God. And in this transference, rather than Christ’s righteousness being imputed, his righteousness is imparted, or infused within us. What they mean is that the merits of Christ are literally infused into our nature, thereby making us not legally righteous, but actually righteous. Andrew Preslar writes,

[J]ustification is an act of God by which the merits of Jesus Christ, sanctifying grace, and charity are communicated to sinners, who are thereby made just. This infused charity fulfills the righteous demands of the law, being “poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:5) in baptism, by which we are united with Christ, who has made complete satisfaction to the Father for our sins (Romans 6:3-4). In concise, theological terms, the Catholic Church teaches that regeneration, sanctification, and incorporation into the Body of Christ are essential aspects of justification, such that the latter cannot be defined in legal, extrinsic, and individualistic terms alone (source)

The Catholic Catechism writes, “justification conforms us to the righteousness of God”. This is very important here. Catholic theology rejects “legal… terms alone”, and says that justification is the act by which by God infuses the life of Christ in us, thereby allowing us to be righteous in the real sense of the word now.

Now here’s the important part: for the Catholic church, because the merits and righteousness of Christ are literally infused, it is now the role of God’s justified church to cooperate with God’s grace and live out a righteous life, thereby meriting eternal life. Final salvation, for the Catholic church, depends on us living out the righteousness of Christ infused within. This is why the sacraments are so important. The Eucharist is Christ giving us more grace to live out a righteous life. Confession is given to absolve any mortal sin which extinguishes the righteousness of Christ infused in us. Impartation or infusion of Jesus’ righteousness, means that we can now live out the law and merit eternal life.

Now let me be fair: this isn’t salvation by self-merit. In Catholicism, final salvation is not dependent on us living out our own righteousness, but rather the righteousness of Christ infused within. In this way, it is still grace-given righteousness.

However, as a Protestant, I can’t help but notice how the burden is truly on you. As the Catholic Catechism states,

Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life

The Catechism clarifies, however, saying,

The charity of Christ is the source in us of all our merits before God. Grace, by uniting us to Christ in active love, ensures the supernatural quality of our acts and consequently their merit before God and before men. The saints have always had a lively awareness that their merits were pure grace

While Protestants do have a robust doctrine of sanctification and perseverance, we will not say that growth is tied to our final justification. Justification and sanctification are not bound together in Protestant theology. But for Catholics, justification is a work that God begins freely in us by baptism, but is then merited through sanctification, or cooperation in Christ’s righteousness infused.

As Catholics would say, justification is by faith, but not by faith alone. It is by faith working through love, living out “the divine life” as sons of God.

So, Protestants say justification is imputation. Catholics say that justification is infusion. Small wording change, but to me, this creates the biggest difference in the end.

Want a Catholic’s perspective on the difference? Here is Robert Barron on the Council of Trent, which was created in response to the Protestant Reformation. To get the gist of it, skip to minute 8:45: