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!

Making a Defense (sermon)


Here is a sermon I gave on September 4th, 2016, from Acts 26 on evangelism. This chapter presents us with Paul’s own strategy in evangelism. We would do well to take our cues from him.

Christ the New Adam


One of the earliest models of atonement was Irenaeus’ recapitulation model. In this model, Christ replaces Adam as the head of the human race by obeying and overcoming where Adam sinned and was thus overcome. Irenaeus famously gets his “recapitulation” idea from Ephesians 1:10, which says that God planned to, as the ESV says, “unite all things in [Christ]”. The Greek word for unite, anakephalaiosasthai, is better translated as “sum up”, or “to bring things together”. Paul uses the root cepha in this word, which is “head”. Irenaeus thus translated it as “re-heading all things in Christ”. The idea here is that Christ is the new “head of all things”. Through his life and death, Christ “re-starts” that which was lost in Adam. Christ is the beginning of a new humanity.

Irenaeus got this theme primarily from Paul, who in several letters drew a strong parallel between Christ and Adam. In Romans 5, Paul tells us that death was transmitted to all mankind through Adam, even to those who were not guilty of Adam’s primordial sin; but through Christ’s “one act of righteousness”, death has been defeated and righteousness is thus returned to the human race in him. Paul brings the same parallel to bear in 1 Corinthians 15, saying that Christ is the last adam, the last man who replaces Adam. The point here is that Christ came to undo or overcome or reverse the effects of Adam’s sin. As Irenaeus says, “God recapitulated in Himself the ancient formation of man, that He might kill sin, deprive death of its power, and vivify man; and therefore His works are true”. (Patrick Henry Reardon, Reclaiming the Atonement, Kindle 2209-2210)

The Christ/Adam theme is not unique to Paul, though. Patrick Henry Reardon, in his book Reclaiming the Atonement, argues that Paul’s Christ/Adam theology was actually drawing from a much older tradition evident in other NT writings. 

As proof for this, Reardon turns to the gospel narratives. In each of the gospels, the authors are careful (almost unnoticeably) to connect certain narratives with the Genesis creation accounts. For instance, after Christ’s temptation in the wilderness and subsequent victory over Satan, Mark tells us that Christ was with the “wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him” (1:13). Reardon comments on this verse:

[A]n early story transmitted in Mark, precisely in the context of Jesus’ temptations, preserved the tradition of our Lord’s companionship with the animals (1: 13). This story, of course, puts the reader in mind of Adam in the midst of the animals in Genesis. Jesus’ victory over His temptations by Satan thus inaugurates a new state of Paradise, as it were, in which the friendly relations of men and beasts, disrupted since the Fall, are restored. (Kindle Locations 2155-2158)

The verse is so small one could easily miss the significance: Christ was tempted by the “snake”, and yet has overcome! Thus he began to restore the paradise which Adam lost through his sin. The wild animals are no longer “beasts”, but are becoming tamed and under his headship as Lord.

Reardon also brings in Luke’s gospel:

In Luke the Adam/ Christ analogy is subtler, and we discern it in the way the Lord’s genealogy is arranged. To detect this, we may observe two differences between the genealogies in Matthew and Luke.

First, unlike Matthew, Luke traces the Lord’s lineage all the way back to Adam, not just to Abraham. This format emphasizes Jesus’ relationship to the whole human race and not just the Jews. For this reason, in citing the famous Isaian text that begins the ministry of John the Baptist in all the Synoptic Gospels (Matt. 3: 3; Mark 1: 2– 3; Luke 3: 4– 6), Luke alone quotes the words, “and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

Second, whereas Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus comes at the beginning of his Gospel, Luke places it after the Lord’s Baptism and right before the account of His temptation. This arrangement prompts the reader to make the comparison that Luke has in mind to imply, the temptations of Jesus and the temptation of Adam. (Kindle Locations 2158-2165)

So, Luke carefully situates Christ’s baptism before his temptation, thus alerting us that he is facing the same temptation as Adam. Thus the temptation narratives become a way of retelling the creation story, but under the headship of Christ. Christ is called to reenact, as it were, the temptation of Adam in the garden and to overcome the effects of sin.

From this Reardon argues that Irenaeus’ doctrine is very ancient, and very biblically rooted: Christ has come to reverse the effects of death, to renew the human race in himself as its new head:

He commenced afresh the long line of human beings, and furnished us with salvation in a succinct, inclusive manner, so that what we had lost in Adam— namely, to exist according to the image and likeness of God— that we might recover in Christ Jesus. (Kindle Locations 2199-2201)



Paul’s Salvation: Christ Revealed in Me


In Galatians 1:15, Paul tells us about his miraculous salvation experience, in which God “set [him] apart before he was born, and who called [him] by His grace, (and) was pleased to reveal his Son to” him.

This, to me, is one of the most eloquent explanations of Paul’s own salvation. The reason is because in this small sentence, Paul pulls back the curtain, so to speak, and gives us a glimpse into the saving work of God. It was a work of revelation that led to saving apprehension.

First, God, for his sovereign purpose, chose Paul for special use as an Apostle even before he was born. As Luther once said, that even “when Paul was not born, he was an apostle in God’s sight”. Indeed, Paul was God’s last apostle, to be sent on mission to the Gentiles — we know that Paul truly took this calling to heart (Rom 15:15-16). Then, after this sovereign calling to apostleship, God drew Paul by his grace unto salvation. This drawing describes the ministry of the Holy Spirit, convicting, willing, enabling us to see our need for the gospel. It is interesting that in Acts 26:14, as Paul described his testimony to King Agrippa, he says that he had stubbornly “kicked against the goads” of God’s drawing grace (emphasis mine). “Kicking against the goads” is a term used to describe a stubborn sheep who refuses to be led by their shepherd. Paul, even under God’s gracious calling, was pushing against it, warring against the truth of God’s Son. And yet, we know that God won him over, breaking Paul’s abstinent will. Finally, Paul says that after God drew him by his grace, he was pleased to reveal his Son to the apostle.

What does Paul mean when he tells us that God the Father revealed Jesus to him? In what way did God reveal his Son to Paul? Of course, in Acts 9, Jesus himself appeared to Paul, even blinding him. But in this verse, Paul says that it was God the Father who revealed Christ to him. In what way was Christ revealed? In the Greek, the phrase Paul uses is literally, “God was pleased to reveal his Son in me”. Because of this, some have suggested that this revelation was God’s saving work through Paul’s missionary ministry. But I’m not sure this is not what Paul is getting at.

Kenneth Wuest, a New Testament Commentator, says of this verse, “the revelation of which [Paul] is speaking here was an inward one, apprehended by the spiritual senses”. I love this. When God sought to save Paul, he revealed Jesus by making him real to Paul’s own spiritual senses. God revealed Jesus, making his saving work tangible and necessary (1 Tim 1:15). It was this revelation that changed Paul’s understanding of Jesus as the leader of a small fringe movement into Risen Lord and Savior (1 Cor 15:17). It was through this revelation that Paul truly came to realize and understand Jesus as the Messiah foretold of his Old Testament (Rom 9:4, Gal 3:16). It was this revelation that made Paul declare that all of God’s promises find their “yes” and “amen” in Christ (2 Cor 1:20). It was through this revelation that Paul realized God’s plan to have both Jew and Gentile as one people in Jesus (Eph 2:11-22). It was in this revelation that Paul realized Christ as the second person of the Trinity, God over all (Rom 9:5). It was through this revelation that Jesus’ righteousness was made to be of more value than righteousness from the Law (Phil 3:2-11). Commenting on this verse, Luther says well, “this is a kind of doctrine not obtained by study, hard work, or human wisdom, nor by the law of God, but is revealed by God himself”.

This revelation was one of spiritual apprehension, in which Paul, in a saving way, truly tasted and delighted in the person and work of Jesus Christ. It is the same type of revelation we need, to see and know who Christ truly is, that we might partake of his righteousness, not having a righteousness of our own. It is a kind of tasting of the character and work of Christ in such a way that propels us into saving faith. This is indeed, what stubborn sinners need, a revelation of Jesus in us.