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!

Sanctification as Eschatological Living

Richard Gaffin, in his Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, explains Christian sanctification as eschatological life reaching the now. Just as justification is the end judgement reaching the now, so sanctification is the end reaching the now.

Gaffin says:

The Reformation… was a (re)discovery, at least implicitly, of the eschatological heart of the gospel: the sola gratia principle is eschatological in essence. Justification by faith, as the Reformers came to understand and experience it, is an anticipation of the final judgement. It means that a favourable verdict at the last judgement is not an anxious, uncertain hope, but a present possession, the confident and stable basis of the Christian life. Romans 8:1, which they clung to, is a decidedly eschatological pronouncement.

However while the Reformation and its children have grasped, at least intuitively, the eschatological thrust of the gospel for justification, that is not nearly the case for sanctification and the work of the Spirit. Undeniable is a tendency, at least in practice, to separate or even polarize justification and sanctification. Justification, on the one hand, is seen as what God does, once for all and perfectly: sanctification, on the other hand, is what the believer does, imperfectly. Sanctification is viewed as the response of the believer, an expression of gratitude from our side for salvation defined in terms of justification and the forgiveness of sins — usually with an emphasis on the inadequate and even impoverished quality of the gratitude expressed.

The intention of such an emphasis is no doubt to safeguard the totally gratuitous character of justification. But church history has made all too evident that the apparently inevitable outcome of such an emphasis is the rise of moralism, the reintroduction into the Christian life of a refined works-principle, more or less divorced from the faith that justifies and eventually leaving no room for faith. What is resolutely rejected at the front door of justification comes in through the back door of sanctification and takes over the whole house.

Certainly we must be on safeguard against all notions of sinless perfection. Forms of “entire” sanctification or “higher”, “victorious” life, supposedly achieved by a distinct act of faith subsequent to justification, operate with domesticated, voluntaristic notions of sin and invariably de-eschatologize the gospel and in their own way, despite their intention, end up promoting moralism. We must not forget that “in this life even the holiest have only a small beginning” (HC, answer 114).

But — and this is the point — the beginning, however small, is an eschatological beginning. It stands under the apostolic promise that “He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Jesus Christ (Phil 1:6, NASB). Sanctification, no less than justification, is God’s work. In the NT there is no more basic perspective on sanctification and renewal than that expressed in Romans 6: It is a continual “living to God” (v. 11) of those who are “alive from the dead” (v. 13). Elsewhere, it is a matter of the “good works” of the eschatological new creation, for which the church has already been “created in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:10). In their sanctification, believers begin at the “top”, because they begin with Christ; in him they are those who are “perfect” (1 Cor 2:6) and “spiritual” (v. 15), even when they have to be admonished as “carnal” (3:1, 3).

I think this is right. The gospel, as the cross shows, brings the last judgement and the kingdom to the “here and now”. And so, what is sanctification, but an eschatological realization of the here and now of kingdom life. We are called to live in the here and now how we will live in our future, glorified state.

And thus, sanctification, is an ever-increasing practical realization, apprehension, and outworking of the life which will be given in full at the last day.

Calvin and the New Perspective on Paul


The New Perspective on Paul, as put forward by several Protestant theologians (Wright, Sanders, Dunn et al), is the thought that when Paul speaks of justification not being by “works of the law”, he is only speaking of the ceremonial and civil laws, not the moral laws.

What this translates to, is that when Paul says: “one is not justified by works of the law”, he is exclusively speaking of the Jewish aspects of the Mosaic Law. So one cannot be justified through the Mosaic laws. The moral law, however, is still in play. Hence, one is justified by faith in Christ plus cooperation with God’s grace in obedience to the moral law. Works done in grace play into justification, however that may look.

James Dunn explains:

[D]enial that justification is from works of law is, more precisely, a denial that justification depends on circumcision or on observation of the Jewish purity and food taboos. We may justifiably deduce, therefore, that by ‘works of law’ Paul intended his readers to think of particular observances of the law like circumcision and the food laws. (New Perspective on Paul, 191)

In this way, Paul is not doing away with all works, but rather works of the ceremonial and civil type. One is not justified by being a “good Jew”; rather one is justified in the last day by being “in Christ” and cooperating in good works through grace. This means that justification is a process, worked in the now, but finished at the final day in harmony with our works in Christ. Essentially, this conflates justification, and sanctification, making them one action of God and man.

What some may not know, is that this interpretation is not new. In fact, Calvin dealt with this argument in his dialogue with Roman Catholics of his day.

There are two basic arguments that Calvin dealt with in his time: the first was what is commonly known as the New Perspective — that works of the ceremonial and civil law were what Paul was arguing against; not works done in the context of the New Covenant. Another argument he dealt with, was that the works Paul was so set against were works done outside of grace: i.e. before one is regenerated. So, works done in a natural state could not justify; after regeneration, however, one can cooperate with grace and grow in justification after being in Christ. In his Institutes, Calvin denied both stances.

He said:

[Catholics] explain “works” as meaning those which men not yet reborn do only according to the letter by the effort of their own free will, apart from Christ’s grace. But they deny that these [works of the law] refer to spiritual works. For, according to them, man is justified by both faith and works provided they are not his own works but the gifts of Christ and the fruit of regeneration. For they say that Paul so spoke for no other reason than to convince the Jews, who were relying upon their own strength, that they were foolish to arrogate righteousness to themselves, since the Spirit of Christ alone bestows it upon us not through any effort arising from our own nature…[They also argue] that the ceremonial works of the law are excluded, not the moral works. (Institutes, 744)

So we can see that this issue of “works” came up long before the New Perspective. How does Calvin respond to this charge? And how to works and salvation relate?

Calvin says:

[These theologians] do not observe that in the contrast between the righteousness of the law and of the gospel, which Paul elsewhere introduces, all works are excluded, whatever title may grace them [Gal 3:11-12]. For he teaches that this is the righteousness of the law, that he who has fulfilled what the law commands should obtain salvation; but this is the righteousness of faith, to believe that Christ died and rose again [Rom 10:5, 9]… (ibid, 744)

In other words, in the NT, there is a hard line between faith and works in general. Works in general are said to be one way of justification, while faith is said to be another.

Calvin continues:

[They argue] that the ceremonial works of the law are excluded, not the moral works… Do they think that the Apostle was raving when he brought forward these passages to prove his opinion? “The man who does these things will live by them” [Gal 3:12], and, “Cursed be every one who does not fulfill all things written in the book of the law” [Gal 3:10]. Unless they have gone mad they will not say that life was promised to keepers of ceremonies. If these passages to be understood of the moral law, there is no doubt that moral works are also excluded from the power of justifying. (ibid, 749)

Calvin puts forward the verse: “cursed by everyone who does not fulfill all things written…”. What he proposes is that “all things” necessarily include the moral tenets of the law. What this means for him, is that works and faith are not and cannot be united together in justification. Justification and sanctification must be separated.

Calvin explains:

[I]n its proper place,.. the benefits of Christ — sanctification and righteousness — are different. From this it follows that not even spiritual works [works done out of regeneration] come into account when the power of justifying is ascribed to faith… From this it is also evident that we are justified before God solely on the intercession of Christ’s righteousness. This is equivalent to saying that man is not righteous in himself but because the righteousness of Christ is communicated to him by imputation (ibid, 744, 753)

In other words, imputation of righteousness and regeneration or sanctification are distinguished, separated. Sanctification is something that flows from imputation, but is not the same thing. New Perspective (and Romans Catholics) place together the work of justification and sanctification, such that one can participate in his final justification through works done in grace.

6 things getting healthy has taught me about following Christ


So I used to be quite a bit overweight. There came a point about 2 1/2 years ago where I was pushing 250, was constantly worn down, and just unhealthy. By God’s grace, I’ve been able to lose the weight by eating healthy and working out pretty consistently. I’ve noticed over the past couple years of getting healthy just how similar sticking to a healthy lifestyle is to following Jesus (metaphorically, that is).

There are numerous passages in scripture that compare healthy eating and exercise to following Christ. Jesus tells us that “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4). Jesus also compares the act of faith with eating, saying that he is “the bread of life; whoever comes to [him] shall not hunger; whoever believes in [him] shall never thirst” (Jn 6:35). Paul compares growth in holiness and perseverance in the faith to a long marathon (2 Tim 4:7), and to an olympic athlete who finishes well (2 Tim 2:5).

Having used the scriptures to meditate on the similarities between following Christ and staying healthy, I’ve learned a lot of things about my own spiritual walk. Here are a few things eating healthy and exercising has taught me:

1) It’s a marathon, not a sprint:

In the past, whenever I tried to get healthy or lose a few pounds, I never gave a long-lasting effort. My attempts to become healthy were always these 1-2 month efforts that always ended with discouragement. And I think one thing that I always expected from these attempts was quick success. The reality is, if you want to lose weight and keep it off, you’re going to have to put your whole life into this thing, not just a couple months.

This principle is the same with spiritual growth. If we truly want to be more and more like Jesus, we need to be thinking in terms of years, decades, our entire life. Jesus tells us that if we would find our life, we must lose it (Mt 16:25). Our entire lives must be given to Jesus. Paul, in his second letter to Timothy, said that his entire Christian life was like a long marathon (2 Tim 4:7). He was looking back on decades of faithful obedience to Christ.

2) Sometimes less is more:

When I first began to work out, I (embarrassingly) would work out for 1 1/2 to 2 hours. I would start out running for 10 minutes, then do an hour of lifting, then do some more cardio. That was simply too much. I thought that the more activity and time I spent in the gym, the more I would benefit. The reality is, I was exerting too much energy and actually hindering my health in the end. In this case, less really is more — working out for longer than an hour actually hinders your progress.

It’s similar when following Christ. Many Christians are involved in too many Bible studies, too many church services, too many books, too many groups, and as a result, they are burning out. Keeping it simple allows for more focus, more time, and better commitment to Christ.

3) It’s (mainly) about quality, not quantity:

This is similar to #2, but a bit different. To make this point simple: it’s not so much about how long you work out, or how much you eat, but the quality of exercises and foods you eat. You can eat 2,000 calories in M&M’s, but that’s so unhealthy! In contrast, eating 2,000 calories in vegetables and proteins is so much better.

The same with following Christ. We are to make the most of our time, Paul says (Eph 5:16), and to spend our efforts on the things that truly matter. What this means is that we shouldn’t exert our efforts on things that will not bring more glory to Jesus. Rather, we should pour into things that benefit our walk with Christ.

4) Sticking to a schedule is seriously important:

Half of my success in losing weight has come by simply getting up when I plan on getting up, and showing up to the gym. Another part of my success is the fact that I go into the gym each time with a plan. I have a workout routine in my head before I even enter the building. And the reason is because I schedule the whens, whats, and wheres. I’ve learned that sticking to that schedule is incredibly beneficial.

Many people decry a structured time for prayer and Bible reading, but I’ve found that if I discipline myself to read at a certain time, and to plan what I’m reading, I benefit more than if I had never done that. Planning and discipline really helps if we want to read the scriptures on a consistent basis.

5) Rest is really important:

More important than working out and eating healthy, is getting sufficient rest, and allowing your body to recover. If you spend one hour in the gym a day, it takes 2 days for your muscles to recover from that single workout! I used to workout way too often, and it didn’t allow my muscles to recover. Now I know that sufficient rest, sleep, and recovery is just as important as the exercise part.

Likewise, as much as serving Christ and his people is important, we also need Sabbath. God himself took rest after the creation to model for his people the importance of rest. As much as ministry is crucial to the gospel and the lost, rest is important as well.

6) Having others by your side is so crucial:

This should be a given: working out and dieting with others is exponentially easier than doing it alone. You have the encouragement and accountability to continue to motivate you toward the goal. Also, working out with others is more fun than doing it alone.

Likewise, the Christian life was meant to be done in the context of community. We should be seeking encouragement and accountability, and also be looking to give it to others! This is the way God has ordained the Christian life be done: in the context of the body of Christ.

These are just a few things that exercise and healthy dieting has taught me. I’ve found that in the long run, sticking with a healthy lifestyle actually benefits me not just physically, but also mentally, emotionally, and more importantly, spiritually.


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?”.