By Faith Alone, part 5

This is an article by Rev. Richard Phillips, defending the orthodox doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer in justification.

Phillips notes that the Reformed world is experiencing a battle on two fronts: Arminianism (our traditional foe), and the higher critical scholarship (pg. 75-76). By the latter he means the New Perspective on Paul, which, he says, has enlisted a “fifth column” in the FV movement. It is in this context that Phillips states his thesis: “The purpose of this chapter is to reflect on the attack coming from both fronts and to demonstrate the strength of this doctrine (imputation, LK) to emerge safe and strong” (pg. 76).

His definition of imputation can be summarized as follows: when a sinner comes to faith in Jesus Christ, his sins are charged to Jesus’ account, andChrist’s righteousness is charged to his (the sinner’s) account. This is double imputation. The basis of the necessity of this imputation is the perfection required by the law. We need a perfect righteousness in order to stand before God’s throne spotless and righteous. Since we have disqualified ourselves by our sin nature and by our actual sins, we therefore need Someone Else’s righteousness to cover us. That Someone is Jesus Christ.

Phillips then examines the Arminian challenge to this imputation. Some of the history of the ECT document comes to the fore here, as well as Gundry’s challenge to the imputed righteousness of Christ. Gundry does not deny that Christ was perfectly righteous. Rather, Gundry denies that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the believer. After initial critiques, Gundry sharpened his argument for the book, Justification: What’s at Stake in the Current Debates? Phillips recaps some of D.A. Carson’s excellent argumentation in that book. The word-concept fallacy is present in Gundry’s argument, say Carson and Phillips (pg. 80). Phillips notes in this regard that the doctrine of imputed righteousness does not depend solely on Scripture’s use of logizomai. Phillips notes the strength of Romans 4:4-5 for imputed righteousness. Wright, by the way, does not even begin to do this passage justice in his commentary. Neither does Dunn. Paul’s entire argument depends on the fact that Abraham did nothing to deserve righteousness. Surely, then, this blanket exclusion of works would also have to exclude faith as a work (pg. 81). As the WCF says, “nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness, but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them” (11.1). It is Arminian to say that it is faith itself that is imputed as the righteousness that stands before God. The key here is to understand the nature of faith. Faith is an instrument for obtaining something else. It does not have righteousness of its own. It is like a pair of tongs with which we can reach into boiling water and pull out something else. It is not that something else, but only the instrument for obtaining it. But even here, we must be careful to affirm the passivity of faith in justification. Our faith is a gift (Ephesians 2). “In the Reformed view, the instrumental faith is passive in receiving an imputed righteousness as a gift. In Gundry’s Arminian view, faith is active in being identified as equivalent to righteousness, which Abraham thus received as his due” (pg. 81). Phillips completely conquers here by noting that “If Abraham was faithful at the time he was justified, then this could not be an instance of God ‘justifying the ungodly.'” Paul’s argument here is that even Abraham, who is “righteous” in the eyes of the world, is not righteous before God. Abraham is ungodly! It is precisely this ungodly Abraham whom God justifies without works! He quotes Carson, who says precisely the same thing in his article in the above-mentioned book, which article answers Gundry’s article.

Next, Phillips examines the NPP challenge to imputation. He centers on N.T. Wright’s writings, which have been the most influential in Reformed circles. He notes that Wright’s definition of “the righteousness of God” as God’s covenant faithfulness (not, therefore, as something that could possibly be imputed) eradicates the place of imputation in justification. Wright says that God’s own righteousness cannot be imputed to a person (86). Phillips then examines Wright’s position on 2 Cor 5:21. That Wright, even here, notes that “the righteousness of God” is a technical term, means that Wright “does not consider it necessary to consult the local context in order to ascertain the meaning of ‘the righteousness of God'” (87). Wright supporters will cry foul here, of course. They think that Wright’s doctrine of union with Christ supplies what is lacking with regard to imputation. But the fact that Wright explicitly denies the imputation of Christ’s righteousness vitiates any common ground here between union with Christ (which, after all, is something that Roman Catholics believe) and imputation. Contrast this with the position that Westminster Philly takes: union with Christ is the ground of imputation, which does in fact happen in justification. Wright says that union with Christ happens, but is not the ground of imputation, which, in fact, does not happen. Phillips then examines this context (as well as many others) to determine the sense of the phrase “righteousness of God,” and concludes that “the righteousness of God” does not mean covenant faithfulness. It rather refers to God’s upholding of His own moral standards. Wright’s definition flies in the face of BDAG, which never mentions “covenant faithfulness” in its definition of dikaioo. Furthermore, Wright’s definition fixes the genitive relationship in a way that is quite inflexible. The genitive merely indicates that there is a relationship between the word “righteousness” and the word “God.” It does not tell us what that relationship is. It could be objective, subjective, location, or source. Wright fixes the relationship as subjective, irrespective of the context in which the phrase is found. This is hermeneutically questionable.

Finally, Phillips affirms from biblical exegesis the doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ. For him, Gen 3:21 is one of the most convincing arguments for the imputed righteousness of Christ, since a covering of a dead animal had to cover over Adam and Eve’s nakedness. The quote from Whitefield is very a propos (pg. 92). Zechariah 3 is next on Phillips’s list, with Zechariah being clothed with new, white garments, the righteousness of God. Summing up the pastoral importance of this doctrine, Phillips says this, “Clothed in the perfect righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ I no longer fear God’s justice but I rejoice in it, for it now demands that I be entered into life with all the blessings of heaven” (pg. 96).