Why Imputation Is Not a Legal Fiction

A very common objection from Roman Catholics against the Protestant doctrine of imputation is that God declares someone to be innocent who is not, in fact, innocent. This is legal nonsense, to them. They believe that God would never declare a person to be righteous who is not, in fact, righteous. So, the Protestant idea that an alien righteousness, that of Christ, is reckoned to the sinner, is nonsense to them. It would be God declaring something to be true which is actually false. So, how do Protestants respond to this? There are a variety of responses, but the best one, it seems to me, resides in the metaphor of marriage union. We will also add a few things afterwards that will help us understand.

In most marriages, property entails joint ownership. Now, if a woman comes into the marriage with a debt (like a college debt), the husband assumes that debt. It becomes their debt (it can also be described as his debt), even though the husband did not incur that debt. Similarly, whatever money the husband brought into the marriage doesn’t belong just to him anymore, it also belongs to her, even though she did not earn it. So, by virtue of the marriage union between husband and wife, the debts and the assets are transferred.

In a very similar way, when the believer becomes united to Christ by faith, a new legal situation results with transfers happening. I think a lot of the problems that Roman Catholics have over the Protestant doctrine is that sometimes Protestants formulate the alien righteousness imputation idea as though there were no other accompanying-but-distinct salvific benefits happening at all.

Now, let us be clear here. The Protestant doctrine should never be formulated in such a way that union with Christ, for instance, has an internal change happening in the believer that thereby becomes the basis for the imputation. Christ’s righteousness is the basis for the transfer, not anything that happens in the believer. It happens by the instrumentation of faith.

What the marriage union does accomplish in justification has to do with the legality of the transfer. The new legal status we have as being part of the bride of Christ (our being married to Christ) means that anything Christ transfers to us happens legally whether we deserve it or not.

There is, of course, another concomitant salvific benefit that has equal power to explain how it is that justification is not a legal fiction. This benefit works on a different level, but it is still quite effective in combating the “legal fiction” charge, and it is just as biblical. When the believer comes to faith in Christ, he is adopted as God’s child. Adoption also confers a new legal status, this time with more reference to the Father through Jesus (whereas the marriage happens between Christ and the church, adoption is more the Father’s action, though it certainly has reference to the Son and the Spirit of adoption). When God declares us His heirs, then there is no reason whatsoever that God can not transfer anything to us that originally belonged to His Son. It would be no more difficult than imagining a father changing his will.

One last distinction can help us here. There is a difference between being a sinner as opposed to what our legal status before the law is. With regard to being a sinner, we are always sinners until God takes away our sin nature in death. However, with regard to our legal status before the law, God’s declarative action makes us legally innocent, even though that declaration does not change our nature. So when Luther says simul justus et peccator (simultaneously just and a sinner), we are to understand that we are still sinners (though we have been changed in regeneration such that being a sinner is not all there is to say) in our being, and yet we are actually just in the view of the law. Our legal status has similarities to a criminal who is acquitted of a crime that he did in fact commit. He is in his being guilty, and yet in the eyes of the law, he is not guilty.

While Roman Catholics will certainly not agree with these formulations, nevertheless, I believe that the above does put to rest the rather old canard that Protestants believe in a legal fiction in the doctrine of imputation. Marriage and adoption create new legal situations where transfers are not only easily accomplished, but are in fact rather normal.

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A Great Book for the Burned-Out Pastor

The author of this book is a pastor in the same Presbytery where I labor. He is the chairman of the shepherding committee in the Presbytery, and this book certainly helps explain why. Clay is a warm, pastoral man with a heart for hurting people. I heartily recommend this book to any pastors who are discouraged and beaten down with the routine or with crises in the ministry. This book is also a good antidote to the almost universal naivete afflicting good-hearted young men as they come out of seminary ready to fix all the world’s problems (if only the stupid world would listen to them!). Heck, I would even recommend it to pastors who are doing just fine, so that they stay that way!

Clay is certainly honest about his own journey, which makes the book all that much more interesting and compelling. The first five chapters are diagnosis, and the last five are solution. The diagnosis section is painful but healing to read. Chapter 3 comes to mind. Here are a few things that zapped me: “It’s as if God has been saying, ‘Clay, let my people go!'” (p. 51). “Yet we often want to press fast-forward on our ministry remote and make people mature faster and our churches grow quicker because we so desperately want these things now” (44). “Constant conflict made me seek comfort anywhere I could find it, especially in a quiet office with a closed door in the safety of reading books” (60). “Resurrection power may heal the hurt, or it may simply give us the strength to endure. Either way, resurrection power meets us in our weakness” (85). “[T]he love inside of our hearts can be padlocked, whereas our anger often has a hair trigger” (89). The book is well-designed to make a pastor feel really, really guilty, and then really, really forgiven in Christ.

I don’t have any quibbles with what he says. There are a few things that I would like to see in, say, a second edition of the book, or a “revised and expanded” edition (or a second book!). Of course, one can’t say everything in one book, and this is Clay’s first book. One question that nagged at me throughout the book was this: how do we pastors get this grace, when we are the ones “dishing it out”? I don’t mean that we are the source of grace, of course. But how do we get the benefit, for instance, of the Lord’s Supper and of the sermon, when we are the ones presenting those things to the congregation? This goes along with a parallel concern: I would like to have seen more emphasis on the means of grace, and how those factor in to relieve the burdened pastor. A second thing I would like to see addressed is the day off. How do we see our roles on Sunday? As work, or as our part in the worship services? And then, what do we do for a day off during the rest of the week? A third thing is coordinated with the last chapter. He has an admirable and biblical emphasis on pursuing unity (unity achieved is a great stress reliever!). What I would like to see is how that relates to the pursuit of truth and purity of the gospel. How do we avoid burnout, for instance, when we are fighting wolves in sheep’s clothing? What about the temptation to avoid conflict about gospel issues for the sake of our own comfort and avoiding burnout? What is the difference between pursuing our own comfort versus avoiding burnout? I would love to see these questions answered, if not by Clay, then by someone building on what Clay has done here.

This is a great little book. It doesn’t take long to read (and it is, by and large, well-written). It lays a great foundation for thinking about the ministry in a grace-driven way. It deserves a very wide readership by pastors of all stripes. Tolle lege.

Is Faith Itself Imputed as Our Righteousness?

Arminians and Roman Catholics will typically argue that Romans 4:5,9 are talking about faith itself as the thing that is imputed, thus avoiding imputation of an alien righteousness. They will translate it something like “faith is reckoned as righteousness.” Sometimes they will use the word “for” instead of “as” while understanding it of identity. There are three insuperable objections to this understanding of the passage. Here are the two verses (translation mine):

4:5 “To the one who does not work but rather believes in the One justifying the ungodly, his faith is reckoned for righteousness.” 4:9 “Does this blessing, therefore, come to the circumcised only or also to the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness.”

The first insuperable objection to understanding faith itself as the thing reckoned is the context, especially verses 3-5. It goes like this: if faith is righteousness (in the eyes of the law), then it is a work. Then works justify us, the very thing Paul explicitly denies in verses 3-5, where he contrasts faith and works, and makes a point of saying that it is NOT reckoned as a reward, but rather as of grace. If in the situation of justification, there is anything in us that is righteous as a basis for justification, then it is a reward, and not of grace. There is no way around this problem. Limiting the scope of the works so that they are boundary markers or ceremonial aspects of the law simply doesn’t fly at all. The contrast is between the one working and the one believing. That is a general contrast.

The second insuperable objection is the nature of faith itself, which has to be determined from the rest of Scripture. The Scriptures usually speak of faith as being in someone. Faith is really not a thing inside us. It is rather our connection to God, to Jesus Christ, to the Holy Spirit, to the Triune God. Faith derives its meaning and substance from the object of faith, not from faith itself. Otherwise, we are saved by faith in faith. Faith is rather our connection to God. The analogy I like to use goes like this: if a person is canning something, then he is faced with a situation of having to get jars out of boiling water. Obviously, he cannot use his hands to do so. Therefore, he must use something to grasp hold of the jars. There are tongs manufactured for just such a purpose. They wrap around the lip of the jar so that a person can lift the jar out without any mishap. Faith is like those tongs. Faith is not the jar with the good stuff in it. Faith lays hold of Christ and all His goodness. It connects us to Him. It is another way of saying our union with Christ which the Holy Spirit creates.

The third insuperable objection (and something that is absolutely fatal to Roman Catholic understandings of justification) is the phrase “justifier of the ungodly” in verse 5. Roman Catholic theology NEVER believes that God ever justifies an ungodly person. Nevertheless, in all the ways that count at the time of justification, Abraham was ungodly in his actions (remembering that faith is contrasted with works in verses 3-5). If faith itself is the righteousness, then God would be justifying the godly, not the ungodly. But Paul says here that God is justifying the ungodly. In a future post I will argue the case that this understanding is not a legal fiction.

Is Imputation Taught in Romans 4?

Nick, over at Creed Code Cult, has thrown down the gauntlet (thrown many times before, of course) that Romans does not teach the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer. I don’t think I will get to all the things he addresses, but I do want to address Romans 4 in particular, since that is the clearest place where Paul does teach the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer.

But let’s summarize Nick’s argument first. He notes that David, in Psalm 32, does not speak about righteousness being imputed. Paul, in quoting Psalm 32, mentions it as a “counting for righteousness.” Therefore, according to Nick, forgiveness of sins is the equivalent of being regarded as righteous. In fact, Nick goes farther than that to claim that this is the “only coherent explanation.” He then adds a reductio ad absurdam argument: “Realizing this, it’s impossible to interpret ‘reckoning righteousness’ with the ‘Imputed Righteousness of Christ’ (as Protectants typically identify it), because then you’d have to say forgiveness of sins refers to Christ’s keeping of the law in our place, which makes little sense.” This is a very brief summary of Nick’s argument, but it will do to be getting on with.

There is another equally coherent explanation of the way that Paul quotes David that does much better justice to the context of the early part of Romans 4 (which Nick ignores), and it is this: Paul regards the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and the forgiveness of sin (with the accompanying imputation of our sin to Christ) as so tightly coherent that they always come together. In other words, to say that one happens is to say that the other also happens, because they are the flip side of each other. Let’s see how Paul does that.

Paul asks the question of whether Abraham was justified by works. Leaving aside for a moment the much-vexed question of the scope of these works, we merely note at the moment that positive works that obey the law are certainly in view here, obviously not works for which Abraham would need forgiveness. This is proven by the introduction of the boasting motif in verse 2. One presumably does not boast of sin. As opposed to this method of being justified, Paul says that Abraham was justified by faith instead. The key phrase here is “eis dikaiosunen” (“for righteousness”). Faith itself is not a fulfillment of the law. The very nature of faith is that it lays hold on Someone Else. So faith itself cannot be the righteousness here mentioned. The “eis” is a telic preposition. Faith, in laying hold of Jesus Christ, lays hold of His righteousness. Let me be plain: the righteousness here spoken of cannot be Abraham’s righteousness. Otherwise, he would be tempted to boast (as per verse 2). Verse 2 also proves that the concept of “righteousness” as used here in the passage CANNOT refer merely to the forgiveness of sins, which is not something about which a person would even be tempted to boast. It is further proven by the case of Adam in the garden. Forgiveness of sins wipes the slate clean. Adam started with a clean slate. So why didn’t he pass immediately into glory? Because he had to prove himself vis-a-vis the command that the Lord had given him. He had to be actively righteous to God’s command to multiply, fill the earth, guard the garden from Satanic intruders and not eat of the tree. Neutrality does not equal the blessedness of David by itself. What Paul is saying is that David’s explicit mention of forgiveness as constituting blessedness is half the picture, and imputation is the always-accompanying other half of the picture. Paul is saying that we need a righteousness. We cannot get it by working, because then it wouldn’t be grace (as verse 4 says so clearly). Faith is the only way to get this righteousness.

As Calvin would say, we need two things in justification: forgiveness of sins and imputation of Christ’s righteousness. An analogy I’m fond of using is the gears of a car. Having one’s sins forgiven is like being taken out of reverse gear and put into neutral. Imputation is like being put into a forward gear. You need both of them to be headed in the right direction.

Lastly, I need to answer Nick’s reductio argument. Christ’s keeping of the law results in two very important facts for the believer. Firstly, it constitutes Christ the perfect Lamb, who can take away our sins (so, you see, Christ’s righteousness is VERY closely tied to the forgiveness of sins: if Christ was not the perfect Lamb, then He could not take away our sins, and He couldn’t die in our place). Secondly, He earned our way to heaven. Nick’s reductio fails because he leaves out the step of Christ’s righteousness constituting Him the perfect Lamb, and thereby achieving our forgiveness.

I will answer also his claim about the phrase “justified by His blood” being absurd to talk about the imputation of righteousness. As I have already noted (and what is a commonplace in Reformed treatments of justification), justification is not just about imputation, but also about forgiveness. Sometimes one aspect is more in view, sometimes the other. In 5:9, plainly forgiveness is more in view, since he is talking about being saved from wrath. Wrath is upon us due to sin, so when that sin is taken away from us, so is God’s wrath. That will do, to get the conversation started.

Literal Interpretation of Revelation?

I am currently preparing sermons on the book of Revelation. In reading through the commentaries, one finds much that is helpful, and much that is useless. An example of the latter category comes in Robert L. Thomas’s premillenial commentary. He says on p. 32:

The futurist approach to the book is the only one that grants sufficient recognition to the prophetic style of the book and a normal hermeneutical pattern of interpretation based on that style. It views the book as focusing on the last period(s) of world history and outlining the various events and their relationships to one another. This is the view that best accords with the principle of literal interpretation. The literal interpretation of Revelation is the one generally associated with the premillenial return of Christ and a view of inspiration that understands God to be the real author of every book of the Bible.

There are so many problems with this analysis that it is difficult to know where to start. First of all, he assumes that which must be proved in the first sentence. “Prophetic” must equal “future,” and therefore the futurist approach is the only possible approach that would sufficiently acknowledge the prophetic character of Revelation. He downplays apocalyptic features of the book elsewhere (the reason why is somewhat mystifying in its absence).

Secondly, his bifurcation of world history is extremely unhelpful. How could the book have been written to first-century Christians if the things described in Revelation have no relevance to the first century? Yes, Revelation is written to the entire church. That is why the events of Revelation happen all throughout history, having relevance to the entire church age between the first and second coming of Christ.

Thirdly, his view that only the literal interpretation of Revelation is consistent with a high view of inspiration is quite frankly ludicrous and offensive. According to Thomas’s view, God could not possibly reveal anything to us in a symbolic way without compromising inspiration. I might remind Thomas at this point of John 11, where the disciples take Jesus literally when He says that Lazarus has fallen asleep, and thereby misinterpret Jesus. Thomas might object at this point and say, “Ah, but John tells us that Jesus was speaking metaphorically.” To which I would reply that John does so again in Revelation 1:1, where the word “semaino” means to reveal by means of signs and symbols (see Beale’s commentary). Given that such a description is meant to describe Revelation as a whole, the default in interpreting Revelation must be symbolic, not literal.

To put this in a less abstract way, if I want to say that my wife is the most beautiful woman in the world, I could say it just like that. Such a statement would be objective, scientifically verifiable fact stated by a completely unbiased person. Well, maybe not, but it would be a very literal way of getting the point across. But I could say it another way, by quoting George Gordon, Lord Byron: “She walks in beauty like the night of cloudless climes and starry skies, and all that’s best of dark and bright meet in her aspect and her eyes.” Now, Robert Thomas, which of these statements is more true than the other? Having trouble with that? Well, of course you are! That something is true is a distinct question from how that truth is stated. Thomas does not understand this, and therefore equates literal interpretation with a high view of inspiration. One can have a very high view of inspiration (I believe, for instance, that every single word of Revelation is inspired by God and is utterly infallible) and yet interpret Revelation symbolically because it is a symbolic book.

The real fear, of course, is that a symbolic interpretation would give license to the interpreter to say whatever he wants to about the text. This is a genuine problem with those who have over-reacted to the literal folks. The solution is to recognize that there are brakes on symbolic interpretation. Those brakes are called “the rest of Scripture.” For Revelation in particular, the Old Testament functions as the source of almost all of the imagery. John is either explicitly alluding to the Old Testament or (maybe even unconsciously!) simply lives in the aura of the Old Testament. John is saturated with the Old Testament. It comes out his pores. This is not surprising, given that Revelation pulls all the threads of the Bible together and wraps everything up.