Calvin famously referred to the doctrine of justification by faith as the principal hinge on which true religion hangs.1 Luther called it the article by which the church stands or falls.2 They did not overstate the case. The principle of sola fide (faith as the sole instrument of justification) is the heart and soul of biblical soteriology. It is an essential tenet of gospel truth, stressed repeatedly in Scripture from Genesis 15:63 to Revelation 17:14.4
Justification by faith is the main precept the apostle Paul systematically explains in the first eight chapters of Romans. It is the primary doctrine he defends in his epistle to the Galatians, the singular truth that defines historical evangelicalism, the material principle of the Protestant Reformation, and the very anchor of biblical orthodoxy. The doctrine of justification distinguishes biblical Christianity from every other religion.
Read the most recent issue of The Master's Seminary Journal
Just as justification by faith is the centerpiece of soteriology and the very marrow of the gospel, the principle of imputed righteousness is the necessary center and soul of the doctrine of justification. Put simply, this indispensable article of faith means that righteousness is imputed to (or credited to the account of) all who lay hold of Christ by faith. This is done by a forensic reckoning—meaning a legal transaction, like a courtroom verdict. It entails a transfer of credit. The apostle Paul repeatedly uses the Greek expression logizomai to speak of the righteousness imputed to believers. In the New American Standard Bible, this verb is most often translated as “credited,” but it is also occasionally rendered “reckoned,” “take[n] into account,” “regarded,” “suppose[d],” and other near synonyms. It evokes the idea of an accounting—specifically a transfer from one ledger to another, or the relocation of an asset from one agent’s account to another’s.
Of course, when a believer is justified, that person’s sins are fully forgiven, and the slate is wiped clean of every offense—past, present, and future. “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1). “Having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:1). But justification is much more than that. Believers also receive full credit for a perfect righteousness that they have done nothing to earn; it is provided for them. They are declared righteous not for any merit of their own, but because of a spotless righteousness that they receive. It is an alien righteousness, in that it comes from a source outside of them.
In Old Testament terms, they are “clothed ... with garments of salvation”; “wrapped ... with a robe of righteousness” (Isa 61:10). Or in the words of the apostle Paul, “God credits righteousness [to them] apart from works” (Rom 4:6). It is a perfect righteousness, “the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe” (3:22, NKJV).
Where does this righteousness come from? Scripture is clear that it is the righteousness of the incarnate Christ, “who became to us ... righteousness” (1 Cor 1:30). One of His messianic titles is “The LORD our righteousness” (Jer 23:6). Believers are brought into a right standing with God “by the righteousness of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:1).
The Savior’s perfect, lifelong obedience as one “born under the Law” (Gal 4:4) was as vital to His substitutionary sacrifice as the shedding of His blood. It was necessary to demonstrate that He is the spotless Lamb of God, a suitable sacrifice for the sins of His people. But Jesus did not only shed His blood to obtain forgiveness for all who would trust in Him, He also lived His life in order “to fulfill all righteousness” on their behalf (Matt 3:15).
There was, of course, no lack of inherent righteousness in the eternal Son of God. By definition, He is perfect in every possible way. But at the start of His earthly ministry, when he came to be baptized, he stated His intention to “fulfill all righteousness” as a man. For whose sake did He deem baptism fitting in order to fulfill righteousness? After all, John’s baptism was a public declaration of repentance. But He had no sins to repent of, nor would He ever have need of such an ordinance. He was submitting to John’s baptism for the sake of others, identifying with His people, acting already as their Substitute, pursuing the perfect human righteousness they would need for full justification before God. Thus, “through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous” (Rom 5:19).
In other words, the whole doctrine of vicarious atonement depends on the principle of imputed righteousness. Those who want to do away with this aspect of justification are invariably forced to reimagine the atoning work of Christ in a way that undermines the substitutionary nature of His sacrifice.
Nevertheless, in recent years several influential voices in the evangelical academic community have challenged the principle of imputed righteousness. N. T. Wright, for example, claims, “It makes no sense whatever to say that the judge imputes, imparts, bequeaths, conveys or otherwise transfers his righteousness to either the plaintiff or the defendant. Righteousness is not an object, a substance or a gas which can be passed across the courtroom.”5
The faculty of The Master’s Seminary object to all such attempts to do away with the principle of imputed righteousness, and this edition of The Master’s Seminary Journal will explore what Scripture teaches about the subject, demonstrating why this doctrine is so fundamental. It is (and always has been) one of the vital points affirmed in the TMS doctrinal statement:
We teach that justification before God is an act of God (Rom 8:33) by which He declares righteous those who, through faith in Christ, repent of their sins (Luke 13:3; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 11:18; Rom 2:4; 2 Cor 7:10; Isa 55:6–7) and confess Him as sovereign Lord (Rom 10:9–10; 1 Cor 12:3; 2 Cor 4:5; Phil 2:11). This righteousness is apart from any virtue or work of man (Rom 3:20; 4:6) and involves the imputation of our sins to Christ (Col 2:14; 1 Peter 2:24) and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us (1 Cor 1:30; 2 Cor 5:21). By this means God is enabled to “be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Rom 3:26)
Here, more precisely, is what is meant by this confession:
- We affirm that the perfect righteousness of Christ is far more than mere innocence; it entails perfect compliance with all God’s commandments and absolute conformity to all His moral virtues (Matt 5:48).
- We affirm that the lifelong obedience of Christ was necessary in order for Him to be a suitable sacrifice for sin and “the source of eternal salvation” (Heb 5:7–9; 9:14). In other words, apart from His full and active obedience, we could not be saved.
- We affirm that Christ “fulfill[ed] all righteousness” as a man by rendering perfect obedience to the law’s commandments (Gal 4:4); by publicly submitting to a rite that signified repentance (Matt 3:15); and by suffering the full penalty of sin on the cross—not merely physical death, but also the outpouring of an incomprehensible measure of divine wrath against Him (Isa 53:10; Rom 8:32; Phil 2:8).
- We affirm double imputation. Just as the price of our sin was charged to Christ’s account (Isa 53:4–6; Heb 9:28; 1 Peter 2:24; 3:18), so the full credit of His righteousness is reckoned to our account (Isa 53:11; Rom 5:19; 2 Cor 5:21).
- We affirm that justification supplies believers with a more perfect righteousness than Adam could ever have attained, even if he had not fallen (1 Cor 15:47–49). This gives the redeemed a secure standing before God and elevates them to a higher position of spiritual privilege than Adam ever enjoyed (Eph 1:3).
- We deny that justification is remission of sins only, apart from the imputation of any positive credit, merit, or virtue (Isa 45:24–25; Rom 4:22–25; 5:18–19; 1 Cor 1:30; Phil 3:9).
- We deny that God abrogated or abridged the law in order to justify us; rather, Christ fulfilled it perfectly for our sake (Isa 42:21; Matt 5:17; Rom 3:26, 31; 10:4).
- We deny that “the imputation of Christ’s righteousness” speaks merely of a change in status, the erasure of guilt, or anything less than the full credit of perfect obedience reckoned to the account of the one who believes (Rom 5:19).
- We deny that Jesus merely paid the penalty the law demands for our sin without also fulfilling the law’s righteous requirement on our behalf (Rom 8:3). A payment for sin’s guilt is no substitute for obedience (1 Sam 15:22); therefore truly perfect righteousness requires perfect obedience (Deut 6:25; Matt 5:48; James 2:10).
- We deny that forensic imputation in any way diminishes or subverts the truth of our spiritual union with Christ (Rom 6:3–5; Eph 2:5–6; Phil 3:9–11).
Chancellor, The Master’s University and Seminary
Pastor, Grace Community Church
1. John Calvin, Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 1:726.
2. In his work Iustitia Dei: Vol. II: From 1500 to the present day (Cambridge: University Press, 1986). 1:7, Alistair McGrath quotes from “the writings of Luther himself e.g., WA 40/3.352.3: ‘quia isto articulo stante stat Ecclesia, ruente ruit Ecclesia.’” Translation: “If this article stands, the church stands; if this article collapses, the church collapses.”
3. Abraham “believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.”
4. “Those who are with Him are the called and chosen and faithful.”
5. N. T. Wright, What St. Paul Really Said (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 98.