Pilgrims from Paradise:
When God imputes righteousness to us, what is He doing? That is the question we raised at the end of the last podcast. We also learned last time that righteousness is not a thing—it is God’s state of being. What is more, we made the point that imputes is a verb, not an adjective. As we recognized, the objectifying mindset of the Christian West has turned God’s activity of imputing righteousness into God’s bestowing upon us this divine product called imputed righteousness.
But righteousness is not some commodity that God distributes to us. It is who He is. So with all that in mind, how are we to understand what St. Paul truly means when he tells us that God imputes righteousness to people. Let us take it step by step. First, we know for sure that what God does in imputing righteousness happens as a result of an act of faith on our part. As we read in Romans 4:3, Abraham believed God. That is why God accounted him righteous. The apostle warns us that it is only through faith, and not by virtue of any good works, that we might be able to summon up that the imputing of righteousness to us occurs.
As we said last time, the Protestant evangelical interpretation of this is that because of his faith, Abraham received righteousness from God. God put a certain amount of righteousness dollars, if you will, on Abraham’s account—righteousness dollars that he neither deserved, nor could ever earn by doing good works. It is God’s gift of righteousness, and God’s gift alone, that makes Abraham eligible to receive God’s promise of a vast inheritance of descendants.
Of course, Protestants and Evangelicals apply Abraham’s experience to their own. For them, the issue is not descendants, it is salvation. But just as Abraham received the promise of his inheritance through an act of faith divorced from good works, so Christians receive the salvation that Christ promises them solely through an act of faith, in which they wholeheartedly accept the truth of His promise. Just as in Abraham’s case, there are no good works that they could do to earn their salvation and so, no works are required to turn the promise of salvation into genuine reality.
Let us take all that now and restate it using the word imputes. As we pointed out, to impute means to reckon, or to consider, so when he or she reads that God imputes righteousness, what the average Protestant Evangelical thinks is this: if we believe that Christ saved us, then God reckons us, or considers us, to be righteous, even though we are not. All we do is put our faith in Him. God, in return, applies enough of His own righteousness to our account to satisfy our moral and spiritual debt to Him. But what do we see in that interpretation? We see righteousness being treated as a thing, as some commodity within God that He can draw out, like a pint of blood and put it in the heavenly blood bank under our names.
But righteousness is not some objective thing separate from God, that God owns or possesses a whole lot of. No, it is what He is. Righteousness is the unique activity of God’s being. Understanding that, how then ought we to interpret that phrase: God imputes righteousness? He cannot give us His righteousness like a present in a box, or an amount on a check. The only way God can give us righteousness, which is His unique manner of being, is somehow to incorporate us into His way of being. He must make us living participants in His own life. That is the only way we human beings can have righteousness.
But where does imputing come into play, here? What exactly is God reckoning or considering here? He is not considering us to possess some quantity of righteousness we actually do not have. No, when God imputes righteousness, He reckons us, He considers us, to be participants in His life. There— we have it at last. Let me say it again, clearly, and plainly. The statement, God imputes righteousness, means, God reckons or considers a person to be a participant in His life.
How does that come about? It comes about only through an act of faith on the part of the human creature. When God comes to us, offering the promise of salvation in Christ, He is offering us participation in His being. Remember what the crowd cried out to St. Peter when he declared to truth of Christ to them on that great day of Pentecost? “What must we do?” they pleaded, “in order to be right with God?” St. Peter said to them, “Repent, be baptized, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38).” God will come to you, St. Peter proclaims, He will incorporate you into His life, by joining His own divine life to you. He will draw you into His own way of existing.
When a person has faith in Christ’s promise of salvation, God looks at him or her and says, “Because of your faith, you have declared to Me that you wish to be joined to Me. So, I now reckon you to be a participant in My righteous existence. By your faith, you have given Me permission to begin to invest My life in you. You have placed yourself within the sphere of the power of My being.”
Without that faith, as verse 8 of Romans 4 tells us, God can only impute sin to us. That is, He can only reckon us, or consider us to be willing nonparticipants in His righteous state of being. There is nothing He can do for us if that is what we choose.
So there, we have now examined the first major problem with the Christian West’s interpretation of imputed righteousness. It turns an active and living process, a profoundly deep interaction between God and us, into God’s distributing of some kind of divine commodity. But there is a second error in the Western understanding of imputed righteousness, and that is the relationship between God’s act of imputing and the fulfillment of his promise. Remember, in the Western mind, when Abraham believes God, God imputes righteousness to him, and that fulfills the promise. Abraham becomes the father of many nations by his faith alone. St. Paul presents Abraham’s experience as a direct analogy of the Christian believer’s experience of salvation, so a Protestant evangelical Christian understands the apostle as teaching that when we received salvation from Christ, it is by an act of faith alone. There is nothing we must do—no sort of work or task we must perform, for the promise to be completely fulfilled. All we must do is simply take a look at the life of Abraham in order to see that this view, this concept of salvation as a matter of faith alone is not at all consistent with what the scriptures plainly teach us about Abraham and his relationship to God and His promise.
We are going to see that the realization of God’s pledge demands much from the ancient patriarch. You see, God’s accounting Abraham’s belief as righteousness, that is, God’s imputing righteousness to him, is only the beginning of a long road to the actual fulfillment of the promise. It is a journey that will require more than just faith on Abraham’s part. Difficult obedience and serious effort will be needed.
But before we go to Genesis, a little aside here. Because the slogan, by faith alone, is so foundational to the Western Christian understanding, most Western Christians assume that the phrase comes from the scriptures, but it does not. That is right. Nowhere in the New Testament do the words, faith, and alone, appear side by side. Western believers think that St. Paul says somewhere that we are justified by faith alone, but he never does. He tells us we are justified, or in other words, brought into a right relationship with God, by faith, but the alone bit is something that comes much later.
Martin Luther and the Protestant reformers supplied that word. In fact, there is just one verse in the entire New Testament that teaches us about the saving value of faith taken simply by itself. But it is not one that Western believers like to confront. It is James 2:24 where St. James declares, “You see then, that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.” It is just the opposite of what Protestant evangelicals teach.
But what St. James understands, and what generations of Western believers have lost sight of, is the truth that our salvation is in our actual interrelationship with God. Salvation is the ongoing process of living with God within His righteous existence—a life that God considers us to have entered when we declare our faith in Him. But that is just the beginning. Any relationship must have a beginning. But the relationship can only be considered real when it endures, and the endurance of a relationship requires work on the part of both parties.
That is just what we shall see in Abraham’s life. God makes the promise, Abraham believes. God then imputes righteousness to Abraham. That is, on the basis of his faith He considers Abraham in the game, so to speak. And then, the work begins—for God, and for Abraham, as they move together toward the fulfillment of God’s promise. We will begin our study in the book of Genesis next time.