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Imputed Righteousness of Christ

Let’s define imputed, imparted, and infused righteousness to discern which is biblically supported. Second Corinthians 5:21 is the key verse about the righteousness of Christ given to repentant sinners who trust in Jesus.  

2 Cor 5:21  For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.

Martin Luther called this “The Great Exchange,” and Athanasius (296-373 AD) called it “The Glorious Exchange.” There is nothing greater, or more glorious than the sacrifice of Jesus when He took our sins upon Himself and paid the penalty for them so we could be reconciled to God.  With the penalty of sin paid, God is able to justify us (Rom 3:22-24) by:

  • Washing our sins away (Rev 1:5)
  • Giving us the righteousness of Jesus (2 Cor 5:21)
  • Giving us the Holy Spirit who makes us alive (1 Pet 3:18)

To understand the imputation of Christ’s righteousness we must first start by understanding the imputation of unrighteousness that comes from Adam’s sin. 

Imputation of Adam’s Sin

Every human being is born with the imputed sin of Adam (Except Christ, of course, who was born without sin. Read: Why Was a Virgin Birth Necessary?)

Imputed sin can be understood in terms of inherited unrighteousness, similar to a trait being passed down in one’s DNA.  In this case, it is our sin nature that is passed down from Adam.  We are not simply sinners because we sin. We are born sinners with a sin nature.  

The Bible is clear that no one is righteous, no not one (Rom 3:10).  And in Matt 5:20, Jesus begins a discourse that points to the need for perfect righteousness in order to go to Heaven.  Jesus begins with:

Mat 5:20  For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus goes on to elevate the law beyond the works of men and tells that God judges the intent of the heart.  This is meant to be a “brick wall” that we crash into.  It should destroy any hope of our attaining the righteousness we need to enter into Heaven.  If that wasn’t enough, Jesus concluded with:

Mat 5:48  Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

Be Perfect? Really?

Yes, perfection is what is needed to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. You’re probably thinking, “But, we can never be perfect.”  That’s true.  And anyone who claims to be perfect is lying.  With the sin nature of Adam, man is destined to sin in thought, word, and deed.

So how should we understand Jesus’ words? Some will say the command “to be perfect” in Matthew 5:48 means we are to strive for perfection. It means, “Be the best you can be.” But that is not what it says. It says “be perfect” and perfect means perfect. Since no one can be perfect, everyone should be desperate to find the only One who can forgive sins and give the righteousness needed to be perfect in God’s eyes—the imputed righteousness of Christ.

Imputed Righteousness

Imputed righteousness is the basis for justification for Lutherans and those in the Reformed traditions of Christianity.   Theopedia.com, an online encyclopedia of Biblical Christianity, defines “imputed” as used to “designate any action or word or thing as reckoned to a person. Thus in doctrinal language

  1. the sin of Adam is imputed to all his descendants, i.e., it is reckoned as theirs, and they are dealt with therefore as guilty (Rom 5:12)
  2. the righteousness of Christ is imputed to them that believe in Him, or so attributed to them as to be considered their own (2 Cor 5:21)
  3. our sins are imputed to Christ, i.e., he assumed our ‘law-place,’ undertook to answer the demands of justice for our sins. In all these cases the nature of imputation is the same (Rom 5:12-19; comp. Philemon 1:18, 19).”

The doctrine of imputed righteousness is often referred to as Double Imputation, or Dual Imputation, because it considers the imputation of our sin to Christ and the imputation of His righteousness to us. This is a doctrine of justification based on Christ’s personal righteousness (having lived a sinless human life) and made possible through his propitiatory sacrifice.

Infused Righteousness 

Infused righteousness is the basis for the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification as defined by the early church father Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274).  In one of his works, Summa Theologiae (1265–1274), Aquinas wrote [underlining is mine]:

“I answer that, Justification taken passively implies a movement towards justice, as heating implies a movement towards heat. But since justice, by its nature, implies a certain rectitude of order, it may be taken in two ways: first, inasmuch as it implies a right order in man’s act, and thus justice is placed amongst the virtues—either as particular justice, which directs a man’s acts by regulating them in relation to his fellowman—or as legal justice, which directs a man’s acts by regulating them in their relation to the common good of society, as appears from Ethic. v, 1.” [emphasis mine]

Clearly, Aquinas teaches a necessity for man to achieve a level of righteousness by his works (acts) for justification.  Aquinas taught that the righteousness of Christ is not imputed, or fully accounted, to a repentant sinner who is saved by Jesus. Rather the righteousness of man’s acts and the righteousness of Jesus is gradually infused to the believer.  This is why Aquinas defined the doctrines of Purgatory, Limbo, and Limbo of the Children.  (Read: Are Purgatory and Limbo Real Places?).  If a Catholic dies without having the fullness of righteousness, which comes in part from the last rites, the person will go to purgatory until all sin is purged by fire.

Catholicism holds to the doctrines of Aquinas on Infused Righteousness, Purgatory, and Limbo and does not teach assurance of Heaven at death.

Imparted Righteousness 

Methodist theology teaches imputed righteousness is a gracious gift of God and is given at the moment of the new birth.  However, this righteousness does not fully justify.  Methodism defines imparted righteousness as enabling a Christian to strive for holiness and live a godly life. John Wesley (1703-1791, founder of Methodism) defined it as something that God does in us, with our cooperation.  So Wesley’s doctrine is one of increasing righteousness in the process of Christian growth from new birth to death. Wesley taught that imparted righteousness and imputed righteousness work together to make a Christian holy. He also taught that a faithful believer can attain Christian perfection.  This may seem to fulfill Jesus’ call to be perfect in Matt 5:48, but we know it can’t be done.

While like Catholicism, Methodism holds to an “earned” righteousness, unlike Catholicism the denomination does not believe in Purgatory or Limbo.  They do, however, believe a Christian can lose his salvation and therefore not go to Heaven at death.  Methodism does not teach eternal security of one’s salvation.

Which Doctrine is Biblical?

As already stated, Reasons for Hope* Jesus holds to a Doctrine of Justification as defined by the Great Reformation and based on this verse: 

Eph 2:8-9 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. 

Imputed righteousness is part of our Justification (new birth), for it is only by receiving the righteousness of Christ that God can declare us justified, which means positionally perfect in Christ.  We understand Justification. . . 

  • To happen in a moment of time. It is not a process. 
  • As a work of God. It is not anything we do.  
  • As a freely given, freely received gift. It is not anything earned.

The infused righteousness of Aquinas and Catholicism and the imparted righteousness of Wesley and Methodism do not fit with the Reformer’s Doctrine of Justification.  

Not Saved By Works, But Saved To Works

Ephesians 2:10 tells us that “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus,” and that we are created “unto good works” — meaning to do good works.  

Doing good works is a free-will choice once we are positionally justified, but even this is a work of God. We have been given God’s Holy Spirit by whom we are being conformed to the image of Jesus (Rom 8:29).  Our free-will choice is to allow His power to work in and through us so we can do good works to honor God and serve our neighbors.  

Jesus has promised His presence in our lives to help us in all things (John 14:26, John 16:13) and Paul has confirmed the Power of His Spirit to grow us (Eph 3:20, Phil 2:13).

Assurance, Security, and Rest

Reasons for Hope* Jesus believes in the assurance of Heaven. We believe in the eternal security of our salvation, which is a gift from God.  It will never be taken from us, nor can it ever be lost by us.  Now that’s the peace and rest that Jesus promised.  

John 14:27  Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.

Mat 11:28-29  Come unto me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and you shall find rest unto your souls.

Knowing our life is secure in Christ, and the promise of Heaven is sure, we have the confidence to live surrendered to the Lord’s will and empowered not by might, nor by power, but by the Holy Spirit (Zech 4:6).



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