I. MEANING AND USE OF THE TERM
II. THE THREEFOLD USE OF THE TERM IN THEOLOGY
Original Sin, Atonement, Justification
III. THE SCRIPTURAL BASIS OF THESE DOCTRINES
1. Imputation of Adam’s Sin to His Posterity
2. Imputation of the Sins of His People to Christ
3. Imputation of the Righteousness of Christ to His People
I. Meaning and Use of the Term.
II. The Threefold Use of the Term in Theology.
Original Sin, Atonement, Justification:
Three acts of imputation are given special prominence in the Scripture, and are implicated in the Scriptural doctrines of Original Sin, Atonement and Justification, though not usually expressed by the words chashabh and logizomai. Because, however, of its "forensic" or "judicial" meaning, and possibly through its use in the Vulgate (Jerome’s Latin Bible, 390-405 A.D.) to translate logizomai in Ro 4:8, the term "imputation" has been used in theology in a threefold sense to denote the judicial acts of God by which the guilt of Adam’s sin is imputed to his posterity; by which the sins of Christ’s people are imputed to Him; and by which the righteousness of Christ is imputed to His people. The act of imputation is precisely the same in each case. It is not meant that Adam’s sin was personally the sin of his descendants, but that it was set to their account, so that they share its guilt and penalty. It is not meant that Christ shares personally in the sins of men, but that the guilt of his people’s sin was set to his account, so that He bore its penalty. It is not meant that Christ’s people are made personally holy or inwardly righteous by the imputation of His righteousness to them, but that His righteousness is set to their account, so that they are entitled to all the rewards of that perfect righteousness.
These doctrines have had a place in theology of the Christian church from the earliest Christian centuries, though the doctrine of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ was first fully and clearly stated at the time of and following the Reformation. The first two of these doctrines have been the possession of the entire Christian church, while the third one of them is affirmed by both the Reformed and Lutheran branches of Protestantism.
III. The Scriptural Basis of These Doctrines.
These three doctrines have a basis in the Scripture, and underlie the Scripture doctrines of Original Sin, Atonement, and Justification.
1. Imputation of Adam’s Sin to His Posterity:
The universality of sin and death is not brought into connection with the Fall of Adam by the other Old Testament writers. This is done, however, by Paul. In 1Co 15:21 f, Paul says that the death of all men has its cause in the man Adam in the same way in which the resurrection from the dead has its cause in the man Christ. The death of all men, accordingly, is not brought about by their personal sins, but has come upon all through the disobedience of Adam. Upon what ground this takes place, Paul states in the passage Ro 5:12-21. He introduces the subject of Adam’s relation to the race to illustrate his doctrine of the justification of sinners on the ground of a righteousness which is not personally their own. In order to do this he takes the truth, well known to his readers, that all men are under condemnation on account of Adam’s sin. The comparison is between Adam and Christ, and the specific point of the comparison is imputed sin and imputed righteousness. Hence, in 5:12 Paul does not mean simply to affirm that as Adam sinned and consequently died, so men sin and die. Nor can he mean to say that just as God established a precedent in Adam’s case that death should follow sin, so He acts upon this precedent in the case of all men because all sin, the real ground of the reign of death being the fact that all sin, and the formal ground being this precedent (B. Weiss); nor that the real ground is this precedent and the subordinate ground the fact that all sin (Hunefeld). Neither can Paul intend to say that all men are subject to death because they derive a corrupt nature from Adam (Fritzsche); nor that men are condemned to die because all have sinned (Pfleiderer). Paul’s purpose is to illustrate his doctrine of the way in which men are delivered from sin and death by the way in which they are brought into condemnation. The main thought of the passage is that, just as men are condemned on account of the imputation to them of the guilt of Adam’s sin, so they are justified on account of the imputation to them of the righteousness of Christ. Paul says that it was by one man that sin and death entered into the world, and it was by one man that death passed to all men, because all were implicated in the guilt of that one man’s Sin (5:12). In proof of this the apostle cites the fact that death as a punishment was reigning during a period in which the only possible judicial ground of this fact must have been the imputation of the guilt of that one man’s sin (5:13,14). Hence, there is a precise parallel between Adam and Christ. Just as men are condemned on account of Adam’s disobedience, so they are justified on account of the obedience of Christ (5:18,19). The thought of the passage is imputed sin and imputed righteousness as the ground of condemnation and of justification respectively.
2. Imputation of the Sins of His People to Christ:
The same idea underlies these expressions when they occur in the New Testament. When Peter wishes to hold up Christ as an example of patience in suffering, he takes up the thought of Isa, and adduces the fact that Christ "his own self bare our sins in his body upon the tree". (1Pe 2:24). The context indicates that Peter had the prophecy of Isa 53 in mind, so that his meaning is, not that Christ carried our sins even up to the cross, but that in His death on the cross Christ bore the punishment of our sin, its guilt having been imputed to Him. The same thought is expressed by the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, where the contrast between the first and second advents of Christ is made to hinge upon the fact that in the first He came to be sacrificed as a sin-bearer, burdened with the guilt of the sin of others, whereas in His second coming He will appear without this burden of imputed or vicarious guilt (Heb 9:28). Paul also gives expression to the same thought when he says that Christ was "made. to be sin on our behalf" (2Co 5:21), and that He became "a curse for us" (Ga 3:13). In the former passage the idea of substitution, although not expressed by the preposition huper which indicates that Christ’s work was for our benefit, is nevertheless clearly implied in the thought that Christ, whose sinlessness is emphasized in the ver, is made sin, and that we sinners become righteous in Him. Paul means that Christ was made to bear the penalty of our sin and that its guilt was imputed to Him in precisely the same way in which we sinners become the righteousness of God in Him, i.e. by the imputation of His righteousness to us. The same thought is expressed in Ga 3:13, where the statement that Christ was made a curse for us means that He was made to endure the curse or penalty of the broken law. In all these passages the underlying thought is that the guilt of our sin was imputed to Christ.
3. Imputation of the Righteousness of Christ to His People:
This idea is taken up by Paul, who makes explicit the way in which this righteousness comes to sinners, and who puts the idea of imputed righteousness at the basis of his doctrine of Justification. By the righteousness of Christ Paul means Christ’s legal status, or the merit acquired by all that He did in satisfying the demands of God’s law, including what has been called His active and passive obedience. Notwithstanding the fact that most of the modern expositors of Paul’s doctrine have denied that he teaches the imputation of Christ’s obedience, this doctrine has a basis in the apostle’s teaching. Justification leads to life and final glorification (Ro 5:18; 8:30); and Paul always conceives the obtaining of life as dependent on the fulfillment of the law. If, therefore, Christ secures life for us, it can only be in accordance with this principle. Accordingly, the apostle emphasizes the element of obedience in the death of Christ, and places this act of obedience at the basis of the sinner’s justification (Ro 5:18). He also represents the obedience of the cross as the culminating point of a life of obedience on Christ’s part (Php 2:8). Moreover, Paul affirms that our redemption from all the demands of the law is secured by the fact that Christ was born under law (Ga 4:4). This cannot be restricted to the fact that Christ was under the curse of the law, for He was born under law and the result of this is that we are free from all of its demands. This doctrine is also implied in the apostle’s teaching that Justification is absolutely gracious, taken in connection with the fact that it leads to a complete salvation.
The importance in Paul’s thought of the doctrine of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to the believer can be seen from the fact that the question how righteousness was to be obtained occupied a central place in his religious consciousness, both before and after his conversion. The apostle’s conversion by the appearance of the risen Christ determined his conception of the true way of obtaining righteousness, since the resurrection of Christ meant for Paul the condemnation of his entire past search for righteousness by works of the law.
In two passages Paul affirms that Abraham believed God and "it was imputed to him for righteousness" (Ro 4:3 the King James Version; Ga 3:6). The old Arminian theologians, and some modern exegetes (H. Cremer) assert that Paul means that Abraham’s faith was accepted by God instead of a perfect righteousness as the meritorious ground of his justification. This, however, cannot be the apostle’s meaning. It is diametrically opposed to the context where Paul introduces the case of Abraham for the very purpose of proving that he was justified without any merit on his part; it is opposed to Paul’s idea of the nature of faith which involves the renunciation of all claim to merit, and is a simple resting on Christ from whom all its saving efficacy is derived; and this interpretation is also opposed to Paul’s doctrine of the absolutely gracious character of Justification. The apostle in these passages wishes to illustrate from the case of Abraham the gracious character of Justification, and quotes the untechnical language of Ge 15:6. His meaning is simply that Abraham was justified as a believer in God, and not as one who sought righteousness by works.
See Sin; Atonement; JUSTIFICATION.
Besides the Comm., see works on Old Testament Theology by Dillmann, Davidson, Oehler, Schultz; and on New Testament Theology by H. Holtzmann, B. Weiss, Schmidt; also Chemnitz, De Vocabulo Imputationis, Loc. Theol., 1594, II, 326 ff; J. Martin, The Imputation of Adam’s Sin, 1834, 20-46; Clemen, Die Christliche Lehre yon der Sande, I, 1897, 151-79; Dietzsch, Adam und Christus, 1871; Hunefeld, Ro 5:12-21, 1895; Crawford, The Doctrine of the Holy Scripture Respecting the Atonements, 1876, 33-45, 188-90. Compare also the appropriate sections in the Works on the Scripture doctrine of Justification, and especially on Paul’s doctrine of Justification, e.g. Owen, Justification, 1st American edition, 185-310; Ritschl, Die Christliche Lehre yon der Rechtfertigung und VersShnung, II2, 1882, 303-31; Bohl, Von der Rechtfertigung durch den Glauben, 1890, 115-23; Nosgen, Schriftbeweis fur die evangel. Rechfertigungslehre, 1901, 147-96; Pfleiderer, Die Paulinische Rechtfertigung, ZWT (Hilgenfeld herausg.), 1872, 161-200; Paulinism, English translation, I, 171-86; with which compare Pfleiderer’s later view of Paul’s teachings, 2nd edition, 1890, 178-89; G. Schwarz, Justitia Imputata? 1891; H. Cremer, Paulinische Rechtfertigungslehre, 1900, 329-49; Tobac, Le problame de la justification dans Saint Paul, 1908, 206-25. On Paul’s doctrine of the righteousness of God, of the many monographs the following may be mentioned: Fricke, Der Paulinische Grundbegriff der erortert auf Grund v. Rom. III, 21-26, 1888; Kolbing, Studien zur Paulinische Theologie, TSK, 1895, 7-51; Haring bei Paulus, 1896.