Impute, Imputation


After the mention of Abraham as an illustration of salvation by pure grace, the apostle refers to David who pronounced a blessing upon the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not reckon his sin.”

The Psalm from which these lines are taken (32:1f.), like the writings of Paul, emphasizes man’s hopelessness apart from God and the sovereignty of grace. In utter weakness the psalmist confesses his transgressions. He knows that only God can forgive sin. The man who is forgiven is not regarded as wicked, for the Lord does not impute to him his iniquity, but he is reckoned as a child of God. His sin is covered; he is counted righteous.

In order to emphasize the relevance to his readers of this teaching about the gracious imputation of righteousness to Abraham, the apostle included all those of later generations who come to God as Abraham came and have faith reckoned to them. “The words, ‘it was reckoned to him,’ were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe...” (Rom 4:23f.; cf. v. 11b).

That this reckoning, or imputation, of righteousness to the believer lies at the heart of the Biblical doctrine of salvation is corroborated by other Scripture. The Apostle Paul uses the phrase “righteousness of God” nine times (Rom 1:17; 3:5, 21ff.; 10:3; 2 Cor 5:21), and in most of these instances it is mentioned in order to teach that God grants the sinner a new legal standing; i.e., he is counted righteous even while a sinner. A righteousness of God “apart from the law” has been manifested, says Paul, although both law and prophets bear witness to it. It is a righteousness of God “effective through faith in Christ for all who have such faith” (Rom 3:22 NEB). This righteousness is seen in Christ who brought redemption. In Him God proves that He is righteous when He justifies the sinful believer (3:25f.). Law is not overthrown but upheld in this redemption of lost man (v. 31).

Later in the same epistle the author affirms that the great error of his own nation was its ignorance of the righteousness of God and its attempt to establish its own righteousness. “They did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law, that every one who has faith may be justified” (10:3f.).

Men are not righteous in themselves: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23). They need God’s righteousness which has been made manifest in Christ. Above all else Paul wants to be found in Christ. Concerning this and its relation to righteousness, he writes: “Not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Phil 3:9).

This righteousness is imputed, or reckoned, to him so that, while, strictly speaking, it is not his own, yet God reckons it to him so that he is simul justus ac peccator: at the same time righteous and a sinner, to use Luther’s phrase.

The imputation of the righteousness of Christ to the sinner lies at the heart of the doctrine of salvation. It is strange then to hear it denied, as, e.g., by Prof. Vincent Taylor: “Imputation...can never be anything else than an ethical fiction....righteousness cannot be transferred from the account of one person to another. Righteousness can no more be imputed to a sinner than bravery to a coward or wisdom to a fool. If through faith a man is accounted righteous, it must be because, in a reputable sense of the term, he is righteous, and not because another is righteous in his stead” (Forgiveness and Reconciliation [1948], p. 57). With such denial of a cardinal teaching one is not surprised to read the following definition of justification later in the discussion: “It is the divine activity in which God gives effect to His redeeming work in Christ by making possible that righteous mind necessary to communion with Himself” (Ibid., p. 66). Taylor here denies clear Biblical teaching and endangers the Christian doctrine of salvation.

A second sense in which the word imputation has been used in Christian doctrine is the reckoning of man’s sin to Jesus Christ. God “made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). In this classic text the apostle brings together the two truths of the doctrine of salvation: the burden of man’s sin became Christ’s burden, and the righteousness of God, or of Christ, became ours. The meaning obviously is not that Christ actually became a sinner, for all of the Gospel contradicts that position. It is rather that by virtue of His identification with the human race sin is reckoned to Him. Although it is not explicitly said in Scripture that sin is reckoned, or imputed, to Christ, the meaning is clear. It is said that He “bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Pet 2:24), that “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa 53:6b; cf. Acts 8:35), that He was made to “bear” the iniquities of his people (Isa 53:11; Heb 9:28). Each of these passages of Scripture, the one from Hebrews esp., has in mind the OT institution of sacrifice in which guilt was symbolically and ceremoniously transferred to an animal with the laying on of hands on the head of the victim. Applied to Christ, to whom the sacrifices of the OT pointed, the teaching is that “he bore the punishment of our sin vicariously, its guilt having been imputed to Him. The thought of the prophecy is, as Delitzsch says, that of vicarious punishment, which implies the idea of the imputation of the guilt of our sins to Christ” (ISBE, III [1929], p. 1464).

The same teaching is set forth graphically by Paul in Galatians 3:13, where Christ is said to have “become a curse for us.” The meaning is that He bore the penalty for human sin, that, as Luther declared, God dealt with Him as though He were the greatest of sinners (Comm. in loco). Sin was imputed, was reckoned, to Him so that man might be forgiven. Imputation is thus bound together with the teaching of vicarious salvation.

Besides the two above doctrines of imputation, a third is the imputation of Adam’s sin to the human race, based on the narrative of the Fall (Gen 3; Rom 5:12-21; 1 Cor 15:21f.). According to one interpretation of this Scripture, Adam’s sin was imputed to his posterity by virtue of his having been the federal representative of the human race. Among those who hold this view, there is a difference as to whether that sin was imputed “immediately” or “mediately.” According to another interpretation of the Fall, Adam’s sin was not merely imputed to his descendants but, inasmuch as they were generically “in” him, his sin is truly theirs. This latter “realistic” theory of the imputation of Adam’s sin was held by W. G. T. Shedd and A. H. Strong, whereas the theory of “immediate” imputation was held by C. Hodge and B. B. Warfield, while “mediate” imputation was taught by Placeus.

Bibliography C. Hodge, Comm. on Romans (1864), 221-299; Systematic Theology (1871), II, 192-227; A. H. Strong, Systematic Theology (1912), 597-637; W. G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, II (1888, 1952), 148-257; ISBE (1929), III, 1462ff.; III, 249-377; SHERK (1950), V, 465-467; TDNT (1967), V, 284ff.