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...” (
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 (
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” (
Men are not righteous in themselves: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (
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 , 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” (
The same teaching is set forth graphically by Paul in
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 (
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.