If any of you have an older sibling, you may know well the concept of imputation. It’s a new school year, and you sit at your desk in your new classroom, eager to make a good impression on your new teacher. Yet, when she encounters your last name on the roll sheet, the teacher pauses, looks heavenward, and sighs audibly in resignation. Your reputation has preceded you. More accurately, your sibling’s reputation has preceded you.
Imputation is when something belonging to one person or thing is regarded as belonging to another person or thing. In the example above, the teacher regards the negative traits of an older sibling as belonging to the younger, but imputation can apply to positive association as well. For instance, a young bride has nothing in her bank account, but her new husband has $5,000 in his. When they merge their accounts, his $5,000 is imputed to her empty account. By her association with him, she has been imputed, or credited, with more than she owned individually.
We see imputation appear in Scripture as part of the broader doctrine of justification, which we covered last week. I hope you marvel with me today as we dig into three aspects of imputation. First, the sin of Adam was imputed to us. Second, our sin was imputed to Christ, and third, Christ’s righteousness was imputed to us.
Adam’s Guilt Imputed to Us
In Genesis 3, the first man, Adam, sinned. We know from the rest of Scripture that all of humanity has since suffered the consequences of that fatal disobedience, but we often gloss over the depth of consequence from mankind’s first foray into sin. Paul writes in Romans 5 that, “by one man’s trespass the many died”, “from one sin came the judgment,” and “through one trespass there is condemnation for everyone.” This is not great news. Instead, sin entered the world and all mankind was considered guilty through Adam.
Romans 5:13-14 further explains that between the time of Adam and Moses, God’s law had not yet been given to the people. Yet, the people still died. Even though their sins were “not charged” to their accounts as specific infractions of the law, their deaths demonstrate that God considered them to be guilty of sin and deserving of death. Wayne Grudem sums it up nicely in his book, Bible Doctrine, saying, “God counted Adam’s guilt as belonging to us, and since God is the ultimate Judge of all things in the universe, and since his thoughts are always true, Adam’s guilt does in fact belong to us. God rightly imputed Adam’s guilt to us.”
Adam’s sin was regarded as ours, resulting in guilt, condemnation, and judgment for all of mankind. This is unwanted imputation, but all people—from every tribe, tongue, nation, and time period—have received it. It’s the imputation that leads to death as the just consequence of sin. Adam’s sins are stacked against us, and we are guilty as a result.
Our Sin Imputed to Christ
But, God does not leave us alone to deal with our sin and fend off death on our own. Jesus, knowing that sinful man could never achieve the sinlessness required to relate to God, served as a willing substitute for us. The One who knew no sin became sin and took on the guilt of sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21). Paul explains this in Galatians 3:13, stating that, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” He took on the guilt and the liability for punishment of our sin. He “bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Pet. 2:24), paying the legal debt we owed for sin at the moment of His crucifixion.
Grudem explains this clearly and helpfully: “In the same way in which Adam’s sins were imputed to us, so God imputed our sins to Christ—that is, He thought of them as belonging to Christ, and…when God thought of our sins as belonging to Christ then in fact they actually did belong to Christ.”
Think on this for a moment. You owed a debt you could literally never repay, and the collections agent, Death, was on his way over to collect. But God Himself condescended to earth, became a man, and willingly took on the debt that you owed. When Death came knocking, Jesus paid for your debt with His life, legally absolving you of guilt for all past, present, and future debts. Now, when you spend a little too much on your credit card, the debt is covered. You acquire a new Student Loan, but it’s immediately paid off. This is what Christ has done. If you are in Christ, your guilt has been imputed to Him, and as a result, there is no condemnation left for you to carry (Rom. 8:1).
Christ’s Righteousness imputed to Us
Finally, our sin debts have been forgiven, but a holy God requires more than simply lack of sin. He demands righteousness of those who are His. No amount of pulling on our bootstraps will make us righteous, but without righteousness, we can have no relationship with God.
Fortunately, God is able to declare us righteous on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed to us. Grudem says, “God thinks of Christ’s righteousness as belonging to us, or regards it as belonging to us. He ‘reckons’ it to our account.” Isaiah 61:10 illustrates the concept of an imputed righteousness by explaining that God clothes or covers the prophet in “garments of salvation” and “robes of righteousness”.
Similarly, Romans 4:5 teaches us that, to the one who “believes on him who declares the ungodly to be righteous, his faith is credited for righteousness.” God credits righteousness to the account of the one who has faith in Christ. Paul writes that he is found in Christ, “not having a righteousness of my own from the law, but one that is through faith in Christ—the righteousness from God based on faith” (Phil. 3:9). God imputes Christ’s righteousness to the believer at the moment the believer exhibits faith, as a result of God’s own mercy towards us.
The Great Accomplishment of Imputation
Imputation teaches us that Jesus Christ stands as our representative before God, and His accomplishments become our accomplishments. His death is viewed as our death; His life becomes our life. His inheritance, His righteousness, and His position belong to those who belong to Him (Rom. 8:17). This is the doctrine of imputation, and it’s precious. Paul reminds us again in Romans 5:19, that, “just as through one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so also through the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” Adam’s sins were imputed to us, but our sins were imputed to Christ, and Christ’s righteousness was imputed to us. And, “since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1).
I cannot secure my own salvation, but Christ can and did. My sin debts are paid, and my account overflows with a righteousness I did nothing to earn. So when the angry snares of self-righteousness flare up, or when condemnation and guilt try to pin me down, imputation reminds me that Christ alone demolishes my debt and replaces my guilt with the blood-bought robes of His righteousness. Praise be to God for the glories of His salvation.