Imparted or Imputed Righteousness?

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“Thy righteousness is in heaven.” These were the words impressed upon John Bunyan, the author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, as he walked in a field one day. [1] Here is his reflection upon the thought:

“One day as I was passing into the field…this sentence fell upon my soul. Thy righteousness is in heaven. And methought, withal, I saw with the eyes of my soul Jesus Christ at God’s right hand; there, I say, was my righteousness; so that wherever I was, or whatever I was doing, God could not say of me, he wants [lacks] my righteousness, for that was just before [in front of] him. I also saw, moreover, that it was not my good frame of heart that made my righteousness better, nor yet my bad frame that made my righteousness worse, for my righteousness was Jesus Christ himself.”

There have historically been two verbs, which have competed for the proper term to describe our justification: imparted and imputed. For the most part, it is safe to say that most Roman Catholics and many Arminian Protestants[2] officially hold to the former, that is impartation, whereas Reformed Protestants hold to imputation. The distinction between these two, though perhaps difficult to grasp, is nonetheless extremely important for our understanding of the gospel, and our assurance of God’s love.

Impartation – The word “impart” means to “give.” Also called “infused” righteousness, imparted righteousness thus declares that Christ’s righteousness is given to, or infused within, the believer such that he or she actually becomes righteous.

Imputation – The word “impute” means “ascribe” or “credit.” Imputed righteousness thus carries the theological weight of being “counted” or “considered” or “reckoned” righteous.

The distinction between impartation and imputation can be illustrated in two sentences:

  1. Imparted: “By faith I am righteous.”
  2. Imputed: “By faith I am counted righteous.”

Which is correct?

The best place to look in the Scriptures for a theological grasp of the language of justification is Romans 3:28-5:21. Within the first 12 verses of chapter 4 we notice the prevalence of the verb “count.” Eight times in twelve verses Paul uses the Greek word logizomai and applies it to the means of faith by which both Abraham and other believers are justified before God.

What Paul is saying is not that Abraham actually became righteous by faith, but rather that Abraham was considered, counted, or reckoned as righteous, that the righteousness of God was credited to his account, and that therefore Abraham (and those who are like him in faith), was “declared righteous.”

Paul is not writing that we are transformed into people who possess righteousness, but rather that we have been united to Christ and because of our union with Him (the emphasis of Romans 5), we have that which He possesses, that is, righteousness. We are in Christ and thus what is His is credited to our account. Here is how John Piper expresses the difference between the two terms:

“Imputation” is different from “impartation.” God does “impart” to us gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit, so that we have them and they are in us growing and they are ours. But all of that gracious impartation through the Spirit is built on an even more firm foundation, namely, imputation – the work of God outside of us: God’s own righteousness, not imparted to us, but imputed to us. Credited to us, as Romans 4:6 and 11 say. Put to our account. Reckoned to be ours.

The distinction between the two understandings of justification is crucial especially for our assurance.

If we believe that we have been made righteous, then any sin which we commit after salvation affects our justification.

We are therefore less just and God once again is obligated by His justice and holiness to punish us (this is at the heart of the Roman Catholic doctrines of penance, indulgences, purgatory, and confession.) If Christ is not our righteousness, but rather we are infused with righteousness, then our standing before God shifts as we progress or regress in our faith. What Bunyan realized in the 17th century is the same truth which set the Reformation in motion a century earlier and it is the same truth which causes us today to declare that even now and forevermore, there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). There is no condemnation for us because we never cease to be united to Him and He never ceases to be righteous. Jesus Christ is currently exalted and seated at the right hand of the Father and thus we declare that which Bunyan knew, “thy righteousness is in heaven.”

Recommended Resources

[1] John Bunyan, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, Hertfordshire: Evangelical Press 1978: 90-91 (orig. 1666).

[2] John Wesley vacillated but eventually denied imputed righteousness.

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Imparted or Imputed Righteousness?

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