The word “impute” means to credit, attribute, or assign. In imputation, something is assigned to something else. The Christian doctrine of imputation is closely tied to the atonement and to justification. The atonement is the value that is assigned. Justification is the result of that assignment.1
In a sense, imputation is the mechanics of how the atonement works. For instance, how can Jesus cover my sin by his death on the cross? How can his death for my sin make me righteous? Aren’t these two separate things? To answer that question, we need to go back to the fall.
We’re in trouble
There are two results of man’s fall into sin. First, man does evil and thus brings on himself just judgement—condemnation.2 Second, man does not do right—or righteousness—and so he falls short of God’s righteousness3 thus forfeiting fellowship with God.
In other words, not only does man do bad, but he also fails to do good. Both of these contribute to his condemnation and separation from fellowship with God.
In imputation, God assigns/credits our sin to Jesus Christ. But as we’ve pointed out, this is not enough. To have never sinned does not mean that “the righteous requirement of the law [are] fulfilled in us.”4 This requires a second imputation in which Jesus Christ’s righteousness is assigned/credited to us. Theologians refer to this as double imputation.
This is why the incarnation is so important. It was not enough for Jesus merely to die for us in order to cover our imputed sin. He also had to live for us in order to impute his righteousness to us.
What about my righteousness?
This imputation is based solely on faith.5 God does not cause us to actually not have sinned. Nor does he cause us to have lived righteously.
When the believer stands before God and is welcomed into his presence, it will not be based on the diminished frequency of his sinful acts or on the increased frequency of his righteous acts.6 Rather, it will be based on the imputation of his sin to Christ and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to him. Our righteousness is imputed righteousness, not inherent righteousness. “[God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God”!7
We’ll see the result of this imputed righteousness when we address justification, but for now, it is sufficient to recognise that Christ’s righteousness has been imputed to us!
Isaiah 53:11 ties some of these themes together when it says “Out of the anguish of [Jesus’] soul [atonement] he shall see and be satisfied [propitiation]; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous [imputation].”
Let the water and the blood
From thy wounded side which flowed
Be for sin the double cure
Save from wrath and make me pure!8
Grace to you.
1 This statement is based on Romans 3:28 which sets the context for the discussion of imputation in Romans 4. Justification will be addressed in part five of this series.
2 This covers both sins of commission and sins of omission.
3 Romans 3:23.
4 Romans 8:4.
5 This is the dominating theme of Romans 4. See also James 2:23.
6 Matthew 7:21-23.
7 2 Corinthians 5:21, emphasis added.
8 From the text “Rock of Ages” by Augustus Toplady, 1776.