I. MEANING AND USE OF THE TERM
II. THE THREEFOLD USE OF THE TERM IN THEOLOGY
Original Sin, Atonement, Justification
III. THE SCRIPTURAL BASIS OF THESE DOCTRINES
1. Imputation of Adam's Sin to His Posterity
2. Imputation of the Sins of His People to Christ
3. Imputation of the Righteousness of Christ to His People
I. Meaning and Use of the Term.
The word "imputation," according to the Scriptural usage, denotes an attributing of something to a person, or a charging of one with anything, or a setting of something to one's account. This takes place sometimes in a judicial manner, so that the thing imputed becomes a ground of reward or punishment. The word is used in the King James Version a number of times to translate the Hebrew verb chashabh and the Greek verb logizomai. These words, both of which occur frequently in Scripture, and which in a number of instances mean simply "to think," express the above idea. That this is the case is clear also from the other English words used in the King James Version to translate these Hebrew and Greek words, as, for example, "to count," "to reckon," "to esteem." Thus chashabh is translated in the King James Version by the verb "to impute" (Le 7:18; 17:4; 2Sa 19:19); by the verb "to reckon" (2Sa 4:2); by "to count" as something (Le 25:31 English versions). The verb in 1Sa 22:15 is sim. Similarly, logizomai is translated by the verb "to impute" (Ro 4:6,8,11,22-23,24; 2Co 5:19; Jas 2:23); by the verb "to count" (Ro 2:26; 4:3,5); "to account" (Ga 3:6); and by the verb "to reckon" (Ro 4:4,9-10). In the Revised Version (British and American) the word used to render logizomai is the verb "to reckon."
These synonyms of the verb "to impute" bring out the idea of reckoning or charging to one's account. It makes no difference, so far as the meaning of imputation is concerned, who it is that imputes, whether man (1Sa 22:15) or God (Ps 32:2); it makes no difference what is imputed, whether a good deed for reward (Ps 106:30 f) or a bad deed for punishment (Le 17:4); and it makes no difference whether that which is imputed is something which is personally one's own prior to the imputation, as in the case above cited, where his own good deed was imputed to Phinehas (Ps 106:30 f), or something which is not personally one's own prior to the imputation, as where Paul asks that a debt not personally his own be charged to him (Phm 1:18). In all these cases the act of imputation is simply the charging of one with something. It denotes just what we mean by our ordinary use of the term. It does not change the inward state or character of the person to whom something is imputed. When, for example, we say that we impute bad motives to anyone, we do not mean that we make such a one bad; and just so in the Scripture the phrase "to impute iniquity" does not mean to make one personally bad, but simply to lay iniquity to his charge. Hence, when God is said "to impute sin" to anyone, the meaning is that God accounts such a one to be a sinner, and consequently guilty and liable to punishment. Similarly, the non-imputation of sin means simply not to lay it to one's charge as a ground of punishment (Ps 32:2). In the same manner, when God is said "to impute righteousness" to a person, the meaning is that He judicially accounts such a one to be righteous and entitled to all the rewards of a righteous person (Ro 4:6,11).
II. The Threefold Use of the Term in Theology.
Original Sin, Atonement, Justification:
Three acts of imputation are given special prominence in the Scripture, and are implicated in the Scriptural doctrines of Original Sin, Atonement and Justification, though not usually expressed by the words chashabh and logizomai. Because, however, of its "forensic" or "judicial" meaning, and possibly through its use in the Vulgate (Jerome's Latin Bible, 390-405 A.D.) to translate logizomai in Ro 4:8, the term "imputation" has been used in theology in a threefold sense to denote the judicial acts of God by which the guilt of Adam's sin is imputed to his posterity; by which the sins of Christ's people are imputed to Him; and by which the righteousness of Christ is imputed to His people. The act of imputation is precisely the same in each case. It is not meant that Adam's sin was personally the sin of his descendants, but that it was set to their account, so that they share its guilt and penalty. It is not meant that Christ shares personally in the sins of men, but that the guilt of his people's sin was set to his account, so that He bore its penalty. It is not meant that Christ's people are made personally holy or inwardly righteous by the imputation of His righteousness to them, but that His righteousness is set to their account, so that they are entitled to all the rewards of that perfect righteousness.
These doctrines have had a place in theology of the Christian church from the earliest Christian centuries, though the doctrine of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ was first fully and clearly stated at the time of and following the Reformation. The first two of these doctrines have been the possession of the entire Christian church, while the third one of them is affirmed by both the Reformed and Lutheran branches of Protestantism.
III. The Scriptural Basis of These Doctrines.
These three doctrines have a basis in the Scripture, and underlie the Scripture doctrines of Original Sin, Atonement, and Justification.
1. Imputation of Adam's Sin to His Posterity:
The doctrine of the imputation of Adam's sin to his posterity is implied in the account of the Fall in Ge 2:1-25 and Ge 3:1-24, taken in connection with the subsequent history of the human race as recorded in Gen and in the rest of the Old Testament. Many ancient and modern interpreters regard this narrative as an allegorical, mythical or symbolical representation in historical form, either of a psychological fact, i.e. of something which takes place in every individual, or of certain general truths concerning sin. By some exegetes, following Kant, it has been held to depict an advance of the race in culture or ethical knowledge (Reuss; against which view compare Budde, Clemen); by others it has been regarded as a symbolical representation of certain truths concerning sin (Oehler, Schultz); by others it has been regarded as historical (Delitzsch). This latter view is the one which accords with the narrative itself. It is evidently intended as historical by its author, and is so regarded by the New Testament writers. It is, moreover, introduced to explain, not an advance of the race, but the entrance of sin into the world, and the connection of certain penal evils with sin. It does this by showing how these evils came upon Adam as a punishment for his disobedience, and the subsequent history shows that his posterity were subjected to the same evils. It is true that the threat of punishment to Adam in case of disobedience was made to him alone, and that the penalties threatened are said to have come only upon him and Eve (Ge 3:16-19). Nevertheless, it is clear from the account of the subsequent history of the race that it actually shared in the punishments inflicted upon Adam, and that this was in consequence of his sin. This implies that in Ge 2:16 f are contained the terms of a covenant in which Adam acted as the representative of the race. If, therefore, the race shares in the penalty of Adam's sin, it must also share in his guilt or the judicial obligation to suffer punishment. And this is precisely what theology of the entire Christian church has meant by saying that the guilt of Adam's sin was imputed to his posterity. This is in accordance with God's method of dealing with men in other recorded instances (Ge 19:15; Ex 20:5; De 1:37; 3:26); and the assertion of the principle of personal responsibility by Ezekiel and Jeremiah against an abuse of the principle of representative responsibility implies a recognition of the latter (Eze 18:2,4; 33:12; Jer 31:29).
The universality of sin and death is not brought into connection with the Fall of Adam by the other Old Testament writers. This is done, however, by Paul. In 1 Cor 15:21 f, Paul says that the death of all men has its cause in the man Adam in the same way in which the resurrection from the dead has its cause in the man Christ. The death of all men, accordingly, is not brought about by their personal sins, but has come upon all through the disobedience of Adam. Upon what ground this takes place, Paul states in the passage Ro 5:12-21. He introduces the subject of Adam's relation to the race to illustrate his doctrine of the justification of sinners on the ground of a righteousness which is not personally their own. In order to do this he takes the truth, well known to his readers, that all men are under condemnation on account of Adam's sin. The comparison is between Adam and Christ, and the specific point of the comparison is imputed sin and imputed righteousness. Hence, in Ro 5:12 Paul does not mean simply to affirm that as Adam sinned and consequently died, so men sin and die. Nor can he mean to say that just as God established a precedent in Adam's case that death should follow sin, so He acts upon this precedent in the case of all men because all sin, the real ground of the reign of death being the fact that all sin, and the formal ground being this precedent (B. Weiss); nor that the real ground is this precedent and the subordinate ground the fact that all sin (Hunefeld). Neither can Paul intend to say that all men are subject to death because they derive a corrupt nature from Adam (Fritzsche); nor that men are condemned to die because all have sinned (Pfleiderer). Paul's purpose is to illustrate his doctrine of the way in which men are delivered from sin and death by the way in which they are brought into condemnation. The main thought of the passage is that, just as men are condemned on account of the imputation to them of the guilt of Adam's sin, so they are justified on account of the imputation to them of the righteousness of Christ. Paul says that it was by one man that sin and death entered into the world, and it was by one man that death passed to all men, because all were implicated in the guilt of that one man's Sin (Ro 5:12). In proof of this the apostle cites the fact that death as a punishment was reigning during a period in which the only possible judicial ground of this fact must have been the imputation of the guilt of that one man's sin (Ro 5:13-14). Hence, there is a precise parallel between Adam and Christ. Just as men are condemned on account of Adam's disobedience, so they are justified on account of the obedience of Christ (Ro 5:18-19). The thought of the passage is imputed sin and imputed righteousness as the ground of condemnation and of justification respectively.
2. Imputation of the Sins of His People to Christ:
That our sins are imputed to Christ is not expressly stated in the Scripture, but is implied in those passages which affirm that Christ "bore our sins," and that our iniquities were "laid upon him" by Yahweh. To bear inquity or sin, though it may sometimes mean to bear it away or remove it, is an expression often applied in Scripture to persons charged with guilt and subjected to the punishment of their own sin (Le 5:17; 7:18; 19:8; 22:9). That the Hebrew verb nasa' has this meaning is also indicated by its being interchanged with the verb cabhal, which means "to bear as a burden" and is used to denote the bearing of the punishment of sin (Isa 53:11). In the Old Testament sacrificial system, which according to the New Testament is typical of the sacrifice of Christ, the imposition of hands on the head of the victim signified the substitution of it for the offender and the transfer of his guilt to it. This idea is brought out clearly in the case of the two goats on the great Day of Atonement (Le 16:1-34). When, therefore, the Servant of Yahweh in Isa 53:1-12 is said "to bear iniquity" (Isa 53:11), or that "the chastisement of our peace was upon him" (Isa 53:5), or that "Yahweh hath laid (literally, "caused to fall") on him the iniquity of us all" (Isa 53:6), the idea expressed is that Christ 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.
The same idea underlies these expressions when they occur in the New Testament. When Peter wishes to hold up Christ as an example of patience in suffering, he takes up the thought of Isa, and adduces the fact that Christ "his own self bare our sins in his body upon the tree". (1Pe 2:24). The context indicates that Peter had the prophecy of Isa 53:1-12 in mind, so that his meaning is, not that Christ carried our sins even up to the cross, but that in His death on the cross Christ bore the punishment of our sin, its guilt having been imputed to Him. The same thought is expressed by the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, where the contrast between the first and second advents of Christ is made to hinge upon the fact that in the first He came to be sacrificed as a sin-bearer, burdened with the guilt of the sin of others, whereas in His second coming He will appear without this burden of imputed or vicarious guilt (Heb 9:28). Paul also gives expression to the same thought when he says that Christ was "made. to be sin on our behalf" (2Co 5:21), and that He became "a curse for us" (Ga 3:13). In the former passage the idea of substitution, although not expressed by the preposition huper which indicates that Christ's work was for our benefit, is nevertheless clearly implied in the thought that Christ, whose sinlessness is emphasized in the ver, is made sin, and that we sinners become righteous in Him. Paul means that Christ was made to bear the penalty of our sin and that its guilt was imputed to Him in precisely the same way in which we sinners become the righteousness of God in Him, i.e. by the imputation of His righteousness to us. The same thought is expressed in Ga 3:13, where the statement that Christ was made a curse for us means that He was made to endure the curse or penalty of the broken law. In all these passages the underlying thought is that the guilt of our sin was imputed to Christ.
3. Imputation of the Righteousness of Christ to His People:
The righteousness upon the ground of which God justifies the ungodly is, according to Paul, witnessed to in the Old Testament (Ro 3:21). In order to obtain the blessedness which comes from a right relation to God, the pardon or non-imputation of sin is necessary, and this takes place through the "covering" of sin (Ps 32:1-2). The nature of this covering by the vicarious bearing of the penalty of sin is made clear in Isa 53:1-12. It is, moreover, the teaching of the Old Testament that the righteousness which God demands is not to be found among men (Ps 130:3; 143:2; Isa 64:6). Accordingly, the prophets speak of a righteousness which is not from man's works, but which is said to be in Yahweh or to come from Him to His people (Isa 32:16 f; Isa 45:23 ff; Isa 54:17; 58:8; 61:3; Jer 51:10; Ho 10:12). This idea finds its clearest expression in connection with the work of the Messiah in Jer 33:16, where Jerusalem is called "Yahweh our righteousness" because of the coming of the Messianic king, and in Jer 23:6 where the same name is given to the Messiah to express His significance for Israel. Although the idea of the imputation of righteousness is not explicitly asserted in these passages, the idea is not merely that the righteousness spoken of is recognized by Yahweh (Cremer), but that it comes from Him, so that Yahweh, through the work of the Messiah, is the source of His people's righteousness.
This idea is taken up by Paul, who makes explicit the way in which this righteousness comes to sinners, and who puts the idea of imputed righteousness at the basis of his doctrine of Justification. By the righteousness of Christ Paul means Christ's legal status, or the merit acquired by all that He did in satisfying the demands of God's law, including what has been called His active and passive obedience. Notwithstanding the fact that most of the modern expositors of Paul's doctrine have denied that he teaches the imputation of Christ's obedience, this doctrine has a basis in the apostle's teaching. Justification leads to life and final glorification (Ro 5:18; 8:30); and Paul always conceives the obtaining of life as dependent on the fulfillment of the law. If, therefore, Christ secures life for us, it can only be in accordance with this principle. Accordingly, the apostle emphasizes the element of obedience in the death of Christ, and places this act of obedience at the basis of the sinner's justification (Ro 5:18). He also represents the obedience of the cross as the culminating point of a life of obedience on Christ's part (Php 2:8). Moreover, Paul affirms that our redemption from all the demands of the law is secured by the fact that Christ was born under law (Ga 4:4). This cannot be restricted to the fact that Christ was under the curse of the law, for He was born under law and the result of this is that we are free from all of its demands. This doctrine is also implied in the apostle's teaching that Justification is absolutely gracious, taken in connection with the fact that it leads to a complete salvation.
The importance in Paul's thought of the doctrine of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to the believer can be seen from the fact that the question how righteousness was to be obtained occupied a central place in his religious consciousness, both before and after his conversion. The apostle's conversion by the appearance of the risen Christ determined his conception of the true way of obtaining righteousness, since the resurrection of Christ meant for Paul the condemnation of his entire past search for righteousness by works of the law.
That the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to the believer does lie at the basis of Paul's doctrine of Justification can be further seen from the fact that Justification is absolutely free and unmerited so far as the sinner is concerned (Ro 3:24; 5:15; Ga 5:4; Tit 3:7); its object being one who is ungodly (Ro 4:5); so that it is not by works (Ro 3:20,28; Ga 2:16; 3:11; 5:4; Php 3:9); and yet that it is not a mere pardon of sin, but is a strictly "forensic" or judicial judgment, freeing the sinner from all the claims of the law, and granting him the right to eternal life. This last truth is plain because God's retributive righteousness lies at the basis of Paul's doctrine of Justification (Ro 2:1-29); is manifested in it (Ro 3:25 f); because Christ's expiatory work is its ground (Ro 3:25); and because our redemption from the curse of the law rests upon Christ's having borne it for us, and our redemption from all the demands of the law depends upon their fulfillment by Christ (Ga 3:13; 4:4). Hence, the gracious character of Justification, according to Paul, does not consist in its being merely a gracious pardon without any judicial basis (Ritschl); or in God's acceptance of a subjective righteousness produced by Him in the sinner (Tobac); or in the acceptance of faith instead of a perfect righteousness (Cremer). The gracious character of Justification consists for Paul in the fact that the righteousness on the ground of which God justifies the ungodly is a righteousness which is graciously provided by God, and which Paul contrasts with his own righteousness which comes from law works (Php 3:9). The sinner, therefore, is pardoned and accepted as a righteous person, not on account of anything in himself, but only on account of what Christ has done for him, which means that the merits of Christ's suffering and obedience are imputed to the sinner as the ground of his justification.
This truth is explicitly affirmed by Paul, who speaks of God's imputing righteousness without works, and of righteousness being imputed (Ro 4:6,11). The idea of the imputation of righteousness here is made clear by the context. The one who is declared righteous is said to be "ungodly" (Ro 4:5). Hence, he is righteous only by God's imputation of righteousness to him. This is also clear from the contrast between imputation according to grace and according to debt (Ro 4:4). He who seeks righteousness by works would be justified as a reward for his works, in antithesis to which, imputation according to grace would be the charging one with a righteousness which he does not possess. Accordingly, at the basis of Justification there is a reckoning to the sinner of an objective righteousness. This same idea is also implied and asserted by Paul in the parallel which he draws between Adam and Christ (Ro 5:18 f). The apostle says that just as men are condemned on account of a sin not their own, so they are justified on account of a righteousness which is not their own. The idea of imputed sin and imputed righteousness, as was said, is the precise point of the parallelism between condemnation in Adam and justification in Christ. This is also the idea which underlies the apostle's contrast of the Old and New Covenants (2Co 3:9). The New Covenant is described as a "ministry of righteousness," and contrasted with the Old Covenant which is described as a "ministry of condemnation." If, therefore, this last expression does not denote a subjective condition of men under the old dispensation, but their relation to God as objects of His condemnation, righteousness must denote the opposite of this relation to the law, and must depend on God's judicial acquittal. The same truth is expressed by Paul more concretely by saying that Christ has been "made unto us righteousness from God" (1Co 1:30). Here the concrete mode of expression is chosen because Paul speaks also of Christ being our sanctification and redemption, so that an expression had to be chosen which would cover all of these ideas. One of the clearest statements concerning this objective righteousness is Php 3:9. The apostle here affirms that the righteousness which the believer in Christ obtains is directly opposite to his own righteousness. This latter comes from works of the law, whereas the former comes from God and through faith in Christ. It is, therefore, objective to man, comes to him from God, is connected with the work of Christ, and is mediated by faith in Christ.
The idea clearly stated in this last passage of a righteousness which is objective to the sinner and which comes to him from God, i.e. the idea of a new legal standing given to the believer by God, explains the meaning, in most cases, of the Pauline phrase "righteousness of God." This phrase is used by Paul 9 t: Ro 1:17; 3:5,21 f,25 f; Ro 10:3 (twice); 2Co 5:21. It denotes the Divine attribute of righteousness in Ro 3:5,25 f. The customary exegesis was to regard the other instances as denoting the righteousness of a sinner which comes to him from God, in accordance with Php 3:9. More recently Haering, following Kolbing in general, has interpreted all these instances as denoting God's justifying action. But this interpretation is most strained in 2Co 5:21, where we are said to "become the righteousness of God," and in Ro 10:3-6, where the righteousness of God is identified with the righteousness which comes from faith, this latter being contrasted with man's own inward righteousness. That a righteousness of man which he receives from God is here referred to, is confirmed by the fact that the reason given for the error of the Jews in seeking a righteousness from law works is the fact that the work of Christ has made an end of this method of obtaining righteousness (Ro 10:4). This righteousness, therefore, is one of which man is the possessor. The phrase, however, cannot mean a righteousness which is valid in God's sight (Luther), although this thought is elsewhere expressed by Paul (Ro 3:20; Ga 3:11). It means a righteousness which comes from God and of which He is the author. This is not, however, by making man inwardly righteous, since all the above passages show the purely objective character of this righteousness. It is the righteousness of Php 3:9; the righteousness which God imputes to the believer in Christ. Thus we "become the righteousness of God" in precisely the same sense in which Christ was "made to be sin" (2Co 5:21). Since Christ was made sin by having the guilt. of our sin imputed to Him so that He bore its penalty, Paul must mean that we "become the righteousness of God" in this same objective sense through the imputation to us of the righteousness of Christ. In the same way, in Ro 10:3, the contrast between God's righteousness and the Jew's righteousness by works of the law shows that in each case righteousness denotes a legal status which comes from God by imputation. It is this same imputed righteousness which makes the gospel the power of God unto salvation (Ro 1:17), which has been revealed by the law and the prophets, which is received by faith in Christ by whose expiatory death God's retributive righteousness has been made manifest (Ro 3:21-22,25-26), and which is represented by Peter as the object of Christian faith (2Pe 1:1).
In two passages Paul affirms that Abraham believed God and "it was imputed to him for righteousness" (Ro 4:3 the King James Version; Ga 3:6). The old Arminian theologians, and some modern exegetes (H. Cremer) assert that Paul means that Abraham's faith was accepted by God instead of a perfect righteousness as the meritorious ground of his justification. This, however, cannot be the apostle's meaning. It is diametrically opposed to the context where Paul introduces the case of Abraham for the very purpose of proving that he was justified without any merit on his part; it is opposed to Paul's idea of the nature of faith which involves the renunciation of all claim to merit, and is a simple resting on Christ from whom all its saving efficacy is derived; and this interpretation is also opposed to Paul's doctrine of the absolutely gracious character of Justification. The apostle in these passages wishes to illustrate from the case of Abraham the gracious character of Justification, and quotes the untechnical language of Ge 15:6. His meaning is simply that Abraham was justified as a believer in God, and not as one who sought righteousness by works.
Besides the Comm., see works on Old Testament Theology by Dillmann, Davidson, Oehler, Schultz; and on New Testament Theology by H. Holtzmann, B. Weiss, Schmidt; also Chemnitz, De Vocabulo Imputationis, Loc. Theol., 1594, II, 326 ff; J. Martin, The Imputation of Adam's Sin, 1834, 20-46; Clemen, Die Christliche Lehre yon der Sande, I, 1897, 151-79; Dietzsch, Adam und Christus, 1871; Hunefeld, Ro 5:12-21, Ro 16:27; Crawford, The Doctrine of the Holy Scripture Respecting the Atonements, 1876, 33-45, 188-90. Compare also the appropriate sections in the Works on the Scripture doctrine of Justification, and especially on Paul's doctrine of Justification, e.g. Owen, Justification, 1st American edition, 185-310; Ritschl, Die Christliche Lehre yon der Rechtfertigung und VersShnung, II2, 1882, 303-31; Bohl, Von der Rechtfertigung durch den Glauben, 1890, 115-23; Nosgen, Schriftbeweis fur die evangel. Rechfertigungslehre, 1901, 147-96; Pfleiderer, Die Paulinische Rechtfertigung, ZWT (Hilgenfeld herausg.), 1872, 161-200; Paulinism, English translation, I, 171-86; with which compare Pfleiderer's later view of Paul's teachings, 2nd edition, 1890, 178-89; G. Schwarz, Justitia Imputata? 1891; H. Cremer, Paulinische Rechtfertigungslehre, 1900, 329-49; Tobac, Le problame de la justification dans Saint Paul, 1908, 206-25. On Paul's doctrine of the righteousness of God, of the many monographs the following may be mentioned: Fricke, Der Paulinische Grundbegriff der erortert auf Grund v. Rom. III, 21-26, 1888; Kolbing, Studien zur Paulinische Theologie, TSK, 1895, 7-51; Haring bei Paulus, 1896.
Caspar Wistar Hodge