How does it work, though? What enables God to do such a thing? As I wrote for yesterday's blog, "How can we be reckoned as something we are not?" How can sinners be considered as saints?
Today is our attempt to answer those questions. It has to do with the role that Jesus Christ did for us so long ago. Christ is our propitiation, the one who satisfies the divine justice by the atoning sacrifice of himself.
Jesus stands in our place and takes the punishment that our sins deserved so we could be forgiven our offenses. In Christ we then can share in his righteousness.
For [God] hath made [Christ] to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. (2Co 5.21)This is the traditional King James translation. Here is another one that may help us to grab the meaning:
He made Him who personally knew nothing of sin to be a sin-offering for us, so that through union with Him we might come into right standing with God. (2Co 5.21 WmsNT)Christ is the sin-offering; he stood in our place and took our punishment. Therefore, we are imputed with Christ's perfect righteousness which results in our right standing with God.
How are we imputed with Christ's righteousness? John Wesley had an opinion to that question. On November 24, 1765 he preached a powerful sermon. From his Sermons, # 20, "The Lord our Righteousness", Wesley preached:
The human righteousness of Christ belongs to him in his human nature; as he is the 'Mediator between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus.' This is either internal or external. His internal righteousness is the image of God, stamped on every power and faculty of his soul. It is a copy of his divine righteousness, as far as it can be imparted to a human spirit. It is a transcript of the divine purity, the divine justice, mercy, and truth. It includes love, reverence, resignation to his Father; humility, meekness, gentleness; love to lost mankind, and every other holy and heavenly temper; and all these in the highest degree, without any defect, or mixture of unholiness.The English evangelist believed that, "[w]hoever believes the doctrine of imputation, understands it chiefly, if not solely, of his human righteousness." Wesley spoke of Christ's active obedience:
It was the least part of his external righteousness, that he did nothing amiss; that he knew no outward sin of any kind, neither was 'guile found in his mouth;' that he never spoke one improper word, nor did one improper action. Thus far it is only a negative righteousness, though such an one as never did, nor ever can, belong to anyone that is born of a woman, save himself alone. But even his outward righteousness was positive too: He did all things well: In every word of his tongue, in every work of his hands, he did precisely the 'will of Him that sent him.' In the whole course of his life, he did the will of God on earth, as the angels do it in heaven. All he acted and spoke was exactly right in every circumstance. The whole and every part of his obedience was complete. 'He fulfilled all righteousness.'Wesley also spoke of Christ's passive obedience:
But his obedience implied more than all this: It implied not only doing, but suffering; suffering the whole will of God, from the time he came into the world, till 'he bore our sins in his own body upon the tree;' yea, till having made a full atonement for them, 'he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost.' This is usually termed the passive righteousness of Christ; the former, his active righteousness. But as the active and passive righteousness of Christ were never, in fact, separated from each other, so we never need separate them at all, either in speaking or even in thinking. And it is with regard to both these conjointly that Jesus is called 'the Lord our righteousness.'So, how does Christ's active and passive obedience help us? We turn once more to Wesley's sermon:
But in what sense is this righteousness imputed to believers? In this: all believers are forgiven and accepted, not for the sake of anything in them, or of anything that ever was, that is, or ever can be done by them, but wholly and solely for the sake of what Christ hath done and suffered for them. I say again, not for the sake of anything in them, or done by them, of their own righteousness or works: 'Not for works of righteousness which we have done, but of his own mercy he saved us.' 'By grace ye are saved through faith, — not of works, lest any man should boast;' but wholly and solely for the sake of what Christ hath done and suffered for us. We are 'justified freely by his grace, through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ.' And this is not only the means of our obtaining the favour of God, but of our continuing therein. It is thus we come to God at first; it is by the same we come unto him ever after. We walk in one and the same new and living way, till our spirit returns to God.
Not every Wesleyan, however, agrees with John's assessment on the imputation of the active and passive obedience of Christ. No less than the classical Methodist commentator, Adam Clarke, gave a divergent view. Speaking of the imputed righteousness given to Abraham (Romans 4.22) Clarke wrote:
Abraham’s strong faith in the promise of the coming Savior, for this was essential to his faith, was reckoned to him for justification: for it is not said that any righteousness, either his own, or that of another, was imputed or reckoned to him for justification; but it, i.e. his faith in God. His faith was fully persuaded of the most merciful intentions of God’s goodness; and this, which, in effect, laid hold on Jesus Christ, the future Savior, was the means of his justification; being reckoned unto him in the place of personal righteousness, because it laid hold on the merit of Him who died to make an atonement for our offenses, and rose again for our justification.
Clarke commented at length at the conclusion of his notes on Romans 4 about imputation. He dismantled/attacked the notion that the active and passive obedience of Christ was reckoned to a believer of the Gospel:
1. From a careful examination of the Divine oracles it appears that the death of Christ was an atonement or expiation for the sin of the world: For him hath God set forth to be a Propitiation through Faith in His Blood, Rom 3:25. For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ Died For the Ungodly, Rom 5:6. And when we were Enemies, we were Reconciled to God by the Death of his Son, Rom 5:10. In whom we have Redemption Through His Blood, the Forgiveness of Sins, Eph 1:7. Christ hath loved us, and Given Himself for Us, an Offering and a Sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling savour, Eph 5:2. In whom we have Redemption Through His Blood, the Forgiveness of Sins, Col 1:14. And having made Peace Through the Blood of his Cross, in the Body of His Flesh, through Death, Col 1:20, Col 1:22. Who Gave Himself a Ransom for all, 1Ti 2:6. Who Gave Himself for Us, that he might Redeem us from all iniquity, Tit 2:14. By which will we are sanctified, through the Offering of the Body of Jesus Christ, Heb 10:10. So Christ was once Offered to Bear the Sins of many, Heb 9:28. See also Eph 2:13, Eph 2:16; 1Pe 1:18, 1Pe 1:19; Rev 5:9. But it would be transcribing a very considerable part of the New Testament to set down all the texts that refer to this most important and glorious truth.2. And as his death was an atonement for our sins, so his resurrection was the proof and pledge of our eternal life. See 1Co 15:17; 1Pe 1:3; Eph 1:13, Eph 1:14, etc.,etc.3. The doctrine of justification by faith, which is so nobly proved in the preceding chapter, is one of the grandest displays of the mercy of God to mankind. It is so very plain that all may comprehend it; and so free that all may attain it. What more simple than this? Thou art a sinner, in consequence condemned to perdition, and utterly unable to save thy own soul. All are in the same state with thyself, and no man can give a ransom for the soul of his neighbor. God, in his mercy, has provided a Savior for thee. As thy life was forfeited to death because of thy transgressions, Jesus Christ has redeemed thy life by giving up his own; he died in thy stead, and has made an atonement to God for thy transgressions; and offers thee the pardon he has thus purchased, on the simple condition, that thou believe that his death is a sufficient sacrifice, ransom, and oblation for thy sin; and that thou bring it as such, by confident faith, to the throne of God, and plead it in thy own behalf there. When thou dost so, thy faith in that sacrifice shall be imputed to thee for righteousness; i.e. it shall be the means of receiving that salvation which Christ has bought by his blood.4. The doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ, as held by many, will not be readily found in this chapter, where it has been supposed to exist in all its proofs. It is repeatedly said that Faith is imputed for righteousness; but in no place here, that Christ’s obedience to the moral law is imputed to any man. The truth is, the moral law was broken, and did not now require obedience; it required this before it was broken; but, after it was broken, it required death.Either the sinner must die, or some one in his stead: but there was none whose death could have been an equivalent for the transgressions of the world but Jesus Christ. Jesus therefore died for man; and it is through his blood, the merit of his passion and death, that we have redemption; and not by his obedience to the moral law in our stead. Our salvation was obtained at a much higher price. Jesus could not but be righteous and obedient; this is consequent on the immaculate purity of his nature: but his death was not a necessary consequent. As the law of God can claim only the death of a transgressor - for such only forfeit their right to life - it is the greatest miracle of all that Christ could die, whose life was never forfeited. Here we see the indescribable demerit of sin, that it required such a death; and here we see the stupendous mercy of God, in providing the sacrifice required. It is therefore by Jesus Christ’s death, or obedience unto death, that we are saved, and not by his fulfilling any moral law. That he fulfilled the moral law we know; without which he could not have been qualified to be our mediator; but we must take heed lest we attribute that to obedience (which was the necessary consequence of his immaculate nature) which belongs to his passion and death. These were free-will offerings of eternal goodness, and not even a necessary consequence of his incarnation.5. This doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ is capable of great abuse. To say that Christ’s personal righteousness is imputed to every true believer, is not Scriptural: to say that he has fulfilled all righteousness for us, or in our stead, if by this is meant his fulfillment of all moral duties, is neither Scriptural nor true: that he has died in our stead, is a great, glorious, and Scriptural truth: that there is no redemption but through his blood is asserted beyond all contradiction; in the oracles of God. But there are a multitude of duties which the moral law requires which Christ never fulfilled in our stead, and never could. We have various duties of a domestic kind which belong solely to ourselves, in the relation of parents, husbands, wives, servants, etc., in which relations Christ never stood. He has fulfilled none of these duties for us, but he furnishes grace to every true believer to fulfill them to God’s glory, the edification of his neighbor, and his own eternal profit. The salvation which we receive from God’s free mercy, through Christ, binds us to live in a strict conformity to the moral law; that law which prescribes our manners, and the spirit by which they should be regulated, and in which they should be performed. He who lives not in the due performance of every Christian duty, whatever faith he may profess, is either a vile hypocrite, or a scandalous Antinomian.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Eph 2.8-9 ESV)Amen!
Does this mean that we can sin if we are imputed with Christ's righteousness? Awakening Theology will tackle that one tomorrow.