Posted by: mattcolvin | June 24, 2010

Imputation goes berserk

I recently read someone professing to be Reformed who said that it was impossible for believers to displease God, because He sees them in Christ.

Have Reformed people gone mad?

Back when I used to teach Doctrine at my school, I would start my lessons on Westminster’s doctrine of justification by trying to get the students to tell me how it worked. The most frequent model they offered me was this: God is looking at you, and He sees Christ instead. So, constantly checking to make sure the students agreed, I would draw a diagram with an eyeball, a dashed line representing God’s vision, a cross representing Christ, and a wretched sinner (with a black cloud over his head) hiding behind the cross:

Now, granted, sarcasm with a white board marker can make almost anything appear stupid. But in this case, the Bible is clear: God can be angry with believers; we can grieve the Holy Spirit; we can even suffer chastisement from our Heavenly Father… all while still being in the vine, in Christ.

God does not justify us by fooling Himself. The connection between Christ and the believer is not the relationship between a curtain and a child playing hide-and-seek. This view makes Christ’s covering of our sin into an extrinsic relationship: the cartoon sinner is simply behind the cartoon cross, and that’s all the relationship we need between them in order to escape the Eye:

My choice of illustration probably clues you in to the next issue: many evangelicals are sub-Trinitarian in their view of justification. Salvation is salvation from God the Father. Jesus is the one who saves us from the Father. The Holy Spirit has nothing to do with justification; He comes in later to help sanctify us. The view is effectively binitarian about justification, as well as being incipiently Marcionite. We need an addition to the Nicene Creed, unpacking how God the Father isn’t just the Creator, but has an active role to play in redemption, because He loves us. (Could Deism ever have come about if the Creed had sufficiently attacked the Gnostics’ and Marcion’s blasphemies against the Father?)

Another view is that God the Father transfers Christ’s active obedience to us. You know:

In this model, God is once again fooling himself. He thinks I raised the son of the widow in Nain! He thinks I healed blind Bartimaeus! He thinks I gave Peter the tax money out of the fish. I didn’t actually do any of these things, but God, by an act of fiscal make-believe, has transfered them to my PayPal account. And He also transfers them to your PayPal account too, at the same time. So it’s apparently a fractional reserve banking system. (One seminary professor, when pressed about how God can do this, replied something like, “The same way He made light” — thereby implying that this imputation of righteousness happens by mere fiat. God just says so, and it is the case. Sort of like the Federal Reserve.)

The truth is that God unites us to Christ by the Spirit, so that Christ is in us, and that this indwelling is the mechanism by which any imputation can logically and fairly occur. If Christ is not in me, then I do not share in His righteousness, or in His death and resurrection (which is just another way of saying ‘His righteousness’ — see Gaffin’s Resurrection and Redemption).

When this Biblical — and confessionally Reformed! — mechanism of imputation on the grounds of Christ’s Spirit indwelling the believer is mentioned, many evangelicals react by accusing the speaker of incipient Roman Catholicism. It is called a form of “infused righteousness”, so that we are charged with preaching “infusion” rather than “imputation”; it is said to compromise the alien-ness of the righteousness; it is said to make sanctification the ground of justification. And of course, it is an attack upon “the article upon which the church stands or falls”!

This is astonishing stuff to me. Why would anyone want to believe in a God who justifies by mere fiat rather than by doing anything? Do people think that because the Holy Spirit is involved in sanctification, therefore the Spirit must not be involved in justification?

And then we have the Truly Reformed people who think that when the WCF says (11.2) that “faith is not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied by all other saving graces,” the word “justified” is a past participle. These people suppose that there is a nanosecond: first faith is alone, and while it is alone, it justifies you. Then — POOF! — all the other saving graces pop into being, so that you love God, desire to obey Him, hate sin, exercise repentance, love the brethren, etc. etc. So faith is “alone in the act of justification.” These people are so poorly trained in grammar that they are mistaking a present tense passive participle (e.g. “being justified“) for a past tense passive participle (“having been justified“). How do I know it’s present? Easy: “ever accompanied.” What part of “ever” do they not understand? “Well, it doesn’t say ‘ALWAYS.’ It only says ‘EVER.'”

I really think part of the problem is that our Confessional documents were written in the 17th century, when knowing Latin was a necessary qualification for doing theology. We no longer know how to read such English anymore — let alone our Bibles.

Lord, have mercy. At least when Anglicans fail to understand 16th and 17th century English, they don’t excommunicate and defrock the people who do understand it. Their misunderstanding is mercifully confined to their communication with God, rather than destroying the careers, lives, and ministries of the brothers.


  1. I’ve actually heard the “nanosecond” explanation from the mouth of a PCA elder.

    I had asked him what the difference was between “justifying grace” and “sanctifying grace” His reply…….”a nanosecond”

    And what makes it even more sad was that this same elder was accusing other pastors of “preaching different gospel.”

  2. If Christ is the fulfillment of the sacrificial system embodied in the tabernacle/temple ceremonies, perhaps it would be useful to illustrate how imputation worked in the OT sacrificial system (even as we know it was but a shadow of the things to come)?

    • Ken,

      As Leithart has noted, all assignment of guilt involves imputation. See his old post here.

  3. I guess what I was thinking is that would it not have been absurd for the High Priest to have said to yon righteous Israelite, “The LORD sees the sacrificial goat/bull not you.”

  4. My friend Ken suggested that maybe my students’ understanding of justification isn’t so off base. Couldn’t an Old Testament priest have said to an Israelite offering sacrifice, “God sees the goat/bull/other animal, not you”?

    Funny you ask, Ken. I’d like to take as my starting datum the fact that this actually isn’t said in Scripture.

    For instance, it is interesting that Israelites lay hands on a sacrificial animal. What else is laying on of hands used for? Right, to create an authorized deputy to do one’s job. Joshua isn’t merely a substitute for Moses. He IS Moses, at least as far as his authority and office.

    In the language game of substitution, the presence of the substitute implies the absence of the principal: if Joshua is present as the leader of Israel, it implies that Moses is not. And that’s clearly the sort of implication that is required by those who talk about God seeing or punishing “Christ, not me.” But while the Bible does talk about Christ dying for us, the controlling language game is one of union, in which whatever is true of the principal is also true of those who are “in Him.”

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