Tag Archives: Imputation

Essential Latin for Reformed Christians: “Simul iustus et peccator”

Today’s bit of Latin lingo is often linked to Luther.  Martin Luther often gets the credit for noticing the biblical teaching that each Christian is “at the same time just and a sinner” (simul iustus et peccator).  Certainly he was not the last theologian to insist on this — countless others after him, both Lutheran and Reformed, have said the same.  It cannot be labelled one of Luther’s idiosyncrasies.

To understand the meaning of this seemingly contradictory statement, one has to grasp the doctrine of justification in general, and the meaning of imputation in particular.  Without those well in hand (or mind), human nature will invariably lead one to extreme views.  Typically, because we overestimate our own condition even as Christians, the view will almost always be imbalanced towards the iustus side of things.  So let’s review justification and imputation to avoid imbalances and extremes.

Justification is God’s declaration that a person is right with him on account of what Christ has done in his perfect life and death on the cross.  It is a judicial declaration — which means that the Judge issues it from his bench.  His declaration is more than acquittal and forgiveness, as wonderful as those are.  More, the declaration includes positive righteousness.  Because of Christ all our wrong-doing is pardoned, and also because of Christ, God’s requirement for perfect law-keeping in the present and future is fully met.  Justification is a one-time event, not a process to be repeated — once justified, always justified.  As a result of this one-time judicial declaration, the person justified is adopted into God’s family.  We go from the courtroom to the family room.  We no longer relate to God as a Judge, but as our heavenly Father.

So what is imputation and how does it fit into the doctrine of justification?  Imputation is often described as crediting or accounting.  Our English word “imputation” translates the Greek logizomai.  You find that word used in the original of Romans 4:3, “Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness.”  While the word logizomai is not used, the idea of imputation is also found in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”   At the cross Jesus was made to be sin — though he was of himself innocent, he became the thing against which God has infinite wrath:  sin.  How did this happen?  Through imputation.  Our sin was imputed to him (credited) to such a degree that the Holy Spirit says he was “made to be sin.”  And remember:  all the while, in himself he was perfectly righteous.  Now notice that there is a double-imputation in 2 Corinthians 5:21.  All our sin was imputed to Christ, but his righteousness is imputed to us.  I like to call this “the sweet swap.”  God credited our sin to Jesus, and God credited Jesus’s righteousness to us.  The righteousness of the Redeemer is imputed to us (credited) to such a degree that the Holy Spirit says we become what God loves, “the righteousness of God.”  But just like the imputation of our sin didn’t change Jesus into a sinner in himself, so also the imputation of Christ’s righteousness doesn’t change us into perfectly righteous people in ourselves while we live on this earth.

Imputation is at the basis of our justification.  We are justified, declared righteous, because our sin was imputed to Christ and he bore it for us at the cross as our substitute.  We are declared righteous because all of his perfect obedience and righteousness is credited to us by God.  In his eyes, it is as if we had lived the perfect God-pleasing life ourselves.  The key words there are “as if.”  Just as it was as if Christ was a sinner (when he was not), so it is also as if we ourselves had fulfilled all the righteous requirements of God’s law (when we haven’t and don’t).

Consequently, each Christian is both righteous and a sinner.  Each Christian is righteous — this is our status before God.  We have been declared just in his eyes and are now his beloved children.  This status is precious and to be highly treasured.  Yet it is presently a status which comes to us via imputation.  As a result, the reality is that we continue to be sinners when it comes to our sanctification.  Even as that “new creation” in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17 — right before the “sweet swap”!), we sin against our Father, and if you sin, you are a sinner.  This is what righteous Paul acknowledges in 1 Timothy 1:15 when he says Christ “came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.”  Notice the present tense there.  At that moment, Paul was a justified sinner, not a condemned sinner, but a sinner just the same.  So it is with all Christians.

Let me put as simply as I can: Christians are both saints and sinners.  We’re saints by virtue of the status declared in our justification (on the basis of imputation).  We’re sinners because of the struggle that still exists in our sanctification. The former encourages us, the latter humbles us.  Biblical, Reformed theology has always acknowledged this truth.

Ours is not an age renowned for thinking deeply about theology, or anything else for that matter.  This is surely part of the reason some Christians object to simul iustus et peccator.  While insisting that Christians are not “sinners” in any sense, they are (usually) inadvertently undermining imputation and the very basis of their justification.  Not only that, they are also contradicting the clear testimony of Scripture regarding the real struggle with sin that Christians experience in this age (Romans 7:21-25 & Galatians 5:17).  Do some research and you will discover that the origins of the denial of simul iustus et peccator in Protestantism are not with those orthodox in their theology.  For example, it was the Pelagian and rabidly anti-Reformed revivalist Charles Finney who opined that this formula was an error which had “slain more souls, I fear, than all the universalism that ever cursed the world.”  Finney viciously repudiated biblical imputation and justification, and so had a reason to hold this opinion.

A few years ago, after encountering the denial of this teaching in our Reformed churches, I wrote a series of articles for Clarion entitled “Are Christians Sinners or Not?”  In that series, I looked at the biblical basis for simul iustus et peccator, how it’s expressed in our Reformed confessions, the importance of maintaining it, and the historical and theological background to denials of it.  You can find that series of articles here.


The Glorious Gospel of Imputation

51jv-i4vfdl-_sx330_bo1204203200_

I love Starr Meade’s book of family devotions based on the Westminster Shorter Catechism.  To catechize our children during family worship, we’ve been using Training Hearts, Teaching Minds for many years.  In fact, we’re on our second copy of it — the first one just fell apart after some years of heavy daily use.

Tonight at our church catechism class, I have the joy of teaching Lord’s Day 23 again.  Lord’s Day 23 deals with justification, God’s declaration that we are right with him on account of Christ’s righteousness.  Included in justification is the crucial notion of imputation.  Our sins are imputed or accounted to Christ, and his righteousness is imputed or accounted to us.  This goes to the basis of our justification.  Starr Meade has an excellent illustration that explains the imputation of Christ’s active and passive obedience, his obedience to the law and his suffering obedience.  I plan to use this illustration tonight with my catechism students:

Imagine that you need a great deal of money for something important.  However, not only do you not have a great deal of money; you are deeply in debt.  Along comes your friend who has worked hard for years to build a big savings account in the bank.  He feels sorry for you and offers to pay your bills.  Now you are no longer in debt.  This is something like Jesus paying for our sin by his death on the cross.  Now we no longer owe God anything for all our sins against him.

However, just because your friend paid your debt does not mean that you have solved your problem.  You still need a great deal of money and you have absolutely none.  So now your friend does something else for you.  He has your name added to his bank account so that now you can use all his money.  This is something like Jesus living a life of perfect obedience to God in our place.  He is the One who is righteous.  He is the One who did the obeying, but all his righteousness is credited to us.  God counts the righteousness of Christ as ours. (Training Hearts, Teaching Minds, 111-112)

To put it another way, through Christ we don’t merely have our slates wiped clean of all our sins.  We also have our slates filled with all of his God-pleasing obedience in our place.  This, and this alone, makes us acceptable in God’s sight.


Walcheren Articles

Yesterday I posted something about this new book, Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism.  In the chapter on the period of high orthodoxy, there is a paragraph about a professor at the French Academy of Saumur, Josue de la Place:

De la Place, who became professor at Saumur in 1631, developed a divergent view on the imputation (imputatio) of Adam’s sin to his descendants.  According to de la Place, the imputation was based on actual sins, which implied a “mediate” transmission of Adam’s sin.  In France, the national Synod of Charenton (1644-1645) made pronouncements on de la Place’s views, led by opposition from Antoine Garissolles (1587-1651), who was the moderator.  However, de la Place’s views also made waves outside of France.  In the Swiss Confederation they were addressed in the Formula consensus Helvetica and in the Netherlands they were attacked by Samuel Maresius and others.  However, de la Place’s view was accepted by Johannes Vlak, pastor in Zutphen, but it was condemned in the Articles of Walcheren of 1693. (153).

The Articles of Walcheren were prepared by a Dutch Reformed classis and addressed several errors circulating in the late seventeenth century.  They are difficult to find.  I have posted a .pdf containing them here.  I believe this comes from the volume edited by J. N. Bakhuizen van den Brink, Documenta Reformatoria.  Unfortunately, it’s only available in Dutch.  Article IV specifically deals with Vlak.  Article III is also worth noting for its affirmation of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ in justification.  Ministerial candidates in the Walcheren classis were apparently required to subscribe this document.


Wright on Imputation

I’m currently reading By Faith Alone: Answering the Challenges to the Doctrine of Justification, edited by Gary Johnson and Guy Waters.  The first four chapters deal extensively with the New Perspective on Paul, and special attention is given to N. T. Wright.  Cornelis Venema, T. David Gordon, Richard Phillips and C. Fitzsimons Allison are all concerned to expose the fundamental problems with Wright on the question of imputation.  Wright dismisses imputation and for that reason he falls outside the bounds of biblical orthodoxy.  Among other things, he has argued that “the righteousness of God” refers to his covenant faithfulness in key passages such as Romans 1:17 and Romans 3:21, rather than a status imputed.  He says that there is no imputation of God’s righteousness for the Christian.  This contradicts both Scripture and the faithful summary thereof in our Reformed confessions (e.g. HC LD 23 & BC 22).

When it comes to justification (the heart of the gospel), Wright is a false teacher.  I don’t say that cavalierly.  I say that having studied Wright’s arguments and the counter-arguments.  If anyone questions that conclusion, I would urge you to get this book and read it carefully.

But the authors not only critique Wright, they also present a solid case for a faithful biblical doctrine of justification that includes getting imputation correct.  I like the way that Phillips expresses it:

Indeed, the glory of imputed righteousness is not merely that it overcomes the threat that I have looked upon with mortal horror, namely, the perfect righteousness of the divine Judge.  The glory of this scriptural truth is not mainly that it permits me to escape this praiseworthy office of God and his glorious attributes of perfect holiness, justice, and truth.  Instead, the glory of imputed righteousness is that it provides the grounds by which the Judge in his perfect justice acclaims me righteous and embraces me to his heart.  Clothed in the perfect righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ I no longer fear God’s justice but I rejoice in it, for it now demands that I be entered into life with all the blessings of heaven.  God “shows his righteousness” in my justification; he is “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26).

Praise God for the gospel!  Let us believe it and faithfully defend it.


The Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness: Response to Bill DeJong

My colleague next door at the Cornerstone Canadian Reformed Church, Rev. Bill DeJong, has been blogging about the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.  In his latest post, he quotes Hans Boersma’s Hot Pepper Corn and asserts that John Calvin “stopped short of stating that Christ’s obedience to the law was imputed to us.”  Since Bill doesn’t allow comments on his blog, I want to briefly interact with that statement here.  I want to note that this is not a settled matter.  Bill apparently follows Boersma’s reading of Calvin.  Francis Turretin had a different reading and you can find it in his Institutes of Elenctic Theology, volume 2, page 454.  It was Turretin’s opinion that “Calvin, in many parts of his works, teaches the received opinion” regarding the imputation of the active obedience of Christ.  Turretin then provides a series of quotes and references to the Institutes, as well as to Calvin’s commentaries on Romans and Galatians.  He concludes this discussion by stating that “The French Synods have repeatedly declared that the same truth should be retained inviolable…” and then quoting the Synod of Tonneinsian.  Turretin is not alone in his understanding of Calvin.  Among others, see William Cunningham’s Historical Theology (vol. 2, SWRB 1991 reprint), 54.  He finds the appeal to Calvin with regards to a denial of the imputation of the active obedience to be “without any sufficient warrant.”  It could be that Turretin, Cunningham, et. al.  are wrong and Boersma and DeJong are correct (I don’t think so myself).  But whatever the case may be no one should have the impression that Boersma’s position has always and forever been recognized as a canonical, universally accepted, accurate portrayal of Calvin on this point.