IMPUTED VS. IMPARTED RIGHTEOUSNESS
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Friday, June 3, 2011 at 10:05am
QUESTION: Can you explain “imparted righteousness”?
ANSWER: The real issue here is the distinction between imparted and imputed righteousness, and their relation to salvation, especially as this relates to the definition of justification. This is important because the Bible pictures sinners as being saved by “the righteousness of God” (Rom. 1:17; 3:21-22; 2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 3:9). I.e., God saves us by transferring his own righteousness to us in some way—by imparting it, or imputing it, or both.
What is “righteousness” as such? Most fundamentally, righteousness means “conformity to a norm,” i.e., to whatever norm is appropriate for that particular entity. Regarding human beings, the norm to which we are supposed to conform is God’s law. To be “righteous” thus means to satisfy the requirements of the law. Here it is important to see that the law has two parts: commandments and penalties. Thus we as human beings can be righteous in one of two ways: we can satisfy the commandments of the law (=active righteousness), or we can satisfy the penalty of the law (=passive righteousness). One can acquire heaven by the former through perfect obedience to all the applicable commandments of the law. But if we fail to conform to the law in even one of its commands (James 2:10), we then must be “right with the law” (i.e., righteous) by satisfying its penalty, which is hell.
How is this related to “the righteousness of God”? Is there a norm to which God must conform in order to be righteous? In fact, there is, and here is how it works: God is perfectly righteous because at all times his decisions and deeds are in perfect conformity with his nature. His own nature is the norm for his actions, and he never acts contrary to his nature. He is always faithful and true to himself, which includes a complete faithfulness to his WORD. Part of his Word is his law, including both its commandments and its warnings. God’s perfect righteousness includes the fact that he will always uphold the integrity of the law he has applied to us as his creatures.
In other words, the RIGHTEOUS GOD will always make sure that the requirements of his law are satisfied. God’s own righteousness is glorified when we, his creatures, satisfy the commands of his law. But if we sin (i.e., disobey the law’s commands), God’s righteousness is still satisfied through the application of the law’s penalty (hell) to us as lawbreakers. The problem for God is that ALL human beings are sinners (Rom. 3:10, 23); thus to maintain his own righteousness he must condemn all of us to hell. But he does not want to do this; he created human beings for the very purpose of having eternal fellowship with them. So he has a dilemma: how can he save at least some human beings from the righteous consequences of their sins, and at the same time maintain his own righteousness by upholding the integrity of his law?
The answer is that he transfers his own righteousness to us; and he does this in two ways. These two ways correspond to the two parts of the “double cure” of salvation: justification (on the one hand), and regeneration/sanctification (on the other). Here is where the terms imparting and imputing enter the picture. God imparts righteousness to us by giving us enabling grace, i.e., by giving us the moral power to obey the law’s commands through his work of regeneration and sanctification. When God’s grace empowers us to live a holy life, this holiness is regarded as having been imparted to us by God because it is his power working within us that enables us to produce it (Phil 2:13).
The imputation of righteousness is very different. God imputes righteousness to us by “doctoring the books,” so to speak. As individuals we can think of our lives as being represented before God by a journal that details all of our deeds, both good and bad, and which keeps a running tally of our “account” in terms of what we owe to God. Once even one sin (James 2:10) is entered into this journal, it is recorded that we owe to God the penalty of eternity in hell because of our sin. No good deed that we do is able to counteract this debt, since we already owe to God every act of obedience that we can perform (Luke 17:10). Thus every time we sin, the debt of eternal punishment just gets more intense, with no relief in sight.
So how can any of us be saved? Imputed righteousness to the rescue! Jesus came and lived a perfect life so that he personally would not owe to the Father eternity in hell. This prepared him to step into our shoes, and accept the penalty of eternal hell in our place, or pay the debt of eternal punishment for us. This is his work of propitiation, which is the heart of the substitutionary atonement. For those of us (any sinner) who trust God’s promises and obey the gospel, God transfers Jesus’ payment of the eternal penalty for sin to our account, thus canceling the sin-debt that we owe. This is the essence of imputation: the transfer of Jesus’ satisfaction of the law’s penalty (i.e., God’s passive righteousness) to our journal-account, so that his righteousness is counted as our own. (“Imputation” is actually a bookkeeping term.)
This is the basis for the heart of the grace given to us in the moment of salvation, namely, our justification (which is equivalent to forgiveness of sins). Justification is the declaration of God, in his role as Judge, that we are considered righteous before him, in the sense that he counts our penalty as having already been paid. “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1) is the essence of justification. To be justified is to have the Judge make this pronouncement over you: “NO PENALTY FOR YOU!” He does this solely on the basis of imputed righteousness.
Does this mean that imparted righteousness is irrelevant? Not at all! The key here is the distinction between the two parts of the double cure. It is true that justification is received ONLY on the basis of imputed righteousness (i.e., the blood of Christ). We are not justified by imparted righteousness (which is basically the same as our works). However, there is more to salvation than being justified (forgiven); there is also the change in our spiritual nature called regeneration (a one-time work of the Holy Spirit in baptism) and sanctification (the ongoing pursuit of holy living through the power of the indwelling Spirit). The Spirit’s work of regeneration and sanctification is the essence of imparted righteousness.