Don’t you just love it when good things come together? Ham and eggs. Batman and Robin. Macaroni and cheese. So, how about chocolate chip cookies and the gospel? That might be a new one for you.
In the 1990s, a group of evangelical theologians and church leaders held talks with a group of Roman Catholic theologians and church leaders, and together they produced a statement titled Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT). In the aftermath of ECT, much discussion ensued regarding the Roman Catholic understanding of the gospel and how it relates to the understanding of the gospel historically affirmed by evangelicals, the heirs of the Protestant Reformation. The subject of justification by faith alone came up. This was, of course, one of the central issues of the Reformation.
We see how essential the doctrine of justification by faith alone was in the Reformation planks of sola fide (faith alone), sola gratia (grace alone), and solus Christus (Christ alone). These solas stress that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. We must also see, however, that the Reformers emphasized a word that they found to be absolutely essential to the doctrine of justification by faith alone, which they in turn saw as essential to a right understanding of the gospel. That word is imputation.
During some of the talks around ECT, the historic differences between evangelicals and Roman Catholics over imputation came to the surface. Reformed theologian Michael Horton likened imputation to chocolate chips in the making of chocolate chip cookies. If you set out all the ingredients to make chocolate chip cookies but leave out the singular ingredient of chocolate chips, then you don't have chocolate chip cookies when you pull the tray out of the oven. Likewise, you can have most of the key ingredients of the gospel. You can have the understanding that we are sinners. You can have an understanding of God as holy and just. You can have an understanding of Christ and His work on the cross. But if you leave out imputation, you don't have the gospel. This is why the Reformers considered this word absolutely essential to a biblically faithful proclamation of the gospel. But what does this word imputation mean?
The word imputation comes directly from the Latin. It is an accounting term; it means “to apply to one’s account.” Expenses are debited and income is credited. The old King James word is “reckon.”
In theological terms, we speak of a double imputation that takes place in justification. This double imputation is taught in texts such as 2 Corinthians 5:21, where Paul says plainly, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Here we read that our sin is imputed to Christ. We are the offending party. He is guiltless. He perfectly kept the law. Yet, on the cross, God poured out His wrath on Christ. Why? Because our sin was imputed to Christ. Christ took upon Himself our sin. Our great debit was put on His account. Christ paid the horrific penalty as the cup of God's wrath was poured out upon Him.
There is also a second imputation. Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us. He not only takes our debit, but we also get His credit. Christ paid the penalty we could never satisfy, but He also kept the law perfectly, which we can't do either. Consequently, God credits to us His righteousness. We stand before God clothed in Christ's righteousness. We can actually say that we are saved by works—not at all by our works, but instead by Christ's works, His perfect obedience, on our behalf. One theologian said that two of the most beautiful words in the Bible are for us. Jesus lived and died—and rose again—for us. All of His work was done on our behalf.
We express this essential doctrine of imputation in The Word Made Flesh: The Ligonier Statement on Christology because the doctrine of double imputation has suffered significant attacks by self-professing evangelicals in our day. Remember, imputation is essential to a right understanding of justification, and a right understanding of justification is essential to a right understanding of the gospel. The doctrines of imputation and justification were challenged in moments like ECT. The doctrines of imputation and justification have also been challenged in contemporary movements such as the so-called New Perspective on Paul. To respond to this dangerous theological drift, we want to draw a clear line in the sand. Additionally, we want to remind believers of what good news the gospel is. Christ took our filthy rags of sin and gave us His righteous robe. This is a beautiful picture. We express the work of Christ in accomplishing our redemption in the fourth stanza of the statement:
He kept the law,
atoned for sin,
and satisfied God's wrath.
He took our filthy rags
and gave us
His righteous robe.
The necessity of the doctrine of imputation is one of the chief reasons we have offered this statement. At Ligonier, we take every opportunity to point people to the great creeds of the past. Dr. Sproul’s first book was on the Apostles’ Creed, and a new edition of this book was recently released titled What We Believe. We also recognize the great value of the Nicene Creed. Speaking personally, I greatly benefit from those occasions when the Nicene Creed is recited in public worship. I wrote a book on Christology in the early church, titling it For Us and for Our Salvation after that great phrase in the Nicene Creed. I think it is one of the most beautiful phrases in all of theological literature. We are quick to point the church of today to these great texts and riches of our past.
We also recognize that the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed are recited by evangelicals, mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox. In other words, these historic creeds are recited by those who affirm justification by faith alone, and they are recited by those who belong to churches or communions that deny justification by faith alone. These creeds, while giving essential teaching on the person of Christ, do not speak with the precision on the work of Christ and our justification before God that is needed in this present era. But we are convinced that justification by faith alone, including the doctrine of imputation, is essential to the gospel and therefore essential to the church’s identity. So we have sought to offer the church a statement that is in the spirit of the Apostles’ Creed, concise and even recite-able. We also have endeavored to pick up the emphasis on the work of Christ for our right standing before God that was so beautifully put forward by the Reformers. How delightful and refreshing it is to stand in the rich traditions of the early church and the Reformers.
The doctrine of the person and work of Christ is the gospel. Thus, the doctrine of imputation—the crediting of our sin to Him and of His obedience to us—is essential to this gospel. It shows us why the gospel is such good news—Christ really has done it all. He has met our Creator’s standard of perfection for us, so we never need to fear the Lord's wrath if we are in Christ by faith alone. This doctrine of imputation can lead us only to praise the glory and grace of God. This doctrine of imputation tells us that salvation truly is of Him and of Him alone.
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This article is part of The Ligonier Statement on Christology collection.