At the very heart of the controversy in the sixteenth century was the question of the ground by which God declares anyone righteous in His sight. The psalmist asked, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (Ps. 130:3). In other words, if we have to stand before God and face His perfect justice and perfect judgment of our performance, none of us would be able to pass review. We all would fall, because as Paul reiterates, all of us have fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). So, the pressing question of justification is how can an unjust person ever be justified in the presence of a righteous and holy God?
The Roman Catholic view is known as analytical justification. This means that God will declare a person just only when, under His perfect analysis, He finds that he is just, that righteousness is inherent in him. The person cannot have that righteousness without faith, without grace, and without the assistance of Christ. Nevertheless, in the final analysis, true righteousness must be present in the soul of a person before God will ever declare him just.
Whereas the Roman view is analytical, the Reformation view is that justification is synthetic. A synthetic statement is one in which something new is added in the predicate that is not contained in the subject. If I said to you, “The bachelor was a poor man,” I have told you something new in the second part of the sentence that was not already contained in the word bachelor. All bachelors are men by definition, but not all bachelors are poor men. There are many wealthy bachelors. Poverty and wealth are concepts that are not inherent in the idea of bachelorhood. So, when we say, “The bachelor was a poor man,” there is a synthesis, as it were.
When we say that the Reformation view of justification is synthetic, we mean that when God declares a person to be just in His sight, it is not because of what He finds in that person under His analysis. Rather, it is on the basis of something that is added to the person. That something that is added, of course, is the righteousness of Christ. This is why Luther said that the righteousness by which we are justified is extra nos, meaning “apart from us” or “outside of us.” He also called it an “alien righteousness,” not a righteousness that properly belongs to us, but a righteousness that is foreign to us, alien to us. It comes from outside the sphere of our own behavior. With both of these terms, Luther was speaking about the righteousness of Christ.
If any word was at the center of the firestorm of the Reformation controversy and remains central to the debate even in our day, it is imputation. Numerous meetings were held between Protestants and Roman Catholics to try to repair the schism that was taking place in the sixteenth century. Theologians from Rome met with the magisterial Reformers, trying to resolve the difficulties and preserve the unity of the church. There was a longing for such unity on both sides. But the one concept that was always a sticking point, the idea that was so precious to the Protestants and such a stumbling block for the Roman Catholics, was imputation. We cannot really understand what the Reformation was about without understanding the central importance of this concept.
When Paul explains the doctrine of justification, he cites the example of the patriarch Abraham. He writes: “For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness’ ” (Rom. 4:3, citing Gen. 15:6). In other words, Abraham had faith, and therefore God justified him. Abraham was still a sinner. The rest of the history of the life of Abraham reveals that he did not always obey God. Nevertheless, God counted him righteous because he believed in the promise God had made to him. This is an example of imputation, which involves transferring something legally to someone’s account, to reckon something to be there. So, Paul speaks of God counting Abraham as righteous or reckoning him as righteous, even though, in and of himself, Abraham was not yet righteous. He did not have righteousness inhering in him.
As I noted above, the Roman Catholic idea is that grace is infused into the soul of a person at baptism, making the person inherently righteous, so that God therefore judges him to be righteous. But the Reformers insisted that we are justified when God imputes someone else’s righteousness to our account, namely, the righteousness of Christ.
If any statement summarizes and captures the essence of the Reformation view, it is Luther’s famous Latin formula simul justus et peccator. Simul is the word from which we get the English simultaneous ; it means “at the same time.” Justus is the Latin word for “just” or “righteous.” Et simply means “and.” Peccator means “sinner.” So, with this formula— “at the same time just and sinner”—Luther was saying that in our justification, we are at the same time righteous and sinful. Now, if he had said we are just and sinful at the same time and in the same relationship, that would have been a contradiction in terms. But that is not what he was saying. He was saying that, in one sense, we are just. In another sense, we are sinners. In and of ourselves, under God’s scrutiny, we still have sin. But by God’s imputation of the righteousness of Jesus Christ to our accounts, we are considered just.
This is the very heart of the gospel. In order to get into heaven, will I be judged by my righteousness or by the righteousness of Christ? If I have to trust in my righteousness to get into heaven, I must completely and utterly despair of any possibility of ever being redeemed. But when we see that the righteousness that is ours by faith is the perfect righteousness of Christ, we see how glorious is the good news of the gospel. The good news is simply this: I can be reconciled to God. I can be justified, not on the basis of what I do, but on the basis of what has been accomplished for me by Christ.
Of course, Protestantism really teaches a double imputation. Our sin is imputed to Jesus and His righteousness is imputed to us. In this twofold transaction, we see that God does not compromise His integrity in providing salvation for His people. Rather, He punishes sin fully after it has been imputed to Jesus. This is why He is able to be both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus,” as Paul writes in Romans 3:26. So, my sin goes to Jesus and His righteousness comes to me. This is a truth worth dividing the church. This is the article on which the church stands or falls, because it is the article on which we all stand or fall.
It is strange to me that Rome reacted so negatively to the idea of imputation, because in its own doctrine of the atonement, it holds that our sins are imputed to Jesus on the cross, which is why His atoning death has value for us. The principle of imputation is there. Furthermore, Rome teaches that a sinner can receive indulgences through the transfer of merit from the treasury of merit, but this transfer cannot be accomplished except by imputation.
The Roman Catholic Church declared that the Reformation view of justification involves God in a “legal fiction” that undermines His integrity. Rome was asking how God, in His perfect righteousness and holiness, can declare a sinner to be just if he is not, in fact, just. That seems to involve God in a fictional declaration. The Protestant response was that God declares people just because He imputes the real righteousness of Christ to them. There is nothing fictional about Christ’s righteousness, and there is nothing fictional about God’s gracious imputation of that righteousness.