In Essential Truths of the Christian Faith, Dr. R.C. Sproul argues that “it is a real imputation” when God imputes the merit of Jesus to those who trust in Him (p. 190). In other words, when God sits in His heavenly courtroom and looks at His people, He sees them in Christ. This does not mean that He is ignorant of our continuing battle with sin. Nor does it mean that our transgressions go unpunished. It does mean, legally speaking, that when the Almighty looks at our record, He sees the perfect righteousness of His Son and therefore can pronounce those of us with faith in Jesus as “just.”
Imputation does not involve God pouring righteousness into us that we must then complete with good works in order to be justified. Contra Roman Catholicism, God does not wait for us to do good deeds before He issues His verdict. Yes, works of obedience are inevitable and necessary for those of us with true faith (James 2:14–26), but they always flow from our justification. Our own deeds of kindness and mercy are not in any sense the ground of our right status before the Lord. Only the good works of Jesus can earn the Creator’s favorable verdict (Rom. 3:20; 2 Cor. 5:21).
This is the point Paul makes again and again in Romans, especially in today’s passage. If any old covenant saints could have been declared righteous on account of their works, surely Abraham and David could be examples for us. However, they are instead prime examples of justification by faith alone, apart from works. Their obedience to the Lord came as a result of the faith, the loyalty and trust, they were given by the unsurpassing grace of God. As Paul says in Romans 4:5: “To the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.”
Dr. Sproul once said that we can never belabor the biblical teaching on the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, for voices all around us conspire to tell us this doctrine is “too easy.” Fallen man wants to believe the lie that we can earn heaven. Only if God condemns our sin at the cross and then imputes Jesus’ righteousness to us can we have hope of standing before Him without fear (Gal. 3:13).
Again and again the New Testament warns us that our works cannot add anything to our justification. Neither can sin take away the right status of all those truly justified, though it may disrupt our fellowship with God (Eph. 4:30). Have you done something that, deep down, you consider unforgivable? If you have repented of your sin and trusted in Christ, then you need not fear the Lord’s wrath. Ask God to make His forgiveness real to you today.