Imputation: Mutation

This is the first article in a small series dealing with the doctrine of imputation, the term “the righteousness of Christ” and the doctrine of active obedience.

Recently we here at Sound Church realized that there exists a bit of confusion surrounding the term “double imputation.” For some, the term refers to imputation of both Christ’s passive obedience (death) and active obedience (perfect life). For others, the term does not hold this meaning. Instead, they understand it to mean that the sins of the believer were laid on Christ and that believer has now become the righteousness of Christ, thus, double imputation. However, the real issue is not the concept of double imputation. The main area of misunderstanding lies in the meaning of the term “the righteousness of Christ.”

Though, we do not consider John Piper to be the cause of the confusion, a close examination of his book, Counted Righteous in Christ can help us to see how this confusion has arisen. Mr. Piper wrote his book to support the doctrine of imputation of the righteousness of Christ – a doctrine for which there is strong biblical support. Mr. Piper’s book opposes Robert Gundry’s view (as contained in an article for Christianity Today) that Christ’s righteousness has not been imputed to the believer. Gundry is represented by quotations such as, “…the doctrine that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to believing sinners needs to be abandoned” and “…that doctrine of imputation is not even biblical.” In this case, we agree with Mr. Piper and affirm that the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the sinner is necessary for justification.

However, it becomes clear throughout the book that Mr. Piper is writing less to support the doctrine of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to the believer and more to support the doctrine associated with active obedience of Christ. We contend that this purpose is different than what we are led to believe in the title and tagline on the book cover: Counted Righteous in Christ, Should we abandon the imputation of Christ’s righteousness? Again, we affirm and wholeheartedly support the doctrine of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to the sinner for our justification, but we do not extend that endorsement to the imputation of the active obedience of Christ – and that is what Counted is all about. We believe that the Bible teaches the imputation of the righteousness of Christ only in reference to His death on the cross (passive obedience) and we do not endorse the imputation of the active obedience of Christ for the justification of the sinner.

Here are some snippets from Counted that reveal Mr. Piper’s understanding of the term “righteousness of Christ”:

  • In chapter 2, he states that his purpose for writing this book is “to give exegetical foundation to the historic Protestant teaching that the basis of our justification through faith is the provision of Christ for both pardon and imputed perfection.” At this point in the book, it is unclear if these are a result of the death of Christ or if they demand the imputation of both the passive (death) obedience and the imputation of the active (life) of Christ, but the implications of this statement become clear as we read further.
  • In chapter 4, Mr. Piper spends a significant amount of time to explain that by using the phrase “one act of righteousness,” Paul actually means “the entire life of Christ’s obedience.”
  • As we draw closer to the end of the book, Mr. Piper informs us that the imputation of the righteousness of Christ does not rest in the crucifixion alone, but also includes Christ’s many acts of obedience throughout His life. To his credit, Mr. Piper includes a lengthy footnote recognizing that Jonathan Edwards held that “Christ’s death itself both paid the penalty for our sin and accomplished or positive righteousness.” Clearly, Mr. Piper sees a contrast between the view for which he is advocating and that of Jonathan Edwards. Therefore, since Edwards never denied the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, the difference between him and Piper is this understanding of the “righteousness of Christ.” For Piper, it is imputation of the active obedience of Christ. For Edwards, the imputation of the righteousness of Christ is only in relation to the death of Christ or His passive obedience. This is precisely the same difference that distinguishes the position of Sound Church.
  • In another footnote found in the conclusion of the book, Mr. Piper finally explains that “Christ’s righteousness” has two components: His passive obedience (death) and His active obedience (perfect life). He further points out that in both his passive and active obedience, Christ acted vicariously on behalf of the believer.
  • Even the list of endorsements on the back cover of Counted Righteous in Christ, demonstrate a convolution of the discussion. R.C. Sproul and John Frame use the terms imputation and righteousness of Christ to commend Mr. Piper for his defense. Neither of them specifies whether or not they have in mind the imputation of the active obedience of Christ. But Wayne Grudem clearly sees Counted as a defense of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ when he states that “Christ’s lifelong record of perfect obedience to God” has been “credited” to the account of the believer.

You see, the doctrine of justification is facing a major threat and that threat has been ushered into broader Christianity via a mutant doctrine of imputation. This mutated doctrine of imputation begins on firm biblical footing when it teaches that Christ vicariously bore the punishment for our sin on the Cross. But it moves into an area completely without biblical support, when in the view of those who hold to the doctrine of the imputation of active obedience, Christ’s act of sacrifice was not enough to make us righteous before God and that the imputation of Christ’s life of obedience is also necessary for justification.

This lack of precision and flip flopping between “righteousness of Christ” and the idea of active obedience only serves to muddy the water and unfairly paint opponents with a broad brush. There is a difference between a denial of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and the denial of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ. Piper and many others do not make that difference clear, but instead subtly meld the two together as though they are the same or symbiotic partners of each other. Eventually, those who deny the imputation of the active obedience of Christ are seen as deniers of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. Denver Sound Church is the former, but not the latter.

Our intention in upcoming articles is to clear up this confusion and teach the biblical truth about the imputation of the righteousness of Christ.

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