The Meaning of Imputation
Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
by Bob Burridge ©2010
Imputation: The act of assigning a condition, standing, or value. When it relates to persons, the new condition is credited to them, and accounted as being fully theirs. The sin of Adam was imputed to us long ago. The righteousness of Jesus Christ is imputed (credited) to all those redeemed by him on the Cross of Calvary. There our sin was imputed to our Savior where the demands of its guilt were satisfied before God forever.
(Note: The Bible quotations in this article are from the New King James Bible unless otherwise noted.)
We’re often warned about the dangers of living on credit. The basic idea of credit is something very familiar to us in our society today. It’s when you are made able to spend someone else’s money on things you aren’t able to pay for yourself. It’s based on the assumption that you will soon be able to pay them back, and pay them for the privilege of the loan.
In economics this can be dangerous if it is handled unwisely. No one really knows what the future will hold. The assumption is made that the borrower’s income will be able to pay back the loan in a reasonable time frame, and will also be able to pay the price charged for the loan.
There’s a Greek word for that crediting of something to someone’s account. The word is logitzomai. It’s found in several New Testament passages. But the context isn’t about economics. It’s about righteousness.
James 2:23 “And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. ”
The word translated “imputed” is that Greek word logitzomai. The righteousness of Abraham didn’t come from his own pure motives, efforts, or works. It was credited to him by God through his faith. He believed that God would provide what he didn’t have and couldn’t obtain.
It wasn’t only James who talked about this imputed righteousness. Paul used the same example of Abraham to make the same point in Romans 4.
In Romans 4:11 he said, “And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all those who believe, though they are uncircumcised, that righteousness might be imputed to them also”
It wasn’t Abraham’s own act of circumcision that made him righteous. That was just a sign of what God had already credited to him.
Then in that same chapter Paul said, “(22) And therefore ‘it was accounted to him for righteousness.’ (23) Now it was not written for his sake alone that it was imputed to him, (24) but also for us. It shall be imputed to us who believe in Him who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead, (25) who was delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification.”
The words “accounted” and “imputed” in this passage are that same word, logitzomai. The faith God puts into our hearts by grace turns from it’s own merits to the merits of Christ.
Then again in Galatians 3:6-9 Paul wrote, “(6) just as Abraham ‘believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.’ (7) Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham. (8) And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, ‘In you all the nations shall be blessed.’ (9) So then those who are of faith are blessed with believing Abraham.”
The word for “accounted” is again the word logitzomai.
We have no righteousness of our own, yet we are credited as being righteous. The reason we can’t earn this standing on our own is that is another imputation that took place back in Eden. The sin of Adam was imputed to all who would descend from him by natural conception. Jesus was born by supernatural conception so the sin of Adam was not credited to him. He was born without that debt of sin. As our perfect representative he paid the penalty we all owe.
God’s word directly teaches that sin together with its consequences passed upon all of the human race by Adam’s sin. Romans 5:12 “… through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned”, and 1 Corinthians 15:22 “For as in Adam all die …”
Adam’s guilt was imputed to his posterity in a way similar to the manner in which Jesus Christ’s righteousness is imputed to his people by grace, and their sin is imputed to their Savior.
Charles Hodge defines it, “to impute is to attribute anything to a person or persons, upon adequate grounds, as the judicial or meritorious reason of reward or punishment.” (Systematic Theology. vol 2, pg 194)
The wonderful truth is that we who are redeemed have Christ’s righteousness imputed to us. It’s credited to our account as if it was our own.
No one can ever pay back the debt he owes for his sins. Only Jesus could pay that infinite debt. Our sins were credited to him as if they were his own.
That’s the message behind this name of God in Jeremiah 23:6. He is THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS. Only dressed in the righteousness of our Savior, that which is credited to us, can we be God’s children.
Unlike the crediting that takes place in economics, we are never expected to pay back what’s credited to us. We could not. Jesus paid the debt in full for us.
Critics of this idea often say that this makes us unconcerned about doing what’s good. They assume that if it is not our good deeds that make us right with God, then we will have no reason to do good at all, since we already have righteousness in Christ. But there are things not taken into consideration by these critics. They fail to understand the motivation that drives the redeemed human heart.
It is our grateful love for the Loving Redeemer that stirs us to want to live for his glory. The pride that imagines that anything we do is pure enough to make us innocent before God is destructive, self-centered, self-deceptive, and arrogant. It is not a reliable motive for obedience.
The best motive that stirs us to honor God in our thoughts and lives is a humility that admits its own poverty, weakness, and total unworthiness. The person who understands that his righteousness can only come by the imputation of that which belongs to his Savior, is the one who can truly appreciate the fact of this amazing grace.
Those who come to see their own unworthiness, and to trust in Christ’s work alone for salvation, are the ones who are thankfully humbled before God and before others. They engage in humble and faithful worship. They struggle hard to obey out of gratitude with no delusions of earning their salvation. They busily evangelize telling others, all kinds of others, both the good and the evil, that in spite of their own record, their own successes or failures, there is hope in the promise of God in the work of Christ.
They will stand before God as holy children, dressed in the purest of righteousness, the righteousness of the perfect Savior. They can be confident that in spite of their sins, their inexcusable crimes and evil, they are loved and counted as heirs of eternal blessing with Christ.