Online banking makes it possible to transfer a monetary gift to someone. The gift is credited to their account which then shows a credit while the giver’s account shows a debit for whatever amount of gift was transferred.
Protestant theology has long insisted that a similar thing happens when one is saved. The righteousness of Christ is transferred from his account to the sinner’s account. While the sinner had been bankrupt, having a zero balance, his account now has an infinite supply of righteousness. My analogy breaks down in that there is no debit to Jesus’ account. He doesn’t give up any righteousness, but shares it with the gift recipient. One might even put it in terms of sharing a joint account with Jesus.
Martin Luther, in his 1519 sermon on “Two Kinds of Righteousness,” proposed that as the bride possesses all that belongs to the bridegroom so the believer now has the same righteousness as Christ. Luther declared, in his 1522 Introduction to Romans, that the Christian is “accounted wholly righteous before God.”
Righteousness is often understood in Protestant circles as a moral virtue. Since a holy God will accept nothing less than perfection, our sins have separated us from him. Our lack of righteousness, or moral virtue, has cut us off. No one can add righteousness to his personal account by doing any kind of work or good deeds since no one has achieved perfect righteousness and God will accept nothing less.
So adding a lawcourt analogy to the language of commerce or banking, not only is the sinner bankrupt, but also burdened with guilt. God the judge has rendered a guilty verdict upon every human being. There is no one righteous, not even one (Rom. 3:10). We are all sinners (Rom. 3:23). Since God, in his perfection, is perfectly just, he must punish all sin which is transgression of his law. A penalty must be exacted. Justice must be served. This makes the sinner the object of God’s wrath (Rom. 1:18). One can only be saved from God’s wrath by being made perfect in his sight. But the problem is that no one is perfect.
While a perfectly just God is obligated to punish sin, his perfect love desires to forgive and reconcile the sinner to himself. How can God both punish the sin and forgive the sinner? How can he maintain the attributes of both justice and mercy? The answer, according to Protestantism, is imputed righteousness.
The righteousness of Christ must be imputed to the sinner’s account. Imputation refers to the transfer of either a credit or a debit to another’s account. It is said that at the cross an exchange was made. Our guilt was imputed to Jesus’ account while his righteousness was imputed to ours.
Jesus took all the sins of the world upon his person and endured the wrath of God against sin while on the cross. The believing sinner can now be made righteous since Jesus has removed the burden of guilt which has now been transferred to his account. Whereas Jesus has taken the believer’s sin upon himself, the sinner is now endowed with the righteousness of Christ which is credited (imputed) to the sinner’s account. The moral virtue of Christ is now bestowed upon the believer. A verse often employed to assert this is 2 Corinthians 5:21: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
I’ll continue my examination of the Protestant doctrine of imputed righteousness, along with a critique of the doctrine, in near future posts.