Martin Luther’s understanding of “imputed righteousness” was likely influenced by a number of sources. First was Augustine’s view of “infused righteousness” which maintains that God’s own righteousness is infused into believers from without empowering otherwise depraved humans to live righteous lives. Luther apparently took this a step farther, insisting that a righteous status before God is dependent upon perfected moral virtue which can only be transferred from Christ to humans who are otherwise depraved.
Luther’s notion of the righteous merit of Christ imputed to believers by faith alone, apart from works, was his answer to the Catholic teaching that the righteous merit of departed saints could be transferred to believers because of their good works. Luther was influenced by that to which he was reacting.
Another of Luther’s influences was Erasmus, whose second edition of the Greek New Testament was employed by Luther in his translation of the Scriptures into German.[i] Erasmus’ Greek New Testament was published in 1516 with the Greek and Latin in parallel columns. Where the Greek had the word logizomai, Erasmus had the Latin word “imputat.” The question is whether logizomai really means “imputation.” New Perspective scholars would argue that logizomai does not inherently carry the meaning of imputation understood as the transfer of meritorious virtue from one party to another.
Translators of the 1611 King James Version, perhaps in the tradition of Erasmus and Luther, translated logizomai as “imputed” in Romans 4:22. Here the KJV states that Abraham’s belief in God’s promises was “imputed to him for righteousness.” Not being able to be righteous by works, God imputed righteousness to Abraham on the basis of his faith.
The King James translators, however, were not consistent in their translation of logizomai. The word appears eleven times in Romans 4 where the KJV translates it variously as “counted,” “reckoned,” and with variations of the word “impute.” The NIV consistently uses a form of the word “credit” except in verse 8 where the word “count” is used in reference to one whose sin the Lord will never “count” against him. Again, the question is whether imputation is inherent to the meaning of logizomai.
The term logizomia can be translated with several English terms such as “to reckon,” “to count,” “to conclude,” “to regard,” or “to consider.” Some examples of usage in the New Testament are helpful. In the following, the word translating logizomai is italicized:
- Paul instructed the Corinthians that they should regard him and his co-workers as servants of Christ (1 Cor. 4:1).
- Some people, due to a weak conscience, might consider certain foods to be unclean (Rom. 14:14).
- Paul says believers should count (or consider) themselves dead to sin, but alive to God (Rom. 6:11).
- Paul considered that the present sufferings of believers aren’t worth comparing to the glory that will follow (Rom. 8:18).
- Abraham considered that God is able to raise the dead (Heb. 11:19).
- Peter regarded Silas as a faithful brother (1 Pet. 5:12).
Logizomai basically has to do with regarding something, or someone, in a certain way. Things that were “considered” by Paul, Peter, or Abraham in the above examples do not involve regarding a situation as other than its reality. Though while some consider certain foods unclean when they are not inherently so, the conscience of these individuals do render the foods unclean to them.
For God to “consider,” “credit,” or “regard” Abraham as righteous in Romans 4 does not mean that God attributed or imputed something to Abraham that did not truly belong to him. Abraham was truly righteous and God declared this a reality. But it should be understood that righteousness does not here refer to perfected moral virtue, as in some Protestant thought, but to a right status before God. It was due to Abraham’s faith that God could consider him as being in a right status.
The word logizomai also has commercial connotations and was borrowed from the world of commerce. It can mean “to calculate,” or “to credit.” The term is used in the Septuagint[ii] in regard to calculating the redemption price of a slave by counting the slave’s years of service (Lev. 27:50). Logizomai can refer to an appraisal of value, as when 2 Chronicles 9:20 says that silver was considered to be of little value in Solomon’s day.
Scriptures in which the term is used as a metaphor from commerce include
2 Corinthians 5:19 and 2 Timothy 4:16, both of which refer to people’s sins not being counted against them or “laid to their account” (ASV, 2 Timothy 4:16). If there were a ledger recording what was owed by them to pay for their sins, this ledger would be clear. The sins do not constitute a debit on their account because their debts have been paid by someone else. There is no mention of credits from their benefactor’s account having appeared in the forgiven sinner’s ledger, but the account has simply been settled.
A word related to logizomai, and sharing the same root, is ellogeo, meaning “to charge.” Nor does this word inherently denote imputation. The word is used in Philemon 18 when Paul tells Philemon that if Onesimus owes him anything it can be charged to Paul’s account. While it’s true that money from Paul’s account will go into that of Onesimus, and in that sense constitutes what may be considered a transfer of funds, Paul’s own status has not been transferred to Onesimus. The slave does not become a Roman citizen because a Roman citizen paid his debt. Nor do Christians have the perfect moral virtue of Jesus transferred to them because he has paid their debt.
When it is said that Abraham’s faith was “credited to him as righteousness,” the use of logizomai, translated “credited,” does not mean that something, namely righteousness, was transferred to Abraham’s account from the account of God or anyone else. The King James translators’ use of “imputed” for logizomai was not the best choice. That God credited Abraham’s faith as righteousness does not mean that righteousness was imputed to him from someone else’s store of meritorious virtue.
[ii] The Greek translation of the Old Testament popular in Jesus’ day and sometimes cited in the New Testament.