What Is Imputation?

February 07, 2017

by Brandon Crowe

The use of technical theological terms is important for communicating with care key truths about what is revealed in Scripture. Quite often, however, these terms are either not found in Scripture (such as Trinity) or are used in specific ways that may not fit with every use of a given term in Scripture. But such use of technical language is important and legitimate, since it is the task of theology to explain in a systematic way the coherent teaching of all of Scripture without simply repeating Scripture.

This brings us to the sometimes debated term imputation. Imputation is a theological term that comes from the teaching of Scripture (see, e.g., Rom. 4:5) and communicates with precision some important aspects of the gospel. So what does imputation mean? In brief, in Reformed theology imputation most often refers to the legal (or forensic) crediting of Jesus’s perfect righteousness to believers by faith for justification (another important theological term). Imputation communicates that believers are made right with God (or justified) on the basis of the obedience of Christ (both active and passive—again, key theological terms). By Jesus’s active obedience he meets the demands of perfect righteousness God has always required of humanity. By Jesus’s passive obedience, he pays the penalty due to humanity on account of sin. Additionally, beyond the imputation of Christ’s full obedience to believers, imputation may also refer to the counting of believers’ sins to Christ as the sin-bearing substitute.

Imputation thus refers to the way that Jesus’s full obedience that meets the demands for what is required for peace with God can count on behalf of his people. Imputation describes the legal means by which our perfect representative’s actions can benefit us by faith. Apart from the perfect obedience of Christ imputed to us, we are not able to meet the demands of a holy, just, and perfect God. Imputation is therefore at the heart of the gospel message: the requirements for acceptance with God cannot be met by sinful humanity, but the eternal Son of God—who condescended and took on flesh for our sake—has accomplished in the likeness of sinful flesh what sinful humanity could never do. Indeed, Adam’s first sin is imputed to all humanity descending from him naturally, and therefore Adam’s sin has legally binding consequences for all who are born “in him.” Likewise—but better—Christ’s entire righteousness has legal consequences for all those who are “in him,” and this is explained by means of imputation (cf. Rom. 5:12–21). The Bible’s “in him” language also points to the importance of union with Christ, which is another key piece of the puzzle that explains how Christ’s full righteousness benefits believers (on which see the helpful discussion of John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.1.1).

To conclude, the Westminster Shorter Catechism captures the essence of imputation for justification well:

Q. What is justification?

A. Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone. [Italics added; edited for style.]

Select Bibliography

Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics. Vols. 3–4. Edited by John Bolt. Translated by John Vriend. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006–8.

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Edited by John T. McNeill. Translated by Ford Lewis Battles. 2 vols. LCC 20. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1960.

Crowe, Brandon D. The Last Adam: A Theology of the Obedient Life of Jesus in the Gospels. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017.

Dunson, Ben C. “Do Bible Words Have Bible Meaning? Distinguishing between Imputation as Word and Doctrine.” WTJ 75 (2013): 239–60.

Murray, John. The Imputation of Adam’s Sin. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959.

________. Redemption Accomplished and Applied. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955.

Piper, John. Counted Righteous in Christ: Should We Abandon the Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness? Wheaton: Crossway, 2002.

Vos, Geerhardus. Systematic Theology. Vol. 4. Edited and translated by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. et al. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015.

Brandon Crowe

Dr. Crowe (PhD, Edinburgh) is associate professor of New Testament at WTS.

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The Holy and Righteous Adam

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