The Basis of Justification

Derek Ouellette —  March 24, 2012

In Justification: 5 Views, Michael Horton, while explaining and defending the Reformed view of Justification, says:

“Justification is a verdict that declares sinners to be righteous even while they are inherently unrighteous, simply on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed to them” p.85

I would like to contend that Justification does not come on the “basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed on them”. Rather Justification comes on the basis of Christ’s faithfulness. Period.

And here’s why…

Justification is a legal term, as Horton observes, having to do with a declaration made by God (the Judge). If a judge were to declare a person “righteous” even though he was “unrighteous”, the judge himself would be violating the rules established by the court (or, in God’s case, by his own character). That is, by declaring a sinner “righteous” God would make himself unrighteous (since it would be an unrighteous declaration).

The way to escape this charge is to introduce the idea of “imputed righteousness.” The only way – so it is supposed -for God to avoid a judicial mishap is for Christ – the righteous or perfect one – to impute or transfer his perfection or righteousness on to the unrighteous person. This, in effect, pulls a wool over the judges eyes so that the person standing before him is no longer unrighteous, but righteous (or perfect).

It’s the cosmic equivalent of slight of hand.

The problem in my opinion is that the doctrine of imputation biblically speaking is a stretch at best. Sola fide is very near the heart of Evangelicalism of which the doctrine of sola scriptura came along to buttress. It’s for this reason that Evangelicals – if they weren’t so bloody hell-bend on defending their tradition – ought to seek a fresh way to biblically structure sola fide. And one way to do that is to get rid of this idea of “imputed” righteousness. (Yes I know the word “impute” is the confusing and unfortunate translation choice of the KJV and the NKJV, but to break this down for you: impute=λογίσηται=reckon, imputealien-transfer. The Bible does not teach an alien transfer of Christ’ righteousness or of Adam’s sin, neither does the word “impute” in the KJV and NKJV carry that meaning.)

The problem with holding that the basis of Justification is “Christ’s righteousness imputed” to the believer (aside from the point we just made, that the very idea of imputation is, biblically speaking, suspect), is that it views Christ’ righteousness in some abstract way stripped from it’s biblical context in the subject of Justification. Yes, Jesus was righteous, as in perfect or completely good. But his general goodness is not the point. Our justification is not based upon Jesus’ sinlessness.

What Paul is saying very specifically is that our justification is based upon Jesus’ faithful obedience to the Father in the very specific surrendering of himself on the cross. That is, our justification is based upon Jesus’ faithfulness, via Philippians 2, and declared upon us when the Judge sees the evidence he is looking for. Not a perfect man (he already found one!), but faith in the Faithful One.

Now we are back at the court scene where the Judge is peering down at the defendant from his high throne and asking the defendant to show him evidence of either innocence or guilt. What evidence? Faith in the Messiah! The defendant is declared guilty if she is found faithless, or she is declared innocent (justified!) if she is found to have faith.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • Craig L. Adams

    Thanks, Derek. I think you explained that very well.

    • Derek Ouellette

      Apparently I can do alright as long as I stay away from social issues and current events. :)


  • Dave Leigh

    Derek, Nice job of explaining justification from the new perspective. Here’s what I wonder:

    If faith in Christ results in complete cleansing of sin, along with rebirth/regeration in the Spirit, and thus “baptism into Christ” and his body, then are we not found to be sinless before God’s judgment seat, even though we are in fact sinners? And if the net result is that we are found to be as sinless as Christ, as a result of Christ’s faithfulness and our faith in him, then haven’t we in effect been found to be as righteous as Jesus Christ? As a result of faith in his sacrifice, we now possess a status that only Christ possessed. So what’s the difference between this and saying his righteousness has been imputed to us, since it is effected as a gift by his accomplishment on our behalf? Paul says we have been crucified with him and have put on Christ Jesus. That sounds to me like Jesus gave me something only he possessed to give. I am not trying to be argumentative. I’m trying to figure out what I’m missing in this argument by the NPP advocates. Thanks for any help you can provide.

    • Derek Ouellette

      If by “impute” the Reformers mean “reckon”, the NPP crew have no problem with that. However, following Calvin, traditional Reformed theology understands “impute” to mean “alien transfer”. The NPP rejects the notion of “alien transfer” of either Christ’s righteousness or Adam’s sin for the simple reason that the Bible doesn’t teach it explicitly. The idea that the Reformers want to get across can be reached by appealing to a category that Paul himself reaches for, the doctrine of participation in Christ. You said it well, “Paul says we have been crucified with him and have put on Christ Jesus”. Therefore, it’s not a transfer of Christ’ status or character, but of Christ himself (of which those things come along for the ride). So “in Christ” accomplishes the very same thing that Calvin’s “alien transfer” was intended to accomplish, only biblically. Unfortunately for Reformers there are other things that are tied up to their doctrine of imputation (such as, for example, their understanding of Original Sin) that falls into jeopardy once you undermine the doctrine of imputation.

      The NPP crew want to be accurate to Paul, for the Reformers this idea has consequences.

      (Another factor confuses the very role justification plays. For the Reformers, Justification has been about “getting in”, for the NPP crew it’s about “being in”…. but that will take some time to work out. Read my ebook – to be released in 2028! [assuming the rapture hasn’t happened yet. 😉 ])

  • Dave Leigh

    2028? At that point, if I’m still alive, you may have to read it to me.

    Seriously, though, thanks for sharing your point of view. You’ve given me something to think about.

  • Tom Eggebeen

    Nicely done … more and more, as we carefully read the NT as a Jewish document, especially Paul, we’re learning that the Reformation take on “faith” went in some directions other than those indicated in Scripture. Most importantly, your take on it, which I think is solid NT all the way, sets our attention on Jesus and his faithfulness to the Father. The Reformation, and especially evangelical/fundamentalist groups in the last 75 years have made us, or the quality of our faith, the center. Hence, the constant testing of “faith,” with doctrinal questions and bullet points. Groups that glibly claim to be Jesus-centered often end up being “believer-centered,” instead.