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Thursday, March 30, 2006 

Justification and Imputation: Some Questions

Due to various discussions with friends, a series of questions developed regarding justification and its implications for the imputation of Christ's righteousness. Many theologians have talked about the double imputation (or crediting, reckoning) typically seen in the Scriptures.

The first occurs when human sin is imputed or credited to Christ on the cross when He bears our sin as the perfect Substitute, the Lamb of God. The second (more controversial) imputation is seen when Christ credits or reckons His righteousness on the believer's behalf.

What follows is several questions regarding exactly how this occurs, as well as some objections some have brought to the issue. Questions such as the nature between justification and forgiveness, the role of justification and good works, and other thorny queries are dealt with below. Hopefully, the following is illuminating, biblically faithful, and helpful.

Objection #1
Is justification synonymous with the forgiveness of sin in Scripture? "If according to the Apostle those propositions be equivalent, 'Blessed is the man whose iniquities are forgiven', and 'Blessed is the man to whom the God justifies', then according to the Apostle, justification and forgiveness of sins are all one."[1]

While all true students of the Bible readily and quickly admit/affirm that justification is synonymous with forgiveness, it does not follow, as the quote has done, that justification is tautologous with forgiveness. This is clear from any of the several other categories justification is aligned with (e.g., reconciliation, II Corinthians 5:19 – 21; adoption, Romans 8:23 – 24, 29 – 30; unity, Ephesians 4:4 – 7, 13, 15 – 16, etc.). To the extent that justification is synonymous with forgiveness, it is also synonymous with reconciliation, adoption, and unity, etc. Since (presumably) not even Clifford would claim that unity, for example, is the exact same as forgiveness of sins, he is claiming more than the Scriptures prove. "Justification" is a wider sphere than "forgiveness of sins."

What the Scriptures teach us here is that justification (salvation by faith) is often used shorthand for the whole salvific process that unites the ordo salutis with the historia salutis. Based merely on the logic provided by Clifford above, we would come to the conclusion that forgiveness (not even justification!) is based on works, as James cites Genesis 15 as Paul did.[2] This is patently false, and I doubt even Clifford would want to argue for that.

Exegetically, this fails on two grounds. Based on his citation – "If according to the Apostle those propositions be equivalent, 'Blessed is the man whose iniquities are forgiven', and 'Blessed is the man to whom the God justifies', then according to the Apostle, justification and forgiveness of sins are all one" – I will assume he is alluding to Romans 4:1 – 8. This is the only place David’s line from Psalm 32 is put into contrast with any sort of ‘justifying’ language. (However, his line 'Blessed is the man to whom the God justifies' is either 1.) his collation, or 2.) a hack of Romans 4:8, which by switching terms begs the question.)[3]

On Romans 4
Paul’s goal in his argument here in the early parts of chapter four regard whether or not Abraham was justified by faith or by works (4:4 – 5), not what the essence of justification is or is not. So in some sense, it is foolish to draw a final definition from one pericope (ignoring the rest of the viable biblical data) that is not explicit on the nature of justification. This would be as equally foolish as building a theology of justification from Matthew 11:19. To understand whether or not [justification] and [forgiveness of sins] are coinciding categories is going to require more exegesis than merely an appeal to Romans 4. But we will press on in the exegesis.

Despite this fatal error, notice the logic Paul is constructing from vv. 5 – 7. In v. 5 he states his thesis, that faith imputes Christ's righteousness to us (not works). Verse six follows with a καθάπερ, “just (exactly) as.” The content of v. 6 is meant to support the statement made in v. 5. Paul says that David “speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteous apart from works…,” and then quotes Psalm 32.

So, Paul understands Psalm 32:1 – 2 as a support for imputing (or counting, λογίζεται) righteousness by faith, not works. Regardless of the actual content of Psalm 32, I think there is no other way to understand what Paul is doing here: Psalm 32 is subject to Paul's preceding argument (because of the καθάπερ and the fact that Paul is logically building verses on top of each other). While Clifford is busy arguing backwards from Romans 4:8 to 4:3, Paul’s logic is working the exact opposite direction. Romans 4:8/Psalm 32 is being interpreted in light of Romans 4:3 – exactly what Clifford is not doing. Jonathan Edwards calls this an “instance” of justification (Owen called it a “particular”), and not the whole of it.[4]

The second exegetical error is thinking that there is a tension between what Paul is arguing in vv. 1 – 6, and the content of the Davidic psalm in vv. 7 – 8, which Clifford does. This is contrary to the fact. Psalm 32:1, and its quotation in Romans 4:7, is in fact a wonderful definition of imputation, both the non-imputation (negative imputation) of the individual’s sin – i.e., God does not impute a person’s sin to his account – and the imputation (positive imputation) of Christ’s righteousness to the individual’s account. If it can be shown that Psalm 32:1 – 2 can support the double imputation of justification, than 1.) Clifford is wrong in his exegesis, and 2.) Paul’s argument in Romans 4 is unscathed.

Arguing from Psalm 32
Psalm 32:1 – 2 is what Paul quotes in Romans 4. He quotes the LXX perfectly, but leaves off the subsequent in v. 2. (According to Clifford’s logic – supra – God’s imputation of sin is “all one” with not being deceitful.) These verses form a parallelism, and the MT form is classic Hebrew poetry. The antecedent of Psalm 32:1 and v. 2 are paralleled to give a classic definition of non-imputation: the Lord (יהוה) will not count (חשׁב, LXX: λογίσηται) his sin.

The subsequent of v. 1, however, is our definition of the positive imputation; this is the phrase that corresponds to verse six’s “God counts righteous.” This is clearly seen in the language, “… and whose sins are covered.” Covered there is interpreting כּסה. It is not used often in the OT, but is translated to cover, to clothe, to fill in (fill up), etc.[5] So the question before us is: in what sense is David using כּסה to indicate how God deals with our sins?

At least twice the word is used in the sense of “cover up,” to “put over” (Psalm 80:10; Proverbs 24:31). However, far more often this word – and its derivate, כּסוּי - is used in talking about “to clothe, to dress.” The best example of this occurs in Numbers 4, where God dispenses instructions with how to dress the articles & elements of OC liturgy for travel. Here the words occur often (4:5, 6, 8, 14, etc.). The ark of the Covenant, which only the High Priest was allowed to see once a year, had to be covered in royal furs and colored silks so that during travel the Israelites wouldn’t have to keep averting their eyes, lest they die. In this sense, כּסה and כּסוּי denote a hiding of the ark’s true nature, as well as a dressing of its regality and sacredness, so that the Jews wouldn’t sin. It seems to us that this correlates exactly with what is happening in Psalm 32:1. The sinfulness of man is covered. However, what Clifford fails to account for, and this is the killing stroke, is determining the following: what are the individual’s sins covered by? What blanket will God cover our sins with? No doubt, Clifford might answer something like, “Christ’s blood.” This is absolutely correct, and while His blood covers our heinousness, and keeps it hidden, from the outside all that is seen is Christ’s blood, which in His Father’s eyes, is the only token of pure righteousness.

Thus, Psalm 32:1a & 2a describe the non-imputation of our sin, while v. 1b describes the positive imputation of Christ’s righteousness (the dressing which covers our sin). This shows that Psalm 32, as cited in Romans 4, affirms and upholds what Paul had said earlier about Abraham’s justification, and what the Reformed have always taught.

Objection #2
The atonement wrought by Christ is our only righteousness and it is imputed to us by faith. Justification is not a "once-for-all" event but happens as often are we are forgiven.

The first sentence is of course wholly orthodox, and only varies to the extent of what he means by “the atonement.” While we may entirely agree, based off what else he has said, he very well may mean by “atonement” only the dying and sin-bearing work of Christ, and that this is our sole righteousness imputed to us. In theological categories, he affirms the non-imputation and denies the positive imputation. Regardless of which route Clifford takes, Piper’s Counted Righteous in Christ[6] and Sproul’s Faith Alone[7] easily answer his argument. You’ll forgive me if I don’t attempt to re-lay the exegetical groundwork these men have already established.

However, his second statement (“Justification is not…”) is a bit more unique, and may not be addressed by the above authors. Nevertheless, it is easily laid to rest, since it so emphatically goes against the entire tenor of the NT. Justification is often referred to as a past event: Romans 3:24, 4:2, 5:1 (“Having been justified…”); I Corinthians 6:10 (“…you were justified…”); Titus 3:7; James 2:24. When justification is regarded as a future act (viz., Romans 3:30), it is still regarded as a one-time act, with a beginning and a completion. This is why, during the height of High Orthodoxy in Britain, some heterodox theology crept up concerning the idea that justification was declared in eternity by God.[8] This idea of eternal justification is on the opposite end of the spectrum from a continual justification. In summary, while justification is often past tense, whether future or past, justification is always a single event, and never portrayed in Scripture as an ongoing process.

At root here is a confusion mentioned earlier. Theological terms such as ‘regeneration,’ ‘conversion,’ ‘adoption,’ etc., are used by theologians to map out biblical concepts that are not as neat and tidy as Reymond’s New Systematic Theology. It is obvious that the Apostle's duty was epistle writing, not doctrinal monographs, and thus mature reflection is required to adequately handle the Word of Truth. While activities such as conversion, sanctification, and subjection have dynamic components with ongoing effects in believers’ lives, other terms, such as regeneration and justification, are not activities at all, but events – carefully nuanced and defined – that have a “once and for all” character to them. Clifford, attempting to deal with the near overwhelming categories of historical theology, exegesis, and dogmatics, is clearly mixing his categories.

Question #3
If Christ's active righteousness were ours, then this does away with the motivation for good works since our righteousness can never be improved. "To assume that his active obedience had the same vicarious signficance as his death cannot but encourage an antinomian mentality."[9]

This is so wrong headed one wonders to what extent he is familiar with the New Testament This is incorrect. The two classic instances of positive imputation in the New Testament are Paul’s arguments in Romans 5 and his definitive statement in II Corinthians 5:21. In both of these cases Paul employs Christ’s active obedience in urging his epistle’s recipients on to good works.

Romans 5
First, in Romans 5:18 – 19, Paul argues that the One Man’s “act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.” Contrasting the Adamic paradigm of disobedience – sin – death with the Christic obedience – righteousness – life, Paul discusses the means and ends in 5:21. With his subject as grace, Paul notes that “grace should reign through righteousness” (διὰ δικαιοσύνης) which then leads “to eternal life.” Because of Christ’s active obedience on behalf of “the many,” Paul says, grace gives way to eternal life by means of the righteousness (i.e., good works) of believers “through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

In case this point is missed by the hearers in Rome, Paul goes on to deal with Clifford’s objection in the introduction to holiness that will feature in chapter six. Paul says in the very next verse, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” (Grace here, according to three verses prior to this, is the result of Christ’s obedient life.)[10] “By no means! (Romans 6:1 – 2).” Paul goes on to argue that since we have been baptized in Christ’s sin-bearing death and His perfectly obedient life (6:4), this is then the ground for our “walk in [the] newness of life.” Contra Clifford, the ground for our walking in life is Christ’s life spent walking in life.

II Corinthians 5
In case one thinks this only an isolated or accidental occurrence in Pauline theology, II Corinthians 5:21 highlights this as well. The Apostle begins by noting that because of Christ’s death and resurrection (death and life) compounded with His union to His Bride, we act according to love and according to Christ – not living for ourselves but for Him (5:14 – 15). Thus, good works (“living… for Him”) is based in this text from our union with Christ. But the question Paul pursues is, how are we to be unified with God? How can we be reconciled to Him?

The answer Paul gives comes a few verses later in 5:21. Christ, who knew no sin, is made to become our sin, for the purpose (note the ἵνα clause) of our becoming the righteousness of God, thus reconciled and joined to Him. What is Paul’s conclusion from this in the following verse? We are to work “together with Him” to perfect the holiness hinted at in the Mosaic tabernacle, when God dwelt among His people in the wilderness (II Corinthians 6:1, 16 – 18; cf. Leviticus 26:12). To clarify, the imputation of Christ’s active righteousness is the means by which unity with Him is possible, and union with Him – in this text – is the ground for our sanctification.[11] Far from being a detriment to good works, the antinomian mentality cannot ultimately flourish in one for whom Christ has imputed His perfect, Torah-righteousness.

Thus I argue that the two most well known instances cited in support of positive imputation show that good works will inevitably follow, and anticipate Clifford’s lamed rebuttal. Romans 5 and II Corinthians 5:21 easily parry his thrust, and find it wanting. No doubt that if more time and exegesis were allowed, further illustrations from the Scriptures could be procured.

The NT Paradigm
Finally, looking broadly at the way Christ and His apostles’ reasoned, the general principle in the New Testament seems to be that we follow in Christ’s footsteps. Thus, it would go against the grain of NT teaching to expect fallen man to in some sense fulfill the Law (Romans 8:4) if Christ had not first completed/fulfilled the Law on our behalf and then given us the means (the Spirit, Romans 8:2 – 3) to complete it ourselves. Without a positive imputation, we are only unjustly acquitted criminals, doomed to find ourselves quickly back in court before the Judge. The only motivation offered to believers for good works is what has already transpired in the heavenly courts and in their own souls.

Question #4
If we have the active righteousness of Christ then this empties the atonement. Those who affirm a two-fold imputation, the active and passive righteousness of Christ, actually deny the latter because we would need no sacrifice if Christ fulfilled the law for us. If the Orthodox theory of the imputation of the active righteousness of Christ is correct then "we would need no pardon, for he that is reputed to be innocent, by fulfilling the law, is reputed never to have sinned [...] therefore, such an imputation of Christ's righteousness to us would make his satisfaction null or vain."[12]

This problem is quickly answered if we substitute “Adam” for “Christ.” Thus it reads, “Those who affirm a two-fold imputation, the active and passive righteousness of Christ, actually deny the latter because we would need no sacrifice if ADAM fulfilled the law for us.” Upon supplying "Adam" for "Christ," we see that this statement is true. Which means this statement in the original is false, since Adam didn’t fulfill the Law for us. What this statement fails to account for is sin, and specifically the Divine Curse humanity is under post-Fall.

One could possibly theorize that in a vacuum - a historically, relationally sterile possible world - Clifford’s statement is true. However, it is simply not worth puzzling over very long, since it is so obvious that this possible world can never obtain. We live under God’s Curse, which took place in a specific place and time. The Fall is localized, even if the exact details are not. Thus, to say that a man may possess all of Christ’s righteousness still cannot save him, since he still lives under a Curse. Nor can any amount of mortal suffering alleviate the Curse, since only a Divine Man could bear the eternal wrath stored up for any who have broken the Law and come under the Curse.

(Anselm’s answer in Cur Deus Homo regarding the necessary divinity and humanity of Christ helps us in this regard. Anselm argued that Christ had to be fully divine and fully human, otherwise His suffering could not have helped us. Had He been only Divine, He would not have been truly man, and thus able to federally represent us. Had He been mere human, and not fully Divine, He would have been unable to bear the full, eternal wrath of God that burned towards humanity.[13]

This idea helps us when we come to His active obedience as well. Had He been merely human, He would not have been able to transcend the Curse, and be upright and holy as Adam was pre-lapse. Had He been only Divine, His perfections would have never intersected with our faculties.)

Clifford’s objection here is entirely man-centered, since he is not taking into account God’s wrath, which Christ suffered for, nor God’s Law, which both prohibited (negatively) and commanded (positively). Instead, he remains preoccupied with human sin and human duty, which inevitably leads to a weaker and lesser view of the Atonement.

Question #5
What about Clifford's historical methodology?

At this point, it was getting late, and I get a bit less generous. While I still think the following accords with Christian love, please take some of the saltier remarks with a grain of salt.)

Allow me a few caveats regarding Clifford et al. First, Alan C. Clifford has several characteristics that some find disturbing. They can perhaps best be grouped according to historical methodology and his personal beliefs.

Historical Methodology
Regarding first his historical theological method, Clifford is an uncritical imbiber of a nineteenth century dogmatic tradition that consistently fails to appropriate both a diachronic as well as synchronic view of history. For instance, Clifford seems nearly completely uninformed of problems when dealing with Owen vs. Wesley’s view and use of Aristotle without appreciating the changes that underwent Aristotelian philosophy during the course of time. While criticizing Owen for Aristotelianism, Clifford wholly adopts anything and everything David Hume and Bertrand Russell have to say – uncritically – and never once comes to grips with his own presuppositions. For more in this vein, see Carl Trueman’s devastating critique of Clifford in The Claims of Truth.[14]

In a similar concept, Clifford is pantomiming in Atonement and Justification. He uses the same tired, worn out accusations Kendall, Hall, McGrath, and Armstrong all used at other times.[15] Now unless Clifford has new arguments (which he doesn’t), one would think you would not want to stake your academic career against the united coalition of Heinrich Heppe, Richard Muller, R.S. Clark, C. Trueman, Bob Letham, Joel Beeke, and Paul Helm.[16] When all of these guys write on Calvin and the Calvinists, and they all say the same thing, I – for one – am siding with them. I will gladly side with them over against some neo-orthodox heterodox/liberals.

Clifford says in his introduction on page ix that despite the fact that Owen and Wesley lived in different ages, different contexts, different continents (at times) and were fighting different theological battles, that none of this matters and their theological views can be compared 1:1. This methodology is incredibly sloppy, and should not be copied by any student seeking to get serious about historical theology. (I am also frustrated that Clifford quotes Owen’s V. 5 less than ten times compared to nearly exclusively looking at V. 10. This is excusable when dealing with atonement, but sloppy when dealing with justification.)[17]

Personal Beliefs
Finally, as regards Clifford’s personal views, I do not see how he can escape the charge of Amyrauldianism… at all. Though I think his theology is in danger of falling into universalism, I can rationally construe a possible world in which this does not happen. I cannot, however, construe of such a place in which he is not a dyed-in-the-wool Amyrauldian.[18]

* * *

Summary & Conclusion
If I have been successful, I have shown that Clifford’s objections do not stack up to the gospel truth handed down to us in the Bible.
  1. He improperly equates justification and forgiveness of sin by eisegeting Romans 4 and making equivocations where there are none. (Jonathan Edwards calls this an “instance” of justification, and not the whole of it. Owen calls it a “particular.”)
  2. He misunderstands the place of positive imputation and good works by not seeing the exegetical links Paul forges between these two ideas and having unbiblical notions of motivation.
  3. Thirdly, he does not recognize the place of the Divine Curse in the historia salutis and thus misappropriates Christ’s work in His life and in His death.
  4. (Finally, he is an Amyrauldian and a shaky historical theologian who follows old, worn out arguments that have been beaten to death long ago by scholars better than most.)


[1]A good deal of the quotes are from interaction with a certain book (mentioned later) by Alan C. Clifford. Atonement and Justification: English Evangelical Theology 1640 - 1790, An Evaluation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990). Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are from this edition. Back

[2]Both Paul and James argue from Genesis 15:6 - "And Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness." James, of course, uses it to establish a living faith in 2:18ff. Back

[3]Upon further study, I stand by this statement, and cannot recognize Clifford's quote. The assumption is that he is collating several biblical themes into a single phrase. Back

[4]Edwards, Jonathan Justification by Faith Alone ed. Don Kistler (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 2002) p. 91. Back

[5]HALOT; Sorry, I use e-Sword. No page numbers... Back

[6]Piper, John Counted Righteous In Christ: Should We Abandon the Imputation of Christ's Righteousness? (Crossway, 2002). Back

[7]Sproul, R.C. Faith Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification (Baker, 1995). Michael S. Horton's foreward is vintage Horton. Back

[8]Representatives of this view include Tobias Crisp, John Eaton, John Saltmarsh, and William Twisse. This view did not gain any notoriety outside of select English and Dutch theologians of the seventeenth century. We do not endorse this position, but merely use it as a reference point. Back

[9]Clifford Atonement and Justification p. 188. Back

[10]In v. 21, Paul associates Adam's one deed with sin, while he associates Christ's righteous life with grace which "reign[s] through righteousness." This is the fruit of v. 17, which ties "the abundance of grace" to "the one man Jesus Christ." Back

[11]Unity and union, as they are used in this sentence, should not be confused. The first term is not the theological position of "union in Christ." The second term is. Imputation is not the ground for union with Christ, it is the fruit; nevertheless, it does make possible our unity - i.e., our ability to be present in God's presence.Back

[12]Clifford Atonement and Justification p. 192. Back

[13]Anselm's position is spelled out in this online text here. Back

[14]Trueman, Carl R. The Claims of Truth: John Owen’s Trinitarian Theology (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1998) p. 216ff. Back

[15]For a short good article dealing with both the revisionists and the rebuttals, see this article on "Calvin and the Calvinists" by David Sutherland writing for RTJ here. Back

[16]The aforementioned rebuttals. Though not writing to present a unified front, their writing presented a (basically) harmonious understanding of the issue. Back

[17]I think my counting may have been off. Clifford may not cite Owen's Volume V so infrequently. That is, Clifford only consorts with The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, and not his work on justification in the fifth volume. Back

[18]Go to this article here to get a great overview of Amyrauldianism, the "hypothetical universalism" position. Back

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Transplanted from the artic blight of Minnesota to the sunny paradise of SoCal, I am attending school and learning to say "dude." I like to think of myself as equal parts surf rash, Batman, heavy metal, Levinas, poetic license, and reformational. Other than creating blund blogs, I enjoy reading, sporting, and socializing with serious and funny people.
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