Imputation by B. B. Warfield

Reprinted from "The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge," edited by Samuel Macauley Jackson, D.D., LL.D., v. pp. 465-467 (copyright by Funk and Wagnalls Company, New York, 1909).


The theological use of the term "imputation" is probably rooted ultimately in the employment of the verb imputo in the Vulgate to translate the Greek verb logizesthai in Ps. xxxii. 2. This passage is quoted by Paul in Rom. iv. 8 and made one of the foundations of his argument that, in saving man, God sets to his credit a righteousness without works. It is only in these two passages, and in the two axiomatic statements of Rom. iv. 4 and v. 13 that the Vulgate uses imputo in this connection (cf., with special application, II Tim. iv. 16; Philemon 18). There are other passages, however, where it might just as well have been employed, but where we have instead reputo, under the influence of the mistaken rendering of the Hebrew ḥashabh in Gen. xv. 6. In these passages the Authorized English Version improves on the Latin by rendering a number of them (Rom. iv. 11, 22, 23, 24; II Cor. v. 19; James ii. 23) by "impute," and employing for the rest synonymous terms, all of which preserve the "metaphor from accounts" inherent in logizesthai (and ellogein) in this usage (cf. W. Sanday and A. C.

Headlam, "Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans," iv. 3), such as "count" (Rom. iv. 3, 5), "account" (Gal. iii. 6), and "reckon" (Rom. iv. 4, 9, 10); the last of which the Revised English Version makes its uniform rendering of logizesthai. Even the meager employment of imputo in the Latin version, however, supplied occasion enough for the adoption of that word in the precise language of theology as the technical term for that which is expressed by the Greek words in their so-called "commercial  sense, or what may, more correctly, be called their forensic or "judicial" sense, "that is, putting to one's account," or, in its twofold reference to the credit and debit sides, "setting to one's credit" or "laying to one's charge." 


From the time of Augustine (early fifth century), at least, the term "imputation" is found firmly fixed in theological terminology in this sense. But the applications and relations of the doctrine expressed by it were thoroughly worked out only in the discussions which accompanied and succeeded the Reformation. In the developed theology thus brought into the possession of the Church, three several acts of imputation were established and expounded. These are the imputation of Adam's sin to his posterity; the imputation of the sins of His people to the Redeemer; the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to His people. Though, of course, with more or less purity of conception and precision of application, these three great doctrines became the property of the whole Church, and found a place in the classical theology of the Roman, Lutheran, and Reformed alike. In the proper understanding of the conception, it is important to bear in mind that the divine act called "imputation" is in itself precisely the same in each of the three great transactions into which it enters as a constituent part. The grounds on which it proceeds may differ; the things imputed may be different; and the consequent treatment of the person or persons to which the imputation is made may and will differ as the things imputed to them differ. But in each and every case alike imputation itself is simply the act of setting to one's account; and the act of setting to one's account is in itself the same act whether the thing set to his account stands on the credit or debit side of the account, and whatever may be the ground in equity on which it is set to his account. That the sin of Adam was so set to the account of his descendants that they have actually shared in the penalty which was threatened to it; and that the sins of His people were so set to the account of our Lord that He bore them in His own body on the tree, and His merits are so set to their account that by His stripes they are healed, the entirety of historical orthodox Christianity unites in affirming. 


Opposition to these doctrines has, of course, not been lacking in the history of Christian thought. The first instance of important contradiction of the fundamental principle involved is presented by the Pelagian movement (see "Pelagius, Pelagian Controversies"), which arose at the beginning of the fifth century. The Pelagians denied the equity and, therefore, under the government of God, the possibility of the involvement of one free agent in the acts of another; they utterly denied, therefore, that men either suffer harm from Adam's sin or profit by Christ's merits. By their examples only, they said, can either Adam or Christ affect us; and by free imitation of them alone can we share in their merits or demerits. It is not apparent why Pelagius permitted himself such extremity of denial. What he had at heart to assert was the inamissibility by the human subject of plenary ability of will to do all righteousness. To safeguard this he had necessarily to deny all subjective injury to men from Adam's sin (and from their own sins too, for that matter), and the need or actuality of subjective grace for their perfecting. But there was no reason growing out of this point of sight why he might not allow that the guilt of Adam's sin had been imputed to his posterity, and had supplied the ground for the infliction upon them of external penalties temporal or eternal; or that the merits of Christ might be imputed to His people as the meritorious ground of their relief from these penalties, as well as of the forgiveness of their own actual sins and of their reception into the favor of God and the heavenly blessedness. Later Pelagianizers found this out; and it became not uncommon (especially

after Duns Scotus' strong assertion of the doctrine of "immediate imputation") for the imputation of Adam's sin to be exploited precisely in the interest of denial or weakening of the idea of the derivation of inherent corruption from Adam. A very good example of this tendency of thought is supplied by the Roman Catholic theologian Ambrosius Catharinus, whose admirable speech to this effect at the Council of Trent is reported by Father Paul ("History of the Council of Trent," E. T. London, 1676, p. 165). Even Zwingli was not unaffected by it. He was indeed free from the Pelagianizing attenuation of the corruption of nature which is the subjective effect on his posterity of Adam's sin. With him, "original sin" was both extensively and intensively a total depravity, the fertile source of all evil action. But he looked upon it rather as a misfortune than a fault, a disease than a sin; and he hung the whole weight of our ruin on our direct participation in Adam's guilt. As a slave can beget only a slave, says he, so all the progeny of man under the curse are born under the curse. 


In sharp contradiction to the current tendency to reduce to the vanishing-point the subjective injury wrought by Adam's sin on his posterity, the churches gave themselves to emphasizing the depth of the injury and especially its sinfulness. Even the Council of Trent acknowledged the transfusion into the entire human race of "sin, which is the death of the soul." The Protestants, who, as convinced Augustinians, were free from the Pelagianizing bias of Rome, were naturally even more strenuous in asserting the evil and guilt of native depravity. Accordingly they constantly remark that men's native guilt in the sight of God rests not merely upon the imputation to them of Adam's first sin, but also upon the corruption which they derive from him - a mode of statement which meets us, indeed, as early as Peter Lombard ("Sentences," II. xxx.) and for the same reason. The polemic turn given to these statements has been the occasion of a remarkable misapprehension, as if it were intended to subordinate the imputation of Adam's transgression to the transmission of his corrupted nature as the source of human guilt. Precisely the contrary is the fact. The imputation of Adam's transgression was not in dispute; all parties to the great debate of the age fully recognized it; and it is treated therefore as a matter of course. What was important was to make it clear that native depravity was along with it the ground of our guilt before God. Thus it was sought to hold the balance true, and to do justice to both elements in a complete doctrine of original sin. Meanwhile the recovery of the great doctrine of justification by faith threw back its light upon the doctrine of the satisfaction of Christ which had been in the possession of the Church since Anselm; and the better understanding of this doctrine, thus induced, in turn illuminated the doctrine of sin, whose correlative it is. Thus it came about that in the hands of the great Protestant leaders of the sixteenth century, and of their successors, the Protestant systematizers of the seventeenth century, the threefold doctrine of imputation - of Adam's sin to his posterity, of the sins of His people to the Redeemer, and of the righteousness of Christ to His people - at last came to its rights as the core of the three constitutive doctrines of Christianity - the sinfulness of the human race, the satisfaction of Jesus Christ, and justification by faith. The importance of the doctrine of imputation is that it is the hinge on which these three great doctrines turn, and the guardian of their purity. 


Of course the Church was not permitted to enjoy in quiet its new understanding of its treasures of doctrine. Radical opponents arose in the Reformation age itself, the most important of whom were the Socinians (see "Socinus, Faustus, Socinians"). By them it was pronounced an inanity to speak of the transference of either merit or demerit from one person to another: we can be bad with another's badness, or good with another's goodness, they said, as little as we can be white with another's whiteness. The center of the Socinian assault was upon the doctrine of the satisfaction of Christ: it is not possible, they affirmed, for one person to bear the punishment due to another. But their criticism cut equally deeply into the Protestant doctrines of original sin and justification by faith. The influence of their type of thought, very great from the first,

increased as time went on and became a factor of importance both in the Arminian revolt at the beginning of the seventeenth century and in the rationalistic defection a hundred years later. Neither the Arminians (e.g. Limborch, Curcellaeus) nor the Rationalists (e.g. Wegscheider) would hear of an imputation of Adam's sin, and both attacked with arguments very similar to those of the Socinians also the imputation of our sins to Christ or of His righteousness to us. Rationalism almost ate the heart out of the Lutheran Churches; and the Reformed Churches were saved from the same fate only by the prompt extrusion of the Arminian party and the strengthening of their position by conflict with it. In particular, about the middle of the seventeenth century the "covenant" or "federal" method of exhibiting the plan of the Lord's dealings with men (see "Cocceius, Johannes, and his School") began to find great acceptance among the Reformed Churches. There was nothing novel in this mode of conceiving truth. The idea was present to the minds of the Church Fathers and the Schoolmen; and it underlay Protestant thought, both Lutheran and Reformed, from the beginning, and in the latter had come to clear expression, first in Ursinus. But now it quickly became dominant as the preferable manner of conceiving the method of the divine dealing with men. The effect was to throw into the highest relief the threefold doctrine of imputation, and to make manifest as never before the dependency of the great doctrines of sin, satisfaction, and justification upon it. 


About the same time a brilliant French professor, Josué de la Place (see "Placeus, Josua"), of the Reformed school at Saumur, reduced all that could be called the imputation of Adam's sin to his posterity simply to this - that because of the sin inherent in us from our origin we are deserving of being treated in the same way as if we had committed that offense. This confinement of the effect of Adam's sin upon his posterity to the transmission to them of a sinful disposition - inherent sin - was certainly new in the history of Reformed thought: Andreas Rivetus (see "Rivet, Andre") had no difficulty in collecting a long line of "testimonies" from the confessions and representative theologians explicitly declaring that men are accounted guilty in God's sight, both because of Adam's act of transgression imputed to them and of their own sinful disposition derived from him. The conflict of views was no doubt rendered sharper, however, by the prevalence at the time of the "Covenant theology" in which the immediate imputation of Adam's transgression is particularly clearly emphasized. Thus "immediate" and "mediate" imputation (for by the latter name La Place came subsequently to call his view) were pitted against each other as mutually exclusive doctrines: as if the question at issue were whether man stood condemned in the sight of God solely on account of his "adherent" sin, or solely on account of his "inherent" sin. The former of these doctrines had never been held in the Reformed Churches, since Zwingli, and the latter had never been held in them before La Place. From the first both "adherent" and "inherent" sin had been confessed as the double ground of human guilt; and the advocates of the "Covenant theology" were as far as possible from denying the guilt of "inherent" sin. La Place's innovation was as a matter of course condemned by the Reformed world, formally at the Synod of Charenton (1644-1645) and in the Helvetic Consensus (1675) and by argument at the hands of the leading theologians - Rivetus, Turretin, Maresius, Driessen, Leydecker, and Marck. But the tendencies of the time were in its favor and it made its way. It was adopted by theologians like Wyttenbach, Endemann, Stapfer, Roell, Vitringa, Venema; and after a while it found its way through Britain to America, where it has had an interesting history-forming one of the stages through which the New England Theology (q.v.) passed on its way to its ultimate denial of the quality of sin involving guilt to anything but the voluntary acts of a free agent; and finally becoming one of the characteristic tenets of the so-called "New School Theology" of the Presbyterian Churches. Thus it has come about that there has been much debate in America upon "imputation," in the sense of the imputation of Adam's sin, and diverse types of theology have been framed, especially among the Congregationalists and Presbyterians, centering in differences of conception of this doctrine. Among the Presbyterians, for example, four such types are well marked, each of which has been taught by theologians of distinction. These are (1) the "Federalistic," characterized by its adherence to the doctrine of "immediate imputation," represented, for example, by Dr. Charles Hodge; (2) the "New School," characterized by

its adherence to the doctrine of "mediate imputation," represented, for example, by Dr. Henry B. Smith; (3) the "Realistic," which teaches that all mankind were present in Adam as generic humanity, and sinned in him, and are therefore guilty of his and their common sin, represented, for example, by Dr. W. G. T. Shedd; and (4) one which may be called the "Agnostic," characterized by an attempt to accept the fact of the transmission of both guilt and depravity from Adam without framing a theory of the mode of their transmission or of their relations one to the other, represented, for example, by Dr. R. W. Landis. See "Adam"; "Atonement"; "Justification" "Redemption" "Satisfaction"; "Sin." 

BIBLIOGRAPHY: The literature of the subject is the literature of "Sin," "Atonement," and "Justification" (qq. v.). Special treatment is usually given also in the systems of doctrinal theology, especially of the Calvinistic type. Consult: A. Rivetus, "Opera," Rotterdam, iii. 1660, pp. 798 ff.; R. Rüetschi, "Geschichte und Kritik der kirchlichen Lehre von . . . Sündenfall," Leiden, 1881; C. Hodge, in "Theological Essays," New York, 1846, pp. 128-217; A. Schweizer, "Die protestantischen Centraldogmen," Zürich, 1854-1856; W. Cunningham, "The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation," Edinburgh, 1866, pp. 371 ff.; J. Buchanan, "The Doctrine of Justification," Edinburgh, 1867, pp. 279, 321-323, 334, 337; G. P. Fisher, in the New Englander, xxvii. 1868, pp. 468-516; J. Müller, "The Christian Doctrine of Sin," Edinburgh, ii. 1868, pp. 342 ff.; T. J. Crawford, "The Doctrine of Holy Scripture respecting the Atonement," Edinburgh, 1871, pp. 181-183, 424; R. W. Landis, "The Doctrine of Original Sin as Received and Taught by the Churches of the Reformation," Richmond, 1884; W. G. T. Shedd, "Dogmatic Theology," New York, ii. 1888, pp. 29, 42, 57-63, 192-194; H. B. Smith, "System of Christian Theology," ed. W. S. Karr, New York, 1886, pp. 283-323; R. V. Foster, "Systematic Theology," Nashville, 1898, pp. 408-413; W. A. Brown, "Christian Theology in Outline," New York, 1906, pp. 285, 290-291, 311, 362.

By Topic


By Scripture

Old Testament









1 Samuel

2 Samuel

1 Kings

2 Kings

1 Chronicles

2 Chronicles








Song of Solomon


















New Testament







1 Corinthians

2 Corinthians





1 Thessalonians

2 Thessalonians

1 Timothy

2 Timothy





1 Peter

2 Peter

1 John

2 John

3 John



By Author

Latest Links