by Horatius Bonar
This "everlasting righteousness" comes to us through believing. We are "justified by faith" (Rom 5:1), the fruit of which is "peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ."
It is of this "everlasting righteousness" that the Apostle Peter speaks when he begins his second epistle thus: "Simon Peter, a servant and an apostle of Jesus Christ, to them that have obtained like precious faith with us, through the righteousness of God and our Savior Jesus Christ" (2 Pet 1:1).
This righteousness is "reckoned" or "imputed" to all who believe; so that they are treated by God as if it were actually theirs. They are entitled to claim all that which such righteousness can merit from God, as the Judge of righteous claims. It does not become ours gradually, or in fragments or drops; but is transferred to us all at once. It is not that so much of it is reckoned to us (so much to account, as men in business say) in proportion to the strength of our faith, or the warmth of our love, or the fervor of our prayers; but the whole of it passes over to us by imputation: we are "accepted in the Beloved" (Eph 1:6); we are "complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power" (Col 2:10). In its whole quality and quantity it is transferred to us. Its perfection represents us before God; and its preciousness, with all that that preciousness can purchase for us, henceforth belongs to us (1 Pet 1:7). The stone, the chief cornerstone, elect and precious,-this stone in all its preciousness is ours, not only for resting on, not only for acceptance, but for whatever its divine value can purchase for us. Possessed of this preciousness (imputed, but still ours), we go into the heavenly market, and buy what we need without stint or end. We get everything upon the credit of His name, and because not only has our unworthiness ceased to be recognized by God in His dealings with us, but our demerit been supplanted by the merit of One who is absolutely and divinely perfect. In His name we carry on all our transactions with God, and obtain all that we need by simply using it as our plea. The things that He did not do were laid to His charge, and He was treated as if He had done them all; so the things that He did do are put to our account, and we are treated by God as if we had done them all.
This is the scriptural meaning of reckoning or imputing, both in the Old Testament and the New. Let us look at a few of these.
Genesis 15:6: "It was imputed to him for righteousness;" i.e. it was so reckoned to him, that in virtue of it he was treated as being what he was not.
Genesis 31:15: "Are we not counted of him strangers?" Are we not treated by him as if we were strangers, not children?
Leviticus 7:18: "Neither shall it be imputed unto him that offereth it." The excellence of the peace-offering shall not be counted to him.
Numbers 18:27: "Your heave-offering shall be reckoned unto you as though it were the corn of the threshing-floor." It shall be accepted by God as if it were the whole harvest, and ye shall be treated by Him accordingly.
2 Samuel 19:19: "Let not my lord impute iniquity unto me, neither do thou remember that which thy servant did perversely." Do not deal with me according to my iniquity.
Psalm 32:2: "Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity"; to whom God does not reckon his iniquities, but treats him as if they were not (see also Psalm 106:31).
Romans 4:3: "It was counted to him for righteousness."
Romans 4:5: "His faith is counted for righteousness"; i.e., not as the righteousness, or as the substitution for it, but as bringing him into righteousness.
Romans 4:6: "Unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works."
Romans 4:8: "Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin."
Romans 4:11: "That righteousness might be imputed to them also."
Romans 4:24: "To whom it shall be imputed, if we believe on Him who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead."
2 Corinthians 5:19: "Not imputing their trespasses unto them."
Galatians 3:6: "It was accounted to him for righteousness."
Thus the idea of reckoning to one what does not belong to him, and treating him as if he really possessed all that is reckoned to him, comes out very clearly. This is God's way of lifting man out of the horrible pit and the miry clay; of giving him a standing and a privilege and a hope far beyond that which mere pardon gives, and no less far above that which the first Adam lost. To be righteous according to the righteousness of the first Adam, would have been much; but to be righteous according to the righteousness of the last Adam, the Lord from heaven, is unspeakably and inconceivably more.
"It is God that justifies"; and He does so by imputing to us a righteousness which warrants Him as the Judge to justify the unrighteous freely.
It is not simply because of this righteousness that Jehovah justifies; but by legally transferring it to us, so that we can use it, and plead it, and appear before God in it, just as if it were wholly our own. Romanists and Socinians have set themselves strongly against the doctrine of "imputed righteousness." But there it stands, written clearly and legibly in the divine word. There it stands, an essential part of the great Bible truth concerning sacrifice and substitution and suretyship. It is as deeply written in the book of Leviticus as in the Epistle to the Romans. It spreads itself over all Scripture; and rises gloriously into view in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, where the "obedience unto death" which makes up this righteousness was completed. There He, who as our substitute took flesh and was born at Bethlehem,-who as our substitute passed through earth, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,-consummated His substitution, and brought in the "everlasting righteousness"; the righteousness of which the apostle spoke when he reasoned that, "as by the disobedience of one many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous" (Rom 5:19); and when he proclaimed his abnegation of all other righteousnesses: "and be found in Him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is by the faith of Christ, even the righteousness which is of God by faith" (Phil 3:9). This is "the gift of righteousness" regarding which he says: "If by one man's offense death reigned by one; much more they which receive abundance of grace, and of the gift of righteousness, shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ" (Rom 5:17). The one man's offense rests upon all men "to condemnation" (Rom 5:18); 50 the one Man's righteousness, as the counteraction or removal of this condemnation, is available and efficacious "unto justification of life." The imputation of the first Adam's sin to us, and of the last Adam's righteousness, are thus placed side by side. The transference of our guilt to the Divine Substitute, and the transference of that Substitute's righteousness or perfection to us, must stand or fall together.
This righteousness of God was no common righteousness. It was the righteousness of Him who was both God and man; and therefore it was not only the righteousness of God, but in addition to this it was the righteousness of man. It embodied and exhibited all uncreated and all created perfection. Never had the like been seen or heard of in heaven or on earth before. It was the twofold perfection of Creatorhood and Creatorship in one resplendent center, one glorious Person; and the dignity of that Person gave a perfection, a vastness, a length and breadth, a height and depth, to that righteousness which never had been equaled, and which never shall be equaled for ever. It is the perfection of perfection; the excellency of excellency; the holiness of holiness. It is that in which God preeminently delighteth. Never had His law been so kept and honored before. Son of God and Son of man in one person, He in this twofold character keeps the Father's law, and in keeping it provides a righteousness so large and full, that it can be shared with others, transferred to others, imputed to others, and God be glorified (as well as the sinner saved) by the transference and imputation. Never had God been so loved as now; with all divine love and with all human love. Never had God been so served and obeyed, as now He has been by Him who is "God manifest in flesh." Never had God found one before, who for love to the holy law was willing to become its victim that it might be honored; who for love to God was willing not only to be made under the law, but by thus coming under it, to subject Himself to death, even the death of the cross; who for love to the fallen creature was willing to take the sinner's place, to bear the sinner's burden, to undergo the sinner's penalty, to assume the sinner's curse, to die the sinner's death of shame and anguish, and to go down in darkness to the sinner's grave.
The objections against imputation all resolve themselves into objections against substitution in any form. Vicarious suffering is even more unreasonable to some than vicarious obedience; and the arguments used in assailing the former apply with greater force against the latter. Yet human law recognizes both; the "laws of nature" show the existence of both; and the divine law, as interpreted by the great Lawgiver Himself, acknowledges both. Man is willing to act on the principle of substitution or representation by another in earthly transactions, such as the payment of debt, or the performance of duty, or the descent of property; but he is not so willing to admit it, or proceed upon it, in the great transaction between him and God as to condemnation and righteousness. That to which he objects not in temporal things, he repudiates in spiritual as unjust and unreasonable; giving one man the benefit of another's doings or another's sufferings; treating the man who has not paid the debt as if he had done so, because another has paid it for him; or recognizing the legal right of a man to large wealth or a vast estate, no part of which he had earned or deserved, but which had come to him as the gift and fruit of another's lifetime's toil. Men object not to receive any kind or amount of this world's goods from another, though they have done nothing to deserve them, but everything to make them unworthy of them; but they refuse to accept the favor of God, and a standing in righteousness before Him, on the ground of what a Substitute has done and suffered. In earthly things they are willing to be represented by another, but not in heavenly things. The former is all fair, and just, and legal; the latter is absurd, an insult to their understanding, and a depreciation of their worth! Yet if they prized the heavenly as much as they do the earthly blessing, they would not entertain such scruples nor raise such objections as to receiving it from another as the result of his work. If God is willing that Christ should represent us, who are we, that we should refuse to be represented by Him? If God is willing to deal with us on the footing of Christ's obedience, and to reckon that obedience to us as if it had been our own, who are we, that we should reject such a method of blessing, and call it unjust and impossible? This principle or theory of representation, of one man being treated far beyond his deserts in virtue of his being legally entitled to use the name or claims of another, runs through all earthly transaction; and why should it not in like manner pervade the heavenly?
Rejection of "imputed righteousness" because the words do not actually occur in Scripture, is foolish and weak. Such terms as Christianity, the Trinity, the Eucharist, Plenary Inspiration, are not to be found in the Bible; yet, inasmuch as the thing, or object, or truth which these words truly and accurately cover is there, the term is received as substantially accurate, and made use of without scruple. Such an objection savors more of little-minded caviling than of the truth-seeking simplicity of faith.
Refusal to accept the divine "theory" or doctrine of representation in and by another, indicates in many cases mere indifference to the blessing to be received; in others, resentment of the way in which that doctrine utterly sets aside all excellency or merit on our part. Men will win the kingdom for themselves; they will deserve eternal life; they will not take forgiveness or righteousness freely from another's hands; or be indebted to a Substitute for what they are persuaded they can earn by their personal doings. Because the plan of representation or substitution is distasteful and humbling, they call it absurd and unjust. They refuse a heavenly inheritance on such terms, while perhaps at the very moment they are accepting an earthly estate on terms as totally irrespective of their own labor or goodness.
The Judge must either be the justifier or the condemner. The Judge is Jehovah. It is His office to condemn, it is His office to justify. He does not condemn by infusing sin into the person who appears before Him; so He does not justify by infusing righteousness into the sinner whom He acquits. It is as Judge that He acquits. But He does not merely acquit or absolve. He goes beyond this. The marvelous way in which He has met the claims of justice, so as to enable Him to pronounce a righteous acquittal, enables Him to replace, either on his own former place of innocence, or on a higher, the sinner whom He absolves so freely and so completely. It was by representation or substitution of the just for the unjust that He was enabled to acquit; and it is by the same representation or substitution that He lifts into a more glorious position the acquitted man. The representative or substitute being the Son of God, and therefore of infinite dignity in His person, the excellency of that which He is and does, when conveyed or reckoned to another, gives that other a claim to be treated far higher than he could otherwise in any circumstances have possessed. Some may have expressed this transference in terms too strong and absolute, as if we actually became as righteous as He is, as near to God as He is, as infinitely the objects of the Father's love as He is. But though there may have been unwise utterances on this point, which have needlessly afforded cause of offense and objection, it remains true that the man who believes in Jesus Christ, from the moment that he so believes, not only receives divine absolution from all guilt, but is so made legally possessor of His infinite righteousness, that all to which that righteousness entitles becomes his, and he is henceforth treated by God according to the perfection of the perfect One, as if that perfection had been his own. "As He is, so are we [even] in THIS world" (1 John 4:17), that is, even now, in our state of imperfection, though men of unclean lips, and though dwelling among a people of unclean lips; as it is elsewhere written, "There is therefore NOW [even now] no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus" (Rom 8:1). Not only are we "delivered from the wrath to come" (1 Thess 1:10); not only shall we "not come into condemnation" (John 5:24); not only are we "justified from all things" (Acts 13:39); but we are "made [literally, we 'become'] THE RIGHTEOUSNESS OF GOD in Him" (2 Cor 5:21).
The transaction is not one of borrowing. The perfection made over to us is given, not lent, by God. It becomes ours in law, ours for all legal ends; ours as efficaciously as if it had been from first to last our very own in deed.
The transaction is a real one between the sinner and God, and carries with it all legal consequences, just as if the sinner had really discharged his own debts and obtained a judicial absolvitor from all further claims whatever; a receipt in full from Him to whom the great debt was due.
The transaction is one to which all the parties concerned have consented, as being fully satisfied that injury has been done to none; nay, that all have been greatly more benefited by this mode of settlement than by the more direct one, of the parties punishable undergoing the punishment in their own persons. When thus not merely no injustice is done to any one, but when more than justice is done to all; when no one is defrauded, but when each gets far more than his due, how foolish, how preposterous, to speak of imputation as a violation of law, and a subversion of the principles of righteous government!
The transaction is not one of indifference to sin, or obliterative of the distinction between righteousness and unrighteousness. It is one which, of all that can be imagined, is most fitted to show the evil of evil, the malignity of sin, the divine hatred of all departure from perfection, the regard which God has to His law, His awful appreciation of justice, and His determination to secure, at any cost,--even the death of His Son,--the righteous foundations of the universe, and the sanctities of His eternal throne. If the Christ of God, in His sorrowful life below, be but a specimen of suffering humanity, or a model of patient calmness under wrong, not one of these things is manifested or secured. He is but one fragment more of a confused and disordered world, where everything has broken loose from its anchorage, and each is dashing against the other in unmanageable chaos, without any prospect of a holy or tranquil issue. He is an example of the complete triumph of evil over goodness, of wrong over right, of Satan over God,--one from whose history we can draw only this terrific conclusion, that God has lost the control of His own world; that sin has become too great a power for God either to regulate or extirpate; that the utmost that God can do is to produce a rare example of suffering holiness, which He allows the world to tread upon without being able effectually to interfere; that righteousness, after ages of buffeting and scorn, must retire from the field in utter helplessness, and permit the unchecked reign of evil. If the cross be the mere exhibition of self-sacrifice and patient meekness, then the hope of the world is gone. We had always thought that there was a potent purpose of God at work in connection with the sin-bearing work of the holy Sufferer, which, allowing sin for a season to develop itself, was preparing and evolving a power which would utterly overthrow it, and sweep earth clean of evil, moral and physical. But if the crucified Christ be the mere self-denying man, we have nothing more at work for the overthrow of evil than has again and again been witnessed, when some hero or martyr rose above the level of his age to protest against evils which he could not eradicate, and to bear witness in life and death for truth and righteousness,-in vain.
The transaction is, in all its aspects, and in its bearings on all parties and interests, strictly and nobly righteous. It provides a righteous channel through which God's free love may flow down to man. It lays a righteous foundation for the pardon of sin. It secures a righteous welcome for the returning sinner. It makes the justification of the justified even more righteous than his condemnation would have been; while it makes the condemnation of the condemned not only doubly righteous, but at once a vindication and an exhibition of infinite and immutable justice.
There can be no justification without some kind of righteousness; and according to the nature or value of that righteousness will the justification be. That justification will necessarily partake of the value of the righteousness which justifies. If the righteousness be poor and finite, our standing as justified men will be the same. If it be glorious and divine, even such will our standing be. God the justifier, acting according to the excellency of that righteousness, and recognising its claims in behalf of all who consent to be treated according to its value, deals with each believing man, weak as his faith may be, in conformity with the demands of that righteousness. All that it can claim for us we may ask and expect; all that it can claim for us God will assuredly bestow. He by whom, in believing, we consent to be represented, puts in the claim for us, in His name; and the demands of that name are as just as they are irresistible.
Our legal responsibilities as transgressors of the law are transferred to Him; and His legal claims, as the fulfiller of the law, pass over to us. It is not a transference of characters nor an exchange of persons that we mean by this; but a transference of liabilities, an exchange of judicial demands. Very strikingly is the case between the sinner and God put in our Lord's parable of the two debtors, of which these words are the sum: "When they had nothing to pay, he frankly forgave them both" (Luke 7:42). Here is our thorough bankruptcy, and God's full discharge. What can law say to us after this? "It is God that justifieth." We are bankrupts; our assets are nothing; God looks at the case, pities us, and clears everything.
The epithet "fictitious" which some have applied to this representation need not trouble or alarm us. The question with us is not, "Can we clear up fully the abstract principles which the transaction embodies?" but, "Does it carry with it legal consequences, by which we are set in a new standing before God, and entitled to plead, in all our dealings with God, the meritoriousness of an infinitely perfect life, the payment effected in behalf of those who had nothing to pay, by an infinitely perfect death?"
Thus 'grace reigns through righteousness unto eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord" (Rom 5:21). "Through (dia) righteousness," and also "through (dia) Jesus Christ our Lord"; the one the active instrument, the other the efficient cause: (1) God the justifier, (2) Christ the cause, (3) righteousness the instrument. God's free love has found for itself a righteous channel, along which it flows in all its fullness to the ungodly. For while all that the believing man receives, he receives from GRACE; yet it is not less true that all that he believes, he receives from RIGHTEOUSNESS; from the hand of a righteous God, acting according to the claims of a righteousness which is absolutely and divinely perfect.
He who refuses to be represented by another before God, must represent himself, and draw near to God on the strength of what he is in himself, or what he has done. How he is likely to fare in such an approach, let his own conscience tell him, if he will not believe the explicit declaration of the Holy Spirit, that "through Him (Christ) we have access by one Spirit to the Father" (Eph 2:18); or Christ's own affirmation concerning this: "I am the way," and "I am the door" (John 10:9, 14:6).
As for him who, conscious of unfitness to draw near to God by reason of personal imperfection, is willing to be represented by the Son of God, and to substitute a divine claim and merit for a human; let him know that God is willing to receive him with all his imperfection, because of the perfection of another, legally transferred to him by the just God and Judge; that God is presenting to him a righteousness not only sufficient to clear him from all guilt, and to pay his penalty to the full, but to exalt him to a new rank and dignity, such as he could not possibly acquire by the labors or prayers of goodnesses of ten thousand such lives as his own.
"Christ is all and in all" (Col 3:11). He who knows this, knows what fully satisfies and cheers. He who knows this best has the deepest and truest peace: for he has learned the secret of being always a sinner, yet always righteous; always incomplete, yet always complete; always empty, and yet always full; always poor, and yet always rich. We would not say of that fullness, "Drink deep or taste not," for even to taste is to be blest. But we say, Drink deep; for he who drinks deepest is the happiest as well as the holiest man.
Recognition of the PERFECTION of the Lord Jesus Christ, as to the personal excellency, official suitableness, and vicarious value, is that only which satisfies the heart and conscience of the sinner. It satisfies the former by presenting it with the most lovable of all lovable objects on which a heart can rest; the latter by furnishing it with that which can alone remove from the trembling conscience every possible ground for claim. True knowledge of the person of Him who is "the Christ of God," appreciation of His completed sacrifice, and living attachment to Himself, can alone meet the evil condition into which man has sunk; not only lifting him out of the horrible pit and out of the miry clay; not only setting his feet upon the eternal rock; but raising him up into a region of peace and holiness such as no less costly means could have accomplished for the fallen son of Adam.
"He who knew no sin was made sin for us." On this basis we build for eternity. The assumption of all our legal responsibilities by a divine Substitute is that which brings us deliverance. These responsibilities were great, and no effort of ours to rid ourselves of them could possibly succeed. They must all be fully met. Such judicial claims as are brought against the sinner cannot be waived. They are righteous claims, and must be settled righteously. God offers to settle them for us, by transferring them to One who can be answerable for them. The basis of this eternal settlement was laid at the cross, and on that basis God is willing to deal with any sinner for the complete canceling of all his liabilities.
The second man came, as the Righteous One, to undo by His righteousness all that the first man, as the unrighteous one, had done by his unrighteousness. Yet such is the power of sin, that it took thirty-three years of righteousness to undo what one act of unrighteousness had done. One act of disobedience to one statute had done the evil; a lifetime's obedience to the whole law of God is required for the undoing. Only by this can man be replaced in that condition of righteousness in which God can accept him, and the law recognize him as entitled to blessing.
Our characters are not transferred to Christ, but our liabilities are; and in our acceptance of God's mode of transference, we make the complete exchange by which we are absolved from all guilt, and enter into a state of "no condemnation." Sin reckoned to Christ as our substitute, and righteousness reckoned to us as the acceptors of that substitute: this is deliverance, and peace, and life eternal.
"Labour therefore diligently, that not only out of the time of temptation, but also in the danger and conflict of death, when thy conscience is thoroughly afraid with the remembrance of thy sins past, and the devil assaulteth thee with great violence, going about to overwhelm thee with heaps, floods, and whole seas of sins, to terrify thee, to draw thee from Christ, and to drive thee to despair; that then, I say, thou mayest be able to say with some confidence, Christ the Son of God was given, not for the righteous and holy, but for the unrighteous and sinners. If I were righteous, and had no sin, I should have no need of Christ to be my reconciler, why then, 0 thou peevish holy Satan, wilt thou make me to be holy, and to seek righteousness in myself, when in very deed I have nothing in me but sins, and most grievous sins? Not feigned or trifling sins, but such as are against the first table; to wit, great infidelity, doubting, despair, contempt of God, hatred, ignorance, and blaspheming of God, unthankfulness, abusing of God's name, neglecting, loathing, and despising the word of God, and such like."-LUTHER.