How God Declares Sinners Righteous

Imputation (double)

“His faith was counted to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:22)

Counted. The word is a legal financial word that means “to credit; to credit an account.” You probably do this all the time. If you bank online, to pay bills you will likely transfer money from your savings into your checking—enough to cover the bill.

In imputation, God legally transferred the guilt of our unrighteousness to Jesus on the cross and, when we believe, he transfers Jesus’ righteousness to our eternal moral account.

  • “That is why his faith was ‘counted to him as righteousness.’ But the words ‘it was counted to him’ were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” (Romans 4:22-25)
  • “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.” (Romans 5:18)
  • “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

This last verse says it so brilliantly simple. God made him sin. Who? Jesus. The holy One. Made him sin? How? On the cross God legally imputed to him our moral guilt. Was he guilty? No. But in God’s eyes as he hung there? Yes. Jesus became our substitute. Jesus became guilty. Jesus became what he was not by the imputing, or transferring of God.

Taking our guilt away isn’t enough to save us. If this was all that God did we still are not righteous. We just aren’t guilty. We’re just back to zero. But to stand before God we must be fully righteous. It’s like asking what it takes to get into Harvard. Do you just have to get rid of the F‘s on your record? No. To get into Harvard you need a whole lot of A‘s.

That is the second part of the verse. “So that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” This is the second imputation. In the first, he takes our guilt and imputes it to Jesus’ account. This is why as Jesus hung on the cross, the sky grew black and Jesus cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) What was the answer to Jesus’ crying question? Because from the perspective of God the Father, God the Son was morally unrighteous as he hung there. God treated him like we deserve to be treated. Jesus felt Vesuvius wrath.

But this is only half of imputation. Not only can guilt be imputed, but so can righteousness. “His faith is counted as righteousness.” (Romans 4:5) When I put my hope and personal faith in Jesus, God imputes the full obedience of Jesus to the Law over to my moral account. Now, from God’s perspective, though ungodly, I am seen eternally as fully righteous. The result of this double imputation is that Jesus was in a category of sin he didn’t deserve and we are in a category of righteousness we don’t deserve.

So how does something so completely unfair done by God not make him liable for wrongdoing? Or in terms of Romans 3, how can God be both just and justifier?

Let’s go back to Jesus and the cross. The cross is a statement of value both on the greatness of God’s holy justice and the greatness of our debt to God. Only the perfect and infinitely valuable life of the Son of God could sufficiently pay that price. Jesus’ voluntary substitutionary death allows God to fully uphold his justice while making a way for sinners to be declared what they are not—righteous. The Law is fulfilled in Christ’s perfect life. God’s justice is satisfied in Jesus’ death. God’s glory is magnified as God mercifully declares the sinner righteous while simultaneously maintaining his own glorious holiness. Brilliant!

Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

©2014 Steve DeWitt. You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that: (1) you credit the author, (2) any modifications are clearly marked, (3) you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, (4) you include Bethel’s website address ( on the copied resource.

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