The word imputation may seem like one of those technical-sounding theological words to make your head hurt, but it is really quite straightforward—and full of blessing.
“What shall we say then that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found? For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness. Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, Saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin” (Rom. 4:1-8)
Summary of the Text
What did Abraham, our father, discover (v. 1)? He would have had something to boast about if he had been justified by works (v. 2). The problem is that this is not possible for any flesh, and so Abraham wouldn’t have been able to boast before God (v. 2). What does the Bible say about his justification? It says that Abraham believed God, and that this was reckoned to him, counted to him, imputed to him, as righteousness (v. 3). The basic division between works and grace is then outlined—work gets a paycheck, and this is the antithesis of grace (v. 4). But for the one who does not work, but instead believes in the one who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned, counted, imputed to him for righteousness (v. 5). David describes the blessed condition of a man who has received this grace, and it is a two-fold grace. First, God imputes righteousness apart from works (v. 6). Paul then quotes the place where Davide says this (Ps. 32:1-2), and he does so to double effect. Blessed is the man whose sins are forgiven (v. 7), and whose sins are covered (v. 7). He continues—blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute sin (v. 8). We have two kinds of imputation here. The positive imputation of righteousness, and the non-imputation of sin.
How Can He Do That?
Remember that in chapter three, the apostle has established the basis for how God does this without ceasing to be holy. He is the God who wants to be just and the one who justifies. Reckoning, counting and imputing righteousness (apart from a propitiatory sacrifice offered by a genuine and lawful substitute) is acquitting the guilty without foundation, a thing that a holy God cannot and will not do. So this is why Jesus died and rose again—He did so as our representative. So fix it in your hearts and minds—Jesus did not die so that we might live. He died so that we might die, and He lives so that we might live.
Paul is here setting Abraham before us as the paradigm of faith, but in the Bible faith is always preceded by repentance. Abraham is our father in repentance, and not just in faith. He did all that we need to do (4:23), and we certainly need to repent. Here in v. 5, we see that Abraham (like us) was trusting in the God who justifies the ungodly. And last, the Bible is plain that Abraham was called out of idolatry and sin (Josh. 24:2). Abraham, the father of pilgrims, was himself a pilgrim.
A Direct Object Implied
We also have to take a moment to decipher some Pauline shorthand. He says here that Abraham’s belief of God was counted unto him for righteousness (v. 3). This is also a general truth—anyone who believes God has his faith counted for righteousness (v. 5). But does this mean that God is taking my faith (as imperfect as anything else I do), and treating that faith as my righteousness? No, not at all. The ground of our righteousness is the life and death of the Lord Jesus—our representative. That righteousness is apprehended by us using the instrument of faith.
When Jesus tells someone “your faith has saved you,” this is a comparable form of shorthand (Luke 7:50; 18:42). Of course, Jesus saved these people, and not their naked faith. We see the same thing here. The person who is justified here “believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly.” So faith counted as righteousness is short for faith in the representative substitute who is counted as that righteousness. Don’t fall into the trap of trying to have faith in your faith. Your isolated faith can’t justify anyone or anything.
A Triple Imputation
We must shake loose of our individualism. The problem is in the ism, not in the individual as such. True individuality does exist, but autonomous individuality does not. We are not individuals in the sense that marbles in a box are—we are like individual leaves on a tree. One differs from another, but they are all connected.
The connection is a covenantal one. There are two human races, and each one has a covenantal head, a federal head. Adam is the head of the first race, and Jesus is the head of the new human race, and there is a covenantal or imputational bridge between the two races—making it possible for us to transferred from the old humanity to the new. Here are the three great imputations. Adam sinned as your representative, and so his rebellion against God was imputed to you. In Adam, you rebelled against God. God in His mercy caused that original sin (in which you participated through your representative) and all your individual sins, to be imputed to Jesus Christ on the cross (2 Cor. 5: 21). This is the imputational bridge, and it is referred to here in our text (v. 8). And finally, God imputes the righteousness of the new Adam to every member of His race.
So Adam’s sin was yours. All your sins are Christ’s. And all Christ’s righteousness is now yours in the resurrection. Lift up your heads.
Grace and Works Cannot Mix
Works are connected to things that men would love to have, but which they cannot have. Men outside Christ would love to boast, but they cannot boast before God (v. 2). They would love to receive a reward in the judgment, a reward through which God pays them what He owes them—as a matter of debt (v. 4). Men love the idea of being a standard of righteousness unto themselves, and this is why they loathe and despise every form of free and sovereign grace. And free and sovereign grace repulses every form of works, striving, earning, moralistic tip-toeing, meriting, goody-two-shoeing, shucking or jiving.
But there is an up side. The reason you are saved at all is because you are saved by grace.