Imputation: justification through the righteous act of Christ

crossModern Reformed theologians such as RC Sproul, Wayne Grudem and others teach that in order for the believer to be justified, he must be imputed with both the righteous life of Christ (His active obedience) as well as the sacrificial death of Christ (His passive obedience). This teaching, sometimes called “double imputation” or the doctrine of Active Obedience (AO) is not supported by Scripture and more importantly, AO has become a major threat to the Gospel. It is time for a serious evaluation of AO in light of its purported Scriptural support and the wide-ranging effects that it has had on both Reformed thought and wider evangelical teaching. The Bible teaches that God’s plan to redeem mankind centers on Christ’s sacrificial work of atonement: the Cross. It is the imputation of this righteous act alone that places the believer in a justified (righteous, forgiven, reconciled) state before God. There is no indication of or need for the imputation of the active obedience of Christ.

The act of imputation is not really the issue of concern here since it is an idea that is treated in a simple way by the biblical writers. Scripture does not spend a great deal of time analyzing the act itself in great depth. The issue at stake has more to do with the what of imputation rather than the how. The main purpose of this article is to look at biblical teaching in regards to what is imputed. However, since there is danger of misunderstanding imputation itself, we will begin with a short summary of the biblical concept of imputation and then the rest of the article will focus on exactly what is imputed to the believer according to the Bible.

What is imputation?

First of all, imputation is not always translated using an English form of the word “impute.” Other words that carry the idea of imputation include: credit, reckon, regard, count, attribute or calculate. Imputation is found in both the Old and New Testaments, in passages such as: Genesis 15:6, 1 Samuel 2:2; Psalm 32:2; Matthew 6:33; Romans 4:3-6; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Philippians 3:9. In looking through these examples, we understand that imputation takes place when an attribute, value, status or responsibility is ascribed to a person or object that does not possess or has not earned that attribute, value, status or has not taken on that responsibility. Imputation is essentially the identification of the party who is now responsible.

Through imputation, God allowed Christ to pay the penalty for sin in our place (2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 9:28; 1 Peter 2:24) which then makes us righteous before Him. If the penalty is paid, then you are righteous. Scripture explains exactly how this is accomplished and as we will see, there is no need for the imputation of the active obedience of Christ.

The Old Testament picture of imputation and atonement does not include AO.

The concept of imputation for atonement is pictured throughout the Old Testament, particularly in Leviticus 16:7-10; 20-22 where we read about God’s commandment regarding the “scapegoat.” Every year on the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur, two goats were presented to the Jewish high priest. The high priest laid his hands on one of the goats and symbolically transferred or “imputed” to that goat the sins of the people. This “scapegoat” was then released into the wilderness to carry away that sin. The second goat was sacrificed on the altar in order to atone for the sins of the people. One goat carried their sins away; the other paid for those sins. The concept portrayed by these two goats foreshadowed both aspects of what Christ would accomplish through His death on the cross.

The rest of the Old Testament sacrificial system is the same. Individuals, who needed forgiveness for sin, could atone for that sin by bringing an animal sacrifice to the priest. The animal was then killed according to precise instructions ordained by God in the Mosaic Law. It is important to note that under the Law, atonement could only be made through the death of an animal. There was no atonement without the death of the animal.

This sacrificial system was a picture constructed by God in order to foreshadow the way in which He would eventually make man truly righteous (See Note #1) through the death of the Messiah – not His perfect life. Under the Old Testament system, God allowed the substitutionary death of an animal to make men righteous. However, atonement did not come because of the perfect life lived by the animal, but because of its death in the place of the Jewish believer. There is nothing in the Old Testament picture that indicates that the “perfection” of the animal was in any way imputed to the man for whom it would atone. While it is true that it was essential for a sacrificial lamb to be without spot or blemish, there is no picture or foreshadowing of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ

New Testament atonement by means of Christ’s Once-for-All sacrifice does not include AO.

Despite the fact that the doctrine of active obedience was not a part of the Old Testament picture, many still believe that AO is a necessary element of New Covenant atonement. Is it possible that AO is an area of discontinuity between the Old and New Covenants? Does Scripture teach that under the New Covenant the perfect life of the sacrifice must also be imputed in addition to the sacrifice itself in order to make one righteous? Let us look at what is imputed for our justification according to the New Testament:

For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. – Romans 5:17-19

This the preeminent proof-text used to support AO. The assertion is that this passage teaches the imputation of the active obedience of Christ. They believe that the phrase “one man’s obedience” is a reference to Christ’s life of perfect law keeping. They make this case despite the fact that all of Romans 5 is concerned with how the death of Christ is sufficient to make us righteous. Furthermore, since these statements are parallel, doesn’t that mean that Adam’s one act is parallel to Christ’s one act? The sin that Adam brought to mankind was not as a result of a lifetime of disobedience, but as a result of “one act,” therefore, man is made righteous because of “one act” of obedience (Philippians 2:8). Everything in Romans 5 points to the death of Christ as what is imputed for righteousness.

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! – John 1:29

This statement by John the Baptist is one of the earliest revelations of how the Messiah would remove sin. In this statement, he specifically used the word “Lamb” in order to signify the connection back to the Old Testament sacrificial system and highlight the fact that Christ was going to make a sacrifice. Notice also, that John sees that the focus of Christ’s ministry to us was not in living a perfect life so that it could be imputed, but instead it was the giving of Himself in sacrifice – a sacrifice given to take away the sins of the world. It is the sacrifice alone which John sees as the only thing needed to make us righteous before God. (See Note #2) 

AO advocates claim that Christ’s sacrifice was enough to take away sin, but the sacrifice is not enough to make one righteous. First, that idea is not present in this particular text and furthermore, the assertion that the Christ’s sacrifice is somehow insufficient really demonstrates the absurdity of the position held by AO advocates. The removal of sin results in righteousness!

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. – Romans 3:23-25

Notice: there is no mention of a perfect life, only His blood which is just another way to speak of His death.

But God showed his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. – Romans 5:9-10

The phrase “justified by His blood” could not be clearer. Again, there is no mention of need to also be imputed with a perfect life in order to be justified.

For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all…All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself … in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them… – 2 Corinthians 5:14-18

We are reconciled (justified) to God on the basis of the death of Christ. He lived a perfect life so that He could become the perfect, sacrifice, but it was the death of Christ that was vicarious; His law-keeping was not! It is His death alone by which we are reconciled to God and by which He does not count our trespasses against us.

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross and you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation. – Colossians 1:19-23

We have peace, reconciliation, holiness on the basis of His blood. Christ’s death on the cross makes us “above reproach.” No mention of the imputation of His perfect life. In fact, the only mention of how a person should live is in regard to us. On the basis of His substitutionary death, Christ will present us holy, if we continue in the faith!

The death of Christ is the issue in focus. It is by this one act alone that we become righteous before God. (See Note #3) This is the exclusive and prevailing theme throughout the rest of the Bible. The New Testament is all about how His death is that which makes us righteous before God:

In him we have redemption through his blood. . . – Ephesians 1:7

. . . he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. – Philippians 2:6-8

For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all . . . -1 Timothy 2:5-6

. . . Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone . . .bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. – Hebrews 2:9-10

He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself. – Hebrews 7:27

Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins. – Hebrews 9:22

. . . he has appeared once for all . . . to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. – Hebrews 9:26

Looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God . . . – Hebrews 12:2

The Gospel is all about Jesus Christ’s death on the Cross! He vicariously paid the penalty for sin that God’s justice required. Christ had no sin for which to atone, yet He freely offered Himself as a sacrifice in order to pay for the sins of man. This sacrifice for sin is the righteousness of Christ that God reckons to our account. If we are in Christ, God the Father looks upon us as a people possessing a forgiven and therefore righteous state before Him.

Where is the imputation of the active obedience of Christ?

The doctrine of active obedience states that in order to be justified, the believer must have the imputation of Christ’s perfect life of law-keeping in addition to the removal of sins that took place on the cross. As far as we can see, this idea is not found anywhere in the pages of Scripture!

Our strong support for the biblical truth of the imputation of the righteous act of Christ on behalf of the believer does not in any way diminish that it was essential for Christ Himself to be perfect. Without His perfect life – His active obedience if you will – the sacrifice would have been meaningless. It cannot be emphasized enough that Christ’s active obedience – his perfect life of law-keeping demonstrated and affirmed His righteous standing before God. Active obedience certainly qualified Jesus Christ to be the perfect sacrifice, but it was His passive obedience that has made us righteous. The imputation of active obedience is not found in the biblical record nor is it necessary for justification to take place. The sacrifice, the atonement, the Cross itself, is the moment to which all of Scripture looks because this is what has made us whole.

Even so, despite its lack of support, the doctrine of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ continues to be widely held at the highest levels of Christian scholarship. This might not seem to be a huge problem because they consider it to be a minor doctrine. However, any error has the potential to destroy the Gospel . . . and among some, AO already has.


#1: We understand that what was gained as “justification” under the Old Covenant was not true justification; it was only “Passover” justification. True justification did not come until Christ died. If the OT justification was true justification, then Christ only need to perfectly keep the law and then sacrifice a lamb . . .

#2: We are assuming more than what may be explicitly expressed. However, such assumptions are validated by the overwhelming biblical data. John the Baptist’s statement is consistent with the rest of Scripture.

#3:  As was already mentioned, this is complete continuity with the Old Testament sacrificial system.