Jesus' Blood and Righteousness

Article by   January 2009
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Jesus' Blood and Righteousness: Paul's Theology of Imputation
By Brian Vickers
256 p.
Crossway (October 2006)




Brian Vickers', Jesus' Blood and Righteousness, is a work of careful exegesis and synthesis that attempts to establish a biblical basis for the doctrine of the imputation of Christ's righteousness.  This doctrine, so vital to the Reformation, has come under attack in recent years from a variety of critics.  They deny that the Bible teaches the imputation of Christ's righteousness, asserting that it has been imposed on the text by systematic theology.

One day before his death, J. Gresham Machen wrote a note to John Murray saying, "I'm so thankful for the active obedience of Christ; no hope without it."  Machen's other writings make clear that for him "the active obedience of Christ" refers to Christ's obedience to the Father during his time on earth which is imputed to believers who trust in him for salvation.  Was Machen correct?  Is imputation a critical component of the biblical doctrine of justification?  Is there "no hope without it"?

Vickers argues that the imputation of Christ's righteousness is biblical teaching, but that all of the "ingredients" of the doctrine are not found in any one passage.  When one brings together, however, the exegeses of key Pauline texts, the doctrine clearly emerges. The bulk of Vickers' work examines the key texts--Romans 4:3, 5:19 and 2 Corinthians 5:21.  He then looks at the witness of other related passages--1 Corinthians 1:30, Philippians 3:9 and Romans 9:30-10:4.  According to Vickers, it is important to see that these texts do not all say the same thing.  These texts have their own distinctive emphases.  Yet, with their diversity, the doctrine of imputation emerges as an inherent part of Paul's teaching on justification, not as a doctrine that has been imposed on biblical teaching.  This is a corrective both to defenders of the doctrine of imputation, who have often missed the differences between the texts, and to critics of the doctrine, who fail to see the connections between the texts.

After an introductory chapter, Vickers traces some of the history of the doctrine of imputation.  He begins with Luther and the debate over whether Luther himself actually held to a doctrine of imputation which was anything like the later teaching in Reformed and Lutheran circles.  Vickers concludes that while Luther was more apt to emphasize forgiveness and union with Christ, rather than the imputation of positive righteousness, the latter is indeed present in Luther's teaching.

The imputation of Christ's righteousness was formulated more clearly in the writings of Melanchthon and Calvin.  Calvin stressed the importance of perfect obedience to God's law to obtain righteousness with God.  Since all fall short of that standard, what is required is not only forgiveness of sins, but also a positive righteousness.  Calvin also makes explicit that imputation and union with Christ work together; they are not set over against one another.  The imputation of Christ's righteousness is the result of faith in Christ and the believer's being "engrafted into his body."  This last point actually anticipates the current debate over the so-called "new perspective" on Paul, which tends to separate the "participatory," union with Christ language and forensic, imputed righteousness.

According to Vickers, biblical scholars who align themselves with the "new perspective" reject the notion of imputation largely because of a theological paradigm "that renders the doctrine unnecessary."  E. P. Sanders, whose work was at the forefront of this recent movement, for instance argues that perfect obedience to the law is not necessary, that obedience to the law is not connected to forensic righteousness, and that God's righteousness is conceived as "covenant faithfulness," with little emphasis on his righteousness in regard to rightfully judging transgressions of the law.  In such a scheme, Vickers points out, "the imputation of Christ's righteousness in terms of his obedience to the law is irrelevant."

The new perspective uses the language of covenant while rejecting or redefining crucial aspects of Reformed covenant theology.  The emphasis in the new perspective is on the relational aspects.  It sees the "pattern of religion" of first century Judaism as that of "covenantal nomism"--i.e., it was a religion of grace in which Jews were part of the covenant people by God's gracious election.  They did not earn their salvation by works.  However, works were necessary to maintain their status as God's covenant people.

Within this framework, then, the emphasis is on the relational aspect of righteousness.  God's righteousness is his covenant faithfulness.  Human righteousness, as defined by N. T. Wright in his commentary on Romans 4, is "the status of being a member of the covenant."  In this reading, faith is "the badge, the sign, that reveals the status."  The language of the reckoning--or imputing--of righteousness in Romans 4, since it is used only there in Paul's discussions of justification, is illustrative and not fundamental to Paul's teaching on justification.  Thus, for Wright, repeating the Roman Catholic critique of Protestant doctrine, the notion of the imputation of Christ's righteousness is a "legal fiction."  (Wright, by the way, does not side with the Roman Catholic position either.  Instead, he breathtakingly critiques both traditions!)

The traditional Reformed position (using the Westminster Confession of Faith as representative) holds that God's "covenant of works" with Adam and the stipulations of the Mosaic Law itself require not just forgiveness of sins, but also a positive righteousness in order for God to declare someone to be righteous.  Since all have fallen short of God's perfect standard and are in a sinful state unable to produce the righteousness that God requires, salvation is possible only by an external righteousness being reckoned or imputed to sinful human beings.  Where Adam fell, Christ, the second Adam, succeeded in perfectly obeying the commands of God.  Furthermore, any denial of the necessity of the imputation of Christ's righteousness is inherently "works righteousness."  If we do not stand before God in Christ's righteousness, we necessarily must present to him our own (hence, Machen's "no hope without it").  But is there a biblical basis for the imputation of Christ's righteousness?
Vickers' study of the Pauline texts is carefully nuanced, allowing the emphases of each passage to emerge.  Romans 4:1-8 is especially significant because here we find explicitly the language of righteousness being "reckoned," or imputed.  Yet there is no explicit mention of the imputation of Christ's righteousness.  Instead, we read of faith being reckoned as righteousness and of the non-reckoning of sin.  In fact, Vickers argues, Paul's quoting of Psalm 32 clarifies his earlier use of Genesis 15:6, indicating that Paul's primary concern in this passage is forgiveness.

At the same time, this passage teaches us much about the imputation of a positive righteousness.  It makes clear, for instance, that righteousness is a gift--it is reckoned, not earned.  Furthermore, it is "the ungodly," (v. 5), including Abraham himself, whom God justifies.

This last point is especially striking when we look at the Old Testament background of righteousness.  In the Old Testament, righteousness is typically connected to actions one should do.  But, as in Isa. 61:10, it can also refer to a granted status.  At times, righteousness is reckoned in accordance with actions.  For instance, Phinehas's righteous zeal was reckoned as righteousness.

The reckoning of Abraham's faith as righteousness, however, falls into the category of those instances where one thing is reckoned as something it is not (cf. Laban's reckoning of his own daughters as foreigners; Gen. 31:5).  God's declaration of Abraham as righteous, in other words, "means that a declaration that would normally be declared on the basis of what one does has been granted on the basis of faith" (85-86).  To put it differently, "by faith, Abraham stands before God as one who has fulfilled every standard and condition expected by God" (86).  Ungodly Abraham, through faith, is granted the status of righteousness.  At the same time, a comparison of 4:1-8 and 3:21-26 indicates that the righteousness from God given to believers is based on Christ's work on our behalf.

In Romans 5:12-21, Paul takes a step back in redemptive history and looks at "the foundation of righteousness."  Here Paul deals with the status of individuals as a result of what their representative, Adam or Christ, has done.  The status of righteousness, appropriated in chapter 4 through faith, is secured for the believer through the obedience of Jesus Christ.  As Vickers puts it, "If Romans 4 is about the appropriation of righteousness, then Romans 5 is about the very foundation of righteousness" (114).

In other words, Romans 4 and 5 both deal with the issue of righteousness.  Romans 4 says that faith is reckoned as righteousness.  Romans 5:19 asserts that through the obedience of Christ many are "made righteous."  Christ's obedience, then, must logically be a more fundamental redemptive act that serves as the basis for God's reckoning righteousness to individuals.  Christ's obedience, or righteousness (5:18), is the ground upon which God views sinners as righteous.

There has been discussion (even consternation) over the verb that Paul uses in 5:19, typically translated "made" righteous.  Does this connote some kind of infused or transformational righteousness?  Vickers' study shows that the verb used typically does not refer to the actions of a person.  Rather, the emphasis is on status.  To be "made righteous," then, means to be put in a righteous state.  And believers can be in this state because of the obedience of Christ.

We will return to Vickers' interpretation of Romans 5 momentarily, because it contains some of the most potentially problematic parts of his work.  Looking at this will require careful attention.  For now, however, it will be helpful to continue to give a quick overview of the whole.
The third and final key text that Vickers examines is 2 Corinthians 5:21: "God made Him who knew no sin, to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in him."  This passage was crucial for Luther's description of the "great exchange" that takes place in Christ--he takes our sin, we receive his righteousness.

According to Vickers, with this text we move from the appropriation of righteousness (by faith) in Romans 4 and the foundation of righteousness (in Christ's obedience) in Romans 5 to the provision of righteousness.  In 2 Corinthians 5:21, we have the means by which it is possible for God to count people as righteous, namely, Christ's perfect life and his sacrificial death on the cross.  This passage also highlights the critical idea of the believer's union with Christ.  It is on the basis of this union that Christ can "be sin" for believers and that they can "become the righteousness of God in him."

Vickers begins by showing that Paul uses sacrificial language in this verse.  A number of phrases point to this.  The notion that Christ "knew no sin" brings to mind that Old Testament sacrifices were to be "without defect."  The prominence of "reconciliation" in the larger context of 5:14-21 also reflects the Old Testament context that sin has made a breach with God.  Sacrifices were the way God's people were restored to right relationship with him.  Furthermore, in v. 14, the phrase "one died for all" points to the vicarious nature of Christ's death.  He died in the place of "all," just as the animals offered in sacrifice were killed in place of God's people who had sinned.  

Vickers then examines the second part of v. 21, "that we might become the righteousness of God in him."  Vickers points out that it is critical to recognize the forensic nature of this passage as a whole.  Christ was made sin, but did not become actually sinful.  God did not "reckon" our trespasses against us.  The prominent idea of reconciliation is also described as a forensic reality--God's people are in a restored relationship with him through the forgiveness of sins.

The forensic context points away from understanding "the righteousness of God" as transformative righteousness and covenant faithfulness (the two most prominent alternatives to the traditional reading).  Vickers' critique of N. T. Wright's position (namely, that Paul, as a minister of the new covenant, is "an incarnation of the covenant faithfulness of God") is devastating and worth the price of the book.  He also effectively refutes the now commonly held position that God's "righteousness" in Paul's letters is his "covenant faithfulness."  As Vickers puts it, "How does one become God's faithfulness to his covenant?" (182, emphasis his)  Furthermore, the emphasis in this passage on the believer's union with Christ in the sense of a representational participation, in which what is legally ours becomes his and his becomes ours, rules out any notion of a "legal fiction."

Thus, while the focus of 2 Corinthians 5:14-21 is on the sacrificial death of Christ as the ground for becoming the righteousness of God, "the basic idea of something 'counting' for righteousness is...unavoidable" (189).  Christ's death becomes our death (v. 14).  Our sins are not "reckoned" against us, but they are reckoned to Christ, without Christ becoming actually sinful.  Furthermore, though not the focus of this passage, Christ's perfect life in obedience to God is undoubtedly in view.

Thus, the best way to read 2 Corinthians 5:21 in context is the traditional Reformed interpretation of the exchange that takes place between Christ and those who are "in him."  He takes our sin.  His righteousness is imputed to us.

The final major chapter includes a synthesis of the findings in the key texts, a brief examination of three other relevant texts in Paul and answers to common objections to the doctrine of the imputation of Christ's righteousness.  According to Vickers, the key texts have common threads which, when connected, flow in the following way: There is "(1) an external act, which is specifically (2) God acting in Christ, (3) on behalf of sinners [who cannot be righteous before God on the basis of their own actions or moral standing], and is, thus, (4) an act of grace, and is affected or applied in (5) union with Christ" (195).  Vickers recognizes that these themes do not prove imputation.  They do show that there can be no justifying righteousness apart from Christ.

A more narrow synthesis of Romans 5 and 2 Corinthians 5, however, does show the significance of both the "passive" and the "active" obedience of Christ as the second Adam.  2 Corinthians 5 describes Christ's representative, sacrificial death "for all," that they might live.  Romans 5 emphasizes his representative death as a positive act of obedience that overturns the disobedience of the first man Adam.  Vickers states, "This leads to the conclusion that Christ's role as the second Adam does, in fact, include the provision for the forgiveness of sins and a positive standing before God on the basis of Christ's obedience" (197, emphasis his).

Furthermore, Vickers argues, Christ's obedience cannot be limited to understanding it only as that which qualified him to be the perfect sacrifice for sin.  His obedience "was an assertive, freely taken, act of will" (198).  When we combine this with the biblical picture that Adam was not created in a glorified state, but was "moving to some sort of confirmed state of existence..., then the 'positive' element of imputation is nearly a given" (198).  When Adam sinned, he fell short of attaining was God had intended for humanity.  What we need, then, is not simply the forgiveness of sins, but also a positive standing before God.  The witness of other Pauline texts confirms this, especially 1 Cor. 1:30 where Christ is said to be "our righteousness," and Phil. 3:9, which contrasts Paul's own righteousness with an external righteousness found only in Christ.

There are places where we can quibble with Vickers' language.  There are other places where we are left wondering if he could not have said more regarding the imputation of Christ's active obedience.  But the most potentially problematic aspect of Vickers' work is his discussion of Romans 5:12 and the implications for understanding the rest of the Romans 5:12-21.  As Vickers says, "Generally speaking, how one reads verse 12 colors how one reads the following verses" (123).

Vickers spends almost twenty pages discussing the meaning of the Greek clause evfV w-| pa,ntej h[marton (translated "because all sinned" by the ESV, NASB, NIV, NKJV, etc.) at the end of v. 12.  Two questions essentially sum up the debate.  First, does evfV w-| function as a relative clause referring to an antecedent or is it a conjunction typically translated "because"?  Second, does pa,ntej h[marton refer to the actual sins that individuals commit, or does it refer to the fact that all humanity sinned when Adam, their representative, sinned?  The typical Reformed reading of 5:12 holds to the latter of the two options in each of these questions--death spread to all men because all sinned legally when their representative Adam sinned.  All are given the status of "sinners" (5:19, see earlier discussion on this verse) and so liable to God's condemnation, even before committing an actual sin.  All human beings are "by nature, children of wrath" (Eph. 2:3).

Vickers, however, adopts the first reading in each of the questions above, while at the same time upholding key Reformed doctrines.  According to Vickers, evfV w-| functions as a relative clause, with the relative pronoun referring back to "death" in the preceding clause.  "All sinned" refers to the actual sins that individuals commit.  He translates 5:12 as follows: "Therefore, just as through one man sin came into the world, and death came through sin, so in this way death spread to all men on account of which condition all sinned" (124, emphasis his).  In other words, the condition of death, resulting from Adam's sin, leads to all people committing personal sin.  His main arguments for this reading are that evfV w-| in the Bible does not support a causal translation and that the context refers to individual acts of sin (cf. 5:14).  In fact, the same language, pa,ntej h[marton, is also used in 3:23 to refer to personal sin ("for all have sinned and fall short...").

Vickers is careful to uphold the representative role of Adam.  In Adam, all are "made sinners" (5:19).  All are condemned (though Vickers skirts the issue of mediate vs. immediate imputation of Adam's sin).  But individuals are also accountable for their own sin, not the sin of others, as passages such as Jeremiah 29:30 and Ezekiel 18:4 make clear.   Vickers rejects the idea that "each person is guilty of Adam's actual sin" (140 n. 106, emphasis his).  But he upholds the idea that all are condemned because of their identification with Adam, their representative.

In other words, we have a both/and situation.  Vickers states, "We can speak of being condemned in regard to the 'status' we have from Adam, and being condemned for our own personal sin..." (141, n. 111).  But he is careful to say that personal sin derives from that status: "Adam's disobedience...'counts' for the status 'sinners,' and personal sin and subsequent death derive from that status.  Thus the ground for the sinfulness of humanity...rests upon the situation that resulted from Adam's sin" (140).
The biggest potential problem with Vickers' view is that, if Paul is referring to the  sin of individuals in 5:12, and if that sin in some way leads to their condemnation, doesn't that leave the door open for understanding our individual acts of righteousness as in some way playing a part in our justification?  Vickers clearly makes the point that Adam's sin makes all legally "sinners" and thus condemned.  Personal sin results from that state.  "In the same way, the status that results from Christ's obedience is an established forensic reality prior to the personal obedience that must necessarily flow as a consequence" (cf. Romans 6; 140, emphasis his).  Vickers on this point is orthodox and Reformed--though also in error, in my view.

The problem here is inserting personal sin into a context that repeatedly refers to the sin of "one man."  In this regard, Vickers appeals to 5:14 as a clear reference to personal sin.  He says, "Even if personal sin is excised from verse 12 there is still an unavoidable reference to it in verse 14."  But this reading of v. 14 misses Paul's point in vv. 12-14 and weakens the case for imputation.  When these verses are read properly, they strengthen the case for imputation in this passage.

In 5:13, Paul uses the language of "reckoning" or "imputing": "for until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law" (NASB).  In other words, Paul is saying that, until the Law comes, "sin" is not charged to people's account.  It is only when the Law comes, and sin becomes "transgression," this it is legally charged.  He made a similar point in 4:15: "For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression."
Yet, Paul goes on to say in 5:14, that does not mean that all who lived before the Law was given go through life blissfully innocent.  They die and face condemnation: "Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come."  But if their sin was not reckoned to their account, how can they be condemned?

There is only one answer: Adam's sin was imputed to them.  Paul's point in 5:14, then, is not to draw attention to the personal sin of those who lived after Adam.  It is, rather, to highlight the reality of death and how all who do not commit "transgression" face death.  Death/condemnation is because of Adam's sin imputed to all.  If, indeed, this is Paul's point, "all sinned" in 5:12 most logically refers to the legal reality that all sinned when Adam, their representative, sinned.  It also primes the reader to understand the rest of chapter 5 in terms of the imputation of Christ's righteousness.

This one point of disagreement in no way detracts from my appreciation and admiration for the work as a whole.  Even without the interpretation above, Vickers has made a strong and convincing case that Paul teaches the imputation of Christ's righteousness.  And he has also clearly shown that there is no hope without it.

Dr. Bill Barcley is Pastor of Sovereign Grace Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC and Adjunct Professor at Reformed Theological Seminary.  He previously served as Academic Dean and Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS.  All Biblical quotations are from the ESV unless otherwise noted.
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