My Sin for His Righteousness

“My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.”

The day before he died, J. Gresham Machen, founder of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia sent a telegram to his friend and colleague John Murray that read simply, “So thankful for the active obedience of Christ; no hope without it.” The “active obedience of Christ” is a reference to the perfect obedience of Jesus during his life as God incarnate. The words of the familiar hymn quoted above are an appropriate meditation on the fact that we are not only cleansed from our sin by the atoning death of Jesus but are credited with the righteousness of Jesus as well.

Both cleansing from sin through Christ’s death and the imputation of his active obedience are essential elements of our being justified before God. Most so-called evangelicals will not quibble with the first point. It is rather the second element, imputation that causes some stir. The controversy is due, at least in part to the fact that imputation and substitution are doctrines that belong together. Penal substitution, the doctrine that Christ bore our sins on the cross and received in himself the punishment we deserved, though clearly biblical, is always under attack by those who desire a moral example theology of the cross. In the words of Steve Chalk, an influential leader in the emergent church movement has written that the doctrine of penal substitution is “divine child abuse.”

Scripture, however, is rich in the language and imagery of substitution and imputation. When the priest symbolically imputed the sins of the people upon the scapegoat he was acting as a shadow of the substance to come in Christ’s work of imputation. Indeed the entire old covenant sacrificial system bore graphic testimony to the substitutionary work of God’s coming Messiah.

The prophets bore witness to the realities of substitution and imputation. Isaiah wrote, “We considered him stricken by God…The punishment that brought us peace was upon him…The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all…For the transgressions of my people he was stricken…It was the Lord’s will to crush him…The Lord makes his life a guilt offering (53:4-10).

In Romans chapter four Paul offers powerful commentary on Genesis 15:6: “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Paul writes, “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but his due. And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Rom. 4:4-5).

In chapter five Paul continues the theme of justification through the atoning death and active righteousness of Christ. “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life” (vv. 9-10).

Louis Berkhof wrote of both the “negative” and “positive” realities of our justification. On the negative side is “the remission of sins on the ground of the atoning work of Christ.” Berkhof was right to point out that Scripture makes it clear that “justification is more than mere pardon.” What is needed is “the active obedience of Christ” (Systematic Theology, 515).

Jonathan Edwards wrote that in justification God accepts “a person as having both a negative, and positive righteousness belonging to him.” Edwards’ reference to “positive righteousness” does not mean that the man or woman justified before God has come to embody perfect righteousness in their behavior. Rather, Edwards is pointing to the reality of imputation. God justifies sinners by crediting the righteousness of His beloved Son to them.

The Church of Rome grievously errs when it teaches that God infuses righteousness into sinners and then justifies them on the basis of their good deeds. This is a denial of the biblical doctrine of justification. It is why the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone has been and continues to be anathema in the Roman Catholic Church.

The Heidelberg Catechism of 1563 states well the radical grace reflected in the biblical doctrines of substitution and imputation:
Question 60: How art thou righteous before God?
Answer: Only by true faith in Jesus Christ; that is, although my conscience accuse me that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them, and that I am still prone always to all evil, yet God, without any merit of mine, of mere grace, grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never committed nor had any sin, and had myself accomplished all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled for me, if only I accept such benefit with a believing heart.

O Christ, what burdens bowed Thy head!
Our load was laid on Thee;
Thou stoodest in the sinner’s stead,
Didst bear all ill for me.
A victim led, Thy blood was shed;
Now there’s no load for me.

The Holy One did hide His face;
O Christ, ‘twas hid from Thee:
Dumb darkness wrapped Thy soul a space,
The darkness due to me.
But now that face of radiant grace
Shines forth in light on me.