Thursday, December 22, 2005
[READ THIS] Simeon Zahl on Imputation:
Some Thoughts on Imputation
One of the most important debates in Christian theology is the debate about what Jesus’ death on the Cross actually achieves for Christians, and how it achieves what it does. The basic question in this debate is, “Does the Cross change our situation by enabling us to be better people, or only by changing the way God sees us?” Or, put another way, “How are Christians any different from non-Christians?” Unfortunately, the debate has become shrouded in rather technical terminology about “infusion” versus “imputation” and the like. In this piece, I want to explain these terms and why the distinction between them is so important. Even more significantly, I want to make an observation that, at least from my point of view, puts the debate to rest. It is an observation that I have never come across elsewhere. I want to argue that the “infusion” position is logically incoherent—that it contradicts the basic logic of the good news that we Christians believe. But before I get to my main argument, let me begin by summarizing—fairly, I hope!-- the two sides of the debate about how exactly the Cross changes our situation as Christians. I believe this issue is at the very heart of the Christian gospel.
The Lay of the Land
Most Christians agree that God, in his Grace, sent his Son to bear our sins for us on the Cross, so that we might have freedom and eternal life, two things that we otherwise do not deserve and would not have. He takes our sins, and gives us his righteousness. All well and good. But then a key disagreement arises. What does it mean that he gives us his righteousness? What does it mean that we are now “justified,” or made righteous, “by his blood” (Romans 5:9)? There are two alternatives. The differences between the two alternatives may seem very subtle and even obscure, but in truth they are not. In fact the differences have huge practical implications for us as Christians, and I will conclude this little piece with a brief discussion of those implications.
The first possible view of what it means that Jesus gives us his righteousness is that we, the recipients of his Grace by faith, are infused with his righteousness. This view is the one most Christians in fact believe, including the vast majority of evangelical Protestants, although historically it is the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. The infusion view means that on the Cross, in addition to atoning for our sin, Christ enabled God to change our very nature for the better. He was able to give us a new, Christ-like ability to act righteously, at least to some degree. In other words, this view is that Christ made us righteous by forgiving our sins, and then by giving us in ourselves a new ability, more or less, not to sin, an ability we did not previously have. Thus we are infused with his righteousness, in our very nature.
Catholics would tend to see the means of this infusion (the tool through which it takes place) in the Mass, whereas Evangelicals would usually locate the means of the infusion in the Gift of the Holy Spirit. In either case, newly filled with Jesus’ Body or with the Holy Spirit, our relationship to sin, specifically in terms of our ability to attain righteousness, is fundamentally improved. Although the means are different in the Evangelical and the Catholic cases, the basic point in terms of the appropriation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer is the same: we are ontologically changed as we are filled with His righteousness. “Infused” means that his righteousnes becomes part of our nature—hence the ontological change in the believer. And when the “infused” individual does sin, that sin can still be forgiven in light of the forgiveness brought about on the Cross—but it should happen less than it did before. Infusion does not mean we don’t sin, just that we should sin less than before, and should always be getting better at being good.
The second view about how Jesus gives us his righteousness (and the minority position these days) agrees that the first half of the event in which the believer is made righteous is through the forgiveness of sins on the basis of Christ’s death on the Cross. The disagreement, rather, arises in the second half of the equation: this view holds that the appropriation, or giving over, to us of Christ’s righteousness takes place through an event of imputation, not infusion. Imputation means that the believer is “reckoned” as righteous before God on the basis of the reciprocal transfer of our sin to Christ and, most importantly for our purposes here, of Christ’s righteousness to us. Under imputation, we are “covered” by his righteousness, just as he is “covered” by our sin. You could say that his righteousness, his perfection, is “assigned” to us, and our sin is “assigned” to him by God. Although our actual day-to-day relationship to righteousness is not fundamentally altered—our basic nature is not affected, and we are in ourselves (i.e. ontologically) therefore no better at acting righteously than before—nevertheless according to the imputation view God sees us at all times as if we were righteous, as if we were the sinless Christ himself, and we are granted freedom and eternal life on that basis. The righteousness is like a clothing that is put over our nature when God in his judgment looks upon us, rather than being an actual change in the nature of the person on this side of the Jordan. But, because it is God himself who accepts this clothing, it is “actually” true in every ultimate sense. When God looks at us, he actually does not see what is underneath the covering. The righteousness we are given through Christ’s finished work on the Cross is therefore really imputed to us, but we are not infused with it.
The advantage of the infusion position, to put it crudely, is that it makes sense in light of all those verses in the New Testament about us being freed from sin and us being expected to live differently as Christians than we did before we believed. The New Testament seems to see us as truly different—a new creation, born again, etc.—and it makes the most sense to the way we think that this difference is more in the character of an infusion than a “theoretical” or “abstract” imputation. We “feel” different, like a whole new creation, so we feel we must “be” different in our nature. This makes sense to anyone who has for a time felt the freedom of the Holy Spirit. It is hard to believe that that wonderful freedom we sometimes feel has nothing to do with us in our own nature, but is only from Jesus in us.
Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, the imputation position would seem to have a major flaw. It appears to imply something seriously problematic: because our righteousness comes from outside ourselves, that according to the imputation view we should therefore be free to do whatever we want in the here and now. The critics of imputation point out that we Christians would be free to act unrighteously (i.e. to sin) without consequence today because our goodness in God’s eyes is unaffected by anything we do. In other words, imputation would seem to imply that Christians can do whatever they want. Put yet another way, imputation sees Christians as not fundamentally different in this life from non-Christians. Christians get very uncomfortable with this possibility. The infusion position, on the other hand, safeguards us from the problem of apparent moral license, because we are expected in our own nature to be able in a new way to act righteously, and therefore are not free to sin without some sort of consequence (even if the consequence is merely needing again to repent and confess and ask for forgiveness). And infusion affirms that Christians are fundamentally different from non-Christians, in this life instead of just in the next.
There is a problem with the infusion position, too. Well, many problems. For example, one could one argue that 2 Corinthians 5:21 is very clear on the explicit issue of imputed righteousness: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Equally clear, it would seem, are Romans 3:21-31 (“Now… the righteousness of God has been disclosed, …the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe…” etc.) and Galatians 3:13 (“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us”). Or, alternatively, we could say that Paul refutes the “freedom to sin” (or moral license) protest directly and at length in Romans 6 without qualifying his position on Grace the tiniest bit.
For our purposes, however, I would like to focus on a different problem with the infusion position. It is one I have never come across elsewhere, but which I cannot see any way around. It is that a simple logical fallacy exists in any explanation of what happens on the Cross other than one that entails a strict imputational view, in terms both of our sin and of his righteousness. This fallacy is why I think we must reject the infusion position, for all its apparent merits, as fundamentally out of keeping with the Christian gospel of the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ.
In order to understand the fallacy, the major inconsistency which I will explain in a moment, we must be clear on one point. As we have seen, virtually all Christians, including those who take the infusion view, believe that their sin is imputed to Jesus. He really takes our sin from us, so we can be forgiven. No one, for example, would take issue with the claim that “in him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses” (Ephesians 1:7) or that “the Son of Man came… to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). In dying, Jesus “Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). All these verses mean that Christ, who was sinless, took our sin from us and made it as if that sin were his, and then died for it as God’s justice demands. Thus he died in our place. This is what we mean when we say that “Jesus died for you.” His death is the source of our forgiveness, the means by which it is possible for God to forgive our sins. Furthermore, it is clear that Christ himself was not a sinner: he was the one who “knew no sin” (2 Cor. 5:21; see also Hebrews 7:26). And he was also God, who by definition is perfect. So for him to have taken our sins upon himself, even though he was himself no sinner, those sins must have been imputed to him—he must have been “covered” with them, like a garment. He could not have been infused with sin—i.e. changed in his nature to become more sinful—or else he would not have been sinless. On this, then, we all agree: Christ took our sin from us, in order to forgive us our sin, by means of imputation, not infusion. Evangelical faith and orthodox Christianity rest on this point, and it is easily demonstrated from any number of biblical sources.
[Footnote: I should note here that there are a few people out there, particularly among those in the Roman Catholic camp, who, in a very legitimate concern to preserve the sinlessness of Christ, try to argue that Jesus “took our sins” only in the sense of expressing profound solidarity with us sinners (by becoming flesh and by dying instead of us), but not in the sense of actually taking our sin upon himself in any more literal way. But this view, in addition to being very difficult to square with the verses above and many others, fundamentally fails to recognize the real difference between infusion and imputation. It is unnecessary to take the radical step of reducing Jesus’ relationship to our sin to one of “solidarity” in order to preserve his sinlessness. We all agree that Jesus must have been sinless, or else he could not have been the one perfect sacrifice for our sins. And he if he were not without sin he could not have been very God of very God! But the view that our sins were imputed to him—not infused in him—safeguards his sinlessness adequately, and squares far better with the New Testament record of his relationhip to our sin. And in any case, the “solidarity” view is a minority one—the vast majority of Christians hold the correct and wonderful view that our sins were imputed to him, and that is how he was able to take them away from us once and for all in God’s sight.]
And now (drum roll) my main argument. It is this: the logical fallacy of the infused righteousness position is that it claims that our sin was imputed to Christ, but then simultaneously holds that his righteousness was not imputed to us. This position is logically incoherent. It is incoherent because, if the imputation of sin to Jesus is true, then the imputation of righteousness to us sinners must also be true. You cannot have the one without the other. Whether by imputation or by infusion, the relationship between our sin and Jesus’ righteousness is a reciprocal one. You have to believe either a) that we are infused with his righteousness and he is infused with our sin, or b) that his righteousness is imputed to us and our sin is imputed to him. You cannot mix and match. To put it simply: his righteousness, replaced by our sin, had to go somewhere when it was replaced by our sin, or else he would have remained only perfectly righteous, and his death would have achieved nothing for us. It would only have been some weird tragedy. And we are told in the New Testament that his righteousness was in fact given to us, as the reciprocal logic would have it: “For our sake [God] made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21 again). As we have seen, all of us agree that his righteousness was given to us in some sense, in a profound reciprocation, or tit-for-tat. Therefore, as I have demonstrated, it cannot have been given to us by infusion, for then our sin could not have been imputed to him, and we would still be in our sins.
Here’s my point: if we believe that Jesus died for our sins, and that that actually means something, then we must also believe that our righteousness is imputed. There is no other option. To say otherwise would be like saying that in a photograph negative the dark shades become light but the light shades do not become dark. If you have one reversal, you have to have the other. And yet, so many Christians are uncomfortable with the idea of imputed righteousness, even as they subscribe fully (as all Christians really must) to the idea that Jesus is considered by God to have borne our sins!
I repeat: we all subscribe to a doctrine of imputed sin in relation to Jesus. The whole Old Testament tradition of animal sacrifice for our sins, on which the Christ as “Lamb of God” tradition depends, is based on a concept of imputed sin. The logical fallacy is to believe in the imputation of sin while rejecting the imputation of righteousness. Not only scripture—which should be enough on its own—but the logic of the gospel itself confirms undeniably that imputed righteousness is the true and orthodox doctrine. Any view that we are infused with righteousness on the basis of Christ’s righteousness—whether by means of the Mass or by being filled with the Holy Spirit--must be rejected as contrary to logic of the Cross.
Let me explain the practical implications of what might seem to be a relatively obscure point. The practical implication is that, because Christ became our sin, we become, in God’s sight, every bit as righteous as Christ, always. This is extremely good news for those of us who continue to fail at being “good” Christians. Those of us who keep sinning, who are still ambitious, still selfish, still spend our time fantasizing about how great we will be one day in this life; those of us who still cannot stop our eating disorder or pornography addiction, who continue to doubt that God really likes us, that he has our best interests at heart, even in our romantic needs, and those of us who have a hard time praying and reading the Bible regularly, much less staying excited about Jesus week after week; those of us who secretly dread going to our small group, and who are afraid the pastor or a fellow Christian will ask us that uncomfortable question about last weekend or about our boyfriend or girlfriend; those of us who still feel we have some great secret to hide. It is for the sake of these people—most of us, maybe all of us, I suspect, certainly me anyway!—that it is such very GOOD news that our righteousness before God is imputed from Christ. Otherwise, we who are still so bad at being good would seem to have missed our “infusion” injection. And that is a very scary prospect. Thank God that the righteousness Jesus procured for us is so much greater and more complete than any mere booster shot!
At this point some people may say, “Surely you are not saying that we never change at all, that God does not do any good works through us whatsoever?” And you would be right, I am not saying that. Imputed righteousness does not mean that there are no good works, or that Spirit-led freedom to desire the good and the righteous never occurs. All it means is that whenever we are given to do a genuinely good work, whenever we are given true selfless love for another, whenever we desire God’s way ofdoing things over and against our way of doing things, this “good work” is NOT the result of a change in our nature. It is simply Jesus, through his Spirit, acting through us. It is him, not us, who is acting. Just as when we sin it is us, not him, who is acting. When Christ gives us his righteousness, it is really his righteousness that he gives us, not just a booster shot for our righteousness. Thanks be to God!
Finally, as a sort of postscript: it is only on the basis of the unshakeable theological (and personal!) foundation of the imputed righteousness of Christ that covers all who believe that we can then proceed to discuss the charge of antinomianism, which is the theological name for the apparent problem of moral license raised earlier. We cannot say, “imputed righteousness would seem theoretically to lead to total moral license, therefore we must reject it.” Rather, we must say, with Paul, “imputed righteousness is not only a biblical given, but is inherent in the logic of the gospel itself (2 Corinthians 5:21). Therefore we must figure out how, in practice, it is not antinomian after all.” A la Romans 6. But that is a subject for another piece.
Posted by John Zahl at 8:33 PM