R. L. Dabney

R. L. Dabney
From Dabney's Systematic Theology, p. 640-643.

OUR last attempt was to prove that the meritorious cause of the believer’s justification is the righteousness of Christ. But how is it that this righteousness avails for us, or that its justifying efficacy is made ours? The answer to this question leads us to the doctrine of imputation. The Catechism says that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us. This Latin word, to reckon or account to any one, is sometimes employed in the English Scriptures as the translation of bv'h;, logizomai , ellogew , and correctly. Of the former we have instances in Gen. 15:6; 38:15; 2 Sam. 19:19; of the next in Mark 15:28; Rom. 2:26; 4:5, etc.; Gal. 3:6, etc.; and of the last, in Rom. 5:13; Philem. 18.

Defined. Owen Criticized.

Sometimes it is evident that the thing imputed is that which is actually done by or personally belongs to the person to whom it is reckoned, or set over.. (This is what Turrettin calls imputation loosely so called). Sometimes the thing imputed belonged to, or was done by another, as in Philem. 18; Rom. 4:6. This is the imputation which takes place in the sinner’s justification. It may be said, without affecting excessive subtlety of definition, that by imputation of Christ’s righteousness, we only mean that Christ’s righteousness is so accounted to the sinner, as that he receives thereupon the legal consequences to which it entitles. In accordance with 2 Cor. 5:21, as well as with the dictates of sound reason, we regard it as the exact counterpart of the imputation of our sins to Christ. Owen does, indeed deny this, asserting that the latter only produced a temporary change in Christ’s legal state, and that He was able speedily to extinguish the claims of law against our guilt, and return to His glory; while the former so imputes His very righteousness as to make a final and everlasting change in our legal relations. We reply: the difference is not in the kind of imputation, but in the persons. The mediatorial Person was so divine and infinite, that temporary sufferings and obedience met and extinguished all the legal claims upon Him. Again, Owen pleads that we must suppose Christ’s very righteousness, imputed to us, in another sense than our sins are to Him; because to talk of imputing to us the legal consequences of His righteousness, such as pardon, etc., is nonsensical, pardon being the result of the imputation. But would not the same reasoning prove as well, that not only our guilt, but our very sinfulness must have been imputed to Christ; because it is nonsensical to talk of imputing condemnation! The truth is, the thing set over to our account, in the former case, is in strictness of speech, the title to the consequences of pardon and acceptance, founded on Christ’s righteousness, as in the latter case it was the guilt of our sins—i. e., the obligation to punishment founded on our sinfulness. All are agreed that, when the Bible says, "the iniquity of us all was laid on Christ," or that "He bare our sins," or "was made sin for us," it is only our guilt and not our moral attribute of sinfulness which was imputed. So it seems to me far more reasonable and scriptural to suppose that, in the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, it is not the attribute of righteousness in Christ which is imputed, but that which is the exact counterpart of guilt—the title to acquittal. Owen, in proceeding to argue against objections, strongly states that imputation does not make the sinner personally and actually righteous with Christ’s righteousness as a quality. We should like, then, to know what he means, when saying that this righteousness is really and truly imputed to us in a more literal sense than our sins were to Christ. A middle ground is to me invisible.

Basis of Justification.

The basis on which this imputation proceeds, is our union to Christ. There is, first, our natural union constituting Him a member of our race; a man as truly as we are men. But this, though an essential prerequisite, is not by itself enough; for if so, mere humanity would constitute every sinner a sharer in His righteousness. There must be added our mystical union, in which a legal and spiritual connection are established by God’s sovereign dispensation, making Him our legal and our spiritual Head. Thus imputation becomes proper.

Is the Idea In Scripture?

When we attempt to prove this imputation, we are met with the assertion, by Arminians and theologians of the New England School, that there is no instance in the whole Bible of anything imputed, except that which the man personally does or possesses himself; so that there is no Scriptural warrant for this idea of transference of righteousness as to its legal consequences. We point, in reply, to Philemon 18, and to Romans 4:6. If God imputes to a man righteousness without works, and his faith cannot literally be this imputed righteousness, as we have abundantly proved, we should like to know where that imputed righteousness comes from. Certainly it cannot come personally from the sinner who is without works. The whole context shows that it is Christ’s. But how sorry an artifice is it to seize on the circumstances that the word logizesqai happens not to be immediately connected with Christ’s name in the same sentence, when the idea is set forth in so many phrases? Moreover, as Turrettin remarks, every case of pardoned guilt is a case (see 2 Sam. 19:19) of this kind of imputation: for something is reckoned to the sinner—i. e., legal innocency, or title to immunity, which is not personally his own.


The direct arguments for the imputation of Christ’s righteousness are: 1st. The counterpart imputation of our guilt to Him. (Proved by Is. 53:5, 6, 10; Heb. 9:18; 1 Pet. 2:24, &c). For the principles involved are so obviously the same, and the one transaction so obviously the procurer of the other, that none who admit a proper imputation of human guilt to Christ, will readily deny an imputation of His righteousness to man. Indeed both are conclusively stated in 2 Cor. 5:21. The old Reformed exposition of this important passage, by some of our divines, was to read, "Christ was made a sin offering for us." The objection is that by this view no counterpart is presented in the counterpart proposition: "we are made the righteousness of God in Him." It is obvious that St. Paul uses the abstract for the concrete. Christ was made a sinner for us, that we might be made righteous persons in Him. The senses of the two members of the parallelism must correspond. There is no other tenable sense than this obvious one—that our guilt (obligation to penalty) was imputed to Christ, that His righteousness (title to reward) might be imputed to us. 2d. Christ is said to be our righteousness. Jer. 23:6; 1 Cor. 1:30, etc., expressions which can only be honestly received by admitting the idea of imputation. 3d. By "His obedience many are constituted righteous;" ( katasteqhsontai ). Here is imputation. So we might go through most of the passages cited to prove that we are justified on account of Christ’s righteousness, and show that they all involve the idea of imputation. Indeed, how else can the legal consequences of His righteousness become ours? To see the force of all these, we have only to remember that all who deny imputation, also deny that Christ’s righteousness is the sole meritorious ground, thus plainly implying that the latter necessarily involves the former. 4th. Imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us is argued by Paul in Rom 5., from imputation of Adam’s sin to us.

Objections Solved.

Objections have been strenuously urged against this doctrine, of which the most grave is that it encourages licentiousness of living. This will be separately considered under section 15. It has again been urged that it is impious, in representing Christ as personally the worst Being in the universe as bearing all the sins of all believers; and false to fact, in representing His act in assuming our law place as the act which drew down God’s wrath on Him; whereas it was an act of lovely benevolence, according to the Calvinistic view of it; and also false, as representing the sinner as personally holy at the very time his contrition avows him to be vilest. The answer is, that all these objections mistake the nature of imputation, which is not a transfer of moral character, but of legal relation. And Christ’s act in taking our law place was a lovely act. In strictness of speech, it was not this act which drew down His Father’s wrath, (but His love—John 10:17), but the guilt so assumed. For the discussion of more subtle objection, that guilt must be as untransferable as personal demerit, because it is the consequence of demerit alone, —see Lecture 44.

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