Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Imputed Righteousness in the New Covenant?

 [Update: Don't miss Part 2 of this series!]

This will be something of a Part 1 of a two-part post. In this post I want to point out something fascinating that I noticed regarding the Protestant heresy known as Imputation, specifically the notion that Christ kept the law perfectly in our place and transferred this perfect obedience to us so we could be members of the New Covenant. This is more formally known as "Imputation of Christ's Active Obedience," but the truth is, the New Testament writers never speak of this, and in fact it contradicts many New Testament passages. One passage I want to point out is a crucial passage for Christians, since it comes from the Old Testament and is one of the clearest prophecies that there would be a New Covenant. 

In Jeremiah 31 we read:
31 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. 33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.
This Prophecy is huge for a couple of reasons. As noted earlier, this Prophecy is one of the clearest and most important prophecies telling us there would be a New Covenant. And this New Covenant will be characterized by two main details: (1) forgiveness of sins, and (2) having the law written upon their hearts so that they may know how to love God and neighbor. 

This is very bad for the Protestant side for two reasons. First of all, this Prophecy says nothing about the Messiah keeping the law in our place. And Second of all, if Jesus had to keep the law in our place, then the part about God writing the law on the Christian's heart loses it's meaning. If Jesus has to keep the law perfectly in our place because (as Protestants say) we will never be good enough, then God writing the law on our hearts becomes a mockery that really isn't going to amount to anything of significance beyond the mediocre law-keeping people did without the law written on their hearts. 

And if this Prophecy wasn't enough, a second Prophecy of nearly equal importance can be called up as another witness. Ezekiel 36 says:
23 And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. 24 I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. 28 You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. 29 And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses.
This talk of God "vindicating" His name and reputation which the Jewish unfaithfulness tarnished sounds a lot like the "Righteousness of God" which Paul speaks about! Here we see the same message as in Jeremiah 31, including the same two characteristics of what the New Covenant will consist of: (1) cleansing them from their sins (with clean water, an obvious reference to Baptism); and (2) giving them a new heart and the Holy Spirit so that the Christian will be enabled to keep God's commandments. 

As with the first Prophecy, this second one contradicts the Protestant doctrine of Imputation. For not only is Imputation not mentioned here, it's ruled out by the fact God wants us to be keeping the commandments the way He wants them kept. 

This understanding vindicates the Catholic reading of Romans 8, which Protestants have historically botched to salvage their theology.
Romans 8:3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
This passage, along with many others, fits right along with what these two OT Prophecies tell us. Protestants have tried to twist this text so that it says Jesus condemned sin and kept the requirements of the law in our place. But they leave out the last clause, namely that of us receiving the Holy Spirit, because what Paul is really saying is that us walking by the Spirit is how the law is fulfilled in us. This is also confirmed in the parallel text of Galatians 3:13-14 (cf 2 Corinthians 5:21), which speaks of Jesus dying for our sins so that we might receive the Holy Spirit. Again, the OT Prophecies further confirm this. 

I hope you appreciated this brief post. This is some fascinating stuff. I don't even want to see the Protestant gymnastics trying to salvage Imputation for these beautiful texts. 

Stay tuned for a future second post I'm writing for how this lesson ties into the curious text of Romans 2 which speaks of the Gentiles having "the law written upon their hearts."

[Update: Don't miss Part 2 of this series!]


Hymenaeus said...

Dear Nick,

These are some good points. I think the problem is not so much the idea of the "imputation" of Christ's righteousness, but the idea that this is the only or even the primary dimension of justification. Presumably, this is because many Protestants assume that when Scripture speaks of covenants, it is merely talking about legal contracts and forensic declarations. Of course, the idea of incorporation into Christ as members of his body is a prominent theme throughout the New Testament, but this is not to teach that we are merely under Christ as a "federal representative" and excluding the idea the idea of a formal justice inhering in man (itself an unmerited and freely-given gift of God to be sure!) that is the basis of God's imputation and legal declaration. The idea of federal heads is fine, and Paul does teach it, but it is a mistake to think it is the only thing Paul talks about.

Also, if I may nitpick, I would suggest that you be cautious of the use of coarse language such as "half-ass" in your apologetics work. You don't want to sound like a Luther after all!

Nick said...


Thank you for your comments. The fascinating thing is that the Council of Trent doesn't even forbid believing in Imputation, so long as one doesn't leave it only as imputation:

Canon 11.
If anyone says that men are justified either by the *sole* imputation of the justice of Christ or by the *sole* remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost,[116] and remains in them, or also that the grace by which we are justified is only the good will of God, let him be anathema.(Trent, Session 6)

So I'm surprised this doesn't catch the attention of more Protestants out there. They basically can have a lot of what they're saying, they just need to recognize more to the story, as you said. The 2 prophecies I quoted basically affirm this Canon, in that it isn't the 'sole' remission of sins, but as both prophecies clearly say, it includes love and the Holy Spirit poured into our heart.

Also, I modified the wording because the last thing I want to sound like is Luther!

Hymenaeus said...

True, the Council states, "the meritorious cause [of justification] is His most beloved only-begotten, our Lord Jesus Christ, who, when we were enemies, for the exceeding charity wherewith he loved us, merited Justification for us by His most holy Passion on the wood of the cross, and made satisfaction for us unto God the Father," but the Council of Trent certainly rejects the errant notion that "man's righteousness before God is solely the imputation of Christ's alien righteousness to man's account." Trent, distinguishing between the different causes of justification, teaches in accordance with Scripture that Christ makes His righteousness man's own. Thus justice can be predicated formally of man.

[T]he alone formal cause [of justification] is the justice of God, not that whereby He Himself is just, but that whereby He maketh us just, that, to wit, with which we being endowed by Him, are renewed in the spirit of our mind, and we are not only reputed, but are truly called, and are, just, receiving justice within us, each one according to his own measure, which the Holy Ghost distributes to every one as He wills, and according to each one's proper disposition and co-operation.
(Decree on Justification, Chapter 7)

The Protestant argument is rejected in Canon 11, which you quoted, and Canon 10:

If any one saith, that men are just without the justice of Christ, whereby He merited for us to be justified; or that it is by that justice itself [i.e. "Chris's alien righteousness"] that they are formally just; let him be anathema.

Obviously there are problems with the idea that justification is solely the imputation of Christ's alien righteousness, not the least of which being that it is not taught in Scripture, another problem being that original sin obviously does not consist solely in the imputation of Adam's alien sinfulness to our accounts apart from the ontological change in his descendents. Or maybe there is a Protestant distinction between the legal act by which God declares man to be sinful and the continuing process by which we are made sinful. But I suppose whether or not the Protestant doctrine makes sense, they still have to reject the Catholic teaching because it contradicts "justification by faith alone," whatever that means.

Anonymous said...

Nick, You included 2 corinthians 5:21 speaking of Jesus dying for our sins so that we might receive the holy spirit. But that verse says nothing about receiving the Holy Spirit nor Jesus death specifically. It says He became sin so that we might become the righteousness of God. Now Protestants believe this is imputation. Because Jeus who is sinless literally becomes sin, not ontologically, and we being sinners become, not righteous inherently, but the righteousness of God. Thx

Nick said...


While 2 Corinthians 5:21 does not mention us receiving the Holy Spirit, if you look at how I referenced that verse, it was referenced in the context of Romans 8:3 and Galatians 3:13-14, both of which do mention the Holy Spirit. I would argue that 2 Corinthians 5:21 is closely related to those texts and that we can/should read them as expressing the same general thought.

In fact, Paul's reference to being "ambassadors" in 2 cor 5 most certainly goes back to his reference to being "ambassadors of the new covenant" in 2 Cor 3:6, which context is explicitly about having the Holy Spirit indwelling in us and the law written on our hearts.

I don't see my Cf to 2 Cor 5:21 in my article as a stretch by any means. I see it as the Scriptures coming alive by letting one text illuminate another.

ALSO, I'm actually working on a new 2 Corinthians 5:21 post, so stay tuned to see the rest of your comments addressed.

WHG said...
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