One Word That Explains Why Your Salvation in Christ Is Secure
Do you struggle with guilt? Do you sometimes wonder how God could possibly love such a wretched sinner as you? Do you ever get depressed because you feel as though you don’t “measure up”?
Many Christians wrestle with these feelings, even though they started their spiritual journey by acknowledging that all their sins are forgiven through Jesus’ sacrificial death. We learn this key truth from such passages as 1 Peter 2:24 (“He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree”) and from Isaiah 53:
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed. (Isa. 53:5)
While these verses explain how can we be reconciled to God even though we are sinners who fail to keep his law, how does God remove the burden of depressing guilt over our sin?
Believers are declared righteous in Christ.
The answer is that rather than making us holy and sinless persons, God declares us righteous based not on our works but instead on what Christ did for us. In other words, it is not our works that remove our guilt and save us. Instead, it is what Christ did—that is, the work he did for us in both his life and death. Our receiving and benefiting from the work of Jesus for our salvation is often referred to by the term “imputation,” a word that describes the act of assigning or attributing something to someone else.
Understanding the word imputation is essential to resting in Christ.
We find three areas of imputation in the Bible, and understanding each of them helps us not to worry about whether we have enough righteousness for God to be pleased with us or whether we are truly saved.
- Imputation #1: Adam’s first sin is imputed (credited or counted) to all his posterity—as described at length in Romans 5: We “all sinned” when Adam did, and thus, “by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners” (vv. 12-19). The theologian John Murray is helpful here, explaining how the Greek word for "made" (kathestemi) is better translated as “constituted,” meaning that we “were placed in the category of sinners.”
- Imputation #2: In this case, our sins are imputed to Christ, and he suffers the penalty due for sin in our place. Thus, the apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin,” fulfilling Isaiah’s earlier words: “The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6). Since Christ has been “offered once to bear the sins of many” (Heb. 9:28), we no longer need to fear God’s wrath for our failures and transgressions.
- Imputation #3: Jesus’ perfect obedience and righteousness are imputed to all believers in Christ, so that we stand before the Father, not merely forgiven for our sins, but also bearing the spotless perfection of Christ’s lifelong obedience—as though we ourselves had also lived that flawless and exemplary life (Rom. 5:17-19; 3:21-24; 10:5-13).
This crucial third imputation listed above regarding Christ’s righteousness is stressed in several passages of Scripture. In Romans 5:19, right after indicating that we were “made sinners” in Adam, Paul concludes that in the same way, “many will be made righteous" (now placed in the category of the righteous) by “the one man’s obedience.” Similarly, Isaiah 53:11 declares, “By his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous.” And 2 Corinthians 5:21 links the two imputations in one glorious verse: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Imputation is an important core doctrine of the historical church.
The Westminster Confession of Faith, a summary of Christian doctrine written in the seventeenth-century, stressed the importance of the doctrine of imputation in its chapter on justification:
Those whom God effectually calls he justifies, pardons their sins and accepts them as righteous, “not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness, by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God.” (WCF 11.1)
Notice how the above quote teaches that two aspects of Christ’s work are imputed to believers: obedience and satisfaction. Obedience refers to Christ Jesus’ entire sinless life—his righteousness. Satisfaction refers to Christ Jesus having paid the penalty for our sins—his atonement (satisfaction) for the just penalty of sin, which is death (Rom. 6:23).
Thus, both Jesus’ obedience and satisfaction are imputed to those who rest by faith on his finished work in both his life and on the cross. This is sometimes referred to as “double imputation,” a phrase embracing both the life and death of Christ. To put it simply: Christ not only died for us—he also lived on our behalf!
As the Reformation Study Bible puts it,
In His active obedience, Christ fulfilled the positive commandments of God on behalf of his people, serving God and doing good. This positive righteousness is granted as a gift through faith to believers, securing for them a righteous standing before God. (p. 1679)
We need more than a zero balance for salvation.
It is vital to grasp and embrace both imputations—for if all we have is the sacrifice of Christ to cancel our sins, that merely brings us back to zero, with no more righteousness or merit than a sinless rock or tree.
In his helpful book Side by Side, Ed Welch points out that this would be like erasing a massive debt but not giving the person any actual money to live on. The Father has not left us mere “debt-free beggars.” Yes, Christ has canceled our debt to God—but he has also made us rich beyond measure (p. 151).
Believers wear pure vestments in Christ.
Scripture provides a beautiful picture of double imputation in Zechariah 3 where Satan comes to accuse Joshua the high priest as he stands before God in “filthy garments.” The accuser has not even opened his mouth when God commands that the soiled robes be removed. God tells Joshua, “I have taken your iniquity away from you.” This is the cancellation of debt, but does God then leave Joshua naked? Of course not! At the same time, God assures the high priest, “I will clothe you with pure vestments.” He then commands, “Let them put a clean turban upon his head” (vv. 1-5). As some commentators have observed, these garments would be “suitable for the heavenly court,” particularly since the priestly turban—going back to Exodus 28:36-37—bore the inscription, “Holy to the Lord.”
This idea of being clothed by a gracious God permeates much of the Bible, starting with the new garments he fashioned for Adam and Eve right after their sin (Gen. 3:21; note that these were made from “skins,” and thus, like our clothing from Christ, they required a sacrificial death!). Or consider Isaiah 61:10: “He has clothed me with garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness.” We might also recall the prodigal son’s father, who rushed to get his long-lost child a pair of new shoes and “the best robe” (Luke 15:22). And Scripture’s final book offers several passages about new garments, highlighted by a description of redeemed saints who have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:14; see also 3:5; 3:18; 7:9; 7:13; 22:14).
“He will rejoice over you.”
Not only do we sometimes feel accused and filthy, like Joshua the high priest, but we also sense that even “our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Isa. 64:6). We need to be reminded that we no longer wear these befouled robes (our works), but rather we are clothed with the glorious righteousness of Christ. As the sixteenth-century Heidelberg Catechism puts it in Question 60:
How are you righteous before God? Answer: Only by a true faith in Jesus Christ; so that, though my conscience accuse me that I have grossly transgressed all the commandments of God, and kept none of them, and am still inclined to all evil; notwithstanding, God, without any merit of mine, but only of mere grace, grants and imputes to me, the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ; even so, as if I never had had, nor committed any sin: yea, as if I had fully accomplished all that obedience which Christ has accomplished for me; inasmuch as I embrace such benefit with a believing heart. (HC 60)
In his book Death in Adam, Life in Christ: The Doctrine of Imputation, theologian J. V. Fesko sums up imputation’s necessary role to restoring the relationship between God and humans:
Only the imputed obedience and satisfaction of Christ received by faith alone by God’s grace alone grant right and title to eternal life and restore fallen sinners into a new covenantal relationship with the triune God. (p. 276)
Because of these priceless truths, God does not condemn or accuse us, as our own hearts do; nor does he merely tolerate us as debt-free servants with no special rights. Rather, we are eagerly welcomed into the household of God like the impoverished prodigal on his return—precious children with all the privileges of the sinless Son whose spotless robes we now wear.
For this reason, God can say to us, as the smitten groom tells his bride in the Song of Solomon, "Behold, you are beautiful!...You are altogether beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you" (Song of Sol. 4:1, 7).
So don’t worry—instead, be joyful in Christ!
Next time you are plagued by feelings of guilt, fear of God’s anger, or a sense that you don’t measure up to his standards, recall that Christ has already met those standards on your behalf—“irrevocably, immutably and indefectibly” (Fesko, p. 278). And remember this verse, whose truths flow from this perfect imputation of Christ’s perfect life: “He will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing” (Zeph. 3:17).
The salvation Christ has won for you cannot be taken away. Be at peace, and take joy in your Savior.
Justified by Faith Alone by R. C. Sproul
What Is Justification by Faith Alone? by J. V. Fesko
Joseph W. Smith, III has been a teacher, writer, speaker, and church officer for more than twenty-five years. His latest book, Open Hearts: Recovering the Lost Christian Virtue of Transparency, is due in 2018.
 Joyce G. Baldwin, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Inter-Varsity, 1972), 114; and Barry G. Webb, The Message of Zechariah: Your Kingdom Come, The Bible Speaks Today (InterVarsity, 2003), 86.