The Consequences of “Imputed Righteousness” per Calvinism
by Dudley Ross Spears
“Imputed righteousness” is an integral part of classic Calvinism. It is the doctrine affirming that the personal righteousness of Jesus Christ is instantly transferred to a sinner at the point of “saving faith.” Accordingly, the believer ceases to be the old vile sinner he was and forthwith becomes a new and perfectly righteous person. Before conversion everything this rational human being did was wrong; after conversion, all he does is right and perfect before God.
Jesus perfectly obeyed and fulfilled all righteousness (Matthew 3:15). His righteousness is, allegedly, assigned to the personal account of the believer. At that very instant what was formerly completely depraved and totally imperfect suddenly becomes completely holy and totally perfect. This believer, according to Calvinism, is accounted precisely as if he had perfectly obeyed God and stands perfectly righteous before Him. It is expressed in the hymn, “The Solid Rock,” in the stanza, “dress in His righteousness alone, faultless to stand before the throne.”
Aside from the stubborn truth that the Bible does not teach such a concept of imputation, the consequences of it are against plain and simple gospel truth. George Elliot put a line in his work, Adam Bede, “Consequences are unpitying.” Indeed they are, especially in the beliefs and practices of religion. A doctrine that is not consistent with plain truth is wrong. Consider some consequences of the Calvinistic view of imputation.
- If the doctrine is true that a sinner is awarded Christ’s own personal righteousness at the point of believing, without further acts of obedience to God, then any sin he commits cannot cause him any guilt at all. He cannot be condemned because the perfect satisfaction for his sins was made in Christ’s death on the cross. He cannot be guilty of any sin he commits because the theory says that the perfect righteousness of Jesus is now the believer’s possession. So, while the believer may sin (and all do, Ecclesiastes 7:20; Romans 3:9,23; I John 1:8,10), those sins don’t count. They cannot produce guilt if the perfect righteousness and obedience of Jesus are transferred to them personally at the point of faith. Who can really believe it?
- Whatever sin is committed by the believer who is united with Christ has no bearing at all on his eternal salvation, if the theory is true. By virtue of faith, the sins of the believer are never seen by God. Some describe imputed righteousness as an “umbrella” placed over the believer at the point of faith, which “covers the believer so completely, God does not see his sins.” That expression has always made me wonder how God manages to see the good things a believer does if He cannot see the sins of the believer. Naturally, God can see or not see as He pleases, but this false theory puts God in a position of having to ignore the sins of His own children. The believer cannot be less than complete and perfect under this imaginary “umbrella.” Therefore, the believer may sin (and all do) but it is really the same as if he had not sinned. Sin means nothing to the believer. Whether one is a mass murderer or a pious and godly saint is all the same, if this theory is true -- but it isn’t, is it?
The Bible really teaches, “But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness” (Romans 4:5). Faith in this passage cannot mean faith, before and without additional acts of obedience to God. It cannot mean “faith only.” It must of necessity be faith in the fullest sense of the word. It is full conviction produced by hearing the word of God (Romans 10:17). It is the faith that obeys from the heart (Romans 6:17), and therefore avails (Galatians 5:6).
The Bible teaches us that when the Almighty sees such faith in the sinner, He promises full forgiveness and justification (Rom. 3:28; Acts 26:18). As with the paralytic, Jesus (God, the Son) “saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven you’” (Mark 2:5). With forgiveness comes imputed righteousness. However, righteousness is not transferred from Jesus; it belongs to the believer. Not one passage anywhere in the Bible teaches that the personal righteousness of Jesus is transferred to anyone. If so, where is the passage? The Bible does say clearly, “If you know that He is righteous, you know that everyone who practices righteousness is born of Him” (I John 2:29).
The ground on which God accounts a sinner righteous is based on the quality of the sinner’s faith. It is faith that obeys and leads one to strive toward perfection. Paul wrote, “But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness” (Romans 6:17-18). One who becomes a slave of righteousness is under orders to persist in obedience to the principles of righteousness. Again, Paul said, “Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you. Nevertheless, to the degree that we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us be of the same mind. Brethren, join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern” (Philippians 3:13-17).
One who never sins never needs forgiveness. Jesus was never forgiven of anything. He is the exception. Every one of us, however, as rational beings, has sinned and come short of God’s glory. Therefore we need forgiveness. Without it, eternal salvation is forfeited (I Corinthians 6:9-10; Revelation 21:27). Forgiveness is only promised to those who obey God through faith. On no other basis is forgiveness promised. The sinner whose faith leads him to obey God fully is accounted righteous before God. It is his faith (not the obedience of Jesus) that is imputed to him as his righteousness.
In the phrase, “his faith is accounted for righteousness,” for is from the Greek preposition eis. Eis is usually defined as, “into, to, unto, with a view to; hence with respect to a certain event, in order to, for” [A Critical Lexicon and Concordance to the English and Greek New Testament, page 295]. Therefore, the sinner who, by faith obeys God, considering his own imperfections in life, is accounted righteous on the basis of his faith. His faith is with a view toward this righteousness that God will put to his account. He cannot be so accounted for in any other way.
Righteousness is a personal trait. As such, it belongs to the person possessing it. It cannot be transferred to another. Neither our personal good nor bad can be passed on to anyone. We may influence others, but whatever good or bad anyone has is non-transferable. It is completely inconsistent with truth to argue that the personal and perfect righteousness of Jesus is transferable. All accountable beings who sin are condemned without forgiveness from God. There is no “umbrella” concealing us from the all-seeing eye of our God and Father. We are culpable because we sin.
Those who teach this doctrine of imputed righteousness of Jesus face the consequences of the doctrine. The most obvious error is known as “Once Saved, Always Saved.” The late Sam Morris, a Baptist preacher, consistently argued that if one is saved, “all the sins he may commit from murder to idolatry will not endanger his soul.” Don’t believe it, friend. Obey God from your heart and serve Him faithfully. Avoid sin at all cost. Live for Him and He will own you on that last great day.