Imputation: The Chocolate Chips in Luther’s Theological Cookie

Martin Luther (1483-1546), by Cranach (credit: Wikipedia). “Imputation” was the core theological concept behind Luther’s thinking. So then, what is “imputation?”

Imputation. Have you ever heard of that word? We do not use it in normal conversation. But in the 16th century, imputation became a battleground idea for the Reformation. This crucial theological concept helps us think through a true understanding of the Gospel, even today.

Theologian Michael Horton, one of the scholars interviewed in the film documentary This Changed Everything, about the Reformation, likens imputation to a cooking analogy. If you try to make chocolate chip cookies, but leave out the chocolate chips, then you have pretty much left out the main ingredient. Likewise, many Protestants would argue that if you talk about the Gospel, but leave out imputation, then you end up with a chocolate-less cookie. Before we get at the definition of imputation, let us see why this might be so important.

Why Imputation is So Important to the Gospel

As a young monk, Martin Luther was obsessed with perfection. He was so over-scrupulous, that he would drive his confessor absolutely nuts. He once spent six-hours during one confession session, only to come back for more, over what appeared to be a trivial matter. His confessor would often reprimand Luther, urging the perfectionist to only come back for confession once he had committed some real sin!

Is something missing in your Gospel cookie?

But in Luther’s obsession, he had gained clarity of insight, understanding the radical contrast between all of fallen humanity, and a Holy God. With his highly sensitive conscious, Luther never felt he was righteous enough to meet God’s standard of righteousness. No matter what he did, no matter how good he thought he was, he could never be justified, within God’s sight. Luther was being honest with himself, more honest than most.

Luther’s religious training was of no help. In those days, the typical way of thinking about this justification, was that it was a process. It was a process whereby God infuses or imparts His righteousness to us, bit by bit, slowly over time. One common Scriptural way of appealing to this came from the old, and unfortunately corrupted, Latin Vulgate translation of Luke 1:28. The Virgin Mary was thought to be like a reservoir, full of grace, whereby someone seeking to be righteous could dip into that reservoir, every now and then, to receive some of this infused or imparted righteousness.

But for Luther, he never was sure if he had enough of that righteousness infused or imparted to him, to be acceptable before the eyes of God. This is where the concept of imputation comes in.

Sometime during the decade of the 1510s, Martin Luther had a theological breakthrough. Reflecting on this years afterwards, Luther realized that there was no righteousness in himself that could make him acceptable before God. Instead, since Jesus Christ alone was truly righteous, Luther discovered that God had declared Luther to be righteous. This was not because of any virtue within himself, but solely based on God’s gracious favor towards Luther. This righteousness of Christ, a righteousness that was alien to Luther, was imputed to him. It was this imputed righteousness that made Luther, and any other person who comes to God in faith, righteous within the sight of God. This is the heart of the Reformation theology of justification by faith alone.

But where does this word “imputed” come from, and what does it mean?

According to the early 20th century American theologian, B.B. Warfield, the term is derived from the Latin verb imputo, as found in that same Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible. The word impute only made it into the English language during the 1540s, where it carried the meaning of to “ascribe,” “reckon,” or “attribute.” Most English Bibles today translate the word as “count,” and the key reference is found in Psalm 32:2:

Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity,
    and in whose spirit there is no deceit” (ESV)

Compare with the older King James Version:

“Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile”  (KJV)

The Apostle Paul quotes this verse to aid his argument in Romans 4, demonstrating that Abraham was considered righteous, not on the basis of his own works, but rather, because he was “counted” as righteous before God.

For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:

“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
    and whose sins are covered;
blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”

Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. 10 How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised (Romans 4:3-10 ESV)

The idea of “counted” or “imputed” is often considered to be a bookkeeping metaphor, useful in accounting. If your checking account at your bank is “in the red,” but someone deposits some money into your account to wipe out that debt, then your account has now been “counted” or “imputed” to be “in the black.” In other words, spiritually speaking, Abraham was originally “in the red” with God. But God counted, or imputed, him to be righteousness, putting him “in the black.”

Martin Luther, therefore, understood the Apostle Paul to be saying that it is God’s own righteousness, through His Son, Jesus Christ, that is imputed to the Christian, that makes a person justified before God. The truth had always been there in the Bible. But for Luther, it had been obscured through years of confusion and neglect, in the medieval Western Church.

As Protestant Christians reflected on this theological discovery by Martin Luther, the theology of imputation was expanded in a threefold sense, to understand the whole scope of humankind’s spiritual predicament, and God’s solution, in Christ:

  • First, the sin of Adam was imputed to all of Adam’s posterity (Romans 5:12ff). All humans are sinners, due to Adam’s original sin.
  • Secondly, the sins of this fallen humanity were imputed to the blameless Jesus Christ, through Christ’s work on the cross (2 Corinthians 5:21).
  • Thirdly, the righteousness of Christ, through Christ’s victory over sin and death, is imputed to all of God’s people (2 Corinthians 5:21), making them blameless before God.

The theology of imputation is, in many ways, clear and simple to understand. At the same time, however, it has proven to be quite controversial. The Gospel is, and always will be, controversial, is it not?

Why Some Say That Imputation Does Not Cut It

At the center of the controversy is the charge that imputed righteousness creates a type of “legal fiction.” Forensically speaking, imputed righteousness only declares someone to be righteous, in a legal sense. There is not necessarily a change inwardly, in the person. As a result, imputed righteousness suggests a “legal fiction,” whereby someone has the appearance of being righteous, when in reality underneath, they are still unrighteous. Critics of Luther’s doctrine say this “legal fiction” insufficiently tells us the story of how we are justified.

What “chocolate chips” are in your theological cookie, regarding your justification before God?

Imagine walking into someone’s house, wearing a sparkling clean robe, with that lemony, fresh scent, given to you by the owner of the house. You look great! But underneath, you smell like you have not taken a bath in weeks. You are all clean on the outside, but you stink to high heaven on the inside. Justification, or “being made right with God,” therefore, would still require that you get cleaned up underneath your new robe, washing away the filth, before entering Christ’s heavenly banquet.

Martin Luther dismissed this type of objection, but not in a rigorous systematic fashion. He simply argued that a person who has been justified by faith alone, through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to himself, would naturally respond to such an act of divine grace with gratitude. In the spirit of thankfulness to what God has done for the sinner, the recipient of that grace performs good works that are pleasing to God, leading towards inward transformation.

But Luther was adamant against saying that such good works can contribute, in any way, towards our salvation. Salvation is by faith, and faith alone.

Luther’s analogy would be that of a sick man going to see the doctor. The doctor knows of the cure for the man’s sickness, so he declares the man to be well, as the man places himself in the doctor’s care, by having a trusting faith in that doctor. Nevertheless, the doctor knows that the man’s cure requires the man to take medicine. In this sense, the man is both sick and well, at the same time. By having faith in the doctor, and through gratitude, the man takes his medicine, and he eventually fully recovers from his illness. Theologically speaking, for Luther, a Christian is simul justus et peccator, a Latin phrase for saying that one is simultaneously both righteous (justus) and a sinner (peccator).

Many are convinced that Luther made his case, and that this case is really at the heart of understanding the Gospel. Others, are not so sure. They would agree that Luther’s revolt against the corruptions of the Gospel in the medieval Church was correct, but that he did not entirely understand properly the full teaching of the New Testament. Defenders of Luther think that the Reformer got it right, and that any attempt to obfuscate imputed righteousness threatens to smuggle a sense of “works righteousness;” that is, to try earn one’s way into God’s favor, back into the Gospel message, and corrupting the Truth.

So, do you have the “chocolate chips” in your theological cookie, when it comes to understanding the Gospel? The debate is likely to continue among believers, as they wrestle with the teachings of the Bible. But Martin Luther clearly left his mark on the history of the church, with his discovery of imputed righteousness. The church and the world has never been the same since.


About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

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