Imputation: Why its not Legal Fiction

Critics of the Reformed doctrine of imputation regularly charge that it constitutes a legal fiction.  The argument basically argues that to say counting the righteousness of one, namely Christ, in the place of another, namely the guilty sinner, means that the verdict for the sinner does not reflect the sinner’s character of life.  Thus, God’s verdict on the sinner is a matter of fiction; it is not true.  He declares someone righteous when that one is actually a sinner.  At least three comments are worth making with regard to this charge.
First, critics are right to point out that the verdict does not reflect the sinner’s moral quality of life, but this is precisely the point that the Reformed doctrine is making.  God justifies the ungodly.  If we were already godly and morally righteous, then we would not need to be justified.
Second, confusion comes in that the critics are using the term “righteous” with reference to the moral quality of the sinner.  That is, they want the language of righteousness to reflect the person’s actual quality of life.  The problem is that in the Reformed tradition, the language of righteousness is purely forensic; that is, it does not refer to the individual’s quality of life but to his legal status.  This happens all the time in courtrooms.  Judges and juries find criminals not-guilty.  We might respond that injustice has been done, but, at the end of the day, the court’s verdict is true as a status.  In the eyes of the civic authority, the person is actually not guilty, even if they actually did commit the crime.  Again, the imputed righteousness was never intended to refer to the moral quality of the sinner.
Third, critics of the legal fiction variety seem to fail to grasp the covenantal nature of union between Christ and the sinner (perhaps they reject it outright).  “Justified” or “righteous” is a status before the divine court.  This status is received by virtue of being covenantally joined to Christ.  The covenantal nature of the sinner’s relationship to Christ means that what is true of Christ is considered true of those who are covenantally related to him.  Because “righteous” is a status by virtue of covenantal union, it is not mere legal fiction.  The status reflects the verdict of the court as true on the basis of union and communion with Christ.  The status was never intended to refer to the moral righteousness of the sinner. 
So, the justified status on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ is true in that it refers to the declaration of the court.  It refers to legal status not moral status, legal righteousness not moral righteousness.  If it were intended to refer to the moral quality of the sinner, then it would be legal fiction.  Since the verdict was never intended to function in that way, it is not actually fiction.  The declaration reflects the reality that the ungodly have been joined to Christ and are sharers in all that is his, including his righteous status before God.

2 thoughts on “Imputation: Why its not Legal Fiction

  1. Hi Zeke,

    Thanks for your comment. Glad you found this post helpful. You may be surprised to find that Wesley affirmed Calvin's articulation of Justification by faith including the imputation of the active and passive righteousness of Christ in his sermon “The Lord Our Righteousness”. Here are a couple of excerpts including one where Wesley quotes from Calvin's Institutes:

    “6. And this is the doctrine which I have constantly believed and taught, for near eight and twenty years. This I published to all the world in the year 1738, and ten or twelve times since, in those words, and many others to the same effect, extracted from the Homilies of our Church: — “These things must necessarily go together in our justification; upon God's part, his great mercy and grace; upon Christ's part, the satisfaction of God's justice; and on our part, faith in the merits of Christ. So that the grace of God doth not shut out the righteousness of God in our justification, but only shutteth out the righteousness of man, as to deserving our justification.” “That we are justified by faith alone, is spoken to take away clearly all merit of our works, and wholly to ascribe the merit and deserving of our justification to Christ only. Our justification comes freely of the mere mercy of God. For whereas all the world was not able to pay any part toward our ransom, it pleased Him, without any of our deserving, to prepare for us Christ's body and blood, whereby our ransom might be paid, and his justice satisfied. Christ, therefore, is now the righteousness of all them that truly believe in him.””

    “This is more largely and particularly expressed in the Treatise on Justification, which I published last year: “If we take the phrase of imputing Christ's righteousness, for the bestowing (as it were) the righteousness of Christ, including his obedience, as well passive as active, in the return of it, that is, in the privileges, blessings, and benefits purchased it; so a believer may be said to be justified by the righteousness of Christ imputed. The meaning is, God justifies the believer for the sake of Christ's righteousness, and not for any righteousness of his own. So Calvin: (Institut. 1.2, c.17) `Christ by his obedience, procured and merited for us grace or favour with God the Father.' Again: `Christ, by his obedience, procured or purchased righteousness for us.' And yet again: `All such expressions as these, — that we are justified by the grace of God, that Christ is our righteousness, that righteousness was procured for us by the death and resurrection of Christ, import the same thing; namely, that the righteousness of Christ, both his active and passive righteousness, is the meritorious cause of our justification, and has procured for us at God's hand, that, upon our believing, we should be accounted righteous by him.'” Page 5.”

    Here's a link to the full text:

    Again, thanks for reading.


  2. Thanks – this was helpful. I'm teaching a class on the Five Solas, currently working on Sola Fide.

    And it's doubly nice to see a Wesleyan make an argument on the side of the Calvinists.

    God bless!


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