In a recent post, I said that N.T. Wright’s presentation at ETS surprised me with regard to two areas: his clarification regarding final justification and the role of works and his comments on imputation. Here are my reflections on the role of works. Now on to the matter of imputation.
Wright has often suggested that the Reformed doctrine of imputation makes righteousness out to be a gas-like substance that can be passed across the divine courtroom from judge to defendant. I thought this was an interesting and, perhaps, valid objection; that is, until I read some Reformed writings on imputation. I then discovered that Wright’s portrayal of imputation was a caricature and that he was knocking down a straw man. No serious Reformed thinker thinks of imputed righteousness as a substance that can be passed around like a gas. It would seem that the debate was at an impasse.
I do think, though, that some of Wright’s comments at ETS may provide room for some progress in the debate. If I recall correctly, at the end of his talk he indicated that through faith the believer is united to Christ and, as a result, that which is true of Jesus becomes true of the believer as well, which may very well include Christ’s righteousness, even though the Bible doesn’t really speak that way of Christ. Wright said that you could call that imputation, but that this is not what the Reformers meant by the word. Wright is concerned about the idea of merit being acquired by Christ and shifted to the believer. He charged that those were medieval categories that the Reformers took on board but shouldn’t have, and that may or may not be the case. I’m no historical theologian, so I’ll avoid saying too much about what the Reformers said.
I would suggest, though, that the concept of faith-union with Christ as the way in which that which is true of Christ becomes true of those in Christ is a good place to start an attempt to move forward. I think Wright and the Reformed camp could agree on this. If Christ has indeed been justified, that is declared righteous, because of his perfect obedience, and if those who are in Christ share with him all that is his, then it is right to say that the verdict that came to Christ because of his obedience (merit?) is reckoned to the believer because they are joined to Christ by faith. The imputation of Christ’s righteousness would be shorthand for that rather long sentence. I think both sides could agree with this summary. If not, someone out there help me out.