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256 pages
Oct 2006

Jesus' Blood and Righteousness: Paul's Theology of Imputation

by Brian Vickers

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“I’M SO THANKFUL FOR the active obedience of Christ; no hope without it.”1 One day before his death, J. Gresham Machen sent this message to John Murray. This one short phrase is theologically loaded. “The active obedience of Christ” means the obedience that Jesus rendered to the Father during his incarnation, and which, along with the forgiveness that flows from his sacrifice on the cross, is imputed to the believer by faith. When we sing “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness,” we are singing about the same thing that Machen wrote to Murray. In theology, a conjunction can be extraordinarily important.

The “active obedience of Christ,” just like the short phrase “and righteousness,” is a statement about what it means to be justified. In much of both the Calvinist and Lutheran traditions, the active obedience of Christ is a vital component in the doctrine of justification.2 Specifically, the doctrine of justification is formulated so as to include both the non-imputation of sin (forgiveness) and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness (his active obedience). The latter aspect, namely that justification must necessarily include the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, draws the lion’s share of controversy.

The debate over imputation is not a mere academic debate. The discussion strikes at the heart of what it means to be right with God. Core biblical themes like forgiveness, sacrifice, and union with Christ are woven into the doctrine of imputation. There is more at stake than merely continuing a debate. What is the connection between Adam and the human race? How did Christ fulfill the role of the second or new Adam? How can the “ungodly” stand before a righteous God? Is faith itself, or the object of faith, the foundation for righteousness? These are but a few of the questions related to the topic of imputation. At the center of the debate over the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is the interpretation of key Pauline texts.


The main goal of this book is to investigate Pauline texts linked historically to the topic of imputation.3 The bulk of this investigation is driven by a consideration of three general questions: (1) In Romans 4 when Paul quotes Genesis 15:6, “Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (v. 3), and shortly thereafter quotes Psalm 32:2, “blessed is the man against whom the Lord does not reckon sin” (v. 8), what is the implication for the doctrine of imputation? More to the point, does Romans 4 create a tension for the traditional view of imputation since the emphasis there seems to be primarily on forgiveness? (2) Does the parallel and antithesis between Adam and Christ in Romans 5:12-21 imply that Paul understands that Christ not only provided pardon for Adam’s (and his posterity’s) sin but also, in contrast to Adam, fulfilled God’s commands thus providing a positive status for “the many who will be made righteous”? (3) Does Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (which, according to Paul, includes the non-imputation of sin, “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not reckoning their trespasses against them” [5:19]), also include the imputation of righteousness? In the history of the debate these are the primary issues discussed in these texts.

Once these three texts are identified as the central texts in the debate, a rather common-sense observation arises: In these three “imputation” texts, Paul deals with different, albeit related, issues. Romans 5:19 is not simply another way of putting Romans 4:3, and 2 Corinthians 5:21 is not a restatement of either Romans 4:3 or 5:19. In other words, the three imputation texts do not appear to be about the exact same thing. In each text Paul discusses similar ideas (e.g., righteousness, sin, God, and/or Christ) but the texts are not the same. There are different subjects, actors, actions, and concepts. For instance, there is an emphasis on “faith” in Romans 4:3 but no explicit mention of it in either Romans 5:19 or 2 Corinthians 5:21. In Romans 5:19 obedience is at the core of Paul’s discussion, but obedience is not at all the emphasis in Romans 4:3 and even if “knew no sin” in 2 Corinthians 5:21 implies Christ’s obedience, it is still not the primary focus as it is in Romans 5:19. This observation regarding the differences between the key texts plays a major role throughout this book.

Secondly, there are other texts that have both textual and conceptual links to the “key” texts and have also played a role in the historical debates. These other texts (i.e., 1 Cor. 1:30; Phil. 3:9; and Rom. 9:30–10:4) are presented along with the “key” texts in an attempt to develop a Pauline synthesis regarding the doctrine of imputation. These texts are essential for understanding Paul’s theology of imputation. The goal here is to focus as narrowly as possible on the issues in these texts that link them with the doctrine of imputation and present a kind of “synoptic” reading of these texts along with the “key” texts.

Finally, part of the goal of this work is to try to avoid the two extremes that too often characterize the debate. On one hand defenders of imputation, because of a healthy desire to know and understand the whole counsel of God, sometimes ignore the differences between, and subsequently the unique contribution of, the texts typically associated with the doctrine. When this happens the biblical texts are flattened out and become mere springboards for lectures and sermons on the doctrine of imputation.

On the other hand, critics of the doctrine, rightly concerned about eisegesis (reading into rather than from a text), often miss the connections not only between the major texts but between the texts and a larger biblical-theological framework. Ironically, critics often end up doing the very thing that defenders of imputation often do—they expect too much from a single text, and when they find (as they inevitably will) that the entire doctrine of imputation in the traditional sense is not in Romans 4:1-8 or 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, they pass the doctrine off as just so much “systematic theology” and pronounce imputation dead on arrival.

The truth, as someone once said, is somewhere in the middle. The traditional doctrine of imputation is not theology apart from exegesis, nor does one have to subscribe to one particular theological presupposition before accepting imputation. At the same time, no historical doctrine was ever established, or denied, on the basis of one text alone. Though a great deal of time will be spent on the particulars of each text, one eye will be kept on the broader biblical horizon. Imputation, like other doctrines of Scripture, must be investigated exegetically and synthetically. The contention of this book is that the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is a legitimate and necessary synthesis of Paul’s teaching. While no single text contains or develops all the “ingredients” of imputation, the doctrine stands as a component of Paul’s soteriology.


Although this work deals primarily with the New Testament, specifically, New Testament theology, the nature of the topic demands inquiry into areas typically associated with historical and systematic theology. The reason for this is twofold: (1) the doctrine of imputation formally arose in Protestant confessional settings; and (2) the most comprehensive treatments of the doctrine appear in works written by Protestant systematic theologians. Contrary to the opinion of some biblical scholars, the fact that “imputation” is closely associated with confessional and systematic theology does not make it off limits, or illegitimate, for biblical scholarship. In addition, it should be kept in mind that confessional statements and systematic theologies are usually based on the reading of biblical texts.4

While some readers may think that this book belongs in the realm of systematic rather than biblical theology, a clear distinction remains between true systematics and the type of work found here. The clearest differences are in method and arrangement. Rather than moving along and organizing on synthetic lines, the pattern will be to move along through the exegesis and interpretation of a selected number of biblical texts, then weighing the evidence. Even if systematic theology provides a jumping off point, the majority of the work is exegetical. After the work is done, then we will move on to a synthesis of Paul’s teaching on imputation.

Although I have included a fair amount of historical and systematic theology, I have tried, for the most part, to stay above the historical debates, choosing rather to include, usually in notes, the main ideas that have characterized the historical discussion and the various presuppositions that lie behind it. Not the least of my reasons is that I make no claim to be an expert in a large part of the history discussed in the first chapter. I am not setting forth a comprehensive study of imputation in the theology of, say, Luther or Calvin, but rather focusing on places where their work helps build historical-theological trajectories that aid in presenting a streamlined view of the history of the doctrine. It is my hope that others will perhaps follow some of these trajectories and do what I am not able to do in the scope of this work. In sum, the historical chapter is intended to (1) frame my discussion by providing a way to move back and forth between history and the exegesis that comprises the bulk of this book, and to (2) provide readers, especially those not familiar with the historical aspect of the question, with a context for understanding the breadth of the topic of imputation.5


The subject of imputation lends itself to the discussion of a variety of exegetical, biblical, theological, linguistic, and historical issues and questions. The intention is to proceed with as narrow a focus as such a broad topic will allow. If we paused all along the way for thorough discussions or definitive answers to every question or explorations of every connection, the book would not only exceed the allotted page limit, but also try the patience of even the most determined reader. For instance, even though this work focuses on the imputation of righteousness, it does not present a thorough linguistic discussion of the biblical language of righteousness. Rather than retrace the disputed question of “righteousness” in Paul, the discussion of righteous/righteousness in the relevant texts is determined by their immediate contexts, with particular attention given to the pivotal phrases, “reckoned as righteous,” “made righteous,” and “become . . . righteous.” To take but one other example, the theme of union with Christ plays an important role later in this study, but that theme is not presented in anything like an exhaustive treatment. Rather, it is limited to how it functions in texts associated with imputation. Secondly, this topic has vast amounts of historical background not only in the areas of historical and systematic theology, but also in the history of both Old Testament and New Testament interpretation, and all of the “key texts” are accompanied by extensive secondary literature on any number of exegetical topics and debates. Care has been taken to consider only those aspects of exegesis that have direct bearing on imputation. The goal is primarily to investigate the texts in Paul most closely associated with imputation, keeping an eye on the history of interpretation and sticking as close as possible to those issues in the texts that directly speak to the topic. Finally, there is no section in this book devoted to a study of the “New Perspective” on Paul. There are many studies on the New Perspective, so rather than simply repeat what can be easily read in various other sources, the scholars associated (to various degrees) with the New Perspective are dealt with when appropriate in the course of interpreting biblical texts.6


There is in places a fair amount of Greek and Hebrew. I have not transliterated the languages. The reason is simple: I know few, if any people, who actually find transliterations helpful, much less people who can read them. Moreover, people who do not read Hebrew or Greek are not made to do so by transliterations. Essentially all it does is introduce two additional foreign languages into the text. It may look a bit more like English, but in reality it is not English nor is it Greek or Hebrew. I have provided translations and I have tried to keep the languages in the text only when I thought it was helpful for readers who might want to see the text, phrase, or word for themselves.