According to my understanding of classic reformed theology, justification consists of two aspects, one negative and one positive. Negatively, justification consists in the forgiveness of our sins and canceling of our guilt before God: “[God has] forgiven us all our trespasses by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross (Colossians 2:13-14). Positively, justification consists of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to our account so that we are declared righteous in God’s sight. “the words ‘it was counted to him’ were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord” (Romans 4:23-24). In other words, justification doesn’t just make not bad in God’s verdict. It makes us good. It does not merely bring us up from the negatives to zero. It puts us in the positives. Its as if we have this massive debt to God, and Christ not only pays our debt, but then he puts all of his own money into the bank.
I do believe that the imputation of alien righteousness onto the believer’s account is taught in Scripture. I know its a much disputed doctrine these days, and this post is not intended as a thorough defense of it. I see it hinted at in the Old Testament (e.g., Genesis 15:6, Jeremiah 23/33), and then more fully explicated in the New Testament, and especially Paul’s epistles. But as one who has struggled, as I believe I have, with the reality of demonic accusation, I find the vision of Zechariah 3 one of the most helpful pictures of justification in the Bible. Joshua the high priest appears before the angel of the Lord, with Satan at his right hand to accuse him. But the Lord rebukes Satan, claiming that Joshua is a “brand plucked from the fire.” And then – and this is what I love – Joshua is not merely stripped of his filthy rags but he is clothed with clean garments. It seems to me that embedded in this narrative is the presentation of justification, and in particular the imputation aspect of justification, as a foil and contrast to accusation. Satan’s accusations against Joshua are rebuffed by Joshua’s clean garments.
One of the things I’ve been thinking about over the last year or so is the need for fighting accusatory thoughts with the doctrine of justification. Everybody has had accusatory thoughts pop into their head before. Thoughts like: “you don’t have what it takes;” “nobody respects you;” “God cannot forgive that sin;” “you’re a nobody.” And on and on. Sometimes these come from other people. Sometimes they come from the flesh. Sometimes they come from our imagination. But sometimes, I believe, they come from demons. Satan is called “the accuser of our brothers, who accuses them before God day and night” (Revelation 12:10). Satan accuses just as he tempts; he is a beast as well as a harlot; he lures and flatters us, but he also punches us in the face.
Victims of verbal abuse no how psychologically damaging constant accusations can be. No matter how weird or bizarre the claims, if you hear it often enough, and don’t have a counter claim to take refuge in, you start to believe it. It gets a hold over you.
I am so thankful for the liberating power of the doctrine of justification. No accusation can stand before it. Esther and I have been talking lately about how much true growth in holiness consists of drowning out the voices of accusation with the voice of justification, and the voice of imputation. When we feel accusations from the enemy, we need to preach the truths of the gospel to ourselves – our forgiveness, our adoption, the canceling of our debt, our being clothed in the rich garments of the righteousness of Christ, etc. Sometimes I will take a particular aspect of the gospel, such as my adoption as God’s son, and not go out into my day until its thoroughly in my head and heart. What a difference it makes! All the difference in the world. When in the deepest places of our hearts the voice we are hearing is not the accusations of the enemy, but the good news that we are righteous in God’s sight on account of Christ – I am finding that that is where hope is, and that is where all true obedience is.
Great post Gavin! I love it, especially the reminder to preach to ourselves! Why is the doctrine you described controversial? I was just reading the other day one of my favorite verses “because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” Hebrews 10:14. I love it because it reminds me that I already have a righteous status before God, though my condition does not yet match my position. Is this along the lines of what you’re saying here as well?
Thanks Erin!! That’s an awesome verse, and definitely is along the lines of what I’m thinking through here. I love how it emphases both our righteous status (“made perfect forever”) and our need to keep growing (“those who are being made holy”). By implication: the fact that we are still being made holy does not mean we’re not yet perfect! Paradoxical, but liberating. In terms of why imputation is controversial, I just know that in addition to being a traditional dispute between we Protestants and our Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox friends, its also disputed by some Protestants nowadays, such as N.T. Wright. I’m vaguely aware that debates concerning the “new perspective” on Paul touch upon the issue of imputation, but its still a bit fuzzy how they connect exactly. Dane would know more on that.
very clear thought i enjoyed it thoroughly