Righteousness and Imputation

The Importance of Righteousness

Only one thing separates those who go to heaven from those who go to hell…righteousness.

“Then [the unrighteous] will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (Matthew 25:46)

Since only the righteous receive eternal life, we logically ask, “How can someone be declared righteous before a holy God?” Of course, this is one of the most important questions we can ever ask, because our answer to this question reveals much about our beliefs and can even indicate whether or not we have eternal life.
God’s Standard for Righteousness
In order to understand how to be declared righteous before God, we must first understand what God’s standard for righteousness is. Thankfully, Jesus clearly addressed this topic in the Sermon on the Mount.

For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20).

When Jesus said these words, His hearers were likely shocked to the core, because the Pharisees and teachers of the law were considered to be the “spiritual giants” of the day. A common, everyday person must having been thinking, “How could my righteousness exceed that of a Pharisee.” In a way that only Jesus could, after a thoroughly teaching in the verses that follow, that the Law of God is not merely external but applies to the heart, He concluded His point with these words:

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:48)
So, in case anyone missed the point that one must have more righteousness than the greatest level of righteousness that one could perceive (i.e. the Pharisees and teachers of the Law), Jesus made it crystal clear that God’s standard of righteousness is nothing short of sinless perfection.

The Righteousness of Man

With that in mind, we arrive back to our original question, “How can someone be declared righteous before a holy God?” Obviously, there is no one who could attain to the standard set forth by Jesus, because there are no perfect people.

All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. (Isaiah 64:6)

As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one;” (Romans 3:10)

There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins. (Ecclesiastes 7:20)

Who can say, “I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin”? (Proverbs 20:9)

Since there are no perfect people and therefore no righteous people, our question can be modified to, “How can anyone be declared righteous before a holy God, since no one meets His standard for righteousness?”

The Righteousness of God

Since we cannot meet the standard of sinless perfection on our own, the only hope we have is to be credited with someone else’s perfection. This concept is crucial to understand, because it is precisely what separates Christianity from every other religion in the world. All other religions teach that man must attain to some level of righteousness on his own through good works. As we have seen, the Bible declares that to be utterly impossible.

So, how can we be counted as righteous before God? If our “righteousness” is not righteous enough, then whose is? Is there anyone who has attained sinless perfection whose righteousness can be credited to us? Thankfully there is.

[Jesus] committed no sin and no deceit was found in his mouth. (1 Peter 2:22)

But you know that [Jesus] appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. (1 John 3:5)

The only perfect, sinless person who has ever lived is Jesus Christ. He is the only one who, as a man and lived a spotless, blameless life. He was able to do so, because He is God incarnate (i.e. God in human flesh) – the perfect representation of God on earth.

The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being (Hebrews 1:3)

He is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15)

Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father (John 14:9)

Since Jesus was a man as we are but without sin, He lived perfectly and fulfilled all righteousness. Therefore, His righteousness is the only righteousness that is acceptable in God’s sight. Since He is God, His righteousness is the very righteousness of God. Thus, the Bible indicates that we must be saved, not by our own flawed, faulty, and filthy righteousness, but by the perfect, spotless righteousness of God Himself.

I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” (Romans 1:16-17)

Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. 4 Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes. (Romans 10:3-4)

and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ–the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. (Philippians 3:9)

Our Sin Imputed to Christ

Jesus is the only one qualified to pay our sin debt as our substitute. We deserved death but He died in our place and paid our penalty. In other words, the sins of all who have ever believed, currently believe, and will ever believe, were imputed (credited) to Him as He hung on the cross and died in our place.

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit. (Galatians 3:13-14)

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. (1 Peter 2:24)

Christ’s Righteousness Imputed to Christians

As previously stated, the believer must fully depend on the righteousness of God to be saved and accepted in God’s sight. The Bible says that God justifies (i.e. declares righteous) the ungodly (Romans 4:5). This can only happen through imputation.

Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the LORD does not count against him and in whose spirit is no deceit. (Psalm 32:1-2)

The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness–for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. (Romans 4:23-24)

Substitution and Imputation

To be saved, two transactions must take place: (1) Substitutionary Atonement – Your sins must be imputed (i.e. credited) to Jesus and punished in His death on the cross, and (2) The Imputation of Righteousness – Christ’s righteousness must be imputed to you so that you can stand before God spotless and blameless.

This doctrine of imputation is one of the most crucial and essential truths found in Scripture. It is the very basis on which we understand the nature of the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ. Without this doctrine, we are left with a system of salvation by works acceptable to an unjust God who does not punish all sin. With this doctrine, we rightly understand both God’s justice and His grace!

For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. (1 Peter 3:18)

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:17-21)

The Vivid Biblical Imagery of Imputation – The Robe of Righteousness

The righteousness of Christ, which is credited to believers, is described in Scripture as a robe, a garment, a cloak. It is even referred to in one passage as being clothed with Christ Himself. This “robe of righteousness” is white and clean, rich and spotless. It pictures us being covered with the imputed righteousness of Christ.

I delight greatly in the LORD; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. (Isaiah 61:10)

Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. The angel said to those who were standing before him, “Take off his filthy clothes.” Then he said to Joshua, “See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put rich garments on you.” Then I said, “Put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him, while the angel of the LORD stood by. (Zechariah 3:3-5)

for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. (Galatians 3:27)

yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels. (Revelation 3:4-5)

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed. (Revelation 6:9-11)

After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:9-10)

Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes–who are they, and where did they come from?” I answered, “Sir, you know.” And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore, “they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Revelation 7:13-17)

“Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. (Revelation 22:14)

The Result of Being Declared Righteous

The result of being declared righteous on the basis of the righteousness of Christ is to be presented as holy and blameless before a Holy God and therefore accepted in His sight. From a positional standpoint, God sees believers as having been perfected forever even though they are in process of being made holy from a practical standpoint. It is important to note that the Bible clearly teaches that, although God credits His righteousness to the ungodly and justifies them, He in no way leaves them in their same state of rebellion and sinfulness. As soon as one gets saved, the Holy Spirit begins the sanctification process in his heart, making him more like Christ over time.

But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation (Colossians 1:22)

“Come now, let us reason together,” says the LORD. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool. (Isaiah 1:18)

by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. (Hebrews 10:14)

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. (Ezekiel 36:25-27)

How to Have Christ’s Righteousness Imputed to You

The only way to have Christ’s righteousness imputed to you is through faith and repentance. To learn more about the nature of true saving faith, please watch the Paid in Full video or read the Lord and Savior article.


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