One of the sideshows from the recent Dave Armstrong threads involved a discussion of “the righteousness of Christ imputed to believers”. One of the commenters there said, “But you don't really care whether ‘the imputation of Christ’s righteousness’ is in the Bible or not, do you, John? Not really.” He also reiterated many times, “there just is no such thing as ‘the imputation of Christ's righteousness’ in scripture and no amount of verbal acrobatics can change that.”
Another commenter essentially quoted Roman Catholic doctrine: “Imputed righteousness is something that is not taught in the Bible. God's grace is infused and is able to actually clean and recreate a new heart in us as opposed to forensic justification which is the notion that God merely takes an eraser to our "account" and erases our sins.”
One of the better brief statements concerning the Reformed doctrine of “the righteousness of Christ imputed to the believer” is in John Murray’s Redemption Accomplished and Applied. The link here is to his chapter on Justification, but several of the specific pages which deal with that topic are missing. So I’d like to provide here the entire sweep of Murray’s argument that not only is the sinner’s sin forgiven in justification, but as well, the Righteousness of Christ is imputed to the sinner as well.
Murray deals effectively with the notion of why “our own righteousness”, even that given by God’s grace, is not sufficient for what God’s holiness entails:
If we are to appreciate that which is central in the gospel, … our thinking must be revolutionized by the realism of the wrath of God, of the reality and gravity of our guilt, and the divine condemnation. It is then and only then that our thinking and feeling will be rehabilitated to an understanding of God’s grace in the justification of the ungodly. The question is not really so much: how can man be just with God; but how can sinful man become just with God? The question in this form points up the necessity of a complete reversal in our relation to God. Justification is the answer and justification is the act of God’s free grace. “It is God who justifies; who is he that condemns?” (118)
The truth of justification has suffered at the hands of human perversion as much as any doctrine of Scripture. One of the ways in which it has been perverted is the failure to reckon with the meaning of the term. Justification does not mean to make righteous, or good, or holy, or upright. It is perfectly true that in the application of redemption God makes people holy and upright. He renews them after his own image. He begins to do this in regeneration, and he carries it on in the work of sanctification. He will perfect it in glorification. But justification does not refer to this renewing and sanctifying grace of God. It is one of the primary errors of the Romish Church that it regards justification as the infusion of grace, and renewal and sanctification whereby we are made holy. And the seriousness of the Romish error is not so much that it has confused justification and renewal but that it has confused these two distinct acts of God’s grace and eliminated from the message of the gospel the great truth of free and full justification by grace. (118-119)
[Justification] has to do with a judgment given, declared, pronounced; it is judicial or juridical or forensic. The main point of such terms is to distinguish between the kind of action which justification involves and the kind of action involved in regeneration. Regeneration is an act of God in us; justification is a judgment of God with respect to us. The distinction is like that of the distinction between the act of a surgeon and the act of a judge. The surgeon, when he removes an inward cancer, does something in us. That is not what a judge does—he gives a verdict regarding our judicial status. If we are innocent he declares accordingly. (121)
The purity of the gospel is bound up with the recognition of this distinction. If justification is confused with regeneration or sanctification, then the door is opened for the perversion of the gospel at its centre. Justification is still the article of the standing or falling Church. (121)
We are here faced with something completely unique. It cannot be denied that God justifies the ungodly (Rom 4:5; cf. Rom. 3:19-24). If man were to do this it would be an abomination in God’s sight. Man must condemn the wicked, and he may justify only the righteous. God justifies the wicked and he does what no man may do. Yet God is not unrighteous. He is just when he justifies the ungodly (Rom. 3:26). What is it that enables him to be just when he justifies sinners?
It is here that the mere notion of declaring to be righteous is seen to be inadequate of itself to express the fullness of what is involved in God’s justification of the ungodly. Much more is entailed than our English expression “declare to be righteous” denotes. In God’s justification of sinners there is a totally new factor which does not hold in any other case of justification. And this new factor arises from the totally different situation which God’s justification of sinners contemplates and from the marvelous provisions of God’s grace and justice to meet that situation. God does what none other could do and he does here what he does nowhere else. What is this unique and incomparable thing?
In God’s justification of sinners there is no deviation from the rule that what is declared to be is presupposed to be. God’s judgment is according to truth here as elsewhere. [For Roman Catholics here, that means, this is not a legal fiction.] The peculiarity of God’s action consists in this that he causes to be the righteous state or relation which is declared to be. We must remember that justification is always forensic or judicial. Therefore what God does in this case is that he constitutes the new and righteous judicial relation as well as declares this new relation to be. He constitutes the ungodly righteous, and consequently can declare them to be righteous. In the justification of sinners there is a constitutive as well as a declarative. Or, if we will, we may say that the declarative act of God in the justification of the ungodly is constitutive. In this consists its incomparable character.
This conclusion that justification is constitutive is not only an inference drawn from the considerations of God’s truth and equity; it is expressly stated in the Scripture itself. It is with the subject of justification that Paul is dealing when he says, “for as through the disobedience of the one man the many were constituted sinners, even so through the obedience of the one the many will be constituted righteous (Rom. 5:19). The parallel expressions which Paul uses in this chapter are to the same effect. In Romans 5:17 he speaks of those who receive “the free gift of righteousness” and in verse 18 of the judgment which passes upon men unto justification of life “through one righteousness.” It is clear that the justification which is unto eternal life Paul regards as consisting in our being constituted righteous, in our receiving righteousness as a free gift, and this righteousness is none other than the righteousness of the one man Jesus Christ; it is the righteousness of his obedience. (121-123).
Page 123 was not a part of the preview in Murray.
One of the very real differences between Protestants and Roman Catholics is the very definition of what sin is. As Murray explained at the beginning of this chapter, page 117, if we are to understand the “imputed righteousness of Christ”, we must first understand the raw and absolute Holiness of God, and the degree to which God hates sin.
Roman Catholicism seems to be among those these days for whom sin is, in Murray’s words, “little more than a misfortune or maladjustment”. See section 405 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church”:
405 Although it is proper to each individual, original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam's descendants. It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it, subject to ignorance, suffering and the dominion of death, and inclined to sin - an inclination to evil that is called "concupiscence".
On the contrary, the Reformers understood God as “is infinite in being and perfection”, and sinful man as being “dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body”.
“A righteousness wrought in us, even though it were perfect and eliminated all future sin, would not measure up to the requirements of the full and irrevocable justification which the Scripture represents justification to be. Such a righteousness would not obliterate the sin and unrighteousness of the past and the condemnation resting upon us for our past sin. But justification includes the remission of all sin and condemnation. Consequently the righteousness which is the basis of such justification must be one that will take care of past sin as well as provide for the future. Inwrought righteousness does not measure up to this need…”(125-126)
At this point, the reader can follow Murray’s argument through pages 124 and 126 in the book. Here I pick up at the bottom of page 126:
We thus see that if we are to find the righteousness which supplies the basis of the full and perfect justification which God bestows upon the ungodly we cannot find it in anything that resides in us, nor in anything which God does in us, nor in anything which we do. We must look away from ourselves to something which is of an entirely different sort in an entirely different direction. What is the direction which the Scripture indicates?
1. It is in Christ we are justified (Acts 13:39; Rom. 8:1; 1 Cor. 6:11; Gal. 2:17). At the outset we are here advised that it is by union with Christ and by some specific relation to him involved in that union that we are justified.
2. It is through Christ’s sacrificial and redemptive work (Rom. 3:24; 5:9; 8:33, 34). We are justified in Jesus’ blood. The particular significance of this truth in this connection is that it is the once-for-all redemptive accomplishment of Christ that is brought into the centre of attention when we are thinking of justification. It is therefore something objective to ourselves and not the work of God’s grace in our hearts and minds and lives.
3. It is by the righteousness of God that we are justified (Rom. 1:17; 3:21, 22; 10:3; Phil. 3:9). In other words, the righteousness of our justification is God’s righteousness. Nothing more conclusively demonstrates that it is not a righteousness which is ours. Righteousness wrought in us or wrought by us, even though it be altogether the grace of God and even though it be perfect in character [as the Roman Catholics say], is not a God-righteousness. It is, after all, a human righteousness. It the commanding insistence of the Scripture is that in justification, it is the righteousness of God which is revealed from faith to faith, and therefore a righteousness which is contrasted not only with human unrighteousness but with human righteousness. It is righteousness which is divine in quality. It is not, of course, the divine attribute of justice or righteousness, but, nevertheless, it is a righteousness with divine attributes or qualities and therefore a righteousness which is of divine property.
4. The righteousness of justification is the righteousness and obedience of Christ (Rom. 5:17, 18, 19). Here we have the final consideration which confirms all of the foregoing considerations and sets them in clear focus. This is the final reason why we are pointed away from ourselves to Christ and his accomplished work. And this is the reason why the righteousness of justification is the righteousness of God. It is the righteousness of Christ wrought by him in human nature, the righteousness of his obedience unto death, even the death of the cross. But, as such, it is the righteousness of the God-man, a righteousness which measures up to the requirements of our sinful and sin-cursed situation, a righteousness which meets all the demands of a complete and irrevocable justification, and a righteousness fulfilling all these demands because it is a righteousness of divine property and character, a righteousness undefiled and inviolable.