What is imputed righteousness (see Rom. 4: 3)?
The Scriptures do not actually use the expression ‘imputed righteousness’ and so we need to be clear in our minds what we understand by it. Romans 4: 3 reads “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness”, the passage going on to say “it was not written on his account alone that it was reckoned to him, but on ours also, to whom ... it will be reckoned” (vs 23–25). Thus righteousness was reckoned or imputed to Abraham, and is also reckoned to the believer now. That said, what does this actually mean?
To explain ‘imputed righteousness’ some take up another expression not found in Scripture ‘the righteousness of Christ’ and teach that that is what imputed to the believer––that Christ kept the Law for us and this has now been put to our account. Now that Christ was absolutely righteous and also kept the Law no believer for one moment doubts, but that righteousness is never said to be reckoned to us. Indeed, it could not be, because the righteousness reckoned to us was also said to be reckoned to Abraham––and Christ had not yet come when Abraham walked this earth.
The ‘righteousness of God’, though a Scriptural expression, is also not reckoned to us. However, because Paul speaks of it in chapter 3 of Romans and again in chapter 10, people assume that the righteousness he speaks of in the intervening section of the epistle must also be the righteousness of God. Now the righteousness of God has been “manifested” (Rom. 3: 21), shown forth (see Rom. 3: 25) and “revealed” in the Gospel (Rom. 1: 17). As such, it was not seen before ––certainly not in OT times. The righteousness reckoned to Abraham (see Rom. 4: 3) could not, therefore, have been the righteousness of God.
It also follows that the righteousness of God is not just that God is righteous, since that fact is obvious throughout the OT (see, for example, Ps. 5: 8; 35: 24). In general, what was demanded in the OT was the righteousness of man; what is revealed now in the Gospel is the righteousness of God. The lack of righteousness in man was all too evident in the OT, and hence what was looked for was the righteousness of God: “my salvation is near to come, and my righteousness to be revealed” (Is. 56: 1). Thus the righteousness of God is something distinctive. It is peculiar to the Gospel of the grace of God and is the revelation of the righteous ground on which God justifies “him that is of [the] faith of Jesus” (Rom. 3: 26).
Neither the righteousness of God nor the righteousness of Christ are ever said to be imputed to the believer. It could not be, because, as in the transfer of funds from one bank account to another, what would be credit to one account would clearly be debit to the other. In Romans 4 the subject is not the righteousness of God in particular, but righteousness in general. It is simply holding or regarding a person as right. Righteousness imputed supposes one that is destitute of it––or why reckon it? It is viewing one who is not so either in nature or in practice as right. This is how God views the believer. He is righteous in God’s reckoning, although not intrinsically so. An analogous passage, using the same Greek words, will make the matter clear.
In Rom. 2: 26 we read “If therefore the uncircumcision keep the requirements of the law, shall not his uncircumcision be reckoned for circumcision”. The Gentile was uncircumcised, yet the argument here is that if he were to keep the requirements of the law, his uncircumcision would be reckoned for circumcision––that is, the man is accounted as circumcised when he is not actually so. Physically, he is still uncircumcised, but he is treated now as if he were circumcised. Now this is just the meaning of Romans 4. Once again, a man is viewed as being in a state in which he is actually not in. It is not that a quantity of righteousness outside of himself is reckoned to him––it is simply a man who is in himself wrong being accounted right by virtue of his faith.
How gloriously easy this is to understand. Theological explanations can be both complex and complicated, and still be wide of the mark; by contrast, the Word of God is frequently so simple that even a child can take it in. If, like Abraham, I have believed God, then God no longer regards me as a sinner, but as righteous. What a simple Gospel ––and yet, at the same time, how wonderfully profound!