The Doctrine of Imputation

Imagine that your great-grandfather had made a terrible business mistake and that it affected the entire family system, down to you even many years later. It was a huge debt, and you have inherited it. There is nothing you could ever do to repay it. The situation is hopeless.

But a generous person of unlimited wealth comes into your life and offers to pay the debt for you. That would indeed be wonderful, and you would surely welcome that to happen.

The institution holding the debt would hear of this and would take the obligation from you and transfer it to the donor to own the debt and provide the payment. And upon making payment, the donor would receive the receipt that would also register in your account as paid in full. There would therefore be no way that any debt judgment could fall upon you, as your account would now contain a “paid in full” designation.

It is difficult to find a human illustration that fully and accurately pictures what Christ has done for our salvation and what it is that we have gained. The first thing that makes this difficult is that there are few ways to communicate the debt of sin that is our identity in Adam. Our illustration falls short, for as we have previously written, it was not just a matter of us inheriting the consequences of another’s failure. We were actually a participatory partner in that sin.

Another impossible piece to illustrate in the payment. Whatever we do to pay off the debt of sin in our own power does not register at all with any value. It is not merely that the debt is too great. Our works and deeds are the wrong “stuff” … as “filthy rags” say the Scriptures. It is like trying to pay a bill with the wrong currency, and there is no way to make an exchange into a currency the bank will accept.

But even with such limitations, I believe there is no better way to present the gospel to someone than to use banking terms. We all understand debits and credits, or assets and liabilities.

One might speak of it this way: Because of sin inherited from Adam, we all have a debt in our spiritual account that we cannot pay. It is too large, and the bank (God) does not accept our payments as legitimate. We need righteousness (perfection), though we cannot earn it and only one person has ever had it – Jesus. But our sin has been taken from our account and put into Christ’s account. He paid the debt with his sacrificial death and our sin was judged and covered (atoned) by his blood payment. However, our account remains empty and still needs the positive credit of righteousness. When we trust and believe that Jesus paid our debt, the righteousness that is in his account and is at the moment of faith transferred to our account. Therefore, when the holy judge looks at us, he does not see our debt (which was removed) nor an empty account lacking a necessary deposit. Rather, he sees a former debt removed and covered by the deposit of Christ’s righteousness – giving us the positive asset that we need to be in right relationship with God.

So three transfers happened: Adam’s sin to our account, our sin to Christ’s account, and Christ’s righteousness to our account. In theology, this is called the doctrine of imputation. This will be the main idea of what we talk about in this second portion of our identity series. This is how we go from being first a sinner in Adam, to now a saint in Jesus Christ through the justification provided.

I have found in my life, as I’m sure many of you have also experienced, that the more you study the great grace of God in salvation, the more you are humbly amazed at just how massive it is. We never fully arrive at understanding the mountainous debt of sin, and yet we never plumb the full depths of God’s marvelous grace. And more fully understanding these identities is the motivating factor behind the decision to work through this particular study and sermon series.

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About Randy Buchman

I live in Western Maryland, and among my too many pursuits and hobbies, I regularly feed multiple hungry blogs. I played college baseball, coached championship cross country teams at Williamsport (MD) High School, and have been a sportswriter for various publications and online venues. My main profession is as the lead pastor of a church in Hagerstown called Tri-State Fellowship. And I'm active in Civil War history and work/serve at Antietam National Battlefield with the Antietam Battlefield Guides organization. Occasionally I sleep.

2 thoughts on “The Doctrine of Imputation

  1. I liked your comparing our works with trying to pay with the wrong currency. I recently saw a silly video of a young person being handed cash by her mom to pay for gas. She had no idea how to get it in the credit card slot on the pump. Imagine how many videos God could watch of us trying to put our dollars into the credit card slot, when Jesus already paid anyway.

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