If we use the language of the law court, it makes no sense whatever to say that the judge imputes, imparts, bequeaths, conveys or otherwise transfers his righteousness to either the plaintiff or the defendant. Righteousness is not an object, a substance or a gas which can be passed across the courtroom. —N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 98
There are at least three problems with N.T. Wright’s claim that imputing God’s righteousness to a defendant is a category mistake and “makes no sense.”
First, Wright’s definition of the righteousness of God is too shallow. He fails to go to the heart of the matter and stays at the level of what divine righteousness does rather than what it is. He defines God’s righteousness by saying that it keeps covenant, judges impartially, deals properly with sin, and advocates for the helpless. But none of those is what righteousness is; they are only some of the things righteousness does.
The space we have here is not enough to focus in depth on the righteousness of God; a summary statement will have to suffice for what I think is a more faithful reading of Paul and the wider Scriptures concerning God’s righteousness: The essence of the righteousness of God is His unwavering faithfulness to uphold the glory of His name. And human righteousness is the same: the unwavering faithfulness to uphold the glory of God.
Here it must do to say that when Wright says the righteousness of the judge is His “trying the case impartially” and the righteousness of the defendant is his “being declared in the right,” his framework fails to get at the meaning of righteousness behind these different expressions. Therefore, he forces a portrayal of historic imputation which “makes no sense at all.”
This is not because imputation itself makes no sense but because Wright has set things up in a way that makes it look nonsensical. And this is because he treats the righteousness of God merely in terms of the actions of the judge, not in terms of His deeper attribute of righteousness.
The second problem with Wright’s law-court imagery is that it does not seem to come to terms with the fact that the judge is omniscient. The omniscience of the judge implies that the defendant must have a different righteousness than Wright would concede, that is, a righteousness that is more than the mere status of being acquitted, regardless of innocence or guilt. Wright stresses that for the defendant, righteousness is not a character quality but a status, namely, that the court has found in the defendant’s favor. The defendant may or may not have committed the crime with which he was charged. Regardless, if the court finds in his favor, he is “righteous.” He has that status.
This definition of “righteous” may work in human law courts where judges are fallible and their judgments must stand, whether they are right or wrong. But there’s a catch. In God’s courtroom, the judge is omniscient and just. And in such a courtroom there can never be a case where there is a discrepancy between the truth of the charge and the truth of the verdict. In this court, what would be the basis of saying, “I bestow on you the status of righteous, and I find you guilty as charged”? How could such a finding be intelligible, not to mention just?
One right answer that I think Wright would agree with is that this is what the atonement is all about. Christ died for our sins to provide a basis for this finding, and therefore, though guilty, the court can exercise clemency (or in God’s case, forgiveness) because of Christ, and so we go free.
God’s clemency in the courtroom and His personal forgiveness are certainly true and glorious. We will sing of it to all eternity. But the question is whether Paul has something to add — an even wider basis for our justification — something that makes our salvation even more wonderful and brings more glory to our Savior. I think he does. It emerges when we realize that in the courtroom, treating as innocent a defendant who is known in the court to be guilty (letting him go free without condemnation) on the basis of clemency (or forgiveness) would not have been described as “justifying” him.
If the omniscient and just judge found a person guilty as charged, the court would not say that clemency (or forgiveness) gives rise to the declaration of a status of righteous. Forgiveness and clemency can commute a sentence, but they cannot mean the judge finds in the defendant’s favor. An omniscient and just judge always vindicates the claim that is true. If the defendant is guilty, the omniscient, just judge finds in favor of the plaintiff. The judge may show mercy. He has it in his power to bestow clemency, to forgive, and not to condemn the guilty. But not condemning the guilty would never have been called “justification” or “finding in favor” or “bestowing the status of righteous.”
The third problem in Wright’s way of setting up the law-court imagery is that he calls “nonsense” what in fact really does happen. Because of Jesus’ work, it is not in fact nonsense to speak of the defendant in some sense sharing in the righteousness of the judge. It is not a category mistake to speak of the defendant “receiving the judge’s righteousness.” This is, in fact, what the language of justification demands in a law court where the judge is omniscient and just and the charge is “none is righteous” (Rom. 3:10). Of course, it will jar the ordinary human categories. That is what the justification of the ungodly has always done — and is meant to do.