“It is therefore a straightforward category mistake, however venerable within some Reformed traditions including part of my own, to suppose that Jesus ‘obeyed the law’ and so obtained ‘righteousness’ which could be reckoned to those who believe in him. …It is not the ‘righteousness’ of Jesus Christ which is ‘reckoned’ to the believer. It is his death and resurrection.”
—N.T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, p. 232
A Survey of Wright’s View
Is the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer an artificial construct, an idea from systematic theology that does not truly come from the Bible? N.T. Wright argues that the traditional view of imputation veers away from the Pauline meaning. He defends his reading by emphasizing that justification language in Paul stems from the law court. Righteousness, then, has to do with one’s legal status and should not be confused with one’s moral character. When we think of a law court, says Wright, it is clear that the idea of imputation is ruled out, for in a law court no one is vindicated on the basis of the judge’s righteousness. The judge, Wright insists, cannot give or transfer his righteousness to the defendant. The issue is whether the judge declares the person being charged to be in the right — whether the judge finds in the favor of the one being charged. Hence, justification speaks to the status of a person, not to their moral character. Nor is there any idea that their behavior or misbehavior is the basis of the verdict passed. Justification means that one has been acquitted or vindicated by the judge.
A Response to Wright’s View
Wright’s interpretation is wrong and confusing on several levels, and so we need to examine the issues one at a time. First, he rightly says that justification has to do with the law court and represents a legal declaration. When we are justified, God as the judge finds in our favor and declares us to be in the right before him. Wright is right on this matter.
Second, however, Wright leads us astray when he says that justification is a legal declaration and hence it is not based on one’s moral character. A couple of things need to be untangled here. In one sense, of course, justification is not based on our moral character, for God justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5). If justification depended on our moral worth, then no one would be justified. But Wright fails to state clearly the role that moral character plays in justification, and because he separates moral character entirely from the law court he fails to see the role that Christ’s righteousness plays in imputation. When a judge in Israel declared a person to be innocent or guilty, he did so on the basis of the moral innocence or guilt of the defendant. The biblical text is quite clear that judges render a verdict on the basis of the moral behavior of the defendant. This is clear from Deuteronomy 25:1: “If there is a dispute between men and they come into court and the judges decide between them, acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty.” For Wright to say, then, that one’s moral behavior has nothing to do with the judge’s declaration flies in the face of the biblical evidence. Indeed, the only basis for the legal declaration was one’s moral behavior — whether one was innocent or guilty.
Third, what does all of this have to do with imputation? The fundamental question is how God can declare sinners to be righteous. How can a verdict of “not guilty” be pronounced over those who are ungodly and sinners? For a judge to declare that the wicked are righteous is contrary to the way judges should behave (see Prov. 17:15). So how can God be righteous in declaring the wicked to be righteous? The answer of Scripture is that the Father, because of His great love, sent His Son, who willingly and gladly gave Himself for sinners, so that the wrath that sinners deserved was poured out upon the Son (Rom. 3:24–26). God can declare sinners to be in the right because they are forgiven by Christ’s sacrifice. God vindicates His moral righteousness in the justification of sinners since Christ takes upon Himself the punishment sinners deserve. It is clear, then, that moral character plays a vital role in justification, for God’s own holiness must be satisfied in the cross of Christ for forgiveness to be granted.
Wright insists that no judge in the courtroom can give his righteousness to the defendant. The mistake Wright makes here is astonishing, for he should know that the meaning and the significance of the law court in Scripture cannot be exhausted by its cultural background. In other words, it is true that in human courtrooms the judge does not and cannot give his righteousness to the defendant. But we see the distinctiveness of the biblical text and the wonder and the glory of the gospel precisely here. God is not restricted by the rules of human courtrooms. This is a most unusual courtroom indeed, for the judge delivers up His own Son to pay the penalty. That doesn’t happen in human courtrooms! And the judge gives us His own righteousness (see Phil. 3:9 and 2 Cor. 5:21). The biblical text, then, specifically teaches that God, as the divine judge, gives us His righteousness. When we are united to Christ by faith, all that Christ is belongs to us. Hence, we stand in the right before God because we are in Christ. Our righteousness, then, is not in ourselves. We rejoice that we enjoy the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ. Once again, moral character enters the picture, contrary to Wright. We stand in the right before God because our sins have been forgiven and because we enjoy the righteousness of Jesus Christ.