A Brief Look at John Calvin on Imputation
One of the contributions of the Reformation is a clear understanding that righteousness is imputed to us. Here we think of John Calvin since he represents a clear understanding of this doctrine. Righteousness can’t come from ourselves since even our best works are still marred by sin. Our works can’t bring right standing with God since he demands perfection, and we all fall short in many ways. Those who are in the right before God, then, are forgiven of their sins, which means their sins are no longer counted against them or imputed to them.
This is another way of saying that justification is forensic. It follows, then, that justification, according to Calvin, doesn’t mean we are made righteous but that we are counted as righteous; believers are not transformed in justification, but forgiven. Justification is extrinsic instead of intrinsic, so that those who are justified have a new status before God. Our justification, then, is perfect from the beginning. Believers don’t become more justified as they progress in holiness, for justification doesn’t denote inner renewal but the declaration from God that one is acquitted and not guilty before him.
Even after our conversion, our faith remains imperfect. Calvin appeals to 1 Corinthians 13:12 where Paul says our faith is incomplete and partial in this life. In other words, sin continues to bedevil believers. The continuing presence of sin indicates that righteousness has to be forensic, for no one can claim to be right before God while they are still stained with sin. Similarly, faith can’t count for our righteousness since it isn’t perfect or constant, and therefore we need righteousness to be imputed to us to rest assured that we are right with God. Trusting in our works troubles our conscience since we all fail, and thus believers must rely on Christ to enjoy peace with God. Calvin teaches that we won’t have peace and rest unless we “are entirely righteous before him.” And this righteousness is in fact ours by imputation.
We can see, then, why imputation is so important in Calvin’s theology, for our assurance rests upon the truth that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to believers. Believers don’t locate righteousness in themselves but are righteous because Christ’s righteousness is reckoned to them. Calvin puts it this way: “Therefore, we explain justification simply as the acceptance with which God receives us into his favor as righteous men. And we say that it consists in the remission of sin and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.” A person “is not righteous in himself but because the righteousness of Christ is communicated to him by imputation.” In Calvin’s interpretation of Romans 5:19, which speaks of believers being made righteous on account of Christ’s obedience, he says, “what else is this but to lodge our righteousness in Christ’s obedience, because the obedience of Christ is reckoned to us as if it were our own.”
For Calvin, “imputation is made possible only by our union with the Christ and because we become at that same moment members of his body.” Therefore, believers are counted righteous as those who belong to Jesus Christ, as those who are engrafted into him. The crucial role that union with Christ plays in imputation is often expressed in Calvin. “You see that righteousness is not in us but in Christ, that we possess it only because we are partakers in Christ.”
Calvin summarizes well the Protestant doctrine of imputation, a doctrine which has continued to be a great comfort and strength for believers and for those who are heirs of the Reformation.
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Editor’s note: This essay is a slight revision of material found in Thomas R. Schreiner, Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification. What the Reformers Taught . . . and Why It Still Matters (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), pp. 59-60. Used with permission.