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The Immediate and Only Ground of Justification - by Dr. James Buchanan (1804-1870)

Articles on Justification by Faith Alone

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How does the imputed righteousness of Christ help the elect sinner with justification?

Many have admitted that the Justification of sinners is connected with the Mediatorial work of Christ as its meritorious cause; while they have denied that it rests on His righteousness as its immediate[1] and only ground. They have not ventured to set aside His merits altogether or to say that His redeeming work had no influence in procuring our pardon and acceptance with God. On the contrary, they have professed to do signal homage[2] to the merits of Christ by acknowledging both their indispensable necessity and their certain efficacy;[3] but only as a means of procuring for us those terms of salvation and that measure of grace, which render it possible for us to be justified by our personal obedience, while they have utterly rejected the idea that His righteousness is or can be imputed to us. Others, again, have admitted a real and important, but partial and imperfect, imputation of His righteousness and have restricted it to the merits of His passive, as distinguished from that of His active, obedience—thereby leaving our Justification to rest, partly on His atoning sacrifice and partly on our personal holiness in heart and life. It is necessary, therefore, to show that His righteousness—considered as the entire merit of His whole Mediatorial work—is not only the meritorious cause, but also the immediate ground of our Justification; and for this end, to inquire what that righteousness is by which alone we can be justified; why it is said to be the righteousness of God or the merit of Christ; and how it becomes ours so as to be available for our Justification.

PROPOSITION: The righteousness, which is the ground of a sinner’s Justification, is denoted or described by various terms in Scripture, so that its nature may be determined by simply comparing these terms with one another; and then ascertaining[4] whether there be any righteousness to which they are all equally applicable and in which they all coincide in the fullness of their combined meaning.

That righteousness is called in Scripture “the righteousness of God”; “the righteousness of Christ”; the “righteousness of One”; “the obedience of One”; the “free gift unto justification of life”; “the righteousness which is of” or “by” or “through faith”; “the righteousness of God without the law”; and “the righteousness which God imputes without works.”

It will be found that, while these various expressions are descriptive of its different aspects and relations, they are all employed with reference to the same righteousness—that there is one righteousness in which they all find their common center, as so many distinct rays converging towards the same focus, while each retains its distinctive meaning—and that there is no other righteousness to which they can all be applied or in which they can find their adequate explanation.

It is called preeminently and emphatically “the righteousness of God.” By this name it is distinguished from the righteousness of man and even contrasted with it as a ground of Justification. It is brought in as a divine righteousness, only when all human righteousness has been shut out. The Apostle first proves that “by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin”; and then introduces another righteousness altogether, “But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifest…even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ” (Rom 3:20, 21). He contrasts the two great revelations—the revelation of wrath, which is by the Law, and the revelation of righteousness, which is by the Gospel: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men”; but “the Gospel of Christ…is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth…for therein is the righteousness of God revealed” (Rom 1:16, 18). And, in his own case, he renounces his own personal righteousness altogether as the ground of his acceptance and hope: “That I may win Christ, and be found in Him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith” (Phi 3:8). The two righteousnesses are not only distinct, but different; and not only different, but directly opposed and mutually exclusive considered as grounds of Justification, insomuch that he who is justified by the one cannot possibly be justified by the other. If the righteousness of man be sufficient, the righteousness of God is superfluous.[5] If the righteousness of God be necessary, the righteousness of man can have no place. Nor can any conciliation[6] or compromise be effected between them, so as to admit of their being combined in one complex ground of acceptance. For they represent two methods of Justification which are irreconcilably opposed—the one by grace, the other by works: “For to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt; but to him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness” (Rom 4:4). “And if by grace, then is it no more of works, otherwise grace is no more grace: but if it be of works, then is it no more grace, otherwise work is no more work” (Rom 6:6).

If we would understand the reason why it is called “the righteousness of God,” we must bear in mind that there was a twofold manifestation of righteousness in the Cross of Christ: there was first a manifestation of the righteousness of God the Father, in requiring a satisfaction to His justice and inflicting the punishment that was due to sin; and to this the Apostle refers when he says that “God set forth Christ to be a propitiation…to declare His righteousness, that He might be just, and the Justifier of him that believeth in Jesus.” There was, secondly, a work of righteousness by God the Son—His vicarious[7] righteousness as the Redeemer of His people, when He “became obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross,” and thus became “the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth.” But these two—God’s righteousness, which was declared, and Christ’s righteousness, which was wrought out on the Cross—although they may be distinguished, cannot be separated from one another; for they were indissolubly[8] united in one and the same propitiation.[9] And while the righteousness which is revealed for our Justification may be called “the righteousness of God” with some reference to both, it properly consists in the merit of Christ’s atoning sacrifice and perfect obedience, for these were offered by Him as our Substitute and Representative.

The same righteousness which is called “the righteousness of God,” is also called “the righteousness of Christ.” We obtain “precious faith with us through the righteousness of God and our Saviour Jesus Christ”; or as it might be rendered, “through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ” (2Pe 1:1). “And this is his name whereby he shall be called, THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS” (Jer 23:6). He is so called on account of the righteousness which He wrought out by His obedience unto death; for this righteousness is expressly connected with His Mediatorial work. “The LORD is well pleased for his righteousness’ sake; he will magnify the law, and make it honourable” (Isa 42:21). By His vicarious sufferings and obedience, He fulfilled the Law both in its precept and its penalty and is now said to be “the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth,” while His righteousness is identified with “the righteousness of God,” to which the unbelieving Jews refused to “submit themselves” and contrasted with “their own righteousness” which they “went about to establish,” “as it were by the works of the law” (Rom 10:3, 4 ).

PROPOSTION: This righteousness—being the merit of a work and not a mere quality of character—may become ours by being imputed to us, but cannot be communicated by being infused; and must ever continue to belong primarily and, in one important respect, exclusively to Him by whom alone that work was accomplished.

This statement consists of three distinct affirmations, which are directed against as many different errors, springing from a prevalent confusion of thought, in regard to the whole doctrine of Imputation. And it may be useful to consider each of them successively in connection with the proofs on which they severally depend.

It is affirmed, first, that the righteousness which is the ground of Justification, being the merit of a work undertaken and accomplished by Christ on behalf of His people, may become theirs by being imputed to them or reckoned to their account. This statement could scarcely be denied, if the merit of His work, done and finished “once for all,” were duly distinguished from an inherent and abiding quality of His personal character, and if that work were really regarded as having been undertaken and accomplished on the behalf of others, by One acting as their Substitute and Surety.[10] For the merit of one can never, in any case, become available for the benefit of others, except when it is imputed to them. It cannot, from the very nature of the case, become theirs by infusion. The merit of one may be reckoned or put down to the account of another; but how can the merit of any work be infused, as a personal property, as holiness may unquestionably be? But when we affirm that the righteousness of Christ or the merit of His Mediatorial work may become ours by being imputed to us, we are met with a counterstatement to the effect—not that there was no merit in His work or that His work was not accomplished on behalf of others, which are the only important elements in the case—but that biblical criticism forbids the use of the term “impute,” except when it is applied to personal properties and acts. “There is not in all the Scriptures,” says one, “an instance in which one man’s sin or righteousness is said to be imputed to another….There is not in all the Bible one assertion that Adam’s sin, or Christ’s righteousness, is imputed to us; nor one declaration that any man’s sin is ever imputed by God or man to another man…. Having followed (the Hebrew and Greek verbs) through the concordances, I hesitate not to challenge a single example which is fairly of this nature in all the Bible.” [Moses Stuart, Commentary on Romans]

These are bold statements and may seem to imply a denial of the doctrine, as well as a criticism on the term by which it has been usually expressed; but we refer at present only to the latter. Every reader of his English Bible without the aid of critical scholarship may discover—and it has never been denied, so far as we know, by any competent divine—that the verbs in question are applicable to cases, in which that which is imputed to any one was personally his own beforehand—that one man, for instance, who is righteous, is reckoned and treated as righteous; and that another man who is wicked, is reckoned and treated as wicked. But the question is, Whether the same verbs may not be equally applicable to other cases, in which that which is imputed to him was not personally his own, and did not previously belong to him, but became his only by its being put down to his account? The debt due and the wrong done by Onesimus to Philemon were not chargeable against Paul personally or previously, but he became chargeable with them simply by their being imputed to him: “If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account” or “impute that to me”; “I will repay it.” (Phm 18, 19).

In like manner, He was made “to be sin for us, who knew no sin,” and “bare our sins in his own body on the tree”—not that our sins were chargeable against Him personally or previously, but they became His by imputation on God’s part and voluntary susception[11] on His own (2Co 5:21; 1Pe 2:24). If it be said that the mere word impute is not employed in this case, it may be asked whether there be any other which could more accurately express the fact, if it be a fact; and whether the word itself is not used in a parallel case, when God is said “to impute righteousness without works,” as often as “He justifieth the ungodly”? (Rom 4:5, 6) Indeed, Justification consists partly in the “non-imputation” of sin, which did belong personally to the sinner, and partly in the “imputation” of righteousness, of which he was utterly destitute before. And the meaning of the one may be ascertained from the meaning of the other, while both are necessary to express the full meaning of Justification. We conclude, therefore, that the righteousness of Christ—being the merit of a work done and finished—may be imputed for the Justification of His people, but cannot possibly be infused.

It is affirmed, secondly, that the righteousness of Christ, to be available for the benefit of His people, must become theirs by imputation and not by infusion. Most of the leading errors on the subject of Justification may be traced to obscure or defective views in regard to the nature or import of imputation, and have arisen from supposing either that it consists in the infusion of moral qualities, in which case Justification is confounded with Sanctification; or that, in so far as imputation may be distinguished from such infusion, it is founded, at least, on the moral qualities which thus become inherent, in which case Justification has for its immediate ground a personal and not a vicarious righteousness. The only effectual way of striking at the root of these prevailing and pernicious[12] errors is by forming distinct and definite conceptions of what is really meant by the general doctrine of Imputation, whether in regard to sin or to righteousness. And the likeliest means of doing so seems to be to take the three cases of Imputation which have been affirmed by divines to have the express sanction of Scripture—namely 1) that of the guilt of Adam’s first sin to his posterity, 2) that of the guilt of our sins to Christ as our Substitute, and 3) that of His righteousness to us as the immediate ground of our Justification—to compare them with one another, to eliminate whatever is peculiar to each of them, and to frame our general idea of imputation by including in it only what is common to them all. For as each of the three is a specific example of the same generic class, we may hope, by means of this process of comparison and abstraction,[13] to arrive at a correct result and to retain whatever is essential to the nature of imputation, while we exclude only what is peculiar to each of its special exemplifications.[14] It may thus be made manifest that imputation, whether it be of sin or of righteousness, neither consists in the infusion of moral qualities, nor is in all cases necessarily connected with it.

Take the three cases of Imputation which have been specified and compare them with one another. We find that in two out of the three a change of moral character is the invariable concomitant[15] or consequent of imputation; for the imputation of Adam’s guilt to his posterity was connected with their loss of original righteousness and the corruption of their whole nature. And the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to His people is connected, in like manner, with their renewal and sanctification. But we also find that, in the third case—which is as real and as complete an instance of imputation as either of the other two—the imputation of our sins to Christ was not connected with any change in His holy character, or with the infusion of any, even the slightest, taint of moral evil. Whence we infer that imputation, so far from consisting in, is not even invariably connected with the infusion of moral qualities. We find again, that in two out of the three cases, representative and personal agency are so clearly distinguished as to make it manifest, that the party to whom anything is imputed is not supposed to have had any active participation in the doing of it: for our sins were really, and in the full sense of the term, imputed to Christ as our Substitute, yet He had no share in the commission of them. And His righteousness is, in like manner, imputed to us for our Justification, yet we had no share with Him in “finishing the work which the Father had given Him to do.” Whence we infer that, in the third case—the imputation of Adam’s guilt to his posterity—it is so far from being necessary to suppose our personal participation in his act, that such a supposition would go far to destroy the doctrine of Imputation altogether, by setting aside the fundamental distinction between the agency of the representative and that of those who were represented by him. We find again that in all the three cases, imputation, whether of sin or of righteousness, is founded on a federal[16] relation subsisting between one and many—for Adam was constituted the head and representative of his race, and Christ the Substitute and Surety of His people. This relation may be fitly described as amounting to a union between them, in virtue of which they are regarded and treated as being, in some respects, one. But this union is not such as to destroy the distinction between their respective personalities or to confound their several acts: for it is still true, that the representative was personally different from those whom he represented, and that his obedience or disobedience was his own act and not theirs, although it is imputed to them.

These few specimens may suffice to illustrate the general doctrine of Imputation, and the best way of acquiring a distinct conception of its true meaning. They show that, while the righteousness of Christ, considered as the merit of His Mediatorial work, may become ours by being imputed to us, it is not communicated as an inherent habit or quality might be; and that our Justification, in so far as it depends on that righteousness neither consists in the infusion of moral qualities nor rests on these qualities, when they have been infused, as its proper ground.

It is affirmed, thirdly, that the righteousness of Christ, considered as the merit of His Mediatorial work, must ever continue, even when it is imputed to us, to belong primarily, and, in one important respect, exclusively, to Him by whom alone that work was accomplished. It is His righteousness in a sense in which it can never be ours: it is His, as having been wrought out by Him; and it is ours, only as it is imputed to us. It is His, as it was the merit of His personal obedience; and it is ours, only as it is derived to us from Him. He claims a special propriety[17] in it even when He makes it over to His people. The whole merit is His; the gracious imputation of it only is ours.

1 immediate – without the intervention of another cause; direct.
2 signal homage – noteworthy or special honor expressed publicly.
3 efficacy – power to produce a desired effect; effectiveness.
4 ascertaining – discovering with certainty.
5 superfluous – being beyond what is required.
6 conciliation – reconciliation.
7 vicarious – acting in the place of someone else.
8 indissolubly – permanent.
9 propitiation – appeasing one offended and rendering him favorable.
10 surety – one who enters into a bond to undertake the responsibilities or debt of another.
11 susception – the act of taking.
12 pernicious – causing great harm; destructive.
13 abstraction – summarizing.
14 exemplifications – illustrating by example.
15 concomitant – conjoined with; accompanying.
16 federal – pertaining to a covenant or treaty.
17 propriety – exclusive right of possession; ownership.

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