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Romans 5 and the Principle of Imputation (Lesson 3.1)

An Introduction to Romans 5:12-21

We've been studying Genesis 3 in a lot of detail, and now we're going to switch gears a little bit. In this lesson we're going to continue to study the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace, but we're going to look at these two covenants from a different passage of Scripture: Romans 5:12-21. We're going to do this because this passage in Romans 5 helps to clarify some questions that Genesis left unanswered. As one theologian put it: “Moses tells us the history of Adam’s fall, and Paul explains the mystery and the consequences thereof.”1 It's almost as if God gave us Romans 5 as a commentary on Genesis 3.2

At the heart of the Scriptures are two different men acting as representatives of two different covenants. Scripture speaks of two Adams—the first Adam (Adam) and the second (or last) Adam (Christ).3

The first Adam acted as a covenant head and representative for the entire human race in the Covenant of Works.4 The fate of all humanity hinged on whether Adam obeyed or disobeyed God's command. And so, as we saw earlier, when Adam sinned, he plunged not only himself, but the whole world along with him into condemnation and death. You see, “the truth is that,” because of Adam, “every member of our race enters this world a guilty sinner before he ever commits a single transgression.”5

This is the first thing that Paul is going to prove in Romans 5:12-21. But he's also going to prove something else: Paul is going to show us that Christ—the second Adam—is also a covenant head and representative. Just as Adam was the covenant head representing all humankind in the Covenant of Works, so too Christ is the covenant head representing all His people in the Covenant of Grace.

Now, the main thing Paul wants to show us here in this passage is that we are justified in Christ under the Covenant of Grace in exactly the same way that we were condemned in Adam under the Covenant of Works. Paul wants to show us that just as our condemnation in Adam was actually not based on us or what we did or didn't do at all—but solely upon what Adam did—so too, our justification in Christ is actually not based on us at all and what we do or don't do—but solely upon what Christ has done.6

We see this most clearly in Romans 5:18, the heart of this passage, where Paul emphatically declares: “So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men.” One writer explained it this way: “Paul is speaking to people who think that in order to be right with God they've got to do certain things. They've got to do this ritual, they've got to obey this command. They've got to commend themselves to God. And what’s Paul trying to do? He’s trying to draw their attention away from their singular acts, from their individual acts, from their individual righteousness, to think about one act, one obedience, one righteousness done by Jesus Christ. . .In other words, the one place to look for salvation is not our own works, or the works of other men, even saintly men. But to the one man, the right man, Jesus Christ. . . Because just as. . .one act got us into this mess, one act, and one act only, can get us out of this mess.”7

This is what this passage is all about; it's what justification is all about; it's what the gospel is all about. Men are condemned on account of Adam—totally apart from any sins of their own; and so too men are justified on account of Christ—totally apart from any righteousness of their own. Just as you and I had nothing to do with our condemnation in Adam, so we have nothing to do with our justification in Christ. We were condemned solely because of Adam and what he did; we are justified solely because of Christ and what He has done. Isn't that incredible? Isn't it sweet? It's true. Samuel Rutherford put it really simply when he said: “the first Adam mars all, the second Adam who makes all things new, mends all.”8

But how can this be? How can God condemn us for a sin we never committed? And how can God justify believers in Jesus who continue to be guilty of sin? The answer is that both our condemnation in Adam and our justification in Christ are founded upon a biblical principle called imputation. So, before we get to this passage in Romans, let's take some time now to review this precious biblical doctrine.

A Summary of the Principle of Imputation

What is imputation? Simply put, to impute is to reckon, or regard or to credit to one's account. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for impute is hashav, and we find it in places like Genesis 15:6, where we read that Abraham “believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.” In the New Testament, the Greek word for impute is logizomai, and we read of it for instance in Romans 4:3-8 where Paul uses this word no less than five times as he speaks of “the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works.” That's verse 6, that God credits righteousness apart from works. Then, in verse 8, Paul quotes Psalm 32:2, “Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account.” It's that same Greek word logizomai—to impute—both in verses 6 and 8. So, in verse 6, God is crediting a sinner with something he doesn't actually have (righteousness). And in verse 8, God is not crediting a sinner with something he does actually have (sin). And that's exactly what imputation is.9

You remember the story of Joseph, and how his brothers sold him into Egypt, and they went back and forth a few times to buy grain from him, though they didn't yet recognize him. And the last time, Joseph's silver cup was found in the sack of Benjamin. And Joseph said: Let him be my slave but the rest of you go in peace. But then what happened? Judah begins to plead for Benjamin, and in Genesis 44:33, Judah says this: “please let your servant remain instead of the lad a slave to my lord, and let the lad go up with his brothers.” Though he wasn't the one who sinned, Judah was saying, in effect: Let Benjamin's sin be reckoned to me rather than reckoned to him—and let my innocence be reckoned to him instead of me.10

That's imputation. Or think of earlier in Genesis. Jacob planned to marry once but ended up with four wives. Rachel and Leah, and their two maids. Now, why was it that Rachel and Leah so easily gave their servant girls to their very own husband as two more wives? Well, when Rachel started getting jealous because Leah was bearing children like crazy, and she was still barren, we read in Genesis 30:3, “She [Rachel] said, 'Here is my maid Bilhah, go in to her that she may bear on my knees, that through her I too may have children.'” After he does so and Bilhah bears a son, we read in verse 6, “Then Rachel said, 'God has vindicated me, and has indeed heard my voice and has given me a son.'” How is it that Bilhah bore Jacob a son but Rachel is saying that the son was hers? Because that son, though actually belonging to Bilhah, would be reckoned, or counted as belonging to Rachel. That is the principle of imputation.11

And the reason this is so vital for us to understand is that imputation is at the very heart of the doctrine of justification. We are justified on the basis of the fact that our sins were imputed to Christ, and Christ's righteousness is imputed to us. To impute is not to actually impart or infuse or transfuse. This is absolutely vital. Think of a blood transfusion. What happens? Blood is actually, physically, taken out of one person and injected into another person. That blood is actually, physically, imparted in such a way that it no longer properly belongs to the first person, because it has been actually transferred to the second person. Now, blood transfusions are a wonderful thing—but this is not how it worked with our salvation. Our sins were not actually transfused (or imparted) to Jesus. If our sins had actually been transfused to Jesus, then He would have actually become sinful.12 But Jesus never sinned, did He. Jesus never became a sinner. He remained sinless until the end. So, our sins were not actually imparted to Him. Rather, they were imputed to him—that is, they were reckoned to Him and counted as His, and because of that He bore the weight of the wrath of God for sin. The sins Jesus died for were not actually His—they were ours—but they were imputed to Him. And in the same way, Christ's righteousness is imputed to us. Imputed, not imparted. We're not justified because we actually become righteous. In justification, God doesn't actually make us righteous. Rather, in justification God declares us to be righteous. We are justified because the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us. Not imparted, infused, or transfused. It's imputed. That is, His righteousness is reckoned or counted as ours. Think again about Bilhah and Rachel. The son actually, physically belonged to Bilhah—but it would be reckoned, or counted, as Rachel's. So too, our sins, though actually belonging to us, are reckoned (imputed) to Christ; and in the same way, His righteousness, though actually belonging to Him, is reckoned (imputed) to us.

The Three Great Imputations of Scripture

Now, in the Scriptures there are three great imputations that make up the very foundation of our faith, and it's absolutely vital for us to understand them. We've mentioned all of them already. The first is the imputation of Adam's sin to all humanity. The second is the imputation of our sin to Jesus Christ. And the third is the imputation of Christ's righteousness to His people. So, we could say, the first imputation has to do with sin, the second one has to do with satisfaction, and the third one has to do with salvation: 13

1. The IMPUTATION of SIN: The first great imputation is the imputation of Adam's sin to all humanity. This is something we mentioned in the last lesson and we're going to spend a lot of time on in this lesson. Because Adam acted as our covenant representative in the Covenant of Works, his sin has been imputed, or reckoned, to all of us. Adam alone sinned, but all humanity is held guilty, because his sin is imputed to us. We mentioned different examples from the Scriptures (Ham and Canaan, Achan's sin, Haman's sons, Daniel's accusers), but let's give one more example here. Genesis 36 is a chapter that describes Esau's departure from the land of Canaan. And Canaan wasn't just some insignificant place—when Esau walked away from Canaan, he was in effect walking away from the faith. And Genesis 36:6 makes it really clear that Esau's decision didn't just affect him. He took his whole household with him when he left. When he walked away from the faith, he took his family with him. And there's even more. The rest of the chapter describes in detail the descendants who would later come through Esau. All of them were born outside the promised land, to parents who didn't know the Lord. So Esau's decision affected entire generations to come. And so it was with Adam. Because of his sin, we were born outside of the promised land, as it were. Because of Adam's sin, every single one of us has been born into sin.

2. The IMPUTATION of SATISFACTION: The second great imputation is the imputation of the sin of God's people to Christ. Scripture teaches us that the sins of God's people were imputed to Jesus. Now again, our sins were imputed to Him—not imparted. He never sinned, and He didn't become a sinner. But Scripture says that Christ “bore our sins in His body on the cross” (1 Peter 2:24). We read in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” What do these Scriptures mean? Well, think about the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament. A person would sin, and to make atonement, he would bring an animal to the house of the Lord. And what would the man then do before he slayed the animal? He would lay his hands on the animal (Leviticus 1:4). Why? Because the guilt of the sinner was being symbolically transferred to the animal. The guilt of the sinner was being imputed, or reckoned to the animal. And so the animal, who had no sin, took upon itself the guilt of the sinner. And then it was slaughtered to satisfy God's justice. This is what it means that Christ bore our sins, that Christ became sin for us. The sins of God's people were imputed to Christ, the lamb of God, and then “He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities. . .All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.” (Isaiah 53:5-6).

3. The IMPUTATION of SALVATION: The third great imputation is the imputation of Christ's righteousness to His people. And it's this great truth that Paul is going to demonstrate here in Romans 5. Paul is going to tell us: just as sin was imputed to us in Adam, so too righteousness is imputed to us in Christ. Just as it was Adam's disobedience that condemned us, so too it's Christ's obedience that justifies us. We talked about Esau, and how he is a picture for us of the first Adam. Esau brought his family out of the land of promise. But if Esau is a picture for us of the first Adam and imputed sin, then Jacob his brother is a picture for us of the second Adam and imputed righteousness. Esau single-handedly brought his entire household out of the promised inheritance. But Jacob did the opposite. Though all of Jacob's children were born outside of Canaan, Jacob single-handedly brought them into the promised inheritance (Genesis 31-33). Esau's offspring had nothing to do with leaving the land of promise, but when Esau left he took them with him. And so it was with us in Adam. In the same way, Jacob's offspring had nothing to do with returning to Canaan, but when Jacob came back home to the land of promise he brought all his sons and daughters back home with him. And so it is with us in Christ: By the first Adam's disobedience we were condemned; but by the Second Adam's obedience, we are justified.

1 Thomas Goodwin, in referring to Romans 5:12-21.

2 One helpful illustration here: Many of us have been on airplanes, but very fe