I’m currently doing research in preparation for my MA dissertation on defenses of justification by faith; both it’s forensic basis and its appropriation by faith. As a result, while reading I’ve been particularly attentive to justification language and the use of ‘imputation’ as it relates to the doctrine of justification by faith. Having been brought up within the Wesleyan tradition I was interested to see what John Wesley had to say on justification as well as its relation to imputation, so yesterday I read his sermon Justification by Faith. In this sermon Wesley endeavors to show,
“1. What is the general ground of this whole doctrine of justification;
2. What justification is;
3. Who they are that are justified; and,
4. On what terms they are justified.”
Interestingly, when speaking of imputation, Wesley is careful to avoid saying that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us. Imputation might be understood as the legal category whereby Christ becomes legally culpable (though not actually sinful) for our sin, and whereby Christ becomes our legal representative so that his righteousness is reckoned to us. Wesley is reluctant to accept this double imputation, or exchange that takes place, where our sin is reckoned to Christ and his righteousness reckoned to us. In his sermon he writes,
“Least of all does justification imply, that God is deceived in those whom He justifies; that He thinks them to be what, in fact, they are not; that He accounts them to be otherwise than they are. It does by no means imply, that God judges concerning us contrary to the real nature of things; that He esteems us better than we really are, or believes us righteous when we are unrighteous.” (53).
This short passage indicates that Wesley is dissatisfied with the idea that God might view us as righteous on the basis of the righteousness of another. It would seem to imply, for Wesley, that God is somehow duped or made blind to the truth of what we are in and of ourselves. One recalls the language of being ‘hid’ in Christ, or the pithy statements of popular theology where someone might say that, “God doesn’t see us when he looks upon us, instead, he sees Jesus”.
So instead of opting for a kind of double imputation, Wesley opts for single imputation. The logical alternative is to say that we are proclaimed righteous, not in virtue of Christ’s righteousness being imputed to us, but by our sinfulness being imputed to him. By Christ’s death on the cross, he bears the judgement for sin, and since our sin is put to death on the cross we can be proclaimed forgiven, or justified, by God.
But this isn’t entirely sufficient. In fact, it suffers from the same difficulties as double-imputation. Christ pays the penalty for sins which he hasn’t actually committed. Jesus is seen as though he has in fact committed sin when he has not.
Notably, Wesley seems to have recognized this and instead of getting rid of the category of imputation altogether he tweaks the way in which it is used. Wesley writes,
“‘Blessed are they,’ saith he, ‘whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered: blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin’; To him that is justified or forgiven, God ‘will not impute sin‘ to his condemnation.” (53).
Rather than speaking of our sins being imputed to Christ, or his righteousness being imputed to us, we are justified because our sins are not imputed to us. God is aware of our sinfulness, but no longer holds that sin against us in virtue of Jesus’ work on the cross.
This raises a number of interesting questions surrounding the impact of this tweak on Wesley’s broader soteriology. If Jesus isn’t punished for our sin, does that entail an account of non-penal substitution? And, can Wesley still believe Christ’s sacrifice to be propitiatory as well as expiatory? I get the impression that the answer to both questions is “yes” for Wesley. If one holds that God’s wrath at sin is satisfied by Jesus’ death on the cross then whether that’s the result of penal or non-penal substitution Jesus’ sacrifice will remain propitiatory. Wesley writes,
“…for the sake of His well-beloved Son, of what He hath done and suffered for us, God now vouchsafes, on one only condition (which Himself also enables us to perform), both to remit the punishment due to our sins, to reinstate us in His favour, and to restore our dead souls to spiritual life, as the earnest of eternal life.” (52).
Interestingly, it is only now, having spent some time studying the doctrine of justification by faith that I’ve noticed Wesley’s careful use of theological terms in this regard. While I disagree with Wesley’s argument against double-imputation, it’s fun to be able to recognize some of Wesley’s subtle theological moves that I hadn’t seen before.