In one of my recent posts I spoke briefly about John Wesley’s use of forensic language in his sermon Justification by Faith. While noting the motivations and subtlety of the language of ‘non-imputation’ I also said that I disagreed with Wesley on this fundamental point. Our justification is the result, not simply of the non-imputation of our sins to us, but the imputation of our sins to Christ and his righteousness to us. There is a kind of exchange that takes place.
Recently the language of double imputation has been criticized by a variety of writers, perhaps the most prominent being N. T. Wright. Usually the objections are stated in such a way as to say that someone is counted righteous simply in virtue of non-imputation. Since someone is forgiven their sins, they can therefore be pronounced ‘justified’.
However, the persuasiveness of such a statement is largely dependent on some underlying assumptions regarding the nature of sin. If sin consists in the failure to pay a debt and we are then released from that debt by the work of Christ in forgiveness then any positive attribution of Christ’s righteousness to us seems superfluous. But what if sin isn’t like this? What if sin is less about human incapability and more about human rebellion. Or as C. S. Lewis puts it in Mere Christianity, “Fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms.”
We might think of sin in these terms. Imagine you steal a ticket to some event in order to procure the benefit of the ticket but are caught in the act. The person who catches you, and who, coincidentally was the one supposed to be selling the tickets forgives you. But notice, simply being forgiven for stealing the ticket doesn’t give you the right to using the ticket or its benefits. If anything you’ll have to give the ticket back. You still need a means of rightfully procuring what you sought to steal.
If sin is more similar to this situation, and I think C. S. Lewis’s statement is instructive on this point, then our justification and all the benefits that are inherent to that will involve both forgiveness and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us. By that righteousness (the ticket) we have the benefit of being justified in God’s sight. Essentially, then, the Fall doesn’t simply involve an inability to act righteously, but involves the conscious decision to try and procure something by illegitimate means. Our first parents’ sin was a kind of stealing, and since it was an apple, it was, in essence, a type of scrumping.
There are other problems with the language of non-imputation, namely its tendency to undermine theories of penal substitutionary atonement (though perhaps many would see this as a positive). For example, Wesley seems to think that God’s wrath is propitiated by Jesus’ death. However, since our justification is by non-imputation and not the imputation of our sins to Christ it seems very difficult to say that Jesus was punished for our sins when he wasn’t being held legally culpable. It is more likely that Wesley has a kind of Anselmian satisfaction theory in mind. The kind of satisfaction that provides satisfaction for sin in a propitiatory way without any element of punishment being involved. A kind of non-penal substitution. However, I haven’t read extensively enough to know how accurate a reading of Wesley this is. Despite this, the contours of a theology of non-imputation seem to lead to these conclusions.