The False Doctrine of the Imputed Righteousness of Christ

There is a very popular teaching in the church today that asserts the idea that Christ’s righteousness has been imputed to believers. It’s a teaching that sounds really good, but it is unbiblical and dangerous, and I’ll explain why.

First, I must be clear that I am not speaking of the general idea of imputed righteousness, for imputed righteousness is an undeniable and plain fact of scripture (See Romans 4:3-8). But I’m speaking of the unbiblical idea that the very righteousness that Jesus possessed (by virtue of His perfect life and obedience) is transferred to, credited to, or imputed to the believer.

This is all a bit theological, so bear with me as I do what will seem like splitting hairs. The nuance of what I am going to try to explain here will be difficult for some to see, but I pray you’ll bear with me.

Have you ever heard someone say: “God doesn’t look at you and see the things you’ve done or not done, He looks at you and sees the very righteousness of Jesus Christ.” Or how about this: “God doesn’t judge you by what you’ve done or not done, but by what Jesus has done.” ? Or what about this one: “Your sin does not affect your standing or relationship with God. God does not see your sin when He looks at you, He only sees His Son.” Have you heard these things?

These statements are mostly wrong and definitely dangerous. But to explain why I need to give you a basic rundown of the doctrine that I am talking about here.

The teaching I am referring to is the doctrine of Imputed Righteousness.

I want to define terms: The word imputed means to credit something to one’s account; it means to assign or count as if something were so, even if it were not so. For example, in the American legal system, we count or assign everyone the legal status of ‘innocent’ until they are proven guilty. Of course, they may not be innocent. They may have, in reality, committed murder or some other crime. But we impute to them the legal status of innocent until they have been proven guilty in the court of law.

As for the word righteousness, it refers to a state of moral perfection. It simply refers to a person who has done nothing wrong, nor failed to do any required good. A righteous person is a person who is innocent in the courtroom of God–a person who has not broken any laws of God, nor failed to do any duty assigned to them by God.

With these things in mind, we can understand the idea of Imputed Righteousness. Imputed Righteousness is when God assigns and counts a person as righteous though they are not. It is God’s decision to regard a person as if they had done nothing wrong–nor failed to do any required good–and to treat them accordingly. This is a beautiful doctrine that assures us that God doesn’t hold our past sins or failings against us, but, on the contrary, treats us as if we have never sinned! Praise God for that!

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that many teachers and preachers go ‘beyond what is written.’

Now stick with me as I address a nuance: Some people call a slightly different version of this doctrine The Imputed Righteousness of Christ. This variation adds the idea that the actual righteousness that Jesus possessed is the righteousness that has been imputed to us. Instead of the simple biblical idea that God counts us, considers us, and reckons us righteous (blameless) by faith, this false doctrine asserts that the righteous life that Jesus lived is imputed to us–as if we lived His life.

This addition sounds very nice, of course, and may make for good preaching, but it is not scriptural. Nowhere in the scripture will you find the idea that Christ’s righteousness has been transferred to us. But because the church has been so trained in this bad doctrine, every verse that speaks of imputed righteousness is assumed to mean Christ’s righteousness imputed to us, although no verses say this. I would encourage you to stop reading right now and search for a verse that says that Christ’s righteousness was imputed to us. You won’t find any. Instead, you’ll find the righteousness that is imputed to us is referred to as the ‘righteousness of God’ (Romans 3:21-22); that is, righteousness from God (i.e. a gift – See Romans 5:17, Philippians 3:9). Of course, Christ’s sacrifice plays a central role in all of this. It is because of Christ’s sacrifice that we are forgiven and declared righteous (which is what Paul means every time he uses the phrase ‘in Him.’ See 2 Corinthians 5:21).

The problem with this is it leads to many people teaching the idea that God doesn’t see present sins, but only Christ’s righteousness. They will teach that sin is a bad idea, that it will breed natural consequences, that it will hurt yourself and others, that it might cause a loss in rewards, etc., but that it does not take away from one’s righteous position before God.

In other words, in the minds and mouths of many ministers, a truly saved person can both be in present, known sin and also perfectly righteousness in the eyes of God.

I’m sure you have heard teaching like this. Fortunately for us, the Bible plainly speaks against this utter nonsense:

Let no one deceive you. He who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous

– 1 John 3:7

You don’t have to believe what I write in this blog, nor do you need to accept the doctrine as I put it. But I hope you will at least acknowledge this clear statement from the apostle John. A righteous person will do righteous things. If they don’t, they aren’t righteous. We are made righteous to do righteousness. Simple as that.

It is apparent that these same bad teachings were happening in the days of the apostles. Even in those days ‘ministers’ would distort Paul’s teachings to mean something that they did not mean. The apostle Peter said that they ‘twist them to their own destruction’ (2 Peter 3:16).

This bad teaching is certainly one of the absolute worst, a teaching that has led many into destruction.

Why is it bad? :

1 – It persuades unsaved people into thinking they are saved.

I’ve seen this first-hand many times. There are many people who ‘believe in God’ and who have ‘accepted Jesus as Lord.’ But they haven’t repented. Instead, they are like the demons, who also believe (James 2:19). When they sit in church and hear messages that proclaim that ‘God doesn’t see their sin but Christ’s righteousness,’ they are relieved. Perhaps they thought that their sin was evidence that they were not saved. They know they believe in God and in Jesus. They have prayed. They may even have been baptized. But they are still in sin, perhaps living with a girlfriend or boyfriend, or abusing alcohol, etc. How happy they are when they hear that God does not see their sin! They don’t hear that they should cast off their sin or pluck out their eye or cut off their hand. They hear that they are perfect before God, just the way they are! It’s a message that is not much different from that of the world.

2 – It causes Christians to live in an un-careful manner.

The proper and biblical way for a Christian to conduct himself is in fear. Not in fear of the judgement of God, but in fear of sin. That is, to understand that sin crouches at the door, and its desire is to have us, but we must rule over it, being ever mindful that we might be tempted and shame Christ. This is precisely what the scripture teaches:

Do not be haughty, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, He may not spare you either.

Romans 11:20-21

Therefore, since a promise remains of entering His rest, let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it.

Hebrews 4:1

conduct yourselves throughout the time of your stay here in fear;

1 Peter 1:17

Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.

1 Corinthians 10:12

John Wesley agreed. He said, “Give me one hundred preachers who fear nothing but sin and desire nothing but God, and I care not a straw whether they be clergymen or laymen; such alone will shake the gates of hell and set up the kingdom of heaven on earth.”

But this false doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ elicits no fear. What fear is there of sin if God sees nothing but the righteousness of Christ? Some might say that we should fear the natural consequences of sin. Yes, that too, but the scripture consigns even the fruitless to burning. (see John 15).

Instead, we ought to rejoice that we have been made righteous and respond with a life carefully lived–that is above reproach.

3. It causes confusion about final judgment.

If we have the righteous works of Christ imputed to us then wouldn’t we be judged according to His works, and not our own? Some people dare to teach this! But few things could be more clear in the scripture than the fact that we are judged according to our own works.

For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works.

Matthew 16:27

[God] who “will render to each one according to his deeds

Romans 2:6

For WE must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad. –

2 Corinthians 5:10

And if you call on the Father, who without partiality judges according to each one’s work, conduct yourselves throughout the time of your stay here in fear…

1 Peter 1:17

“And behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to give to everyone according to his work.”

Revelation 22:12

The Scripture is undeniable. God judges us according to OUR works, not according to Jesus’ works. If your theology ignores this fundamental truth, throw it out and get a new theology, for this is what the scripture teaches.

Conclusion

 I know this confuses some people. The reason for this is that we’ve been taught so much unbiblical garbage that it is hard to get things straight in our minds. So let me try to set this as straight as possible for you, in a systematic way, in order to clear things up.

  1. We have sinned against God and deserve judgment and damnation.
  2. God is merciful and provided a perfect sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins – Jesus
  3. He who repents (turns from his sins) and believes in Christ, will be forgiven and considered righteous in the mind and government of God. No sin of the past will be counted against him, but forgotten and thrown in to the sea of forgetfulness. If he were to die that very day, God would receive him as if a new born baby, with no record against him at all.
  4. The believer is welcomed into the family of God, the church of Jesus Christ, brought into a holy covenant with God, a new covenant, where he belongs to God, and the Lord is his God.
  5. The believer is called to walk the narrow path to everlasting life. If he endures to the end, he will be saved. (If you don’t like this, don’t argue with me, but with Scripture– See Matthew 24:13, Mark 13:13, Hebrews 3:14)
  6. When a believer sins, he is not instantly lost, for not all sin leads to death (1 John 5:16-17). Even if he does sin unto death, he is still given space to repent (Rev 2:21). However, if he does not repent of all sin, his heart will be hardened and will eventually ‘depart from the living God’ (Hebrews 3:12-14).
  7. Every time a believer commits known sin, he allows unrighteousness into his life and his fellowship with God is broken. This often results in discipline from God ‘so that we might not be condemned with the world’ (1 Corinthians 11:32).
  8. However, as soon as we ‘confess our sin,’ we are forgiven, and ‘cleansed from all unrighteousness.’ (See 1 John 1:9)
  9. When we die, we will be judged according to our works. If we claim Christ, but have departed from Him in works (Titus 1:16), we will be condemned to hell, no matter what prayer we may have prayed or idea of righteousness we have been taught. If we live a life of failure, yet keep a repentant heart, we will still be saved, but only barely (1 Corinthians 3:15). Such a person will be least in the kingdom of heaven. But those who excel in good works will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, lavished with great rewards, given a greater place of authority and prominence in the kingdom of God. (See Luke 19:11-27, Matthew 25:14-30)

This is what the Bible teaches. However, some teachers have given the impression that all believers will be judged the same because we all are seen as if we had the very righteousness of Christ. But this is false, dangerous teaching. These kinds of doctrines lead to false confidence and soothe sinning Christians to sleep rather than waking them to the danger that they are truly in. I believe many churchgoers will find themselves in hell precisely because of teachings like this. I pray we can do away with them forever and stick with the clear teachings of the Word of God.

Objections

“But doesn’t Jesus teach us to be perfect? How can we be perfect unless we are given the righteousness of Christ?”

Perfection in the Biblical sense is different from perfection in the modern sense. We see perfection as if a person has had no flaw ever. But this is not what the Bible teaches about perfection. Instead, the Bible teaches that perfect is when a person’s heart is right before God; that is, when the attitude and intentions of their heart are right before God. We know this because we see that there were men that were considered perfect by God before Christ came and died for our sins. Noah, for example, was considered perfect in his generation (Genesis 6:9). Abraham was also called to be perfect, which, in God’s mind, he was (Genesis 17:1). The children of Israel were called to be perfect (Deuteronomy 18:13). David’s heart was considered perfect before God (1 Kings 15:3). Asa’s heart was perfect (1 Kings 15:14). Hezekiah claimed to have a perfect heart; he wasn’t rebuked by God, rather God answered his request (2 Kings 20:3). There are many more examples. We also see in the New Testament that God considered Zachariah and Elizabeth ‘righteous’ and ‘blameless’ (Luke 1:6). Does this mean that that never sinned or always lived perfectly? No, it means that their heart’s intention was right before God. God expects the same from us. 

The truth is, we can all be perfect in the biblical sense and God requires us to be perfect. We should always strive to have a heart perfect before God. The Pharisees did not have a perfect heart before God, but were like ‘whitewashed sepulchers.’ That is, they had a nice outward appearance but their insides were rotten, like dead men’s bones. This is why Jesus said that our righteousness had to be greater than theirs.

4 thoughts on “The False Doctrine of the Imputed Righteousness of Christ

  1. Great Blog on imputed righteousness. We must repent if we sin
    on every known or weakness (1 John 1:9; 1 John 2:1). Are there times God does not forgive us after we have confess? I do not want to become hardened toward God on anything.

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      1. Hi Hal, Thank for your reply. I guess the bigger issues for is instances of ” death bed conversation” or struggling to overcome a sinful habit how can one tell if they are sincere in their confession or repentance?

        Like

      2. Only their own heart can know. The truly repentant person should do everything in their power to show themselves, and God, that they are repentant. This may include drastic measures, like ‘plucking out your eye, or cutting off your hand,’ as Jesus put it. The thief on the cross exercised true repentance. He couldn’t do much to demonstrate it, but he did what he could, and God accepted him.

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