Last night, at our monthly congregational Bible study, where our pastor was covering Romans 4, the speaker gave a suggestion to those who were astute enough to take the hint that someone should pay more attention to the doctrine of imputation because few people were aware of it. Being fond of writing about obscure biblical matters , I thought to write about it myself, but first I conducted an informal survey to see if the doctrine was as obscure as my pastor seemed to think it was. After returning home in the evening, I queried two of my close friends and asked them if they knew what imputation was. Neither was particularly sure of the definition of the word itself, much less were aware of what it meant or how it was important within the Christian walk. Given that these are people who read the Bible and listen to messages quite seriously and intently, and who not infrequently forward worthwhile messages for me to listen to, I figured that if these people were not aware of what imputation meant, that a lot of other people did not know what it meant either, and that meant that the subject could be profitably covered without stepping on someone’s toes.
First, before we get too deep into the subject, let us begin by defining the key term in mind here. What does it mean to impute something, and when do we (or God, or other people) engage in this activity? According to the google dictionary, there are three main definitions of impute: to represent something (especially something undesirable) as being done, caused, or possessed by someone, synonymous to attribute. In finance, the term means to assign a value to something by inference from the value of the products or processes to which it contributes, and in theology the term is used to discuss the ascribing of righteousness or guilt to someone by virtue of a similar quality in someone else, such as the way that believers are ascribed Christ’s righteousness. The term, like many formal terms, comes to English from Latin via Old French, in Late Middle English. Originally the Latin in and putare were combined to create imputare, meaning to put in the account, which came into English from the Old French imputer. The word itself was used fairly often at the beginning of the 19th century, but gradually declined to the point where it has been hardly ever mentioned since around 1900.
Let us note some of the aspects of impute, regardless of the context we are looking at, because all of the uses of this word share common attributes. The most essential aspect is that when something is imputed, or accounted, or ascribed, or attributed, all words within the same conceptual field, then it is counted as belonging to someone even if it does not belong to them. Those of us who are engaged in cost accounting or sales reporting often engage in imputation without consciously realizing it, ascribing a certain percentage value of a sale to one department or another, or one employee or another, to determine if a given employee or store branch or department is profitable or not. In many respects this imputation is imaginary and conjectural, but it helps to provide a fair and consistent process, so that one can benchmark performance in matters that can be difficult to determine precisely but are important to know. In personal contexts, we also impute regularly as well, specifically we impute motives to others. It is important to know what this involves, given that the motives of people are typically not transparent, or unmixed, and we may be inclined to view our attribution as being based in reality and actuality to a greater extent than is often the case. Since this is the sort of imputation we engage in the most, it is of the utmost importance that we be charitable in our imputations, or else we may create difficulties in relationships that need not exist if we are being both just and merciful.
In order to better understand the way that we ought to behave in our own imputation, it is worthwhile to examine the way that the Bible deals with the subject of imputation. Once we frame the biblical discussion of the matter, we can see how important of a subject is it by how often it is mentioned and cited, and the importance placed on it by the people who write about it. By seeing how the biblical context treats the subject, we can then examine what sort of example the Bible provides when it comes to imputing, and what standard we should be able to expect when it comes to how our own conduct is to be imputed by others. Then, after examining this standard, let us close by pointing out what makes this an obscure subject, and what we can do to make it seem less dry and technical than may often be the case when we first hear the term with a sense of confusion and a lack of clarity as to its meaning and importance.
Let us begin our discussion in Romans 4. The subject of imputation is so important that it forms the theme of the entire chapter, which amounts to a discussion of spiritual accounting and its pivotal importance. Let us work through this chapter briefly, passage by passage, with a focus specifically on what is accounted and why it is important to Paul. First, Paul begins his discussion of imputation in Romans 4:1-4, which reads as follows: “What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt.” We will turn to this citation shortly, as it shows that imputation has an importance that is beyond Paul alone, but let us first put this passage into a slightly more blunt form so that we may understand what Paul was getting at. According to Jewish rabbis, and contemporary Jewish thought, Abraham was a righteous man who had earned salvation. In such a view, Abraham’s righteousness indebted God to him, such that his salvation was not a free gift from God, a windfall of spiritual accounting, but was an obligation that God had to pay to Abraham. Paul, quite rightly, denies that this is so. Salvation cannot be earned; the value of eternal life is such that we cannot do enough to put God in our debt, and the righteous and ethical demands of God’s law, especially as magnified by Christ (see, for example, Matthew chapters 5-7) are so beyond our power to perfectly obey that far from putting God in our debt through our acts of obedience, we have a hopeless debt to God from our sins that we cannot hope to repay. We are like the United States government throwing our weight around at young people who owe tens of thousands of dollars in college debt not admitting to ourselves that we are far worse as debtors to the tune of tens of trillions of dollars.
The reference in Genesis is noteworthy, which is what Paul was quoting. Let us give some context by quoting Genesis 15:1-7, which reads: “After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, saying, “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your exceedingly great reward.” But Abram said, “Lord God, what will you give me, seeing I go childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” Then Abraham said, “Look, You have given me no offspring; indeed one born in my house is my heir!” And behold, the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “This one shall not be your heir, but one who will come from your own body shall be your heir.” Then He brought him outside and said, “Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness. Then He said to him, “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to inherit it.” And he said, “Lord God, how shall I know that I will inherit it?”” What we see here in this passage is not Abraham deserving anything—what is talked about are promises of gifts and bequests. An heir does not deserve the inheritance he receives from the death of a wealthy elderly relative, it is a gift. Likewise, here both God and Abraham are aware that what is being discussed are gifts freely given by God to Abraham, in no ways debt from God to Abraham. The promised son, the land of Israel, descendants who would be as numerous as the stars of the clear night sky, all of these were gifts graciously given to Abraham by God. Even a cursory look at Genesis indicates that God and Abraham were aware that this was so—God was in no way repaying a debt to Abraham, but giving generously to him what no one could ever earn.
Let us continue in Romans 4, looking at verses five through eight, which read as follows: “But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness, just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute sin.” Quoting Psalm 32, to which we will go shortly, Paul comments that such righteousness as we possess in the eyes of God is righteousness that is accounted to us, not righteousness that we have earned through our works. When we deal with questions of theology, we often ponder how we may induce God to forgive us by doing some sort of penance, by doing some amount of good deeds that we were not doing before, or not doing some bad deeds that we were doing, all so that we could point to God and say, “Now you have to forgive me. I have done what you asked.” This simply will not do. We are far wiser, and far more terrified, when we examine this matter with regard to our own relationships. We may try to make nice to someone whom we have offended by not doing something that we ought to have done, like remembering our anniversary, or by doing something that we ought not to have done, like having that affair, but no amount of good deeds on our part will warm a heart that is hardened against us, and nothing we do can earn the pardon, much less the restoration of good graces, from those who have imputed sin against us. Worse, even if we have not actually done wrong but wrong has been imputed to us by overly suspicious people, people perhaps not unlike we ourselves, we cannot even do anything that would earn the wiping away of an entirely imaginary and fictitious debt of sin and offense that has been wrongly charged to our account. This is alarming indeed.
This is precisely the situation that David found himself in when he wrote Psalm 32 . Some commentators  speculate that David wrote Psalm 32 around the time he wrote Psalm 51, after the prophet Nathan forcefully confronted him about his sin regarding Bathsheba the wife of Uriah. Whether this is the case or not, David’s writing in Psalm 32:1-5 makes it clear that he knew that God’s forgiveness was a gift he did not earn, but one that he was very appreciative and grateful for. As it is written: “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. When I kept silent, my bones grew old through my groaning all the day long. For day and night Your hand was heavy on me; my vitality was turned into the drought of summer. Selah. I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I have not hidden. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and You forgave the iniquity of my sin. Selah.” There was no illusion in David’s mind that he deserved or earned his pardon from God and his restoration to God’s good graces. Nor ought there to be any illusion among any of us who receive a pardon and who are imputed righteousness and goodness, even where our own personal record is less than stellar. If we were more grateful for the massive pardon that we received from God, and had no self-deceit about our worthiness for it, we would be more gracious to others, quicker to pardon others for their offenses against us, and slower to offend others in the first place.
Since we do not wish to involve ourselves in the technical arguments over the timing and supposed efficacy of circumcision for salvation, except to note that Paul clearly demonstrates that Abraham was circumcised at least fourteen years after his faith was accounted by God for righteousness. Clearly, the circumcision was a sign or token after the righteousness had been accounted, and was not done to earn that deposit into his righteousness account with God. What is obvious to us may not be obvious to others, though, a lesson we tend to be in continual need of learning. Paul closes his discussion of imputation in Romans 4:20-25 by saying: “He did not waver at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully convinced that what He had promised He also was able to perform. Now it was not written for his sake along that it was imputed to him, but also for us. It shall be imputed to us who believe in Him who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification.”
Why does imputation matter for us? Most of us are not accountants, do not engage in financial reporting that requires us to impute revenue on a regular basis, to determine the profitability of employees or departments or business locations. Yet all of us have two sets of accounts that we have particular interest in when it comes to imputing. We all have reason to care greatly about the balance of our various “accounts” with other people and with God, and we have within our own control the accounts that others have with us. Just as we, in this season, reflect on the fact that it was only through the horrific and entirely undeserved death of Jesus Christ that the payment for our sins was paid. Likewise, his resurrection was for our justification. Just as is the case with any free gift, the gift of imputation comes with certain strings attached, terms and conditions , and included in those terms is the belief in the goodness and faithfulness of God, that He has the ability and the inclination to do as He has promised. It scarcely requires mention that it is in our own material interest to have this faith, given that there are no better options available for the payment of our hopeless debt and, on top of this, the chance to receive an inheritance inconceivably greater than we could ever earn. At times, as is the case here, our self-interest and virtue coincide, and we ought to make the most of such opportunities. It is virtuous to believe in God’s promises, but it is also in our interest to do so, not least for our own sakes.
But, as is often the case, this gift comes with a catch. Specifically, there are two catches with the matter of imputation which candor compels me to mention. The first is that it is not only in matters of sin and righteousness where imputation is important. James 1:2-8 addresses the subject of imputation in a particularly dramatic way: “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing. If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. For let not that man suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.” Let us note that we are supposed to impute joy into our joy account when we face trials; we are not commanded to feel joy, but rather to act as if joy is present, because we know that the trial will pay off with patience and improvement of our character. Again, this is a matter of spiritual accounting, not a matter where we should let our unstable feelings dictate our behavior or our understanding. Let us note that James’ understanding of imputation precisely aligns with Paul’s, it is connected with a faith that God can give us what He promises—be it wisdom or righteous character or eternal life. And, as Paul stated so forcefully in Romans 4, James reiterates in James 1 that the gifts of God come only to those who believe, and who act on those beliefs. No one said this was easy material—how many people relish coursework in challenging spiritual accounting?
The second catch is even more serious. If you will remember, I commented before that we all have a controlling interest in the accounts that other people have with us that determine whether we act to them with goodwill, or we treat them like someone who is behind on their mortgage payments, or owes us repayment for college loans. Before we let ourselves get carried away with this sort of power over others, it is important to mention that God connects our accounts with Him with the accounts that others have with us. These verses ought to be seared in the memory of everyone who is tempted to put the squeeze on those who have offended us and who comes to us in sincere repentance, or when we find out we have mistakenly charged someone with an offense which they were not guilty of in point of fact. For the sake of brevity, let us point to a few of them, whose meaning is sufficiently plain that commentary is superfluous :
Matthew 5:23-26: “Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny.”
Matthew 6:14-15: “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father give your trespasses.”
Matthew 18:21-35: “Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, ‘Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt. But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’ So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt. So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you? And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.”
Why is imputation such an obscure subject? Let us note that the three passages in the Gospels that deal most directly with the matter can be found in Matthew, and that Matthew was a tax collector, quite used to imputing in accounts. Perhaps his own familiarity with accounting in dealing with the taxes and border duties of the good people of Galilee made it easy for him to look at spiritual accounting with a knowledgeable eye. Likewise, the fact that few people have any interest in accounting or balance sheets or mathematics of any kind makes it unlikely that imputation will ever be a matter of great interest to many people so long as they do not realize the larger matters at stake. That said, once one does realize what is at stake when we deal with imputing motives and forgiving trespasses, the reality can be deeply terrifying. If the forgiveness of our sins is dependent on the mercy we have towards others, and the Bible is quite clear and unambiguous on this point, then imputing righteousness to others, clearing out the shortfalls in their accounts, and treating them as if they were righteous and had a large account of goodwill at our own personal branch offices even if they were miserable bankrupts, is not merely a matter of esoteric and obscure doctrinal hair-splitting, but is a matter of the utmost practical importance for every believer. Lest we fall into too great of despair that we do not feel very positively towards those who are in arrears and have a long balance sheet of offenses against us weighing their account down, God does not command us to feel charitably towards them, but rather to act charitably towards them, knowing that the solvency of our whole branch office is dependent on God’s charity towards us. As in much else in life, a little bit of empathy goes a long way, and where we act charitably and graciously, we can trust our feelings to eventually follow. Thus concludes today’s lecture on imputation and its importance in spiritual accounting. Let us hope it is of practical benefit to you in your own walk with Christ.
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New Testament Commentary: Expositions of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, by William Hendricksen. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1981). 148.
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