Article of the Month




ification: Its Immediate and Only Ground, The Imputed Righteousness of Christ.

by James Buchanan, DD., LL.D


Many have admitted that the Justification of sinners is connected with the Mediatorial work of Christ, as its meritorious cause; while they have denied that it rests on His righteousness as its immediate and only ground. They have not ventured to set aside His merits altogether, or to say that His redeeming work had no influence in procuring our pardon and acceptance, with God; on the contrary, they have professed to do signal homage to the merits of Christ, by acknowledging both their indispensable necessity, and their certain efficacy, but only as a means of procuring for us those terms of salvation, and that measure of grace, which render it possible for us to be justified by our personal obedience; while they have utterly rejected the idea that His righteousness is, or can be, imputed to us. Others, again, have admitted a real and important, but partial and imperfect, imputation of His righteousness; and have restricted it to the merits of His passive, as distinguished from that of His active, obedience,—thereby leaving our Justification to rest, partly on His atoning sacrifice, and partly on our personal holiness in heart and life. It is necessary, therefore, to show that His righteousness,—considered as the entire merit of His whole Mediatorial work,—is not only the meritorious cause, but also the immediate ground, of our Justification; and for this end, to inquire—What that righteousness is by which alone we can be justified,—why it is said to be the righteousness of God, or the merit of Christ,—and how it becomes ours, so as to be available for our Justification?


The righteousness, which is the ground of a sinner’s Justification, is denoted or described by various terms in Scripture, so that its nature may be determined by simply comparing these terms with one another; and then ascertaining whether there be any righteousness to which they are all equally applicable, and in which they all coincide, in the fulness of their combined meaning.

That righteousness is called in Scripture,—‘the righteousness of God,;’—‘the righteousness of Christ,’—the ‘righteousness of One,—’the obedience of One,’—the ‘free gift unto justification of life,’—‘the righteousness which is of,’ or ‘by,’ or ‘through, faith,’—’the righteousness of God without the law,’—and ‘the righteousness which God imputes without works.’

It will be found that, while these various expressions are descriptive of its different aspects and relations, they are all employed with reference to the SAME RIGHTEOUSNESS,—that there is one righteousness, in which they all find their common centre, as so many distinct rays converging towards the same focus, while each retains its distinctive meaning,—and that there is no other righteousness to which they can all be applied, or in which they can find their adequate explanation.

It is called, preëminently and emphatically, ‘The righteousness of God.’ By this name it is distinguished from the righteousness of man, and even contrasted with it, as a ground of Justification. It is brought in as a divine righteousness, only when all human righteousness has been shut out. The Apostle first proves that ‘by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin;’ and then introduces another righteousness altogether, ‘But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifest,...even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ.’1 He contrasts the two great revelations—the revelation of wrath, which is by the Law, and the revelation of righteousness, which is by the Gospel: ‘For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men:’ but ‘the Gospel of Christ is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth,...for therein is the righteousness of God revealed.’2 And, in his own case, he renounces his own personal righteousness altogether, as the ground of his acceptance and hope: ‘That I may win Christ, and be found in Him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith.’3 The two righteousnesses are not only distinct, but different; and not only different, but directly opposed, and mutually exclusive, considered as grounds of Justification; insomuch that he who is justified by the one, cannot possibly be justified by the other. If the righteousness of man be sufficient, the righteousness of God is superfluous; if the righteousness of God be necessary, the righteousness of man can have no place. Nor can any conciliation or compromise be effected between them, so as to admit of their being combined in one complex ground of acceptance; for they represent two methods of Justification which are irreconcilably opposed,—the one by grace, the other by works: ‘For to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt; but to him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.’4 ‘And if by grace, then is it no more of works, otherwise grace is no more grace: but if it be of works, then is it no more grace, otherwise work is no more work.’5

But why is it called ‘the righteousness of God?’ Some have interpreted the expression in a singularly vague and indefinite sense, which amounts to a virtual evasion of its true meaning. Instead of the clear and precise words of the Apostle—‘the righteousness of God,’ they would substitute their own loose paraphrase,—‘God’s method of justifying sinners.’ (Appendix 1) His expression is much more specific; it defines the RIGHTEOUSNESS which is revealed for our Justification. ‘God’s method of justifying sinners’ is described in the context, when it is said that we are ‘justified fully by His grace, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in His blood;’ but the expression—‘the righteousness of God’—stands connected with the reason which is assigned for the whole work of redemption,—viz., ‘to declare His righteousness for the remission of sins,...that He might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.’ It points specifically to the righteousness on which our Justification depends. The right way to test the explanation of any phrase, is to apply it to all the cases in which that phrase occurs. It may possibly be found applicable to some of these without any apparent straining; but if it cannot be applied to some others without manifest incongruity, we have reason to conclude that it is either not sufficiently comprehensive, or not sufficiently precise. Suppose that ‘the righteousness of God’ might mean ‘God’s method of justifying sinners’ when it is said ‘to be manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets,’ can it possibly be understood  in that vague sense, when Christ is said to be ‘made of God righteousness to us,’ or when we are said to be ‘made the righteousness of God in Him?’ It means a righteousness by which, and not merely a method in which, we are justified.

If we would understand the reason why it is called ‘the righteousness of God,’ we must bear in mind that there was a twofold manifestation of righteousness in the Cross of Christ: there was first a manifestation of the righteousness of God the Father, in requiring a satisfaction to His justice,—and inflicting the punishment that was due to sin; and to this the Apostle refers when he says, that ‘God set forth Christ to be a propitiation’—’to declare His righteousness, that He might be just, and the Justifier of him that believeth in Jesus;’ there was, secondly, a work of righteousness by God the Son,—His vicarious righteousness as the Redeemer of His people, when He ‘became obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross,’ and thus became ‘the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth.’ But these two-God’s righteousness which was declared, and Christ’s righteousness which was wrought out, on the Cross—although they may be distinguished, cannot be separated, from one another; for they were indissolubly united in one and the same propitiation; and while the righteousness which is revealed for our Justification may be called ‘the righteousness of God’ with some reference to both, it properly consists in the merit of Christ’s atoning sacrifice and perfect obedience, for these were offered by Him as our substitute and representative.

The same righteousness which is called ‘the righteousness of God,’ is also called ‘the righteousness of Christ.’ We obtain ‘precious faith through the righteousness of God and our Saviour Jesus Christ,’ or, as it might be rendered, ‘through the righteousness of our God and Saviour Jesus Christ;’6 ‘This is the name whereby He shall be called, The Lord our Righteousness.’7 He is so called on account of the righteousness which He wrought out by His obedience unto death; for this righteousness is expressly connected with His Mediatorial work. ‘The Lord is well pleased for His righteousness’ sake; He will magnify the law and make it honourable.’8 By His vicarious sufferings and obedience, He fulfilled the Law both in its precept and its penalty; and is now said to be ‘the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth,’9 while His righteousness is identified with ‘the righteousness of God,’ to which the unbelieving Jews refused to ‘submit themselves,’ and contrasted with ‘their own righteousness’ which they ‘went about to establish,’ ‘as it were by the works of the law.’

In like manner, this righteousness is called ‘the righteousness of One,’ and ‘the obedience of One;’10—expressions which serve at once to connect it with the work of Christ, and to exclude from it the personal obedience of the many who are justified. It is called ‘the free gift unto justification of life,’ and ‘the gift of righteousness,’11 to show that it is bestowed gratuitously by divine grace, and not acquired by our own obedience. It is called ‘the righteousness which is of faith,’ or ‘the righteousness which is by faith,’ both to distinguish it from faith itself, and also to contrast it with another righteousness which is not received by faith, but ‘sought for as it were by the works of the law.’12 It is called ‘the righteousness of God without the law,13 to intimate that, while it was ‘witnessed by the law and the prophets,’14 and while, as ‘a righteousness,’ it must have some relation to the unchangeable rule of rectitude, it was above and beyond what the law could provide, since it depends, not on personal, but on vicarious obedience. And it is called the righteousness ‘which God imputes without works,’ to show that it is ‘reckoned of grace,’ and not ‘of debt,’—that ‘God justifies the ungodly’15 by placing this righteousness to their account,—and that He makes it theirs, because it was wrought out for them by Him, ‘who was delivered for their offences, and rose again for their Justification.’ All these expressions relate to one and the same righteousness—the only righteousness which God has revealed for the Justification of sinners,—they are all applicable to the vicarious righteousness of Christ,—and they serve, by their very diversity, to exhibit it in all its various aspects and relations, and to exclude every other righteousness from the ground of our pardon and acceptance, since there is no other to which all these terms can possibly be applied.


This righteousness,—being the merit of a work, and not a mere quality of character,—may become ours by being imputed to us, but cannot be communicated by being infused; and must ever continue to belong primarily and, in one important respect, exclusively to Him by whom alone that work was accomplished.

This statement consists of three distinct affirmations, which are directed against as many different errors, springing from a prevalent confusion of thought, in regard to the whole doctrine of Imputation; and it may be useful to consider each of them successively, in connection with the proofs on which they severally depend.

It is affirmed, first, that the righteousness which is the ground of Justification, being the merit of a work, undertaken and accomplished by Christ on behalf of His people, may become theirs by being imputed to them, or reckoned to their account. This statement could scarcely be denied, if the merit of His work, done and finished ‘once for all’ (ephapax), were duly distinguished from an inherent and abiding quality of His personal character; and if that work were really regarded as having been undertaken and accomplished, on the behalf of others, by one acting as their substitute and surety. For the merit of one can never, in any case, become available for the benefit of others, except when it is imputed to them; it cannot, from the very nature of the case, become theirs by infusion. The merit of one may be reckoned, or put down to the account of another; but how can the merit of any work be infused, as a personal property, as holiness may unquestionably be? But when we affirm that the righteousness of Christ, or the merit of His Mediatorial work, may become ours by being imputed to us, we are met with a counter—statement to the effect,—not that there was no merit in His work, or that His work was not accomplished on behalf of others, which are the only important elements in the case,—but that biblical criticism forbids the use of the term ‘impute,’ except when it is applied to personal properties and acts. ‘There is not in all the Scriptures,’ says one, ‘an instance in which one man’s sin or righteousness is said to be imputed to another....There is not in all the Bible one assertion that Adam’s sin, or Christ’s righteousness, is imputed to us; nor one declaration that any man’s sin is ever imputed by God or man to another man..... Having followed (the Hebrew and Greek verbs) through the concordances, I hesitate not to challenge a single example which is fairly of this nature in all the Bible.’ (Appendix 2)

These are bold statements, and may seem to imply a denial of the doctrine, as well as a criticism on the term, by which it has been usually expressed; but we refer at present only to the latter. Every reader of his English Bible, without the aid of critical scholarship, may discover,—and it has never been denied, so far as we know, by any competent divine,—that the verbs in question are applicable to cases, in which that which is imputed to any one was personally his own beforehand,—that one man, for instance, who is righteous, is reckoned and treated as righteous; and that another man who is wicked, is reckoned and treated as wicked. But the question is, Whether the same verbs may not be equally applicable to other cases, in which that which is imputed to him was not personally his own, and did not previously belong to him, but became his only by its being put down to his account? The debt due, and the wrong done, by Onesimus to Philemon, were not chargeable against Paul personally or previously, but he became chargeable with them simply by their being imputed to him: ‘If lie hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account,’ or ‘impute that to me;’ ‘I will repay it.’16 In like manner, ‘He, who knew no sin, was made sin for us,’ and ‘bore our sins in His own body on the tree,’—not that our sins were chargeable against Him personally or previously, but they became His by imputation on God’s part, and voluntary susception on His own. If it be said, that the mere word ‘impute’ is not employed in this case, it may be asked, whether there be any other which could more accurately express the fact, if it be a fact; and whether the word itself is not used in a parallel case, when God is said ‘to impute righteousness without works,’ as often as ‘He justifieth the ungodly?’17 Indeed, Justification consists partly in the ‘non-imputation’ of sin, which did belong personally to the sinner, and partly in the ‘imputation’ of righteousness, of which he was utterly destitute before; and the meaning of the one may be ascertained from the meaning of the other, while both are necessary to express the full meaning of Justification. We conclude, therefore, that the righteousness of Christ, —being the merit of a work done and finished,—may be imputed for the Justification of His people, but cannot possibly be infused.

It is affirmed, secondly, that the righteousness of Christ, to be available for the benefit of His people, must become theirs by imputation, and not by infusion. Most of the leading errors on the subject of Justification may be traced to obscure or defective views in regard to the nature or import of imputation, and have arisen from supposing—either that it consists in the infusion of moral qualities, in which case Justification is confounded with Sanctification—or that, in so far as imputation may be distinguished from such infusion, it is founded, at least, on the moral qualities which thus become inherent, in which case Justification has for its immediate ground a personal, and not a vicarious, righteousness. The only effectual way of striking at the root of these prevailing and pernicious errors, is by forming distinct and definite conceptions of what is really meant by the general doctrine of Imputation, whether in regard to sin or to righteousness; and the likeliest means of doing so seems to be,—to take the three cases of Imputation which have been affirmed by divines to have the express sanction of Scripture,—namely, that of the guilt of Adam’s first sin to his posterity,—that of the guilt of our sins to Christ as our substitute,—and that of His righteousness to us as the immediate ground of our Justification;—to compare them with one another,—to eliminate whatever is peculiar to each of them,—and to frame our general idea of imputation by including in it only what is common to them all; for as each of the three is a specific example of the same generic class, we may hope, by means of this process of comparison and abstraction, to arrive at a correct result, and to retain whatever is essential to the nature of imputation, while we exclude only what is peculiar to each of its special exemplifications. It may thus be made manifest that imputation, whether it be of sin or of righteousness, neither consists in the infusion of moral qualities, nor is, in all cases, necessarily connected with it.

Take the three cases of Imputation which have been specified, and compare them with one another. We find, that in two out of the three, a change of moral character is the invariable concomitant or consequent of imputation; for the imputation of Adam’s guilt to his posterity, was connected with their loss of original righteousness and the corruption of their whole nature; and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to His people is connected, in like manner, with their renewal and sanctification; but we also find that, in the third case,—which is as real and as complete an instance of imputation as either of the other two,—the imputation of our sins to Christ was not connected with any change in His holy character, or with the infusion of any, even the slightest, taint of moral evil; whence we infer that imputation, so far from consisting in, is not even invariably connected with, the infusion of moral qualities. We find again, that in two out of the three cases, representative, and personal, agency are so clearly distinguished as to make it manifest, that the party to whom anything is imputed is not supposed to have had any active participation in the doing of it: for our sins were really, and in the full sense of the term, imputed to Christ as our substitute, yet He had no share in the commission of them; and His righteousness is, in like manner, imputed to us for our Justification, yet we had no share with Him in ‘finishing the work which the Father had given Him to do.’—Whence we infer that, in the third case,—that of the imputation of Adam’s guilt to his posterity,—it is so far from being necessary to suppose our personal participation in his act, that such a supposition would go far to destroy the doctrine of Imputation altogether, by setting aside the fundamental distinction between the agency of the representative, and that of those who were represented by him. We find, again, that in all the three cases, imputation, whether of sin or of righteousness, is founded on a federal relation subsisting between one and many,—for Adam was constituted the head and representative of his race, and Christ the substitute and surety of His people; and that this relation may be fitly described as amounting to a union between them, in virtue of which they are regarded and treated as being, in some respects, one; but that this union is not such as to destroy the distinction between their respective personalities, or to confound their several acts: for it is still true, that the representative was personally different from those whom he represented, and that his obedience, or disobedience, was his own act, and not theirs, although it is imputed to them; for ‘a union of representation is not a union of identity.’ ‘No imputation of this kind,’ says Dr. Owen, speaking of the imputation of anything that was not ours antecedently, but that becomes ours simply by being imputed, —’is to account them, unto whom anything is imputed, to have done the things themselves which are imputed unto them....This is contrary unto the nature of imputation, which proceeds on no such judgment, but on the contrary, (implies) that we ourselves have done nothing of what is imputed unto us, nor Christ anything of what is imputed unto Him.’ (Appendix 3)

These few specimens may suffice to illustrate the general doctrine of Imputation, and the best way of acquiring a distinct conception of its true meaning. ‘They show that, while the righteousness of Christ, considered as the merit of His Mediatorial work, may become ours by being imputed to us, it is not communicated as an inherent habit or quality might be; and that our Justification, in so far as it depends on that righteousness, neither consists in the infusion of moral qualities, nor rests on these qualities, when they have been infused, as its proper ground.

It is affirmed, thirdly, that the righteousness of Christ, considered as the merit of His Mediatorial work, must ever continue, even when it is imputed to us, to belong primarily, and, in one important respect, exclusively, to Him by whom alone that work was accomplished. It is His righteousness in a sense in which it never can be ours: it is His, as having been wrought out by Him; and it is ours, only as it is imputed to us. It is His, as it was the merit of His personal obedience; and it is ours, only as it is derived to us from Him. He claims a special propriety in it even when He makes it over to His people. ‘I have trodden the wine—press alone, and of the people there was none with me...I that speak in righteousness, mighty to save;’ ‘Hearken, ye stout-hearted, that are far from righteousness, I bring near MY righteousness.’18 It is still His, and, moreover, it is only to be found ‘in Him.’ ‘Surely shall one say, In the Lord have I righteousness,’ and ‘In the Lord shall all the seed of Israel be justified, and shall glory.’ ‘We are made the righteousness of God,’ but only ‘in Him;’ and if we would have ‘the righteousness which is of God by faith,’ we ‘must win Christ, and be found in Him;’ for this righteousness is part of that ‘fulness which dwells in Him,’19 and which is ‘treasured up for us in Him.’ The whole merit is His,—the gracious imputation of it only is ours.

Had this simple, but important, truth been duly considered, it would have served, both to obviate some plausible objections which have been urged against the doctrine of imputed righteousness; and also to prevent or correct some dangerous perversions of it, on which these objections have been mainly founded. It has been said, for instance, that if Christ’s righteousness be imputed to us, then we must be as righteous as Christ Himself was,—that we can no longer need the pardon of sin; that in Him we may be said to have redeemed ourselves; and that eternal life must come to us rather as a reward of debt, than as a gift of grace. These, and many other, rash and extravagant expressions, occur in the writings of some avowed Antinomians, and have been quoted by many Popish and Socinian writers, as if they were a correct statement of the Protestant doctrine, with the view of founding upon them various plausible objections against it. (Appendix 4) But in the only sense in which they could be made available for that purpose, they are explicitly disavowed by all sound divines; for Protestants have always maintained that there is an essential difference,—not between the righteousness which Christ wrought out, and that which is imputed to His people, for this they hold to be one and the same,—but between Christ as the ‘author and finisher’ of that righteousness, and those who were represented by Him,—who were ‘redeemed to God by His blood,’—’reconciled to God by His death,’—and ‘made the righteousness of God IN Him.’ In one important sense, His righteousness was peculiar to Himself, for it was His, and His alone, considered personally; in another important sense, it is common to Him with His people, for it was wrought out, not for Himself only, but for them also, and considered as vicarious, it becomes theirs by a gracious imputation.


The imputation of Christ’s righteousness to His people, as the immediate ground of their pardon and acceptance with God, may be proved, deductively, from the character in which He acted, as their representative; and from the vicarious nature of the work which He undertook to accomplish.

When we speak of the imputation of His righteousness as being the immediate ground of their Justification, we do not intend to represent their Justification as the instantaneous effect of the completion of His Mediatorial work. The term ‘immediate’ has no reference to time at all, and may admit of a long interval between the accomplishment of His vicarious obedience, and the actual application of it to individuals, as also the instrumental use of many means for that end. The whole work of the Spirit intervenes between the redemption of Christ and the personal Justification of His people. But what the employment of this term is intended to exclude, is the introduction of any other righteousness between that which was wrought out by His vicarious sufferings and obedience, and the effectual Justification of all who receive and rest upon it by faith—the introduction of any other righteousness as being, either in whole or in part, the ground of our acceptance with God. For a theory of ‘mediate,’ has been opposed to the doctrine of ‘ direct,’ imputation,—a theory which makes the Justification of believers to depend immediately upon their own inherent righteousness, and only remotely, if at all, on the imputed righteousness of Christ. The same theory has been applied to explain, or rather to explain away, the doctrine of our condemnation in Adam, and the doctrine of our Justification in Christ. It is alleged, that the guilt of Adam’s first sin is not directly imputed to his posterity, but only mediately, through their own entailed and inherent depravity; and in like manner, as well as for similar reasons, that the righteousness of Christ is not directly imputed to His people, but only mediately, through their own infused and inherent holiness. The immediate ground of condemnation, in the one case, and of Justification, in the other, is made to be our own personal character. In opposition to this theory, in so far as it relates to the righteousness of Christ, we affirm that the merit of His suffering and obedience is imputed directly to His people, as the immediate and only ground of their Justification; and that the truth of this statement may be proved, deductively, from the character in which He acted as their representative, and from the vicarious nature of the work which He undertook to accomplish. (Appendix 5)

Socinians, and others,—who deny the substitution of Christ in the room of the guilty, the imputation of their sins to Him, and the vicarious nature of His sufferings and obedience, as a satisfaction to the law and justice of God,—are the only parties who can consistently reject the imputation of His righteousness as the ground of their pardon and acceptance; indeed, they must do so, for they sweep away the whole ground on which the doctrine of Imputation is based. But those who admit these fundamental truths, cannot consistently refuse this unavoidable inference from them, that what He did, as their substitute and representative, was done for them; and that, to be available for their benefit, it must be, in some way, made over to them, or put down to their account. To this extent, they must all admit the fact of imputation. If they ascribe any efficacy to the work of Christ at all,—considered as a vicarious work accomplished by Him on behalf of His people, which merited or procured anything for them,—His merit must be reckoned to them, if they are to derive any real benefit from it. Suppose, with some, that the only efficacy which belonged to it was, that it procured ‘salvability for all, but not salvation for any,’ or that it procured ‘a new law of grace’ by which we might be saved on easier terms, and accepted on the ground of sincere, but imperfect, obedience,—still it must be imputed to us to that effect,—it must be reckoned to our account, if it was undertaken and accomplished for such an end; and it must be made available for our relief, if not from the guilt of sin and the wrath of God, yet from the law of perfect obedience. Suppose, with others, that the only efficacy which belonged to it was, that it procured the pardon of sin, while it left us to work out for ourselves a title to eternal life,—still it must be imputed to us to that effect, if pardon is bestowed solely on account of His sufferings and death. In both cases alike, too, it is the direct and immediate cause of the effect which is ascribed to it; for no other righteousness is interposed between the work of Christ and the relaxation of the Law, in the one case, or between that work and the pardon of sin, in the other. The latter is not a case of mediate, but only of partial, imputation; and the former, while it is a case of mediate imputation, so far as our Justification is concerned, is nevertheless a case of direct and immediate imputation, with reference to the only effect which is ascribed to the Mediatorial work of Christ. The merit of that work must be directly imputed to them to the effect of relieving them from a Law which requires perfect obedience, if they are to derive any benefit from it,—for it is not even alleged that there is any other righteousness which intervenes between Christ’s work, and this supposed result; and if the personal righteousness of the believer is interposed, at a subsequent stage, so as to be made the immediate ground of Justification, while Christ’s work is still recognised as its remote, but meritorious, cause, we shall only have two distinct imputations,—the one direct, and the other mediate—the direct imputation of Christ’s work, to the effect of relaxing the requirements of God’s Law, and then the mediate imputation of His work, to the effect of sustaining our own personal righteousness, or our sincere, but imperfect obedience, as the proximate ground of our pardon and acceptance with God.

But if it can be clearly proved from Scripture, that the Mediatorial work of Christ was undertaken and executed for the purpose, not of relaxing the Law, but of fulfilling it, on behalf of His people; and if it can be further shown that their Justification is directly connected with the efficacy of His work for that end, then any objection that is raised against the doctrine of His imputed righteousness, cannot be founded on the mere idea of imputation,—for that is really involved in every other doctrine which ascribes any efficacy to His work in connection with our Justification, —but must rest entirely on the proof of this precise point, —that, while the work of Christ was directly imputed to the effect of relaxing the divine Law, and relieving us from the requirement of perfect obedience, it is not directly imputed for our Justification, but becomes available with reference to this end only mediately,—through our own personal righteousness, or through our sincere, but imperfect, obedience. On any view that can be taken of the relation which subsists between Christ’s work and our Justification, a direct imputation of His merit, at one point or another, must be admitted by all who ascribe any efficacy to it whatever; for it is necessarily involved in the representative character which He sustained, and the vicarious nature of His undertaking: it must come in, without the intervention of any other righteousness, at the point where the Law is supposed to be relaxed in consequence of what He did and suffered; or, if the Law was never relaxed, then at the point where the Law was fulfilled, and where Christ Himself became the ‘end of the Law for righteousness to every one who believeth.’

That there may be such a direct imputation of Christ’s righteousness as is not founded, either in whole or in part, on any change in the moral character of believers, although it is inseparably connected with it, is evident from the fact, that our sins were really, and in the full sense of the term, imputed to Christ, while the imputation was not even accompanied with the infusion of personal sin, and could not, therefore, be founded upon it. In the case of believers, the imputation of righteousness is invariably contemporaneous with the infusion of holiness; but that this infused and inherent personal holiness is not the ground of that imputation, is proved conclusively by the fact that we are called, like Abraham, to ‘believe in Him who justifieth the ungodly,’ and ‘who imputeth righteousness without works.’ (Appendix 6)


The righteousness of Christ, considered as the merit of His Mediatorial work, is, not partially, but entirely imputed; and is effectual for the complete Justification of all who believe in His name.

Some have contended for a partial, in opposition to a plenary, imputation of His merits. They have acknowledged His sufferings and death as the immediate ground of a sinner’s pardon, but have objected to His active obedience being imputed to the believer as his title to acceptance with God, and the inheritance of eternal life. But ‘Christ is not divided,’ nor is His righteousness capable of being separated into parts, so as that one part should be imputed, while the other is not imputed; nor is Justification ever bestowed except as a complete blessing, which includes the sinner’s deliverance from wrath, and also his acceptance as righteous in the sight of God. It is perfectly legitimate, and, for some purposes, it may be useful, to distinguish between the active and passive obedience of Christ, as constituting together His one entire righteousness, and also between the pardon and the acceptance of the sinner, as constituting together the one entire privilege of Justification;—we are naturally led, even, to make use of such distinctions, in order to illustrate the relation which the constituent elements of Christ’s righteousness, and also those of our own Justification, bear respectively to the penal and preceptive requirements of the divine Law; but we should ever remember, that two things which are distinguishable in idea, may be inseparable in fact. It will be found impossible to separate His atoning death from His holy obedience, so as to admit of the one being imputed without the other; for His death was the crowning act of His obedience—’ He became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.’ And if the obedience which was involved in His enduring the cross’ may be imputed to us, why may not every other act of His obedience, by which ‘He magnified the law, and made it honourable?’ It will also be found impossible to defend the imputation of His passive obedience, and to reject that of His whole righteousness, without exposing those who make the attempt to an unanswerable retort from the opponents of both. Indeed, most of the objections which have been urged against the doctrine of imputed righteousness, by those who admit a vicarious satisfaction for sin, have been derived from Popish or Socinian sources, and bear a striking resemblance to those which Bellarmine and Crellius employed in a former age. (Appendix 7)


The imputation of sin and righteousness is not, in any bad sense of the expression, a ‘legal fiction,’ as it has been offensively called; nor is it a theory, invented by man, but a fact, revealed by God.

Instead of disproving the doctrine by a dispassionate appeal to Scripture, some recent writers have attempted to discredit it; and have characterized it sometimes as ‘a fiction,’ and sometimes as ‘a theory.’ This is a short and easy method of controversy, fitted to excite prejudice, while it dispenses with proof. But intelligent men, who know how often whatever is true and good among men has been caricatured and traduced by affixing to it some offensive epithet, will require something more than an assertion to convince them, that the faith of the Christian Church has rested from the beginning on nothing more solid than a fanciful figment, or an ingenious speculation.

The imputation of sin and righteousness is not ‘a legal fiction,’ if by that expression be meant anything that is unreal or untrue. We make this statement with a limitation, because there are some ‘legal fictions,’ so called, which are very far from being unreal. It is ‘a legal fiction’ to say, that ‘the king can do no wrong;’ for unquestionably in his private and personal capacity he can commit sin, and may even be guilty of crime; but in his public and official capacity, as the head of the State, he is held in the law of this country to be irresponsible; and the errors or crimes of the government are imputed to his constitutional advisers, who are regarded and treated, by reason of their official position, as alone answerable for them. It is a ‘legal fiction’ to say that ‘the king never dies;’ for as an individual he cannot escape the doom of the meanest of his subjects,—but royalty survives the person of the monarch, and the throne is filled as soon as it becomes vacant, by the immediate succession in law of the heir—apparent, even should he be an infant in the arms of his nurse. It is a ‘legal fiction’ to say that the Commons of England are assembled in Parliament; for they are there only in the persons of their representatives; and yet the whole nation is bound by their acts, and subject to be governed, taxed, fined, imprisoned, or even put to death, according to their laws. It is a ‘legal fiction,’ and far from being a seemly one, to speak of the omnipotence of Parliament; yet under an irreverent form of expression, the statement contains the important truth, that the supreme power, which must exist in every form of government, and from whose judgment there lies no appeal, is vested in the legislative and executive authorities of the State. Is constitutional government, therefore, a ‘legal fiction,’ in the sense of being either unreal, or unconnected with grave responsibilities? Or was adoption, according to the Romish Jurisprudence, which regarded and treated one as the son of another in law who was not his son by birth, a ‘legal fiction,’ or a privilege of no real worth, when it constituted a new relation between those who were not related before, and conveyed a legal right of inheritance? Or is the rule that the wife is one in law with her husband an unreal thing, when it invests him with a right to her property, and makes him liable for her debts? These examples may serve to dispel the prejudice which is excited against the imputation of sin and righteousness, when it is described as a mere ‘legal fiction;’ since they show that even amongst men, and in the common affairs of life, there are ‘legal fictions’ which embody and express important truths. (Appendix 8)

Suppose that it were justly described as a ‘legal fiction,’ it might still represent an important truth, under the scheme of God’s moral government. It would only be the statement of a fact in that legal constitution under which He has been pleased to place us. If we have reason to believe, as we have endeavoured to prove, that He promulgated His Law in a covenant form, as a law for the race at large, and imposed it on the first Adam as their representative, then that constitution may, or rather must, be productive of results in which they, as well as he, will be found to participate; and yet these consequences, so far from being mere ‘legal fictions,’ are assuredly very solemn realities;—the curse pronounced on the ground,—the doom of universal death,—the loss of God’s image,—the forfeiture of His favour,—the depravity of human nature,—and all the evils and sufferings which have followed in the train of sin,—all these are brought upon us under the operation of that law, and every one of them is as real, as it is dreadful. In like manner, if we have reason to believe, as we have endeavoured to prove, that He has promulgated a scheme of Redeeming Mercy, and this, too, in a covenant form, through the second Adam as the representative of His people,—imposing on Him the fulfilment of its conditions, and securing to them the benefits of His work on their behalf,—then this constitution also may, or rather must, be productive of results, in which they as well as He will be found to participate; and yet these results, so far from being mere ‘legal fictions,’ are substantial blessings of the highest and most permanent kind;—the pardon of sin,—the restoration of God’s favour,—the renewal of His image,—the assurance of His love,—the privilege of adoption,—and the gift of eternal life,—all these are brought upon us under the operation of that scheme, and every one of them is as real, as it is desirable. When we are brought face to face with such realities as these, it is vain to talk of ‘legal fictions,’ whether under the Law or under the Gospel; for while condemnation, on the one hand, and justification, on the other, are strictly forensic or judicial acts, and must necessarily have some relation to the Law and Justice of God,—and while the representative character both of the first and second Adam, and the consequent imputation of their guilt and righteousness to those whom they respectively represented, can only be ascribed to the sovereign will and appointment of God,—yet the results are in their own nature real and true, and not, in any sense, fictitious or imaginary.

If it be said, again, that while the results are real and important, the doctrine of Imputation is a mere human attempt to offer some explanation of them, and that the results may be admitted, while the explanation is refused, we answer, that it is not a Theory, invented by man, but a Fact, revealed by God. (Appendix 9) A similar prejudice exists against all the peculiar revelations of Scripture, as if they were matters of speculative interest, rather than of practical importance. Yet nothing is more remarkable in the doctrines of Christianity than this,—that every one of them is simply the statement of a FACT,—and that they all relate either to substantive Beings—God, angels, and men,—or to real events, past, present, or future. What is the doctrine of God, but the revelation of His existence, and of the Perfections which really belong to Him, as Jehovah, the Creator, Lawgiver, Governor, and Judge of the world? What is the doctrine of the Trinity, but the statement of a fact respecting the existence of distinct Hypostases in His one undivided Godhead? What is the doctrine of the divine Decrees, but the statement of a fact respecting the eternal purposes of the Divine Mind? What is the doctrine of Providence, but the statement of a fact respecting His constant agency in sustaining and governing the world? What is the doctrine of the Incarnation, but the statement of a fact respecting the union of the divine and human natures in the person of our Lord? And, in like manner, what is the doctrine of Imputation, whether of sin or of righteousness, but the statement of a fact respecting the relation in which we stand to the first and second Adam, and the consequences which result to us from the disobedience of the one, and the obedience of the other? No doubt, when these facts are revealed, and become the subjects of human thought, they may occasion much speculation, and speculation may give birth to many theories, which are all the more likely to be wild and visionary when speculation is unrestrained by faith; but let the Facts themselves be believed on the testimony of the Revealer, let them be duly realised in their full scriptural meaning, and in their application to our own souls,—and we may safely discard every theory about them which is the mere invention of men, and adhere only to the truth as it has been taught by God. ...The End


  1. Romans 3:20, 22.
  2. Romans 1:16, 18.
  3. Philippians 3:9.
  4. Romans 4:4
  5. Romans 11:6.
  6. 2 Peter 1:1.
  7. Jeremiah 23:6.
  8. Isaiah 42:21.
  9. Romans 10:3-4.
  10. Romans 5:18-19.
  11. Romans 5:17-18.
  12. Romans 3:30.
  13. Romans 9:32.
  14. Romans 3:21.
  15. Romans 4:6, 11; Romans 4:4-5.
  16. Philemon 18.
  17. Romans 4:5-6.
  18. Isaiah 63:1, 3; Isaiah 46:13.
  19. Isaiah 45:24-25; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Philippians 3:9; Colossians 1:19.


James Buchanan was born in Paisley on 14 April 1804 as the son of a wine merchant. After studies in Glasgow and Edinburgh, he was ordained minister of the Church of Scotland at Roslin in 1827 and received the parish of North Leith in 1828, where he attained great fame as a preacher. In 1829 he married Elizabeth, daughter of John Cochrane, a Glasgow merchant; they had a son and a daughter before her early death in May 1832. In 1836, he married Mary, daughter of John Morison, with whom he had a daughter. In 1840, Buchanan was called to St Giles's Church, Edinburgh, but joined the Free Church of Scotland following the Disruption of 1843, ministering at St Stephen's Free Church until 1845. In 1845, he was appointed professor of apologetics at the New College of the Free Church in Edinburgh, and succeeded Thomas Chalmers as professor of systematic theology in 1847, which he held until 1868.

He died on 19 April 1870 at 51 Lauriston Place, Edinburgh. He is buried in the north-east section of the Grange Cemetery.

His published works include, Comfort in Affliction, Improvement of Affliction, The Office and Work of the Holy Spirit, On the Tracts for the Times, Studies in apologetics, Faith in God and atheism compared to their essential nature, theoretical grounds and practical influence, Modern Atheism under its forms of Pantheism, Materialism, Secularism, Development, and Natural Laws, The Essays and Reviews Examined, Analogy Considered as a Guide to Truth and Applied as an Aid to Faith, and The Doctrine of Justification - An Outline of its History in the Church and of its Exposition from Scripture (1866 Cunningham lectures).


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