Every element of God’s truth can be twisted to provide cover for man’s sin. Paul recognized this when he asked “Shall we continue in sin that grace might abound? May it never be!” (Romans 6:1-2). Paul’s doctrine of grace clearly had been twisted by his opponents so that he had to respond to this objection.
Some suggest the imputation of the righteousness of Christ (especially in the context of the claim that this is an addition to the biblical teaching about the forgiveness wrought in the cross) leads to an inadvertent bruising of the nerve that leads from justification to obedience, that the doctrine of imputation as classically presented by faithful Protestants of generations past is unable to make the “transition” into “Christian life.” And surely one can understand the concern. If one takes a crass, unrealistic view of the doctrine (surely in a fashion unfair to Protestant orthodoxy), it could be said that the imputed righteousness of Christ could be looked at as if it were an unlimited account of merit, leading a person to believe that they can simply “transfer” from this “account” to cover their secret sins, their apathy, their unwillingness to mortify the flesh and follow Christ.
Over against such a viewpoint, however, I would like to suggest that the doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ is the perfect provision for the Christian, a bulwark of truth against the constant encroachment of the sinful nature and its desire to rob from God the glory of His work of salvation. Specifically, what attitude do we see in Scripture drawing the greatest wrath and disdain from our Lord, but that of the Pharisees? Was not their self-righteousness, exhibited in the parable of the Pharisee and the publican, and in the woes of Matthew 23, and in their constant battles with the Lord over mercy and law and tradition, the single attitude that drew from the Incarnate Lord the strongest words of denunciation? So how do we avoid the great sin of self-righteousness in the Christian life?
God has provided us with many aids to help us in this battle. The Supper constantly reminds us of the cost by which we have been redeemed, at the same time graphically showing us our helplessness and reminding us that we were joined to Christ before we drew our first breath. How than can we boast in anyone but the Lord? The great doctrine of election, despised by so many, is a great aid in battling self-righteousness, for the only doctrine of election that is meaningful is that of unconditional election. God set His love upon an undeserving people from eternity past, not for anything in them, but solely to the praise of His glorious grace. The regular reflection of the redeemed heart upon that truth cannot but drive from us any thought of self-righteousness.
But one of the greatest weapons God has given to His people to battle self-righteousness is the great truth that we stand before His holiness robed in the seamless garment of Christ’s righteousness, a righteousness full and free, and hence we can never for a moment seek to find a place for such self-righteousness. It is by its very nature utterly destructive of those attitudes that are so reprehensible in God’s sight. Even as God’s Spirit works in my life to conform me to the image of Christ, I am constantly reminded by the very ground of my standing before God that if I wish to boast, I can boast solely and only in him. His righteousness alone avails; my every act of righteousness pales in comparison with the perfection of His obedience (note the unity of His righteousness that, on some theories, would be both irrelevant and inaccurate to even acknowledge).
Not only does the imputed righteousness of Christ provide me with the only solid foundation for true and lasting peace and the destruction of the soul-destroying attitude of self-righteousness, but this divine truth likewise illustrates the “holistic” nature of Christian truth: what is true forensically in the sense of the doctrine of justification harmonizes perfectly with what is true in the doctrine of substitutionary atonement; likewise, these truths fit seamlessly with union with Christ as our federal head and substitute (is this union limited to solely to union with His death? What does our union with Him in His resurrection say?), and all of these give luster and depth to the divine truth of election.
Consideration of these divine truths surely reminds one of the depth of the divine wisdom in Christ, and how limited we are in our abilities to plumb the depths of divine revelation. Some take that to mean we should be constantly left in a state of doubt and hesitation, withdrawing from the now demonized “systematic theology” (how arrogant!) into the realm of the Least Common Denominator, a bland and simplistic faith that can be made “friendly” with almost any framework of “tradition” we wish to adopt. But that is surely not my intention. Instead, we should not draw back from these truths, nor give in to those who would seek to mock doctrinal exactitude on the basis of vague accusations of “Hellenism” or the like; rather, we should endeavor, as Christian leaders, to present the full glory of the multifaceted work of God in Christ to our fellow believers, expanding their knowledge of Christ and hence their conformance to His image. It is our joy and privilege (and our duty) to encourage our fellow believers to stand against the tide of cultural decay and post-modernism, even when it wears the faÃ§ade of some form of scholastic medievalism, and rejoice in the great truths that shine light upon our path as we seek to walk worthily of our calling in Christ Jesus.