The Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness (1)

Many in confessionally Reformed churches in North America today are preoccupied with debates about the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. What exactly is meant by this phrase to which so many cling as an essential component of Christ's saving work? Eventually I'll be giving my own spin on this doctrine, but before I do I want to set the stage with some background information from church history, beginning with the great Westminster Assembly (mid-17th century). The information which follows is available in Chad B. Van Dixhoorn, Reforming the Reformation: Theological Debate at the Westminster Assembly 1643-1652 (Ph.D. diss: Cambridge University, 2004), 270-344.

What exactly is meant by the phrase “imputation of Christ’s righteousness” was hotly debated at the Westminster Assembly in September, 1643. The commissioners were busy refining Article 11 of the Thirty Nine Articles of the Church of England when a prolonged debate erupted about the active obedience of Christ. It was proposed that the language of the original Article 11, “we are accounted righteous before God, only for the merits of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” be amended to, “we are accounted righteous before God . . . only for our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’s sake, his whole obedience and satisfaction being by God imputed unto us.” It’s clear from the Minutes of the Assembly that the language of “whole obedience” was intended to include both the active and passive obedience of Christ.

This proposed amendment provoked opposition from a minority contingent at the Assembly led by the capable Thomas Gataker who wanted the word “whole” struck from Assembly’s formulation because of his conviction that the righteousness associated with Jesus’ death is the only righteousness which avails for sinners in justification. Though the majority of commissioners at the Assembly did not agree with Gataker (or William Twisse and Richard Vines), they did formulate the statement in the Westminster Confession in such a way as to allow for Gataker’s passive righteousness only position. The word “whole” was struck and precise identity of the imputed righteousness of Christ was left undefined. Reflecting on this move, William Barker writes, “The Westminster Divines, in such controversies, sought to be clear and faithful to Scriptural language, yet to allow for shades of difference within a generic Calvinism” (Puritan Profiles: 54 Influential Puritans at the Time When the Westminster Confession of Faith was Written [Geanies House, Scotland: Mentor, 1999], 158).

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