|Francisco de Zurbaran: St. Francis Kneeling
How can we possibly be made righteous in the sight of a holy God? There is hardly a question more important, for on its answer hangs all eternity.
The Bible does offer an answer, however. It says that were are "justified freely by His grace" (Rom. 3:24; NKJV). The Greek word translated "justified" basically means "to declare righteous" or "pronounce righteous." It is the jury acquitting the defendant. The question then is, how can God declare us righteous when He knows perfectly well that we are not; that we are, in fact, sinners? The answer is, by means of imputation.
To "impute" something means to credit it or charge it to someone's account. The apostle Paul explains it like this: "For He [i.e., God] made Him [Christ] who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him" (I Cor. 5:21). Notice that there is a double imputation here. First of all, Christ was "made . . . to be sin for us." What does this mean? It obviously does not mean that Christ became an actual sinner. He was perfectly blameless. What it means is that our sin was charged to His account. He took the blame for us. "But He was wounded for our transgressions, / He was bruised for our iniquities; / The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, / And by His stripes we are healed" (Isa. 53:5).
But then, secondly, the righteousness of Christ is imputed to those who believe on Him. As our text puts it, "that we might become the righteousness of God in Him." The phrase "in Him" is critical. We receive the benefits of salvation by virtue of being "in Him." When we put our trust in Christ we are united to Him both legally and mystically – legally we are counted as one with Him, so that the rights that He secured are transferred to us. If He died, we are considered to have died with Him; and if He rose from the dead, we are considered to have risen with Him. If He is righteous, we are also considered righteous (Rom. 6:1-11). In this way His righteousness is said to have been "imputed" to us. Thus our standing with God is not based on our own actual righteousness, the works that we have done, but on the righteous, but on the righteousness of Christ imputed to us.
The nature of justification became a huge issue during the Protestant Reformation. The position of the Catholic Church is that we are justified by an infused righteousness – that God makes us righteous by producing actual righteousness in us. The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it this way: "The grace of the Holy Spirit has the power to justify us, that is, to cleanse us from our sins and to communicate to us 'the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ" and through Baptism" (§1987). We receive God's grace through the sacrament of baptism, and then we are required to cooperate with grace to produce actual good works. This, in turn, if accomplished successfully, results in our of achieving merit with God "Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can merit for ourselves and for others the grace needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life" (§2010). But even those "who die in God's grace and friendship" may have to undergo further purification in purgatory before they finally enter heaven (§1030). In other words, in the Roman Catholic view, we are judged on the basis of what we have actually done, as imperfect as that is. But the Protestant (and we believe biblical) view is this: "Justification is an act of God's free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone" (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 33). In other words, we are justified by an imputed righteousness, Christ's own righteousness credited to our account.
The difference is crucial. It is the difference between whether we are finally judged on the basis of what we ourselves have done, or what Christ has done for us. If we have to stand before Almighty God on the basis of our own works, we are doomed. But if, on the other hand, we are credited with Jesus' own spotless perfection, our salvation is secure. It is literally the difference between death and life.
For "Why the Reformation Was Necessary," click here, here, and here