Last year, here in New York City, Mockingbird hosted a theological discussion group on the topic “Does Sanctification Really Exist?” I have been thinking recently that we should host a follow-up called, “Does Imputation Really Exist?” My answer would be, “No, it does not, at least not in the way we have been saying that it does.”

I have had many conversations over the last few years with friends talking about the positive effects of imputation on their lives. Imputation from their friends, teachers, pastors, spouses etc, where they feel like they have been regarded as better than they truly are, and that that regard has made all the difference. But I have come to the conclusion that the imputation they have spoken of, that they have benefited from greatly, is actually not imputation at all.

Let me explain – when I was a sophomore in High School I entered a mountain bike race. I was terrified and it showed. I literally came in last place; the race had ended 3 hours before I even arrived. But still, there at the finish line, all alone, enthusiastically screaming at the top of her lungs was my mother. She was identifying me in that moment as a winner, perhaps the greatest mountain biker to ever live, and boy did I go home feeling like hero. Looking back, I have been tempted to say that she “imputed” victory to me. But this was not imputation. It was encouragement. She was being a mom. Sure, she denied that I was a loser and classified me instead as a winner. But if we call that imputation, in the framework of a theological discussion, we not only compromise our understanding of what imputation really is, and why we need it, but we give my mother power she simply does not have. We begin to think we have something to offer, which we don’t. We miss the point, which is that we are fallen and need Christ’s eternal, imputed holiness. We will never get it on our own. I may become a champion Mountain Biker when I grow up with or with out my mom’s support, but I will never be holy without the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.

So I think discussing of “imputation” outside of the imputed righteousness of Christ can be deadly. After all, outside of Christ, “righteousness” is empty. Some of the greatest and most murderous dictators of our time were given free reign to wipe out millions because of the “imputed righteousness” granted to them by public opinion. My friend after years of “imputing” to her abusive husband was finally sent to the hospital for 3 weeks.

Imputation of any consequence comes from Christ alone.