To survey much of theology and biblical scholarship nowadays, you’d think that “imputation”, or the idea that God gives/reckons a moral status of righteousness to the otherwise ungodly believer, is a passé relic of former ignorance. On the biblical studies side, N.T. Wright has made half of a career out of refuting imputation. Peppered throughout his otherwise circuitously Reformed theology (surprise!) are direct refutations and veiled damnations of this reformational doctrine. For Wright, imputation is a grave misunderstanding of Paul’s theology and aims; imputation is “mistaken” (Paul in Fresh Perspective, p. 25), “misleading”, “a straightforward category mistake” (Justification, p. 232), a “tragedy”, and it “has no basis in the text” (What St. Paul Really Said, p. 123).

Proponents of Wright could undoubtedly point to other places within his writings where he presents himself to be sympathetic to imputation, reframed within Paul’s theology of the covenant participation (something Paul rarely says). But to say that Wright advocates for the concept of imputation is to be deceived by his rhetorical flair for redefining and subsuming all opposing views within his own. (See, for example, his discussion of apocalyptic readings of Paul (Paul and the Faithfulness of God, p. 40), or even his view of trinitarian theology and Paul.) Wright is an excellent bull-fighter, sidestepping and blunting criticisms into submission.

Other disparagement of imputation has come by way of scholars who advocate participationist readings of Paul. Utilizing his frequent imagery of being “in Christ”, it is said that the fictive ontology of imputation fails to account for Paul’s dynamic, transformative, view of the Spirit. Without wading into the weeds of the debate, the dichotomy of participation and imputation is a false one created by participationist scholars of Paul, as demonstrated by the recent book by Stephen Chester.

Taking its cue from Luther, the debate about imputation in Paul has centered around the thorny issues of Romans 1:17 and the translation/definition of the “righteousness of God”, whether it is understood as the “Righteousness from God” (Bultmann), or “God’s covenantal faithfulness” (Wright), or “God’s righteous gift-power” (Käsemann). A solution to this quandary could be made by appealing to Paul’s foundational citation of Habakkuk 2:4, where righteousness is coordinated with the faithful person, rather than a characteristic of God. This, however, doesn’t necessarily entail an imputed, or alien, righteousness, since faith could be understood as the activity of faithfulness. The doctrine of imputation primarily depends upon Romans 4 and Paul’s reading of the Abraham narrative.

The key thesis for Paul is that God regards Abraham to be righteous, even though he is not actually righteous. Quoting Psalm 32:1-2, Paul defines “righteousness” not as a quality of God, but as the opposite of sinfulness (Rom. 4:7-8); to be imputed righteousness is to not have your sins imputed to you. For Paul, Abraham has not done any “works” prior to God’s promise to make him the father of innumerable descendants (Rom. 4:2). If Abraham had done righteous works, the declaration of righteousness would have been a wage of recompense (4:4). As Paul says elsewhere in Galatians, “If righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for nothing”.

Paul places the weight of his argument on the promise/faith/righteousness sequence in Genesis 15, before Abraham is circumcised (Gen. 17, Rom. 4:10-12), before the birth of Isaac (Gen. 21), and before the binding of Isaac (Gen. 22). This reading of the Genesis narrative by Paul circumvents any question of Abraham’s inherent righteousness or worthiness prior to God’s declaration. Abraham hasn’t done anything to be worthy. The Abraham of Genesis 15 is not the great patriarch and model of virtue to be emulated. He is, essentially, unrighteous and ungodly. Christ didn’t die for the righteous, but the ungodly.

It certainly feels like double-speak for Abraham to be both righteous and ungodly, yet this is precisely what the preaching of imputation does. If it is the ungodly who are reckoned righteous, then the recipient of this righteousness effectively has a double identity, depending on one’s point of reference (or as Martin Luther would say, simul iustus et peccator).

This double-speak is where the detractors of imputation begin their criticism. Imputation is supposedly a “legal fiction” that makes God a liar. For them, God’s declaration of one’s righteousness must necessarily coordinate with the life of the recipient. The righteousness of God is the gift that keeps on giving, infusing the recipient with righteous living. God never lies and his word is creative, effectually bringing into existence what it declares. It would follow that if God declares Abraham to be righteous, then he must necessarily become a righteous person thereafter.

By contrast, the gift of righteousness by God to the believing Abraham (imputation) does not merely precede his (possible) good works, Abraham himself isn’t exactly a model citizen afterwards. He tries to take matters into his own hands by having a child with Hagar and he passes Sarah off as his sister to Abimelech. There is forever an incongruent mismatch between God’s gift of righteousness and Abraham himself. He lived an ambivalent life at best, not a righteous one. If he was righteous at all it must be an imputed righteousness; God declares Abraham to be something he was not and never became. It’s not that God is a liar; rather, God’s imputation is an inscrutable reversal of logic. God justly justifies the unjust.

Translating God’s imputation of righteousness into personal or social ethics entails a radically  unconditional attitude toward others. If God considers unrighteous Abraham to be righteous, then the bond between God and Abraham has no contingent relation to Abraham’s worthiness one way or another. Imputation isn’t so much saying “You’re a great person”, despite all evidence to the contrary, as much as “You’re awesome to me no matter who you are”. The former statement substitutes a positive evaluative criteria for negative one, thus reifying the criteria itself. The latter expresses approval of the person by circumventing or overturning contingent, evaluative criteria altogether. There are numerous colloquial maxims that capture this interpersonal dynamic, like “Through hell or high water”, “thick or thin”, or “in sickness and in health”, but these aren’t usually thought of as imputation. Interpersonal imputation is a compassionate indifference toward one’s neighbor (“To care and not to care”).

Such a non-contingent relationality by definition isn’t instrumental, e.g., demonstrating unwavering loyalty to a friend in order than they might respond in the more or less “correct” way. That is to say, “instrumental imputation” isn’t so much imputation as infusion. If imputation is a means to an end, in addition to setting oneself up for disappointment, it can also easily be detected by the recipient as manipulation. Whether imputation “works” to improve the recipient is entirely inconsequential to both parties in the imputational exchange. Of course, imputation does often “work”, but that’s beside the point. If God wanted Abraham to improve his righteousness, then Abraham wasn’t actually righteous in the first place. Likewise, if Abraham wanted his righteousness to improve as a result of God’s imputation, then the dynamic of the relationship is still governed by conditionality, albeit in a more muted form. Free from conditional expectations, compulsions, accountability, or fear of wrong-doing, the relationship governed by imputation is the only kind that will last through all the turbulences of life. It could seem impossible to relate to others with compassionate indifference, like telling people the sky isn’t blue or the earth is flat, but this apparent impossibility may reflect a failure of imagination.

Imputation is why Paul can say that the obstreperous churches in Corinth are “saints” who have already been sanctified (I Cor. 1:2).[1] It is why Paul writes upwards of four letters to this misbegotten community. It’s why he agonizes over the fate of Abraham’s offspring (Israel) and ultimately concludes that irrevocable grace was God’s final word (Rom. 11:32). Imputation is how anyone can love otherwise irredeemable family members without cutting ties altogether. It is how anyone can stay on Facebook without blocking everyone. Imputation is the only manner of loving in which both parties are able to flourish, knowing that there’s nothing done or left undone that threatens the unswerving loyalty of the other.

[1] Admittedly, Paul’s pastoral practice may not always be compatible with his theology, something that will probably be a difficulty for some readers. Perhaps imputation itself is a false construct? But for an assortment of reasons, Paul’s inconsistency needn’t be a problem. Paul is pretty clear that humanity is a mess of self-contradiction and missteps; Paul is no different. Additionally, while Paul writes letters to churches, the genres of his discourse vary greatly. It would be foolish to mistake theological debate, or the quest for doctrinal clarity (Galatians!), with pastoral practice. Finally, the desire for scriptural harmony is laudable, but I would caution against employing a doctrine of scripture against the contents of scripture itself.