How does a good and holy God reconcile himself to hurtful and hurting men and women? One particularly inspiring answer involves the theological concept of ‘imputation’, the idea that God reconciles sinners to himself by declaring them to be righteous on account of Christ. In and of themselves, they remain the same sinful person. Conversely, God does not justify believers by infusing them with his own goodness or righteousness, he justifies them by imputing Christ’s righteousness to them. We are judged by God on the basis of Christ’s action and identity, which, through his death and resurrection has been given or reckoned or imputed to us by faith, rather than on the basis of our action and identity. As one classic summary puts it, “Christ’s merits are given to us so that we might be reckoned righteous by our trust in the merits of Christ when we believe in him, as though we had merits of our own” (Apology of the Augsburg Confession XXI).

Needless to say, this is a complicated notion, and one that, from the time it was first put this way in the Reformation, has been a source contention among Christians. The basic issue boils down, again, to: why and how does God actually count people who are not righteous as righteous? This, of course, has everything to do with Jesus.

When contemplating the “work of Christ,” one is entering into the realm of Christian theology that is known as the “Atonement,” AKA the question of what exactly Jesus accomplished on the Cross. In the imputation understanding of atonement, God is interested in people giving up any idea at all of there being a price that could be paid to earn his love or forgiveness. It does away with all models of merit in our relationship to God. Jesus saved us purely “by giving his life as a ransom for many” (John 3:17). Rather than seeing the human condition as one merely of sick people needing to be cured, this approach views us more along the lines of the walking dead who need to be brought to life (i.e., zombies!).

Dead people do not merit anything; they can only be raised with Christ. Until our own deaths, however, this raising with Christ can only be anticipated by faith; it can only be confessed. We confess that by imputation, God has given us the only thing that has ever been needed: to be “reckoned Righteous” before God (cf. Gen. 15:6) by faith.

It can also be useful to talk about analogies for imputation in the world around us. Whenever we are shown love when we do not deserve it, when we are loved by someone right in the middle of our “unlovability”, we see a kind of analogy for imputation – “love to the loveless shown”. Our understanding of God’s imputation of righteousness to sinners can be deepened through these parables all around us – whether they are from the novels of Victor Hugo, our own relationships, or…  zombie movies.