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The Gospel and Double Imputation

The Gospel and Double Imputation October 25, 2011

Can the gospel be reduced to double imputation, that God imputed to Christ our sins and to us Christ’s righteousness? Is this the apostolic gospel? Is the gospel Jesus preached? I don’t mean can we find it glimpsed in those writings, but Do we see it as the way they talk about gospel?

Some people say Yes. I say No.

I want to begin this post by sketching once again how folks today understand the gospel. In essence, the gospel is soteriology for contemporary evangelicals and this means the gospel is the plan for personal salvation, and one can pick one’s evidence from the statements of faith on megachurch sites or from books on the gospel, like Greg Gilbert’s What is the Gospel? or from gospel tracts or, which I will do today, from the website on The Cambridge Declaration, which as I read it is a sophisticated and theologically rich re-affirmation in modern dress of the theology of the Reformers. These are some respected theologians. They care about faithfulness and they care about the gospel. For them the gospel is justification, and justification is about double imputation.

Is there any explicit text in the New Testament where double imputation is actually taught? taught as the gospel?

Here’s my contention: some of the finest of American (clearly Reformed/Calvinist) theologians believe that the gospel, at its core, is double imputation. I contend that no gospel statement in the New Testament permits that reduction. I also contend when someone does this they are misconstruing what the New Testament does say about the gospel, and I have outlined the gospel in The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited.

Here is the crucial part The Cambridge Declaration statement wherein is embedded how it understands the gospel:

Justification is by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone. This is the article by which the church stands or falls. Today this article is often ignored, distorted or sometimes even denied by leaders, scholars and pastors who claim to be evangelical. Although fallen human nature has always recoiled from recognizing its need for Christ’s imputed righteousness, modernity greatly fuels the fires of this discontent with the biblical Gospel. We have allowed this discontent to dictate the nature of our ministry and what it is we are preaching.

Many in the church growth movement believe that sociological understanding of those in the pew is as important to the success of the gospel as is the biblical truth which is proclaimed. As a result, theological convictions are frequently divorced from the work of the ministry. The marketing orientation in many churches takes this even further, erasing the distinction between the biblical Word and the world, robbing Christ’s cross of its offense, and reducing Christian faith to the principles and methods which bring success to secular corporations.

While the theology of the cross may be believed, these movements are actually emptying it of its meaning. There is no gospel except that of Christ’s substitution in our place whereby God imputed to him our sin and imputed to us his righteousness. Because he bore our judgment, we now walk in his grace as those who are forever pardoned, accepted and adopted as God’s children. There is no basis for our acceptance before God except in Christ’s saving work, not in our patriotism, churchly devotion or moral decency. The gospel declares what God has done for us in Christ. It is not about what we can do to reach him.

Thesis Four: Sola Fide
We reaffirm that justification is by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone. In justification Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us as the only possible satisfaction of God’s perfect justice.

We deny that justification rests on any merit to be found in us, or upon the grounds of an infusion of Christ’s righteousness in us, or that an institution claiming to be a church that denies or condemns sola fide can be recognized as a legitimate church.

A few observations: first, I do think there’s too much seeker-friendliness in some churches but what they sketch here is a caricature. Yes, criticisms are to be leveled against evangelicalism, but we need to do it in an informed manner not in an apocalyptic manner.

Second, I now want to get to what matters most here, and it is this statement:

There is no gospel except that of Christ’s substitution in our place whereby God imputed to him our sin and imputed to us his righteousness.

In essence, the gospel here is double imputation as the mechanism at work in justification. This is, in fact, not the New Testament gospel but a reduction of Reformed soteriology. To be sure, this is a clear-headed statement of the Reformers’ understanding of how its understanding of justification works. That is, double imputation is the Calvinist rendering of the mechanism of justification.

I would also contend that this view of the gospel more or less pervades much of evangelicalism, even if in thin ways. Whether you listen to classic revivalists or to sophisticated pastor-theologians, the essence of the gospel is often a version or reduction of justification by faith: we are sinners and guilty before God, God is loving but also fiery in wrath, Jesus died in our place as a substitution, satisfying the justice of God and absorbing the wrath of God as a propitiation, and if we admit that we are sinners and accept that our only hope is the shed blood or death of Christ, we can be reconciled to God and spend eternity with God and the saints.

The Alliance for Confessing Evangelicals clearly thinks this all should be expressed in terms of double imputation, and even more: without double imputation there is no gospel! One could discuss here whether or not the New Testament explicitly teaches double imputation explicitly and clearly, which it does not. Or, one could discuss whether or not double imputation is a sound construct from texts like 1 Corinthians 1:30, “It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption,” or 2 Corinthians 5:21, which reads: “God made him who had no sin to be sinfor us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

It is entirely reasonable to construct a theology of double imputation from these texts, but it remains a construct. Which Bob Gundry denies and which Don Carson admits is not unambiguous but he affirms as a true construct. Or one could, with some theologians today, like Tom Wright, simply say the Bible doesn’t teach what many have constructed. But what concerns me is that the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, and they are not alone, contends this is the essence of the gospel.

I’d like to see this to be explicit in 1 Corinthians 15, which is Paul’s own summary of the gospel; I’d like to see it in the sermons in Acts, which is the gospeling sermons of the apostles; and I’d like to see this with some prominence in the Gospels, which is the gospel.

Because I care about letting our view of gospel be shaped by what the NT actually says, I have to observe this: resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is not mentioned once in The Cambridge Declaration. The apostle Paul says Christ was “raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25).  Justification ought to be tied to resurrection.

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