The Grace of Christ, or,
Sinners Saved by Unmerited Kindness

William S. Plumer, 1853

"We believe it is through the grace of our
 Lord Jesus that we are saved." Acts 15:11

Justification. Christ's righteousness is imputed to believers

As our works are the works of sinners—we must either stand before God, covered with the filthy rags of our own righteousness, or we must obtain some better righteousness than we are capable of working out for ourselves. We must either be justified by God without any cause, and this would be both connivance at sin—and approbation of it, to assert which of God would be blasphemy; or by works in their nature imperfect and sinful, as all ours confessedly are—and that would be an admission that the law had once demanded too much; or by the all-perfect work and infinite merit of Jesus Christ. This last is God's published plan.

Christ is "the Lord our righteousness." The end of his life on earth was that he might be the end of the law for righteousness to every one who believes. His righteousness is not imparted, but imputed to us. It does not cure our corruption, but it covers our nakedness. It is not infused into us, but it is reckoned to us. It is not inherent in us, but it is set down to our account. We do not imbibe it, but we are invested with it. We are not imbued, but endued with it. It does not give us a fitness for heaven, but a title to it. It is not Christ's work in us, but his work and sufferings for us—which give us an indefeasible title to the privileges of sons of God.

To enter the kingdom of God without a right would make us stand before him as presumptuous intruders, called by Christ "thieves and robbers, who had climbed up some other way." To enter it with a title less perfect than the law requires would be exalting mercy at the expense of justice, and relaxing all the bonds of God's moral government. To enter it with a title based upon our own merits would be a public and bold denial of our guilt and ruin. But here is Jehovah's way. "The grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, has abounded unto many." "Those who receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness, shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ." "By the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life." "By the obedience of one shall many be made righteous." "Our righteousness," says Calvin, "is not in ourselves but in Christ."

"As by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous." What is placing our righteousness in the obedience of Christ, but asserting that we are accounted righteous only because his obedience is accepted for us as if it were our own?" Such Scriptures and such reasonings settle to the satisfaction of the great mass of God's people, the truth of the imputation of Christ's righteousness to his people.

The righteousness by which a sinner stands accepted is called the righteousness of God, because it is in opposition to the righteousness of men, because God provided and approves it and none other, and because he puts great honor upon it. It is called the righteousness of Christ, because our Lord Jesus being made under the law, was obedient to all its precepts, and suffered its dreadful penalty for us, and so he himself brought in everlasting righteousness for us. It is called the righteousness of faith, because it is apprehended and appropriated by faith. It is not a righteousness secured by working, but by believing. "We are justified by faith." This righteousness is at least once called the righteousness of the law, because in its absolute perfection it is all that the moral law, spotless and eternal, demands for the justification of a sinner in the sight of God.

It may well excite amazement that the doctrine of the imputation of Christ's righteousness should be so violently opposed as it sometimes is. Owen says: "In our day nothing in religion is more maligned, more reproached, more despised, than the imputation of righteousness unto us, or our imputed righteousness." Thomas Scott says, "the proud heart of man is prone to deny, or object to it, even with blasphemous enmity." And Archibald Alexander says: "No part of evangelical doctrine has met with a more determined opposition than the doctrine of imputation. It has been loaded with reproaches, as a doctrine the most unreasonable, the most dangerous, and the most impious. It is a remarkable circumstance, however, that all the objections, which have been made to it, are founded on a misapprehension or a misrepresentation of the true nature of imputation."

It is said that a divine of our own country has been so far left to himself as to say publicly that "imputed righteousness is imputed nonsense." The motives of those, who revile this doctrine, will be judged by Him, who cannot err. No human tribunal is competent to pronounce upon them. But the pretended arguments brought against the doctrine of the imputation of Christ's merits to his people, as they have often been, so they should again and again be fully and fairly answered. He who defends, and he who assails, this doctrine are busied at a vital point of Christianity. Some have really held and taught the substance of this doctrine, and yet rejected the term, imputation. If any ask, why we should insist on the use of the term and not yield it to such people and others, the answer is ready.

First, we have the example of inspired men on our side. Psalm 32:2, and 2 Cor. 5:9; Romans 4:6, 11, 23-25. If David and Paul use the word, why may not we also? If any man should propose to banish the word redemption from our theological vocabulary, what friend of truth would consent to it? Imputed righteousness is and ought to be just as dear to millions of God's people as redemption.

Secondly, we could not get on well without this term. It conveys the very idea we wish to present in the pulpit and in our writings. If a man gives due notice that henceforth he will always call a hat a spade, it cannot fairly be said that he deceives any one by such a misnomer, but surely he will give trouble both to himself and his friends. Nor will he gain any good, unless he esteems the reputation of singularity such. And he may mislead some one.

Thirdly, good theological terms are not easily obtained and agreed upon; and when they are settled they become out-posts to important truths, and should not be surrendered. The man, who asks that the people of the United States shall no more use the phrases, republican government, union, federative system, rights of the States—would be very confusing. It is an old art of enemies to assault, and of traitors to surrender the out-posts.

Fourthly, this phrase has long been in use, is incorporated into many symbols of faith, into many manuals of Christian doctrine, and into nearly all bodies of divinity, and so ought not to be given up. Those who have objected to it have suggested no better, indeed none so good. The Swiss Reformers in the Confession of Helvetia say: "God imputes the righteousness of Christ unto us for our own: so that now we are not only cleansed from our sin, and purged, and holy, but also endued with the righteousness of Christ. To speak properly, then; it is God alone who justifies us, and that only for Christ, by not imputing unto us our sin, but imputing Christ's righteousness unto us." Romans 4:23-25. The Augsburg Confession says: "When therefore we say, that 'we are justified by faith,' Romans 5:1, this is our meaning: that we do obtain remission of sins, and imputation of righteousness, by mercy showed us for Christ's sake." The confession of France says: "Casting away all opinion of virtues and merits, we do altogether rest in the only obedience of Jesus Christ, which is imputed to us, both that all our sins may be covered, and that we may obtain grace before God." The Confession of Saxony says: "Christ himself is our righteousness, because that by his merit we have remission, and God does impute his righteousness to us, and for him does account us just." The Confession of Belgia says: "Christ himself is our righteousness, which imputes all his merits unto us; faith is but the instrument, whereby we are coupled unto him." The Church of England says: "We are accounted righteous before God only for the merits of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ by faith; and not for our own works or deservings, therefore, that we are justified by faith alone—is a most wholesome doctrine and full of comfort." The Church of Ireland says: "We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, applied by faith. And this righteousness, which we receive of God's mercy, and Christ's merits, embraced by faith, is taken, accepted, and allowed of God, for our perfect and full justification." The Confession of Wirtemburg says, that "man is made acceptable to God and accounted just before him for the only Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, through faith; and when we appear before the judgment-seat of God, we must not trust to the merit of any of those virtues which we have, but only to the merit of our Lord Jesus Christ, whose merit is ours by faith." The Confession of Sueveland says: "This whole justification is to be ascribed to the good pleasure of God, and to the merit of Christ, and to be received by faith alone." John 1:12, 13, Eph. 2:8-10.

The Savoy, the Cambridge and the Boston Congregational Confessions, and the London and Philadelphia Baptist Confessions hold forth these very words: "Those, whom God effectually calls, he also freely justifies, not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them—but for Christ's sake alone; not by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them as their righteousness, but by imputing Christ's active obedience unto the whole law, and passive obedience in his death, for their whole." It is well known that all branches of the Presbyterian Church in North America and in Great Britain and her colonies, with the exception of a few Arians in Ireland and a few Unitarians in England, who for some reason wear the Presbyterian name, use almost verbatim the same formula on this subject.

The Heidelberg Catechism thus speaks:

"56. What do you believe concerning the forgiveness of sins? "That God, for the sake of Christ's satisfaction, will no more remember my sins, neither my corrupt nature, against which I have to struggle all my life long, but will graciously impute to me the righteousness of Christ, that I may never be condemned before the tribunal of God.

"59. But what does it profit you that you believe all this? "That I am righteous in Christ, before God, and an heir of eternal life.

"60. How are you righteous before God? "Only by a true faith in Jesus Christ; so that, though my conscience accuses me that I have grossly transgressed all the commands of God, and kept none of them, and am still inclined to all evil; notwithstanding God, without any merit of mine, but only of mere grace, grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ; even so, as if I never had had, nor committed any sin; yes, as if I had fully accomplished all that obedience which Christ has accomplished for me; inasmuch as I embrace such benefit with a believing heart.

"61. Why are you are righteous by faith alone? "Not that I am acceptable to God on account of the worthiness of my faith, but only because the satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ is my righteousness before God, and that I cannot receive and apply the same to myself any other way than by faith only."

The Welch Calvinistic Methodists' Confession says: "Justification is an act of the grace of God, judging and proclaiming man to be righteous, through imputing to him the righteousness of Christ, which is received by the sinner through faith." "Justification includes in itself a forgiveness to the transgressor of all his iniquities, so that he shall not die on their account; an exaltation of the person to the favor of God; and a bestowing on him a lawful right to enjoy never-ending happiness."

We are made the righteousness of God in Christ, in the same sense in which he was made sin for us. As his receiving the curse for us did not defile his soul, or make him personally ill-deserving; so our receiving the blessing does not make us pure or personally meritorious. We are made righteous in Christ in the same way, in which we are made sinners in Adam. In neither case is there an identity of person. In neither case do the personal acts or qualities of these our representatives become our acts or qualities. In both cases are we counted, reckoned, regarded, held and treated in law—as if they were ours. As Christ did none of the acts which were imputed to him for expiation, so we have done none of the acts, which are imputed to us for justification.

Men sometimes say—How can we be justified by a righteousness not our own? It is freely admitted that our justifying righteousness is not inherently ours. Nor is it in any sense so ours that we can proudly boast of it, and so deny that in ourselves we are perishing sinners. Nor is our justifying righteousness ours by any hereditary right, nor until God imputes it to us, and we receive it by faith. But if the objectors mean that when we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and God imputes his righteousness to us, it does not become ours in the eye of the law, then they do contradict God's word and the sense of God's people in all ages. How is he "Jehovah our righteousness," (Jer. 23:6,) if his merits in no sense become ours? If these objectors are right, what sense is there in such passages of Scripture as those already quoted from the fifth chapter of Romans? or what is the meaning of these words: "Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes?" Romans 10:4; or of this, "Christ is of God made unto us righteousness?" 1 Cor. 1:30; or of this, "He has made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him?" 2 Cor. 5:21. See also Romans 4:5, 6, and Gal. 3:6, 9, 22.

Augustine says: "There is a righteousness of God, which is made ours, when it is given unto us. It is called the righteousness of God, lest man should think that he had a righteousness of himself." Cowper says: "The righteousness of Christ is ours, and ours by as great a right, as any other thing which we possess; to wit, by the free gift of God; for it has pleased him to give a garment to us, who are naked, and to give us, who had none of our own—a righteousness answerable to justice." A. Alexander says: "Whatever Christ has done or suffered for our salvation, in order that it may be available to us, must in some way become ours." Again: "When God imputes the righteousness of Christ to a sinner, he actually bestows it upon him for all the purposes of his complete justification."

The doctrine commonly held by the Church of God is, that what Christ has done and suffered for his people becomes actually and legally theirs, in the sight of God, in virtue of their union with him. So that we do not, we dare not teach that a man is justified by a righteousness in no sense his own. The great difference between saints and sinners in the matter of justification is, that the former are partakers of the righteousness of Christ, and the latter are not. This is our title to life and immortality. This is the believer's claim to the infinite merits of Christ.

The doctrine maintained is simply that God looks upon believers in Christ as one with the Savior, that Christ's righteousness is counted, reckoned to them for righteousness; or that as their surety he meets all the demands of the law on them as transgressors, and makes over to them his perfect obedience as ground of their acceptance with God.

It is sometimes said that the doctrine of imputed righteousness sets aside the fulfillment of the law. But this is surely a mistake. Paul says, that God sent his Son to the very end "that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us." And Dr. Gill well says that "though righteousness does not come by our obedience to the law, yet it does by Christ's obedience to it. Though by the deeds of the law as performed by man, no flesh shall be justified; yet by the deeds of the law as performed by Christ, all the elect are justified." So that now "if we confess our sins, God is faithful and JUST to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." 1 John 1:9. On any other scheme than that which is here contended for—what sense is there in the word, just, in the text last quoted?

If the import of the objection is that the doctrine is unfriendly to the promotion of holiness among men, the answers are ready. In Romans 6:1, 2, Paul meets this objection thus: "What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? God forbid; how shall we who are dead to sin, live any longer therein?" In that and the next chapter he says much more to the same effect. Besides, the whole gospel plan goes on the supposition that the strongest motive, which can incline man's heart to holiness, is love. Now "love is the fulfilling of the law." "We love him because he first loved us." "The love of Christ constrains us, because we thus judge—that if one died for all, then were all dead, and that he died for all, that those who live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him that died for them." And the facts are all on one side. It would be impossible to find in any age an eminently holy man, who did not openly declare that his hope was in God's mercy—not in his own doings; in the righteousness of Christ—not in his own deservings.

There was as much agreement among the Reformed churches, for more than two hundred years from the days of Luther and Calvin, in receiving this doctrine, as that of the divinity of Christ, or the personality of the Holy Spirit. Some say, if we are justified on the ground of the merits of Christ, where are the grace and mercy of the gospel? The answer is that God's rich grace and abundant mercy shine forth in the whole work of salvation from first to last. The whole devising, execution, application and crowning of redemption flow from God's boundless grace, and infinite, eternal, and unchangeable love. Grace is not connivance at sin. Mercy is not contempt of law. The grace of Christ vindicates the justice and government of God, while it brings salvation to the guilty. Hear the language of the Baptist and Congregational Confessions, which have been already quoted in this chapter: "Christ by his obedience and death did fully discharge the debt of all those who are justified, and did by the sacrifice of himself, in the blood of his cross, undergoing in their stead the penalty due unto them, make a proper, real and full satisfaction to God's justice in their behalf; yet inasmuch as he was given by the Father for them, and his obedience and satisfaction accepted in their stead, and both freely, not for anything in them, their justification is only of free grace, that both the exact justice and rich grace of God might be glorified in the justification of sinners."

The Presbyterian Confession has nearly the same words. To the question, "if our justification be thus purchased by the perfect obedience and satisfaction of Christ, how is it of free grace?" Thomas Boston replies, "Very well; for 1. God accepted our surety, when he might have held by the sinner himself, and insisted that the soul that sinned might die. Romans 5:8. God did this freely.

2. God himself provided the Surety. John 3:16. The Father gives the Son, and the Son assumes man's nature and pays the debt. What is there here but riches of grace to the justified sinner?

3. God demands nothing of us in payment for it. It is a rich purchase, a dear purchase, the price of blood; but the righteousness and justification are given to us most freely through faith. That is, we have it, for 'take-and-have.' And the very hand, wherewith we receive it, namely faith, is the free gift of God unto us. Eph. 2:8. So that most evident it is that we are justified freely by his grace."

Calvin says: "It betrays ignorance to oppose the merit of Christ to the mercy of God. For it is a common maxim, that between two things, of which one follows or is subordinate to the other, there can be no opposition. There is no reason therefore why the justification of men should not be gratuitous from the mere mercy of God, and why at the same time the merit of Christ should not intervene, which is subservient to the mercy of God." Thus the doctrine has been explained, it has been proven from Scripture, it has been shown to be interwoven with our best formulas of doctrine, and objections to it have been answered. In the next chapter some additional testimonies in its favor will be given.