The Bible is plain; one must be counted righteous to be allowed entrance into heaven (1 Corinthians 6:9). However, the Bible is also plain—on our own, “There is none righteous, no not one” (Romans 3:10, 20, 23).
Yet, God has provided a way. In spite of our shortcomings, in spite of our unrighteousness, and in spite of our lack of flawlessly living according to His legal standard—we can be counted as righteous. (1) Abraham was so counted, because of his faith in God (Romans 4:3). (2) David spoke of God imputing righteousness apart from works (Romans 4:5-8). The term “works” in context refers to flawless works of obedience, which leaves one in need of no forgiveness, no grace, no mercy. This is clear by comparing Romans 4:5-6 with Romans 4:7-8. The phrase, “the righteousness of God” does not refer to God’s personal righteousness, but God’s plan for man’s righteousness, that is His counting of man as righteous. This too is clear from the context of Romans 4:1-8. (3) The Bible speaks of men and women being righteous: (a) For example, some are so-called in the Psalms—(Psalm 1:5; 5:12; 11:5; 14:5; 34:15, 17, 19; 37:16, 17, 21, 25; 55:22; 75:10; 92:12, etc.). (b) Also Habakkuk—(Habakkuk 1:4); (c) Also Zacharias and Elizabeth (Luke 1:6); (d) Consider—James 5:16. (3) Man, today, can be counted as righteous “through faith in Jesus Christ” (Romans 3:21-23). God “imputes righteousness” (Romans 4:3, 6, 9, 11, 21-24). The word “impute” means: “to put down to a person’s account” (Vine’s), “to reckon, count, compute, calculate, count over” (Thayer). This same word is also rendered in this same text of Romans 3-4, “accounted” (Romans 4:3, 9, 22).
Some have thought that God “imputes righteousness” to us by taking Jesus’ personal righteousness and wrapping us in it. This might be termed “transferred righteousness.” The idea is that God does not see our lacking deeds, because when He looks at us He sees Jesus’ personal deeds on earth. He sees Jesus following the law. He sees Jesus showing kindness to others. He sees Jesus properly engaged in worship.
However, as a Christian, we are reminded: (1) “Little children, let no one deceive you. He who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous” (1 John 3:7 cf. 2:29). (2) “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap” (Galatians 6:7).
There is a significant difference between one having a right standing with God, being accounted righteous because forgiveness of sins has been extended through the blood of Christ, and God over looking our manner of life, because Jesus’ perfect obedience has been transferred to us. Brother Guy Woods commented, “Was not Christ made ‘righteousness’ for us? (1 Corinthians 1:30). The Lord became the means of righteousness for us in that it is through him we are privileged to receive “the gift of righteousness” (Romans 5:17); but this is accomplished through compliance with His will … and not through some mysterious bestowal of merit. The doctrine of transferred righteousness is … dangerous because it encourages people lightly to consider the commandments of the Lord” (Q&A Vol. 2, pp. 190-191).
Did God “impute” our guilt to Jesus? Some have taken the position that Jesus literally became guilty of all the sins of the world. This is inferred from 2 Corinthians 5:21.
However, the word “sin” in 2 Corinthians 5:21 is actually a figure of speech (metonymy) the cause (sin) is being put for the effect (sin offering). Read Exodus 29:14 (the word “offering” is not in the original, see ASV). Also, read Hosea 4:8 and Hebrews 9:28.
Jesus was a lamb without spot or blemish (1 Peter 1:18). He did not become literally guilty of sin. He no more became guilty of sin, than did the scapegoat of old (Leviticus 16:15-ff; 16:20-ff).
God neither transferred to Jesus the guilt of our sin (but Jesus did serve as a sin offering for us), nor did God transfer Jesus’ personal righteousness to us (though, through His sin offering we can be counted as righteous). Only through him can we be counted as righteous! The reason that God legally counts us as righteous is that there is forgiveness of sin through Christ.
Paul wrote, “not having my own righteousness, which is from the law (perfect obedience to the law, without the need for grace B.H.), but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith” (Philippians 3:9). It is only through Christ man may be counted righteous.