Several years ago, I was part of a Muslim-Christian dialogue group at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I remember vividly an argument one Muslim friend made at the time. He said, “Imagine that you are in a law court, and the judge says you are guilty, but he is going to give your punishment to another man. How could that possibly be just?”
This problem lies at the root of many of the debates about the Gospel over the years, from the Reformation to the present-day debates with N.T. Wright. Wright accepts that our sins can be imputed to Christ, but he rejects the idea that Christ’s righteousness can be imputed to us, for much the same reason as my Muslim friend: Wright says righteousness “is not a gas that can be passed across the courtroom.” I heard the same argument in another form several years ago in the tracts of Charles Finney, reprinted by the radical Christian musician Keith Green. In one tract, he had a picture of a Christian, smirking and wallowing in sin, hiding behind a cardboard cutout of Jesus. The caption read, “God doesn’t see my sin, he just sees Jesus!” The implication was clear: imputing Christ’s righteousness to me is a falsehood, an injustice.
How can we see God as just in imputing our sin to Christ, and Christ’s righteousness to us? Is it a miscarriage of justice? This is indeed the central dilemma of the Gospel. How can God be just, and truthful, in declaring us to be good (righteous) and declaring that we have atoned for our sins? God cannot be a liar. Any formulation of the Gospel which has God saying something that is not true impugns the justice and truthfulness of God. How can God truthfully declare us righteous? Yet the Bible clearly says that he does: “God justifies the ungodly” (Romans 4:4).
How can it be just?
The fundamental question before us is then how it can be just, that is, correctly judged, to impute Christ’s righteousness to us and to impute our sin to Christ. This leads to the question: is there ever any situation in which it is just to impute one person’s debt or credit to another? The answer is yes. Consider the following situations. In each case, notice the crucial role of the union of the people involved.
Case 1: If my wife runs up the credit cards which are jointly held in both our names, all of society agrees that I am liable for the debt. Why? Because we are united together, so that her debt is my debt. In the same vein, imagine a man getting an award for a great scientific accomplishment. He honors his wife during his acceptance speech, saying that she deserves credit too. Does anyone in the audience say “What a joke! She did not do any of the science. She deserves no credit!” Of course not! We feel the justice of his sharing the credit with her. In the same way, we congratulate the parents when their child graduates or receives some other honor, even though the child did the work. Why? Because they are united together.
Case 2: Some might say that in the above cases, the shared credit is not the same as the imputed righteousness of Christ, because Christ’s righteousness is wholly from outside us, while in the case of a husband and wife, or parent and child, their credit comes because they actually did share in the work, even if it was not the same type of work. The parent may have helped drive the child to practices; the wife may have been very helpful to her scientist husband. I don’t think this is what is on our minds when we give shared credit, however. Consider another example: a sports team. If the team wins, everyone on the team shares the credit, even members who did not play, but sat on the bench. Imagine how we would feel if at the victory party, the team captain said “Of course I and the other starters deserve most of the credit—those guys who were third string did nothing!” We would condemn that as an injustice. Why? Because in accepting the union of the team, all the players agree that all will be imputed with the credit of the victories, and with a share in the shame of any failures.
In the case of the bench warmer on the team who did not play, we might say that this still does not exactly match our relationship to Christ, because the bench warmer presumably was good enough to play, and could have played, and so deserves some credit, while we could not take Christ’s place. But this is not the essence of the shared credit of teams. Our role is perhaps better represented by the common practice in the U.S. of having mentally handicapped members on youth sports teams. It is well understood that these members do not contribute to the actual winning of games, and cannot. But would we say that they should not rejoice when the team wins, that they should not be allowed to claim to share the credit? Most of us, I think, would be aghast at the idea of refusing the allow a handicapped member to attend the team banquet and share in the credit of a good season. We recognize that by making them members of the team, that is, by being united to them, they have all the rights of ownership of the victories of the team.
One could go, perhaps, even further to argue that fans of a sports team feel the right to celebrate the victories of the team, and to mourn its losses, even though they did not even enter the playing field. By virtue of feeling attached to the team (e.g. “Steelers nation”) the whole community feels a right of ownership of both the good and the bad.
Case 3: A Chinese law student pointed out to me that the above cases both refer to what we would call “civil” debt or credit, not “moral” or “criminal” debt or credit. Can moral debt also shared? Consider the case of the sports team again, but in a different situation: suppose that the players on a team act badly, perhaps breaking the law or by acting immaturely. We respect a team captain, or a coach, who says “The blame is on me.” Why? Because the captain or coach really did the evil? Or because we know without doubt that the coach or captain could have prevented it? No. Fundamentally, what we respect is the willingness to keep the bond of unity even at cost of owning another’s failure. In the same way, we respect the business or government leader who says “the buck stops here.” A coach, or a business or government team leader, who denies the imputation of guilt accredited by other team members is said to “throw them under the bus,” a description which implies moral failure on the part of the one refusing to share, or even totally own, the blame of the others.
Case 4: It is surprising to me that my Muslim friend, and many other Muslims, insist on completely disconnected individual credit and debt for sins, when in the Muslim world, the idea of “honor killings” and shared shame and credit for the acts of family members is deeply embedded in the culture. If a girl in a family falls into sexual sin, or if a son becomes a Christian, the entire family is understood to be imputed the guilt and shame, by virtue of their union in the family. In the same way it is quite typical for a family member who comes into a financial windfall to feel that other family members have a partial right of ownership of it. It might in fact be a very fruitful avenue of interfaith dialogue to discuss with Muslims the sense of imputation which exists in their own culture. Does that sense come from Islamic teachings, or from far earlier Middle Eastern cultural understanding?
In the West, of course, “honor killings” are rejected, but often the reason is not because of our strong sense of rejecting revenge, but because we have no strong sense of connection to our families. If a brother or sister sins, we simply avoid that person, cutting them off from our associations; if they become poor we feel it is their problem, not ours. Families with a strong sense of bonding to each other do feel a sense of shared shame in the misdeeds of others, and a sense of shared ownership of blessings and needs of others.
In all of these cases, the common element is that we feel that it is just to impute the debts and credits of one person to another if they are united together in a real union. They have become legally, or spiritually, one. In that case, justice actually demands imputation of the debt and credit of one member of the union to another. To the degree that I recognize the reality of the union, to that degree I feel the imputation as legitimate.
Our union with Christ is exactly of this nature. Christ’s death is our death if we are united to him, and his righteousness is our righteousness if we are united to him. In other words, the actual, real union with Christ is crucial for the imputation in the Gospel to be just. If we are not really united to Christ, then his death is nothing to us, and his life of no value to us.
The concept of our union with Christ has long been taught in Christian circles, especially in Reformed Protestantism, but it often has been taught with the feel of being a reward, or benefit, following from our justification in Christ, rather than a prerequisite for it. Yet the above considerations imply that the union is what makes the justification of sinners possible. This implies that the order is 1) real union with Christ comes about through the Holy Spirit, by the instrument of faith, 2) consequently we are justified by the deeds of Christ being imputed to us, and our sinful deeds being imputed to him. Reformed theologians would then add that we remain united to Christ, in a bond that can never be broken, and this union brings about gradual increase in outward goodness through the process of “sanctification.” As Calvin said, we cannot grab hold of the Second Person of the Trinity, that is, Christ and his redeeming work, without grabbing hold of the Third, namely, the Holy Spirit and his sanctifying work.
New Testament evidence of union with Christ
The above argument fits with our sense of justice, but is it the teaching of the Bible? I believe that it is, and in fact, the Middle Eastern culture of the Bible would have made it much more understandable in those days.
The concept of union with Christ is clearly taught in Scripture, and has been affirmed by all orthodox Reformed traditions. The Bible has many different ways of presenting this picture. Jesus talks in John 15 of us being united to him like a branch on a vine:
Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:4-5)
This image of being “in” Christ, and simultaneously having him “in” us, is throughout the New Testament. Christ talks of him being a fountain of water “in” us (John 4:14); this is also the image presented by Christ in John 6 when he talks of us eating and drinking the Son— taking Christ into us. As with the vine image, he says in no uncertain terms that we cannot be saved at all if we do not take him in this way (John 6:53). Paul talks of Christ “dwelling in our hearts through faith” (Ephesians 3:17). Also, as many commentators have noted, the phrase translated “believed in him” used throughout the New Testament can be translated “believed into (ei˙ß) him” (e.g. John 2:11, Galatians 2:16), implying a deep connection created by faith. The same notion is conveyed by the description of people “receiving” Jesus (John 1:11-12).
This union with Christ “in us” is closely associated with the idea of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the agent of our union with Christ, that is, of Christ being “in” us:
“And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.” (1 John 3:24)
“By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.” (1 John 4:13)
“You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.” (Romans 8:9)
Peter uses the image of being “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4); John talks of “God’s seed abiding in us” (1 John 3:9); Paul talks of the Spirit living in us (e.g. Romans 8:9-11, 1 Corinthians 3:16). Christ says
“And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.” (John 14:16-17)
All of these passages give a picture of an intimate relationship in which Christ is “in” us and we are “in” Christ. Another image of this union is that of God making a home with us (John 14:23), which brings to mind the homemaking of a married couple. Christ explicitly invokes the picture of our union with him as that of husband and wife (John 3:29) and John echoes this in Revelation 19:7 21:2, and 21:9. Paul also takes up this image in Ephesians 5:31-32; this passage can even be taken to mean that the relationship of man and wife was specifically created by God to model the union he has with his people.
In the synoptic Gospels, we are also given the images of being “yoked” to Christ (Matthew 11:29) and being a “follower” of Christ. Yoking together of oxen brings to mind immediately the concept of union, while the image of being a follower of Christ implies union in a way much more understandable in the first century than now. A follower was united to his teacher, and went with him everywhere. Thus, when Christ talks of us “following” him, he is using yet another image for being united to him. This is a deep relationship, which involves leaving behind everything (e.g. Matthew 8:22) and taking up our cross daily (Matthew 10:38, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23), not just casually following for a while. In many ways, the message of the synoptic Gospels is a simple message of relationship with Christ: follow him, join yourself to him, and he will make all things well. Those who do not follow him are lost. The picture of faith is thus not of merely assenting to a propositional statement, but of attaching yourself to a person whom you trust. Perhaps the most apt modern image of this relationship is that of a coach of a sports team. The team is not free to follow or not follow the coach as they choose from day to day; they are signed on to do whatever he says, and many coaches extend their leading into all areas of the athletes’ lives.
Yet another image is that of being “born of God”—becoming children of God, united to him, as it were, by the bond of a parent and child:
“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.” (1 John 5:1)
Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. (John 3:5)
Those who become children of God become family members of Christ, who is the firstborn son (Matthew 5:9, 12:49, Hebrews 2:11) and have the right to call God “father” and to be called sons and daughters (Romans 8:14-16, 2 Corinthians 6:18, Galatians 3:26, 4:6).
Sometimes the image is used of being adopted children of God, rather than born children (e.g. Romans 8:15, Ephesians 1:5). This is similar to the idea of branches being “grafted” onto the vine of Christ (Romans 11:17-23), but in each case, the image is still one of real union. The grafting of a vine onto the branch of Christ requires a special act of God, similar to the act of God in making us “born” a second time, to become adopted not just as a legal act, but as a sort of redoing of the physical act.
All of these word pictures teach us of real union with Christ, and present the view that this union is not optional, but crucial for the Christian. The concept of union with Christ is therefore ensconced in the Reformed creeds, e.g. the Westminster Larger Catechism:
65. What special benefits do the members of the invisible church enjoy by Christ?
A. The members of the invisible church by Christ enjoy union and communion with him in grace and glory.
Q. 66. What is that union which the elect have with Christ?
A. The union which the elect have with Christ is the work of God’s grace, whereby they are spiritually and mystically, yet really and inseparably, joined to Christ as their head and husband; which is done in their effectual calling.
Evidence of union as a legal grounds for imputation
This doctrine of union with Christ is not controversial. What is not often brought out in Reformed teaching, to my knowledge, is the concept that our union with Christ is essential in our justification, that is, that imputation rests legally on union.
One of the most clear passages in the New Testament on this is Romans 8:1-17. Here Paul is summarizing his teaching of the Gospel in the first seven chapters. He boldly states “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Jesus Christ” (8:1). Notice that the message of no condemnation is given to those who are “in” Christ—united to him. Continuing, he explains how this has happened: God “condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us” (8:3-4, my emphasis). In other words, Paul is concerned that the legal declaration of God that we are righteous be fulfilled in us, so that it may be true, and not a lie, that we are righteous. As my Muslim friend pointed out, it cannot be otherwise if God is not a liar. Yet how is it that the law is fulfilled in us? By our own deeds? No, by Christ being in us. In Romans 8, Paul makes clear who has this salvation: those who are “not in the flesh but in the Spirit.” He states clearly: “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (8:9-11). Paul clearly gives an if-then relationship: if you have the Spirit of Christ in you, you will live, and if you do not have the Spirit of Christ in you, you will die. What is the work of the Spirit to save us? It is to give us “life because of righteousness”. This is a difficult phrase to interpret. Does it mean that because of God’s goodness and mercy, he gives us life? I argue that the “righteousness” in view here is not referring to God’s mercy, but rather to his justice. Paul is saying that the Spirit gives us life on the basis of justice, because God’s life is in us, and therefore the righteous requirement of the Law is fulfilled “in us.” The “life” which Paul has in view is not the physical life we will receive at the final resurrection, but the spiritual life of Christ in us immediately, by virtue of union with him.
The overarching question here is whether Paul is arguing that we have the Spirit as a consequence of not being condemned, or whether he is arguing that not being condemned is a consequence of being united to Christ through the Spirit. It seems clear to me that Paul is not arguing from justification to the indwelling of the Spirit; rather, he is arguing from the indwelling of the Spirit to life and justification, i.e., not being condemned. We are saved “if” we have the Spirit of Christ in us. The Spirit is essential to our lack of condemnation, not just because his presence is an evidence or a consequence of salvation, but because the Spirit of Christ in us gives life. The same message is given in John 6:35-63, especially 6:53-54 and 6:63—Jesus says that we must be united to him by the Spirit because this union gives us life. The logic of Jesus’s speech in John 6 is not that we first are saved, and then receive life as a separate blessing, but that our union with Christ through the Spirit is the means of salvation, not merely as a vehicle to give us faith, but a union which makes us really own the virtues of Christ. This picture of life in us because of Christ being in us, and Christ has life, is the paradigm of legitimate imputation.
The same point is made in the first letter of John. As discussed above, the Gospel of John contains numerous references to Christ being in us, or abiding in us, and this same language is continued in the 1 John. Throughout the letter, John interweaves several concepts: those who are in Christ turn away from sin, because Christ lives in them; the presence of Christ living in our through his Spirit should set our hearts at ease; the Spirit in us leads to blessing, protecting us from evil spirits, keeping us from denying Christ, and granting favor to our prayers. Clearly, one of John’s teachings is what in Reformed theology would be called ongoing sanctification: the Spirit lives in us, and because he is in us, he inevitably will produce real change in us of greater righteousness in our practice. But John’s main point is that our sense of assurance should ultimately come from our knowledge that the Spirit of Christ is in us (which is evidenced by love and good works). He says “we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world,” (1 John 4:17) and “And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:11-12). In other words, what belongs to the Son belongs to us, because he is in us. Because he has life in himself, so we also have that life. This life is not a reward for our righteousness imputed to us, but the source of it. Wright may say that righteousness is not a “gas which can be passed across the courtroom,” but then neither is life, normally. Wright is wrong because he assumes that the advocate and the defendant are unconnected, as we typically assume in our society. But we are united to our advocate, as one organic living being. We share the righteousness of the Son because we share the life of the Son. Our life is not a something distinct from the life of the Son, which is copied; it is his life actually being lived in us.
Returning to Paul’s letter to the Romans, in chapter 6 we have the famous passage in which Paul argues that the free grace of the Gospel does not lead us into wanton sin:
“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 6:1-11)
Many have taken this passage roughly as follows: because Christ has died for us, we ought to respond by being obedient. This is somewhat supported by Paul’s command, “Consider yourselves” to be dead to sin, and later verses with an emphasis on what we should do. But what Paul is primarily arguing here is that it is impossible for those in Christ to be slaves to sin. He argues this by virtue of our union with Christ: we have died with Christ, being buried with him (6:4) and being “united with him in a death like his” (6:5). This last phrase can be translated as “sympathetically generated,” or “co-planted,” in the likeness of his death. In other words, we have begun our life through union with him in an image-death.
Paul argues in the past tense, on what has already been accomplished: we are dead to sin, because we died with Christ; in yet another image of union, of slave and master, Paul says we are slaves of Christ, not slaves of sin (6:17, 22), and our heart has been changed so that we are obedient “from the heart” (6:17).
The “death” of Romans 6:4-5 is often taken as the act of baptism which is symbolic of Christ’s death and symbolic of our submission to him, even to the point of death. But Paul is not arguing that our baptism is the act which changes everything. He is arguing that our union with Christ changes everything. In 6:8 he says “we have died with Christ” and therefore we have life in us. Is our sacramental baptism that death? That, of course, would make our baptism into a type of works-salvation, which might not bother some Christian groups. But Paul’s argument makes no sense if baptism is all that is in view. In 6:6 he says, “Our old self was crucified with him”—clearly a reference to a spiritual event, not a physical one. Similarly, in Galatians 2:20, Paul says “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me,” in a passage very parallel to the passage in Romans 6, starting with the question, “If, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin?” (2:17) and with the same firm answer: “Certainly not!” Yet in the Galatians passage, the sacrament of baptism is nowhere in view or even mentioned. Rather, Paul argues again on the basis of our union with Christ.
The “baptism” in Romans 6:3-4 can be taken in one of two ways. Either Paul is saying that those who were baptized physically were also baptized spiritually, or he is using the word “baptism” in the general sense of “immersed,” without reference to the sacrament at all—we have been immersed into Christ, and immersed into his death. The latter interpretation is supported by uses of the word “baptism” in other places to refer to Christ’s death, e.g. Mark 10:38-39 and Luke 12:50, and by Jesus’s reference to baptism by the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5).
Going further backwards in Romans, Paul has a lengthy discussion of imputation in Romans 5:
“Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because wall sinned…But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for fall men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” (Romans 5:12-19)
Paul says that the act of Adam led to “condemnation for all” (5:16). This is the doctrine of original sin, which bothers many people. If each man’s sin is his own, then imputing Adam’s sin to us is an injustice. But if we are really united to Adam, then his sin can be imputed to us justly. This is a principle throughout Scripture, though it does bother people: God “visits the iniquity” of the fathers on their children (e.g. Exodus 20:5). The famous passage in Ezekiel 18, in which God says that the sins of the fathers will not be visited on the children, is presented as a new thing, a new grace (18:3), in contrast to the normal expectation that “the fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (18:2). Ezekiel 18:25 seems to anticipate that not accounting the fathers’ sins to the children will lead to an accusation of injustice: “Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’” God’s response is to say that this new state of affairs is accomplished justly by means of a “new heart and new spirit” (18:31). This parallels the new covenant discussed in Jeremiah 31:31-34, which is defined by God writing on the hearts of the people.
Imputing the sin of Adam (and our other physical parents) to us makes no sense to us if we have a low view of our union with our parents. In cultures where families are strongly bonded, however, it makes perfect sense. In the same way, the imputation of our sin to Christ and his righteousness to us makes sense if we believe he is truly united to us, and no sense if we think he is a stranger to us. Imputation of Christ’s deeds makes sense in the same way that imputation of Adam’s sin, and the sin of our parents, makes sense. Fundamentally, we are united to one family or the other, the family of Adam or the family of Christ. By virtue of our transfer out of the vine of Adam and into the vine of Christ, we have new life from the new root.
 N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, (Eerdmans, 1998), p. 98.
 J. Calvin and J. Sadoleto, A Reformation Debate, J.C. Olin, ed. (Baker, 2000).
 Some may object that in Romans 11:17-23, the image of ingrafting refers to Gentiles being grafted into the visible people of God. The way in which Gentiles are added, however, is not by a fiat legal act pronounced about their community, but by the work of the Spirit to unite them individually to Christ through faith (Acts 11:18, 15:17, 28:28, Galatians 3:8, Ephesians 3:6). The hallmark of the new community is the evidence of heart change, not birth into a physical community, whether Jew or Gentile (Matthew 7:16-23).
 Paul appears to coin new terms here to describe our union with Christ, which are hard to translate into English, but have the roughly literal meanings of “co-deeply generated” and “co-crucified”; he also does this in Ephesians 2:5-6, where he coins new words when he says we were “co-generated” with Christ and “co-resurrected” with Christ.
 Luke 11:38 indicates that the physical “immersion” need not be completely under water, unless one would argue that Jesus was expected to go fully under water in preparation for a meal at someone else’s home. Here the host expects Jesus to “baptize” himself before dinner. Nevertheless, the word “baptism” does carry the connation of “plunging into,” which can also be applied to plunging hands under water during washing. This, of course, is a subject of debate in regard to infant baptism.
 In addition to Romans 5, this concept is also taught in 1 Corinthians 15:22 (“as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive”).