Counted Righteous in Christ
By John Piper
Reviewed by Dr. Larry Pettegrew
15.1 (Spring 2004) : 126-128
There is much to like about this book. The author, Dr. John Piper, is the well-known pastor of the Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. Many of his previous books have dealt one way or another with the doctrine of God. This book takes up the doctrine of salvation, in particular the doctrine of justification by faith. Even more specifically, the book deals with the imputation of divine righteousness to the Christian’s account in God’s act of justification.
Piper presents somewhat of a testimony in the first chapter explaining why a busy pastor such as he is would want to get involved in a theological controversy. In one of his quotable statements, Piper declares,
I think we have enough churches being planted by means of music, drama, creative scheduling, sprightly narrative, and marketing savvy. And there are too few that are God-centered, truth-treasuring, Bible-saturated, Christ-exalting, cross-focused, Spiritdependent, prayer-soaked, soul-winning, justice-pursuing congregations with a wartime mindset ready to lay down their lives for the salvation of the nations and the neighborhoods (33).
His point in the chapter is that doctrine, particularly the doctrine of justification by faith, impacts every area of a godly church.
In the second chapter, Piper explains the theological issue. Some theologians are proposing that Christians should abandon the doctrine of the imputation of the righteousness of God in justification. At salvation, the sinner is pardoned, and his sins are imputed to Christ. But, according to these theologians, nothing in Scripture teaches that there is any imputation of divine righteousness in the act of justification.
Piper graciously, but firmly, focuses his argument against the writings of Robert Gundry, scholar-in-residence at Westmont College, mainly because Gundry seems to be “one of the most courageous and straightforward and explicit and clearheaded” among those challenging the doctrine of the imputation of righteousness in justification. Gundry also believes that faith, instead of being the means of receiving the imputed righteousness of Christ, is itself the Christian’s righteousness “by God’s decision to impute it to be so” (48).
Piper devotes chapter three to an exegetical defense of the Reformation teaching that “in the New Testament justification does involve a positive imputation of divine righteousness to believers, . . . and this righteousness does not ‘consist of faith,’ but is received by faith . . .” (53). This chapter is over one-half the length of the book, and demonstrates clarity of thought and exegetical excellence, especially in the exposition of key sections in the book of Romans where Piper has been preaching recently. Overall, Piper presents a brilliant defense of imputation of divine righteousness.
Only one exegetical thread is not tied tightly. Piper takes a few pages to defend the idea that the righteousness imputed at the moment of salvation is Christ’s life of perfect “active obedience” to the Father. Thus, according to Piper’s view, Christ’s death is not enough. The death merely pays the penalty for sin, while the merit earned by His life of obedience gains the right to eternal life for the believer.
Though this reviewer certainly affirms the truth and importance of Christ’s perfect obedience, the doctrine of imputed active obedience seems questionable biblically and theologically. In the first place, the Scriptural support is not strong. Up to this point in his book, Piper’s exegesis is nearly impeccable, clarifying Scripture directly, point by point. In the section on the imputed active obedience of Christ, however, Piper relies considerably more on what he thinks Scripture implies. This is not all wrong, of course, because correct theology sometimes is based on inferences and implications. But the Scriptures that Piper uses to defend active obedience are certainly liable to more than one interpretation. He even admits, quoting Charles Hodge, that “Paul never expressly states that the righteousness of Christ is reckoned to believers” (81, #26). Scripture instead consistently teaches that it is the righteousness of God that is imputed to the believer’s account (2 Cor 5:21; Rom 3:21-22) through union with Christ. The act of obedience by which many were made righteous is Christ’s death on the cross (Rom 5:19).
Second, the doctrine of the imputed active obedience of Christ is questionable theologically in that it is so regularly associated with covenant theology. It is almost always connected to the covenant of works. Adam failed in the covenant of works, goes the argument, so Christ had to recapitulate Adam’s work (for example, see A. A. Hodge, The Atonement [Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board, 1867] 254ff.).
Of course, it is true that Christ lived a perfectly righteous life, and His perfect righteousness is not disconnected from the atonement. He qualified Himself as the God-man to die the substitutionary death on the cross by living a life without sin. “God made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf . . .” (2 Cor 5:21). Also, unless Christ had perfectly fulfilled the old covenant, He would not have been qualified to be the mediator of the new covenant (Rom 10:4; Heb 9:13-14) and the believer’s high priest (Heb 5:9-10). By being in union with Christ (a doctrine that Piper rightfully emphasizes), we receive divine righteousness.
Still, the discussion on the imputed active obedience of Christ is only a small part of the book, and many readers will agree with Piper’s understanding. Overall, the book is highly recommended.