Perhaps you have heard the word justification defined this way: justification is God's treating me just as if I had never sinned. But is this true? Does justification merely equal forgiveness of sins--as amazing as that is--or is there something more? Do we need an external righteousness that is not our own?
These are questions of eternal significance. In Jesus' Blood and Righteousness: Paul's Theology of Imputation, Brian Vickers argues that the question of whether Scripture teaches the imputation of Christ's righteousness to the believer is not a mere academic debate but a matter that concerns the heart of the gospel and salvation (p. 15). Vickers states his argument on page 18: "The contention of this book is that the imputation of Christ's righteousness is a legitimate and necessary synthesis of Paul's teaching." He has produced a persuasive and rewarding book defending this Scriptural doctrine.
Vickers desires to avoid the twin extremes of seeing too much in a particular text by importing ideas into it (eisegesis) and seeing too little in the text by failing to see the big picture (ignoring the interpretation of Scripture by Scripture). As a corollary goal, he hopes to show that "Protestant theology, particularly the Reformed tradition, has not been dominated only by systematicians who cared little for exegesis" (p. 18, footnote 4).
Vickers states that the book does not thoroughly examine all of the concepts related to imputation. Topics such as righteousness and union with Christ are not given an exhaustive treatment but are dealt with in light of their implications for imputation. He also informs readers that the book overlooks much important historical material to focus on the matters of exegesis related to imputation. Finally, this book does not contain a section devoted to a study of the New Perspective on Paul, although Vickers gives extensive bibliographical listings and interacts with proponents of New Perspective views in various sections as these ideas relate to imputation.
To give context and frame to the discussion, chapter one sketches the history of the doctrine of imputation, beginning with the Reformation and continuing to the present. The chapters that follow are an examination of key texts relevant to imputation and contain rigorous exegesis, technical language, and copious footnotes. Vickers concludes with a synthesis of Paul's teaching and a final chapter on the importance of the doctrine of imputation. Each chapter closes with a helpful summary.
Vickers demonstrates that the doctrine of imputation was not fully developed by the Reformers but was refined by their followers in writings and church creeds. He argues that imputation, though often associated with covenant theology, is not restricted to a covenantal framework (p. 34, footnote 36). He shows that modern theologians can be found across the spectrum, including those who embrace traditional views and those who deny imputation but finds that the traditional view is a neglected doctrine in modern times (p. 44). Vickers notes that "the inductive and descriptive nature of biblical theology" can provide "a guard against unfounded deductions" from particular texts, but it can also pose a danger by preventing any kind of synthesis of various texts (p. 69). He argues for the legitimacy of systematic theology, particularly in regard to imputation.
Chapter two focuses on Paul's quotation of Genesis 15:6: "Abraham believed in God and it was reckoned to him for righteousness" (Rom. 4:3, English Standard Version). Vickers shows that Paul's understanding of Abraham is at odds with Jewish tradition that sees Abraham's works as the ground of his justification. By studying the context of Romans, Vickers concludes that Abraham is ungodly, and he receives imputed righteousness through faith apart from works. Vickers sums up his conclusion on imputation in Romans 4:
Romans 4:1-8 is about the appropriation of righteousness, and that righteousness, as a status declared by God, is most clearly linked in this text with the non-imputation of sin, i.e., forgiveness. This status is brought about by the reckoning of faith as righteousness. Faith is not itself the righteousness, but as is made clear in the context, faith is the instrument that unites the believer to the object of faith. The object is thus the source of the righteousness that is reckoned to the believer (p. 111).
Chapter three discusses Romans 5:19 ("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," ESV), as well as its immediate context of 5:12-21 and other sections of Romans. Adam and Christ, as representatives of the human race, determine by their actions the status of those they represent. Vickers concludes that this passage presents the basis for the counting of the believer as righteous in Romans 4. He writes:
The righteous status, made possible by Christ's obedience, is applied to the believer when he puts his faith in God. Christ's obedience "counts" for the status that is secured at the cross, and appropriated by faith, through which comes the declaration of the actual status, "righteous" (p. 157).
Second Corinthians 5:21 ("For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God," ESV) is the focus of chapter four. Vickers argues that Paul draws heavily on the "Servant Songs" in Isaiah (such as chapter 53), which prophesy of Christ's sufferings while placing them in a sacrificial context. This shapes the meaning of the phrase "made sin." Furthermore, he says:
From first to last this is an act of God, who made Christ a sacrifice for sin by causing the sins of others to be counted to him. The twin statements, "a new creation" and "become the righteousness of God," both centered in the phrase "in Christ" and dependent on his representative death, indicate that just as sin was reckoned to Christ, so too is Christ's sacrificial death counted for righteousness to those "in him." God counts them as righteous because they have Christ's righteousness, they have Christ himself, and he has them (p. 190).
In chapter five, Vickers offers a synthesis of imputation taken from the texts examined in chapters two, three, and four. His position is strengthened by looking at the relation of other texts to imputation: 1 Corinthians 1:30, Philippians 3:9, and Romans 9:30-10:4. He finds that Paul teaches that Christ's righteousness is imputed to believers, His obedience having counted for those united to Him by faith. God has acted "through Christ on behalf of sinners, who though undeserving are forgiven and declared righteous as a free gift from God on the basis of Christ's substitutionary death" (p. 232).
Vickers concludes that the imputation of Christ's righteousness is a doctrine derived from a biblical-theological study of Paul's writings and, therefore, is the teaching of the Scriptures.
Jesus' Blood and Righteousness will challenge many readers, particularly those not acquainted with Hebrew and Greek words and grammar. The book is highly technical in some places, and the footnotes may become wearisome. However, Vickers has done his homework. He has produced an in-depth biblical-theological study that is well worth the effort to mine its gold. Educated readers, particularly pastors and seminarians, should obtain this book and study it.
Jesus' Blood and Righteousness effectively bridges the unnecessary gap many try to create between biblical and systematic theology, revealing the need for both and the legitimacy of a synthesis of the various pieces of the puzzle, based on proper exegesis. Vickers admits that there is no single text that explicitly states that Christ's righteousness is imputed to the believer, but, with thorough exegesis, consideration of objections, and interaction with other scholars, he convincingly demonstrates that the doctrine of imputation is nonetheless a scriptural teaching that Christians cannot afford to discard.
In the end, Vickers accomplishes his goal to show the legitimacy of imputation as a synthesis of Paul's teaching, demonstrating that good systematic theology is based on proper exegesis. The book has reinforced for me the need to study the Bible carefully and to interpret Scripture with Scripture, so I neither read too much into a text nor miss the forest for the trees. It has also spurred renewed gratitude to God for the gift of Christ's righteousness imputed to us through faith that unites us to Him. What grace that God counts Christ's obedience as ours! What good news we have to share! Truly, as Edward Mote penned, our "hope is built on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness."