What is the It which is Imputed?
Galatians 3:5-8, which quotes Genesis 15:6, tells us that Abraham believed God and it was imputed to him as righteousness. Everybody from Martin Luther to John Murray reads this as saying that faith alone is imputed as the righteousness.
Of course there are different explanations. Luther reminds us that to have faith is to have Christ indwelling, and tells us that God really is pleased with the faith God has given us, and this faith is really righteous in God’s sight. But Luther does not explain how this righteous faith (produced by God in the water of regeneration) satisfies the law of God . And since Luther taught that, if you were a sinner, Christ had died for you, then Luther’s message cannot be that the elect were saved by Christ’s death alone.
But John Murray not only taught that Christ died in some sense only for the elect, but also taught that faith alone for nine reasons could not be the righteousness imputed. I like his reasons, and you can look them up in his commentary on Romans. But still, at the end of the day, Murray claimed that every honest exegete would have to agree with him that Genesis 15 does teach that the faith alone is what God imputes.
To begin to understand Genesis 15:6, we need to know that “as righteousness” should be translated “unto righteousness”. (See Robert Haldane’s commentary, Banner of Truth). That’s important to see, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t explain the imputation. Whether we see imputation as the transfer of something, or if we see imputation as the declaration of something ( without a transfer, or after a transfer), what is the “it” which is being imputed?
No matter if we have gone to great lengths to say that it is not credited as righteousness but only unto righteousness, what is “it” and why is God imputing “it”? Liberals in the “new perspective” like N.T. Wright tells us the imputation is without a transfer, and that it only means declaring that certain folks are in the covenant. In this way of thinking, “it is imputed” simply means that God declares people just without talking about how and why they got that way.
I think “it” has an antecedent, but the antecedent is not faith alone. God imputes the righteousness revealed in the gospel unto the righteousness of a person justified by the gospel. In context, “faith” in Galatians 3:5-8 is defined in two ways: not by works of the law, and the gospel preached to Abraham.
God did establish a conditional covenant with Abraham. In Genesis 17, he warned that anybody not circumcised would be cut off from the covenant. But that conditional covenant with Abraham is not the gospel God preached to Abraham. God did not say to Abraham: if you believe, then I will bless you. God said, I will bless you without cause, not only so that you will believe but also so that in your offspring there will be one who will bring in the righteousness for the elect alone required by the law.
There is not a different gospel for us than there is for Abraham. There is not a different new covenant for us that there is not for Abraham . The “it” which is imputed by God to Abraham is the obedient bloody death of Christ Jesus for the elect alone. The righteousness of God obtained by Christ is imputed unto the elect alone.