The Timing of Imputation: Abraham Justified Before Christ Died

Romans 4:17 as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.

Many Reformed theologians, even though deny that forensic imputation is a “legal fiction”, nevertheless worry about the reality of “mere” justification by Christ’s righteousness “alone”. They teach—- don’t worry about that, because in the same “union”, God also “sanctifies” and that takes care of the reality problem.

That view of things tends to change the definitions of imputation, of righteousness, and of faith. It locates the “l reality” in ideas like “infusion” and “impartation”.

It misses the legal reality of the “as though” in Romans 4:17. Yes, Abraham did not die at the cross. Christ died for Abraham, as Abraham’s substitute, so that Abraham would not die the second death but be raised to life on Resurrection Day. And yet the legal reality is that Abraham did die at the cross, and that by imputation, so that Abraham was legally “constituted” as righteous many years BEFORE Christ died.

Let me quote from John Murray’s commentary on the phrase from Romans 4:17 which says “who calls the things that are not, as though they were”.

“It has been regarded as referring to the creative activity of God by which he calls into being things which had no existence prior to his fiat…But Paul does NOT say ‘who calls into being things that are not’ but “calls the things that are not as being’… It is gratuitous to assume that the ‘things which are not’ are the things possible. Things possible cannot be regarded even by God as being.The ‘things which are not’ refer to the things determined by God to come to pass but which have not yet been been fulfilled.”

Abraham was justified by a righteousness which had not yet been brought in by Christ. But that does not mean that Abraham’s justification is a “legal fiction”. It means that God in sovereignty declared the elect individual Abraham righteous before Christ actually became incarnate in history to bring in that righteousness.

God’s righteousness is not only about God’s justice. God’s righteousness is always about God’s sovereignty also. And when God chooses to justify Abraham on the basis of an atonement that has not yet happened, then that is both just and “real”. It’s not fake and it’s not arbitrary.

Abraham received by imputation the reconciliation before the reconciliation was even made. The elect who are now being justified are receiving the reconciliation long after the reconciliation was made, but that does not mean that God is being arbitrary or only sovereign.

God is just in God’s timing. It is not unjust for God to be sovereign in God’s imputing. Even though future sins have already been imputed to Christ, some of the elect have not yet been justified and therefore have not yet been “placed into His death”.

Romans 4:23-24 “Righteousness” was counted to him was not written for Abraham’s sake alone but for ours also. “Righteousness” will be counted to us who believe in Him who raised from the dead our Lord.

Even when our justification has not yet happened, Christ was raised because of our justification. Romans 16:7 “Greet Adronicus and Junia…They are well known to the Apostles and they in Christ before me.”

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2 Comments on “The Timing of Imputation: Abraham Justified Before Christ Died”

  1. markmcculley Says:

    Roger Olson, Arminian—I have heard many Calvinists say that when they are asked when they were saved they say “The moment Christ died on the cross.” That is not true Calvinism. According to Calvinism, Christ’s death secured their salvation; it did not then save them. (John Piper is very careful to use that language but many of his followers miss the distinction and go on saying they were saved when Christ died on the cross.)
    Why is this important? Well, for one thing, it shows why it is wrong (inconsistent) for a Calvinist to pray for someone to be included among the elect but (possibly) not wrong (inconsistent) for them to pray for someone to be saved. Salvation is conditional. A prayer for someone’s salvation can be a “foreordained means to a foreordained end.” God foreordains that someone will pray for an elect person’s salvation and that prayer becomes an instrumental cause (not efficient cause) of God sending his effectual call through his Word into that person’s life resulting in faith and justification.
    But election is something entirely different. Calvin, anyway (and I would argue all true Calvinist theologians), described election in such a way that no prayer could possibly effect it even instrumentally. It is an eternal decree of God “within himself” not dependent on anything outside himself about who will be saved.
    Many Calvinists came here and posted comments claiming that there is no reason why a Calvinist could not pray for someone to be elect. Many of them equated “election” with “conversion” or “salvation.” That’s false to true Calvinism.
    Of course, if all they mean is that any person can express a wish to God, that’s true. But I assume the Calvinist pastor who said he prays for God to include his son among the elect did not mean that. He means that he hopes his prayer will somehow effect or contribute to God’s decision to elect his son. If he did not mean that, then he was simply confessing that his prayer is wishful thinking only and not true petition.
    My advice to Calvinists all: “Drink deeply at the wells of Calvinism or drink not at all.”


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