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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4 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.”

  2. markmcculley Says:

    Scott Price–Some, even in sovereign grace, Calvinistic, or Reformed circles say that Christ was offered and slain from the foundation of the world. They take their proof text from Revelation 13:8, which says “And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” Does this text refer to what had already actually taken place or does it refer to the purpose of God? Acts 2:23 sheds some light on this when it says, “Him (Christ), being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain:” Also, in Acts 4:27-28 it reads, “For of a truth against thy holy child Jesus, whom thou hast anointed, both Herod, and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel, were gathered together, for to do whatsoever thy hand and thy counsel determined before to be done.” These verses show the sovereignty and power of God in the providence and predestination of all things, especially the most important event in history, the glorious sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ.
    In the decree of Almighty God, Christ was set forth in the purpose of God to be slain and offered as a one time only sacrifice. Galatians 4:4-5 says it this way, “But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.” It was in the fullness of time, in God’s own time, most importantly the one and only time.
    The Bible in the book of Hebrews describes what it would do to offer Christ on the cross more than once: “seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame” Hebrews 6:6b. It was cast actual shame on Him. Why? Because He accomplished an effectual redemption that cannot be improved upon or added to. This also is why the evil doctrine of Universal Atonement is so blasphemous. It shows that Christ did not or could complete the work of salvation and needs some additional condition fulfilled on our part to make it work.
    Praise God for His wisdom! He can justify the elect throughout history at various points of time, some before Christ even established and brought in an everlasting righteousness and others after it was actually established, based on the one and final sacrifice of Christ for His people. The Father gives each one individually this perfect righteousness by imputing it to their account, which results in their justification before God.

  3. markmcculley Says:

    Tianqi Wu–Mr. Cooper, I read your article on atonement

    Argument: If I concede the following statement,

    P: “A man can be under the wrath and condemnation of God though Christ has died for all sins of that man including unbelief.”

    then I cannot object to the following statement,

    Q: “A man can be FOREVER under the wrath and condemnation of God though Christ has died for all sins of that man including unbelief.”

    This Argument fails to recognize the real point of “definite atonement”. The point of “definite atonement” is that Christ’s death for sinners MUST RESULT in their justification. It does not say anything about the TIMING of these two events.

    God is bound by justice to justify all for whom Christ died, but He can do this at the time He chose. Clearly, He didn’t have to do it immediately after Christ died, because He justified many sinners (e.g. Abraham, David) way before Christ died for their sins!

    So the TIMING is a red herring. The Calvinist’s real point is that Christ’s death for sinners MUST RESULT in their justification, that God is bound by justice to justify all for whom Christ died [at some point in time].

    Let me give a further reason why TIMING is not the issue. Let’s now look at the atonement itself.

    Consider all of the sins Christ died for. Were they in existence yet, when Jesus went to the cross? Some were, some were not! Jesus died for Paul’s sin of persecuting Christians, a sin that happened after Jesus was raised from the dead.

    How can Jesus die for a sin before it had occurred?

    If you think in this way, you will no longer ask me why God “waits” to justify sinners. No, the atonement itself is in a sense “at the end of the time”, where all the sins of all time, of God’s people, had been accumulated on Christ. The cross, though happened two thousand years ago, encompasses the span of all human history.

    This turns the table around. Instead of seeing God “waiting” to justify people, we see that God justifies sinners of their whole life BEFORE they have lived their whole life.

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