Perhaps you’ve seen the video titled “Good-o-Meter.” It was created to combat the idea that our good works “earn” us a place in heaven. I’ve linked to it to save you my written description, but notice particularly what happens starting around 2:15. Jesus takes the place of the man in line, and His being “good enough” gets the other person into heaven.
This is essentially the idea of “imputed righteousness.” That when Jesus died on the cross, not only did Jesus bear our sins in His body (1 Pet 2.24 and discussed in our previous post), but His own righteousness was superimposed on us (or rather, those who look on Jesus in faith). Thus, when God looks on us, He does not see our sins, but Christ’s righteousness. This is a common doctrinal belief in Protestant circles (and itself is a variation of sorts on the Catholic idea of “infused” righteousness), but is it Scriptural?
Before I get into that, why talk about imputed righteousness on a blog about hymns? While not a new hymn (in terms of the original text), one that has seen some popularity of late is “Before the Throne of God Above.” It was originally written by Charitie Lees Bancroft in the 1800s, but was slightly altered and given a new tune by Vikki Cook in the 1990s. Verse four of the original text (the second half of the second verse when using Cook’s tune) reads as follows:
Because the sinless Savior died,
My sinful soul is counted free;
For God, the Just, is satisfied
To look on Him, and pardon me.
This last line says essentially the same thing that the aforementioned video says: that God, in judgment, looks on Jesus’ sinlessness and pardons our sinfulness. But again, is this correct?
The Argument for Imputed Righteousness
The idea behind imputed righteousness starts in Romans 3.10: “There is no one righteous; no, not one.” That is, man, of his own, is unrighteous. As it is pointed out later in the chapter, Jesus’ sacrifice was a demonstration of righteousness, and He is the just and the justifier of all who have faith. With this having been said, it is further argued that when “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Rom 4.3, NASB), because man is not righteous, that righteousness had to come from an external source.
Thus, the situation we have is that Jesus’ righteousness replaces or overlays our own unrighteousness.
Things to Consider
That all sounds good, but such a picture really doesn’t fit contextually with some other things about our salvation.
One of the strongest parallels in Scripture is between Jesus’ death on the cross and the various animal sacrifices of the law of Moses. When we think about those sacrifices, were any of them ever said to impute righteousness to us? That is, was the unblemished quality of those sacrifices ever transferred to us? No.
Rather, the language used is that of cleansing and removal. In pointing out the inadequacy of animal sacrifices, the writer of Hebrews said that the animal sacrifices could not “make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, because the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have had consciousness of sins?” (Heb 10.1b–2, NASB). Further, he said, “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” We’re not talking about laying something on top of our sins to hide them from view; we’re talking about removing them altogether. When we clean something, we don’t just cover it with something else that is already clean (that’s what children do to make you think they’ve cleaned something); we remove the offending contaminant.
Thus it is with our sins. Jesus’ sacrifice is not a coat of paint that God has spread over our crayon-scribbled, water-stained walls to make us look better. Jesus’ sacrifice is the solvent that takes away those things. The book of Revelation describes this as robes being washed in the blood of the Lamb (Rev 7.14).
Another issue is that such language removes any possibility of us “falling from grace.” If we have accepted Jesus, and when God looks on us what He sees is Jesus’ righteousness, then no matter what we do, that’s all God will ever see. There are problems with this, since even in the text in Hebrews we’ve been looking at, our sins after the sacrifice has been made and credited to us create a problem. In Hebrews 10.26–27, the writer said, “For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consumer the adversaries.” The idea of stumbling in this manner was mentioned by Paul in Galatians 5 and Peter in 2 Peter 2.
Can We Sing It?
Should we sing this verse? One recent hymnal has omitted this verse, but I know it has been included in some congregational supplements. I have no small degree of trepidation about this verse. Yes, as with many such lyrics, there is a way to read this verse that does not present this doctrinal issue. I can talk about God pardoning me and forgiving my sin because of Him looking on Jesus’ sacrifice. But that’s likely not what was intended—at least, not fully—by the writer. The contrast between the sinless Savior and my sinful soul and the point about my soul being “counted” free strongly points toward imputed righteousness as the original intent.
And once again, what would a visitor think we meant by this verse? Most of any kind of Protestant background would think we were talking about imputed righteousness. Since this language is not verbatim biblical phrasing (where we can go to the passage and explain it in context), I think we are best served leaving it out.