In the cosmic court of divine justice, humanity stands condemned, a prisoner to its iniquitous nature. It is here that two theological doctrines, ‘imputed righteousness’ and ‘infused righteousness,’ attempt to answer the same question: how can a sinful man be justified before a holy God? Yet, these doctrines adopt strikingly different approaches, sparking centuries of discord within Christianity. Let it be stated unequivocally: the doctrine of imputed righteousness emerges as the biblically superior, more robust, and more grace-filled understanding of justification.
To grasp this assertion fully, it is imperative to first understand these doctrines in their proper contexts. Infused righteousness is the Roman Catholic theology of Justification, positing that God’s righteousness is poured or “infused” into a believer’s life. This infusion starts at baptism, when original sin is washed away, and continues throughout the believer’s life as they receive God’s grace through the sacraments. In this view, justification is a process, a gradual transformation of the individual into a more righteous being.
This seems noble on the surface, doesn’t it? Surely we should strive to become more righteous, more God-like in our actions and attitudes? But here’s the bottom line: the doctrine of infused righteousness subtly, yet dangerously, shifts the focus from God’s actions to ours, from divine grace to human effort. It points to a salvation that is not a free gift, but something to be earned and dissipates over time if not maintained with works of righteousness. It presents a God whose forgiveness is dependent on our level of righteousness.
Contrast this with imputed righteousness, the foundation of the Protestant theology of Justification, particularly as articulated by the Reformers. In this view, justification is an instantaneous legal, or forensic, act where God, the righteous Judge, declares the sinner to be righteous through faith in Jesus Christ. God’s perfect righteousness is credited or “imputed” to the believer, while the believer’s sin is imputed to Christ, who paid the penalty for it on the cross (2 Corinthians 5:21). This imputation occurs once and for all, and it is based entirely on the finished work of Christ, not on the believer’s spiritual progress or moral achievements.
See how this doctrine glorifies God—it is He who justifies the ungodly, who declares righteous those who have no righteousness of their own. For “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
But why does this matter? What implications does this doctrinal dichotomy hold for us? The answer lies in the very essence of the gospel, the very heart of the Christian faith.
When we accept the doctrine of infused righteousness, we subtly accept a works-based salvation. This breeds either pride or despair. Pride, if we believe we are succeeding in our efforts to become righteous; despair, if we recognize our continual failures, just like what happened to Martin Luther. And it obscures the glorious truth that our standing before God is secure, not because of our righteousness, but because of Christ’s righteousness credited to us.
On the contrary, the doctrine of imputed righteousness brings peace and assurance. It reminds us that we are accepted by God, not on the basis of our fluctuating spiritual performance, but on the basis of Christ’s perfect performance. It turns our eyes away from ourselves and towards Christ, encouraging us to rest in His finished work.
Listen, then, to the clear, ringing trumpet of Scripture and hear the apostle Paul’s exultant declaration: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). This is not the language of infusion, of gradual transformation, or of working to earn our righteousness. It is the language of freedom—of imputation, of instantaneous, complete, and irreversible justification. It is, as Jesus told Nicodemus, to be “born again.”
Dwell on the words of the apostle in Romans 4:5, “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” This is not a righteousness that we work for; it is a righteousness that is ‘counted’ or ‘credited’ to us through faith. This is the doctrine of imputed righteousness in all its glory.
The apostle Peter further affirms this truth: “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). The righteous one (Christ) suffered for the unrighteous (us), so that we might be brought to God. The righteousness that makes this possible is not our own, but Christ’s. This righteousness is not infused into us over time; it is imputed to us in a moment of faith.
Understand this: the doctrine of infused righteousness is not just another perspective; it is a dangerous distortion. It detracts from the finished work of Christ, dilutes the grace of God, and diminishes the assurance of believers. It distorts the gospel, transforming it from a message of divine accomplishment to a message of human achievement.
In this, there is much reason to rejoice, as the brilliant truth shines forth: God’s justification and salvation of the ungodly is a free gift as He attributes to us a righteousness we could never earn. This is an assurance in which to luxuriate, for our relationship with God does not teeter on the unpredictability of our spiritual performance, but stands firm on Christ’s unblemished obedience. It is in Christ’s finished work that we find respite, emboldened by the proclamation that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
In response, we can confidently, resolutely, and exuberantly uphold the truth: Our justification arises, not from righteousness gradually permeating our being, but from the righteousness of Christ instantly accounted to us. This constitutes the very heartbeat of the gospel and Christ alone, the Word made flesh, the very Logos Himself, is the bedrock upon which our assurance is built and the crowning display of God’s glory in the redemption of sinners.