The Need for Perfect Law-Keeping, Part 3
This third (and final) post of this series will extend the look at Imputed Righteousness in Paul’s Epistles by focusing on two of the most popular Reformed prooftexts of the doctrine: Philippians 3:9 and 2 Corinthians 5:21.
Before addressing these texts, a brief look at the Biblical definition of “righteousness” is helpful.
According to Scripture, the term “righteousness” simply refers to doing good actions (e.g. Deut 24:13; 2 Sam 22:21; Ps 106:3; Mt 6:1; Acts 10:35; Eph 6:1; 1 Th 2:10; 1 Jn 3:7, 12) or having an upright quality about your character (e.g. Lev 19:5; Mt 1:19; Mt 5:20; Lk 1:6; 1 Tim 1:9; 1 Pt 3:14). Note that none of these texts referenced suggest perfect obedience, nor is such an ‘impossible demand’ ever imposed on fallen mankind. Having the proper understanding of what it means to be “righteous” explains how the Bible can say Abraham personally kept all of God’s commands (Gen 26:4-5), David personally kept all of God’s commands (1 Kings 15:5; 3:6; 9:4), Elizabeth and Zechariah each personally kept all of God’s commands (Lk 1:5-6), and Paul personally kept the law flawlessly (Phil 3:6) – despite the fact we all know they had moral failings in their lives. With this in mind, while it is true that Jesus never sinned and kept the commandments perfectly, this perfect obedience isn’t what “righteousness” refers to in reference to Jesus saving us. This is especially confirmed by the fact that when the Bible speaks of Christ’s work done on our behalf, the only aspects of Christ’s life that are highlighted (in the contexts of Justification) are His Incarnation, Suffering, and Resurrection.
In Philippians 3, Paul begins by explaining how he had all the qualities a “good Jew” should have. But he then makes an abrupt transition, explaining that none of this ultimately matters now that Jesus has come. In 3:9, Paul declares that he does not want “a righteousness of my own that comes from the law,” which is one of the most misunderstood statements in Scripture. Many Reformed would read this as Paul admitting he truly wasn’t good enough to live a perfectly holy life, and so he had to turn to Jesus to live that perfectly holy life and “impute” this perfect obedience to Paul. But according to 3:6, Paul did in fact have this righteousness of the [Mosaic] law, including blessed lineage, circumcision, zeal, and devotion (cf Acts 22:3). So the point couldn’t be that Paul wasn’t good enough or was deluded in thinking he kept the law perfectly when he really had not. Rather, the issue was that the righteousness which comes from God was a different righteousness from which the Mosaic Law could give. (The Mosaic Law only promised temporal blessings for keeping it, such as long life, children, and wealth, Deut 28, so even keeping the “works of the law” perfectly could not grant you salvation.) In fact, Paul emphasizes this dichotomy in a bold statement in Galatians 2:21, “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose!” Notice that Christ’s death is contrasted with keeping the law; it’s an either/or proposition, not a both/and. It’s hard to see how Christ keeping the law in our place (as a specific condition to our being declared perfect law-keepers before God) can be squared with this verse.
Going back to Philippians 3:9, Paul immediately explains to us what this “righteousness from God” that he desires consists of: “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” What Paul is describing here is not about being found before God as having been perfectly obedient, but rather about being reconciled back to God, the restoring of a broken communion caused by sin in this world. Paul wants to know the “power of his resurrection” and “share in his sufferings,” such that being conformed to His death, Paul might also be conformed to His resurrection. There is nothing here or in the context regarding Christ keeping the law in Paul’s place, but there is a strong emphasis on a transformed life by the inner working power of God (a feat beyond man’s natural human abilities, not by works, but grace).
Now onto 2 Corinthians 5:21.
The standard Reformed interpretation of 2 Corinthians 5:21 is that of a “double imputation”: Our sins are imputed to Christ, while Christ’s perfect obedience (i.e. Christ’s righteousness) is imputed to us; He “became sin” so that we might “become righteous”. Though this interpretation is understandable, it is ultimately untenable. Here are some reasons why: First, Paul was well aware of the term “impute,” using it many times in his writings, but Paul didn’t use the term here. That’s noteworthy, because if Paul was speaking of imputation, you’d think he would use the term at this important verse. Second, the Greek terms “made [sin]” and “become [the righteousness of God]” are not the same Greek words, so there’s no reason to assume a parallelism here (i.e. two imputations). Rather, Paul is simply stating a cause-and-effect scenario: Jesus did X “so that” Y would take place.  Third, the context is plainly speaking of reconciliation being God’s goal here, with the forgiveness of sins as the main characteristic. Verses 5:18-20 sets this up by Paul explaining he is an ambassador of Christ, calling us to be “reconciled to God.” The concept of reconciliation is that of restoring a broken friendship (cf 1 Cor 7:10-11). The implication is that we are restored to communion with God as Adam was originally in communion, otherwise there’s no reference point of a relationship break requiring reconciliation. Recognizing this ‘big picture’ goes directly against the idea of an “imputation of Christ’s Righteousness” theme, because reconciling is about restoring what was lost, not supplying something new that was never possessed.
Lastly, verse 5:19 gives another important detail, for it tells us that this reconciliation was done by “not imputing their sins,” which refers to forgiving sin, since Romans 4:7-8 use ‘not impute sin’ in that very manner. Thus, using context as a guide, it’s reasonable to conclude that “becoming the righteousness of God” must refer to being reconciled to God and having sins forgiven through the Sacrifice of Christ. Otherwise, “becoming the righteousness of God” refers to something not spoken of within the context, which makes it automatically an unlikely interpretation.
In conclusion, after having examined key portions of Paul’s writings in this series, it can definitely be said that the doctrine of the Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness doesn’t really fit into the Gospel message. But the bigger lesson to take away from this series is that this “Justification Debate” is much more than just quoting texts of Scripture, much more than ‘faith versus works’, and much more than ‘James versus Paul’, but rather all about understanding each side is reading the same texts with different interpretive glasses on. Knowing where each side is coming from will help evaluate whether a given theological claim has merit or not while also avoiding misrepresentation. Obviously since this is a Catholic apologetics series, the conclusions favor the Catholic position, but hopefully the reader will see this case against Imputation is based on substantive arguments and honest exegesis, not mere assertions or emotional appeals.
 A brief note on Christ’s being “made sin”. While it could be argued that Christ being “made sin” refers specifically to Christ being “made a sin offering” (cf Hebrews 10:6 uses the Greek term “sin” to mean “sin offering”), the Church Fathers make a more compelling case that this refers to the Incarnation, with their favorite Scripture-interprets-Scripture text being Romans 8:3, which speaks of God making the Son to be sin by “sending Him in the likeness of sinful flesh”. And this fits with the overall theme that Christ came to restore and heal us, not to live a life of perfect obedience in our place. So there’s no need to read “made sin” as referring to ‘sin imputed to Christ’, especially since the Bible never speaks of imputing sin to another, and especially not to a pure sacrifice.