The doctrine of imputed righteousness is a mean invention, false, and productive of falsehood. Say it is a figure, I answer it is not only a false figure but an embodiment of untruth; say it expresses a reality, and I say it teaches the worst of lies; say there is a shadow of truth in it, and I answer it may be so, but there is no truth touched in it that could not be taught infinitely better without it. It is the meagre misshapen offspring of the legalism of a poverty-stricken mechanical fancy, unlighted by a gleam of divine imagination. No one who knows his New Testament will dare to say that the figure is once used in it. I have dealt already with the source of it. They say first, God must punish the sinner, for justice requires it; then they say he does not punish the sinner, but punishes a perfectly righteous man instead, attributes his righteousness to the sinner, and so continues just. Was there ever such a confusion, such an inversion of right and wrong! Justice could not treat a righteous man as an unrighteous; neither, if justice required the punishment of sin, could justice let the sinner go unpunished. To lay the pain upon the righteous in the name of justice is simply monstrous. No wonder unbelief is rampant. Believe in Moloch if you will, but call him Moloch, not Justice. Be sure that the thing that God gives, the righteousness that is of God, is a real thing, and not a contemptible legalism. Pray God I have no righteousness imputed to me. Let me be regarded as the sinner I am; for nothing will serve my need but to be made a righteous man, one that will no more sin.
by Jess Lederman
In previous sermons, we've seen how George MacDonald rejected the doctrine of penal substitution, and how he argued that "[it] is the one terrible heresy of the church, that it has always been presenting something else than obedience as faith in Christ." Small wonder, then, that he passionately denounces the doctrine of imputed righteousness! If Christ was punished in our stead, and we were judged righteous in the sense of not guilty-- not sinful, therefore not to be punished--then His true righteousness, his sinlessness, is being imputed to us as a legal fiction. MacDonald's repetition of the word legalism calls to mind the Pharisees; indeed, I believe he is saying that the leaven of the Pharisees has corrupted the Gospel.
Now, to be fair, the theologian, who believes in the doctrine of imputed righteousness also takes sanctification quite seriously. But I think there's more to MacDonald's argument against the doctrine than order of priorities. In his novels, you will find no shortage of characters whose faith in Jesus has no real substance, who are not striving to obey the Lord; rather, they rest content in their salvation, which is based on His "finished work." Jesus' righteousness has been imputed to them, and they're saved from God's wrath, so they're not going to hell, plain and simple. Sure, they ought to try to obey Him ought of gratitude, but the fact is, when the Lord returns, they'll be transformed into His likeness in the "twinkling of an eye," so there's really no point in knocking themselves out trying to be perfect as our Father in Heaven; it's just not realistic to think we can be perfect in this life!
This sort of thinking is, to MacDonald, tantamount to a complete lack of faith in Christ. Salvation means being rescued from sin, rather than from future punishment in hell, and striving for obedience is the practical expression of faith--is faith itself. There is no clear distinction between salvation and sanctification; we are saved when we are one with God, somewhat akin to the Eastern Orthodox notion of theosis.
Some theologians go to great lengths to stress that nothing about salvation is our doing, and the doctrine of imputed righteousness ties into that neatly. Christ does all the work, and God simply looks at us, sees Jesus' sinlessness, which has been imputed to us as righteousness because of our faith in Him, and so we are "saved." But once we see faith as an active striving of our will to obey Jesus, we see that salvation starts with God, but must be realized by man.
Indeed, one might say, we must work out our salvation with fear and trembling--and there's not much room for imputed righteousness in that thought!