Today we wrap up our guest bloggers with this piece from The Revd John Zahl. John is currently serving on the staff and The Church of the Holy Cross on Sullivans Island. What follows is not an article, rather, it is a theological paper addressing a fascinating topic. I thought it would be a good way to end this month of guest blogging. Enjoy:
“What are the implications of the classic Reformational distinction between imputation and infusion for a theology of spiritual formation?”
The distinction between imputation and infusion was (re)introduced to Christendom during the Reformation, and it was because of disagreement over the matter that the Roman Church, in wake of the Council of Trent, officially parted ways with the Protestant and Reformed denominations. At the time, the primary area of theological discord centered on “the first formal cause of justification”, with the Roman Church claiming it to be “infusion/impartation”, while the Reformational Camp staunchly insisted that justification is born of “imputation”. Whether or not these disagreements have subsequently been alleviated through ecumenical dialogue does not affect the ideological distinction itself, and this essay will explore some of the implications that these ideas of imputation and infusion bring to bare on any consideration of Christian Spirituality.
Calvin remarked that imputation was “the principle hinge of all religion.” Along these same lines, it was Martin Luther who brought the issue to the foreground of 16th Century theological debate, insisting that the importance of the imputation as contrasted with infusion, was paramount and inextricably linked to a proper Christian understanding of the Gospel. In Luther’s famous introduction to his commentary on Galatians, he offers the following statement, which I quote at some length because of its relevance to both introducing and thinking through the implications of the distinction upon spiritual thought:
“But this most excellent righteousness, or faith, I mean, (which God through Christ, without works, imputeth unto us,) is neither political nor ceremonial, nor the righteousness of God’s law, nor consisteth in works, but is clean contrary: that is to say, a mere passive righteousness, as the others above are active. For this we work nothing, we render nothing unto God, but only we receive and suffer another to work in us, that is to say, God. Therefore it seemeth good unto me to call this righteousness of faith, or Christian righteousness, the passive righteousness…This is a righteousness hidden in mystery, which the world doth not know, yea, Christians themselves do not thoroughly understand it, and can hardly take hold of it in their temptations. Therefore it must be diligently taught and continually practiced. And whoso doth not understand or apprehend this righteousness, in afflictions and terrors of conscience, must needs be overthrown. For there is no comfort of conscience so firm and so sure, as this passive righteousness is…Wherefore the afflicted and troubled conscience hath no remedy against desperation and eternal death, unless it take hold of…this ‘passive faith’…which, if it can apprehend, then may it be at quiet, and boldly say; I seek not this active or working righteousness” (pp. 131-132).
The quote is helpful for many reasons. Most notably, it both summarizes and introduces the themes of this essay by illuminating many different aspects of the teaching and its implications for Christian thought. It also provides readers with an opportunity to read the material as it was expressed in its original Reformational context, taken directly from the mouth of its most famous advocate.
Defining the Terms (Imputation and Infusion)
The quote discusses two distinct types of righteousness: Passive and Active. This is worth noting because, while the Protestant tradition usually appeals to the terms “imputation” and “infusion”, it is obvious that Luther often used other terminology to define the categories with which we are dealing. For Luther, the notion of a passivity and imputation are identical, both referring to the means and manner by which one stands in righteousness (i.e., confidence in one’s own standing before God). Likewise the term “active” when applied to righteousness is synonymous in content with that of “infusion” and “impartation”.
To define the terms more clearly, righteousness that is achieved through an active means must be internally generated through the volition of the subject. It is reflective of an ontological state, thereby meaning that, for a Christian to stand in active confidence before his God, he must be intrinsically right in his nature and on the grounds that he has made himself into the thing that is required of him.
While the idea sounds somewhat abstract, it is actually quite commonplace. For example, for a runner to qualify for the Olympics, that runner must be able to run at a certain speed for a certain amount of time. If he/she is able to run fast enough, then that runner will be of Olympic caliber and able to compete in the Olympic games. This means that each Olympic athlete is able to compete in the Olympic games on account of their own internal attributes, because they are able to compete at such and such a level. Before they were so accomplished, they were not able to make the Olympic grade, etc. But for the runner who needs to be able to compete, infused grace would imply that God gives the runner the needed ability to meet the required credentials by enabling them to run fast enough. Thus, their righteousness, which in this case means their qualifying credentials, was of an active nature and based on the extent to which, what was not once there, was infused into the natural state of the person concerned, either by growth or perhaps by the product of training, or a combination of the two, all of which, from the perspective of infusion, represents the presence of God’s grace in Christ as it is imparted into their nature. Over time, the runner becomes that which he or she was not initially (i.e., when they were born, or after they cease to qualify due to age and/or injuries) by the grace of God through a process of God changing them into the thing He requires them to be. Consequently ideas of active righteousness and infusion are processive in their nature. With regards to this mode of thought, Luther comments: “I seek not this active or working righteousness.” For him, such an approach to understanding the Christian’s standing before God, cannot hold water.
In contrast, we come to the idea of passive or imputed righteousness. Not unlike active righteousness, this approach has to do with the way that a person is regarded by the one who is the judge. To continue with the Olympic analogy, an Olympic runner is not Olympic material until the Olympic committee agrees that the runner is indeed fast enough to run in their competition. Imagine though that the committee was to allow a complete novice to compete in their games, even if that person was not a very fast runner at all. In theory, if the Olympic committee were to approve an extremely obese, non-athletic person for competition, then that person would be allowed to run (however pathetically) alongside of the world’s top athletes. The point is that, where the committee gives approval, approval is had, and that approval may or may not have to do with the intrinsic qualities of the competitors, but, rather, with the whimsy of the judges. Imputation concerns itself with the idea that, in Christianity, God regards unqualified contestants to compete despite their own lackings. God imputes righteousness to those who are, in effect, not righteous; He reckons upon them a status that they do not intrinsically possess, meaning that their righteousness is “passive” and not based upon their own merits.
In traditional theological terms, the Christian’s right standing before God (in other words, his/her righteousness) is based upon the righteousness of Christ, which is understood to be perfect and Godly in every possibly required, righteous sense. The person who believes in Christ’s righteousness thereby possesses that righteousness for themselves. This occurs in one of two ways, either via an internal or an external means. If it occurs through internal means then the Christian becomes Godly. Their ontology, to the extent that it conceivably was unrighteous, now becomes righteous to the extent that it needs to be in order to meet God’s approval.
With regard to righteousness, imputation frameworks suggest that a person is righteous on the grounds of the one who bestows the status, and not on the grounds of anything they possess. Thus the Christian stands before God in right relationship because God regards them as being righteous on the grounds that Christ’s righteousness accomplished for those that believe it, an alteration in God’s regard of them. God reckons those who believe in Christ to be righteous, though they be not righteous intrinsically.
In short, either a person is judged to be righteous only to the extent that they actually are righteous (i.e., because of intrinsic merit), or they are judged righteous extrinsically even though they are not, in and of themselves, righteous (i.e., because they put their faith in Christ’s righteousness). The former category is known as infusion/active righteousness. The latter is called imputation/passive righteousness.
Here Luther parted company with the theological tradition of the Church at large. While, for example, Augustine agreed completely with Luther that the sinner needed God’s grace in order to find right standing before Him, they disagreed about the way in which this grace manifested itself. Along these lines, McGrath explains: “But where is that righteousness located? Augustine argued that it was to be found within believers (infusion); Luther insisted that it remained outside believers (imputation)” (p. 119).
Moving Past Justification (and Back Again)
The question of righteousness, as it was debated in the Reformation, with regards to imputation and infusion, is usually understood to refer to the issue of justification. In other words, the question that was being dealt with was: In what way is a Christian initially justified? When the one camp said it was infusion and the other camp said it was imputation, the disagreement was agreed upon and the two branches of church proceeded from their separate stances on the matter.
Yet any time a person is asking questions about Christian spirituality, the question of justification (at least in Protestant circles) is often understood to be a non-issue. In wake of Luther, Melancthon and others were quick to draw lines of separation between notions of justification and notions of sanctification, and those lines have heavily permeated the world of Protestant and Reformed thought. It is worth noting that, at Trent, the Roman Catholic Church was also reluctant to divide the two arenas, suggesting that, in some respect, justification and sanctification operated according to the same principles (i.e., that of infusion).
In contrast, Melancthon and other reformers suggested that there were different principles at work in the Christian life where sanctification was concerned. Thus, they had to draw lines of distinction between justification and sanctification. While justification was understood to be entirely based upon imputation, they posited that sanctification was indeed a process. Consider, for example the following quote from Grudem: “Even though the New Testament speaks about a definite beginning to sanctification, it also sees it as a process that continues throughout our Christian lives…Their task, therefore, as Christians is to grow more and more in sanctification…We are progressively becoming more and more like Christ as we go on in the Christian life” (pp. 327-328).
The implication of these statements is that, while the Protestant/Reformed traditions differ from the Roman Catholic understanding of how Christ’s righteousness is initially conveyed upon/to the believer, they both agree that, in wake of the justification, the Christians life falls under the rubric of “infusion” or active righteousness. Since the Roman Catholic Church refused to separate Justification from Sanctification, they were simultaneously holding onto the idea that, whatever the initial principle behind justification was, that principle would hold true with regards to sanctification, for the two were not viewed to be distinct. We have already noted that this camp held on to the notion of infusion where primary matter of justification were concerned, and accordingly, they stuck to the same notion in matters of sanctification; the Christian is transformed internally by God via the infusion of His grace. Likewise, the Reformed camp, in separating justification from sanctification, brought infusion to bear upon the Christian’s life after the point of justification.
But this essay seeks to approach the other side of this infusion/imputation coin. Since Christian spirituality deals not with questions of justification (unless, as is the case in the Roman Catholic sense, the issue of justification and sanctification are not separated), but with questions of sanctification, what happens if the principle of imputation is applied to sanctification? We have noted that neither the Reformed, nor that Roman position seem to do this.
The question’s answer requires adhering to the Roman Catholic position regarding the separation of justification and sanctification in that it seeks to apply the imputational notion to sanctification in the way that it was first applied to justification. In this sense then, the question becomes: “If one believes both that the means of justification cannot separated from the means of sanctification, and that justification can only be understood in terms of imputation, then what happens to our conceptions of sanctification with regards to imputation?”
In order to answer this question, the implications of infusion upon any notion of sanctification must also be considered. While the idea of applying infusion to sanctification is much more common-place in the world of theology, both within the Reformed and Roman Catholic position, the idea of applying imputation to sanctification is far from novel. It can be argued that Luther’s own understanding of the material could best be expressed in light of the first question’s answer. Consider again the quote from his Galatians commentary. In writing about imputation, he states: “This is a righteousness hidden in mystery, which the world doth not know, yea, Christians themselves do not thoroughly understand it, and can hardly take hold of it in their temptations. Therefore it must be diligently taught and continually practiced.” In mentioning that passive righteousness must be “continually practiced”, we begin to see that Luther’s own understanding of righteousness in the believer’s life (i.e., sanctification) was heavily impacted by his understanding of the type of righteousness (i.e., imputed righteousness) that he used to make sense of justification.
Sanctification in Terms of Infusion
Whether one believes in imputation or infusion with regards to Justification, the issue being dealt with has to do with the way in which God deals with sin when He establishes a relationship with people. Imputation posits a forensic model, while infusion insists that the content of the subject is transformed. Both approaches deal with sin in the life of the unbeliever. Theories of sanctification deal instead with how God deals with sin in the life of the Christian. No matter where a person comes from in answering the question of Christian sin, it must be acknowledged that any understanding of sanctification readily accepts the presence of sin in some form in the life of the believer.
We have noted that both the Reformed and Roman Catholic vantage point suggest that infusion plays a significant and defining role in the way in which sanctification occurs. The Reformed position suggests that sanctification in the Christian life occurs in community and in accord with the exhortations of the Law. The law of God thereby instructs the Christian, helping him or her to improve and further grow in righteousness, and this is able to happen because they have been freed from the original judgment that they are unjustified as sinners. At the moment of justification, a process of sanctification is set in motion, whereby the Christian begins to steadily improve in his/her walk until the point of human death, wherein sanctification is fully completed. The Reformed view would also suggest that the content of the Bible plays a hugely important role in that process and that the Holy Spirit is integrally involved in the Christian’s reception of the Word of God as it is expressed in Scripture.
In the Roman Catholic tradition, sin also remains present to some extent, and the believer requires the continued mediation of the church (through which the Holy Spirit is conferred upon the body of believers) in order to progress in sanctification. This process requires prayer, confession, the reception of the sacraments, and through them, a believer proceeds to grow in holiness, being ever refined. Similarly though, it is because of their (albeit infused) justification that they are able to progress without fear of damnation, and any sin that remains in the life of the believer can be dealt with after death so that, eventually, the work of sanctification can reach completion.
It is worth mentioning that there are other traditions within Christianity that have less room for the continued existence of sin within the Christian sphere of life. This is especially true within the context of certain charismatic and Wesleyan denominations, wherein there lies an understanding that the Christian believer’s battle within comprises less of his/her newfound life in Christ. In such situations where sin does reemerge, the question of dealing with sin applies primarily within the realm of the particular issue that has arisen, and, as a whole, the growth in holiness is not so much understood to be a move away from sinfulness so much as a process of attaining perfection, perfection that is marred primarily by lack of experience and lack of faith, but not by persistent all-encompassing sin (i.e., there remains no implication of total depravity in the life of the believer). The presence of sin in the life of believers is understood to be, for the most part, anomalous and containable, and, if it is not, then the question of whether or not the believer actually is a believer at all comes to the fore.
In each case though, the understanding is that growth in spirituality occurs through an infusion process, and that holds true in most Christian denominational circles, whether they be Methodist, Pentecostal, Roman Catholic, or Presbyterian. Similarly, the notion that spiritual growth occurs through a process, one in which a person moves in the direction of holiness and away from their own sins or flaws, is common-place in the world of many other religious traditions. It is found in the gym just as much as it is found in most churches. In some cases the notion is that transformation occurs via the nurturing of something intrinsically possessed by the individual, while in the more traditional Christian picture, that infused righteousness finds its origin in an external and/or foreign source (i.e., God), but in both cases, growth occurs within the nature of the subject. Infusion, in the day-to-day, is known by other names (e.g., process, growth, improvement, cleansing, transformation, becoming, actualization, etc…), but, in each case, “the song remains the same” (Led Zeppelin).
Sanctification in terms of Imputation
Any application of the principle of imputation to sanctification should find its basis in the idea that, if a thing is true re: justification then it must also be true of sanctification. Thus, in the same way that an individual is incapable of justifying his/herself, that individual should accordingly be understood to be incapable of sanctifying his/herself. Along the same lines, if justification posits that a person cannot be justified by works, so then we should assume that imputation assumes that a person cannot become sanctified through a works-based model, but, rather, by faith. If a Christian is justified on account of Christ’s accomplishments, then, likewise, they must become sanctified by the same means. It is through this train of thought that a very different picture from the commonly held infusion model for sanctification rises to the fore. In the same way that McGrath points out that, “one of the central insights of Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone is that the individual sinner is incapable of self-justification,” we can assume that, when applying imputational framework to sanctification, a sinner is consequently “incapable” of self-sanctification (p. 440). Imputation simultaneously requires “passive” sanctification and abolishes synergistic understandings of transformation.
The imputational dynamic as it is applied to sanctification also reflects a way in which God might deal with the presence of continued sin. To quote the Anglican Communion’s 39 Articles of Religion: “This infection of nature doth persist, yea in them that are regenerated” (Article IX). The quote perfectly describes how the Christian community might understand and account for the presence of continued sin in the life of the believer. In the way that initially sin was dealt with in God’s justifying work in Christ, so might God deal with a sinner’s sanctification via external means. Where before we have seen that justification that is born of imputation means regarding a creature as having a different status (i.e., righteous) than the actual content of the creature’s nature (i.e., sinner), so would sanctification look like continued sin that is regarded as holiness because of God’s forgiveness of sin as found in Christ.
The reason that such an understanding of sanctification might prove helpful has to do with the reality of the persistence of sin in the believer’s life. In other words, where the infusion model assumes progress, the imputation model does not require it. In theological terms, imputation as applied to sanctification simultaneously assumes less of people and more of God. Rupp notes that this was true of Luther’s own position regarding sanctification, drawing attention to the causal relationship that exist between a cynical anthropology and a high (i.e., imputed) Christology: “it was the heightened awareness of the mercy of God in Christ which deepened his conception of the sinfulness of the human heart” (p. 147). It is an approach that would prove helpful when dealing with the data often presented by human experience.
Imputation assumes the same of Christians that it assumes of non-believers which is they need God completely (still). It assumes, where anthropology is concerned, that the Christian life is better characterized by a lack of progress than by improvement, which is an unpopular but extremely insightful claim, one which no doubt accounts for some of secular world’s frustrations with Christian “hypocrisy”. Furthermore, it posits that the Church can only ever officially be regarded as “a hospital for sinners”, and not a “museum of saints.” The Lutheran theologian Rod Rosenbladt helpfully illustrates the way in which this understanding plays out psychologically in the mind of the Christian:
“Someone says, ‘But surely you don’t mean that the pastor should be evangelizing believers from the pulpit?’ Most evangelicals have no category for preaching Christ to a congregation of believers; their only category for preaching the Gospel is the evangelizing of pagans. But important as the latter is, the former is no less important. Think of the inner soliloquy many Christians experience week by week. ‘There may have been grace for me when, as a sinner, I was initially converted. But now, having been given the Spirit of God, I fear that things have gotten worse in me rather than better. I have horribly abused all of God’s good gifts to me. I was so optimistic in the beginning, when the pastor told me that Christ outside of me, dying for me, freely saved me by his death, and that the Holy Spirit now dwelling within me would aid me in following Christ. I looked forward to so much. But it has all gone badly. Others have no doubt done what God equipped them to do, but not I. I have used grace and Christ’s shed blood as an excuse for doing things I probably wouldn’t even have done as a pagan. I have rededicated myself to Christ more times than I can count. But it seems to stay the same, or even get worse, no matter what I do. Whatever the outer limits of Christ’s grace are, I have certainly crossed them. I have utterly, consciously, and with planning aforethought blown it all. I guess I was never a Christian in the first place, because if I had been, I would have made some progress in the Christian life…I’ll try going to church for a while longer, but I think I’ve tried every possible thing the church has told me to do. After that, I guess I’ll return to paganism and ‘eat, drink, and be merry’ for the time I’ve got left. What else is there to do?’ First of all…the pastor realizes that what is needed in this case is not the Law but the Gospel. One of the effects of Wesleyan revivalism in this country has been the common conviction that genuine conversion always shows itself in measurable moral progress (and correlatively, the lack of such progress is evidence that no true regeneration has taken place.) so the still-sinning believer is led to believe that he is not now a believer at all…To put the matter bluntly, Luther knew that the death and resurrection of Christ in our stead was strong enough in its effect to save even a Christian” (pp. 39-40)!
Sanctification in terms of imputation further assumes that Christians need to hear the same Gospel that saved (i.e., justified) them in order to be sanctified. Along these same lines we can easily make sense of Gerhard Forde’s comment that: “Sanctification is just getting used to justification” (p. 7). By positing such a claim, the theologian is simultaneously uniting sanctification and justification, and, as is stated insightfully in the Rosenbladt quote, preaching the same message to all people. Applying imputation to sanctification implies that there is no separate message for the life-long Christian than there is for the first-time visitor, or the bum in the gutter.
The position is not necessarily a denial of infused or transformational growth, but it does reflect a reluctance to consider the issue either way, presupposing that it is only by emphasizing needed repentance that a proper relationship between the believer and God can be created. Within the imputational framework of sanctification, attention to progress can serve only to displace faith. Alternatively, a continued awareness of sin is unavoidable, and actually provides the Christian with the only means by which he/she can find an avenue to God.
Aspects of Sanctification and Imputation in the Thought of Luther
To apply the principle of imputation to sanctification means to regard a sinful Christian as being without sin in the way that Christ was without sin. Instead of the growth model that is professed by the infusion mode, imputation regards the Christian as existing in two simultaneously distinct realms. Luther’s term for this was “simul iustus et peccator”, meaning that a Christian lives in a state wherein they are both “sinner” (peccator) and “justified” (iustus) at the same time (simul). He famously describes the position in his comments on Romans 4:7:
“The saints are inwardly always sinners and thus outwardly they are always justified. But the hypocrites are always righteous in their own sight, and thus always sinners outwardly. I use the term ‘inwardly’ to show how we are in ourselves, in our own sight, in our own estimation; and the term ‘outwardly’ to indicate how we are before God and in God’s reckoning. Therefore we are righteous outwardly when we are righteous solely by the imputation of God and not of ourselves or or our own works.”
Where, in the infusion model, a sinful person may grow in righteousness, thereby being partly sinful and partly Godly, with the percentages often varying but hopeful slowly but surely increasing in the direction of more holiness and less sinfulness, the imputation model posits that a Christian person’s character exists unwaveringly in a state of 100% righteousness and 100% fallen-ness at the same time. Mattes describes the imputation perspective in the following terms: “The divine imputation makes it true that we are old and new, sinners and righteous at the same time. This is to be understood as total states…we live our lives on a battleground of two mutually exclusive totalities” (p. 70).
Of further interest is the fact that this view of sanctification much more closely reflects the position that Luther himself held about the Christian faith as it plays out in the life of a believer. Of this Rupp states: “Luther’s thought is no more concerned with the forensic associations of these phrases than is St. Paul. He is concerned with the persistence of sin in the believer,…with what John Wesley called ‘Sin in Believers’, with the continuance of concupiscence in the redeemed…” (pp. 174-175). It is for this reason that Luther’s famous 95 Theses open with the following statement: “1.When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘Repent’, He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” These are obviously not statements that refer to Luther’s understanding that the means by which a person is justified exists in some way that is distinct from sanctification, but rather quite the opposite, meaning that, for Luther justification and sanctification are inextricably connected. It is no wonder that, in light of this idea, one author makes the following statement: “We could say that this position of the simul-iustus-et-peccator self is the last word in what the world wants to call ‘maturity’” (Zahl, p. 123).
Theological Implications for Spiritual Formation
Where infusion looks for spiritual growth and progress, imputation seeks out the opposite, meaning not that regress characterizes the Christian faith, but that stasis and passivity define the human encounter with God. Where infusion offers the prospect of mystical synergism, Luther’s idea of sanctification is strictly monergistic. Because of these differences, the description of the Christian life offered by the two approaches varies tremendously from one to the other.
Infusion presents an avenue by which a sinner can be transformed through a process of growth into a saint, or, if nothing else, an improved/holier/less-sinful version of the self. Consequently, as the believer grows closer to God via some particular approach, more Godly-ness is infused into the character of that individual. There is a degree of osmosis present in the thinking that characterizes the general trend of this approach. In simple terms, infusion offers a model of spiritual growth that is not unlike the model of health offered by a gym to its members. Through a process of discipline, one can get into better (spiritual) “shape”. Thus, it’s no surprise when we find names like the “spiritual exercises” (of the Jesuits) when we look at the history of Christendom. Words like “discipline” immediately spring to the fore, and the world of Christian mysticism is loaded with examples of this train of thought. There are methods of prayer, methods of reading the bible, ways to fast, virtues to excel in, etc… To the extent that any of these approaches to the spiritual life promise some kind of causal effect, the model of infusion is firmly in place. Any approach to becoming something that one is not through ontological transformation is born of infusion.
In contrast, there is the spiritual life that is born from an understanding of imputation. This understanding looks upon the infusion model with extreme cynicism, for imputation says that infusion, to the extent that it is emphasized, displaces the Christian’s faith in Christ by relocating it within the confines of their own being and aspirations. Imputation understands that diets bring with them late-night binges, and that barbells spend most of their lives in the closet and not being lifted. Furthermore, imputation laughs at the promises that infusion offers. Imputation laughs for two reasons. First, it sees all holiness already fully realized in Christ himself, and, second, the assumption that an individual can become holy in some sense that is equivalent to Christ’s unbelievably counter-intuitive example seems romantic at best, and, for the most part, simply delusional with relationship to the human subject. Consider Forde’s voice with regards to infusion from the point of perspective of imputation in the following quote:
“Am I making progress? If I am really honest, it seems to me that the question is odd, even a little ridiculous. As I get older and death draws nearer, it doesn’t seem to get any easier. I get a little more impatient, a little more anxious about having perhaps missed what this life has to offer, a little slower, harder to move, a little more sedentary and set in my ways. It seems more and more unjust to me that now that I have spent a good part of my life ‘getting to the top,’ and I seem just about to have made it, I am already slowing down, already on the way out. A skiing injury from when I was sixteen years old acts up if I overexert myself. I am too heavy, the doctors tell me, but it is so hard to lose weight! Am I making progress? Well, maybe it seems as though I sin less, but that may only be because I’m getting tired! It’s just too hard to keep indulging the lusts of youth. Is that sanctification? I wouldn’t think so! One should not, I expect, mistake encroaching senility for sanctification” (pp. 31-32)!
Imputation says “feeling better about yourself, will only make you spiritually worse.” Losing weight will reveal the flab that remains, or draw attention hugely to some new previously neglected hindrance to one’s own improvement, like the plastic surgery that begins with a small procedure, and, soon, addictively becomes the means by which the person can supposedly become beautified, until the face looks more like Frankenstein’s bride than like a picture of beauty. Imputation by contrast, covers that which is ugly in a beautiful veil, like a drawing full of clean lines, draped over a tattered and crooked canvas.
Traditional mysticism finds little friendship in the world of imputation, because it can only be understood to reflect humankind’s perennial attempt to become God himself in the exact way that so defined Adam and Eve’s “original” trespass. Infusion and sin encourage each other while abandoning the only hope that Christianity has to offer the sinner altogether. The conversation that God has with humans through Christ is negated in infusion, where, instead, a fresh conversation between God and man is attempted with zero regard for the work of Christ and the implications of the atonement, as though sanctification need have no regard for the one who enabled it in the first place. The holiness we need must exist in Christ in order to remain unblemished. It is like the wise man who answered his door late one night only to find one of his students, standing there in the rain looking distraught. The student said: “I’m not sure that this God thing is working for me,” to which the teacher responded: “Son, your life isn’t any of your damn business!” and then shut the door. Therefore faith cannot grow, but simply connect with the person in whom it is fulfilled, which is in Christ. Imputation places the believer’s righteousness in a location that resembles not at all its normal geographical coordinates. In Mattes’ words, “To be sanctified is to acknowledge God’s glory in his imputation… Hence, sanctification is not the goal of the Christian life but its source” (p. 71).
This is the contrast between passive and active righteousness that Luther refers to repeatedly. Paulson quotes Luther helpfully along these lines: “‘If anyone could have gained heaven as a monk, then I would indeed have been among them.’ But he would soon enough (1537, in the Smalcald Articles) call all that religious practice nothing but ‘human invention…not commanded, not necessary, not useful – while causing dangerous and futile effort besides – wasted effort’” (p. 6, Paulson). Where infusion seeks to escape, imputation seeks to reiterate. Where infusion is progressive, imputation is cyclical. Where in the infusion model, sanctification is the goal, in imputation, sanctification is the source. God does not transform the Old Adam, he kills it, ascribing the new Christ to it, in its place. Zahl summarizes these divergences nicely: “Unlike the butterfly, the transformation in human beings does not take place because of a natural process. The transformation with people takes place because of the species of one-way love that is called imputation” (p. 121).
Practical Implications for Spiritual Formation
Imputation will always make you feel worse about yourself, in order to then make you feel better about God. Infusion will instead offer you a way to feel better about yourself, that will not last if you do not dot every “I” and cross every “T”, and ultimately, it will let you down on the day that you die.
The nature of imputation is cyclical while the nature of infusion is progressive. This approach is born out beautifully in the Anglican Communion where the Book of Common Prayer is used. It is used whether or not the people in the pew are brand new, or life-long Episcopalian. Imputation gives you the same church service every Sunday of our life, year in, year out, rain or shine. It is: “Welcome to the atonement (once again)”. There is no graduation, only Christ and Him crucified.
In practice, imputation always returns the individual to first principles. Imputation is always the antidote to whatever ails you. Infusion, on the other hand, can only ever hold the carrot of a better day soon (or at some point in the future) in front of you. Infusion views the spiritual life as being a marathon, as being an opportunity to persevere. Imputation says the race has already been won. Where advice is needed infusion says the classic: “Don’t just sit there; do something!” Imputation instead retorts: “Don’t just do something; sit there (i.e., in active passivity, which is faith)!” Infusion typically teaches that “God’s hands and feet on Earth are his people.” Imputation insists that God has His own feet and His own hands.
Psychologically, the spiritual life born of the two approaches is very different. Imputation often discourages. It always suggests repentance, for without it there can be no mercy. Thus, it believes in tears and despises false, progress-imbued solutions to problems. It endures grief in the raw extreme. In human terms, it says nothing. It is passive. It lets the individual cry without offering false hope. Perhaps the dream must die, and not come to fruition. Imputation believes that the old being does not need to be sustained, and that it cannot be reformed; it must be annihilated. This means that imputation often encourages collapse, for the reality of God’s life comes only into the dead, be it a situation, a relationship, or a loss. The thing that imputation cannot do is this: it cannot encourage improvement. But it always hopes for something new and for something from the outside! Similarly, the bad is not really so bad, for it has all been overcome. No fact is so egregious that it can inspire a negative judgment.
Few have sought to overtly define the ways in which an understanding of imputation impacts the realm of counsel, which is unfortunate, because obviously the implications of such an approach are huge. Yet one husband/wife (theologian/psychologist) team have discussed the matter of therapy with regards to infusion and imputation. Their considerations of the matter are worth quoting at some length for they summarize much of the material that has been discussed up to this point, and, furthermore, their direct application of imputation to the realms of contemporary psychoanalytic theory appear to be unique (at least in the way in which they define the terms so clearly in light of the infusion/imputation distinction):
“So how does the doctrine of justification by faith relate to self-esteem? The key linking concept is that of righteousness. For the Christian, it may be helpful to think of positive self-esteem as a psychological sign of having comprehended that one is counted as right with God, and thus with oneself…There are two quite different ways of thinking about the idea of being justified in the sight of God. The first way involves an internal style of attribution (i.e., infusion), in which the following style question is asked: ‘what is it about me that would allow anyone to count me as righteous?’ This way of thinking can lead to despair if the person’s self-view is negative, and to an unmerited conceit if the person holds a good opinion of himself or herself. The internal-attribution style naturally leads to the triumphalist view that we can do something to establish our righteousness. If we can justify ourselves by works (the Pelagian idea), our emotional investment tends to fall on our achievements and spurs us on to attempt to achieve more. Our sense of personal security and esteem thus comes to rest upon what we do and the way we feel about it.
The second approach concerns an external style of attribution (i.e., imputation), in which the question being asked is: ‘What is it about God that makes him see me as righteous?’ This style of attribution creates a sense of expectancy for action on the part of God, rather than a feeling that we out to be achieving something. This vital shift in the frame of reference moves us away from a human-centered, works-orientated approach to our personal worth, and instead points us firmly towards a God-centered, faith-orientated approach” (pp. 97-98).
In light of these observations and their clear distillation of the way in which a doctrine of imputation plays out on the particular (i.e., in the context of sanctification), it becomes apparent that the proper question, when seeking therapy, should not be: “Do you know the name of a good Christian therapist?’ Good Christian therapy, according to McGrath and McGrath at least, is contingent upon familiarity with a monergistic picture of God’s healing work. In this light, it appears that infusion is only capable of doing harm; either it will encourage delusion, or it will capsize a teetering vessel.
Imputation offers a bulwark behind which Christians can build unwavering confidence, even in the face of despair. A most powerful example of this line of thought is pursued in Luke’s Gospel, where Jesus contrasts the Pharisee’s prayer with that of the Tax Collector’s. We read:
9He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10″Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18: 9-14)
Jesus simultaneously criticizes the Pharisee’s self-confident approach to God, while affirming the Publican’s wimpy appeal for mercy. The former is denounced and the latter is elevated, and this is done in a way that suggests the movements to be paradigmatic. If the two are applied to the justification spoken of in verse 14, we find that the prayerfully-infused seeker has no ground to stand upon, whereas the man who reaches out to God, unsure of his own status, for it emanates from his own shame, actually stands in right relationship to his heavenly Father (i.e., justified).
But the parable also offers an opportunity to consider the infusion/imputation distinction as it can be applied to sanctification. For the Pharisee, his own understanding of himself as being one who is “not like other men”, meaning that he has been transformed by his spiritual relationship with God (i.e., he has made some kind of supposed progress), is actually found to be invalidated by Jesus’ own judgment. Yet the humble appeal of the sinful Tax Collector – and it is not at all unlike the appeals with which Jesus himself was so familiar with from his day-to-day interactions with many a needy individual – seen through the eyes of Jesus, seems to cover all the bases necessary for sanctification and the fulfilled experience of Christian faith. A right relationship with God is born out of a need for the mercy that He exhibits in his Son. From this platform, the Gospel can be understood to be truly sufficient. Mattes’ comment summarizes the issue succinctly: “Sanctification is not the goal of the Christian life but its source” (p. 71).
Forde, Gerhard, “A Lutheran Response,” in Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification, (ed. Donald L. Alexander). Intervarsity Press (IL), 1988.
Grudem, Wayne, Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith. Zondervan (Grand Rapids), 1999.
Luther, Martin, Commentary on Galatians. Kregel Classics reprint library, 2006.
McGrath, Alister E., Christian Theology: An Introduction. Blackwell (UK), 1994.
McGrath, Alister E., Reformation Thought. Blackwell (UK), 1988.
McGrath & McGrath, Self-Esteem: The Cross and Christian Confidence. Crossway Books (Wheaton, IL), 2002.
Mattes, Mark C., The Role of Justification in Contemporary Theology, Eerdmans (Cambridge, UK), 2004.
Paulson, Steven D., Luther for Armchair Theologian. Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.
Rosenbladt, Rod, Christ Alone. Crossway Books (Wheaton, IL), 1999.
Rupp, Gordon, The Righteousness of God. Philosophical Library Inc., 1974.
Seifrid, Mark A., Christ Our Righteousness: Paul’s Theology of Justification. Intervarsity Press (IL), 2001.
Zahl, Paul F. M., Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life. Eerdmans (Cambridge, UK), 2007.
The Book of Common Prayer. The Church Hymnal Corporation (NY), 1979.
The Holy Bible (ESV). HarperCollins (NY), 200
 This excerpt is taken from McGrath’s Reformation Thought, where it is quoted on page 119.
 Note the reiteration of the Mattes sentiment quoted above.