Buried in a footnote in an unrelated book is one of the best to-the-point-refutations of N.T. Wright’s objection to the glorious truth that God imputes to the believer the righteousness of Christ –
Theologians and exegetes often discuss the Protestant idea of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness in the terms of the law court, since the dikaios word group is a legal/judicial one. Yet the law-court metaphor is just that – a metaphor that can help with certain aspects of imputation but does not explain the theological concept entirely. N.T. Wright’s oft-quoted critique of imputation falls short precisely because he treats the metaphor, as it were, univocally. He writes, ‘Righteousness is not an object, a substance or a gas which can be passed across the courtroom’; in What Saint Paul Really Said (Oxford: Lion Book, 1997), 98. Well, sure, that’s very clever-sounding, but he’s not really critiquing imputation here. Imputation is a judicial idea, yes, but also a covenantal one. Entering into certain kinds of covenants involves my identity and all that I am, such that all that’s mine becomes yours and all that’s yours becomes mine. When I married my wife, for instance, my student loan debt actually became hers, and her Honda Civic actually became mine. Neither the Honda nor the debt floated across the courtroom. Still, there really was this ‘sweet exchange,’ at least from my perspective. So it is with the sweet exchange of Christ’s righteousness and my sin. By giving himself to his people in the new covenant, what he possesses becomes ours, and what’s ours becomes his. In that sense, Wright is correct to point to the covenantal aspects of God’s righteousness in Christ. I even appreciate his point in the same chapter of this critique that the book of Romans, most fundamentally, presents us not with the realities of the law court but with a ‘theology of love’ (p. 110). Yet somehow he misses the fact that the shared identity of biblical covenants involves exchanging not just obligations but debts and blessings. Somehow he misses the fact that the exchange of sin and righteousness between Christ and sinner – these legal or judicial realities – is also a covenantal reality, and a nuptial one, at that.
Jonathan Leeman, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love: Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 110 fn. 62.