Bavinck on Justification Part II: Imputation and Legal Fiction

As surely as the sun rises and sets each day, Herman Bavinck vigorously defended the imputation of Christ’s obedience in justification. In nearly prophetic language, he speaks to present day deniers of imputation: “The opponents of imputed righteousness should not lodge their objection against Luther and Calvin but against Paul.”

He goes on, especially dealing with an older Roman Catholic theologian, R. Bellarmine, who said that imputation was a legal fiction (the same language used by some today who deny imputation): “That picture [of legal fiction], however, is completely mistaken. Justification is as real as sanctification, and imputation is no less real than infusion. The only difference is this: in justification righteousness is granted to us in a juridicial sense, while in sanctification it becomes ours in an ethical sense. Both are very real and very necessary. The judge must first validate someone’s claim to a piece of property before one can take possession of it.”

“This first act [imputation] is not a fiction or an illusion that cuts no ice and conflicts with reality. On the contrary: needed first is an imputation of righteousness, the recognition of a claim, and only then can the infusion of righteousness follow, the act of taking possession of that to which one is entitled…. If God justifies the ungodly, that is not a fiction, a putative imputation, but a present and future reality…. After the ungodly have become righteous in a legal sense, they will certainly also become righteous in an ethical sense.”

In another helpful illustration, Bavinck wrote that imputation is like when a wealthy man legally adopts a poor child. The child, “can, as a future heir be called rich even though at the moment he or she does not yet own a penny.” In theological terms, as Bavinck said, we are not declared righteous based on something in us, but on something credited to our account – the righteousness/obedience of Christ. And those who are justified, will certainly be sanctified, but the former does not depend upon the latter.

No one can wrest Bavinck out of the arms of Reformed orthodoxy – Luther, Calvin, Turretin, Brakel, Berkhof, and others of that list would have embraced Bavinck with passion. Speaking of passion, let me re-quote Bavinck on imputation, just so no one misses it: “The opponents of imputed righteousness should not lodge their objection against Luther and Calvin, but against Paul.” [Side note: Bavinck here is also noting clearly that Calvin taught imputation.]

All quotes taken from Herman Bavinck, Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 213-4.

shane lems

sunnyside wa