This is letter I wrote to a magazine in response to a debate they had on whether Christ’s righteousness was imputed to us for our salvation.
All the exegetical debate on this exchange about whether Christ’s righteous life is savingly imputed to his people has centered on the New Testament epistles. I think two episodes from the synoptic gospels can shed light on this matter.
The first is Christ’s baptism where his public ministry began by his being baptized for the repentance of sin. Since the New Testament is uniform in its insistence that Jesus was sinless and John the Baptist is shown to sense this in his reluctance to baptize Jesus, then how can Jesus be baptized for sin he never committed? The answer, of course, is that Jesus was not being baptized for his own sins but ours. He began his public ministry by radically identifying himself with sinners stating his intention to become one with us so that he might covenantally represent us before God for our salvation. His baptism is then a foreshadowing of the cross, where his determination to become one with sinners reaches its zenith in his being crucified for our sins. Jesus himself confirms this exegesis by later asking his disciples if they can “be baptized with the baptism he is baptized with,” referring to his impending death. The shadow of the cross fell across Jesus from the moment he began his ministry.
But, what happens immediately after his baptism, where he radically identifies himself with sinners? Does he go to the cross? No, he goes out into the wilderness where he is tempted by the devil for 40 days. Many have pointed out the parallels with Israel’s 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, but whereas Israel failed the test and sinned against God, Jesus triumphs over Satan fending off the devil’s attacks with Scriptures used to describe Israel’s wilderness experience in the book of Deuteronomy. Many have concluded that Jesus is declaring himself to the new Israel, a son of God that will be covenantally faithful to his Father. This is confirmed in Matthew 2 where a prophesy from Hosea about Israel being God’s son is applied to Jesus.
My point is this: when Jesus declares his intention to radically identify himself with sinners, he does not immediately go to the cross but replicates in his life events in the typological life of Israel which at this point represents all sinners in our failures to keep God’s covenant law. But by contrast, where Israel broke the covenant, Jesus perfectly kept it. Are not the gospel writers trying to teach us that part of Jesus’ radical identification with sinners involves his living the righteous life for us that we have failed to live? He established a saving covenant with God for us sinners that does not only include his atoning death for our sins but also his righteous life as a covenant keeper. Our sins are forgiven by his blood poured out upon the cross and our lives are eternally hidden within the righteousness of his perfect covenant-keeping.
Professor Gundry stated that his objection to the imputed righteousness of Christ as a means of our salvation had to do with his disagreement with the doctrine that Christ had to fulfill the Old Testament covenants for us. Regardless of how the word “imputation” is used in the epistles, I believe the gospels uniformly testify that that is exactly what Christ had to do for us in order for us to be saved. All the Old Testament covenants are taken up into his life, but whereas we as a race failed to keep those covenants, he fulfilled them all perfectly that our sinful lives may be hidden in his righteous one as he represents us before God the Father.