Finally one day, I was raking leaves and listening to R.C. Sproul's lectures on What is Reformed Theology?. When he discussed the doctrine of justification by faith alone, it was as though the sun broke through the darkness, and I experienced assurance for the first time in my Christian life.
"In the final analysis, the only way that any person is ever justified before God is by works. We are saved by works, and we are saved by works alone. Don't touch that dial..."
"[W]hen I say that we are justified by works and by works alone, what do I mean by it? I mean that the grounds of my justification and the grounds of your justification are the perfect works of Jesus Christ. We're saved by works, but they are not our own. That's why we say we're saved by faith, and we're saved by grace, because the works that save us aren't our works, they're Somebody else's works."1God takes my sin and places it on the righteous, holy, perfect Lamb of God and expends His wrath upon the Him. But if the story ended there, my sins would have been dealt with, but what about my life? What about God's just requirement that we be holy as He is holy? He takes the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ and puts that to my account. This is imputation. There is no question anymore of where I stand before God. The endless cycle of trying to earn acceptance before God is broken once and for all.
The understanding of imputation also holds out the only real hope that real Christians have of maintaining real acceptance with the real God. The reality of imputed righteousness is a real encouragement to ongoing sinners. Even as believers we must admit that sin is mixed with all we do. Even though we are justified believers, we still stumble and fall. We still make backward steps. What will keep a believer persevering in the face of remaining sin? Just this: the knowledge that the righteousness that renders us acceptable to God is not our personal achievement. It is Christ's righteousness achieved for us.
What is a Christian to do when he stumbles and falls in sin? He must keep looking to Christ by humbly repenting and starting over. This is how we battle discouragement. This is what keeps us from losing hope. On the believer's worst day this thought can keep him from utter despair: Jesus Christ is my righteousness. To see, remember and believe that God has credited Christ’s righteousness to us and has on that basis accepted us once and for all, is to find the strength and the direction to fight against every form of discouragement and temptation and frustration in life.2This is why I love the doctrine of imputation. Having lived without assurance so long, it's no wonder I can't forget the day when I realized that peace with God rested outside of me or my performance. I still stumble and my assurance may waiver, but there is someone else that I can look to - Jesus Christ, my righteousness.
1. What is Reformed Theology? Teaching series by R.C. Sproul, Ligonier Ministries.
2. Imputation: The Sinners Only Hope - Thomas K. Ascol, Founders Journal, Issue 59, Winter 2005, pp. 1-13.
This is based on a post from my personal blog from 2010.