Let us move on to the New Testament to determine if God’s forgiveness changed in any way to mean “it never happened” after the cross. As an example to stimulate our brains, how could God have inspired the recording of Peter’s denial of Christ in the Gospels thirty years after the fact if He had forgotten that it happened? Food for thought. The Old Testament and the New Testament act in harmony, and New Testament writers frequently quote from the Old Testament. For example, Paul quotes David when he writes “Blessed is the man to whom the LORD shall not impute sin” (Romans 4:8, Psalm 32:2). In such a case, the same exegetical principle applies: unless specifically stated by the New Testament author, the meaning of Romans 4:8 must mean what it meant in Psalm 32:2. Paul understood David’s context, and quoted it within that context. As a point of clarification, I understand that God wrote Romans 4 and Psalm 32 through Paul and David: the hermeneutical principle is that the Word is divinely inspired, but the authors could not lay aside their faculties while writing. God did not set aside Paul’s deliberate thoughts when he penned Romans 4 just as He did not overtake David’s hand when he penned Psalm 32. This means that David had a specific meaning in mind and Paul wanted to convey that meaning to his audience. I don’t want to belabor the point, but what I am trying to say is that the doctrine of justification via imputation must be informed by understanding what David meant when he wrote “impute.”
To impute is to attribute something to a person vicariously, meaning that your standing before God is derived from a source other than yourself. This is very different from “to impart” which is not a vicarious action, but rather a direct action that gives something to you that you can then call your own. Imputation in Scripture has often been described as an accounting ledger, such that each line item (sin) has to be put somewhere because all sin demands a penalty. In fact, several translations interpret Romans 4:8 and Psalm 32:2 as “Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord will never count against them.” In David’s time under the Law, a type existed such that if any person sinned, a specific sin offering had to be made (Leviticus 4). That animal was exchanged for that person’s sin, and the penalty of that sin (death) was laid on the animal instead of the person. In this way, the guilt of the person was placed vicariously on the animal, and the animal vicariously paid the penalty for that person’s sin in place of the person. This is the world in which David understood imputation, and he knew from the Law that each sin must be accounted for. As it stands, a non-believer’s sin is on his own account. However, according to 2 Corinthians 5:21, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” What this means is that our sin was imputed to Christ on the cross, and Christ’s righteousness was imputed to us when we became new creatures. When David wrote “Blessed is the man to whom the LORD shall not impute sin,” he meant “Blessed is the man who has no sin on God’s ledger account of his life.”
This is a critical concept, because as Protestants we believe that we are justified through imputation, whereas Catholics believe that we are justified through impartation, or the notion that the righteousness of Christ was imparted directly to us such that we literally are righteous as Christ is righteous. The obvious problem with impartation is that Christians still sin, whereas the righteousness of Christ was sinless. Protestants interpret justification as being through imputation: our sins were put on Christ’s account. He paid the penalty for our sins. In like fashion, His righteousness was vicariously placed on our account, in such a manner that we can approach God with Christ’s righteousness. This provides an interesting distinction between “as though I never sinned” and “I really never sinned.” By definition, “as though” refers to a vicarious position, which is consistent with imputation; whereas “I really never sinned” is a direct position that is consistent with impartation. We will have to keep that distinction in mind as we press on.
Having developed the concept of imputation, the question must be asked, “When God forgave me, where did my sin go?” It went to the cross of Christ. While it might seem like a semantics game, the key point is that your sin did not vanish. God knows exactly where it is. It was placed on Christ’s account. If you were to reject God and backslide, your sin would be back on your account and Christ’s righteousness would be taken off of your account. This is the difference between God accepting us as though we never sinned and God accepting us because we never sinned. You did sin. That’s the point. God certainly hasn’t forgotten your sin, rather He has removed it from you and sent it to a place where it will not be held against you; and He will not remember your sin during the Judgment, so long as you continue to rely on the finished work of Christ which bought your justification in God’s sight by the imputing of your sins on Christ’s account and Christ’s righteousness to your account.
This development of justification through imputation preserves the harmony of other Scriptures because it addresses the backsliding problem, whereas the notion that God can truly forget our sins in such a manner that in His sight our sin never originally occurred does not. God tells us of the final judgment throughout Scriptures such as Ecclesiastes 12:14, Matthew 12:35, Romans 14, and 2 Corinthians 5:10. All men must give an account for their deeds. The notion that forgiveness indicates that the sin never originally occurred, such that it dissolved in Christmas past, would allow no venue for backsliders to give an account of the evil deeds that they committed before their salvation. Certainly we understand that those deeds must be accounted for as well, which indicates that it is not possible for our sins to “have never originally occurred” in such a manner as to absolve us of them entirely. That can’t truly happen until we are no longer capable of backsliding.
The backsliding problem faces no difficulty when considering that God’s forgiveness is demonstrated in justification through imputation. Our sins are currently on Christ’s account and not our own account. As such, God does not hold them against us. As long as we remain in faith, God chooses to not remember our sins in the sense that He can look at His ledger for your life and the column recording heavenly debts is empty, whereas the column recording heavenly credits has one entry: the righteousness of Christ. But where did our sin go? God can’t forget, and God must punish sin. Because we did in fact sin, and that sin demands a penalty, God has imputed—attributed—our sins to Christ’s account. But if we backslide, God reverses the exchange such that we lose the righteousness of Christ and our sins are re-added to our account. Through this line of reasoning, we must affirm that God’s forgiveness makes it as though we did not sin, and we must deny that God’s forgiveness means the sin never happened.