Is righteousness a commodity?

Posted: August 14, 2013 by J in Bible, Theology

Talking over imputation with my friend Dan, I thought one extra post on this might help.

The imagery I grew up with to explain justification was a mercantile metaphor. We each have a bank account with God, in which we can either have credit or debit. Jesus is the only one who manages to get credits in his account, we all have debits. But then God does a swap, Jesus pays for our debt in his own blood, and we are credited with the righteousness from Jesus’ account.

In the image, righteousness is a kind of commodity or substance like money, which can be transferred around. It’s invisible, but real – hence the banking image, where money can be on paper yet really worth something. You can’t see it, but it’s there in the piggy bank.

Is this a good metaphor to help explain justification? It’s certainly one that makes sense to us middle class people. Bread and butter stuff. An image we connect with instinctively.

But is it helpful? And where is it from?

There’s a pretty common assumption that this image is from the Bible. This is based on Scripture’s use of the term reckon or impute – greek word logizomai – in connection with justification. It is particularly located, we are told, in the story if Abraham, Genesis 15, and in Paul’s teaching about Abraham in Romans 4.

And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness. Gen. 15:6


A couple of big picture observations to start with. Firstly, logizomai is a common word in Scripture, Paul uses it often. It has a range of meanings, including the commercial one, it can also refer to judgment (Rom. 2:26). But in general just means ‘consider’. Paul normally uses it to mean ‘consider’, with no particular commercial or financial connotation.

If there is anything praiseworthy, consider these things. Phil. 4:8

That’s it there. Consider.

So just because the word crops up in connection with justification, doesn’t in itself suggest a mercantile metaphor. That’s the first thing to clarify.

Second, Paul talks about justification quite a bit, especially through Romans and Galatians. And the mercantile image almost never floats to the surface. There are various other images swirling around the justification terminology: adoption, reconciliation, friendship, resurrection, inheritance, sacrifice, and above all judgement and justice. But commercial transactions? Nope. If it’s there at all, it’s very minor.

Wow. That’s how much bible backing we have for our favourite justification image. That’s a bit disturbing. Can that be right. Hard for me to prove it to you, I guess I could show you all the places where it isn’t.  Might take a while…

It would be good, however, to explore the dominant image of judgement a little more. And to consider Abraham and Romans 4.


The first half of Romans is dominated by the imagery of judgement: Jesus is determined to be the son of God by God’s public decree in resurrection (1:4), the wrath of God is revealed against the sins of mankind, he decrees that these deserve death (1:18, 32). Those who judge others fall under God’s judgement themselves (2:1-3). God’s role in judging the world is outlined (2:5-16). The faithful Jew is condemned by faithful Gentiles, who receive praise from God the judge (2:17-29, 3:4). Could the judge of the world be unjust? (3:1-8). The charge sheet is read out against Jew and Gentile who alike stand accused (3:9). All stand before God silenced by their guilt (3:19).

These are all images of judgement. Court rooms, accusers, determinations, punishments, guilt, etc.

It is in this context that Paul introduces the ideas of righteousness and justification (two forms of the one word in greek: dikai-). Paul quotes from David, Psalm 32. “Blessed are those whose law-breakings are forgiven, and whose sins are covered over”. In the Psalm, the Lord is very present, David stands directly before him and receives judgement from his ‘hand’. And the judgement is favourable. He becomes “the one against whom the Lord will not reckon sin.” Or as Paul puts it, “the one to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works.” (Rom. 4:7).

We are totally in a judicial framework here, not a commercial one. And it is in this setting that the idea of reckoning is introduced and employed. I.e. reckon has a forensic flavour for Paul, at least here in connection with Abraham.

Thus, judgement becomes the main category in which to understand the dikai- word group, for Paul. It appears again and again in close connection with forensic terms. So ‘justified by his blood’ equates to ‘saved …from the wrath of God.’ (Rom. 5:9) “Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all” (5:18)  “Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.  Who is to condemn?” (Rom. 8:33-34). We’re still explicitly in judgement territory.

Abraham and reckoning

What about old Abraham and his righteousness?

“Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Rom. 4:3

Paul goes on to talk about paying out wages: a commercial image. Let’s look at that.

Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due.  But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.  Rom. 4:4-5

First, notice that ‘reckoned’ here has its normal Pauline meaning, ‘considered‘, both times. It is not imputation or transaction here. When a worker receives his wage, we would consider it as his due.

Second, it’s not an easy comparison to get the hang of. It’s not symmetrical. We would expect,

to him who works               his wages             are reckoned as owed

to him who does not work, what he receives  is reckoned    a gift.

Paul resists that tidyness. Why? Seems he doesn’t want to describe righteousness as being like a wage, a thing received. It’s not that sort of thing. For Paul righteousness is a judgement. We could paraphrase thus:

To him who works, his wage is considered his due reward. Abraham’s case was not like that. To him who does not work but trusts God, because of his faith he is considered righteous.

There is no wage here, no transaction, no payment: it’s not the same as the ‘worker’ model. That’s the point. It’s a different model. A judgement model.

Probably the Jews were tending towards the ‘due payment for works’ model of righteousness. Paul busts that up entirely. It’s not due, it’s not a payment, it’s not for works.

IN SUMMARY: there’s nothing here that remotely warrants the ‘mercantile image’ that I’ve been taught all my life as the way to understand justification.

Ok it’s not Scriptural. Is it helpful though? Does it add clarity to the judgement image at the centre of Paul’s justification teaching? Or does it confuse things by commodifying righteousness? Can a judgement be a commodity?

You be the judge!

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