“There is a man in my community who claims to be a preacher. He is preaching Romans 5:9 means that he is perfect. Now I know this is not true, but he has others believing this. I don’t want to see these people burn in hell because they believe this. I would appreciate any information you can give me on this matter.”
—A Reader

Michael answers:

I do not know what this preacher is saying regarding Romans 5:9. But I will attempt to clarify popular and prevailing conceptions regarding Biblical salvation. No matter our theological persuasion, we all start at the same place, a conviction that the entire human race lies in sin and is lost without some act on God’s part. Man cannot remake himself into a condition that would make him acceptable to God. This you believe, and this the man in question believes.
But doctrines diverge on the point of how the grace of God works to save a man. There are all shades, but basically two opposing positions. The one belief that is most popular—believed by 99% of Christianity—is that the grace of God works in our hearts to bring us to repentance of sin and faith, transforming us into obedient children, thereby making us acceptable to God. This I call Imparted Righteousness. That is, God imparts to our experience his righteousness so that we are changed into sons and daughters of God. This is the Roman Catholic position as well as what most Protestants believe in practice. It is also the position of most Plain people, Mennonite and Amish. Since this view is based on God transforming the individual no one can ever say for sure that he has been sufficiently changed so as to be worthy of Salvation. The sinner must be constantly engaged in repentance and confession, trying to maintain a proper humility and fear, keeping his sins confessed, making sure he doesn’t die with any unconfessed sins, and not daring to presume that he has arrived at that place of unqualified acceptance. The person under this system cannot know that he is saved. He lives all his life in doubt and confusion. Such a one is often the most religious and devout among us, and they make great neighbors, for they labor for their own salvation. This belief is a vain hope. It is purely human in his basic precepts and dead wrong.
The contrasting view, held by very few, was the belief of the early church and of the reformation fathers. In contrast to Imparted Righteousness we call this position Imputed Righteousness. That is, God sees us as too sinful to be transformed into anything that could remotely be acceptable. We are without hope in our sin, but God sent his Son Jesus to take our place as a son of Adam. Jesus received our sin upon himself as if he were the sinner. God “imputed” our sin to the perfect God/Man Jesus. He dies as if he were the sinner and was raised from the dead because he was indeed righteous. God now imputes the righteousness of Jesus to all who will believe upon him. This is called “the gift of righteousness.” Romans 5:17.
Here is the contrast between the two positions: Imparted righteousness changes the individual so as to make him righteous. Imputed righteousness just changes the man’s legal standing with God. Imparted righteousness is the man’s own experience. Imputed righteousness is God’s experience of righteousness placed to the account of the sinner as if it were his. Read 1Corinthians 5:21. “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.”
You can listen to my “Righteousness” set of CDs and get this message in detail. The single message “Imputed Righteousness” discusses this subject in detail. If you want it in print, the last half of my book Divine Design covers this subject quite well.
Now, back to your preacher who claims to be sinless according to Romans 5:9. Anyone who claims to be sinless is a liar (1 John 1:8-10) and you need listen to him no further unless you just want a laugh. That is not the same as claiming to overcome sin as did the Apostle Paul. All believers have the power to sin not. And it is normal for a believer to sin not. But the power to sin not is not the same as being sinless. To claim sinlessness is to claim to not be able to sin. A Christian is able to sin not on a moment by moment basis, but he will always be able to sin until he gets rid of this fleshly body.
Could it be that the preacher actually said something like this, “Based on the imputed righteousness of Christ God sees me as sinless. God counts me as if I have never sinned. It is a free gift of perfect righteousness that God reckons to me”?
Any preacher worthy of the name should boldly profess to be enjoying the complete gift of God’s righteousness and he should also testify that God is delivering him from the acts of sin on a daily, moment by moment basis.
God made Jesus to be something he wasn’t—sin, so that he can make us something we are not—righteous. Just as Jesus received our sin in an act of faith, we receive his righteousness in an act of faith. My sin took Jesus where he did not deserve to go—death and hell, so his righteousness can take me where I do not deserve to go—eternal life and heaven.
See my gospel tract “God Made Jesus to be Sin.” It is free and downloadable.