It has become fashionable to question the traditional Protestant teaching on the imputation of the 'alien' righteousness of Christ to the believer. Richard Gaffin recently wrote that,
"righteousness, as imputed, is, in an absolutely critical sense, anything but 'alien'. Here imputation, realised in union with Christ, results in a 'fellowship of righteousness' [Calvin's words]. It is an imputed righteousness, which does not, indeed cannot, exist apart from that union. Why? Because it is not an abstract entity but his righteousness that is imputed to me, reckoned as mine." (Always Reforming, editor A. T. B. McGowan, IVP, 2006, p. 286).
I found myself nodding in agreement when I first read that statement. It is certainly true that Christ's righteousness has become ours because of our union with him. He is "THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS." (Jeremiah 23:6). So far, so good.
But reading John Webster's Holiness gave me pause for thought. Webster insists that the holiness of the church and the individual believer is an alien holiness. Now, Protestant theology has long held to the alien nature of justifying righteousness. This safeguards the gracious character of justification. We are justified by Christ's righteousness, not by any works of our own. But Webster insists that holiness too is 'alien' partly because he wants to distance himself from social trinitarianism. That school of thought tends to overemphasise the Church's participation in the life of the Trinity. The distinction between God's intertrinitarian fellowship and the Church can therefore become dangerously blurred. This is what leads Webster to posit that the Church's holiness is in fact an alien holiness. Her holiness is the gift of God's electing grace, effected by the cleansing power of Christ's blood, created and sustained by the sanctifying work of the Spirit.
"The Church's holiness is therefore an alien sanctity. Because the Church is holy by grace, and because grace is a movement of relation and not a mere handing over of a commodity, then in the case of the Church the attribution of holiness is not a matter of straightforward ascription of a property. God's holiness is proper to him; indeed, it is him, for he is originally holy. The holiness of the Church by contrast, is not a natural or cultural condition. As with all the predicates of the Church, the Church is what it is spiritually, that is, by virtue of the presence and action of the triune God. (Holiness, John Webster, 2003, SCM Press, p. 62-63).
This stress on the alienness of the Church's sanctification reminds us that holiness cannot be possessed or domesticated by the Church. She is holy by virtue of the gracious activity of God.
So, maybe there is some value in retaining the notion of alienness. Yes, we are united to Christ so what is his has become ours. We are righteous and holy in him. But our union with him is not ontological, it is soteriological. The distinction between the believer and Christ remains intact. It is his righteousness and blood alone that saves, apart from anything that we have done. In this sense, righteousness and holiness are properly alien to us. They certainly lie outside of us until we are united to Christ by faith. I am not suggesting for a moment that Gaffin's construction would deny this last point. He emphasises that it is Christ's righteousness as imputed that is not alien to the believer. But even when Christ's righteousness is imputed to us, we are accounted righteous in him and because of him not for anything in us. The older language of alienness reminds us that both righteousness and holiness are gifts of grace, not achievements of the believer.