In Genesis 15:6, Abraham was counted righteous. The verb employed[i] specifies that the patriarch was accounted or reckoned as righteous; the imputation of righteousness, rather than an infusion of righteousness, is in view. Many texts with the word clearly speak of imputation or accounting,[ii] in many others the idea of making, transforming, or infusing is evidently impossible,[iii] and no passages with the verb in question clearly speak of any kind of infusion. When Phinehas’ stand for Jehovah and against Baalpeor was reckoned to him as righteousness (Psalm 106:31), the Divine act was certainly an accounting of Phinehas’ act as righteous, rather than infusing goodness into or transforming his act into a good one. Likewise, when Nehemiah made men treasurers because they were “counted faithful” (Nehemiah 13:13),[iv] the accounting did not make the men faithful or infuse faithfulness into them, but was an accounting that they were indeed faithful men. Thus, Genesis 15:6 speaks of the legal[v] reckoning of Abraham as righteous. He was reckoned righteous at the judgment bar of God, rather than in the eyes of men, or in some other way, for Jehovah was the One who accounted the patriarch righteous. The opposite of a man having righteousness accounted to him, as in Genesis 15:6, is to have iniquity imputed (2 Samuel 19:19). One who has blood imputed to him is reckoned as being guilty of shedding blood (Leviticus 17:4), while the benefit of sacrificial offering in expiation is imputed when received in the proper manner, but not otherwise (Leviticus 7:18); by imputation one is reckoned as and treated as the possessor of whatever is imputed. Thus, when Abraham was reckoned as righteous in Genesis 15:6, his being accounted righteous, rather than his personal acquisition of inward holiness, is in view. Abraham, and all the righteous from the time of the first announcement of the gospel in Genesis 3:15, acknowledged their need for gratuiously imputed righteousness, and the Divine provision of such in the Messiah, through their offering of animal sacrifices, as ordained by God from the beginning (Genesis 3:20-21; 4:4); the blessed substitution that merited the imputation of an alien righteousness, historically accomplished on the cross, not salvation by personal merit, was manifestly set forth in the sacrifical types. Similarly, David records: “Blessed is the man unto whom the LORD imputeth not iniquity,”[vi] the man to whom, although sinful in himself, righteousness instead of iniquity is Divinely imputed, whose “transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” This man is he who has received David’s call to all nations to faith in God’s “Son,” for “blessed are all they that put their trust in him” (Psalm 2:12), even as all are blessed who hope (Psalm 146:5) or trust in Jehovah.[vii] Thus, “faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness” (Romans 4:9)[viii] in a legal or judicial sense. Genesis 15:6 refers solely to an imputed righteousness. The outward righteousness of those imputed righteous, the outward evidential just character manifested in them, is a consequent that follows from the receipt of imputed righteousness, and faith, not as a meritorious instrument, but because it embraces God and receives all freely from Him, is the root of spiritual life in all the people of God.
The syntax of Psalm 106:31 is very similar to that of Genesis 15:6 in its account of reckoning. Concerning Psalm 106:31, John Gill notes:
And that was counted unto him for righteousness, &c. Not for his justifying righteousness before God; for all the works of righteousness done by the best of men cannot justify them before him, much less a single action: but his executing judgment in the manner he did, or slaying the above two persons, was esteemed a righteous action by the Lord himself; who upon it caused the plague to cease, and likewise gave to Phinehas the covenant of an everlasting priesthood, and to his posterity; whereby the action had eternal honour put upon it, and was sufficiently secured from the calumny of men; who might condemn it as a rash action done by a private person, assuming the office of a public magistrate; and as being a cruel one, not giving the criminals time for repentance. But all this is set aside by the testimony of God himself, approving of it; and so it continues to be esteemed, as it is said it should, unto all generations for evermore: whenever it is spoken of, it is spoken of with commendation, as a righteous action, as expressive of true zeal for the Lord of hosts.
Likewise, Keil & Delitzsch note:
This act of zeal for [Jehovah], which compensated for Israel’s unfaithfulness, was accounted unto [Phinehas] for righteousness, by his being rewarded for it with the priesthood unto everlasting ages, Num. 25:10–13. This accounting of a work for righteousness is only apparently contradictory to Gen. 15:5f.: it was indeed an act which sprang from a constancy in faith [cf. Psalm 106:24], and one which obtained for him the acceptation of a righteous man for the sake of this upon which it was based, by proving him to be such.
Concerning Psalm 106:31 “we should compare for the expression Genesis 15:6, the only passage where it occurs, and for the subject, Deuteronomy 6:25; 24:13 . . . Psalm 24:5. The language does not refer to the first justification, but to the second, to the good works of one already in a state of grace, by which he obtains from God, who recompenses every one according to his works, a reward of grace, as Phinehas obtained on the present occasion the priesthood for his family, comp. Numbers 25:13” (Comment on Psalm 106:31, Commentary on the Psalms, vol. 3., E. W. Hengstenberg). That is, Phinehas’ act could only be accounted as righteous because Phinehas’ person had already been accounted righteous through Jehovah’s gratuitous justification; Phinehas had Christ as his Mediator, as one who sanctified the iniquity that otherwise would corrupt even the holiest actions of believers and prevent them from being acceptable in the sight of Jehovah (Exodus 28:38).
[i] bvj. The complete list of references in the Old Testament is: Genesis 15:6; 31:15; 38:15; 50:20; Exodus 31:4; 35:32; Leviticus 7:18; 17:4; 25:27, 31, 50, 52; 27:18, 23; Numbers 18:27, 30; 23:9; Deuteronomy 2:11, 20; Joshua 13:3; Esther 8:3; 9:24–25; 1 Samuel 1:13; 18:25; 2 Samuel 4:2; 14:13–14; 19:19; 1 Kings 10:21; 2 Kings 12:15; 22:7; 2 Chronicles 2:14; 9:20; Nehemiah 6:2, 6; 13:13; Job 6:26; 13:24; 18:3; 19:11, 15; 33:10; 35:2; 41:27, 29, 32; Psalm 10:2; 21:11; 32:2; 35:4, 20; 36:4; 40:17; 41:7; 44:22; 52:2; 73:16; 77:5; 88:4; 106:31; 119:59; 140:2, 4; 144:3; Proverbs 16:9, 30; 17:28; 24:8; 27:14; Isaiah 2:22; 5:28; 10:7; 13:17; 29:16–17; 32:15; 33:8; 40:15, 17; 53:3–4; Jeremiah 11:19; 18:8, 11, 18; 23:27; 26:3; 29:11; 36:3; 48:2; 49:20, 30; 50:45; Lamentations 2:8; 4:2; Ezekiel 11:2; 38:10; Daniel 11:24–25; Hosea 7:15; 8:12; Amos 6:5; Jonah 1:4; Micah 2:1, 3; Nahum 1:9, 11; Zechariah 7:10; 8:17; Malachi 3:16.
[ii] Genesis 31:15; Leviticus 7:18; 17:4; Numbers 18:27, 30; Numbers 23:9; 2 Samuel 19:19; 2 Kings 12:15; 22:7; Job 13:24; 18:3; 19:11, 15; 33:10; Psalm 32:2; 106:31; Proverbs 17:28; Isaiah 29:16-17; 32:15; 40:15, 17; Lamentations 4:2.
[iii] Genesis 38:15; Leviticus 25:27; Deuteronomy 2:11, 20; 1 Samuel 1:13; 18:25; 1 Kings 10:21; 2 Chronicles 9:20; Nehemiah 13:13; Job 13:24; 18:3; 19:11, 15; 33:10; 41:27, 29; Psalm 77:5; 88:4; Proverbs 17:28; Isaiah 13:17; 53:4; Jeremiah 36:3; Hosea 8:12; Zechariah 7:10; 8:17;
[iv] …wb$DvVj‰n ‹MyˆnDmTa‰n. Note the use of Nma and bvj.
[v] cf. Leviticus 7:18; 17:4; 25:31; Numbers 18:27, 30; Joshua 13:3; 2 Samuel 4:2; 2 Samuel 19:19; Psalm 32:2;
[vi] Psalm 32:2; Romans 4:1-8.
[vii] Psalm 34:8; 84:12.
[viii] ∆Elogi÷sqh twˆ◊ ∆Abraa»m hJ pi÷stiß ei˙ß dikaiosu/nhn.