(The Imputation of Sin to Christ)

by Stephen Charnock (1628-1680)

"God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." 2 Cor. 5:21

Our sins were imputed to him as to a sacrifice. Christ the just is put in the place of the unjust, to suffer for them (1 Peter 3 :18). Christ is said to bear sin, as a sacrifice bears sin (Isaiah 53:10, 12). His soul was made an offering for sin. But sin was so laid upon the victims, as that it was imputed to them in a judicial account manner according to the ceremonial law, and typically expiated by them. Christ would not have taken away our sins as Mediator, had he not borne the punishment of them. As a surety, 'He was made sin for us' (2 Corinthians 5:21), and he bore our sins, which is evident by the kind of death he suffered, not only sharp and shameful—but accursed, having a sense of God's wrath linked to it.

(1) Imputation cannot be understood of the infection of sin. The filth of our nature was not transmitted to him. Though he was made sin, yet he was not made a sinner by any infusion or transplantation of sin into his nature. It was impossible his holiness could be defiled with our filth.

(2) But our sin was the meritorious cause of his punishment. All those phrases, that 'Christ died for our sins' (1 Corinthians 15:3) and was 'delivered to death for our offenses' (Romans 4:25) clearly mean sin to be the meritorious cause of the punishment which Christ endured. Sin cannot be said to be the cause of punishment, except by way of merit. If Christ had not been just, he would not have been capable of suffering for us; had we not been unjust, we would not have merited any suffering for ourselves, much less for another. Our unrighteousness put us under a necessity of a sacrifice, and his righteousness made him fit to be one. What was the cause of the desert of suffering for us was the meritorious cause of the sufferings of the Redeemer after he put himself in our place. The sin of the offerer merited the death of the sacrifice presented in his stead.

(3) Our sins were charged upon him in regard of their guilt. Our sins are so imputed to him as that they are 'not imputed to us' (2 Corinthians 5:19), and not imputed to us because 'he was made a curse for us' (Galatians 3 :13). He bore our sins, as to the punishment, is granted. If he were an offering for them, they must in a judicial way be charged upon him. If by being 'made sin', be understood a sacrifice for sin (which indeed is the true intent of the word sometimes in scripture), sin was then legally transferred on the antitype, as it was on the types in the Jewish service by the ceremony of laying on of hands and confessing of sin, after which the thing so dedicated became accursed and though it was in itself innocent, yet was guilty in the sight of the law and as a substitute. In the same manner was Christ accounted. So on the contrary, believers are personally guilty, but by virtue of the satisfaction of this sacrifice imputed to them, they are judicially counted innocent. Christ, who never sinned, is put in such a state as if he had.

Now, as justifying righteousness is not inherent in us, but imputed to us; so our condemning sin was not inherent in Christ, but imputed to him. There would otherwise be no consistency in the antithesis: 'He has made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin' (2 Corinthians 5:21). He knew no sin, yet he became sin. It seems to carry the idea further than only the bearing of the punishment of sin. He was by law charged in our stead with the guilt of sin. Our iniquities were laid upon him (Isaiah 53:6). The prophet had spoken (verse 5) of Christ bearing the chastisement of our peace, the punishment of our sin, and then seems to declare the ground of that, which consisted in God's imputation of sin to him in laying upon him the iniquities of us all. What iniquities? Our goings astray, our turnings every one to his own way. He made him to be that sin which he knew not, but he knew the punishment of sin. The knowledge of that was the end of his coming. He came to lay down his life a ransom for many. He knew not sin by an experimental inherency [something in his own nature], but he knew it by judicial imputation. He knew it not in regard of the spots, but he knew it in regard of the guilt following upon the judgment of God. He was righteous in his person, but not in the sight of the law pronounced righteous as our Surety until after his sacrifice, when he was 'taken from prison and from judgment' (Isaiah 53:8). Until he had paid the debt, he was accounted as a debtor to God.

The apostle distinguishes his second coming from his first by this, 'He shall appear the second time without sin unto salvation' (Hebrews 9:28). It is not meant of the filth of sin, for so he appeared at first without sin. But he will appear without the guilt of sin which he had at his first coming derived or taken upon Himself to satisfy for and remove from the sinner. He shall appear without sin to be imputed, without punishment to be inflicted. At the time of His first coming he appeared with sin, with sin charged upon him, as our Surety arrested for our criminal debts. He pawned his life for the lives which we had forfeited. He suffered the penalty due by law that we might have deliverance free by grace. In his first coming he represented our persons as a substitute for us. Our sins were therefore laid upon him. In his second coming he represents God as a deputy, and so no sin can be charged upon him.

He cannot well be supposed to suffer for our sins, if our sins in regard of their guilt be not supposed to be charged upon him. How could he die, if he were not a sinner by imputation? Had he not first had a relation to our sin, he could not in justice have undergone our punishment. He must in the order of justice be either supposed a sinner really, or else by imputation. Since he was not a sinner really, he was so by imputation. How can we conceive that he should be made a curse for us, if that which made us accursed had not been first charged upon him? It is as much against divine justice to inflict punishment where there is no sin, as it is to spare an offender who has committed a crime or to 'clear the guilty'. This God will by no means do (Exodus 34:7). The consideration of a crime precedes the sentence, either upon an offender—or his surety. We cannot conceive how divine justice should inflict the punishment, had it not first considered him under guilt.

Though the first designation of the Redeemer to a suretyship or sacrifice for us, was an act of God's sovereignty, yet the inflicting punishment after that designation and our Savior’s acceptance of it was an act of God's justice, and so declared to be, 'to declare his righteousness, that he might be just' (Romans 3:26), that he might declare his justice in justification, his justice to his law. Can this highest declaration of justice be founded upon an unjust act? Would that have been justice or injustice to Christ, for God to lay his wrath upon the Son of his love, one whose person was always dear to him, always pleased him—had he not stood as a sinner regarded so by law in our stead, and suffered that sin, which was the ruin of mankind, to be cast with all the weight of it upon his innocent shoulders? After, by his own act, he had made himself responsible for our debt, God in justice might demand of him every farthing, which without that undertaking and putting himself in our stead could not be done. This submission of his and his readiness to suffer for it is expressed twice, by his not opening his mouth (Isaiah 53:7); and no wrong is done to a voluntary substitute.

Add this too. It is from his standing in our stead as guilty, that the benefit of his death redounds to us. His death would have had no relation to us, had not our sin been lawfully adjudged to be his; nor can we challenge a plead for pardon at the hands of God for our debts, if they were not our debts that he paid on the cross. 'He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities' (Isaiah 53:5). The laying hands on the head of the sin-offering was necessary to make it a sacrifice for the offender; without which ceremony it might have been a slain—but not a sacrificed animal. The transferring our iniquities upon him must in some way precede his being bruised for them, which could not be any other way than by imputation whereby he was constituted by God a debtor in our place, to bear the punishment of our sin. Since he was made sin for us, our sin was in a manner made his; he was made sin without sin; he knew the guilt without knowing the filth; he felt the punishment without being touched with the pollution. Since death was the wages of sin and passed as a penalty for a violated law (Romans 6:23) it could not righteously be inflicted on him, if sin had not first been imputed to him. In his own person he was in the arms of his Father's love—but as he represented our sinful persons, he felt the strokes of his Father's wrath.