By Spencer D Gear
A Christian woman whom I have known for 25 years contacted me recently as she has problems understanding some biblical teachings after listening to a prominent evangelical preacher, John MacArthur, on YouTube. Please understand that these are her understandings from what she heard online.
Her difficulties were:
- ‘Jesus lay aside some of His eternal rights/attributes and became totally dependent of the Father’;
- MacArthur talks about how Jesus lay aside ‘somehow’ His holiness and became sin;
- He talked about our struggle is the opposite we struggle to lay aside ‘sin’ to attain holiness.
- ‘Jesus would stop being God if He were not eternally Holy. How then can he become sin? So I find the concept hard to reconcile in my mind’.
- ‘I thought He was punished for our sin, not that sin and evil clothed Him. So Jesus temptation was to NOT let sin cover Him but remain as He was absolutely Holy’.
- ‘But then as I write this I “know” that He is and always has been absolutely holy’.
- ‘Or does He allow sin/evil to cover Him, not change Him, but to draw so near it (sin) it was on Him’.
- ‘Thus the Father turns away and He is punished as if He has committed the sin Himself. I always thought Jesus was untouched by filth and evil but took the punishment for our actions in His complete purity. Is it as though the Father “bathed Him in our filth” or He allowed that filth to touch Him and then was punished as though He was our filth. Hard concept for me to understand’.
This Christian has been doing some deep thinking about the Christian faith and what Jesus did for her and she’s struggling to understand how Jesus became sin for Christians through his death on the cross.
How should I reply?
The doctrine of imputation
How can Jesus become sin for us? This is the doctrine of imputation – how our sins were imputed to Christ when he died for us on the cross. What does that mean? I recommend that you take a read of this excellent explanation with some good illustrations: ‘Our sins are imputed to Christ‘ by Ernest L Martin.
‘Impute’ is forensic language – the language of the courts. It means to charge to, to reckon to. The biblical examples of the need for this are in passages such as:
1. ‘The LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all’ (Isa 53:6);
2. ‘He bore the sin of many’ (Isa 53:11);
3. Remember John the Baptist’s words: ‘The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world’ (Jn 1:29);
4. God made Christ ‘to be sin, who knew no sin’ (2 Cor 5:21);
5. Christ became ‘a curse for us’ (Gal 3:13);
6. Christ was ‘offered once to bear the sins of many’ (Heb 9:28);
7. ‘He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree’ (1 Pt 2:24).
If we pick up the verses from Isaiah and 2 Cor 5:21, we see that by a legal/forensic act, God the Father has put the believers’ sins on Jesus. They have been reckoned to Jesus’ account. Wayne Grudem put is this way:
It was God the Father who put our sins on Christ. How could that be? In the same way in which Adam’s sins were imputed to us, so God imputed our sins to Christ; that is, he thought of them as belonging to Christ, and, since God is the ultimate judge and definer of what really is in the universe, when God thought of our sins as belonging to Christ then in fact they actually did belong to Christ. This does not mean that God thought that Christ had himself committed the sins, or that Christ himself actually had a sinful nature, but rather that the guilt of our sins (that is, the liability to punishment) was thought of by God as belonging to Christ rather than to us (Grudem 1999:253).
In simple language, when God imputed human beings’ sins to Jesus, God thought of them as belonging to Jesus Christ. That’s the meaning of the Greek word, logizomai, which is essentially “to consider” or “to reckon something to be so.” So God decided as a legal act from his throne that the sins of human beings who trust in Christ belong to Jesus. This is the marvellous action of the designer of the universe that he should do this for us. Imputation deals with our legal position before God regarding sin and death. By our sins legally belonging to Jesus, we can have the marvellous gift of fellowship with and be in a right relationship with God.
The righteousness of Christ is imputed
But this happens because there is another dimension to imputation. The righteousness of Christ is imputed to the believer. In basic language, it means that the merits of Jesus are put into the account of another – Christians. We get this message from 2 Cor 5:21, ‘God made him who had no sin to be sin [or, a sin offering] for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (ESV).
This is not God’s attribute of righteousness because our faith in Christ doesn’t have to do with that. But this relates to the righteousness that God has provided for anyone who has faith in Jesus alone for salvation. God restores us to favour with Himself by imputing to us Christ’s righteousness.
We must not forget that this is a legal arrangement between God and us that is made possible because our sins are imputed to Christ and we receive a righteous provision to be able to enter God’s presence.
Grudem summarises this for us:
(C) GOD CAN DECLARE US TO BE JUST BECAUSE HE IMPUTES CHRIST’S RIGHTEOUSNESS TO US
When Adam sinned, his guilt was imputed to us. In other words, God the Father viewed it as belonging to us, and therefore it did. In the same way Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us, and therefore God thinks of it as belonging to us. It is not our own righteousness that we have earned in some way, but Christ’s righteousness that is freely given to us.
- Paul says that God made Christ to be our righteousness (1 Corinthians 1:30)
- Paul speaks of a righteousness that is not his own, but instead is through faith in Christ (Philippians 3:9)
- All who believe in Christ have been made righteous before God (Romans 3:21-22)
This idea that God declares us to be just or righteous not on the basis of our actual condition, but rather on the basis of Christ’s perfect righteousness was the heart of the difference between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism at the Reformation. Grudem covers the error of the Catholic Church teaching derived from the Council of Trent. The consequence of this view of justification held by many Catholics is that our eternal life with God is not based on God’s grace alone, but partially on our merit as well or as Catholic Theologian Ludwig Ott stated “For the justified eternal life is both a gift of grace promised by God and a reward for his own good works and merits…. Salutary works are, at the same time, gifts of God and meritorious acts of man.” This is not supported Biblically. Justification is all God, and not by any merit in us (Source, a longer version is in Grudem 1999:318-320).
So when people are justified by Christ through faith in Jesus alone, they have had their sins pardoned. The penalty of their sins has been remitted (given to Jesus’ account) and they have been restored to proper relationship with God. Why? It happens because our sins have been imputed to Christ (he has become sin for us) and the righteousness of Christ has been imputed to us.
I hope that this gives a starter in understanding this wonderful doctrine of the imputation of our sins to Christ and Christ’s righteousness being imputed to us.
Grudem, W 1999. Ed by J Purswell. Bible doctrine: Essential teachings of the Christian faith. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press.
 Her email was received by me on 13 May 2014.
 My email reply was sent on 15 May 2014.
Copyright © 2014 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 18 November 2015.