J. V. Fesko
Academic Dean & Professor of Systematic Theology & Historical Theology
In the highly individualistic age in which we live, few embrace the idea that we can be held accountable for the actions of others. But the Bible paints a very different picture. The Bible teaches us that God holds us accountable for our own sins. Christ’s words about this are very clear (Matt. 12:36-37). But we are also connected to the people and world around us. People unconsciously recognize this intra-human bond in their day-to-day lives. We do not live in isolated bubbles—the actions of one person often ripple throughout an entire community. The Bible recognizes this relationship and explains the connection that all people have to one of two figures, either Adam or Christ.
The apostle Paul spells out the implications of the respective representative actions of Adam and Christ: “For as the one man’s disobedience the many were constituted sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be constituted righteous” (Rom. 5:19, trans. mine). Adam’s one sin was a representative action—God imputed, or credited, his one sinful deed to all humanity. Conversely, God imputes Christ’s representative obedience to all those who believe in him: “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men” (Rom. 5:18). These statements constitute the heart of the doctrine of imputation. God holds us accountable, therefore, both for our own personal actions, and for the actions of either Adam or Christ. The Bible sets forth three key imputations: Adam to all humanity, the sins of the elect to Christ, and the righteousness of Christ to the elect. There are a number of biblical texts in the Old and New Testament that address these three imputations.
The Bible sets forth three key imputations: Adam to all humanity, the sins of the elect to Christ, and the righteousness of Christ to the elect.
As noted above, God imputes Adam’s sin to all human beings: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12). If we look at the world for a moment, we see the truth of this statement with the naked eye. People from nation, age, social, and economic class are subject to death. Why, for example, are infants subject to death if they have never personally committed a conscious sin? Quite simply, they are subject to death because of Adam’s representative action. In theological terms, God holds us accountable for actual sin (our own personal transgressions) and original sin (Adam’s first disobedience).
God imputes the sins of the elect to Christ and Christ’s righteousness or obedience to the elect. Paul reveals this truth in non-legal terminology when he writes: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). Paul does not use the legal terminology that we find in Romans 5:19, that is, God “appoints,” or, “constitutes” (kathestemi) people as sinners or as righteous. Here Paul explains that God made Christ sin. This does not mean that he created sin in Christ; rather, Christ bore it on our behalf. Conversely, God made Christ sin so that we might become the righteousness of God. Paul writes, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself” (2 Cot. 5:17-18, emphasis, trans. mine). We receive the righteousness of God through the ministry of Christ when God imputes his perfect obedience to us by faith alone. The same manner by which God makes Christ sin is the same way he conveys Christ’s righteousness—by imputation.
“We receive the righteousness of God through the ministry of Christ when God imputes his perfect obedience to us by faith alone.”
Paul’s subtext to 2 Corinthians 5:21 is Isaiah 53, a prophecy that has its roots in the Old Testament Day of Atonement. This is significant for at least two reasons. One, Isaiah is a text that deals with imputation: “By his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities . . . because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors” (v. 11-12). Two, when the prophet states that Christ would “bear their iniquities,” this is language from the Day of Atonement. The high priest was supposed to lay his hands on the scape goat and the goat was supposed to “bear” the sins and take them away (Lev. 16:22). The big difference between the Day of Atonement and Isaiah’s prophet vision of Christ’s crucifixion is that God did not impute our sins to an animal but to his only begotten Son. Paul’s statements in 2 Corinthians 5:21, therefore, have deep taproots into the Old Testament.
Imputation is not about a cold calculus of salvation where God moves numbers around in his divine ledger to ensure that he gets his pound of flesh in the punishment of the wicked—far from it. The Son of God entered the far country, suffered the penalty of the law on our behalf, and clothed us with his spotless robe of righteousness. Because of the sacrificial love of our elder brother, we are prodigals no more. We do not have to try to swindle our way into God’s favor but rather enter boldly in his presence wearing our elder brother’s coat of righteousness so that we receive the blessing of our heavenly Father (cf. Zech. 3:1ff). What wonderful manner of love is this that we should be called, “children of God,” and so we are (1 John 3:1).
Dr. Fesko’s book, Death in Adam, Life in Christ: The Doctrine of Imputation, treats this subject in much greater detail.