The Bible sometimes has imputation without transfer. For example, Psalm 106: 30-31 tells us that “Phinehas stood up and intervened and the plague was stayed and that was counted to him as righteousness.” Nobody replaced Phinehas or did his killing work for him, nor is the idea that something not really righteous got counted as righteous. God counted Phinehas killing the two people as righteousness because it was righteousness, not to justify him but as sufficient cause to stop the plague against Israel. The story of Phinehas is not gospel, because it has no transfer to or from Jesus Christ. But God is righteous always and God imputes righteousness for what ii is.
The Bible also has imputation, and transfer, and still no gospel. When the sin of Adam is transferred to every human person (not when they are teenagers but when they are born), this transfer of guilt is not good news. God does not transfer the guilt of Adam to us because we are united to Adam in sharing the same nature. United to Adam by his guilt transferred to us, we share Adam’s nature. To make the union something prior to the guilt keeps begging several questions. Unless we know that a transfer of guilt is unjust, we have no reason to define our union with Adam in speculative or metaphysical terms about the organic essence of the one and the many. Transfer of guilt results in depravity and death. This depravity is not for the elect alone, because the guilt of Adam is not for the elect alone.
Not a transfer of depravity
The gospel has a glorious transfer , but It is not a transfer of depravity. Christ was not imputed with the depravity of the elect, but with their guilt. Even though depravity is part of the punishment for imputed guilt, Christ was not imputed with depravity but with guilt. The entire human race is now born guilty and depraved in nature. Christ was born truly human but not depraved. He did not have to be depraved to be human. Nor did He have to be guilty to be human. This means that Christ can be and was imputed with the guilt of the elect alone, and not with the guilt of the non-elect.
I do not know for sure when this guilt of the elect was transferred. Because of Christ’s lifelong suffering, I tend to agree with Smeaton that God transferred the guilt at His birth. Surely that guilt was not satisfied though until Christ physically died on account of the sins of the elect. But what we can say for sure is that not only punishment for guilt, but that guilt itself was transferred to Christ. The gospel is not only that Christ was sacrificed to death in some ambiguous or general way because of sins. The gospel talks about election, because the gospel talks about Christ bearing sins. Isaiah 53:5 speaks of the punishment which brought us peace. But Isaiah 53:6 also tells us that “The Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us.” The servant Christ bore not only punishment but also iniquity.
There is no biblical reason to isolate three hours of existential agony from all the rest that Christ suffered. As God uses Satan to cast out Satan, God can and does use sin against sin. We do not have to look for something direct and without the involvement of humans. God ordained specific sinners to sin against other specific sinners. And God ordained specific sinners to sin against the One who had been imputed with the sins of specific sinners. Using the power of the nation-state-empire, God punished Christ who was legally charged with all the sins of the elect alone. This is not unfair. It is good news but only for the elect.
Songs about us having crucified Jesus
Many religious songs have those who sing them confess themselves as having put Christ on the cross by their sins. But this sentimentality is false on several levels. First, if we all put Christ on the cross, then Christ died for all sinners, and that is the false gospel being taught almost everywhere, even in mainline Reformed groups. Second, nobody but God has the ultimate power to put Christ on the cross. If we all are supposed to feel bad about crucifying Christ, then is God also to apologise? May it never be! Acts 2:23-24, “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” The Bible teaches that God’s sovereignty does not eliminate the accountability or agency of sinners. Certain specific lawless men killed Christ. But also, God gave Christ up to die for the sins of the elect alone. God and not man determined for whom Christ would die. Christ purposed that He would die. God purposed that Christ would die. This does not eliminate the accountability of “the lawless men”, even if they were soldiers, or of the “you” Peter is addressing in Acts 2. Specific humans 2000 years ago purposed that Christ would die. This means that not all humans purposed that Christ would die. His mother Mary, for example, did not kill or intend to kill Christ.
If we sing about having ourselves put Christ on the cross, we do not yet understand what the gospel teaches about the transfer of guilt. We are not the imputers. We do not get to decide when and if we put our sins on Christ. We do not get the opportunity to contribute our sins so that then Christ contributes His righteousness. Neither election nor non-election is conditioned on our sins. Yes, those specific lawless men were guilty of what they did. Even though they did not know what they were doing, they could be forgiven for that sin without being justified and forgiven of all their sins. The cross is not what condemns. Good news for the elect, the gospel is not what condemns the non-elect. Rejecting the cross is not what condemns the non-elect, because we are all already condemned in Adam . The false gospel which says that Jesus Christ died for every sinner is not gospel. The false gospel turns a supposedly universal death into guilt for those who don’t meet the conditions which supposedly make that death effective.
Stricken by God for whom?
I am not attempting to minimize the guilt of the rulers and accomplices who killed Jesus Christ. And there is an analogy between all our sins and the sins of those who nailed Christ to the cross. We are all guilty in different ways of misjudging who God is and not loving God and not desiring what God values. Isaiah 53: 2, “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; as one from men hide their faces; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” Were you there? No, most of us were not, but every one of us has had this attitude toward Christ. Some of us are liberals who confessed for the conservatives that they “esteemed him stricken by God”, and confessed for ourselves that we knew better than to think of God as violent or punishing or guilt-transferring. Others of us are conservatives who confessed that Christ was indeed afflicted by God for every sinner, including the many sinners who one day will be afflicted by God for the very same sin.
The false gospel which says that Christ was afflicted for sins but that this did not take away sins unless the sinners accept it is not gospel. A conditional gospel is no closer to the gospel , no better than the false hope that says Christ’s death is unnecessary. To claim that Christ’s death is needed but not sufficient of itself to save anybody is to say that Christ died for no reason for the non-elect. If He died so that an offer could be made, but the offer does not save, then He died for no purpose. If He died, but what saves is accepting an offer, then His death is not about the bearing of guilt. If His death is not about the specific sins of the specific elect, then His death is not about propitiation or satisfaction of justice but only nonsense. We can sing all we want about such a death, and even confess that we too put Christ on the cross, but if the cross has become about what we do there at its foot, then we have turned the cross into an altar for our idolatry.
Isaiah 53: 6, “The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Us all is not every person who reads Isaiah 53. “Us all” is the elect, the many with Him whom God will divide a portion. It is this same many who the righteous one, the servant, will make to be accounted righteous. God will count this many righteous. Christ the servant is the one who will have made this many to be so counted. How? Isaiah 53:11, “He shall bear their iniquities.” The key here is not how many but that the very same many for whom the Servant bears sins are the many who will be counted righteous. Isaiah 53 has no idea in it that Christ will have died for some who will not be justified. Only if all will be justified can it be said that Christ bore all sins. Christ is God, and God does not have to heal or save an infinite number of sinners because He is God.. God can do things by measure. God does do things by measure. It’s nonsense to say that Christ carried away the sins of those who still perish because of their sins. Christ’s death on the cross was not occasioned by a group of singers who claim to be accountable for it. Nor was the ultimate cause of Christ’s death the actions of sinners who really were accountable. There is nothing abstract or theoretical about a transfer of guilt. It’s that transfer which is the final reason that “he poured out His soul unto death.” (Isaiah 53:12)
Not what sinners did with Christ or do with Christ
God uses Satan to cast out Satan, and punishes sin with sin. Romans 1 does not describe this revelation of God’s wrath as some deistic law in which God is not involved personally. God Himself gives sinners over to sinners and to sin. The gospel is not in the end about what sinners did with Christ. Rather, it is about what God did with Christ, about God transferring the guilt of the elect to Him who knew no sin. II Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin…” We don’t get an offer to transfer out guilt retroactively to Christ. God has either already transferred the guilt of a sinner to Christ or God has not, and even when the elect sinner has not yet been joined to Christ and His death by justification, the transfer of the elect’s guilt to Christ has made it not only certain but judicially necessary that the elect will be joined to that death. Hebrews 9:12, “He entered once for all into the holy places by means of His own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.”
I want to go back once again to II Corinthians 5:21. Christ was not only made to be a sin offering. Christ was made to be sin. Christ was made to be a sin offering only because Christ was first made to be sin. Guilt was transferred to Christ. As the justified become the righteousness because of the transfer of righteousness, Christ was condemned because of the transfer of the guilt of sin. The parallel is not between become the sacrificial sin-offering and become the righteousness. The parallel is between becoming guilty and becoming justified. When guilt was transferred to Christ, He was then guilty. When righteousness is transferred to the elect, then the elect become the righteousness. Then, and only then, are they called by His name (Jeremiah 23:6) The elect alone will be called, “The Lord our Righteousness.” (Jeremiah 33:16)
Even the scapegoat (Leviticus 16) dies out in the wilderness, but to understand this picture of Christ’s death, we need to see that it’s not everybody’s guilt which is transferred to the scapegoat. Nor is it the guilt of those who accept an offer or sing about having crucified Jesus. The transfer of guilt is not conditioned on faith. Faith in the gospel is a result of having been elect so that Christ bore the elect’s guilt while they were ungodly. The transfer of guilt is not conditioned on union by new birth.
No imputation until in Christ?
I like this quotation from Louis Berkhof (Systematic, p452): “It is sometimes said that the merits of Christ cannot be imputed to us as long as we are not in Christ, since it is only on the basis of our oneness with Him that such an imputation can be reasonable. But this view fails to distinguish between our legal unity with Christ and our spiritual oneness with Him, and it is a falsification of the fundamental element in the doctrine of redemption, namely of the doctrine of justification. Justification is always a declaration of God, not on the basis of an existing condition, but on that of a gracious imputation—a declaration which is not in harmony with the existing condition of the sinner.” Regeneration cannot be before God’s imputation of Christ’s death, or the efficacy of Christ’s death would be made to depend on regeneration and faith. Regeneration and faith are necessary, but not as conditions of God’s joining the elect to Christ’s death. (Romans 6, placed into the death)
Regeneration and faith are necessary results of God’s imputation of Christ’s death to the elect , and nothing that I know in the Bible teaches that justification happens thousands of years before regeneration and faith. Romans 8:10 again, “The Spirit is life because of righteousness.” But the transfer of the elect’s guilt to Christ DOES INDEED take place in many cases thousands of years before or after their justification, and before or after the elect are in Christ.
This justification, when it does happen, is not the result of the life which results from justification. Justification is a result of the transfer of the elect’s guilt to Christ. Before life, by being legally placed into Christ and joined to Christ’s death, the ungodly become no more ungodly. The guilty become no longer guilty. They become in Christ the righteousness of God. To be in Christ does have the result of Christ being in the justified. There is a difference between being justified in Christ and Christ being in the justified. The difference is that justification is not based on Christ within but on what Christ’s finished death outside the elect, before or after the elect’s justification.
The legal life of the justified is based on what Christ’s death accomplished outside the elect. The merit of that death, the righteousness of that obedience to death, is not something inside the elect, like the new birth or faith. The righteousness is in heaven, not in Christ’s person separated from His work, and not in Christ’s work separated from His person. It is a righteousness outside the justified sinner which God counts as the righteousness of the justified sinner. II Corinthians 5:15, “He died for all, that those who live would no longer live for themselves, but for him who for their sake died and was raised.”
Two indicative standings
The text is not saying that those not justified before God have no ethical obligations before God. But justified folks have a duty to live for Christ. The life lived by justified people is important without being the condition by which they are to be justified. When II Corinthians 5:15 identifies “those who live”, that indicative situation of being alive is not about the experience of new birth and faith. When II Corinthians 5:14 identifies “all who have died”, that indicative situation of being dead by Christ’s death is not about a definitive sanctification experience. (John Murray teaches this in his atonement book, and thus misunderstands both Romans 6 and II Corinthians 5, as pointed out by Norman Douty.) The reason those who live have passed from death to life is that they have legally died by being joined to the death of Christ. The result is legal life, eternal life, justification before God. John 5:24, “He does come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.”
This indicative means that the justified now will not be justified by works at some future judgment. Those who are justified already have their names written in “another book” (Daniel 12;1, Revelation 20:11-12) Only the non-elect will be judged according to their works because only they will still be legally dead before God’s throne. The non-elect will be judged on the basis of works; in accordance with works the non-elect will receive what is their due (Romans 4:4). Those who are justified have legal life now as a gift. They will not be judged, because they have been judged in Christ’s death. Their guilt was transferred to Christ and they were justified when they were joined to Christ’s death for their guilt. On that final day, it will be too late for anybody to be justified. If one puts justification after life, it’s too late for justification. If one puts justification after a person’s new birth, then the justification is conditioned on the new birth and that’s not biblical justification. If one puts justification after a person has died physically and after Christ has returned, then the justification is conditioned on works and that’s not biblical justification either.