We Do Not Make One Side of the Exchange
Neo-Calvinists often tell us that “God wants us to exchange our self-righteousness for Christ’s righteousness.” As the old slogan has it–all you contribute is your sins. But it is not so. God has already (or not) made the exchange. For some, that is for all elect sinners, God has already imputed their sins to Christ. In time, it is God (not these sinners) who will impute Christ’s death (His righteousness) to the sinners.
But why be picky about this? Because the gospel of Jesus Christ is about God’s sovereign JUSTICE. The gospel is about the salvation of the elect which God owes the elect, not because of any exchange the elect make, but because God has already atttributed all the sins of all the elect to Christ. Since Christ has already died for all those sins, it would be unjust for God not to save those sinners.
Now, some liberals (Socinians) don’t like that idea of retributive justice. If it’s strict justice, they complain, then it can’t be forgiveness. And if it’s forgiveness, then no justice was absolutely or strictly necessary. (Some of them think a governmental display of “absorbing sins” would be good for apologetic order.)
And the neo-Calvinists who still want to be “evangelicals” (Arminians also) also have a problem with the idea that what Christ did entitles Christ to the salvation of His specific individuals. So they don’t talk about election, or about the elect having already been given to Christ, but instead they talk about “the covenant” or “those who believe” (what?).
RC Sproul in his book on the Holiness of God (p 111) explains it this way: “Mercy is not justice, but also is not injustice. We may see non-justice in God, which is mercy, but we never see injustice in God.” But this is not the way the Bible explains the righteousness of Christ.
Romans 5: 17 For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.18 Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. 19 For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. 20 Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21 so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also would reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Grace reigns through justice, and all for whom Christ did His obedience unto death will one day be constituted righteous. Christ did not die for Judas. Judas never sinned against God’s grace or Christ’s love, because Christ never loved Judas. But it would be injustice for a person for whom Christ died to not be forgiven because they had failed “to make the exchange” or “to accept the exchange” .
Those who know the gospel know the good news of election and justice, and so they know that it was not their contribution of sins which makes them to differ from those who “didn’t contribute their sins” or “give up their self-righteousness”. The problem with talking about God’s “non-justice” is that it effectively turns the gospel into a “possibility”. And if salvation is possible if you “make the exchange”, then Christ’s death is possibly ineffective if you don’t make the exchange. “Non-justice” only makes mercy possible. The righteousness of Christ makes divine mercy to the elect (all for whom Christ died) a matter of justice to Christ.
This wonderful truth is perhaps seen at its clearest in Isaiah 53:
10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
he has put him to grief;
when his blood makes an offering for guilt,
he SHALL see his offspring; he SHALL prolong his days;
the will of the Lord SHALL prosper in his hand.
11 Out of the anguish of his soul’s death he SHALL see and be satisfied;
by his knowledge SHALL the righteous one, my servant,
make many to be counted righteous,
and he SHALL bear their iniquities.
12 THREFORE I WILL divide him a portion with the many,
and he SHALL divide the spoil with the strong,
because he poured out his soul to death
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and makes intercession for the transgressors.
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. Although those who believe the gospel are commanded to reckon what God has already reckoned, we can never be the original reckoners.
Yes, those specific lawless men who put Christ on the cross were guilty of what they did. But the cross is not what condemns. The non-elect do not sin against God’s grace. The gospel is good news for the elect, and 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.