Christ our righteousness #3 A real Redeemer supplied
How can God remain holy and yet declare a sinner righteous in his sight? How can he be just and yet justify a sinner (Rom 3.26)? If God is to be just, sin must be punished – it cannot be overlooked, excused, or forgotten: it must be dealt with in righteousness. So, if God does not impute our trespasses to us (v19) then how does he deal with sins in accordance with his holiness?
The non-imputation of our sins rests upon the fact that Christ was made our substitute: he paid the price of our ransom from the guilt and power of sin, and its necessary and appropriate penalty.
He was qualified in himself for such a substitution, for he ‘knew no sin’. Of all men who ever lived, only Jesus the Christ was entirely without sin. Peter quotes Isaiah to tell us that he “committed no sin, nor was deceit found in his mouth” (1Pt 2.22), calling our attention to the fact that his blood was “precious . . . as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1Pt 1.19). The writer to the Hebrews builds his case for the absolute supremacy of Christ in part upon his sinlessness, informing us that he was “without sin” (Heb 4.15), “holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners” (Heb 7.26). Given the opportunity, even Christ’s enemies could bring no charge against him to convict him of sin (Jn 8.46); Pilate himself, that vacillating judge, confessed that “I find no fault in him” (Jn 19.4). The Lord Jesus recognised sin for what it was, and was grieved, appalled and angered by it, but he had no personal acquaintance with it: he was a stranger to it in his personal experience. He never indulged in sin, never committed one transgression, was guilty of no iniquity. He had no trespasses of his own to be imputed to his own account.
This one, whose sinlessness Chrysostom exposits and throws into sharp relief by speaking of him as ‘Righteousness-itself,’ was alone capable of standing for others precisely because he was under no obligations of his own. Perhaps a very prosaic illustration will help. Imagine that you have done your weekly shop, and – as tends to be the case – you have as many heavy bags as you have fingers, and you pull up outside your home and open the boot of the car to carry your bags inside. Your neighbour looks over and sees you struggling with the burden. If he had likewise just pulled up with his own shopping, and was laden down with it, he would be in no position to assist you with yours. If he was carrying any of his own, he would not be able to bear all of yours. But, fortunately, he has no burden of his own, and so is able to come and relieve you of the entirety of the weight that you would otherwise have to bear. So with Christ: having nothing of his own to bear, he is able to relieve us of the entirety of the sins that would otherwise be put to our account. He alone, being sinless, was able to bear the sin of others.
And that is precisely what he did: being qualified, he accomplished in himself this substitution. “God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us.” Peter tells us that this sinless one “himself bore our sins in his own body on the tree” (1Pt 2.24). Isaiah uses similar words: “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all . . . he bore the sin of many” (Is 53.6, 12). The thought almost seems to beggar the meaning of language: he who was never personally defiled by his own sin was accounted the embodiment of sin by God, and punished accordingly. The sins not imputed to us were counted his, and he exhausted the curse those sins deserved. This very one was delivered up – in the place of others – to the damnation and abandonment which sin merits. This is substitutionary atonement, and this is not the doctrine of ‘cosmic child abuse,’ as some would have it! This is the Triune God satisfying divine justice, the Son voluntarily bearing sin in the place of his people and the Father necessarily punishing it in the person of his Son. “For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: he condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom 8.3).