Expiation, Propitiation, And The Atoning Work Of Christ (II)

The Imputation Of Our Sins To Christ

According to the dictionary, the verb “impute” means “to attribute or ascribe” something to another. Therefore, “imputation” means “the act of imputing.” This is what Isaiah 53:6b is talking about when it says, “And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all,” or 1 Peter 2:4, which says, “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, so that, having died to sins, we might live for righteousness; you have been healed by His wounds” (HCSB)—both of which sound a whole lot like Jesus “tasted death for everyone” (Heb. 2:9). In other words, “And He [Christ] is the propitiation for [peri] our sins, and not for [peri] ours only but also for [peri] the whole world” (1 Jn. 2:2). I’m told that the preposition peri, which is used three times in this verse, is most often translated in the KJV as “concerning” or “about.” It indicates the focal point from which an action proceeds—namely, that Jesus, as the propitiation (halismon), was the very basis for placating God’s judicial wrath “concerning,” “regarding,” or “in reference to” our sins. This was done, Paul says, “For our sake,” in that “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). Now, if all this isn’t teaching the imputation, attribution, or reckoning of our sins to Jesus, then what, pray tell, is it teaching?

Well, our anti-vicarious-death-of-Jesus brethren object to the imputation of our sins to Jesus by arguing:

Substitution is essential to Calvinism. Predestination, limited atonement, irresistible grace and the impossibility of apostasy all depend on substitution as their solid foundation. And, substitution is bound together with the imputation of sin to Christ and imputation of His righteousness to the elect.[1]

Now, there should be no doubt that the above quotation is correct in its description of five-point Calvinism. However, Calvinism is a man-made, systematic theology. None—not one—of its five points (T-U-L-I-P) is taught in the Scriptures. Conversely, the imputation of our sins to Jesus, as already pointed out, is well attested in Scripture. It is thus high time that brethren permitted the Bible, not Calvinism, to define biblical terms.

The Imputation Of God’s Righteousness To Us

As noted, there are NT passages which teach the imputation of God’s righteousness to obedient believers (Rom. 4:3, 5-6, 9, 11, 22-23; Gal. 3:6, KJV). Logizomai, which is the word used here, is variously translated as “counted,” “imputed,” “imputeth,” “reckoned,” and “accounted.” Thus, the idea it conveys is not difficult to understand. Essentially, all one needs to do to understand it is not to be working so hard to explain it away. Some, thinking the use of the word “imputation” somehow relinquishes the field to the Calvinists, reject it altogether (I like to call it “the ol’ Calvinist bugaboo”). However, there’s nothing inherently Calvinistic about imputation, and the sooner brethren realize this, the sooner they can get on with finding out what the Bible really teaches about this subject.

Although no flesh has any cause to glory in His presence (1 Cor. 1:29), and this because all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23), as we respond by faith to the glorious gospel of Christ, we do, in fact, receive a “righteousness of God” that is not our own (Rom. 1:17; 3:21, 22; 10:3; 2 Cor. 5:21; Php. 3:9). The New Testament refers to this as imputed righteousness (cf. Rom. 4:11, 23-25). Some—and the Calvinists are notorious for this—have mistakenly thought that the righteousness imputed to the obedient believer entails Jesus’ perfect life. In other words, many wrongly think that God no longer sees the sins of His saints when He views them. Instead, according to this doctrine, when God looks at Christians, He sees only the always “perfect doing” of Jesus while He was here on this earth—a perfect doing that has now been imputed or put to our account. This view is totally false!

The righteousness imputed to the obedient believer is not derived directly from the Lord’s perfect life. Instead, it derives from the fact that Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross both propitiated God’s wrath against us as sinners and atoned for the debt we owed for our sins: “Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life” (Rom. 5:18). This is a difficult, but important, passage for a variety of reasons. One of these is that it is used by Calvinists to prove their doctrine of the imputation of Jesus’ own perfect doing (or righteousness) to the believer. But what they, and others, fail to appreciate is that this passage is not referring to Jesus’ active righteousness (i.e., doing the Father’s will perfectly), but to His passive righteousness (viz., doing the work of propitiating, reconciling, and redeeming). When this is correctly understood, it changes the whole tenor of things.

Our Own “Filthy Rags” Righteousness Vs. The Righteousness Of God

If “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), then our own personal “righteousness” will never be more than “filthy rags” (Isa. 64:6). But in connection with God’s grace, the basis of which is the propitiatory, atoning death of Jesus of Nazareth, God’s only begotten Son, He has agreed to clothe us with the specially prepared “garment of salvation,” which is none other than “the robe of righteousness” of which Isaiah 61:10 speaks. What a beautiful picture this is. It no doubt led Paul to say that he wanted to “be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith” (Php. 3:9).

This “righteousness which is from God by faith” is not the divine attribute of righteousness or justice, particularly if it’s understood as God’s own holy character and perfect legal justice which require sin to be punished. Rather, it is a gift given to sinners by God much like a robe lovingly woven (prepared) and given to sinners who, in turn, wear it as if it was their own. As such, it is a righteousness that stands outside of God, but yet “comes from God” (Php. 3:9). It is in this way, according to Romans 4:5, and this way only, that we, “the ungodly,” have been justified (Acts 13:39; Rom. 3:24; Gal. 2:16; Tit. 3:4-7). Now, if God has so justified us, who is it who can bring a charge against God’s elect and make it stick (Rom. 8:33)?

The Imputation Of God’s Passive Righteousness

There must be no mistake about the source of the “righteousness of God” that is ours through faith in His Son, in that such righteousness is undoubtedly the imputed righteousness of the Son of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. (Please, do not jump to any conclusions here, as I am in the process of explaining the difference between Jesus’ active and passive righteousness.) There is practically universal agreement among Protestants that the righteousness of God that is imputed to believers is Jesus’ own perfect doing (i.e., His satisfaction of, or obedience to, the law He was under, which was the law of Moses). With His perfect doing put to our account, they claim, God then looks at us and declares us “not guilty,” treating us, then, as if we had never sinned. This is not, however, what the Bible teaches.

Yes, Jesus did obey the law perfectly, and it was certainly his responsibility, as one born under the law, to do so (viz., it was His own obligation and personal duty to keep the law of Moses). When He did so, there was none of His personal (or active) righteousness (merit) left over to transfer (or “impute,” as the Calvinists use the term) to anyone else. This doesn’t mean His active obedience had no bearing on our salvation. In fact, it was a prerequisite to His spotlessly perfect sacrifice (i.e., it qualified Him to be the perfect sacrifice). What, then, is imputed (reckoned) to our account on Jesus’ behalf? As we’ve seen, it could not have been His active righteousness (i.e., His perfect doing). Instead, it was His passive righteousness (i.e., His sacrificial dying). In dying, Jesus of Nazareth, the divine Logos made flesh, not only “humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Php. 2:8), but He took upon Himself our sins on that cross, paying the penalty that was rightly ours. This is what Romans 5:18 (that difficult but very important passage we looked at earlier) is talking about: “[E]ven so through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life.” Accordingly, the “righteousness of God” revealed in the Scriptures and imputed to (reckoned or put to) our account is Jesus Christ’s suffering and death, which somehow satisfied the penalty of God’s law on our behalf.[2]

It is a mistake, and Calvinists aren’t the only ones who make it, to say that when we are justified, or declared to be righteous, we are treated just as if we’d never sinned or are “not guilty!” Truth is, we are, and will ever remain, sinners and, thus, guilty (1 Jn. 1:8-9). The good news in connection with Christ is that we are treated like someone else (Jesus) had already paid the penalty of debt that was our due:

And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, (14) by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross (Col. 2:13-14, ESV).

The translation above, as do the others which reference some sort of certificate of indebtedness (cf. NET, NASB, NIV, etc.), depict the case against us as taking place in a civil court of law. But instead of the written document being a certificate of indebtedness against which there may be a defense, it is a formal finding of debt. Again, in other translations (cf. KJV, NKJV, ASV, etc.), the written document is described not as a bill of particulars[3] against which there may be a defense, but a written finding or verdict of “guilty” as in a criminal court of law. In either case, no hope is held out for a “not guilty” verdict. Whether our sin is portrayed as incurring debt or a penalty, the truth is, we are all “guilty as sin.” Therefore, the only effective remedy is forgiveness, which is one of the things the shedding of Jesus’ blood provides for, and the very thing Colossians 2:14 specifically mentions, praise God!

When I say forgiveness “is one of the things the shedding of Jesus’ blood provides for,” I have in mind the fact that the NT speaks of a number of things effected by the death of Jesus. In speaking of some of these, I like what Leon L. Morris said:

We have seen it as the making of a new covenant: it completely superseded the old way and opened up an entirely new way which brings people to God. It means the appearing of a new people of God, an idea which comes out under some of the other figures also. We have seen that Christ’s death is a sacrifice, fulfilling what all the old sacrifices hinted at but could not do, and this whether we think of sacrifice in general or of particular sacrifices like the Passover or the Day of Atonement. With the expression ‘the Lamb of God’ there seems to be a novel way of referring to sacrifice, a way which brings out from an angle peculiar to the Christians the fact that Christ has fulfilled all that sacrifice means. Then there are expressions which point to cleansing from sin, to access to God, to the freedom that the people of God enjoy. Sometimes the thought is that the sin of man had aroused the wrath of God or estranged man from God and there are thoughts of averting the wrath and of bringing about reconciliation. The concept of the law of God is not lacking and we are reminded that Christ saves us in a manner that is right.[4]

He went on to say:

There are many facets to the atonement. It may be viewed from any one of a number of angles, each of which brings to us an individual insight into the way of salvation. Some of them emphasize that Christ took our place. We are the sinners. We deserve the punishment. But we do not undergo it. Christ stood in our place and we are free. The New Testament witnesses to a multi-faceted salvation, one which may be regarded in many ways and which is infinitely satisfying. In whatever way our need be viewed, Christ has met it fully.[5]

In Conclusion

Is Christ the propitiation (hilastērion) whom God set forth through faith in His blood (Rom. 3:25)? Yes. Is He the basis upon which our sins are atoned for (expiated) and, thus, forgiven? Yes. Is there any reason for a Christian to deny either one? No, none whatsoever.

What’s more, in a misinformed, misguided attempt to denigrate the ungodly influence of Calvinism, is there any reason for brethren to stoop to all manner of semantical gymnastics in an attempt to nullify the plain teachings of Scripture which indicate that Jesus’ cross-work not only propitiated God’s judicial wrath, but became the very basis for the atoning or expiating of our sins? No, none whatsoever.

With this said, I plan to use the next two or three posts to deal with some of the objections that are made to Jesus’ vicarious death and substitutionary atonement.



[1] Maurice Barnett, The Scheme Of Redemption—Volume 2: Reconciliation, 1998, pp. 166-167.

[2] My use of “God’s law” here is not limited to the law of Moses, but has to do with the law code one is under to God, whether it be the “law of the heart” the Gentiles were under (Rom. 2:14-15), the “law of Moses” the Jews were under, or the “law of Christ” we’re amenable to today (Gal 6:2; cf. 1 Cor. 9:21). All, both Gentiles and Jews, have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23). Therefore, all have been, and remain, under God’s law.

[3] A bill of particulars is a written statement used in both civil and criminal actions that provides the defendant detailed information concerning the claims or charges made against him.

[4] Leon L. Morris, The Atonement: Its Meaning and Significance Kindle edition, 2012, locs. 2789-2792.

[5] Ibid.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *