revised April 13, 2021 for issues pertaining to formatting and clarity
But the Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief.Isaiah 53:10a
Declared a Sinner
On the cross, Christ was declared by God to be a sinner. The courtroom of Heaven found Christ guilty of sin and God the Judge said, “This man is a transgressor of my law – he is utterly guilty.” In being declared a sinner, Christ did not yet suffer pain, though He did suffer alienation. This declaration was entirely legal, dealing only with Christ’s position and relation to God. So, when Christ was declared to be a sinner, there was a verdict (guilt) and a disassociation (alienation).
First, Scripture reveals this in Leviticus, where Christ’s death was prefigured by the sacrifices of the Old Covenant (Hebrews 10:1-10). Normatively, an animal sacrifice would include the laying-on-of-hands by either the priest or Israelite who provided the sacrifice. “Then Aaron shall lay both of his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the sons of Israel and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins” (Leviticus 16:21). The ritual was symbolic of a legal contraction that took place in that moment. The animal was receiving credit for the sins of a certain Israelite(s). The animal was then guilty and cast away.
Hebrews 10 says plainly that these rituals were symbolic and non-substantive – meaning that no Israelite was actually forgiven through the sacrifice of an animal. Instead, as mentioned above, these sacrifices pointed forward to the death of Christ. The Levitical sacrificial system implied that Christ, as the True and Greater Lamb, would in His death be declared a transgressor of God’s law. (This correlation is strengthened by Biblical references to Christ as Lamb: Isaiah 53:7, John 1:29, 1 Peter 1:18, Revelation 4:4-8, 6:16, 12:11, 17:14, 21:27, 22:3).
Second, Scripture reveals this in the absence of imputed sin. Abraham, after placing His faith in God, was not considered by God to be guilty of iniquity: “Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6; cf. Romans 4:1-25). “Impute” is a legal term meaning “to reckon; to account.” If Abraham disobeyed God, how is it that God would not call him guilty of disobedience?
The Psalmist continues this theme: “How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered! How blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit!” (Psalm 32:1-2). Would it not be unjust for God to cover over evil, to not impute iniquity? “If You, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You, that You may be feared” (Psalm 130:3-4). Would it not be unjust for God to fail in keeping a record of a man’s iniquities?
This dilemma is found throughout the Bible – again in Exodus 34:5-7, “The LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, ‘The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will be no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.’” How can God be just and yet merciful? How can God forgive sin, yet still punish sin? The answer is found in Christ: that God as Judge would pronounce Christ guilty of sins which He elsewhere passed over. Sins left un-imputed to some were imputed to Christ. This solves the dilemma of God as merciful judge.
Third, Scripture reveals this pointedly in several individual texts. “The Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him” (Isaiah 53:6b). The evil things that God’s people do fall upon Christ. Because sin is not a physical entity, we understand this language to be poetic. What does it mean for iniquity/sin to fall upon Christ? In context (vv.4-6), it results in him being stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted (v.4b). If Christ received a sinner’s wage from a just God, it is only appropriate that we estimate a judicial sentence of equivalent character – namely, he was pronounced guilty of sin in the courtroom of Heaven.
“For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh” (Romans 8:3). God commissioned the Son to be incarnate and an offering for sin. Christ as a man dying as an offering for sin had this effect: the condemnation of sin in the flesh. A true son of Adam – a human – truly suffered for sin, being truly condemned under the Law. Christ, then, was pronounced guilty by God.
“He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Here we again find poetic language in reference to what occurred on the cross. A literal reading of this text would render Christ as sin and the church as righteousness – but because sin and righteousness are non-physical entities, we understand that Paul is pointing us to something different.
Christ never sinned (Hebrews 4:15) nor became anything other than the spotless Lamb of God (13:8). The only sense in which Christ became sin – in light of the corpus of Scripture – seems to be in a sense of treatment. So: Who Christ was did not change, but how He was treated did. If God is just, then Christ must have been judicially found guilty prior to such treatment.
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us – for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree” (Galatians 3:13). This verse works similarly to 2 Corinthians 5:21. “Having become a curse for us” is poetic, meaning that He was accursed. Curses of the Law are reserved for those who transgress the Law (Deuteronomy 27:1-26). If Christ bore such a curse, then He must have been judicially reckoned as a Law-breaker.
Seeing such evidences in Scripture, I submit to you that on the cross Christ was truly and fully declared by God to be guilty of unrighteousness. He was blamed for a plethora of transgression which He had no part in committing. The courtroom of Heaven found Christ guilty of sin and God the Judge said, “This man is a transgressor of my law – he is utterly guilty.”
This pronouncement of guilt had immediate ramifications on Christ’s position before God. The very Son of God, though having previously enjoyed an eternal glory with the Father and Spirit (John 17:5), now looks up to Heaven’s door in agony: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46). And it was as if God the Father responded – to God the Son, Who was now truly guilty of sin – “God, Your God, damns You” (This thought is from John Flavel).
In that instance, a true and actual alienation of God the Son occurred. Never in all eternity had the Triune God not, in any sense, delighted in Himself, in a three-fold chorus of joy and self-giving. Yet now, here on this hill outside Jerusalem, God the Son incarnate hangs battered and hated by God. Now, for the first time in all eternity, the bells of heaven became still, the angelic choirs hushed, and the Father closed the shutters – Heaven became silent before the Son. The Son groaned and cried aloud, but the Father did not answer (Psalm 22:2). (Christ’s cry [Matthew 27:46] is the opening line of Psalm 22, which directs our thoughts to the entire Psalm as we contemplate the crucified Messiah). The Son of glory, through Whom the Father created the world, now writhed as a worm (Psalm 22:6). In those hours of suffering, the glorious second member of the Trinity was treated by the first member as filth and dung. Such statements seem blasphemous and heretical – and they would be if Scripture did not speak so plainly.
The pronouncement of guilt was pursued by a pronouncement of condemnation. Being found a transgressor, Christ was sentenced to a transgressor’s end. “For the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23a). Christ, though He had not sinned, was blamed for sin by the Heavenly verdict, and so was dealt a Heavenly edict to receive the wages of said sin.
Treated as a Sinner
After God declared Christ a sinner and pronounced the appropriate punishment, He then dealt that punishment out upon Him. God loosed His holy, righteous indignation on Christ as He hung from the wooden beams. This anger was not random or arbitrary: it was provoked by the very sin Christ was blamed for. We may view this treatment from two non-equivocal angles: propitiation and expiation.
Propitiation refers to the appeasement of wrath upon a sacrifice. This requires first a sacrifice upon which wrath will be flung, second the outpouring of the wrath to be appeased. In other words: it is the spending of wrath, the exhausting of it. To be propitiated is to become bankrupt of indignation. Propitiation helps us contemplate atonement punitively and retributively.
Expiation refers to a carrying away of iniquity. This requires first a vessel unto which transgression is imputed, second the carrying away of this vessel. Expiation deals with banishment and abandonment for sin. An expiating vessel will separate the sinner from the sin. Expiation helps us contemplate atonement geographically and locally.
It is vital to recognize that as a propitiation and as an expiation, Christ dealt with specific sins for a specific reason. The punishment Christ experienced was a direct result of the punishment pronounced for Him by God, which was in turn the direct result of the declaration upon Christ as a sinner. These three things are consequently related. Unto Christ is counted sin, and God will now, if He is righteous, deal with Christ by this. Thus, for Christ is pronounced punishment, and God will now, if He is true, fulfill this promise. Thus, unto Christ is flung all the wrath which is justly demanded by the sins which were imputed to Him.