It is thus also that I understand the imputation of sin to Christ. He was made sin for us, in the same sense as we are made the righteousness of God in him. He was accounted in the Divine administration as if he were, or had been, the sinner; that those who believe on him might be accounted as if they were, or had been, righteous.
Mr. B. charges me with having explained the phrase “made sin” made a sacrifice. I have already said that what I asked him was purely for information. Considering his answer as worthy of attention, I have since endeavoured to form a decided opinion on the passage, and to give what he advanced its due weight. I perceive that many able writers, and among them Dr. Owen, understand the term ἁμαρτία, in this* as in many other places, of a “sin-offering,” and I must say I see no force in the objection that it sounds incongruous to say Christ was “made punishment,” or “made suffering;” for the same objection might be brought against the express words of the prophet—“When thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin.” The genius of our language does not allow us to say of any one, “he was made suffering;” but it allows us to say, “he was made an offering for sin,” which was suffering.†
The other reasons, however, which Mr. B. suggested, determine my mind to consider ἁμαρτία, in this place, as meaning sin itself, and not the penal effects of it. I doubt not but the allusion is to the sin-offering under the law, but not to its being made a sacrifice. Let me explain myself.—There were two things belonging to the sin-offering: 1. The imputation of the sins of the people, signified by the priest’s laying his hands on the head of the animal, and confessing over it their transgressions, and which is called “putting them upon it” (Lev. 16:21); that is, it was counted in the Divine administration as if it had been the sinner, and the only sinner of the nation. 2. Making it a sacrifice, or “killing it before the Lord for an atonement,” Lev 1:4, 5. Now the phrase made sin, in 2 Cor. 5:21, appears to refer to the first step in this process, in order to the last. It is expressive of what was preparatory to Christ’s suffering of death, rather than of the thing itself; just as our being made righteousness expresses what was preparatory to God’s bestowing upon us eternal life.
But the verb ἐποιὴσεν, made, is not to be taken literally; for that would convey the idea of Christ being really the subject of moral evil, which none contend for. It is expressive of a Divine constitution, by which our Redeemer with his own consent stood in the sinner’s place, as though he had been himself the transgressor; just as the sin-offering under the law was, in mercy to Israel, reckoned, or accounted, to have the sins of the people “put upon its head.” Thus he was made that sin which he knew not, and which is properly opposed to the righteousness of God, which we are made in him. But this, it will be said, is not a “real and proper” imputation. True; nor is such an imputation maintained, I should think, by Mr. B. any more than by me. A real and proper imputation, unless I have mistaken the meaning of the term, is that in which there is no transfer of any kind; and if applied to Christ, would amount to a charge of his having actually committed sin.
Mr. B. further argued thus:—“If Christ had not died as a substitute—if sin, sin itself, had not really been imputed to him, he could not have been made a curse for us.” All this is freely admitted, save what respects the term “really,” against which my objection is already stated. “Nor could he have been punished,” he adds, “in our stead by eternal justice; for though an innocent person may suffer, yet, properly speaking, there cannot be punishment where there is no guilt, either personally contracted or imputed.” If this sentence had ended with the word “guilt,” I should have fully admitted it. Guilt imputed is not properly opposed to guilt contracted. The term “imputed” is here used for “transferred,” to which it is not synonymous. But we are perplexed here by affixing different ideas to the same term. I will endeavour to define my own, and then attend to the thing signified. By sin I mean transgression; by guilt, desert of punishment for having transgressed;* and by punishment, the infliction of evil upon the guilty, in displeasure against him. It is the opposite of reward, which is the bestowment of favour upon the obedient, in token of approbation of his conduct. Finally, imputation ought not to be confounded with transfer. In its proper sense, we have seen there is no transfer pertaining to it. In its figurative sense, as applied to justification, it is righteousness itself that is imputed; but its effects only are transferred. So also in respect of sin; sin itself is the object of imputation; but neither this nor guilt is strictly speaking transferred, for neither of them is a transferable object. As all that is transferred in the imputation of righteousness is its beneficial effects, so all that is transferred in the imputation of sin is its penal effects. To say that Christ was reckoned or counted in the Divine administration as if he were the sinner, and came under an obligation to endure the curse for us, is one thing; but to say that he deserved the curse is another. To speak of his being guilty by imputation is the same thing, in my ear, as to say he was criminal or wicked by imputation; which, if taken improperly, for his being reckoned as if he were so, is just; but if properly, for his being so, is inadmissible. Guilt is the inseparable attendant of transgression.† If Christ by imputation became deserving of punishment, we by non-imputation cease to deserve it; and if our demerits be literally transferred to him, his merits must of course be the same to us; and then, instead of approaching God as guilty and unworthy, we might take consequence to ourselves before him, as not only guiltless, but meritorious beings.
As to Christ’s being punished, I have no doubt, and never had, of his sufferings being penal, any more than I have of our salvation being a reward; but as the latter is not a reward to us, so I question whether the former can properly be said to be a punishment to Him. What he bore was punishment, that is, the expression of Divine displeasure against transgressors, in whose place he stood; so what we enjoy is reward, that is, the expression of God’s well-pleasedness in the obedience and death of his Son; but neither is the one a punishment to Him, nor the other a reward to us.
There appears to me great accuracy in the Scripture phraseology on this subject. What our Saviour underwent is commonly expressed by the term sufferings. Once it is called a chastisement; yet there he is not said to have been chastised, but “the chastisement of our peace was upon him.” This is the same as saying, He bore our punishment, He was made a curse for us; that is, having been reckoned or accounted the sinner, as though he had actually been so, be was treated accordingly, as one that had deserved to be an outcast from heaven and earth. I believe the wrath of God that was due to us was poured upon him; but I do not believe that God for one moment was angry or displeased with him, or that he smote him from any such displeasure. “It behoved him,” says Calvin, “that he should as it were hand to hand wrestle with the armies of hell and the horrors of eternal death. ‘The chastisement of our peace was laid upon him.’ He was stricken of his Father for our sins, and bruised for our iniquities; whereby is meant that he was put in the stead of wicked doers, as a surety and pledge; yea, and as the very guilty person himself, to abide and suffer all the punishment that should have been laid upon them. Yet do we not mean that God was at any time his enemy, or angry with him. For how could he be angry with his beloved Son, upon whom his mind rested? or how could Christ by his intercession appease his Father’s wrath towards others, if, full of hatred, he had been bent against himself? But this is our meaning, That he suffered the grievousness of God’s rigour; for that he, being stricken and tormented by the hand of God, did feel all the tokens of God when he is angry and punisheth.”—Inst. B. II. Ch. xvi. § 10, 11.
I remember Mr. B. once said to me, “Christ was not made sin by participation; but he was every thing excepting this.” Herein I perfectly agree. When it is allowed that he was accounted as the sinner, yea, as the greatest of all sinners, as though he had been made up of sin itself, every thing is allowed short of a participation in sin. If it be not, however, it lies upon him to point out a possible medium between his being treated as though he were a transgressor and his actually being one.
Excerpt from: “Letter II: On Imputation,” in Letters on Controversy with Rev. A. Booth.
Fuller, A. G. (1988). The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller: Controversial Publications. (J. Belcher, Ed.) (Vol. 2, pp. 703–706). Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications.