He Bears His Iniquity Print
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Monday, 08 November 2010 08:50

According to the Protestant doctrine of imputation, Christ’s righteousness is reckoned as righteousness to those who believe. Typically, this creates a double identity: Though we are in ourselves guilty sinners, God sees us in Christ, and therefore regards us and treats us as righteous.

It is often objected that imputation rests our standing with God on a legal fiction: Jesus is treated as guilty when He’s not, and we are treated as just when we’re not. Is that fair? Existentially and pastorally, it leaves open a gap for doubt to slip in: God may say I’m righteous, but I know the actual truth of the matter, that I’m a vile guilty sinner.

We might say: God does it, therefore it must be fair. But I believe that there is more to say. There are hints within the Levitical system that imputation is not just a strange exception to the standard way of doing things. Rather, some act of imputation is essential in evaluating and judging any human action.

I have in mind the phrases “he shall bear his iniquity” (Leviticus 7:18; 19:8) and “their/his blood on them/him” (Leviticus 20:9).  In Leviticus 20, the phrase occurs in a context prescribing capital punishment.  When the text adds “his blood is on him,” the implication is that the blood is not on the people who shed the blood – namely, the citizens who stoned the criminal.  But a further implication is that the blood must be on someone. Free-floating blood, as it were, is not an option.  Either the person who committed the crime must bear responsibility, or the people who failed to carry out the punishment, or, in some cases, a substitutionary animal must bear responsibility for the crime.  That is, some assignment of responsibility is necessary.

That seems to presume that there is some distinction between the act itself and the assignment of responsibility for the act.  When a man takes his sister as a wife, he is “cut off in the sight of the sons” of Israel (Leviticus 20:17).  That probably does not refer to a death penalty but rather to something like excommunication.  Whether or not that is correct, the statement is followed by the declaration that he “bears his guilt.” But if the wrong action attracted guilt to it “immediately,” then the additional statement that he bears his guilt is redundant. Of course he bears his guilt; who else would?  But the fact that the phrase is included at all suggests that someone else might, and thus suggests that the assignment of responsibility or guilt is a distinct “event” from the wrong action itself.   In short, wrong acts must be judged wrong.

There’s a particular spin on this for capital crimes.  A man, for instance, has homosexual relations in ancient Israel, and by the Torah must die (Leviticus 20:13).  He has committed a wrong, and must be punished.  But his death leaves the land bloodstained, and that can’t be left alone.  Somebody has to pay for that additional bloodshed.  The law says that the person who died paid for it with his death.  His execution is a punishment for the crime, and the bloodshed involved in his death is assigned as his responsibility.  In a sense, there’s a kind of double jeopardy here – the man dies once for two different wrongs – the wrong of his original sodomy and the wrong of shedding blood on the land.  The Torah treats his bloodshed as if it were suicide – “his blood is on him.”

If there’s always an assignment of responsibility distinct from the wrong of the act itself, then that leaves open the possibility that someone other than the actor might bear that responsibility.  It suggests the possibility that the iniquity might be “imputed” to another, to a sin-bearer.  On this theory, “imputation” is not what happens when someone else takes the guilt; imputation is necessary for any assignment of guilt, whether to the perpetrator or to someone else. Every sin and crime must be imputed in order to be punished, by the sinner or criminal or by the substitute.

This rests on a social understanding of human being.  On individualist premises, if I act badly, I’m simply guilty without any other action being taken.  My guilt is simply mine. No one had to judge me guilty. No one had to assign responsibility.  My guilt is mine just as completely and immediately as the action itself. On the theory I’m offering, guilt and responsibility are assigned socially/theologically, that is, by others or another or Another. Responsibility is mine only when it is assigned to me, and it might not be, for various reasons (such as the incarnate Son joyfully assumed it for me).  I am guilty or innocent in the regard of the authorized judge/Judge. That assignment of responsibility is what guilt or innocence is.

There is no “open space” for the legal fiction to occupy, no gap for faith to leak out of. There’s no “real inherent guilt” that is cancelled or ignored in favor of an “imputed righteousness.”  I am either guilty or not by virtue of God’s assignment of responsibility, guilt, or innocence. His assignment of guilt or innocent simply is my guilt or innocence, rather than something added to the “inherent” guilt or innocence of my action.

In my mind, this snaps and locks the lid on justification. If God’s imputation of righteousness smacks of legal fiction, then I’m uncertain about my standing. When God says “you’re righteous,” I object “that’s nuts! I’m the furthest thing from righteous.” But if my guilty or innocence is His decision, then when He says I’m righteous, then it’s over.  There’s no “real guilt” underlying His decision. If He says that He’s taking responsibility for my sin, it’s over. If Jesus says “his blood on My head,” that’s where the blood goes. If He says, “I shall bear His guilt,” then the only guilt there is has been taken from me.






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