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#650 Vicarious Liability and the Imputation of Sins

September 29, 2019

Dr. Craig,

In your work on the atonement, you noted that vicarious liability is a useful analog in modern criminal justice systems to what occurred when our sin was imputed to Jesus. If this is approximately what occurred and if it is true that the imputation of our sin did not remove our sin then it seems as if the sin was replicated and then doubled. This would pose a problem because it would make two parties liable to punishment.

Is it possible to understand that our sin was replicated so that it could be punished in Jesus and forgiven where it existed in us? I think we would need to explain how the doubling of sin would not simultaneously double the liability to punishment as, if we are to use the analogy, we may well face the objection that replication of sin does nothing to help but, rather, it makes the problem more severe.


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Dr. craig’s response


When I first began to correspond with Prof. Eric Descheemaeker of the University of Edinburgh School of Law about legal questions pertinent to the doctrine of the atonement, he shared with me that although it was easy to think of examples in the law where a wrongdoer’s guilt is replicated in an innocent person, he could not think of any examples in which a wrongdoer’s guilt is transferred to an innocent person (and thereby removed from the wrongdoer). It was at that moment that the light came on for me! It hit me forcefully that the classic doctrine of the imputation of sins is not about the transfer of guilt from one party to another but precisely about the replication of guilt of one party in another.

This fact is most clearly seen in the doctrine of Original Sin, according to which Adam’s sin is imputed to us his progeny. The replication of Adam’s guilt in me obviously does nothing whatsoever to remove Adam’s guilt from him. Adam remains sinful and in need of God’s forgiveness and moral cleansing.

Similarly, according to the Protestant Reformers’ doctrine of the atonement, my guilt is replicated in Christ, not transferred from me to him. Otherwise, we would believe in salvation by imputation, not by penal substitution. No one to my knowledge has defended a doctrine of the atonement according to which the expiation of sins comes via imputation; such is not in any case the Reformers’ doctrine. Sin and guilt are expiated via punishment, namely, Christ’s bearing the punishment which is the just desert of my sins.

So the analogy between vicarious liability in the law and the imputation of sins is very tight. Indeed, these seem to be practically the same notion described in legal terms on the one hand and in theological terms on the other. What that implies is that if there is a problem for the doctrine of the atonement arising from vicarious liability, then it arises from the theological notion of the imputation of our sins to Christ. The problem lies in the doctrine itself, not in the legal analogy to it.

So the serious problem that your question raises, I think, is whether Christ’s being substitutionally punished in my place can really satisfy the demands of divine justice. On this question I refer you to my article “Is Penal Substitution Unsatisfactory?” Philosophia Christi 21/1 (2019): 155-168. There I make two points in response: (1) With respect to vicarious liability in the law, there are cases in which the punishment of only the vicariously liable party satisfies the state’s demand for justice. The wrongdoer himself goes unpunished while the demands of justice are met by the superior party to whom his guilt is imputed. The case of the atonement seems very apt in this respect because Christ’s suffering and death is traditionally thought to be of infinite value in virtue of his divinity and so swamps all human sin infinitely. (2) Contemporary atonement theorists have appealed to what they call inclusionary, as opposed to exclusionary, views of Christ’s atonement. The idea here is that Christ is not merely some third party, a sort of whipping boy punished instead of us; rather we are somehow united with Christ, so that his punishment is our punishment. I try to make sense of this view by taking Christ to serve as a proxy for us before God. Thus, I am punished by proxy.

On the basis of Christ’s satisfying the demands of divine justice, God can then turn to us and offer us a full pardon for our sins, which we are free to accept or reject. The guilt of him who freely accepts God’s pardon is expunged, and he becomes, as it were, a new man in Christ; whereas the foolish man who rejects God’s pardon remains under the sentence of death and so must bear his just desert.

- William Lane Craig