One of the questions that has not often been asked or answered in all the discussion about imputation over the past several decades is that which concerns the impact that imputation has on an individual. Throughout the centuries, Reformed theologians have been clear that imputation is merely a legal (i.e. forensic) act, by which God counts our sins against Christ and credits His righteousness to us. The sinless One, Jesus, was constituted a guilty sinner (without having any personal sin) by virtue of the imputation of our sin to Him and sinners are constituted righteous by virtue of the imputation of His righteousness to them. We are careful to note that this is not transformative (unlike it’s twin soteriological blessing of sanctification). Still the question remains, what effect does justification have on believers in the existential realm of our Christian experience? Or we may put the question like this: “What, if any, relationship exists between the sorrow that Jesus experienced in the Garden of Gethsemane and the joy that believers experience when they receive the imputed righteousness of Christ by faith alone?” In his superb little book, The Shadow of Calvary, Hugh Martin went to great lengths to explain how the imputation of our sin to Christ produced in the Savior a deep-seated soul sorrow, and the imputation of His righteousness to believers produces in us a deep and lasting joy. He wrote:
It is difficult to understand the sorrow and amazement and agony of a holy being in having sin thus by imputation imposed upon Him. It is only a legal or judicial arrangement; so we reason. It is but a scheme of mercy to relieve the miserable. Or, be it that it is more; that it is a scheme of justice also to absolve the guilty; why should not the Surety’s conscious innocence triumph over the sorrow and the shame of this imputed sin? Why should He quail and tremble, filled with anguish and amazement, not merely by the prospect of the penalty which this imputation will ultimately bring, but in the immediate sense of a shame, and the immediate endurance of a sorrow, which this imputation itself inflicts? What can there be in sin, when not personally His own, that can thus cause Him to agonize in pain and prayer, and offer up supplications with strong crying and tears?
There is nothing that we know of in all the history of God’s moral administration that can aid us by comparison in considering how sin imputed by the judge of all to a personally holy being, should fill His soul with sorrow. But the illustration, which there exists no comparison to furnish, may be derived from a contrast. The sorrows of imputed sin may be illustrated, perhaps, by the joys of imputed righteousness. Sin imputed to a holy one must produce effects directly the reverse of righteousness imputed to a sinner. And thus, perhaps, in the justification of the believer and the Church, through the righteousness of Christ, we may learn somewhat of the terrible shame and condemnation of him who became responsible for all their sins…he who believes in Jesus though ungodly, and who is thereby accounted righteous only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to him, is not the less entitled to rejoice in that righteousness, even while it is true that it is not his own; yes, while it is true that he has none of his own; yes, while it is true that he has nothing but sin of his own. He is entitled to rejoice, as one clothed in the glorious unsullied robes in which omniscient holiness can find no spot nor stain. While in himself, that is, in his flesh, there dwells no good thing, yet in the Lord he has righteousness, and in Him he may glory and make his joyful triumphant boast.
Even so, Jesus, when He was accounted a transgressor only for the transgressions of his people imputed to Him, and received in infinite love to them and submission to His Father, when He said, “Your will be done,” is not the less subjected to inevitable sorrow and shame in that imputed sin, even while it is true that it is not His own; yes, while it is true that He has none of His own; yes, while it is true that He has nothing but glorious and unsullied holiness of His own. He is subjected to sorrow and shame as one clothed in filthy garments in which omniscient holiness—his Father’s and his own—alike behold unbounded material for abhorrence. While in Himself He is the beloved Son of God—in whom the Father is ever well pleased, yes, delighting in Him specially in this very transaction because of His holy acquiescence in this holy liability in the sins of His sinful and unpurged Church, yet identified with his sinful and still unpurged Church in all her unpurged sin, He has ground only for horror and humiliation.
The believer’s own unworthiness ought not to avail to impair His joy, because a true righteousness is imputed to Him, and he has the blessedness of Him to whom the Lord imputes not his sin. The Surety’s own unspotted holiness cannot avail to prevent His sorrow, because sin is imputed to Him and He has voluntarily therefore assumed what misery must belong to Him to whom the Lord imputes—not His holiness—to whom the Lord imputes nothing but sin.
The fact that the righteousness which the believer rejoices in is not his own, not only does not diminish his joy, but on the contrary adds to it an element of wonder, a thrill of unexpected and surprising delight. To be exalted from a relation fraught with guilt and wrath and fear and death, and to be brought at once, on the ground of another’s merit, into one of favor and peace and blessedness and eternal life—to have the angry frown of an incensed avenging judge turned away, and all replaced by the sweet smiles of a Father’s love—this, the fruit of the imputation of another’s righteousness, hiding all my sin, quenching all my fear, wondrously reversing all my fate, this is not only joyful but surprising—wonderful, the doing of the Lord and marvelous in our eyes!
And so, for Jesus to be accounted a sinner by imputation must have added a pang of amazement to the sorrow and humiliation which ensued. In point of fact, this very element in His sorrow is pointed out. He began to be “sore amazed.” Not but that He fully expected it. Yet when it came, the change was in its nature “amazing.” To pass from a state of unimpeached integrity to one in which He was chargeable with all grievous sins—from a state in which His conscious and unsullied love and practice of all things that are pure and lovely and of good report caused Him to obtain the announcements to his Father’s complacency and love—(“I do always those things that please Him”)—to a state in which that love and practice still unimpaired, He nevertheless justified his Father’s justice in frowning on Him in displeasure by the very horror and the struggle in which He would, but for His Father’s will, have refused to be plunged: this must have struck into the very heart of all His sorrow an element of amazement amounting to absolute agony and horror. If an ecstasy of wonder thrills through the believer’s joy in the Lord His righteousness, there must have been a deeply contrasted paralyzing amazement when the Holy One of God realized Himself as worthy, in the sins of others, of condemnation at His Father’s tribunal.
The justified believer finds his joy in the righteousness of Christ augmented to the highest exaltation by the fact that this righteousness is not only not his own, but is the righteousness of one so beloved, so closely related to him as his living head, his elder brother—”my Lord, and my God.” Had it been the righteousness of one standing in no endearing relation to him (were this conceivable), one who in future should be nothing more to him than any other, or one never more to be heard of, or at least never to be enjoyed in the embrace of friendship and the offices of love: the believer’s joy in such a righteousness imputed to him would have been unspeakably less. The exulting delight, unspeakable and full of glory, which the believer cherishes in clasping to his heart that righteousness of Jesus which is all his boast before God and angels, and which evermore is as a cordial to his fainting heart, the ever-reviving fountain to him of life from the dead, the secret and inexpressible exultation of his joy in this righteousness of Jesus just springs from the remembrance that it is the righteousness of one whom his soul loves; of one who is all his salvation and all his desire; of one with whom He shall dwell forevermore—and thus better to him far than had it been his own. Imputation, therefore, it is evident, can carry with it a fervor and intensity of joy to which actual and personal possession can never reach.1
1. An excerpt taken from Hugh Martin’s The Shadow of Calvary