Is It Just for An Innocent Person to Pay for the Sins of the Guilty?

Is it just to allow an innocent person to pay for the crime of a guilty person? Let’s try that out in story form.

A wretched woman stands trial for murdering a husband and wife. The jury finds the woman guilty of all the heinous crimes she is accused of. It is now the day when sentencing will be handed down. The prosecuting attorney was going for the death penalty. The judge agrees that someone deserves to die for these crimes. But everyone in the court is shocked when instead of passing sentence on the guilty murderer the punishment is handed over to an innocent son of the victims.

Hopefully if you were in the courtroom you’d cry out against this miscarriage of justice. An innocent party should not be punished for the guilty actions of another. But what if we added a bit to the story? What if the innocent son of the victim offered to take the punishment upon himself? What if he volunteered for the job?

Such a story would be noble—and it’s the thing of many sermon illustrations—but is it really just? According to Scripture (Proverbs 17:15), “acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent—the LORD detests them both.” No judge in the land would allow for such a thing—especially in a murder trial where the death penalty is in play.

So how in the world can we say that it is not injustice for God to accept such a deal in the death of His Son? If we did the crime, why don’t we have to do the time? To say that God poured out His wrath on His innocent Son, who willingly took the place of sinners, is a bit much for some to swallow. No matter if he volunteered or not, it is unjust to punish a righteous man for the guilt of unrighteous people.

But what if we added something else to our story. What if I said that the innocent son was actually the husband of the murderer. Now, I understand that at face value this does absolutely nothing for our argument. Why should an innocent spouse pay for the crimes of a guilty husband? But such a thing is to misunderstand a fundamental principle of our union with another.

It’s not as difficult of a thing to grasp if we are talking about finances instead of the death penalty. It’s not considered unjust to transfer debt to a husband once he marries a spouse. The justice system have no problem making a willing husband financially responsible for his wife’s student loans. In this regard they consider the two as one.

Now I understand that when we start talking about death penalty instead of student loans it gets a bit trickier. I suppose this is where the analogy might break down a tad. But biblically speaking we are united to Christ in such a way that he actually becomes responsible for our debt. This in part is what 2 Corinthians 5:21 is talking about. When Christ took the church as His bride he took upon Himself her debt.

How can God the Father punish His innocent Son for the sins of an unrighteous people? Because by His willingness to marry this unrighteous bride he was “made to be sin”. Though not guilty of any sin of His own, by His union with a sinful bride, in a very real sense He is no longer the innocent Son.

The man upon the Cross is bearing the punishment of His beloved bride. That is the only way that He could be among the cursed hanging upon that tree (Galatians 3:10-14). Any other reason would be a gross mishandling of justice. I appreciate this point in Pierced For Our Transgressions:

The only way to explain how Christ could have died at all without compromising God’s justice is to say that our sin and guilt was imputed to him. Although Christ was sinless in himself (he bore no guilt for his own deeds), he nonetheless did bear the guilt of our sins. It is ironic that criticism of penal substitution, which claims to be concerned to uphold God’s justice, actually ends up undermining it. (Pierced For Our Transgressions, 248)

Take heart, he has paid our debt in full. This is why he cried tetelestai from the Cross. Through our union with Him and His perfect work, we are debt free and living in His positive righteousness, all by the Father’s good plan and good pleasure. This is great news!

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