The mechanism of imputation
In considering how imputation works, certain conclusions present themselves to my mind which contradict particular atonement.
Imputation to us
Christ, having fulfilled the whole law, is counted righteous, and this righteousness is imputed to us by God. But what is the form of this righteousness? It doesn’t seem to me that it can be in the form of specific acts, for this would result in obvious absurdities. For example, suppose I ask: did Christ fulfill the whole law in the sense of keeping every single commandment given? Of course he kept every commandment which applied to him—but what if he never encountered his enemy’s donkey going astray, that he might return it (Deuteronomy 23:4)? Does this imply that his adherence to the law was less than perfect? Does it imply that his righteousness, imputed to me, is in any way deficient? Does it imply that, if I were a Jew prior to my conversion and had encountered my enemy’s donkey and returned it, I would have added to his imputed righteousness?
The answer to these questions must plainly be no. God does not view the law in this way; as if, in Christ, I am counted as having done exactly the acts he did, and no others. It is not the acts of Jesus which are imputed to me, but the righteousness grounded in those acts. Since “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8), and Christ loved perfectly, I am counted as having loved perfectly, and thus as having fulfilled the law. Therefore, I conclude that the righteousness imputed to me is qualitative, rather than quantitative. It is not a series of righteous acts which are imputed—it is righteousness itself: that is, the condition of being righteous, which is grounded in those acts.
Inherited sin, it seems, works in the same way. It is not the action of Adam, the specific sin of eating the fruit, which is imputed to me; it is guilt itself. That is, it’s the condition of being disobedient, which is grounded in the eating of the fruit, which is imputed. Or, put another way, I am a sinner in Adam—not a fruit eater.
Imputation to Christ
Now, it seems very reasonable to me to think that there’s a symmetry between imputation to us, and imputation to Christ. Anyone is welcome to argue otherwise in the comments below—but such an argument must offer good reasons for the disparity. It can’t just be asserted; neither will it do to say that it must be so on the basis of particular atonement, since this would merely beg the question against me. Lacking any evident reason to the contrary, I take it as given that imputation is imputation—if it works a certain way for us, it works the same way for Christ.
Subsequently, although many Reformed Christians seem to assume that it is our specific acts of sin which are imputed to Jesus, it seems to me that this can’t be the case. Rather, what is imputed is our qualitative condition of sinfulness. This is certainly what 2 Corinthians 5:21 and Galatians 3:13 seem to say: that for our sake God made him to be sin (singular), so that he became a curse (singular), so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (singular). And is this not very congruent with John, who says that Jesus takes away the sin of the world—singular? These terms all seem to suggest an overarching, qualitative condition, rather than specific, quantitative acts.
This is because (at the risk of making this seem simple) guilt is guilt, and righteousness is righteousness. You’re either righteous or you’re guilty, “for whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For he who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not murder.’ If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law” (James 2:10–11). The law is a single, indivisible specification of obedience. The one principle of obedience is manifested in the various articles of the law, so that to break one of these is to break the whole law—and to break the whole law is to be disobedient and guilty. There may be a quality and a quantity to my guilt in terms of the articles of the law—that is, I break a certain number of laws a certain number of times (quantity); and each on occasion with a certain severity (quality). But in terms of the law, either I am obedient—or I am not.
With this in mind, it seems evident to me that where penal substitution is concerned, it is obedience or disobedience, righteousness or guilt, which is being substituted. It is not individual acts of obedience or disobedience, righteousness or guilt.
A bit of further explanation
So my contention is that imputation is the legal transferral only of a condition or a quality. As regards righteousness, it means I’m regarded as obedient, a law-keeper, and sinless. The ground for being so regarded is the federal representation of Christ, who actually was sinless in his personal life. But it is not his personal life which is accounted to me; rather, it is the obedience of that life. Conversely, as regards sin, imputation means Christ was regarded as disobedient, a law-breaker, a sinner. The grounds for being so regarded is the people whom he federally represents, who actually were and are and will be sinful in their personal lives. But again—it is not their personal lives which are accounted to him, and not their personal sins; rather, it is the disobedience of those lives. Therefore, even if it was only the elect whose sin was the grounds of imputation (a notion I am sympathetic to), it remains that the scope of the atonement is unlimited or universal, since individual sins were not part of the equation. It was the condition of being a sinner which was imputed to him—and so he represented any and all sinners by merit of sharing in their humanity.
This is a view which can be called judicial atonement, which sees the payment of sin as penal, to be paid in our own persons—as death. It is opposed to pecuniary atonement, which views the payment of sin as transactional, like the payment of an amount of money. As Steve Costley puts it, “Christ has not paid a certain amount for so many sins. His blood is not like a quantity of money. His suffering is not a pain-for-pain equivalent for the suffering due to us.”
If this is so, then it’s nonsensical to think that the atonement is particular or limited in its scope. Particularity requires a pecuniary view in which specific sins and no others were imputed to Christ. I think this view is faulty, and that when Scripture likens the atonement to the payment of a ransom, this metaphor should not be taken that literally. It is not the case that certain people were excluded from being federally represented on the cross. Although Christ may have had the elect specifically in view when died, knowing that it was for them alone that his death was intended to be efficacious, it was still be the case in practice that he represented all humankind—because he himself was a human being. Thus his atonement could be made efficacious for even the reprobate, would they only turn and live.
A couple of supporting observations
The facts of Christ’s death
One of the particular aspects of the atonement which I think supports my view is the way in which Christ paid the penalty for sin. His payment was not the same penalty which I myself would pay, were I to die in unbelief. For me, eternal suffering in a physical location known as hell would be the just and necessary consequence of my disobedience to God. Jesus, however, did not suffer in a physical place called hell after he died—not even for even a short time. He went “that day” to his Father’s side (Luke 23:43). In fact, the only obvious similarity between the actions of Christ which atoned for my sin, and the actions which I myself would owe in atonement, is death.
This is entirely congruent with Scripture, for “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). That is, the wages of any and every sin is death. Now, the death of an unregenerate sinner is an imperfect wage—it can neither take away guilt, nor reconcile the sinner to God. Thus, hell. But being perfect God himself, Christ’s death counted as a perfect wage—it was a perfect propitiation for the guilt of transgressing the whole law, and can reconcile anyone to God, because Christ is God. Therefore, whatever sin I have committed, its wages are covered to the uttermost in Christ (Hebrews 7:25) if he is counted as a transgressor in my place.