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Calvin and Calvinism » Blog Archive » Dominic Bnonn Tennant on the Atonement: Federal Headship and Forensic Imputation

Reposted with Permission from Developing the Mind of Christ.

In this series, I forward a considered case for a universal atonement, presenting what I find to be the most compelling arguments for it, defining what exactly it entails, and interacting with the most common and persuasive objections against it.

This is part 1 of 6, in which I forward the argument that particular atonement is inconsistent with what is revealed in Scripture about federal headship and forensic imputation: two doctrines central to Christ’s penal substitution.

My first argument is that limited atonement is incongruent with federal headship and forensic imputation. These two doctrines are central to penal substitution, which in turn is at the heart of the atonement: they say firstly that one man can represent another so that even his sin or righteousness can be regarded as the other’s; and secondly that God, in fact, does impute our sin to Christ and his righteousness to us, by which we may be saved apart from any merit of our own—for we have none.

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 himbut 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.

The actual event of imputation

Now, his atonement must be applied to me in order for me to be counted righteous. That is, at some point in time my sin must be imputed to Christ, otherwise I would not be saved. Under the pecuniary view, Christ paid for my sins at the cross. That being so, for God to ever count me as a sinner seems unjust. If my sins were covered in Christ since before I was born, then there was no time in my life when I ever owed a penalty for them. Since my conception, I would have been in Christ. But I know that if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). And indeed, I know that I am now a new creation—a spiritual person, rather than a natural one (1 Corinthians 2:6ff), and am reconciled to God—because I remember a time before I was such. I remember a time when I was a “child of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3), and a point in time when I was reconciled to God through the Spirit, by faith (Romans 5:1).

To be fair, there is a distinction between the imputation of my sin to Christ, and of his righteousness to me. Many Christians would argue that it is only on the event of the latter, when I obtain faith, that I stop being under God’s wrath. However, I find it difficult to see how I could justly be under God’s wrath given the former. If my sin is paid, it is paid, and wrath remains on me no longer. Therefore, I conclude that the application of the atonement. . . could not have occurred at the cross. Christ’s death really was representative, and is held up as an object of salvation. I am counted as being represented by him on the occasion of my faith in this object. This in turn aligns well with the way in which the bronze serpent of Numbers 21 worked. As a type of Christ’s atonement, it fits perfectly with a judicial view—but it doesn’t seem congruent with a pecuniary one.

These seem to me the major considerations as regards federal headship and imputation. They all appear to point to a judicial atonement, rather than the pecuniary one. It’s hard to see how any of these elements are congruent with a pecuniary atonement—yet they fit hand-in-glove into the judicial view.  [Italics original; minor editing; and underlining mine.]

This entry was posted on Wednesday, June 30th, 2010 at 6:00 am and is filed under The Imputation of Sin. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

13 comments so far


What’s Dominic doing these days? His blogging was very spotty for quite a while, and then he apparently stopped altogether.

June 30th, 2010 at 10:01 am

Hey Barry,

Yeah I dunno. Mayhaps: marriage and family are serious obstacles for brilliant theological minds. ;-) Ive seen so many minds just go to mush for those very reasons. :-) The post is outstanding and helped me clarify that quantitative imputation is nonsensical. Thanks Barry. I hope youve been doing well. I see my John 15:10 didnt make your Christian Carnival list. Very disappointed, very very displeased was I. :-)

June 30th, 2010 at 11:37 am

Love the thoughts. I would say though that Jesus did *not* go to His Father’s side at death. (John 20:17).

July 1st, 2010 at 12:49 pm


Is the righteousness a created one or an uncreated one? I am curious as to your thoughts if you think a created go between is problematic or not.

July 5th, 2010 at 9:46 pm

Hey there Perry,

Can you tell me what a created righteousness looks like?


July 6th, 2010 at 8:36 am

Hey, David. I haven’t been on the blog much, so I just now read your reply. I didn’t know that you’d even submitted something. The contributions are forwarded to me through the carnival website; obviously yours wasn’t forwarded to me. I would have LOVED to have included. Now, very very displeased am I, too!

July 8th, 2010 at 12:22 pm

Thats okay, I was just whining and lamenting my own obscurity… at your expense.



July 8th, 2010 at 12:49 pm

Your argument appears to be based mostly on the uses of “sin” in a singular use. Yet there are many cases of “sins” plural: Col. 1:15 says “the forgiveness of sins”, 1 Jo. 2:2 & 1 Jo. 4:10 “the propitiation for our sins”, Rev. 1:5 “released us from our sins”, Heb 1:3 “purification of sins”, Heb 8:12 “I will remember their sins no more”, etc. etc.

Also, the OT priest atoned for his sins (plural) and the sins of the people. (Heb 7:27).

October 8th, 2010 at 8:09 am

Hey Michael,

I will send a note along to Dom to see if he wants to make a comment in reply.

Myself tho I would say there is no problem.

1) In the same way as the one and the
many, sin sums up all sins, in kind and number.

2) Sins, plural, in what specific sense? For example, sins of murder and theft as categories? or all the counted sins of murder and theft?

3) It is the guilt of sin imputed, not quantifiable sin-acts transferred. It is not a case of Christ suffering for ‘so much sin.’ Or stated another way, Christ suffering for so many sin-acts.

I see no problem here, as the singular precludes the idea of a transference of limited quantification of sin-acts being imputed to Christ.

Thanks for visiting,

October 8th, 2010 at 8:40 am

Hey Michael,

I posted a comment to your post, Calvinism, Hyper-Calvinism and Arminianism. It may have gotten caught up in the spam filter.


October 8th, 2010 at 11:07 am

Your argument appears to be based mostly on the uses of “sin” in a singular use.

No, my argument is based mostly on the absurdities which seem to arise from taking a quantitative view of imputation. The Bible’s use of the singular “sin” is merely a corroborating argument. I’m not sure why you would think it was the main basis for my position, since I only devoted about half a paragraph to it?

In any case, as David already said, there’s no obvious problem with the use of the plural term “sins” when speaking of either forgiveness or atonement:

1. In the case of forgiveness, it is entirely valid to speak of sins, since imputation is not directly in view. It is specific acts for which forgiveness is given.

2. In the case of atonement, it is still valid to speak of sins, since although what is actually being atoned for is guilt, the guilt is grounded in those specific acts. Without the sins, there would be nothing to atone for. So speaking of atoning for sins is just short-hand for speaking of atoning for the guilt of sins.

3. As David’s already said, while the plural usage is easily harmonized with a qualitative view of imputation, the Bible’s use of the singular “sin” is very difficult to harmonize with a quantitative view.

Hope this helps,

PS: David & Barry, it hasn’t been family life which has prevented me blogging lately. It’s the fact that I became self-employed at the beginning of the year, and have just had no time free as I used to. I’m hoping this will start to be corrected in the next few weeks, and plan to be back to a more regular apologetics schedule early next year. Thanks for caring though; I didn’t realize anyone had noticed (:

October 8th, 2010 at 7:22 pm

David, Akismet kicked your comment into spam. I found it and will soon reply.

October 15th, 2010 at 4:25 pm

Hey Michael, Ive replied over at your blog. Hope your filters dont swallow it.


October 15th, 2010 at 7:44 pm

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