Christ “removes from God’s sight my sin — mine since I was conceived.” He does this by means of “his innocence and perfect holiness” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 36), thereby granting us a status before the Father that is not based on what we have done but on what Jesus has done. This is the glorious truth of the gospel, the truth that is assumed in today’s passage.
Through the great exchange — our sin for Christ’s righteousness — we are reconciled to God the Father. God “condemned sin in the flesh” of our Savior (Rom. 8:3), yet He did not condemn Jesus’ sin but the sin of His people. Christ, in fact, “knew no sin” (2 Cor. 5:21). We benefit from His virginal conception and birth because it means He came in “the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom. 8:3). He took on a true human nature, not a fallen human nature, enabling Him to live a perfect life, to secure a righteous status that would benefit His elect. Our sin was imputed to Christ on the cross — it was put on Jesus’ record — and there the Father condemned it, met the demands of His justice, and removed our wickedness from His sight (Gal. 3:10–14). By faith alone, Jesus’ righteousness is imputed to us — put on our record — when we trust Christ alone. Thus, we are reckoned as those who have met the Law’s demands (Rom. 3:9–4:25; 8:4), not because of our works, but because of the perfect merit of Jesus. We gain such benefits only when we completely renounce any claim to merit in what we have done. John Calvin comments, “We shall never be clothed with the righteousness of Christ except that we first know assuredly that we have no righteousness of our own.”
This double imputation is essential to our salvation, but it is not the only thing that takes place through Jesus’ atonement and our union with Him by faith alone. At the cross, God secured our justification, but He also broke the power of sin over His people. Due to our fallenness, the Law cannot justify us; it cannot give us a right status before God. Neither can it break the power of sin and free us to obey the Lord. But when God condemned sin in the flesh of our Savior, He also destroyed sin’s hold on His children, freeing us to walk in the Spirit and not in the disobedient ways of those who remain in Adam (Rom. 8:3–4; Gal. 4:1–7).
Sin’s power controls all of those who are in Adam and not united to Christ by faith alone. But when we trust in Jesus, we are not only clothed in righteousness, we are also freed from sin’s dominion. This does not mean we will be sinless before we are glorified, but it does mean that we do not have to let sin reign over us any longer. Because we are in Christ, we can put sin to death and grow in the grace and knowledge of our Savior.