John Mark Karr has been cleared in the slaying of JonBenet Ramsey. Clearly a sick and disturbed individual, Karr claimed responsibility for a crime he did not commit. Only a monstrously sick individual would claim responsibility for the rape and murder of a 6-year-old knowing full well that the crime was not his. Some are suggesting that his claim to this murder is a well-constructed plan to ensure that he will not be convicted for child pornography charges brought against him in California. Steve Janke says, “He won’t pay for any crimes he might have committed for the simple reason that it will be impossible for Karr to get a fair trial. Any jury pool is irredeemably tainted by the publicity. And Karr’s lawyer would be right.”
Frankly, this entire case makes me sick. I can barely bring myself to look at pictures of JonBenet Ramsey, the little girl whose parents dressed her like a sultry and seductive teenager and then marvelled that anyone would respond to her in that way. I am sickened by the sexual violence committed against her. Surely this crime is a stark display of the depravity of mankind. But as I continued to see headlines about the case a strange thought entered my mind. It quickly became obvious that Karr was not the murderer and was somehow using his confession as a means to a selfish end. But still I thought, what would be wrong with having him serve the sentence for this crime? If the state of Colorado charged him with the murder and put him in prison for the rest of his days, would the demands of justice be satisfied? Can justice be satisfied if one man serves a sentence on behalf of another, even if this is done voluntarily? The answer is obvious. The demands of justice could not and cannot be satisfied by the wrong man suffering on behalf of the one who has committed the crime. We do not need to look to the laws of our nations to determine this, for our hearts tell us this is so. God has imprinted the demand for justice into the human conscience.
And yet this is just what happened with Jesus Christ, is it not? Jesus committed no sin, and yet He suffered for my sin so that I can be declared righteous. Was this a grave miscarriage of justice or was this, as the Bible indicates, a perfect expression of both mercy and justice? And if John Mark Karr cannot satisfy justice’s demands on behalf of the man who really killed JonBenet Ramsey, why is it that Jesus can satisfy justice’s demands on behalf of the man who actually did?
I thought about this for some time and asked some friends for advice. I shuffled through five or six systematic theologies as well. All the while I felt stupid for not arriving at an easy and obvious answer. But in the end, my first instincts seemed to offer the best answer. It all comes down to imputation.
There are three times we encounter imputation in the doctrines of Scripture. The first deals with the sin of Adam. In Romans 5 we read, “One trespass led to condemnation for all men…by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners.” Paul declares that through the sin of Adam, all men were counted guilty. When faced with the choice to disobey God, Adam served as the representative of all mankind. When he sinned, he sinned on our behalf. Wayne Grudem says, “God counted Adam’s guilt as belonging to us, and since God is the ultimate judge of all things in the universe, and since his thoughts are always true, Adam’s guilt does in fact belong to us. God rightly imputed Adam’s guilt to us.” This word impute is critically important. Grudem defines it as “to think of as belonging to someone, and therefore to cause it to belong to that person.” As the righteous judge, God imputed Adam’s sin to all who would come from the line of Adam. From that moment, all who are born of Adam, all who are sons and daughters of Adam, are conceived and born in sin. We sin because we are sinners.
Imputation is found again in the suffering and death of Jesus. The Second Adam, Jesus Christ was appointed to be the second and greatest representative of the human race. Conceived of the Holy Spirit, Jesus did not have Adam’s sin imputed to him. He was born blameless and perfect in every way. But then, on the cross, sin was imputed to him. He bore our sin. Isaiah 53:6 says, “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Galatians 3:13 tells us that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” Christ bore our sin and even became sin. In the very same way that Adam’s sin was imputed to the human race, our sin was imputed to Christ. God thought of our sin as being on Christ’s account rather than our own, and so actually caused our sin to belong to Christ. Christ bore this sin perfectly and so satisfied God’s demands for justice.
But, thanks be to God, this is not all, for we soon encounter imputation once more. God does more than allow Christ to suffer on our behalf. While Christ died for us and bore our sin, the fact remains that we are guilty of committing countless sins. And so God also imputes to us the righteousness of Christ. Paul says in Philippians 3:9 that he does not have, “a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” The righteousness he enjoys is not his own, but is a gift of God. Christ’s righteousness has been imputed to him and to all who believe. We are now thought of by God as righteous and therefore are now righteous. Praise God.
Based on plenty of thought and reading, I’ve concluded there are several reasons that John Mark Karr could not satisfy the demands of justice on behalf of another. First, God is ultimately the offended party any time a sin is committed. While a sin may hurt, bother, or even kill me, ultimately all sin is committed against God. And since God is the one who is offended, He is the one who determines how justice can be satisfied. Scripture gives no hint that one person may suffer for another, except in the case of Christ. Second, in order for Karr to suffer on behalf of another person, he would first need to have that person’s sin imputed to him. Without imputation, payment for the crime would be little more than a valueless legal fiction. Only God is able to impute sin, for, as we have seen, all sin is committed against God. Karr might be able to pretend that the sin of another person is actually his, but this would be nothing more than make-believe. Only God could actually impute that sin to him. Third, even if God were to do that, Karr could never suffer perfectly and justly for that sin. The demands of justice could not be met in one who was himself a sinner. And finally, even if Karr did have the murderer’s sin imputed to him, and even if he did bear it perfectly, the murderer would still be counted guilty, for Karr has no righteousness to offer him. Where there is sin, there is guilt. Karr is a sinner, just like you and me. He has no righteousness of his own. If he is to be ushered into heaven, he must first, by faith, believe in Christ and have Christ’s righteousness imputed to him.
We depend on Christ always, fully and finally. Only He is able to bear our sin. Only He is able to offer us His righteousness. Only He, if only we believe.