We may evaluate the cross dichotomously. First, consider the judicial experience of Christ – what occurred legally on the cross. Second, consider the substantive experience of Christ – what occurred ontologically on the cross. These two categories are also in temporal order.
Declared a Sinner
On the cross, Christ was declared by God to be a sinner. The courtroom of Heaven found Christ guilty of sin and God the Judge said, “This man is a transgressor of my law – he is utterly guilty.” In being declared a sinner, Christ did not yet suffer anything. This declaration was entirely legal, dealing only with Christ’s position and relation to God.
First, Scripture reveals this in Leviticus, where Christ’s death was prefigured by the sacrifices of the Old Covenant (Hebrews 10:1-10). Normatively, an animal sacrifice would include the laying-on-of-hands by either the priest or Israelite who provided the sacrifice. For example: “Then Aaron shall lay both of his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the sons of Israel and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins” (Leviticus 16:21). The ritual was symbolic of a legal contraction that took place in that moment. The animal was receiving credit for the sins of a certain Israelite(s). The animal was then guilty.
Hebrews 10 says plainly that these rituals were symbolic and non-substantive – meaning that no Israelite was actually forgiven through the sacrifice of an animal. Instead, as mentioned above, these sacrifices pointed forward to the death of Christ. The Levitical sacrificial system implied that Christ, as the True and Greater Lamb, would in His death be declared a transgressor of God’s law. This correlation is strengthened by Biblical references to Christ as Lamb (Isaiah 53:7, John 1:29, 1 Peter 1:18, Revelation 4:4-8, 6:16, 12:11, 17:14, 21:27, 22:3).
Second, Scripture reveals this in the absence of imputed sin to certain people. Abraham, after placing His faith in God, was not considered by God to be guilty of iniquity: “Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6; cf. Romans 4:1-25). “Impute” is a legal term meaning “to reckon; to account.” If Abraham disobeyed God, how is it that God would not call him guilty of disobedience?
The Psalmist continues this theme: “How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered! How blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit!” (Psalm 32:1-2). Would it not be unjust for God to cover over evil, to not impute iniquity? “If You, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You, that You may be feared” (Psalm 130:3-4). Would it not be unjust for God to fail in keeping a record of a man’s iniquities?
This dilemma is found throughout the Bible. How can God be just and yet merciful? How can God forgive sin, yet still punish sin? The answer is found in Christ: that God as Judge would pronounce Christ guilty of sins which He elsewhere passed over. Sins left un-imputed to some were imputed to Christ. This solves the dilemma of God as merciful judge.
Third, Scripture reveals this pointedly in several individual texts. Isaiah wrote, “The Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him” (Isaiah 53:6b). The evil things that God’s people do fall upon Christ. Because sin is not a physical entity, we understand this language to be somewhat poetic. What does it mean for iniquity/sin to fall upon Christ? In context (vv.4-6), it results in him being stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted (v.4b). If Christ received a sinner’s wage from a just God, it is only appropriate that we estimate a judicial sentence of equivalent character – namely, he was pronounced guilty of sin in the courtroom of Heaven.
Paul wrote, “For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh” (Romans 8:3). God commissioned Christ to be 1) incarnate, 2) an offering for sin. Christ as a man dying as an offering for sin had this effect: the condemnation of sin in the flesh. A true son of Adam – a human – truly suffered for sin, being truly condemned under the Law. Christ, then, was pronounced guilty by God.
Again from Paul: “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Here we again find poetic language in reference to what occurred on the cross. A literal reading of this text would render Christ as sin and the church as righteousness – but because sin and righteousness are non-physical entities, we understand that Paul is pointing us to something different.
Christ never sinned (Hebrews 4:15) nor became anything other than the spotless Lamb of God (13:8). The only sense in which Christ became sin – in light of the corpus of Scripture – seems to be in a sense of treatment and not ontological fact. So: Who Christ was did not change, but for some reason He was treated differently on the cross. If God is just, then Christ must have been judicially found guilty prior to such treatment.
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us – for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree” (Galatians 3:13). This verse works similarly to 2 Corinthians 5:21. Christ becoming a curse is somewhat poetic, meaning that He was accursed. Curses of the Law are reserved for those who transgress the Law (Deuteronomy 27:1-26). If Christ bore such a curse, He must have been judicially reckoned as a Law-breaker.
Seeing such evidences in Scripture, I submit to you that on the cross Christ was truly and fully declared by God to be guilty of unrighteousness. He was blamed for a plethora of transgressions which He had no part in committing.
The pronouncement of “guilty” was pursued by a pronouncement of “condemned.” Being found a transgressor, Christ was sentenced to a transgressor’s end. “For the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23a). Christ, though He had not sinned, was blamed for sin by a Heavenly verdict, and so was dealt a Heavenly edict to receive the wages of said sin.
Treated as a Sinner
After God declared Christ a sinner and pronounced the appropriate punishment, He then dealt that punishment out upon Him. God loosed His holy, righteous indignation on Christ as He hung from the wooden beams. This anger was not random or arbitrary: it was provoked by the very sin Christ was blamed for. We may view this treatment from two non-equivocal angles: propitiation and expiation.
First, Christ propitiated the anger God held for the sins which Christ was blamed. “God displayed [Christ] publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith” (Romans 3:25a). A “propitiation” is “a sacrifice that appeases wrath.” God put Christ on the cross (Acts 2:23) in order to publicly manifest Him as a sacrificial lamb satisfying the Law’s demand for the death of sinners.
Old Covenant offerings, as prescribed by God, were a pleasing aroma to God (ex. Leviticus 1:9). In like manner, Christ’s death was a pleasing aroma to God, in the sense that it appeased His thirst for justice. “And walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma” (Ephesians 5:2).
More than the Roman nails, the Jewish scoffing, the thieves’ taunting, Christ suffered the true wrath of God. Isaiah foretold this: “But the Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief” (Isaiah 53:10a). As a grain of wheat rolled between two great millstones, so Christ was crushed. As a small animal toppled by a bursting dam, so Christ was destroyed. As a lamb strapped to the altar and put beneath the edge of a knife, so Christ was killed.
It is important to see the relationship between Christ being “Declared a Sinner” and “Treated as a Sinner.” He was not aimlessly and accidently treated in such a way. He was crushed under God’s wrath because He was declared guilty for sin. For those sins imputed to Christ, He received full compensation.
I do not know what the full, untampered wrath of God felt like upon the cross. I am at a loss for how to describe it, other than to point you towards Scriptural examples. Consider Nahum:
He rebukes the sea and makes it dry; He dries up all the rivers. Bashan and Carmel wither; the blossoms of Lebanon wither. Mountains quake because of Him and the hills dissolve; indeed the earth is upheaved by His presence, the world and all the inhabitants in it. Who can stand before His indignation? Who can endure the burning of His anger? His wrath is poured out like fire and the rocks are broken up by Him. (1:4-6)
Then the kings of the earth and the great man and the commanders and the rich and the strong and every slave and free man hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains; and they said to the mountains and to the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” (6:15-17)
Scripture presents Christ as propitiation with the analogy of a cup of wine. A chalice is used in Scripture to represent God’s anger against the wicked and their deeds. “For a cup is in the hand of the Lord, and the wine foams; it is well mixed, and He pours out of this; surely all the wicked of the earth must drain and drink down its dregs” (Psalm 75:8). “Rouse yourself! Rouse yourself! Arise, O Jerusalem, you who have drunk from the Lord’s hand the cup of His anger; the chalice of reeling you have drained to the dregs” (Isaiah 51:17).
In Gethsemane, Christ thrice prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will” (Matthew 26:36-46). Such language correlates Christ’s suffering on the cross with Biblical expressions of God’s fierce and tangible hatred against sin. Christ, in obedience to the will of His Father (Philippians 2:5-8), willing and freely put Himself beneath the full weight of Heavenly justice, as it poured forth from the battlements of Zion. He truly suffered, truly died, and truly appeased the wrath He received in such manner that it does not persist beyond His blood.
Second, Christ expiated the sins imputed unto Him. Blamed for certain misdeeds, His suffering on the cross erased the record of those misdeeds. In His death, He carried them away as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12). Expiation is accomplished by propitiation – namely, the suffering of Christ “canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us… and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14).
Expiation is visualized in Leviticus 16.
Then Aaron shall lay both of his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the sons of Israel and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins; and he shall lay them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who stands in readiness. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a solitary land; and he shall release the goat in the wilderness.
So Christ was the goat who bore sins to a solitary land, never to be seen again. With sin out of the picture, God may be reconciled to those who committed sin (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:18). John the Baptist saw Christ as the Great Expiator: “The next day he saw Jesus coming to him and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’” (John 1:29).
Leviticus 16 actually references two goats. One was a scapegoat, used to expiate sins (vv.20-22). The other was for a sin offering (vv.15-19). The offering-goat was slaughtered on the altar; the scapegoat was loosed into the wilderness. In this dual ritual we see a rough silhouette of what occurred in Christ’s death. He was blamed for sins and thus condemned to a sinner’s ruin. He thus suffered under the knife of God’s justice and in doing so erased forever the sins for which He suffered.
 Some theologians will define propitiation and expiation differently than I do. The specific terms used is irrelevant in comparison to the particular points of doctrine exposited.
 See also Job 21:20, Psalm 11:6, 60:3, 63:6, Jeremiah 25:15, 49:12, Revelation 14:10, 16:19.