[T]here came to Basle in 1577, on his way to the Easter fair at Frankfort, a certain Jaques Couet [Covetus], a Parisian student, travelling from Geneva in company with Manfredo Balbani. They put up at the same lodging where Sozzini [Socinus] resided, and a considerable party sat down to supper. Before the meal, it had been arranged that Couet was to draw Sozzini on the subject of the satisfaction of Christ. Couet, then a rising light of divinity, fresh from the schools, was by no means averse to the plan. He expected an easy victory; and thought Sozzini would be all the more ready to engage with an adversary whose dress betrayed no sign of the ministerial character, as he travelled in the ordinary garb of a business man. He miscalculated alike the shrewdness and the theological eagerness of his opponent. Scarcely had they sat down to table, when the practised ear of Sozzini detected the Calvinist preacher beneath the lay doublet. Couet's long grace before meat was much too professional to be a commercial traveller's spontaneous effort. And the detection greatly increased instead of diminishing Sozzini's willingness for an encounter. He accepted Couet's conversational remarks as a challenge, and the discussion at once began. It was impossible to conclude it that night, and Couet had to start at early dawn on his Frankfort journey. He begged Sozzini to put upon paper the heads of the matters in dispute, and let him have them before he left. No sooner said than done. Sozzini sat down in his bedroom to draft the document. Finishing it in haste, he carried it to the chamber of Couet, who had already retired to rest. Then and there the exact terms of discussion were agreed upon between the two men. A few weeks later, Couet forwarded to Basle, by the hands of Juan Francisco, his examination of the theses, briefly but ably handled. The communication is dated 1 April, 1577. Sozzini felt that the matter demanded of him a full and careful treatment, and accordingly set himself to compose an exhaustive reply. The progress of the work was interrupted by the outbreak of the plague at Basle, and by another controversy of which we shall speak presently. At length on 12 July, 1578, the labour was finished, and in the shape of a bulky treatise was intrusted to Juan Francisco, who promised to send it to Couet's brother at Geneva.
In chapters 7-10 of his classic work, Socinus answers the following assertion from Covetus:
For if Christ, as you claim, did not die to make satisfaction for us to God, then he certainly should not have died at all, and in fact could not have died. God would have been unjust to have handed him over to die. The wages of sin is death (Rom. 6). And death entered the world through sin, such that God exercises his authority against human beings. But he does not exercise judgment against human beings per se, simply because they are human, but because they are sinners. You, however, deny that Christ died for our sins. Therefore, it follows that Christ—who really did die—must have died for his own sins. No one dies unless it is because of sin: either for his own sins or for the sins of someone else. But to say that Christ died for his own sins is a great blasphemy (p. 102).
Socinus rejects the assertion that no one dies unless it is because of sin: either for his own sins or for the sins of someone else. He says that the "wages of sin" referred to by Paul in Romans 6:23 is eternal death not physical death. He writes:
Natural death, in so far as it is natural and common to all, is not the wage of sin. It is the proper result of our nature, which Adam himself received in his very creation. But the wage of sin is the necessity of dying and eternal death. . . . mortality is natural to human beings even before sin and quite apart from it, in as much as it is natural to living organisms, formed from the earth right from the start.
I think Socinus is correct because if natural death were the wages of sin and if Christ paid that penalty on the cross, then believers would not die a physical death, but of course they do.
Thus, according to Socinus, Christ himself was also subject to this natural death. He was not subject because of any sin—either his own or those of another—but because he was born human.
Whatever the death of Jesus was, it was not a punishment, according to Socinus. He writes:
God would have wronged Christ if he allowed such great evils to come upon Christ as a punishment, regardless of how willing Christ might have been. Christ certainly could not have been subjected to any punishment, in as much as he was completely innocent.
Socinus anticipates the following response from Covetus: You will respond that God could indeed be quite just in choosing to impute the sins of others to Christ. But on the other hand, you will say that he in no way deserved to have these sins imputed to him.
Socinus argues that the above two statements are contradictory. How could God be just in imputing the sins of man to Christ when Christ did not deserve to have these sins imputed?
So, we are back to the whole problem of how one justly punishes an innocent person. Socinus explains:
Your axiom actually assumes that it can be just for the sins of others to be imputed to someone, even though that person is completely innocent. I fail to see how anyone could say or think of a more ridiculous or wicked notion. This is especially the case if your axiom is applied to Christ, with reference to whom you stated it in the first place.
Earlier, when we noted that no one could suffer bodily penalties for another person, we also showed that the sins of others could not be imputed by God to anyone. Indeed, the sins of the father could not be imputed to the son, unless the son were to imitate the wickedness of the father. As I noted, Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, which state that God punishes the sins of the parents in the sons, can be harmonized with Ezekiel 18, which states that the son will not bear the iniquity of the father. Ezekiel 18:14 ff. clearly suggests how to harmonize these seemingly contradictory statements.
Two conditions must necessarily be met at the same time before the sins of others may be imputed to someone. One condition is that the one who is to receive the imputation of the sins must be connected to the person whose sins are to be imputed in such a way that the one to receive the imputation should appear to be a partaker of the other's transgressions solely on account of that connection. The other condition is that the person who receives the imputation must also have sinned, and have imitated the wickedness of that other person. Otherwise, as reason itself obviously teaches, we should regard the imputation as completely wicked.