Yet sad to say, even so widely-read and generally-respected a writer as the late Sir Rob. Anderson, said in his book, "The Gospel and Its Ministry" (Chapter on Justification by Blood), "Vicarious obedience is an idea wholly beyond reason; how could a God of righteousness and truth reckon a man who has broken law to have kept law, because some one else has kept it? The thief is not declared to be honest because his neighbour or his kinsman is a good citizen." What a pitiable dragging down to the bar of sin-polluted human reason, and a measuring by worldly relations, of that Divine transaction wherein the "manifold wisdom of God" was exercised! What is impossible with men is possible with God. Did Sir Robert never read that Old Testament prediction wherein the Most High God declared, "Therefore, behold, I will proceed to do a marvelous work among this people, even a marvelous work and a wonder: for the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid" (Isaiah 29:14)?
It is pointed out that, "In the human realm, both innocence and righteousness are transferable in their effects, but that in themselves they are untransferable." From this it is argued that neither sin nor righteousness are in themselves capable of being transferred, and that though God treated Christ as if He were the sinner, and deals with the believer as though he were righteous, nevertheless, we must not suppose that either is actually the case; still less ought we to affirm that Christ deserved to suffer the curse, or that His people are entitled to be taken to Heaven. Such is a fair sample of the theological ignorance of these degenerate times, such is a representative example of how Divine things are being measured by human standards; by such sophistries is the fundamental truth of imputation now being repudiated.
Rightly did W. Rushton, in his "Particular Redemption," affirm, "In the great affair of our salvation, our God stands single and alone. In this most glorious work, there is such a display of justice, mercy, wisdom and power, as never entered into the heart of man to conceive, and consequently, can have no parallel in the actions of mortals. `Who hath declared this from ancient time? who hath told it from that time? have not I the LORD? and there is no God else beside Me; a just God and a Saviour; there is none beside Me': Isaiah 45:21." No, in the very nature of the case no analogy whatever is to be found in any human transactions with God's transferring our sins to Christ or Christ's obedience to us, for the simple but sufficient reason that no such union exists between worldlings as obtains between Christ and His people. But let us further amplify this counter-imputation.
The afflictions which the Lord Jesus experienced were not only sufferings at the hands of men, but also enduring punishment at the hand of God: "it pleased the LORD to bruise Him" (Isaiah 53:10); "Awake, O sword, against My Shepherd, and against the man that is My Fellow, saith the LORD of hosts: smite the shepherd" (Zechariah 13:7) was His edict. But lawful "punishment" presupposes criminality; a righteous God had never inflicted the curse of the law upon Christ unless He had deserved it. That is strong language we are well aware, yet not stronger than what Holy Writ fully warrants, and things need to be stated forcibly and plainly today if an apathetic people is to be aroused. It was because God had transferred to their Substitute all the sins of His people that, officially, Christ deserved to be paid sin's wages.
The translation of our sins to Christ was clearly typed out under the Law: "And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, (expressing identification with the substitute), and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat (denoting transference), and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness: And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited" (Leviticus 16:21,22). So too it was expressly announced by the Prophets: "The LORD hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all... He shall bear their iniquities" (Isaiah 53:6,11). In that great Messianic Psalm, the 69 th, we hear the Surety saying, "O God, Thou knowest My foolishness; and My sins are not hid from Thee" (v. 5)--how could the spotless Redeemer speak thus, unless the sins of His people had been laid upon Him?
When God imputed sin to Christ as the sinner's Surety, He charged Him with the same, and dealt with Him accordingly. Christ could not have suffered in the stead of the guilty unless their guilt had been first transferred to Him. The sufferings of Christ were penal. God by act of transcendent grace (to us) laid the iniquities of all that are saved upon Christ, and in consequence, Divine justice finding sin upon Him, punished Him. He who will by no means clear the guilty must strike through sin and smite its bearer, no matter whether it be the sinner himself or One who vicariously takes his place. But as G.S. Bishop well said, "When justice once strikes the Son of God, justice exhausts itself. Sin is amerced in an Infinite Object." The atonement of Christ was contrary to our processes of law because it rose above their finite limitations!
Now as the sins of him who believes were, by God, transferred and imputed to Christ so that God regarded and treated Him accordingly--visiting upon Him the curse of the law, which is death; even so the obedience or righteousness of Christ is, by God, transferred and imputed to the believer so that God now regards and deals with him accordingly--bestowing upon him the blessing of the law, which is life. And any denial of that fact, no matter by whomsoever made, is a repudiation of the cardinal principle of the Gospel. "The moment the believing sinner accepts Christ as his Substitute, he finds himself not only freed from his sins, but rewarded: he gets all Heaven because of the glory and merits of Christ (Romans 5:17). The atonement, then, which we preach is one of absolute exchange (1 Peter 3:18). It is that Christ took our place literally, in order that we might take His place literally--that God regarded and treated Christ as the Sinner, and that He regards and treats the believing sinner as Christ.
"It is not enough for a man to be pardoned. He, of course, is then innocent--washed from his sin--put back again, like Adam in Eden, just where he was. But that is not enough. It was required of Adam in Eden that he should actually keep the command. It was not enough that he did not break it, or that he is regarded, through the Blood, as though he did not break it. He must keep it: he must continue in all things that are written in the book of the law to do them. How is this necessity supplied? Man must have a righteousness, or God cannot accept him. Man must have a perfect obedience, or else God cannot reward him" (G.S. Bishop). That necessary and perfect obedience is to be found alone in that perfect life, lived by Christ in obedience to the law, before He went to the cross, which is reckoned to the believer's account.
It is not that God treats as righteous one who is not actually so (that would be a fiction), but that He actually constitutes the believer so, not by infusing a holy nature in his heart, but by reckoning the obedience of Christ to his account. Christ's obedience is legally transferred to him so that he is now rightly and justly regarded as righteous by the Divine Law. It is very far more than a naked pronouncement of righteousness upon one who is without any sufficient foundation for the judgment of God to declare him righteous. No, it is a positive and judicial act of God "whereby, on the consideration of the mediation of Christ, He makes an effectual grant and donation of a true, real, perfect righteousness, even that of Christ Himself unto all that do believe, and accounting it as theirs, on His own gracious act, both absolves them from sin, and granteth them right and title unto eternal life" (John Owen).
It now remains for us to point out the ground on which God acts in this counter-imputation of sin to Christ and righteousness to His people. That ground was the Everlasting Covenant. The objection that it is unjust the innocent should suffer in order that the guilty may escape loses all its force once the Covenant-Headship and responsibility of Christ is seen, and the covenant-oneness with Him of those whose sins He bore. There could have been no such thing as a vicarious sacrifice unless there had been some union between Christ and those for whom He died, and that relation of union must have subsisted before He died, yea, before our sins were imputed to Him. Christ undertook to make full satisfaction to the law for His people because He sustained to them the relation of a Surety. But what justified His acting as their Surety? He stood as their Surety because He was their Substitute: He acted on their behalf, because He stood in their room. But what justified the substitution?
No satisfactory answer can be given to the last question until the grand doctrine of everlasting covenant-oneness comes into view: that is the great underlying relation. The federal oneness between the Redeemer and the redeemed, the choosing of them in Christ before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4), by which a legal union was established between Him and them, is that which alone accounts for and justifies all else. "For both He that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified are all of one: for which cause He is not ashamed to call them brethren" (Hebrews 2:11). As the Covenant-Head of His people, Christ was so related to them that their responsibilities necessarily became His, and we are so related to Him that His merits necessarily become ours. Thus, as we said in an earlier chapter, three words give us the key to and sum up the whole transaction: substitution, identification, imputation--all of which rest upon covenant-oneness. Christ was substituted for us, because He is one with us--identified with us, and we with Him. Thus God dealt with us as occupying Christ's place of worthiness and acceptance. May the Holy Spirit grant both writer and reader such an heart-apprehension of this wondrous and blessed truth, that overflowing gratitude may move us unto fuller devotedness unto Him who loved us and gave Himself for us.
6. Its Source
Let us here review, briefly, the ground which we have already covered. We have seen, first, that "to justify" means to pronounce righteous. It is not a Divine work, but a Divine verdict, the sentence of the Supreme Court, declaring that the one justified stands perfectly conformed to all the requirements of the law. Justification assures the believer that the Judge of all the earth is for him, and not against him: that justice itself is on his side. Second, we dwelt upon the great and seemingly insoluable problem which is thereby involved: how a God of truth can pronounce righteous one who is completely devoid of righteousness, how He can receive into His judicial favour one who is a guilty criminal, how He can exercise mercy without insulting justice, how He can be gracious and yet enforce the high demands of His Law. Third, we have shown that the solution to this problem is found in the perfect satisfaction which the incarnate Son rendered unto Divine Law, and that on the basis of that satisfaction God can truthfully and righteously pronounce just all who truly believe the Gospel.
In our last article we pointed out that the satisfaction which Christ made to the Divine Law consists of two distinct parts, answering to the twofold need of him who is to be justified. First, as a responsible creature I am under binding obligations to keep the law--to love God with all my heart and my neighbor as myself. Second, as a criminal I am under the condemnation and curse of that law which I have constantly transgressed in thought and word and deed. Therefore, if another was to act as my surety and make reparation for me, he must perfectly obey all the precepts of the law, and then endure the awful penalty of the law. That is exactly what was undertaken and accomplished by the Lord Jesus in His virtuous life and vicarious death. By Him every demand of the law was fulfilled; by Him every obligation of the believer was fully met.
It has been objected by some that the obedience of Christ could not be imputed to the account of others, for being "made under the law" (Galatians 4:4) as man, He owed submission to the law on His own account. This is a serious mistake, arising out of a failure to recognize the absolute uniqueness of the Man Christ Jesus. Unlike us, He was never placed under the Adamic Covenant, and therefore He owed nothing to the law. Moreover, the manhood of Christ never had a separate existence: in the virgin's womb the eternal Son took the seed of Mary into union with His Deity, so that whereas the first man was of the earth, earthy, "the second Man is the Lord from Heaven" (1 Corinthians 15:47), and as such He was infinitely superior to the law, owing nothing to it, being personally possessed of all the excellencies of Deity. Even while He walked this earth "in Him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily."
It was entirely for His peoples' sake that the God-man Mediator was "made under the law." It was in order to work out for them a perfect righteousness, which should be placed to their account, that He took upon Himself the form of a servant and became "obedient unto death." What has been said above supplies the answer to another foolish objection which has been made against this blessed truth, namely, that if the obedience of the Man Christ Jesus were transferable it would be available only for one other man, seeing that every human being is required to obey the law, and that if vicarious obedience be acceptable to God then there would have to be as many separate sureties as there are believers who are saved. That would be true if the "surety" were merely human, but inasmuch as the Surety provided by God is the God-man Mediator, His righteousness is of infinite value, for the law was more "honoured and magnified" by the obedience of "the Lord from Heaven" than had every member of the human race perfectly kept it. The righteousness of the God-man Mediator is of infinite value, and therefore available for as many as God is pleased to impute it unto.
The value or merit of an action increases in proportion to the dignity of the person who performs it, and He who obeyed in the room and stead of the believer was not only a holy man, but the Son of the living God. Moreover, let it be steadily borne in mind that the obedience which Christ rendered to the law was entirely voluntary. Prior to His incarnation, He was under no obligation to the law, for He had Himself (being God) formulated that law. His being made of a woman and made under the law was entirely a free act on His own part. We come into being and are placed under the law without our consent; but the Lord from Heaven existed before His incarnation, and assumed our nature by His spontaneous act: "Lo, I come... I delight to do Thy will" (Psalms 40:7,8). No other person could use such language, for it clearly denotes a liberty to act or not to act, which no mere creature possesses. Placing Himself under the law and rendering obedience to it was founded solely on His own voluntary deed. His obedience was therefore a "free will offering," and therefore as He did not owe obedience to the law by any prior obligation, not being at all necessary for Himself, it is available for imputation to others, that they should be rewarded for it.
If, then, the reader has been able to follow us closely in the above observations, it should be clear to him that when Scripture speaks of God "justifying the ungodly" the meaning is that the believing sinner is brought into an entirely new relation to the law; that in consequence of Christ's righteousness being made over to him, he is now absolved from all liability to punishment, and is given a title to all the reward merited by Christ's obedience. Blessed, blessed truth for comforting the conscientious Christian who daily groans under a sense of his sad failures and who mourns because of his lack of practical conformity to the image of Christ. Satan is ever ready to harass such an one and tell him his profession is vain. But it is the believer's privilege to overcome him by "the blood of the Lamb" (Revelation 12:11)--to remind himself anew that Another has atoned for all his sins, and that despite his innumerable shortcomings he still stands "accepted in the Beloved" (Ephesians 1:6). If I am truly resting on the finished work of Christ for me, the Devil cannot successfully lay anything to my charge before God, though if I am walking carelessly He will suffer him to charge my conscience with unrepented and unconfessed sins.
In our last chapter, under the nature of justification, we saw that the constituent elements of this Divine blessing are two in number, the one being negative in its character, the other positive. The negative blessing is the cancellation of guilt, or the remission of sins--the entire record of the believer's transgressions of the law, filed upon the Divine docket, having been blotted out by the precious blood of Christ. The positive blessing is the bestowal upon the believer of an inalienable title to the reward which the obedience of Christ merited for him--that reward is life, the judicial favour of God, Heaven itself. The unchanging sentence of the law is "the man which doeth those things shall live by them" (Romans 10:5). As we read in Romans 7:10, "the commandment, which was ordained to life." It is just as true that obedience to the law secured life, as disobedience insured death. When the young ruler asked Christ "what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?" He answered, "If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments" (Matthew 19:16,17).
It was because His people had failed to "keep the commandments" that the God-man Mediator was "made under the law," and obeyed it for them. And therefore its reward of "life" is due unto those whose Surety He was; yea, due unto Christ Himself to bestow upon them. Therefore did the Surety, when declaring "I have glorified Thee on the earth: I have finished the work which Thou gavest Me to do" (John 17:4), remind the Father, "that He should give eternal life to as many as Thou hast given Him" (v. 2). But more, on the footing of justice, Christ demands that His people be taken to Heaven, saying, "Father, I will that they also, whom Thou hast given Me, be with Me where I am" (John 17:24)--He claims eternal life for His people on the ground of His finished work, as the reward of His obedience.
"Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of One the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life" (Romans 5:18). The offence of the first Adam brought down the curse of the broken law upon the whole human race; but the satisfaction of the last Adam secured the blessing of the fulfilled law upon all those whom He represented. Judgment unto condemnation is a law term intending eternal death, the wages of sin; the "free gift" affirms that a gratuitous justification is bestowed upon all its recipients--"justification of life" being the issue of the gift, parallel with "shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ" (v. 17). The sentence of justification adjudges and entitles its object unto eternal life.
Having now considered the two great blessings which come to the believer at his justification--deliverance from the curse of the law (death) and a title to the blessing of the law (life)--let us now seek to take a view of the originating source from which they proceed. This is the free, pure sovereign grace of God: as it is written "Being justified freely by His grace" (Romans 3:24). What is grace? It is God's unmerited and uninfluenced favour, shown unto the undeserving and hell-deserving: neither human worthiness, works or willingness, attracting it, nor the lack of them repelling or obstructing it. What could there be in me to win the favourable regard of Him who is of too pure eyes to behold evil, and move Him to justify me? Nothing whatever; nay, there was everything in me calculated to make Him abhor and destroy me--my very self-righteous efforts to earn a place in Heaven deserving only a lower place in Hell. If, then, I am ever to be "justified" by God it must be by pure grace, and that alone.