Secret Service Theologian



JUDICIAL righteousness is theoretically possible in either of two ways. The law-keeper is righteous as such; the law-breaker may become righteous through redemption. The law-keeper fulfils the demands of the law by his obedience; the law-breaker may fulfil the demands of the law by enduring to the full its penalties in the person of Christ. Righteousness on the first ground is shown to be in fact impossible, and it is set aside altogether. The sinner is therefore shut up to "justification by blood." Vicarious obedience is an idea wholly beyond reason; how could a God of righteousness and truth reckon a law-breaker to have kept the 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. Punishment may be remitted on this ground, but that is not justification. The merits of ten righteous men would have saved Sodom, but God would not therefore have called Sodom righteous.

But is not the thought of vicarious judgment as much beyond reason as vicarious obedience? Possibly it is. But to accept what is above our reason is the very highest exercise of reason if revelation testifies to it - otherwise it is mere superstition; whereas the bearing of judgment in the person of a substitute is a foundation truth of Christianity. Obedience by a substitute is a mere theory, and one of the strangest in the entire range of human thought. It is the Protestant version of the Roman Catholic heresy of the imputation of the merits of the saints; and both versions deny the great truth of Christianity, that the believing sinner is justified through redemption, apart from law altogether. One poem may not constitute a man a poet, but one murder makes a man a murderer, one sin makes a sinner. Nothing but the gallows can expiate a murder; death alone can atone for sin. The law is a standard, so to speak, to which man is subjected - not his acts merely, but himself. If he comes up to it, he is thereby justified, justified by law. If he fails, he is thereby condemned, and law can never justify him; for a law that could justify an offender would be an immoral and corrupt law. The law has pronounced its sentence, and nothing remains but the fulfilment of that sentence. This is the natural state of the sinner under law. But here God reveals himself a Saviour. He gives up His Only-begotten Son to take the place of the condemned sinner, and die in his stead. He now points to that death as satisfying the righteous demand of law against the sinner, and on that ground He justifies him. Not that by virtue of His sovereignty, or by a legal fiction, as we say, He reckons the believer to be righteous while leaving his condition in fact unchanged, but that He justifies him. The believer is "justified from all things from which he could not be justified by the law of Moses." God imputes the death of Christ to the believer.

If it be demanded, How can this be? I answer it depends upon the fact that God imputed the sin of the believer to Christ, and that He died under sin and for sin. Not that the guiltless died as guiltless for the guilty, which would be horrible but that the guiltless passed into the position of the guilty, and as guilty died to expiate the guilt imputed to Him : "He who knew no sin was made sin for us." If the inquiry be still further pressed, and the question be insisted on, How could sin be so imputed to the sinless as to make a vicarious death justifiable? men may seek to reason out the answer, but, as Bishop Butler says, "All conjectures about it must be, if not evidently absurd, yet at least uncertain." " Nor," he adds, "has he any reason to complain from want of further information, unless he can show his claim to it." Here it is that God retreats upon His own sovereignty, and the believer is satisfied with the divine " It is written." Reason bows before the God of reason, and the reasoner becomes a disciple and a worshipper.

Moreover, though the revelation of the death of Christ as a sin-bearer is indeed a great mystery, it is by no means so incredible as would be the story of His death apart from sin. The thorough infidel is consistent in his unbelief, and the true Christian in his faith ; but the most utterly unreasonable person in the world is the man who accepts the fact of the death of Christ the Lord of life and glory. and yet doubts whether it was a death for sin. That Jesus of Nazareth died upon a cross is mere matter of history; that He who did so die was the Christ the Son of God is entirely a matter of revelation. And the seeming impossibility of the gospel is the stupendous fact that Christ has died, not that that death was because of sin, nor yet that the sinner can be blessed in virtue of it.

The 18th and 19th verses of the 5th of Romans are sometimes quoted in support of the doctrine of vicarious obedience, but wrongly so. The word in verse i8 is not " the righteousness of one," as given in the Authorised Version, but - "By means of one righteous act the death of Christ viewed as the acme of His obedience. See Philippians ii. 8." I quote from Dean Alford, who rightly explains "the obedience of one" in verse 19 upon the same principle. Christ was obedient unto death, and by means of that obedience we are justified -"justified by His blood," as the apostle had already asserted in the 9th verse, and explained in the earlier chapters of the Epistle.


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