Bnonn Tennant (the B is silent)

Where a recovering ex-atheist skewers things with a sharp two-edged sword

On the atonement, part 1: headship and imputation

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9 minutes to read Part 1 of 6, in which I show that limited satisfaction is inconsistent with what is revealed in Scripture about federal headship and forensic imputation: two doctrines central to Jesus’ penal substitution.

Continued from the introduction

My first argument is that the Owenic view of limited satisfaction is incongruent with federal headship and forensic imputation. These two doctrines are central to penal substitution, which in turn is at the heart of the atonement: they say firstly that one man can represent another so that even his guilt or righteousness can be regarded as the other’s; and secondly that God, in fact, does impute our guilt to Jesus and his righteousness to us, by which we may be saved apart from any merit of our own—for we have none.

The mechanism of imputation

When we consider how imputation works, we find that it contradicts the mechanism assumed by Owenists—whether in regards to Jesus or ourselves:

Imputation to us

Jesus, having fulfilled the whole law—and more importantly being God himself—is righteous. This righteousness is imputed to us by God. But what is the form of it? Surely not the form of specific acts imputed, for this would result in obvious absurdities. For example, suppose I ask: did Jesus fulfill the whole law in the sense of keeping every single commandment given? Of course he kept every commandment which applied to him—but what if he never encountered his enemy’s donkey going astray, that he might return it (Deuteronomy 23:4)? Does this imply that his adherence to the law was less than perfect? Does it imply that his righteousness, imputed to me, is in any way deficient? Does it imply that, if I were a Jew prior to my conversion and had encountered my enemy’s donkey and returned it, I would have added to his imputed righteousness?

Surely not. God does not view the law in this way; as if, in Jesus, I am counted as having done exactly the acts he did, and no others. It is not Jesus’ acts which are imputed to me, but his righteousness, grounded in those acts. Since “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8), and Jesus loved perfectly, I am counted as having loved perfectly, and thus as having fully fulfilled my obligations to God. What is imputed to me is not a series of righteous acts, but righteousness itself: that is, the condition of being liable to approval.

Imputation to Jesus

Now, it is surely reasonable to suppose there’s a symmetry between imputation to us, and imputation to Jesus. To the best of my knowledge this is a standard supposition of the Reformed tradition. If there is an argument to the contrary, I’d like to see it—I cannot imagine what it would look like. Until then, I take it as given that imputation is imputation—if it works a certain way for us, it works the same way for Jesus.

Subsequently, although many Reformed Christians seem to assume that it is our specific acts of sin which are imputed to Jesus, this surely cannot be the case. Rather, what is imputed is our condition of sinfulness: our liability to punishment, our guilt. This is certainly what 2 Corinthians 5:21 and Galatians 3:13 seem to say: that for our sake God made him to be sin (singular), so that he became a curse (singular), so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (singular). And is this not very congruent with John, who says that Jesus takes away the sin of the world—singular? These terms all seem to suggest an overarching, qualitative condition, rather than specific, quantitative acts.

This is because (at the risk of making this seem simple) guilt is guilt, and righteousness is righteousness. You’re either righteous or you’re guilty, “for whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For he who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not murder.’ If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law” (James 2:10–11). The law is a single, indivisible specification of obedience. The one principle of obedience is manifested in the various articles of the law, so that to break one of these is to break the whole law—and to break the whole law is to be disobedient and thus liable to punishment (read: guilty). There may be a quality and a quantity to my guilt in terms of the articles of the law—that is, I break a certain number of laws a certain number of times (quantity); and each on occasion with a certain severity (quality). But in terms of the law, either I am obedient, and thus liable to approval—or I am not, and thus liable to punishment. Put another way, I have either exercised perfect faithfulness to God, or I have dishonored him. My actions with respect to the law are merely a reflection of my attitude with respect to God.

This being the case, in penal substitution, it is righteousness or guilt, liability to approval or liability to punishment, honor or dishonor, which is being substituted. It is not individual acts of obedience or disobedience.

A bit of further explanation

My contention, in other words, is that imputation is the transference of a legal status. As regards righteousness, it means that I’m regarded as an obedient law-keeper, liable to approval. The ground for being so regarded is the federal representation of Jesus, who actually was an obedient law-keeper in his personal life, and actually is liable to approval before God. But it is not his personal life itself which is accounted to me; rather, it is his legal status based on that life. Conversely, as regards sin, imputation means that Jesus was regarded as a law-breaker, liable to punishment. The grounds for being so regarded is the people whom he represents, who actually were and are and will be liable to punishment. But again—it is not their personal lives which are accounted to him, and not their personal sins; rather, it is the simple legal status of being liable to punishment. Individual actions are not legally transferable—only a legal status is transferable. And the legal status is identical for every human being: guilty.

Guilt is guilt.

Therefore, even if it were only the elect whose sin was the grounds of imputation (a notion I am sympathetic to), it remains that the one legal status shared by every human person was imputed to Jesus on the cross. There is not one guilty status for me, and another for you. We all have the same legal status: guilty. Thus, since Jesus was treated as guilty on the cross, the scope of the satisfaction is unlimited or universal: by definition he can take the place of any human being with that legal status. Individual sins were not part of the equation; it was the condition of being a human sinner which was imputed to him—and so he is a fitting representative for any and all human sinners, by merit of sharing in their humanity.

This is a view which can be called judicial satisfaction; it sees the payment of sin as penal, to be paid in our own persons through separation from God. It is opposed to pecuniary satisfaction, which sees the payment of sin as transactional, like the payment of an amount of money. As Steve Costley puts it, Christ has not paid a certain amount for so many sins. His blood is not like a quantity of money. His suffering is not a pain-for-pain equivalent for the suffering due to us. Steve Costley, Pecuniary vs. Judicial Debt.

Hodge observes, in the same vein:

All, therefore, that the Church teaches when it says that Christ satisfied divine justice for the sins of men, is that what He did and suffered was a real adequate compensation for the penalty remitted and the benefits conferred. His sufferings and death were adequate to accomplish all the ends designed by the punishment of the sins of men. He satisfied justice. He rendered it consistent with the justice of God that the sinner should be justified. But He did not suffer either in kind or degree what sinners would have suffered. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology: The Complete Three Volumes (GLH Publishing, 2015), loc. 20466.

When we think in terms of a judicial compensation like this, it seems nonsensical to imagine that Jesus’ satisfaction could be particular or limited in its scope. It may be particular or limited in whom it accrues to, but for the satisfaction itself to be limited requires a pecuniary view in which specific sins and no others are imputed to Jesus and expiated by him, as if he were paying off a sum of money for one man but not for another. This defies the judicial nature of the cross, and is perhaps even incoherent given that our acts are by nature non-transferable. When Scripture likens the atonement to the payment of a ransom, we shouldn’t take this metaphor to mean that it was like a money transaction; just as when God says that he ransomed Egypt (Micah 6:4, NASB) we shouldn’t suppose that he paid Pharaoh off. The point of saying that God ransomed us, or redeemed us (“bought us back”), is to emphasize the price of our freedom: from Egypt, the life of the first-born; from death, the life of Jesus. The point is not that the satisfaction is like the payment of a money debt, which Jesus only paid for the elect. That Jesus had the elect specifically in view when he died, knowing that it was for them alone that his death was designed to be efficacious, does not mitigate the fact that in practice he can represent any given human being—that he has endured the judicial penalty owed to any given human being—because he himself was a human being. Thus his satisfaction can be made efficacious for even the reprobate—would they only turn and live.

The timing of imputation

Related to this is the significant question of when imputation takes place. Carefully assessing this question turns out to be fatal to the Owenic view.

At some point in time my sin must be imputed to Jesus, and his righteousness to me, or I would not be saved. Under the Owenic view, Jesus paid for my sins at the cross. In other words, on the cross, God imputed my sins to Jesus, who then bore the penalty for them. That being so, for God to ever count me as a sinner is surely unjust. If my sins were covered in Jesus before I was ever born, then there was no time in my life when I was ever liable to punishment for them. Since my conception, I would have been concealed in Jesus. But I know that “if anyone is in Anointed he is a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). And indeed, I know that I am now a new creation—a spiritual person, rather than a natural one (1 Corinthians 2:6ff), and am reconciled to God. I know this because I remember a time before I was such. I remember a time when I was a “child of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3), and a point in time when I was reconciled to God through the Spirit, by faith (Romans 5:1).

To be fair, there is a distinction in the Owenic model between the imputation of my sins to Jesus, and his righteousness to me. Many Owenists would argue that it is only on the event of the latter, when I obtain faith, that I stop being under God’s wrath. But this is an assertion in lieu of an argument. How can I justly be under God’s wrath if my sin is paid? If my particular sins were imputed to Jesus at Golgotha, and the penalty for them was “paid in full,” then the debt is wiped away, and no wrath can justly remain on me. (Indeed, this is the exact argument they make against a universal atonement, saying that it would entail universal salvation!)

I want to emphasize this point, because a common objection from Owenists to my view is that if my specific sins were not imputed to Jesus at Golgotha, then “the cross didn’t actually do anything.” But to the contrary: if my sins were imputed to Jesus at Golgotha, then the cross did too much and my faith doesn’t actually do anything. It simply cannot be that the cross justifies us in and of itself. What the cross does is satisfy the requirements of God’s justice so that justification becomes possible later. Conflating these two very distinct issues is a serious error that results in a variation on the false doctrine of eternal justification. I will return to this point in part 6 because it bears further consideration. For now, however, there are other fish to fry…

Continued in part 2: the grounds for the universal gospel call

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