This blog is having an
existential crisis

While I tinker with a new design, I’m also pondering how, what, and why I write here. I don’t know how long that will take, but you’re welcome to email me and see how things are progressing.

Stress-testing the
mind of Christ

Where a recovering ex-atheist rams the Bible into other worldviews to see what breaks (note: Scripture cannot be broken)


series
On the atonement, part 1: headship and imputation

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

46 comments

  1. Nancy

    You do believe in the Trinity? Right? Just checking…

  2. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hi Nancy, yes of course. I wrote a series defending Trinitarianism not too long ago.

    Regards,
    Bnonn

  3. Nancy

    Would unlimited atonement cover every sin except blaspheme of the Holy Spirit…How do you explain this sin? Isn’t it in itself limited to the unregenerate…I don’t think the elect can commit this sin…I know what I think it is, but…what do you say?

  4. Nancy

    You have put forth some interesting statements, many which I admit I am at a distict disadvantage at understanding, since I have not had the opportunity to read your previous series, so I’m not sure exactly where you stand in regards to the Calvinist world view…I will be reading your other offerings as well…*: )

  5. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hi Nancy. I think your question presupposes the very pecuniary view which I deny in this article. To ask whether the atonement covers every sin except blasphemy against the Spirit implies that Jesus actually paid for specific sins at the cross. This is not my view. I think that he was punished as if he were a person who was guilty of transgression, and that he can therefore be counted in the place of anyone who actually is guilty of transgression—but that only happens on the occasion of having faith. One must take hold of the promise in order for God to count your punishment as having been paid in Jesus.

    Hope this helps,
    regards,
    Bnonn

  6. Nancy

    I agree that is exactly what I believe…however, that still leaves the question of the specific…blaspheme of the Holy Spirit. If I read scripture correctly…this is NOT covered by the atonement…

    My opinion is that this sin is the refusal/inability to accept the witness of the Holy Spirit and the Living Word of God when clearly presented…leaving the unregenerate in his sin and not covered by grace.

  7. Nancy

    What’s happening to the comments in the grayed-alternating areas?

    I was thinking about the quantative view some more and think that this…except for the one sin I mentioned would be more in line with the denominations that believe, to finally be saved…You must be confessed up at the time of death???? That is just impossible…no matter how many priest are present!

  8. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hi Nancy. I think you are still confusing pecuniary and judicial punishment. Since Christ paid the necessary penalty for any and all disobedience, and blasphemy against the Spirit is one kind of disobedience, the atonement can certainly cover that sin. This is not to say that anyone who commits it will be covered; God may have chosen to ensure that no one who commits that sin will be saved, as per your comment. But, if so, then it is not the atonement which fails to cover the sin. It is that the sinner does not and will not take hold of the atonement so that it would cover him.

    Re the alternating grey areas in comments, I’m afraid Internet Explorer for some reason mangles these and won’t display them correctly. If it’s at all possible, I’d really recommend that you install a different browser—none of the others I’ve tested have had any problems. Pretty much any modern browser is fully standards compliant, and I code to the standards; so unfortunately non-standards compliant browsers like IE just won’t render this site correctly.

    Regards,
    Bnonn

  9. nancy

    I switched over and tried to use Chrome…on some sites its just doesn’t work so I guess I will just stick to IE. Thanks for the suggestion though.

    I know you are going to hate this reasoning…but, you’re saying that God doesn’t limit the atonement of Christ on the cross…but, man does? So, aren’t we just using different words to say the same thing? I realize the quantative example you placed forth wasn’t anywhere close to what I believe…sin by sin atonement is just silly…of course it was our sin nature that was exchanged for His righteous nature. And of course it is not effectual until we aknowledge it…accept it…or make the exchange…

    If the whole atonement is like a class action suit which we can opt out of…then the opters out have shall we say limited it…*: )

    I think this is the actual difference in thinking…either we have a class action suit that CAN be opted out of…OR we have an exclusive elect that are the only ones that can be a part of the grace offered…

    If the option is avialabe to opt out/refuse to be part of the class action, then the class is limited to those who do not opt out…

    It just so coincidently happened, that I received such a class action suit letter today…*: )

  10. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    I wouldn’t use the term “opt out”. I would, if I were to go with that analogy, say “opt in”. A sufficient payment for the debt of sin has been made in Christ. We can either pay our own debt, or opt in to be covered by Christ’s payment.

  11. Nancy

    Yeah, at first I thought opt-in, but Jesus chose us we didn’t choose Him, so we don’t get to opt-in. If we have unlimited/universal atonement…the only way we could be “un-saved” would be to opt-out. And…even simply not responding would not be enough…We would have to actively seek exclusion.

    If there is no debt…the collector doesn’t come calling…unless we deny the settlement already paid.

  12. Nancy

    And…If you are part of the class…the elect…you can’t receive benefit without “filing claim”….*; )

    Hmmm class action suit…quite an interesting contract…

  13. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    If we have unlimited/universal atonement…the only way we could be “un-saved” would be to opt-out. And…even simply not responding would not be enough…We would have to actively seek exclusion.

    If there is no debt…the collector doesn’t come calling…unless we deny the settlement already paid.

    But you’re assuming the very pecuniary view which I deny. I am not arguing that Jesus pays the Father like a financer stepping in to pay a creditor. I am arguing that Jesus suffers, in his body, the punishment for being a sinner (death), and that the Father will count this punishment toward anyone who takes hold of it by faith; thus counting the sinner’s debt as having already been covered at the cross.

  14. Nancy

    “Father will count this punishment toward anyone who takes hold of it by faith; thus counting the sinner’s debt as having already been covered at the cross.”

    Totally true…for all sin, past, present and future! For as you stated and I fully agree…It was the sin nature…or the propensity to sin that was destroyed on the cross! The sinful man no longer exists! We are new creatures no longer mere men. The very Spirit that raised Christ from the dead now lives in us! Part three of the Trinity! I don’t think this is the point at which the disagreement arises. The question is again…Is this wonderful grace limited or unlimited?? I don’t see a disagreement in the nature of the atonement. For I am no longer a sinner…I have been saved by grace…Yet I am not perfected yet…I don’t say I have obtained full redemption, for I still reside in sinful flesh…My spirit has been made perfect through the blood of Christ and the Holy Spirit dwells within me…I am without a doubt elect…*: )…not of my will…but, of the Father’s. Maybe the point of disagreement is irresistible grace?

    If we are all automatically covered or paid for…and grace is irresistible…how can there be unsaved individuals?

  15. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    If we are all automatically covered or paid for…and grace is irresistible…how can there be unsaved individuals?

    But my view is not that we are all automatically covered. My view is that we are conditionally covered—and the condition is faith.

  16. john

    Dominic, I would think before you get to this point, you would have to outlay a convincing argument that forensic imputation ought to be the lens through which we examine the atonement.

  17. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    John, since I’m writing from a Reformed perspective, I don’t see that as being necessary. The Reformed understanding of the atonement is that it was a penal substitution; and forensic imputation is the mechanism of this substitution.

    Regards,
    Bnonn

  18. Nancy

    Ok…my misunderstanding…*: )

    Now here’s the point where you pull your hair and scream…Go ahead…scream as loud as you like…I won’t be able to hear you in Texas…*: )

    “But my view is not that we are all automatically covered. My view is that we are conditionally covered—and the condition is faith.”

    We agree then that the atonement in conditionally limited….

  19. Nancy

    After the scream…I hope we are still friends…

    Moving on to part 2….*; )

  20. Michelle renee

    “I am arguing that Jesus suffers, in his body, the punishment for being a sinner (death), and that the Father will count this punishment toward anyone who takes hold of it by faith; thus counting the sinner’s debt as having already been covered at the cross.”

    What do you mean by death? If it is the death of the body, then the Father takes double payment, Christ’s death and the sinner’s death, because it is appointed for all men to die, even ones who believe Christ died for them.

    If the death refers to eternal separation from God, then Christ did not pay this penalty, because he is now at the right hand of the Father once again.

    So death drops out of the equation. The debt we owe the Father is obedience. Adam, as the federal head of humanity, disobeyed God in the beginning and incurred this debt. Christ, as the second Adam, obeyed God in every thing, even to lay down his equality with God and die on a cross. The death of Christ was almost incidental to his payment of the debt of obedience on behalf of humanity. This debt-payment is available to all mankind as a free gift. To be saved, the Christian must respond by faith to participate in the life of God.

  21. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hi Michelle. Your view entails that Christ’s death had no particular purpose; that it, in itself, did not actually service to provide even a grounds for redemption. You’re saying that only Christ’s life provides these grounds. Well, that’s a view clearly at odds with Scripture, which places the atonement and the cross together. I’m not interested in debating your heretical view here, since this is a series directed toward other Calvinists.

    Regarding your question, Christ suffered both physical death and separation from God. There is no double payment of the former, since the atonement is not pecuniary. His physical death and resurrection provides the basis for our own physical resurrection; it doesn’t entail that we never die (though, of course, some Christians will never die, so even that objection seems moot). And his separation from God provides the basis for our own separation in hell being overcome. As I said in the article, hell is eternal for man, because man can never repay the debt or make himself less guilty. Christ was not merely a man, though; he did repay the debt, and was never guilty—and furthermore he was God himself. So the separation he suffered was representative of what we would suffer; the fact that it wasn’t eternal isn’t relevant.

    Regards,
    Bnonn

  22. mark bibbens

    Good morning sir,
    I’m quite impressed by your “sane” discussion on the matter of atonement and your ability to communicate your ideas clearly. I appreciate being able to discuss ideas without throwing mud at each other, for he who throws mud looses ground. .. I heard that somewhere. I haven’t read all of which you have written, but I came across a statement you made and had a question about your understanding of Christ’s righteousness. Under the heading ” imputation to us”, you said concerning Christ’s righteousness…”the condition of being righteous, which is grounded in those acts”. And later you said concerning the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer….”the condition of being righteous, which is grounded in those acts”.
    Might you consider that Christ’s righteousness is ground in Himself, not His acts. Are not His acts the fruit of who He is in Himself as God revealed in the flesh?
    I am looking forward to understanding your view of atonement for I have been over 35 yrs. with a view similar to Spurgeon’s and am rethinking the atonement issue.
    As a side bar, I really like your site as you have it set up. It’s a delight to see a Christian that has put forth quality….it so reflects that quality of Christ.

  23. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hi Mark; thanks for your comments. That’s a good question you pose. I would certainly agree that Christ is intrinsically righteous; and I would agree that this provides the grounds for the righteousness which is imputed to us. However, I’d say that it does so indirectly. Remember, the context here is as regards the law specifically. The righteousness which is imputed to us is not merely a “passive” righteousness (ie, not merely the righteousness of not having broken the law), but an active righteousness—a righteousness of having actually fulfilled the law. This active righteousness is only possible because Christ’s act of having fulfilled the law is imputed to us. Now, naturally that act itself is grounded in his intrinsic (passive) righteousness—were he not intrinsically righteous, he could not have fulfilled the law. But it is the righteousness of fulfilling the law which I have in view here as being directly imputed to us.

    Hopefully that clarifies my meaning.

    Regards,
    Bnonn

  24. Leroy H

    Hi Dominic, would you mind discussing where your “judicial view” differs from the governmental view of the atonement? Here’s a reference you can interact with: http://www.theopedia.com/Governmental_theory_of_atonement

    I know on superficial levels there are obvious differences but I’m wondering where you would say the two views differ in essence.

    Would you say that your judicial view of the atonement is a new view or can you point to somewhere/someone in church history who supported the view?

  25. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hi Leroy. My disagreement with the governmental theory is aptly summed up in the following three statements from the link you provided. To these, I can only say “nuh uh”.

    Christ’s death was a substitute for a penalty, not “an actual penalty inflicted on him as a substitute for the penalty that should have attached to the breaking of the law by individual sinners.”

    “The death of Christ was not a punishment; on the contrary, it made punishment unnecessary.”

    God does not inflict punishment as a matter of strict retribution. Sin is not punished simply because it deserves to be, but because of the demands of moral government. The point of punishment is not retribution, but deterrence of further commission of sins, either by the one punished or by third parties who have observed the punishment. Sin is deserving of punishment and God would not be unjust to apply the penalty for sin in every case. But punishment need not be applied in every case nor to the fullest extent.

    A major presupposition of this view is that a vicarious penal substitution is impossible

    Regards,
    Bnonn

  26. Leroy H

    Thanks, bnonn.

    I understood those differences. I was wondering if you might have a further comment on where the two views differ in essence?

    Are you saying that you agree with the other aspects of governmental theory? Is your view a governmental theory where instead Christ does suffer an actual penalty as a generic sinner?

    Would you say that your judicial view of the atonement is a new view or can you point to somewhere/someone in church history where this view was purported as the teaching of Scripture?

    I’m not trying to lead you on. I will say plainly, that your view appears to have the same dangerous core as the governmental theory.

    Borrowing from the portion you quoted, isn’t a major presupposition of your view that a vicarious penal substitution [for specific individuals OR all people individually] is impossible?

    If I am not able to respond in a timely manner, I will go ahead and give this encouragement: I would encourage you to become more focused on exegesis before taking any view that denies penal substitionary atonement for individuals. I read about your approach in the introduction. I understand that your preference is not to engage on an exegetical level–but after all, aren’t we asking what the Bible says, and not what some logic or philosophy demands? I believe the Bible is incredibly logical, but the logic begins and comes from the text, or exegesis.

    Thanks. In Christ,

  27. Ryan

    I’d be very interested to see your response to Leroy, Dominic. Thanks.

  28. D Bnonn Tennant

    Sorry, I forgot all about this thread. Briefly:

    Are you saying that you agree with the other aspects of governmental theory? Is your view a governmental theory where instead Christ does suffer an actual penalty as a generic sinner?

    I know very little about the governmental theory, so it’s hard to respond with the precision and assurance I’d like. However, as far as I understand the governmental view, the issue with sin is not that it is something which requires justice in the form of penal retribution, but rather that it’s something which merely undermines God’s authority. He is willing to forgive sin unconditionally, but to do so would subvert his role as governor of creation. Put shortly, the governance view seems to take the position that to not do something about sin would merely make God “look bad”.

    This is utterly opposed to my view, in which God is not willing to forgive sin unconditionally, because to do so would be unjust. In the governmental view, the death of Christ was not a penal substitution, but merely some kind of demonstration against sin. And the grounds for justification is not in the atonement, but in something else (faith, works, repentance, perseverance, etc, according to the quote by Robert Reymond cited in the abovelinked article). In my view, the death of Christ was a penal substitution (but not a pecuniary substitution), and the grounds for justification is in the atonement.

    Would you say that your judicial view of the atonement is a new view or can you point to somewhere/someone in church history where this view was purported as the teaching of Scripture?

    Well, I’m not a student of church history or historical theology—but my view seems to comport basically with the Reformed doctrine of the atonement widely held until Owen popularized thinking in pecuniary categories. Calvin and Luther both seem to have held a view similar to (if not the same as) mine, and this view continued down a long line of venerable theologians, including Dabney, Shedd and others. Indeed, it seems to only be a very modern development that this view is vilified as it is.

    I’m not trying to lead you on. I will say plainly, that your view appears to have the same dangerous core as the governmental theory.

    I appreciate your candor. I will say plainly in return that, as far as I can see, the two views are utterly dissimilar except inasmuch as they both reject pecuniary ways of thinking about the atonement.

    Borrowing from the portion you quoted, isn’t a major presupposition of your view that a vicarious penal substitution [for specific individuals OR all people individually] is impossible?

    On the contrary, as I’ve affirmed in great detail in this series, vicarious penal substitution is both possible and real. What I deny is vicarious pecuniary substitution.

    I would encourage you to become more focused on exegesis before taking any view that denies penal substitionary atonement for individuals. I read about your approach in the introduction. I understand that your preference is not to engage on an exegetical level–but after all, aren’t we asking what the Bible says, and not what some logic or philosophy demands?

    Well, it goes without saying that if there are two competing views which seem equally likely based on the exegesis alone, and which are both equally Calvinistic, and which do not reject penal substitution—but one of the views has insurmountable logical problems…then the other view is the correct one. Since I’ve demonstrated what I believe to be insurmountable logical problems with the strictly particular view of the atonement, and can see no similar problems in my proposed alternative, I think it’s incumbent on an objector to address my arguments rather than try to return us to exegesis.

    Regards,
    Bnonn

  29. Aaron Osuna

    Hello Dominic,

    You offered very compelling arguments for your position. Do you recommend any good books in which this specific Reformed view of the atonement is explained and defended? You mention that “… my view seems to comport basically with the Reformed doctrine of the atonement widely held until Owen popularized thinking in pecuniary categories.” Do you recommend anyone in particular to read? And do you know of any good reformed writings on this view that are current? Any modern day Reformed theologians?

    Thank you,

    Aaron

  30. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hey Aaron, I must admit I’m not much of one for historical theology. My observation about doctrine up until Owen was based on a comment made by David Ponter, if I recall correctly. He is an avid student of historical Reformed theology, so you’d be better off asking him for book recommendations. His blog is at http://www.calvinandcalvinism.com.

  31. Andrew Duncanson

    I agree with your definition of imputation and almost everything you’ve put forward, except for one detail – sorry if I haven’t been clear enough about what I disagree on.

    Of course I believe that God credits faith as righteousness (Gen 15:6), and that our guilt is credited to Christ.

    It is simply this – I do not believe that the righteousness credited to us is from Christ, i.e. Christ’s “righteousness” being transferred to us across the courtroom in exchange for our sinfulness. We are declared righteous as a result of our guilt being credited to him. In other words, imputation is a one-way transaction in my understanding; as you will see in Psa 32:1,2 which Paul uses in Rom 4:7-8 to support his point. Hope that clears things up.

  32. Andrew Duncanson

    “Although I’d be be inclined to say you are only passively righteous, rather than actively, since you haven’t done anything righteous; you’ve merely not done anything unrighteous”

    That passive/active distinction is exactly what I tried to disprove earlier when I wrote, “Being without sin is tantamount to being perfectly righteous, because doing the right thing is simply not sinning (Jas 4:17).” Do you object to my interpretation of Jas 4:17?

    Rather than “counted as Christ”, I interpret “in Christ” as “in new covenant, covered by Jesus’ cleansing blood, fully mediated for and sealed by His Spirit”.

  33. Andrew Duncanson

    Great insights and sound argumentation – I am looking forward to reading your other articles on the atonement.

    What I want to bring up is a little off-topic really, since it regards the imputation of Christ’s righteousness which you brought up to substantiate your case against particular redemption.

    Despite many hopeful searches, I have not been able to find the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness in the Bible. This concerns me, because apparently this concept is integral to the Gospel of the Reformed and Lutheran traditions.

    2 Cor 5:21 is the primary “proof-text”:
    For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

    I agree with your interpretation of ‘he made him to be sin who knew no sin’.

    The latter part of this verse, however, I interpret as follows:
    Christ became sin so that our trespasses might not be counted against us (5:19), which reconciles us to God (5:20), because our sin separates us from Him (Isa 59:2). Therefore, if we are ‘In Christ’, we might become the righteousness of God; in other words, we might be blameless and without sin, for God is perfectly righteous and without sin (Deut 32:4), and we can be made pure (like God) because of Christ’s cleansing blood. Being without sin is tantamount to being perfectly righteous, because doing the right thing is simply not sinning (Jas 4:17). Therefore, I do not believe that Christ’s righteousness is directly transferred to us in a forensic sense, but is indirectly imputed to us through our accepting his vicarious sacrifice and thus becoming blameless, WHICH was only possible because Christ ‘knew no sin’ (was perfectly righteous).

    Righteousness is also imparted (not infused) through the Spirit of Christ. Through faith, the Spirit consumes our lives (Gal 2:20) and works within us to produce righteousness (1 Cor 15:10).

    Your thoughts are appreciated, and if anyone knows any other passages that teach the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, please direct me to them.

  34. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hey Andrew, I think maybe we should clarify what we mean by “impute”.

    I take it to mean that God declares us righteous by, in some sense, making a legal transfer between us and Jesus. It is a judicial exchange, similar in some respects to an exchange of monetary accounts. Paul couches it in explicitly pecuniary terms in Romans 4:4-5, which I think given my arguments in this series must be taken as metaphorical of a more directly penal or judicial reality.

    So God credits Jesus with our guilt, counting him legally a sinner on our behalf; and he credits us with Jesus’ righteousness, counting us legally sinless on Jesus’ behalf.

    That being the case, I’m rather fuzzy on what an “indirect” imputation would look like. The way I read your comments, your description of what you don’t believe, and your description of what you do believe, sound like exactly the same thing…

    In terms of prooftexts, the first place I would go is Genesis 15:6. God explicitly credits faith to Abraham “as righteousness”. Paul picks this up in Romans 4:1-11. So that’s another prooftext.

  35. Andrew Duncanson

    “There is an obvious distinction between having merely not broken a law, and having positively obeyed that law.” Maybe in your mind… not in mine. The distinction becomes less obvious when you omit the (unnecessary) adverbs “merely” and “positively”.

    Anyway… lets assume that the righteousness credited to us is the kind of moral quality you believe it is. That righteousness is not necessarily Christ’s. I simply cannot find that in the Bible. It sounds great and all, but I just don’t see it.

    In Rom 4:5-8 Paul wrote that “David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works” in Psa 32:1-2. This blessing is not the imputation of the righteousness of another, but divine acquittal; the forgiveness of lawless deeds and the covering of sin.

  36. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    I think it’s probably legitimate to say that if you have no guilt, then you are righteous—although I’d be be inclined to say you are only passively righteous, rather than actively, since you haven’t done anything righteous; you’ve merely not done anything unrighteous.

    Be that as it may, I don’t think your distinction holds up, because imputation isn’t actually pecuniary, as I’ve said. It is actually personal; we are counted as represented by a particular person.

    Thus 1 Corinthians 1:30—we are “in Christ”.

    But if we are in Christ, so that he represents us, then just as a matter of definition we have his righteousness. Even if it does nothing for us (which I’m not convinced of), even if the only important thing for our salvation is that he represents us by being guilty rather than by being righteous, the fact remains that we are still counted righteous because he is righteous and we are in him.

    HTH

  37. Andrew Duncanson

    Where did you argue it? You made subjective assertions, some of which regarded Adam, without clear Scripture references for support.

    “He was sinless, but not in a way that seems morally praiseworthy”. What makes it seem that way to you? Again, your hypothetical about rebuffing the serpent only showed how things would “seem” to you, which in light of Jas 4:17, is not how it “seems” to me.

    You wrote, “God does not consider us merely neutrally sinless in Christ.” Why not? What does that have to do with Adam? Again, “He does not see as us merely absent guilt.” Why not? Does Jas 4:17 not equate absent guilt to what you would call “active obedience”.

    I completely agree that headship works in the way you argue, though I do not make the same deductions from it. The moment our guilt is imputed to Him, it’s gone from us – we are clean, renewed, blameless. Not because His righteousness was credited to us, but because our guilt was credited to Him. That is the Psa 32:1-2 blessing of righteousness, which Paul recognised as justification.

    Therefore, in light of Rom 4:5-8, surely righteousness cannot be limited to a moral standing superior to sinlessness.

    “In Christ” may well mean “counted as Christ” (in 2 Cor 5:21 in particular), but I don’t see enough Scriptural support to honestly say, “the righteousness of Christ has been credited to me”.

    I am genuinely looking for a good and necessary inference from the Bible that “the positive obedience of Jesus is imputed to us”, not just an explicit reference.

  38. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    I don’t have a particular problem with your use of James 4:17. The issue is that you’re presupposing the exact thing you’re aiming to prove.

    There is an obvious distinction between having merely not broken a law, and having positively obeyed that law. Prior to Genesis 3, Adam had not broken any law. He was sinless, but not in a way that seems morally praiseworthy.

    Now, suppose he had rebuffed the serpent. Then his continued state of sinlessness would seem morally praiseworthy, because he had not merely failed to break the law, but had succeeded in keeping it.

    The latter kind of sinlessness seems morally praiseworthy, and it is that kind of praiseworthy sinlessness which surely counts as righteousness. God does not consider us merely neutrally sinless in Christ. He does not see as us merely absent guilt. He sees us as morally praiseworthy. As positively righteous.

    That seems like an important distinction to me.

  39. Andrew Duncanson

    I wish I knew how to use those big quotation marks. Maybe you can let me know? :)

    I acknowledge that I have gone way too far in the application of my definition of “righteousness”, so I apologise.

    Let me change my definition – I am arguing that when the Bible talks about the righteousness that is credited to a person by faith in Christ, then it what you call “moral unblameworthiness”. The Bible does speak of other forms of righteousness – I shouldn’t have used my definition as an all-encompassing umbrella definition.

    If Christ’s righteousness (presupposing that this is perfect, active, positive, lifelong obedience as I’m sure you won’t contest) is imputed to us by faith, then we should expect the new heaven and the new earth to be domains of absolute equality of glory. There could be no echelons of honour because it would have been impossible for anyone to do anything praiseworthy enough on earth to increase their status of righteousness, since “in Christ” it was already maxed-out. Indeed, people could only be there because Christ’s righteousness was imputed to them.

    In the Bible, however, we find that Christians should run for an imperishable wreath (1 Cor 9:24-25). Not all believers will receive this prize. Even Paul was afraid that he might be disqualified! (1 Cor 9:27) I don’t see how this can be the case if all Christians have Christ’s righteousness imputed to them. Unless, of course, Paul was worried about being disqualified from the first resurrection… but that can’t be! After all, Paul was a Calvinist right? ;)

    The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews admonished his readers to strive for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Heb 12:14). If we have Christ’s righteousness imputed to us, what is there left to strive for? How could Christ’s righteousness be, by any stretch of the imagination, insufficient?! (This is, of course, assuming that the holiness in this context is more or less synonymous with active righteousness).

    I can’t find any proof that Adam was morally praiseworthy before Gen 2:17. I don’t see why I should have to, though. My point was that Adam was a weak example for you to use to substantiate your argument, since there is no reason given in the text for me to believe that Adam wasn’t perfectly righteous during this period.

    Lastly, in my mind, Romans 4:5-8 proves this – that Paul viewed the righteousness credited by faith as a particular blessing. That blessing is simply that our sins are not counted against us (Psa 32:1-2). Three lines emphasising the same idea. Therefore, Paul and King David considered this particular righteousness to be the forgiveness of sins. Absolutely no mention of the foreign righteousness of the Messiah being credited to us.

  40. Andrew Duncanson

    Back to understanding the idea of being “in Christ”:
    Eph 1:4-7 seems to define “in Him” as the blessing of being holy and blameless before God (Eph 1:4), the redemption and forgiveness of our trespasses through Jesus’ blood (Eph 1:7).

    I think that lines up fairly well with my understanding of imputation and Rom 4:5-8. Reconciliation and forgiveness through Jesus’ blood seem to be the dominant ideas associated with being “in Christ”, rather than Christ being our federal head.

  41. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    But I haven’t just asserted the distinction between not breaking and obeying; I argued for it with the example of Adam. I’m not sure how you could deny the self-evident distinction I drew with that illustration.

    That righteousness is not necessarily Christ’s. I simply cannot find that in the Bible.

    Let’s suppose the Bible never explicitly says that the positive obedience of Jesus is imputed to us. Isn’t there a distinction between what the Bible explicitly says, and what can be deduced from it by good and necessary inference?

    If headship works the way I argue, then it is as inevitable that Jesus’ active obedience be credited to us, as it is that our guilt is credited to him—because we are counted as in him. So active obedience as a component of justification is a logical implication of federal headship.

  42. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Where did you argue it? You made subjective assertions

    I’m not sure what you mean. What is subjective about the distinction I drew? The sinlessness of someone who has not had an opportunity to obey or disobey seems objectively different from the sinlessness of someone who has.

    One involves having had no opportunity to sin; the other involves having had the opportunity and resisted.

    Surely that is not only a difference, but also a relevant one in terms of the “quality” of sinlessness under consideration. If you think otherwise, the burden of proof seems to fall on you.

    I completely agree that headship works in the way you argue, though I do not make the same deductions from it.

    Well, fortunately deduction isn’t a matter of opinion. Either my inference is right, or it’s wrong. Here it is:

    1. Federal headship is, broadly, where one man legally represents others
    2. Jesus is our federal head
    3. Therefore, Jesus legally represents us
    4. Jesus paid the wages of sin
    5. Therefore, we are legally represented as having paid the wages of sin
    6. Jesus obeyed the law fully (active obedience)
    7. Therefore, we are legally represented as having obeyed the law fully (active obedience)

    Have I erred?

  43. Andrew Duncanson

    The subjectivity is in the word “seem” – “The sinlessness of someone who has not had an opportunity to obey or disobey seems objectively different from the sinlessness of someone who has.”

    Those two categories of sinlessness are objectively different in certain ways, but my argument is that they are not different in regard to righteousness.

    Where does Scripture tell us that Adam was anything but perfectly righteous before he recieved the first command in Gen 2:17, as you have asserted?

    I disagree with how broadly you apply Jesus’ federal headship. He represented us in the vicarious punishment he endured, not necessarily in the the life He lived beforehand. His sinless personal life meant that, like a lamb without blemish, His sacrifice was accepted by God. Hence God raised Him from the dead so that we would be made righteous.

    P.S. pls respond to Rom 4:5-8 :)

  44. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Those two categories of sinlessness are objectively different in certain ways, but my argument is that they are not different in regard to righteousness.

    Okay, but I think you’re fudging the term in that case. Taking the example of Adam again, being created sinless doesn’t make him morally praiseworthy. To be morally praise- or blameworthy, he must have actually performed some action out of his own will as a moral agent. So resisting temptation and remaining sinless makes him morally praiseworthy, and yielding to temptation and falling into sin makes him morally blameworthy.

    Now, when the Bible talks about righteousness, does it mean mere moral unblameworthiness? Or does it mean moral praiseworthiness? Possibly it means both, depending on context—but we have to eat least recognize that they are categorically different things. Possibly it uses righteousness to refer to the former, and holiness to refer to the latter—but I think you’d have serious exegetical work cut out for you to demonstrate that. But whatever the case, it is obviously premature to say that these two distinct moral categories are “not different in regard to righteousness”. That needs to be shown, and even if James 4:17 showed it in one context (which it doesn’t), that would still leave a broader scriptural context to examine.

    Where does Scripture tell us that Adam was anything but perfectly righteous before he recieved the first command in Gen 2:16, as you have asserted?

    Where does Scripture say that Adam was perfectly righteous? I can’t, off the top of my head, think of any passage which claims this. If there are any, we need to examine them to see if we can determine whether they are referring to moral praiseworthiness or not.

    I disagree with how broadly you apply Jesus’ federal headship. He represented us in the vicarious punishment he endured, not necessarily in the the life He lived beforehand.

    On the face of it, that’s a fair distinction. But the problem is that headship is not event-oriented, but person-oriented. So limiting Jesus’ representation of us to the cross is ad hoc.

    His sinless personal life meant that, like a lamb without blemish, His sacrifice was accepted by God. Hence God raised Him from the dead so that we would be made righteous.

    And yet, by your lights, Jesus did not need to be actively obedient to the law in order to be a spotless sacrifice. In principle, (on your view of righteousness) God could have created Jesus’ body in the same way he created Adam’s, and then immediately nailed him to a cross—and that would have been a spotless sacrifice because Jesus was sinless. Yet something seems fishy about that scenario, don’t you think?

    P.S. pls respond to Rom 4:5-8 :)

    I confess I’m a bit confused what you think it proves. Can you lay out your argument as you see it working with this passage? From where I’m standing, it seems like it would be an argument from silence. But maybe I’m missing something :)

  45. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hey Andrew, you can create quotes by using the <blockquote> tag (to end the quote, use </blockquote>).

    If Christ’s righteousness (presupposing that this is perfect, active, positive, lifelong obedience as I’m sure you won’t contest) is imputed to us by faith, then we should expect the new heaven and the new earth to be domains of absolute equality of glory. There could be no echelons of honour because it would have been impossible for anyone to do anything praiseworthy enough on earth to increase their status of righteousness, since “in Christ” it was already maxed-out. Indeed, people could only be there because Christ’s righteousness was imputed to them.

    Could you explain why you think our rewards are based on our legal standing, rather than on our own works? The Bible seems to make a point of the fact that everyone will be judged according to their works. Even Christians will be judged that way; but our evil works will not condemn us because we’re in Jesus; rather, our good works will be a basis for reward.

    Notice that the mechanism of reward is categorically different to the mechanism of justification. The mechanism of reward is to assess each of our actions and assign a commensurate “prize”. But the mechanism of justification is completely unlinked from actions, as I’ve argued—it is penal rather than pecuniary. It is to assess only our legal standing.

    That being the case, your objection seems to trade on a category error. Is there a reason we should think that reward is based on legal standing?

    My point was that Adam was a weak example for you to use to substantiate your argument, since there is no reason given in the text for me to believe that Adam wasn’t perfectly righteous during this period.

    I’m not sure I’d deny that Adam was “perfectly” righteous because the term is too ambiguous to clearly mark out passive versus active. But by the same token, the text doesn’t say enough for us to draw any conclusions viz active or passive righteousness. So any assumption on our part is going run the risk of being question-begging.

    Paul and King David considered this particular righteousness to be the forgiveness of sins. Absolutely no mention of the foreign righteousness of the Messiah being credited to us.

    The trouble is, this doesn’t seem to prove anything unless you make some rather tendentious assumptions about what Paul and David mean by God not counting our sin against us. Why think they didn’t take the removal of sin to implicitly entail the adding of active righteousness? That’s hardly an unreasonable assumption in view of how high-context Hebrew language use tended to be. Moreover, passages like 2 Corinthians 5:21, Romans 1:17 and 1 Corinthians 1:30 certainly seem to suggest an exchange, whereby God clothes us in his righteousness, with plenty of Old Testament precedent (eg Isaiah 61:10; Zechariah 3:4)—and that righteousness with reference to Jesus was active obedience. Now, Revelation 19:8 suggests that perhaps at least some of those passages aren’t actually referring to the righteousness of Jesus, but there’s a lot of exegetical work to do to make that case definitively (John’s usage doesn’t necessarily reflect Isaiah’s or Paul’s). Prima facie, there’s at least a good case to be made from those passages.

    As I mentioned to you, I don’t really have a horse in this race. But it strikes me that even if we restrict the legal representation of Jesus to the cross, he was actively obedient on the cross. If representation is fundamentally personal, I’m not sure how you can “bypass” being counted as actively obedient in Christ, if he is counted guilty in you. There’s a parity there that, if you break it, seems to obviate the whole mechanism.

  46. Andrew Duncanson

    I’m not going to pretend to understand all that you have brought up, particularly the penal and puniary distinctions in Pauline theology, so it would be wise of me to cease responding at this stage. I will have to get back to you eventually.

    However well you may have refuted my understanding of faith-credited righteousness, I feel like you haven’t given a full and convincing argument for double imputation. Perhaps you would consider addressing the issue comprehensively in a future blog?

  I don’t post ill-considered articles and I don’t sponsor ill-considered comments. Take a moment to review what you’ve written…