Wednesday, September 24, 2008

My Sin for His Righteousness

“My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.”

The day before he died, J. Gresham Machen, founder of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia sent a telegram to his friend and colleague John Murray that read simply, “So thankful for the active obedience of Christ; no hope without it.” The “active obedience of Christ” is a reference to the perfect obedience of Jesus during his life as God incarnate. The words of the familiar hymn quoted above are an appropriate meditation on the fact that we are not only cleansed from our sin by the atoning death of Jesus but are credited with the righteousness of Jesus as well.

Both cleansing from sin through Christ’s death and the imputation of his active obedience are essential elements of our being justified before God. Most so-called evangelicals will not quibble with the first point. It is rather the second element, imputation that causes some stir. The controversy is due, at least in part to the fact that imputation and substitution are doctrines that belong together. Penal substitution, the doctrine that Christ bore our sins on the cross and received in himself the punishment we deserved, though clearly biblical, is always under attack by those who desire a moral example theology of the cross. In the words of Steve Chalk, an influential leader in the emergent church movement has written that the doctrine of penal substitution is “divine child abuse.”

Scripture, however, is rich in the language and imagery of substitution and imputation. When the priest symbolically imputed the sins of the people upon the scapegoat he was acting as a shadow of the substance to come in Christ’s work of imputation. Indeed the entire old covenant sacrificial system bore graphic testimony to the substitutionary work of God’s coming Messiah.

The prophets bore witness to the realities of substitution and imputation. Isaiah wrote, “We considered him stricken by God…The punishment that brought us peace was upon him…The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all…For the transgressions of my people he was stricken…It was the Lord’s will to crush him…The Lord makes his life a guilt offering (53:4-10).

In Romans chapter four Paul offers powerful commentary on Genesis 15:6: “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Paul writes, “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but his due. And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Rom. 4:4-5).

In chapter five Paul continues the theme of justification through the atoning death and active righteousness of Christ. “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life” (vv. 9-10).

Louis Berkhof wrote of both the “negative” and “positive” realities of our justification. On the negative side is “the remission of sins on the ground of the atoning work of Christ.” Berkhof was right to point out that Scripture makes it clear that “justification is more than mere pardon.” What is needed is “the active obedience of Christ” (Systematic Theology, 515).

Jonathan Edwards wrote that in justification God accepts “a person as having both a negative, and positive righteousness belonging to him.” Edwards’ reference to “positive righteousness” does not mean that the man or woman justified before God has come to embody perfect righteousness in their behavior. Rather, Edwards is pointing to the reality of imputation. God justifies sinners by crediting the righteousness of His beloved Son to them.

The Church of Rome grievously errs when it teaches that God infuses righteousness into sinners and then justifies them on the basis of their good deeds. This is a denial of the biblical doctrine of justification. It is why the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone has been and continues to be anathema in the Roman Catholic Church.

The Heidelberg Catechism of 1563 states well the radical grace reflected in the biblical doctrines of substitution and imputation:
Question 60: How art thou righteous before God?
Answer: Only by true faith in Jesus Christ; that is, although my conscience accuse me that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them, and that I am still prone always to all evil, yet God, without any merit of mine, of mere grace, grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never committed nor had any sin, and had myself accomplished all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled for me, if only I accept such benefit with a believing heart.

O Christ, what burdens bowed Thy head!
Our load was laid on Thee;
Thou stoodest in the sinner’s stead,
Didst bear all ill for me.
A victim led, Thy blood was shed;
Now there’s no load for me.

The Holy One did hide His face;
O Christ, ‘twas hid from Thee:
Dumb darkness wrapped Thy soul a space,
The darkness due to me.
But now that face of radiant grace
Shines forth in light on me.


rmkton said...

Regarding Chalk's view of penal substitution, isn't this what MacDonald believed as well? i.e. that it was not in God's nature to substitute his son as a penalty for us and that God sent his son to die for our sins and not to save us from divine punishment?

I know MacDonald was not comfortable with Calvinism because he thought that it went against God's very nature...perhaps why I have heard that the hardest folks to reach with the heart of the gospel are Calvinists....have to think about this..Thanks for the post.


Todd Pruitt said...


My understanding is that MacDonald did deny the doctrine of penal substitution. Unfortunate.

What I do not understand is your comment about "the heart of the Gospel." My friend, substiution IS the heart of the Gospel - Christ dying FOR sinners. The cross is not merely an example of God's love. Surely it is an example of love; the greatest example ever given. But the cross is much more. Something did happen in the event of Christ's death. Sinners were atoned for. Even a casual reading of Scripture confirms penal substitution.

Reformed theology champions the doctrine of atonement more than any other theological system.

Incidentally, I have never once heard that "the hardest folks to reach with the heart of the gospel are Calvinists." Indeed, it was not until my study of the Reformers and Puritans that I came to appreciate the Gospel more than I ever had before.



rmkton said...

Todd, thanks for the response. I understand your point based upon the writings of Paul regarding penal substitution and atonement...but here is a question that surely MacDonald would have had to have asked to reach his conclusion....and you would not here coming from conservative evangelical folks...How much did Paul understand the gospel? What did the good news mean that Jesus spoke about long before Paul came along?

In Christian circles these type of questions are considered outside the realms of evangelical orthodoxy but I think these are important questions to ask. Most Christians aren't willing to go there.

Todd Pruitt said...


Clearly you and I have a different understanding of Scripture. All of Scripture is breathed out by God. It all carries the full weight of God's authority.

An orthodox understanding of inspiration holds that the words of Paul in the Bible are as authoritative as the words of Jesus. All of Scripture comes to us by inspiration.

Besides that, it is not accurate to say that Paul and Jesus had a different Gospel. Jesus clearly taught that he would give his life as a ransom.

A new book that you may want to read is "Jesus and Paul Reconnected" by my friend Todd Still.



Harley A. said...

Folks forget that there is no "Gospel of Jesus" in the Bible (in the sense that He never wrote His own). The words of Jesus could just as easily be discounted as the "writings of Matthew" or the "writings of Luke"...

Misunderstandings of (or denials of) the inspiration, authority and sufficiency of scripture will always cause convoluded and downright false notions of the Gospel.

As for Paul's understanding, I'd say a direct conversation with the glorified Jesus would probably suffice...

We are blessed to have a pastor who is not deceived by the "higher criticism" nonesense so prevalent in the last few decades. If only all churches had the benefit of a pastor who rightly divided the word. Todd, we appreciate you...

rmkton said...

harley a.

But surely refusing to thoughtfully and critically engage evangelical scholars who are currently publishing about biblical criticism will build us nothing but a house of cards....

Harley A. said...

rmkton -

There will always be "non-essentials" that we will debate amongst ourselves - and we should.

But, when it comes to those who fundamentally misunderstand and attack the true gospel and promote another version (which denying penal substitution is), certainly we need to correct and refute. I'd say "engage" would be too generous a term. The truth of the Bible is not up for some dialectical "conversation" amongst those smart enough to correct scripture and figure out what God was really trying to say.

rmkton said...

harley a.

Interesting response....when we read the Bible aren't all of trying to figure out what God meant? Now I think most of the Bible is fairly understandable but even the most conservative scholars have to deal with extra-biblical cultural context to grasp the meaning. We all read it through a certain set of lenses whether we realize it or not.

Secondly, if personal salvation is the ultimate question of our existence then is agreement with penal substitution necessary for salvation? is George MacDonald burning in hell?

Harley A. said...

Mike, of course we are trying to figure out what God is saying. And I've no doubt you are trying just like I am.

There are some very clear and plain teachings in scripture (penal substitution being one) and there are some big questions that we don't receive as much clarity on and we debate those.

But when a person begins to question whether Paul "understood the gospel", he is questioning whether the Bible is inspired. If the Bible isn't inspired, then why would I trust one word of it ? Or if it inspired with inspired errors (as ridiculous as that sounds but some believe it) then same comment. Doesn't sound like a rock to build a house on does it?

Now that's different from us questioning and discussing the meaning of what Paul said - we won't all agree on every point. But to question whether his writings are inspired is heresy and has no place in Christian dialogue (another very plain and clear teaching in scripture).

As to the issue of MacDonald's eternal state, I cannot comment - not my prerogative. And, while I can't say whether agreement with or understanding of penal substitution is necessary for salvation, I can say that penal substitution is.

Grace and peace,


rmkton said...


thanks for your response....just for clarity I did not say that the writings of Paul were not inspired...I just don't think they are inerrant (as we understand the word). I don't view inspiration and inerrancy as reliant on one another.

Todd Pruitt said...


Does Scripture err when it teaches penal substitution and propitiation?

Todd Pruitt said...


One more thought: Does the Bible err when it says that God is love?

rmkton said...

When I agree with you that God is love then I am (by faith) affirming the truth (and inspiration) of the Bible...this still does not mean that I think the Bible has no errors. The question then becomes what is true and what is not...and who determines that? (i.e. the problem with the postmodern approach).

You will have to pardon this rather sophomoric analogy (especially for a Southern Baptist) but for lack of anything clearer, this is my view of biblical inerrancy. Inerrancy is a chugging a huge beer. When you taste the first mouthful it tastes and feels good (...assuming you like beer) but after a while you have to keep chugging it 'til you are finished, by which time you realize it is not possible to keep it down. It is a zero-sum have to take it all, then it becomes distasteful and unpalatable. I don't know any mainstream bible scholars who are willing to accept that the end of the gospel of Mark is anything close to scriptural. That being said my question is how does the Bible not err?...the answer to which is what we need to get to.

Todd Pruitt said...


With all due respect your analogy makes no sense unless there are portions of the Bible that you simply do not want to believe.

And this is the case with so many. It's not that they have any real evidence that the Bible errs but rather they have found it inconvenient or personally distasteful.

Also, your question, "how does the Bible not err?" makes no sense at all. It is a question that cannot be answered.

My question still stands. How do you know that God is love? You accept it by faith - but faith in what? Is not the ONLY thing you have to go on the Bible? Why are all the passages that tell of Christ's substitutionary atonement not reliable but "God is love" is reliable?

I am trying to figure out what is your standard of authority.

rmkton said...


sorry for not making this clearer...agree with you that my comment (which was written in haste) is not clear. What I attempted to respond to is the notion that harley stated.."The truth of the Bible is not up for some dialectical "conversation" amongst those smart enough to correct scripture."

You know as well as I that there are numerous problems in the Bible that, over time, writers have tried to correct ...I don't need to go into all of them but am I sure you are familiar with the current works by Enns, Sparks, and others...

So what do you do with the end of Mark, stories that pre-date Genesis but bear a striking resemblance to Genesis 1 (Enuma Elish)? Epistles written by pseudonyms (I&II Tim, Titus). It becomes so overwhelming that you start to ask my does the Bible not err?

So we are left with some difficult questions...what is our authority? By simply accepting the Bible as our authority it answers the question but at what cost? intellectual suicide?

Todd Pruitt said...


You are making some rather large assumptions or just repeating things you have heard from others.

Your assumption that the pastoral epistles were written by someone other than Paul is rather novel. Many N.T. scholars outside conservative circles would disagree with you. I am sure that the Jesus Seminar loves the idea but...

Also, even though Enns found himself in the middle of controversy, he nevertheless continues to affirm the WCF including its affirmation of Scripture's inerrancy.

How does the existence of creation accounts prior to the writing of Genesis in any way detract from the divine origins of Genesis? I am not quite sure of the "striking similarities" you are referring to between Genesis and Enuma Elish. True, they are both accounts of the earth's origins. Apart from that however the differences are quite striking. The point is, ancient people, even pagans believed that the world was created by a god or gods. Your point has no bearing whatsoever on the reliability of Scripture. In fact, it simply affirms that without God's revelation man gropes in vain for truth. He ends up worshiping gods of his own making. God gave Genesis to His people during their Exodus wanderings that they might know more fully this God who had delivered them. Enuma Elish reads like what it is - a fanciful pagan story.

As far as Mark goes, the oldest manuscripts do not have the closing verses that the church initially adopted as part of Mark's account. And the problem is???

I am afraid you are close to committing intellectual suicide by accepting what the Bible's cultured despisers say about it.

I would recommend you read "Fundamentalism and the Word of God" by J.I. Packer and "Inerrancy" edited by Norman Geisler.


rmkton said...

Thanks Todd for the response...would have to vehemently disagree with the notion that the pastoral epistles were written by someone other than Paul is novel...pick up any study Bible that has book overviews (even conservative ones) and you will note that they at least express some doubt about Pauline authorship. For example, I have a Ryrie Study Bible from the early 70's that expresses this (even though Ryrie gives his reasons why he thinks Paul wrote it...but the main reason he gives is "because it says so" of things that self-validate.

so you don't have a problem with the end of Mark...are we going to start snake handling as some have done? If this is inerrant and inspired why not?

Agree there are differences (and big ones) between Enuma Elish and Genesis...but if Genesis was written by Moses (inspired by God and his unique relationship with Moses) how did a lot of the stories get into Enuma Elish prior to when Moses would have written it? I don't think that ancient Mesopotamians and Summerians guessed.

I have not committed intellectual suicide...I just have woken up from a long sleep in which I was fed truths from well-meaning folks that they themselves did not understand.

I really feel like this will be the next great challenge for the church to deal with...not secular neo-atheists. The challenges will come from try and bridge the gap between modern biblical scholarship, evolving science and the understanding and practice of our fact, it is already here.

rmkton said...

will make a deal with you....I will read Packer's book, if you read Kent Sparks' book God's Word in Human Words...I am sure you will not agree with everything in it (I did not either) but it opens the door to some of these discussions...that I think are worth having.

Harley A. said...

You said "When I agree with you that God is love then I am (by faith) affirming the truth (and inspiration) of the Bible...this still does not mean that I think the Bible has no errors."

Are you saying that ultimately the truth of scripture is dependent upon our belief or faith in it ?

Also, I'm curious as to who is going to ultimately decide when the Bible is error free ? and on what authority will that be based ?

rmkton said...

harley...that is a very, very good question

"...who is going to ultimately decide when the Bible is error free ? and on what authority will that be based ?"

to which I don't really have an answer that I am satisfied with...But, I would also say that to accept that the bible is inerrant (as an answer to that question you raise) is an oversimplification of the diffculties...and a position that becomes really untenable when one starts to delve into what that means and the hoops you have to jump through.

Todd Pruitt said...


Thanks for hanging in there.

Again, I assert that Pauline authorship of the pastorals is not in question as much as you seem to assume.

The end of Mark is not a prescription for all believers for all time to handle snakes. That is basic hermeneutics. It is remarkable that the church has made it clear that those verses are not in the oldest manuscripts. How different is this approach from Islam, Mormonism, etc! Again, that does not take away from Scripture's inerrancy in any way. I'm not sure why you are so hung up on that.

Why does it seem odd to you that ancient creation stories share some similarities? Again, the differences are radical. The similarities are few and cosmetic.

That's the last I will comment on those questions. I would still love to hear your thoughts on the questions I have raised.

By the way, I was trained in a seminary by professors who all denied the inerrancy of Scripture. I have read Bultmann, Tillich, Barth, Moltmann, etc. So my experience seems to be the opposite of yours. My training came from those who denied inerrancy. In my search I became convinced of the opposite position.


rmkton said...

I guess we have to agree to disagree on the creation issue...I see the similarities you see the differences...the fact that that are similarities (which I don't think are just cosmetic), does have signficance to what we think about the bible. I don't expect your agreement on this but it is how I see it.

Again regarding Pauline authorship of pastoral epistles we have to agree to see the reasons for it, I see the reasons against it...and they are there. I am not out of touch on this point.

Ok, let me bare my soul a little here which may not help you understand my positions but may help you understand me. I cannot claim formal seminary training as you do although I do read quite a bit...but I can claim being an evangelical Christian, who, after 30 years, has begun to question much about his is perhaps just part of this deconstruction that many go through in seems to come from nowhere but is very real...the faith does not seem to work any more and platitudinal responses (which I get from most Christians) fall short. It is not an easy process nor peaceful to question pretty much everything that you thought you believed...and believed passionately. It leaves one wondering what is really true.

I think where I am is best characterized by Bono in the song "Still haven't found what I'm looking for." I believe in many of the biblical principles taught in the church but there seems to be something wrong, something missing....Some will say that I have become the wreckage of what postmodernism does...but I went looking for was not looking for me.

Hope that helps

Harley A. said...

Mike - I can appreciate where you are (though we obviously disagree on some big issues) and don't condemn you for it. I'm about to turn (gulp!) 40 next year and struggle in the faith from time to time. Any honest Christian I think would admit this.

Look to Job - look to Solomon in Ecclesiastes - look to David in the Psalms to name a few. These folks all questioned as well and scripture gives us the reassurance that God isn't afraid of our questioning.

Just remember a truth that I think you'd agree to: God is a God of truth. Christ is the way, the TRUTH, and the life. Life itself is wrapped inextricably with truth. It is not in His nature to promote error, lies, incompleteness, etc. to His flock. His word is sure.

I don't know what has opened you up to questioning, but I realize that we live in a time where much of the Church has abandoned the true faith and we are confronted with all manner of confusion.

Just beware that it's not the serpent of old asking "Hath God really said... ?".

Have a blessed weekend.