December 18, 2004

The sufficiency of Christ

The London Baptist Confession of 1689, with which I am in basic agreement as a personal statement of faith, has this to say about the person and work of Christ:

This office of mediator between God and man is proper only to Christ, who is the prophet, priest, and king of the church of God; and may not be either in whole, or any part thereof, transferred from him to any other.1

This is the LBC's expression of the Reformed doctrine of solus Christus (also sometimes referred to as solo Christo), or "Christ alone." In this post I want to discuss this doctrine from three perspectives: the atonement of Christ, the merits of Christ, and the mediatorship of Christ.

Solus Christus: Christ's atonement alone

Leviticus 16 spells out the regulations for the annual day of atonement, the day of the year in which the children of Israel collectively humbled themselves before God and confessed their sins. This was the one day all year where the high priest, robed in his priestly costume, brought the sacrifice into the most holy place and offered it in the very presence of God himself. The personal danger to the priest underscored the solemnity of the occasion: if he did not follow his instructions precisely, he might be struck dead.

On this occasion, two goats were selected from the herds of Israel. One of them was selected by lot to become the sin offering. It was slaughtered and its blood brought into the most holy place by the high priest, into the presence of God himself, as an offering for sin (Lev. 16:15-19).

The reality of sin is a crippling situation. Man cannot cleanse himself from sin (Prov. 20:9); his sin is part of his very nature (Jer. 13:23). Man can never be saved if he must depend on himself for salvation. Yet the perfect justice of a holy God requires that atonement be made for sin.

The animal sacrifices tell us something about the nature of atonement. While pure justice might demand that a man's own blood be shed as atonement for his sins, God by his grace allowed an animal to be substituted. The animal had to be unblemished, illustrating the an imperfect sacrifice was unacceptable. It had a cost, as it was taken from the sinner's own herds. And it had to shed its blood in death.

It was a fundamental truth of the sacrificial system that "without shedding of blood is no remission" (Heb. 9:22). But as the author of Hebrews reminds us, although the goats were offered year after year, it was impossible for their continuous deaths to remit sins perfectly. Hence, they were really only a reminder of sin (Heb. 10:1-3), and not a true atonement: "For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins" (4).

But, the author adds,

[W]e are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. . . . this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God; from henceforth expecting till his enemies be made his footstool. For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified. (10-14)

What continual animal sacrifice could never begin to accomplish, Jesus Christ did once and for all. Impaled through the hands, feet, and side, he shed his blood on the cross when he died. The cost of his sacrifice was great: he cost the Father his only Son. Knowing no sin, Christ was a perfect and unblemished sacrifice.

Lastly, as a man and not an animal, he was a perfect substitute. For Christ's death on the cross was not merely an example or a demonstration of God's justice, as some claim (though it was those things and more). It was an actual, real substitute of one life for another.

The story is often told in evangelical circles about George Wilson, a robber who had been sentenced to death in 1830 for his crimes. Thanks to pleas from his friends, President Andrew Jackson pardoned him. Amazingly, Wilson refused the pardon, choosing to accept his sentence and be hanged. The Supreme Court ruled that the value of a pardon was contingent upon its acceptance. Thus Wilson had a right to refuse if he wanted to. By this story, well-meaning evangelists appeal to sinners: Christ has paid the sins for all mankind, and God has offered a pardon, if only you will accept it.

The problem with this kind of thinking, however well-intentioned, is that the analogy breaks down at the most fundamental level.

Christ's death expiated sins, that is, it removed the penalty for them. Christ died in place of sinners: "[T]he Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many" (Matt. 20:28). The word translated for in this verse is one that means in place of or instead of. Christ's death expiates our sin because he died in our stead.

But Christ's sacrifice was also propitiatory, which means it was satisfactory. There was something in it, independent of our own change of mind from unbelief to belief, that satisfied God's justice and turned away his wrath towards sinners. Paul writes:

[W]e all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others. But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;) . . . (Eph. 2:3-5)

Formerly children of wrath and dead in sins, thanks to the mercy of God, his wrath is appeased by Christ.

And to the Romans, Paul says:

But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; to declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus. (Rom. 3:21-26)

It was Jesus' obedience of his Father's will (his passive obedience in theological terminology), culminating in the crucifixion, that provides the objective basis upon which not only divine justice was satisfied, but divine mercy could be offered. His death was a propitiation. Those for whom Christ died are no longer the subjects of God's wrath.

Jackson's pardon of Wilson, by contrast, was a Presidential decree, nothing else. It made an offer of mercy without a satisfaction of justice; it was expiation without propitiation. It lacked the objective grounding of a substitutionary atonement.

Theologians such as C. H. Dodd claim that where the Bible says propitiation it really means expiation, saying that Christ's death cleansed sin but had no need to turn away wrath. This theory has had some popularity with theological liberals who find the idea of a vengeful God abhorrent. However, such a theory has a hard time reconciling itself with Romans 3:25-26 and other Biblical passages that speak of the wrath of God against sinners.

Some theories of the Atonement, such as the Moral Influence and Moral Government theories2, also affirm that forgiveness of sins is something God can do simply by decree, without any objective satisfaction. A Biblical, substitutionary view of the atonement agrees with the Moral Influence theory that Christ's death demonstrates God's love toward sinners. And it agrees with the Moral Government theory in that the crucifixion demonstrates the need for justice and the seriousness of sin. But both theories are wrong in what they deny: that the demands of divine justice must also be met. God is both just and justifier (Rom. 3:26).

In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis also denied the idea of a substitutionary atonement, affirming instead a theory that could be called "vicarious confession," in which Christ the "perfect penitent" confessed and repented of sin on our behalf. Lewis found the idea of penal substitution barbaric. I think he failed to see, however, that Christ's death occurred amidst a culture in which shedding blood for the atonement of sins was integral to their worldview. Also, although the Bible calls Christ's death an act of obedience, it never discusses it in terms of repentance and confession on the part of Christ himself.

More recently, "Emergent Church" leader Brian McLaren agrees with Lewis' assessment of penal substitution, having one of the characters in his didactic novel The Story We Find Ourselves In call penal substitution "divine child abuse."3 He provides thumbnail sketches of six theories of the Atonement (including a favourable view of Lewis' version). McLaren treats all the various theories as different "windows" giving different perspectives on the whole truth. Perhaps this is true as far as it goes; however, there is really nothing true about any competing theory that is not covered by the penal substitution theory.

Christ our Substitute alone pays the penalty for sins and makes forgiveness possible: "Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). Moses never died to provide salvation for sins. Neither did Mary, or Mohammed, or Buddha.

What continual animal sacrifice could never begin to accomplish, Jesus Christ did once and for all.

Solus Christus: Christ's merits alone

The second goat on the Day of Atonement was the "scapegoat." Today, when we call someone a scapegoat, it's not a good thing: it means he is taking the blame for someone else's problems. But it was certainly a good thing for the goat! It escaped a bloody death (hence "scapegoat"). Rather, the high priest laid his hands on its head and confessed the sins of the nation. The goat was then taken out of the camp and set free into the wilderness (Lev. 16:20-22).

Obviously, the goat itself was blameless. The sins of others were imputed, or transferred, to it, and then symbolically removed from the people by the goat's release.

Christ, too, was blameless, as Paul writes to the Corinthians:

Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God. For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. (2 Cor. 5:20-21)

Christ played the rôle not only of the sacrificial goat, but the scapegoat. Although he himself was blameless, he was "made sin for us" - or, as the prophet Isaiah prophesied, using the language of the day of atonement: "the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all" (Isa. 53:6).

Christ was the last righteous Israelite, the only one who obeyed God's Law perfectly - indeed, as the God-Man, the only one capable of so doing. It was his perfect obedience to the Law (his active obedience) that secured a righteousness - God's righteousness - that could be transferred to others. Our guilt was transferred, or imputed, to him, and his righteousness was imputed to us.

This truth is diametrically opposed to the teaching of the Church of Rome, which claims there is a "treasury" of merit comprising not only the merits of Christ, but "includes as well the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary" and "all the saints."4 In the Roman system, the merits of Christ are not sufficient; they must be supplemented with the superfluous merits of Mary and the saints. Rome also claims for itself the authority to dispense merit from the treasury for the remission of sins.5 This is the basis of the practice of indulgences, the crass commercialism of which goaded Luther into nailing his 95 theses to the church door. In addition, Rome's system of confessions and penances entails the efficiency of one's own merits to expiate some sins. Thus Christ, Mary, the saints, and oneself all cooperate to atone for sin. This is a categorical denial of the sufficiency of Christ.

It is Christ's merit alone that is imputed to us. No one else has ever lived a sinless life. Not Mary, not the saints, and most certainly not me.

Solus Christus: Christ's mediatorship alone

A mediator

intervene[s] between two parties in order to promote relations between them which the parties themselves are not able to effect. The situation requiring the offices of a mediator is often one of estrangement and alienation, and the mediator effects reconciliation.6

In the Old Covenant, the priest was the mediator between God and Israel, receiving the sacrifices from the people and presenting them to God. But he himself was in need of a mediator; before he could make atonement for the sins of his nation, it was necessary for him to make atonement for himself and the other priests with the sacrifice of a bull (Lev. 16:6). Moreover, the priests died and new priests had to replace them.

But, once again, the author of Hebrews says:

And they truly were many priests, because they were not suffered to continue by reason of death: but this man, because he continueth ever, hath an unchangeable priesthood. Wherefore he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them.

For such an high priest became us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and made higher than the heavens; who needeth not daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifice, first for his own sins, and then for the people's: for this he did once, when he offered up himself. For the law maketh men high priests which have infirmity; but the word of the oath, which was since the law, maketh the Son, who is consecrated for evermore. (Heb. 8:22-28)

Christ is that priest. He is the antitype not only of the goat who is killed for a sin offering, and the scapegoat that is left in the wilderness, but the priest who offers them.

Christ's priesthood is better than Aaron's, first because, unlike the Levites, he never sinned, and thus needs to make no atonement for himself. Jesus never makes confession or atonement; he says on the cross, "Father, forgive them," not "Father, forgive me." Thus he was able to mediate between men and God,

having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven. And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled in the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight. . . . (Col. 1:20-22)

Second, Christ's priesthood is better than Aaron's because, since he will never die, "his mediatory activity is never suspended."7 His intercessory work was not completed at Golgotha. He is a priest forever (Heb. 7:21, 24), interceding before the Father with the needs of his people.

I personally believe that the intercessory work of Christ is the strongest argument for particular redemption. Just as the priests of the Old Covenant interceded in the Temple for their people, the nation of Israel, Christ, the priest of the New Covenant intercedes before the throne of God for his people, the Church. It is inconceivable that the Father having elected someone, the Son would fail to atone for him; or that the Son having shed his blood for someone, would fail to intercede for him or that the Father would refuse to hear his intercession. Scripture ties Christ's atoning sacrifice and his priestly intercession together. They are co-extensive. Here is a practical example. Does the church freely offer the Lord's Supper to all and sundry, even committed unbelievers? Of course not. Jesus said of the cup of wine, "This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you" (Luke 22:20). The elements are reserved for partakers of the New Covenant - Christian believers - because they symbolize the blood shed and the body broken for Christ's people, the Church.

Scripture comes right out and says that Christ alone is the mediator between God and man: "[N]o man cometh unto the Father, but by me" (John 14:6). And what could be clearer than 1 Tim. 2:5-6? "[T]here is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus: who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time." Yet again, however, men have invented attempts to interpose other mediators between God and men. Popular Catholic piety views Mary as a mediatrix as well. How does the Hail Mary go? "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death." Indeed Mary-as-intercessor is an official teaching of the Church of Rome: "We believe that the Holy Mother of God, the New Eve, Mother of the Church, continues in heaven to exercise her maternal role on behalf of the members of Christ."8 I once asked a Catholic online how they could reconcile this belief with 1 Tim. 2:5, and he said that Mary was not a mediator between God and man, but man and Christ. Counterargument: There is only one day left until Christmas, but that doesn't mean there aren't six more days between that one day and now. Both arguments are, of course, semantic tomfoolery. Again, the Roman church nullifies the Word of God for the sake of its traditions.

Conclusion

Another of the five solas, sola fide, is said to be the material principle of the Reformation. But solus Christus is the core truth of the Gospel. If Jesus Christ were unable to save perfectly and completely, he would not be someone we could put our faith in.

But he is a powerful Saviour who accomplished what no mortal man could ever achieve. He removed the guilt of sin from men who could not save themselves. He turned away the wrath of God from men who could only incur it. He is the perfect priest, giving his people access to God himself.

Footnotes

1 London Baptist Confession of Faith 8.xi.

2 Briefly, the Moral Influence theory of the atonement was developed by Peter Abelard in response to the theory of penal substitution of Anselm. Abelard argued that the purpose of the atonement was to demonstrate God's love for sinners, and so in part to soften their hearts toward God. The Moral Government theory, developed by Hugo Grotius and held by many Arminians, states that Christ's death demonstrates the necessity of divine justice and the seriousness of sin, again with the purpose of persuading men to repent and turn to obedience.

3 Brian D. McLaren, The Story We Find Ourselves In (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003) 102.

4 Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York: Image-Doubleday, 1995) 1477.

5 Catechism 1478.

6 J. Murray, "Mediator," International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. 2 (London: Inter-Varsity; Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1980) 970-71.

7 Murray 972.

8 Catechism 975.

Works Cited

Catechism of the Catholic Church. New York: Image-Doubleday, 1995.

Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998.

McLaren, Brian D. The Story We Find Ourselves In. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003.

Morris, L. L. "Atonement." International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. London: Inter-Varsity; Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1980. 147-50.

Murray, J. "Mediator." International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. London: Inter-Varsity; Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1980. 970-72.

"1689 LBC: Chapter 8: Of Christ the Mediator." The 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith. June 1996. Truth for Eternity Ministries. 19 December 2004. <http://www.vor.org/truth/1689/1689bc08.html>.