I know we should not use the weakest expression of a position to criticise it. I know it is easy to knock straw men. The following example is both. However, it is a view that I hear echoed regularly online; it may be a weak expression of a belief but it is certainly a prevalent one. Here’s the quotation:
‘The believer is lukewarm, his/her Saviour was consumed by zeal. The believer is prayerless, but Christ continued all night in prayer to God. The believer is sluggish in obedience, but Christ delighted to do the will of the Father. All this and more – he is our peace, he is our wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption – when the law comes asking for obedience, believers can point to the Substitute in their law place.’
This is a belief founded on the view that the life of Christ is vicariously ours. We are told that Christ’s active obedience to the law is our righteousness before God. His death is not enough to declare us righteous, we also need an ‘active’ righteousness, a life lived. I have tackled some of the better expressions of this position elsewhere in detail, here I am simply observing the absurdity of a popular expression of ‘imputed active obedience’.
I hope the absurdity of the quotation is obvious to all. A Christian woman fails to dress modestly but Jesus dressed modestly on her behalf! Is the corollary true? I am not a good father and as Christ was never married he cannot have kept the law for me in this area. The whole line of reasoning is monstrously inappropriate. Christ’s life does not cover every situation believers over the ages have found themselves in an provide a corresponding ‘law-keeping’ for our ‘law-breaking’. Yes indeed, Christ has glorified God in a life lived entirely in obedience. Yes this life was necessary for our justification for the justifying death of Christ required a perfect sacrifice; the value of the death is in the life. But it is not his life that atones but his death. In the law the sacrifices that atoned were blood sacrifices. Scripture could not be clearer:
Lev 17:11 (ESV)
For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.
Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins. Substitution lay in a death died not a life lived. Consequently, we are said to be justified by Christ’s blood but never by his life (other than his life in resurrection which is something different). The Law demands death for the law-breaker. No amount of law-keeping by another can make a guilty man righteous. Christ is my substitute by taking that death upon himself. He took the curse of a broken law and so redeemed me from the law. If I live now, I live on the other side of death in a resurrected Christ. I stand in his righteous position before the Father. It is a position that is beyond law and not answerable to law.
The great tragedy of this emphasis on IAO is that it takes atonement away from the cross and places it at the incarnation. Notice how the writer finds his peace in Christ’s life rather than his death: ‘when the law comes asking for obedience, believers can point to the Substitute in their law place.’ The glory of the cross is occluded. Yet in heaven the song of the redeemed is to the lamb, the one who has purchased men to God by his blood’. It is at the cross that substitution takes place (Isa 53). There redemption is accomplished (Roms 3). It is Christ lifted up who draws all men to him. The cross is the place of propitiation and where God’s righteousness in salvation is displayed (Roms 3). It is in being justified by his blood we have peace with God (Roms 5:1). We are reconciled to God through the death of his son (Roms 5:10; Col 1:10). It is on the cross he suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he may bring us to God. In the words of an old hymn concerning the cross:
Bearing shame and scoffing rude In my place condemned he stood Sealed my pardon with his blood Hallelujah, what a Saviour.
The lesson for us all is – let the Bible speak and not theological constructs. When we adopt constructs and then extrapolate on them, we end up with positions that are risible. Moreover, it seems to be a rule that the construct eventually supplants the truth.