More Than Legal?–False Information, False Gospel

We have a group of preachers who go around repeating one-liners after each other. One of the things they like to say is: Christ was made sin somehow, but we don’t know how.

Right after they say this, these same preachers give you some false information about Christ being made sin. They say: this was not just legal. They say: this was more than legal. And then they say, people don’t like me saying this, but I am comfortable with the language of Scripture.

These preachers glory in their bad explanation of II Corinthians 5:21. They say that their false explanations are not explanations but proclamations that they hope God will “somehow” turn into the very words of Christ. In other words, if you disagree with them, you are supposedly disagreeing with Christ.

First, let me point out the obvious. II Corinthians 5:21 reads: “for our sakes he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we become the righteousness of God in Him.” II Corinthians 5:21 does not deny that “made sin” was legal, nor is it the very language of Scripture to say that “made sin” is “more than legal”. That is not what the Bible says; it’s what these preachers are saying about the Bible.

I have no objection to preachers saying things about the Bible. But I do object when they want to act like their bad explanations are the very language of Scripture. These preachers refuse to give information or arguments to support their explanations, and yet they want you to treat what they say as Christ’s gospel.

So, first, the Bible does not say what they say it says. Second, they do not explain what they mean by “legal”. Why is “legal” not real or actual? In order to understand that, we don’t need some mystical zap telling us that when a clergyman says it, it’s Christ saying it. We need to study the Bible, and especially what the Bible says about guilt and Christ bearing sins.

If “made sin” is “more than legal”, that implies that it IS legal. If “made sin” is first of all legal, what does that mean? I am still waiting for these preachers to tell us how imputation is legal. What is not real or actual about Christ transferring guilt (not only punishment) from one person to another?

In the case of the Lord Jesus, the legal transfer of the sins of the elect to Christ was so real that the result was that Christ died for those sins. Romans 6:9–“We know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.”

Why did death once have dominion over Christ? It was the legal imputation of the sins of the elect that made it so. If this group of preachers denies the reality of legal transfer of guilt, let them say so. Let them say: Christ was not made sin legally. But they don’t say that. They say: Christ was not only made sin legally. That implies that Christ was made sin legally, and also something else.

But to teach that, they would need to explain first what is real and actual about Christ being made sin legally. If they don’t want to do that, they should stop being so sneaky and say: we don’t know how Christ was made sin, but we do know it wasn’t legally. We don’t explain, but we do explain that it was not legal.

Third, these preacher guys have a plus, a more. Christ’s activity, Christ’s legal righteousness is not enough for them. Their larger hope is a new nature they see in themselves, a new nature that does not keep them from sinning but at least wants not to sin, and wants not to sin for the right reasons.

These guys have a more. Legal bearing away of sins by Christ is not enough: that’s not sufficient they say. Christ was also made sin some OTHER way. And they themselves think that they themselves are made righteous in some OTHER way.

One of them “doctrinises”, “It was not enough that our sins were imputed to him. His suffering unto death on the cross was much, much more than a legal matter. The agony of His mind and His soul cannot be described and it cannot be explained to our finite minds.”

Yes, of course there is a difference between the legal imputation of sin (made sin) and the death of Christ which was a result of that. But what information do we find in the Bible to tell us about this supposed difference between a legal matter and something “real”?

In John 6:63, the Lord Jesus says, “The words that I HAVE SPOKEN UNTO YOU are spirit and life.” But the Lord Jesus had no words to tell us about this “more than legal”. These preachers have no great regard for information from the past; their hope is that their own words will be transubstantiated into life itself, and without argument or explanation.

These preachers are too impatient to attempt to transmit information. Where II Timothy 2:24 commands us to “correct opponents with meekness, because God may PERHAPS grant them repentance leading to a KNOWLEDGE OF THE TRUTH”, these preachers don’t care about true information about the person and activity of Christ. If God is sovereign, they seem to think, God doesn’t need to give lost people any information.

And since the idea that Christ was made sin is not information, and since the explanation of these preachers that this was “more than legal” is not information, these preachers seem to think that if you disagree with them, you show yourself to be “Arminians on the inside”.

Mark is simply a negative person, a doctrinizer? Think of me as a questioner of distinctions ( like “more than”) than cannot be supported by what the Bible says. When God’s people are being comforted by half-truths and even contradictions of what the Bible says, I will not be quiet.

Is it not true that this legal matter, the imputation of the sins of the elect to Christ, is real, so real that Christ died for these sins? So where is there any BIBLE distinction between the legal and the real? And what can be more real than real? if legal imputation is a reality and not a fiction, and if the death of Jesus Christ is a real result of that, where is the “more”?

I suggest that we stop flying around the country with each other’s soundbites unless we are prepared to define them, defend them, and explain them by reference to Scripture.

Let’s not get all mystical and talk about some difference which is “more” real. Sin demands death, and the guilt of the elect imputed to Christ, demanded AS A LEGAL MATTER that Jesus “really” die. And He did. That’s what the Bible says, and we should not fuzzy it up with distinctions we cannot justify from Scripture.

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13 Comments on “More Than Legal?–False Information, False Gospel”

  1. markmcculley Says:

    Paul Forrest
    Perhaps, brother, the disagreement is in definitions (as it so often is).

    When I have used the term ‘more than just legal’, I mean to get across to people the immensity of it. I was never happy with the way imputation of sins was spoken about.) You will argue the immensity is in the sacrifice, and that’s partly true; but the word ‘legal’ implies to the man in the street something coldly official, with no reference to the real suffering of Christ under the weight of it, both before and during his Calvary experience.

    If calling it ‘legal’, with no other qualifying comments, minimises the horror of it, then I will try to enlarge people’s understanding of ‘legal’ so that they do appreciate it. Having said that, I don’t believe that calling Christ ‘a sinner, who never sinned’ is a logical conclusion of that belief. Saying such things is wholly unnecessary.

    You haven’t made me think about abandoning the way I state these things, but you have made me think, so thank you.

    Thanks, Paul, for thinking with me. I guess my first concern, as I wrote in the essay, is that when you say this, that you first explain what you mean by legal. I mean if it’s more than legal, it is still legal. And so you need to talk about it being legal, what that means, and then move on to other stuff.

    If you have read Tobias Crisp, he writes about “made sin” not being “only imputation’. But then Gill, in his editorial notes, explains that Crisp misunderstands the word, and that what Crisp really is teaching IS IMPUTATION. So my problem is not a specific word.

    My problem is not that preachers use old soundbites. My problem is when they won’t try to explain what they’re saying and then equates any objection to an objection to God’s Scripture.

    To be clear about imputation, we need two distinctions. One is to say that it’s not only punishment (liability to sanctions) that’s being transferred; what’s imputed is sin itself, but that means guilt itself, not corruption. If we don’t make this distinction, then we end up teaching that Christ became corrupt for the elect.

    The second distinction is between the cause of Christ’s death (imputation) and the death. You can say all matter of things about Christ’s death without at all minimizing the legal reason for it.

    Of course, it’s true that I don’t say the same things about Christ’s death as many preachers, because they have old Roman Catholic traditional ideas about “soul” and humans not being able to really die. I know you have studied some of this issues for yourself. But that is not the question here.

    Preachers often talked about the sufferings of the cross in a way that the Scripture does not, because it’s in their rhetoric. But we must be careful to avoid implying that it’s the suffering and not the death which is the price Christ paid for sins. We don’t have to explain how Christ died. I can’t. But we need to focus on the death, not the suffering. In this country, we have preachers like Camping, who say that the death was not important, and that the “hell” was paid before Christ suffered.

    I agree with you that imputation does not mean calling Christ a sinner. I am not sure that any of the preachers here do that. I know Luther did, and that Crisp did. I agree with Gill (and you) that this is not a wise thing to do.

  2. Eileen Beckett Says:

    I’ve always believe that the Lord ‘really’ took my sin(s) by imputation so that it was not ‘just’ in a legal sense and that Christ’s righteousness was ‘really’ transferred to His people by imputation because in the atonement we were constituted just. I think that it is God in His purpose who defines ‘REAL’ and we don’t need to go about doing it for Him. Christ ‘really’ experienced all the horrors and burden of the guilt of sin and that is certain isn’t it? So although the death is the price,the suffering is something we too have been delivered from by being delivered from the wrath of God.

  3. markmcculley Says:

    Thanks for the note, Eileen. I like that: real by imputation. It wasn’t a “mediate imputation” where first God made me really righteous and then after that declared me righteous. Even so, in the case of Christ, it was not God making Christ corrupt, and then declaring Christ to be guilty because of that.

    I also like that word “constituted”. We are constituted as the righteousness because of the merits of Christ’s work legally transferred to us. Romans 5:18–by the obedience of the one man we were constituted righteous.

    One of the problems with people like Camping, when they say it was the suffering and not the death, is that they don’t really believe that Jesus died. I can’t explain how it was that Jesus died. It is truly mysterious. But I know that He died, and that it is the legal value of that death which now makes it so that those in Christ “are not under the law”.

    Thanks again.

  4. markmcculley Says:

    I have written several essays about Camping’s idea of “spiritual death” as “three hours of infinite torture”. Why not one minute of infinite torture, since the God-man is “infinite”? It does not at all annoy me to have you ask questions. I welcome them. Unlike those preachers who claim to “proclaim not explain”, (who say “more than legal”), I need questions, so that we can both learn and think.
    In II Cor 5:21, the parallel to “made sin” is “become the righteousness”. Since Jesus was not made corrupt, the justified elect are not imparted or infused with a righteous nature. Made sin, therefore must mean made guilty, legally sharing not only in the punishment due to sins but legally bearing the guilt of all the elect. Do you agree with that much?
    Of course I agree that there is more than imputation. There is more than “made sin”. Because Christ is made sin, Christ had to die and did die. Now that raises a different question (which is certainly mixed up in the confusion of Camping and many others), which is what death is. This is why I asked you about the “made sin” part first. Do you agree with me that it’s legal? if you do, then we can talk about what “death” entails.

    I don’t want to duck the question about the meaning of God’s wrath. I certainly don’t want to deny that Christ “suffered” not only in that three hours but all during his life of obedience. I am inclined to think He was imputed with sins from His incarnation, and thus bearing sins all the time. But what I resist is saying that the punishment of sins was over before Christ died physically. The “it is finished” is proleptic, like in John 17.
    Did he simply die or was he tortured? I think that is a false either/or. Both are true, although I would not say that there was anything “simple” about the God-man dying. Unlike other human deaths, He seems to have decided exactly when to stop breathing. I can’t explain how the person who is God was able to die, but the good news was that He did. God raised Him from the dead. He shall see of His travail, both His torment and His death.

  5. markmcculley Says:

    II Cor 4: 6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the KNOWLEDGE of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

  6. markmcculley Says:

    II Thessalonians 2: 9 The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, 10 and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. 11 Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, 12 in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness. 13 But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.

  7. markmcculley Says:

    Tianqi Wu —God’s truth doesn’t depend on the motive of the sinner who believes it.
    Let God be true, and every human a liar.
    It makes no difference what you “want” – whether you only care about deliverance from God’s wrath, or you also want deliverance from sinning
    As long as God’s wrath is real, your “wanting” in no way makes you “fitting” for God to relent towards you and give you “chance”.
    God’s wrath is propitiated towards all for whom he died and who have been placed into that death . A deficiency in your “wanting” cannot change the gospel indicative.
    do you look down your nose at OTHER sinners who don’t want salvation the way you do as lacking your good motives – these OTHERS still “love their sins” (while you do not)?
    The sovereign mercy of God, not the apology of the sinner, is what makes the difference between saved and lost.
    Jeremiah 9: 24 but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth.For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.”

  8. markmcculley Says:

    p223, “Sola Fide and the Roman Catholic Church”, Faith Alone, Zondervan, 2015, Thomas Schreiner—“Someone may be saved by faith alone, even if they deny faith alone. In humility,.we must acknowledge that this matter is complex…On the other hand, if someone understands what he or she is rejecting in turning away from justification by faith alone, then such a person will not be delivered from the wrath of God. …Roman Catholics who share Augustine’s understanding of justification as transformation by grace belong to the people of God. However, matters are more complex than they first appear, for we cannot ignore the fact that 1600 years have passed since Augustine wrote…and the Roman Catholic Church has become less and Augustinian and espouse a view of free will.”
    Better then not to share any knowledge with all those in the Southern Baptist Convention who believe in “freewill”. If they are never told anything about election or faith alone or justification, then they won’t be able to be condemned for rejecting the truth. Since so many of them teach that the only sin God now counts is “rejecting Jesus”, surely we should not disturb their ignorant bliss by teaching them other doctrines for them to possibly reject. Don’t ask, and certainly, don’t tell…

  9. markmcculley Says:

    Robert Letham—I will focus my comments on chapter 4, which addresses the question of what kind of humanity the Son of God assumed. The thesis is that for Christ to identify with us in our fallen condition, it was necessary for him to have a fallen human nature. By assuming humanity in its fallenness he redeemed it from where it actually is, otherwise he could not have saved us in our actual state as fallen human beings. This is akin to the teachings of Edward Irving and Karl Barth, as well as Torrance.

    There are a range of problems with the claim. At best, it entails a Nestorian separation of the human nature from the person of Christ. The eternal Son—the person who takes humanity into union—is absolutely free from sin but the assumed humanity is fallen. If that were to be avoided, another hazard lurks; since Christ’s humanity never exists by itself any attribution of fallenness to that nature is a statement about Christ, the eternal Son.

    The authors do not consider biblical passages that tell against their views. Romans 5:12–21, crucial for understanding Paul’s gospel, is not mentioned. If Christ had a fallen human nature it is unavoidable that he would be included in the sin of Adam and its consequences. In short, he could not have saved us since he would have needed atonement himself, if only for his inclusion in the sin of Adam.

    The authors state that Christ assumed flesh “corrupted by original sin in Adam” (p. 116, italics original). He took a humanity “ruined and wrecked by sin” (p. 119), “corrupted human nature bent decisively toward sin” (p. 121). He healed the nature he took from us (p. 117). In this they acknowledge that a sinful nature and original sin are inextricably linked and that Christ himself needed healing. Such a Christ cannot save us for he needed saving himself.

    Christ’s healing of human nature happened from the moment of conception (p. 121–22). He was without sin. Thankfully this obviates the problem mentioned in the previous paragraph but simultaneously it destroys the argument for it means Christ’s humanity was not entirely like ours after all.Christ does not identify with us to the extent of being a sinner, has “a peculiar distance” from our own performance, does not follow our path, and has an “estrangement from us” due to his obedience (p. 122–23).

    Throughout, the authors oppose the idea that Christ took into union a nature like Adam’s before the fall. However, this is not the only alternative. Reformed theology has taught that Christ lived in a state of humiliation, sinless and righteous but with a nature bearing the consequences of the fall in its mortality, its vulnerability and its suffering—but not fallen. Furthermore, the NT witness is that the incarnation is a new creation, the start of the new humanity, not a re-pristinization of the old. Christ is the second Adam, not the first.

    • markmcculley Says:

      Sam Storms–Reformed theologians have not always agreed on what this imputation entails. Charles Hodge (Systematic Theology [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970], 2:149-256) defines imputed sin as consisting simply of the obligation to satisfy justice, i.e., the exposure to punishment on account of Adam’s sin (the reatus poenae). John Murray (Imputation), in contrast to Hodge, argues that the reatus poenae, or obligation to satisfy justice, may be imputed only on the grounds of a logically antecedent culpa or demeritum. He concludes his response to Hodge by noting that “Reformed and Lutheran theologians [historically] did not conceive of the reatus of Adam’s sin as imputed to posterity apart from the culpa of the same sin. And this is simply to say that the relation of posterity to the sin of Adam could not be construed or defined merely in terms of the obligation to satisfy justice (reatus poenae) but must also include, as the antecedent and ground of thatreatus, involvement in the culpa of Adam’s transgression” (p. 84).

  10. markmcculley Says:

    Those who equate imputation of righteousness with righteousness
    make Adam and history irrelevant

    it does not matter if there was real sin in history, it was never imputed to the elect
    it does not matter how Christ was made sin
    just legally or more than that
    because sin was never imputed to the elect
    they say

    and whatever “propitiation” might be, there is no before or after to propitiation
    because God has a purpose that never fails
    there is no difference between his purpose and history, they say

    just preach Christ, they say
    forget Adam, because if Adam was elect, Adam was born justified
    forget Abraham, because if Abraham was elect, Abraham was born justified
    forget your own history, they say,
    since salvation is not about saving you

    think instead about the faith of Christ and not about if you have faith in Christ

    since our works are excluded in salvation, they say, our faith in Christ is also a work
    even though the Bible says faith is not works
    they say don’t even think about your own faith in Christ

    the elect receive both Christ’s death and faith in Christ’s death from Christ’s death
    but they preach justification already for those without faith in the gospel

    they say, don’t look to yourself looking to Christ
    look to Christ alone, but without looking at your looking

    but i don’t know exactly what it means to look to Christ
    are they trying hard enough not to look at themselves looking to Christ

    Christ, I trust you not only for the salvation of the elect whoever they may be
    Christ, I look to you for MY salvation

  11. markmcculley Says:

    Giovanni Camacho—–If you don’t understand something, then you can’t really agree with it. If you agree with something without understanding it, that is foolishness. To say yes to something you don’t understand is foolish. It’s like signing a document in Japanese when you can’t read Japanese. What if you just agreed to have your family killed? Did you just shake your head, assuming you would agree and sign the document?

    Those who have been taught false gospels (but have not yet been granted repentance from dead works) are familiar with certain historical facts about Jesus while not yet believing His gospel. These are those who say we are conditioning salvation on perfect knowledge. They still think that the gospel is about something the sinner does to get salvation.

    They don’t believe that belief of the gospel is a result of being been placed into Christ’s death and then effectually called. They piously claim that it is “Christ who saves” while denying both His person and His work. In their book, as long as you believe Christ saves, then you’re good.

    Of course, they think their brand of antinomianism is better because they think the sinner only needs a little knowledge (correct or incorrect) in order to be saved. They think that because their version of the gospel (a lie. a falsehood) makes salvation conditionally available to all, that it is better.

    John 10: He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought all his own outside, he goes ahead of them. The sheep follow him because they recognize his voice. They will not follow a stranger.

    Knowledge of the gospel and agreement with the gospel is the result of Christ’s death imputed. When you are justified, you WILL believe certain things and NOT other things about Christ and His death. Not to make Christ’s death work, but as a result of Christ’s death working. Believing the right gospel is something purchased by Christ’s death. Insisting that any gospel will do is the testimony of the natural man who doesn’t care about the glory of God in salvation.

    It is the death of Christ that makes God just in forgiving certain sinners. The question is-how do you know that death was for you? You should NEVER assume that the death was for you until you believe the gospel.

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