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The Atonement – The Representative Principle by Loraine Boettner

By April 19, 2011April 12th, 2016The Atonement

We have said that at the beginning of the race Adam stood not only for himself but as the federal head and representative of the entire human race which was to follow, and that Christ in His turn in both His active and passive obedience stood for all of those who were to be saved. This representative principle pervades all Scripture, and is the basis for the doctrine of original sin and for the doctrine of redemption. It was, in fact, only because the race as originally created was so constituted that one person could stand as its official and responsible head that Christ, coming at a later time and basing His work on the same principle, could redeem His people. It is as if God had said, If sin is to enter, let it enter by one man, so that righteousness also may enter by one man.

The Scriptures teach that the race is a unit, a family, descended from a common ancestor, and bound together by blood ties. This is in contrast with the order followed in the creation of the angels, for they were created not as a race but independently of each other and all at the same time. Each angel stood his test personally and individually.

In virtue of the vital unity of the human race it was possible for God at the very beginning to enter into a ‘covenant of works’ with the ancestor of the race, in which he, bearing their nature and acting therefore in precisely the same way they would have acted, stood trial for them. This afforded a wonderful opportunity for Adam to secure for himself and for his posterity an inestimable-we may even say, an infinite–blessing. For it was so arranged that if he stood his probation and rendered the perfect obedience which was required (and thereby proved himself a grateful, law-abiding son who could be trusted), eternal life would have been conferred upon him and them. But if he did not stand his probation, but committed sin, the penalty of eternal death would be inflicted not only upon him but equally upon all of his descendants. That covenant involved the most solemn responsibilities. It was freighted with possibilities for infinite good or evil.

As originally created, man was perfect of his kind, possessing a positive inclination toward virtue, yet fallible. He was perfect as the bud is perfect and capable of developing into the flower, or as the acorn is perfect and capable of developing into the oak tree. He was not created as a machine or automaton, but as a free moral agent who might choose evil and plunge himself and everything connected with him into disaster. It is apparently true, as Dr. Fairbairn has said, that ‘Moral perfection can be attained, but cannot be created; God can make a being capable of moral action, but not a being with all the fruits of moral action garnered within him.’ Had Adam chosen good, then, by that very action he would have produced moral goodness, and God would have confirmed him (that is, made permanent his character) in that goodness as He has confirmed the holy angels in heaven in their goodness.

In language which is at once childlike and profound the third chapter of Genesis tells us of the fall of the human race. Man had his most fair and favorable chance there in the Garden of Eden; and with his eyes open and in spite of the dearest warning as to what the consequences would be, he chose evil instead of good. The Scriptures assert, and the experience of the race from that hour to this bears witness to the truth of the assertion, that Adam fell and that all of his descendants are born into that same state of moral depravity into which he fell. But they also teach that because of the organic unity of the race it was possible for Christ to enter into a ‘Covenant of Redemption’ with God the Father whereby He should act for His people in precisely the same capacity as Adam had acted for the race, providing, on the one hand, that the penalty for their sin should be laid on Him, and on the other, that the merits of His sinless life and of His suffering should be set to their account.

That the fall of Adam did involve the fall and ruin of the entire human race, and that by a parallel arrangement the righteousness of Christ is similarly imputed to His people, is made clear by the Apostle Paul when he says: ‘As through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin; and so death passed unto all men, for that all sinned….Death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the likeness of Adam’s transgression, who is a figure of Him that was to come. . . . If by the trespass of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God, and the gift of the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abound unto the many…. for if, by the trespass of the one, death reigned through the one; much more shall they that receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life as through the one, even Jesus Christ. So then as through one trespass the judgment came unto all men to condemnation; even so through one act of righteousness the free gift came unto all men to justification of life. For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the one shall the many be made righteous,’ Rom. 5:12-19. And again, ‘For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall al be made alive,’ I Cor. 15:22. (The meaning here, as the context makes clear, is that as all descended from Adam partake of his sin and die, so also all who by faith are ‘in Christ’ shall be made alive. In the writings of Paul to be ‘in Christ’ means to be vitally connected with Him, to be saved. He repeatedly declares that those who are ‘in Christ’ have been made alive spiritually, Those who are not ‘in Christ’ are still spiritually dead).

In Christian theology there are three separate and distinct acts of imputation. In the first place Adam’s sin is imputed to all of us, his children, that is, judicially set to our account so that we are held responsible for it and suffer the consequences of it. This is commonly known as the doctrine of Original Sin. In the second place, and in precisely the same manner, our sin is imputed to Christ so that He suffers the consequences of it. And in the third place Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us and secures for us entrance into heaven. We are, of course, no more personally guilty of Adam’s sin than Christ is personally guilty of ours, or than we are personally meritorious because of His righteousness. In each case it is a judicial transaction. We receive salvation from Christ in precisely the same way that we receive condemnation and ruin from Adam. In each case the result follows because of the close and official union which exists between the persons involved. To reject any one of these three steps is to reject an essential part of the Christian system.

But while on the basis of the unity of the human race it was possible for man to be redeemed through the work of a substitute, redemption by such means does not seem to have been possible among the fallen angels. We read of ‘angels that kept not their own principality, but left their proper habitation,’ and are now ‘kept in everlasting bonds under darkness unto the judgment of the great day,’ Jude 6. And the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews, after saying that Christ became incarnate in order that He might perform His redemptive work, adds: ‘For verily not to angels doth He give help, but He giveth help to the seed of Abraham,’ 2:16. Since each angel stood his test individually, he is therefore personally and solely responsible for his own condition. But mankind which fell through the act of a representative without personal guilt can be redeemed through the act of a representative without personal merit.

The representative principle is certainly not foreign to our way of life, nor is it difficult to understand. The people of a state act in and through their representatives in the Legislature. If a country has a good president or king, all of the people share the benefits; if a bad president or king, all suffer the consequences. Children are recognized as the rightful and legal heirs of their parents’ wealth and good name, and to a considerable extent inherit even their mental and physical characteristics. In a very real sense parents stand representative for, and to a large extent decide the destinies of, their children. If the parents are virtuous, wise and thrifty, the children reap the blessings; if they are immoral, foolish and indolent, the children suffer. In law we have ‘power of attorney,’ and the person for whom the attorney acts assumes full legal responsibility for his acts, whether they are beneficial or injurious. In business we have trusteeship. In a thousand ways the well-being of individuals is conditioned by the acts of others, so inwrought is this representative principle in our every day life.

In the following section Dr. Charles Hodge, one of the ablest theologians that America has produced, has given a very clear exposition of this subject: ‘This representative principle pervades the whole Scriptures. The imputation of Adam’s sin to his posterity is not an isolated fact. It is only an illustration of a general principle which characterizes the dispensations of God from the beginning of the world. God declares Himself to Moses as one who visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children unto the third and to the fourth generation, Ex. 34:6, 7 … The curse pronounced on Canaan fell on his posterity. Esau’s selling his birthright shut out his descendants from the covenant of promise. The children of Moab and Ammon were excluded from the congregation of the Lord forever, because their ancestors opposed the Israelites when they came out of Egypt. In the case of Dathan and Abram, as in that of Achan, their wives, and their sons, and their little children perished for the sins of their parents. God said to Eli that the iniquity of his house should not be purged with sacrifice and offering for ever. To David it was said, The sword shall never depart from thy house; because thou hast despised me, and hast taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be thy wife.’ To the disobedient Gehazi it was said: ‘The leprosy of Naaman shall cleave unto thee and unto thy seed forever.’ The sin of Jeroboam and of the men of his generation determined the destiny of the ten tribes for all time. The imprecation of the Jews, when they demanded the crucifixion of Christ,’His blood be on us and on our children,’ still weighs down the scattered people of Israel… This principle runs through the whole Scriptures. When God entered into covenant with Abraham, it was not for himself only but for his posterity. They were bound by all the stipulations of the covenant. They shared its promises and its threatenings, and in hundreds of cases the penalty for disobedience came upon those who had no personal part in the transgressions. Children suffered equally with adults in the judgments, whether famine, pestilence, or war, which came upon the people for their sins.. .. And the Jews to this day are suffering the penalty of the sins of their fathers for their rejection of Him of whom Moses and the prophets spoke. The whole plan of redemption rests on this same principle. Christ is the representative of His people, and on this ground their sins are imputed to Him and His righteousness to them. No man who believes the Bible, can shut his eyes to the fact that it everywhere recognizes the representative character of parents, and that the dispensations of God have from the beginning been founded on the principle that the children bear the iniquities of their fathers. This is one of the reasons which infidels assign for rejecting the divine origin of the Scriptures. But infidelity furnishes no relief. History is as full of this doctrine as the Bible is. The punishment of the felon involves his family in his disgrace and misery. The spendthrift and drunkard entail poverty and wretchedness upon all connected with them. There is no nation now existing on the face of the earth, whose condition for weal or woe is not largely determined by the character and conduct of their ancestors. The idea of the transfer of guilt or of vicarious punishment lies at the foundation of the expiatory offerings under the Old Testament, and of the great atonement under the new dispensation. To bear sin is, in Scriptural language, to bear the penalty of sin. The victim bore the sin of the offerer. Hands were imposed upon the head of the animal about to be slaughtered, to express the transfer of guilt. That animal must be free from all defect or blemish to make it the more apparent that its blood was shed not for its own deficiencies but for the sin of another. All this was symbolical and typical … And this is what the Scriptures teach concerning the atonement of Christ. He bore our sins; He was a curse for us; He suffered the penalty of the law in our stead. All this proceeds on the ground that the sins of one man can be justly, on some adequate ground, imputed to another.’ ‘–Systematic Theology, ii, pp. 198-201.

Strange as it may seem, there are many professing Christians in our day who, while readily acknowledging that our salvation comes from Christ, deny that we inherit any guilt and corruption from Adam. Such a position is, of course, utterly inconsistent, and can have no other effect than to undermine true Christianity. If we accept the doctrine of salvation through Christ we have no right to deny the supplementary and equally Scriptural doctrine of condemnation and ruin through Adam. Unless we are fallen in Adam there is, in fact, no reason why we should be redeemed through Christ. The federal headship of Christ in the covenant of redemption presupposes the federal headship of Adam in the covenant of works. The latter is the necessary basis for the former, and the work and position of Christ in relation to His people can be understood only when it is seen in its true relation to the work of Adam. The Scriptures teach that the principles upon which sin and misery came upon the race through Adam are identical with those upon which righteousness and blessedness come upon the elect through Christ. False views concerning our relation to Adam and the effect that his work has had upon the entire race must inevitably produce false views concerning our relation to Christ acid His work of redemption. These two doctrines are strictly parallel, and must stand or fall together. They cannot be separated without destroying the logical consistency of the Christian system.