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Christ our righteousness [1]

Category Articles
Date August 2, 2005

The apostle Paul writes, “Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Therefore we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God. For he made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in him” [2 Corinthians 5.18-21]. How and on what basis, can a man be right with God? The range of ignorant or simply wrong answers being given to that question in a multitude of sermons, books, articles, churches, and seminars is horrifying. Truths that we might have fondly imagined would stand unshaken upon earth as well as in heaven are being assaulted on every side, but – despite our fond imaginations – we should not be surprised to see the doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone being cheerfully undermined and attacked even by those who perceive themselves to be its foremost defenders. Twilight falls, and the darkness of superstition and guilt – of paganism and Romanism – seems to gather again. Writing at the end of the seventeenth century, the Scottish Presbyterian pastor Robert Traill wrote of this matter of justification by faith,

that as it is a point of highest concern to every man, so it is to the whole doctrine of Christianity. All the great fundamentals of Christian truth centre in this of justification. The Trinity of Persons in the Godhead; the incarnation of the only Begotten of the Father; the satisfaction paid to the law and justice of God for the sins of the world by his obedience and sacrifice of himself in that flesh he assumed; and the divine authority of the Scriptures which reveal this: these are all straight lines of truth that centre in this doctrine of justification of a sinner by the imputation and application of that satisfaction.[2]

Notice that, by implication, the re-alignment of the centre will either require or result in the bias of every line of truth that leads to the centre. Traill identified four particular areas where those who were departing from the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints differed from those who held to the Biblical norm: the imputed righteousness of Christ; the true notion and nature of justifying faith; the interest, and room, and place, that faith has in justification; and, the two Adams, especially the second, who is Christ.[3] Little has changed.

Confusion seems to reign, and old weapons are being dusted off for a fresh assault being made on key issues. But there is nothing new under the sun. In a sermon delivered on Sunday 15th April 1860, C. H. Spurgeon delivered the following broadside:

Little however, did I think I should live to see this kind of stuff taught in pulpits; I had no idea that there would come out a divinity, which would bring down God’s moral government from the solemn aspect in which Scripture reveals it, to a namby-pamby sentimentalism, which adores a Deity destitute of every masculine virtue. But we never know to-day what may occur to-morrow. We have lived to see a certain sort of men – thank God they are not Baptists – though I am sorry to say there are a great many Baptists who are beginning to follow in their trail – who seek to teach now-a-days, that God is a universal Father, and that our ideas of his dealing with the impenitent as a Judge, and not as a Father, are remnants of antiquated error. Sin, according to these men, is a disorder rather than an offence, an error rather than a crime. Love is the only attribute they can discern, and the full-orbed Deity they have not known. Some of these men push their way very far into the bogs and mire of falsehood, until they inform us that eternal punishment is ridiculed as a dream. In fact, books now appear, which teach us that there is no such thing as the Vicarious Sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ. They use the word Atonement it is true, but in regard to its meaning, they have removed the ancient landmark. They acknowledge that the Father has shown his great love to poor sinful man by sending his Son, but not that God was inflexibly just in the exhibition of his mercy, not that he punished Christ on the behalf of his people, nor that indeed God ever will punish anybody in his wrath, or that there is such a thing as justice apart from discipline. Even sin and hell are but old words employed henceforth in a new and altered sense. Those are old-fashioned notions, and we poor souls who go on talking about election and imputed righteousness, are behind our time. Ay, and the gentlemen who bring out books on this subject, applaud Mr. Maurice, and Professor Scott, and the like, but are too cowardly to follow them, and boldly propound these sentiments. These are the new men whom God has sent down from heaven, to tell us that the apostle Paul was all wrong, that our faith is vain, that we have been quite mistaken, that there was no need for propitiating blood to wash away our sins; that the fact was, our sins needed discipline, but penal vengeance and righteous wrath are quite out of the question.[4]

Taking into account the necessity of altering the names of one or two of the individuals Spurgeon has in mind, again we must confess that little has altered. Faced with this conflict through the ages, the church of Christ must continue to face it. Either wilfully or ignorantly, the concepts which lie at the heart of the gospel are being recast; the same words are being employed, but are being invested with different – and unscriptural – meanings. The ancient landmarks are being shifted or removed, and we must plant them firmly where they belong, and defend them there. We cannot in our limited time begin to address every aspect of the errors that are being flung against this doctrine, nor can we hope to defend every aspect of the truth. However, it is my intention to deliver something Scriptural and positive concerning what John Owen, at the very beginning of his magisterial and exhaustive treatment of the matter of justification by faith, calls “the way and means whereby [a sinner pressed and perplexed with a sense of the guilt of sin] doth obtain acceptance before God, with a right and title unto a heavenly inheritance.”[5] Grasping something of the truth from the Word of God will help us to address error from whichever direction it attacks, in and whatever guise it appears. To attempt taking such a hold upon truth, we turn to 2 Corinthians 5.21, where “in these few direct words the Apostle sets forth the gospel of reconciliation in all its mystery and all its wonder:”[6] “for he made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in him.”

In considering this verse in its context, we note that there is a real reconciliation required, a real Redeemer supplied, a real righteousness imputed, and a real reliance essential.


Five times in verses 18 to 21 Paul uses variations on a word having to do with the concept of ‘reconciliation.’ This has the essential meaning of the restoration of a relationship previously characterised by hostility, of ending a relationship of enmity and substituting in its place one of goodwill and peace.[7] The two parties in view are God and man, and the cause of the contention that requires resolution is clearly the transgression of man (v19). In other words, this whole discussion necessarily pre-supposes the reality of sin and its effect in making a breach between God and man. So long as he counts or imputes our trespasses against us, there can be no peace between this holy God – who is of purer eyes than to behold evil, and cannot look on wickedness (Hab 1.13) – and fallen man in all the God-antagonising grime of his sin. Elsewhere, from what Paul states about the relationship that a justified man sustains to God, we can imply what is lacking beforehand: there is no peace with God, but hostility and war; there is no standing in grace before him; there is no joy, because no hope of glory, but only a fear of wrath (Rom 5.1-2). This is the fearful condition of the natural man in his relationship with the Almighty God. Note, too, that while man is considered to be at enmity with God, the more fundamental issue is that God is angry with sinful man, and that man cannot in his own sinful self please God (cf. Rom 8.8-7): God is offended by our sin and he is angry with the wicked every day (Ps 7.11). Such is the obstacle to be overcome.

Furthermore, it is evident that this reconciliation must be of God: man has neither instinctive desire nor actual ability to initiate or accomplish such a restoration. This must be the work of God in sovereign love and mercy, both initiating and accomplishing this work of reconciliation, and so we find it in 2 Corinthians 5: “God has reconciled us to himself through Jesus Christ;” “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” This reconciliation must be and is a sovereign act arising unbidden by man out of the will of the Lord of heaven and earth, in accordance with his gracious purposes.

This, then, is the context of the whole matter of justification: a holy God angry with sinful man, who – if he is to obtain acceptance before God, with a right and title to a heavenly inheritance – must be brought back by God into a right relationship with himself, but only and necessarily in such a way “that the purpose of his love to lost men may be accomplished in accordance with and to the vindication of all the perfections that constitute his glory.”[8] The reconciliation of God to man, if it is to be accomplished, must be accomplished without in the least degree compromising the holiness of God.

What a fearful obstacle to overcome! What mere man would begin to dream of a solution to such an awesome conundrum, let alone suggest his scheme to the offended God of heaven and earth?

And yet here we have a God-appointed man, speaking as an ambassador for Christ himself, as though this holy God were himself pleading through him – fearful responsibility! – and crying out to sinners: “Be reconciled to God!” Gospel imperatives (the commands of the Word of God) are founded upon gospel indicatives (the facts recorded in God’s word) and come with divine power. Is this what we find in this instance? Is there really a solid foundation for such a bold declaration and invitation? This is precisely what we find in verse 21.


How can God remain holy and yet declare a sinner righteous in his sight? How can he be just and yet justify a sinner (Rom 3.26)? If God is to be just, sin must be punished – it cannot be overlooked, excused, or forgotten: it must be dealt with in righteousness. So, if God does not impute our trespasses to us (v19) then how does he deal with sins in accordance with his holiness?

The non-imputation of our sins rests upon the fact that Christ was made our substitute: he paid the price of our ransom from the guilt and power of sin, and its necessary and appropriate penalty.

He was qualified in himself for such a substitution, for he ‘knew no sin’. Of all men who ever lived, only Jesus the Christ was entirely without sin. Peter quotes Isaiah to tell us that he “committed no sin, nor was deceit found in his mouth” (1Pt 2.22), calling our attention to the fact that his blood was “precious . . . as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1Pt 1.19). The writer to the Hebrews builds his case for the absolute supremacy of Christ in part upon his sinlessness, informing us that he was “without sin” (Heb 4.15), “holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners” (Heb 7.26). Given the opportunity, even Christ’s enemies could bring no charge against him to convict him of sin (Jn 8.46); Pilate himself, that vacillating judge, confessed that “I find no fault in him” (Jn 19.4). The Lord Jesus recognised sin for what it was, and was grieved, appalled and angered by it, but he had no personal acquaintance with it: he was a stranger to it in his personal experience. He never indulged in sin, never committed one transgression, was guilty of no iniquity. He had no trespasses of his own to be imputed to his own account.

This one, whose sinlessness Chrysostom exposits and throws into sharp relief by speaking of him as ‘Righteousness-itself,’ was alone capable of standing for others precisely because he was under no obligations of his own. Perhaps a very prosaic illustration will help. Imagine that you have done your weekly shop, and – as tends to be the case – you have as many heavy bags as you have fingers, and you pull up outside your home and open the boot of the car to carry your bags inside. Your neighbour looks over and sees you struggling with the burden. If he had likewise just pulled up with his own shopping, and was laden down with it, he would be in no position to assist you with yours. If he was carrying any of his own, he would not be able to bear all of yours. But, fortunately, he has no burden of his own, and so is able to come and relieve you of the entirety of the weight that you would otherwise have to bear. So with Christ: having nothing of his own to bear, he is able to relieve us of the entirety of the sins that would otherwise be put to our account. He alone, being sinless, was able to bear the sin of others.

And that is precisely what he did: being qualified, he accomplished in himself this substitution. “God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us.” Peter tells us that this sinless one “himself bore our sins in his own body on the tree” (1Pt 2.24). Isaiah uses similar words: “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all . . . he bore the sin of many” (Is 53.6, 12). The thought almost seems to beggar the meaning of language: he who was never personally defiled by his own sin was accounted the embodiment of sin by God, and punished accordingly. The sins not imputed to us were counted his, and he exhausted the curse those sins deserved. This very one was delivered up – in the place of others – to the damnation and abandonment which sin merits. This is substitutionary atonement, and this is not the doctrine of ‘cosmic child abuse,’ as some would have it! This is the Triune God satisfying divine justice, the Son voluntarily bearing sin in the place of his people and the Father necessarily punishing it in the person of his Son. “For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: he condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom 8.3).


There is a further element, a positive change for the man or woman, boy or girl, in Christ. We are not merely declared or constituted innocent – free from guilt – on account of our sins being counted to and fully punished in Christ. God does more than a human judge might do at the bar of a human court. The human judge can look at the criminal before him and – so long as the law has somehow been satisfied, perhaps through lack of evidence to convict – he can declare the guilty man’s innocence. However, he cannot declare him righteous, and put obedience to his account. The criminal might leave the courtroom declared innocent, and free from guilt in the eyes of the law, but still lacking any particular positive merit in the eyes of the law.

In God’s dealings with us in Christ, the Lord Jesus is made our sin-bearing substitute with the intention of a corresponding transfer the other way. The transfer of our sin to Christ is with a definite purpose: “in order that we might become the righteousness of God in him” – the transfer of righteousness from Christ to man. Again, the language is both profound and deliberate. It is not the language of a process that occurs over time, but the language of one mighty and decisive act of the reconciling God, without any possible or necessary contribution from man. The language is not even that of accounting, or imputation. Murray elucidates:

Just as Christ became so identified with our sins that, though knowing no sin, he was made sin, so we being in ourselves utterly ungodly and therefore knowing no righteousness are so identified with Christ’s righteousness that we are made the righteousness of God. In reality the concept is richer than that of imputation; it is not simply reckoned as ours, but it is reckoned to us and we are identified with it.[9]

This is more than appearance, than a mere gilding of righteousness: this is divinely constituted reality. I could freight a load of gold-leaf into the pulpit and cover all the wood so that it appeared to be gold to the outward observer, but it would not change the nature of the wood. However, if I possessed the enviable alchemic power actually to alter the nature of the wood so that it became, by some supernatural means, gold, then no matter how deeply you bored or drilled, it would have ceased to be constituted wood, and would have become gold. It is altogether gold, and cannot be considered otherwise. And so it is with us – and what gold! We “become the righteousness of God”! As Christ’s sin was not of him, so our righteousness is not of us – it is of God, it is divine in its quality. Adam before the fall was a man without any sin upon his record, and righteous with the righteousness of a man who had not sinned. The sinner saved by the grace of God in Christ is a man stripped of the sin that was upon his record – his trespasses are not imputed to him, because Christ has been made sin for him – and who has been constituted not humanly but divinely righteous in God’s sight. The righteousness is nothing less than “God’s own” – it is divine in quality[10] – and God’s own righteousness satisfies God’s righteous demands as completely, absolutely and eternally as could be calculated or imagined. Under the microscope of divine scrutiny, God has himself assured that the redeemed sinner lacks nothing and possesses everything that is required, and is constituted the fit object of the holy God’s delight.

However, observe finally that there is


How does a sinner obtain such incalculable blessings? “In him.” The blessings are obtained by being united to Christ. God is “the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom 3.26) and in so doing his justice and holiness are by no means compromised but rather exalted. Faith is the instrument of union with the Lord Jesus: real, lively, engaged faith, as opposed to something static or inactive. Faith is not a child stillborn: it cries! It is a gift of God by which the regenerate man reaches out with an empty hand to latch hold of Christ. Christ saves, and the instrument by which he saves is faith. Do we describe faith as active or as passive? Faith acts, but it acts by receiving. It is not mindless, it does not bypass man and his faculties, but is the engagement of the whole man with the whole Christ, by means of which union the God-righteousness of Christ is made man’s. Robert Traill speaks of justifying faith thus:

They all, both Christ’s enemies and his disciples, knew that faith in him was a believing that the man Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God, the Messiah, the Saviour of the world, so as to receive, and look for salvation in his name (Acts 4.12) . . . . That faith in Jesus Christ justifies (although, by the way, it is to be noted that it is never written in the Word that faith justifies actively,[11] but it is always expressed passively: that a man is justified by faith, and that God justifies men by and through faith; yet admitting the phrase) only as a mere instrument, receiving that imputed righteousness of Christ, for which we are justified. And this faith, in the office of justification, is neither condition, nor qualification, nor our gospel-righteousness, but is in its very act a renouncing of all such pretences.[12]

These blessings belong to a man in union with Christ, and nowhere else; that union is effected by saving faith, and nothing else. We shall be judged in accordance with our relationship with Jesus Christ the Righteous, and faith alone brings us into a saving connection with him.

In closing, I want to address each of you with two questions.


Are you in Christ? Have you ever reckoned with the fact that God will reckon your sins to your own account if they are not reckoned to Christ? Have you realised that if your sins are put to your own account then you are under the just condemnation of a holy God, and exposed to the damnation and abandonment that your sins deserve? Will you not turn from your sins to Christ, in order that you might be saved? Or perhaps you are in agony of conscience, and have been for days, or weeks, or months, or even years, and you feel yourself to be on the outside, longing to be reconciled to God and to have peace with him? As an ambassador for Christ, I implore you: “Be reconciled to God!” Believe and be saved! Trust in Christ for your reconciliation with God! Come to this glorious Redeemer, receive this real righteousness, rest upon the promises of the merciful Almighty. How poorly we have painted his glory, but how glorious is his sufficiency for guilty sinners! Trust in Jesus Christ the righteous and these blessings are yours. The most perverse and filthy sinner who trusts in Jesus Christ receives in that moment pardon for his sins, and is accounted in the eyes of God as actually possessing the flawless righteousness of the perfect God-man, in whom he is well pleased. This is what it means to be “accepted in the Beloved” (Eph 1.6): this is God’s grace in Christ.

But are you indeed in Christ by faith? Then you, as John Owen says, have obtained acceptance before God, with a right and title unto a heavenly inheritance. What joys and blessings are unshakeably and unmistakeably yours! You are loved like Christ (Jn 17.23) on account of the righteousness of Christ imputed to you, received by faith. You are a justified man: having been justified, you have peace with God through your Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also you have access by faith into this grace in which you stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only that, but you also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance, and perseverance, character, and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us (Rom 5.1-5). How many sweet hours we might spend considering what we have in Christ: privileges and blessings unshakeably, securely, and eternally ours! These joys and blessings do not rest upon your works, or lack of them. They can never be taken from you. No flaw shall ever be found in the righteousness which God considers as yours, and so there will never be any falling short to be made up in your relationship with God through Christ. He is yours, and you are his, and in him you stand eternally secure.


What is your report to heretics and opposers? What do you have to say to those who set themselves against these truths? Christian, if you die, this will be your hope – shall you therefore be ashamed of it while you live? We live in an age when once more the very heart of the gospel is at stake, and we must take pains to identify and defend truth, and identify and contend with error. This is a time when there is a great necessity of standing for the truths upon which the destiny of your immortal soul is hanging. Can we not afford to suffer a little now for the sake of the Christ who suffered to obtain these blessings for us, especially when we recall that those sufferings are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us (Rom 8.18)? Martin Luther put it this way:

If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the Word of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing him. Where the battle rages there the loyalty of the soldier is proved; and to be steady on all the battle front besides, is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.[13]

This is no “little point”: this is the centre of things. As we have already seen from Mr Traill,

all the great fundamentals of Christian truth centre in this of justification. The Trinity of Persons in the Godhead; the incarnation of the only Begotten of the Father; the satisfaction paid to the law and justice of God for the sins of the world by his obedience and sacrifice of himself in that flesh he assumed; and the divine authority of the Scriptures which reveal this: these are all straight lines of truth that centre in this doctrine of justification of a sinner by the imputation and application of that satisfaction.

If the heart of truth is shifted, it will bend and bias all the lines of truth which centre upon it; if the lines of truth are twisted and bent, they shall lead no one to salvation. We face a battle to defend truth, but William Gurnall reminds us that one of the qualities of truth that helps us to love it and hold to it is that it is victorious. He admits that “sometimes, I confess, the enemies to ‘truth’ get the militia of this lower world into their hands, and then truth seems to go to the ground,” but reminds us that “persecutors need not be at cost for marble to write the memorial of their victories in, dust will serve well enough, for they are not like to last so long”:

Who loves not to be on the winning side? Choose truth for thy side, and thou hast it. News may come that truth is sick, but never that it is dead. No, it is error that is short-lived. ‘A lying tongue is but for a moment;’ but truth’s age runs parallel with eternity. [14]

We might be tempted to wonder at Gurnall’s suggestion that error is short-lived, given that we are fighting old errors reborn, but when we realise that his context is eternity, then we are encouraged! Truth’s face is now covered in tears and blood, but we must stand with her and fight for her, in the sure anticipation of her eventual and eternal victory.

And what is your report to the ignorant and needy? What report do you have of Christ and his righteousness for your lost family members, neighbours, friends and colleagues? We are none of us apostles, but we all of us have some duty and warrant in this text to call to the ungodly: “Be reconciled to God!” These and these alone are the truths that can heal the broken-hearted – no-where but here is salvation to be found. Again, Traill asks of the man or woman whose conscience is awakened, who asks what must they do to be saved:

Why should not the right answer be given, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved’? Tell him what Christ is, what he has done and suffered to obtain eternal redemption for sinners, and that according to the will of God and his Father. Give him a plain downright narrative of the gospel salvation wrought out by the Son of God; tell him the history and mystery of the gospel plainly. It may be the Holy Ghost will work faith thereby, as he did in those firstfruits of the Gentiles in Acts 10.44. If he asks what warrant he has to believe on Jesus Christ, tell him that he has an utter indispensable necessity for it, for without believing on him he must perish eternally; that he has God’s gracious offer of Christ and all his redemption, with a promise that, upon accepting the offer by faith, Christ and salvation with him are his: that he has God’s express commandment (1Jn 3.23) to believe on Christ’s name, and that he should make conscience of obeying it, as much as any command in the moral law. Tell him of Christ’s ability and goodwill to save; that no man was every rejected by him who cast himself upon him; that desperate cases are the glorious triumphs of his art of saving.[15]

Do you do this, brethren? Are you speaking for, praying for, and looking for the glorious triumphs of the art of Christ’s saving through his finished work? Can you tell the history and mystery of the gospel plainly and clearly? Are you ready to give to wretched and needy sinners a plain downright narrative concerning Christ and him crucified, the forgiveness of sins, and a God-righteousness obtainable through faith in Jesus? Are you calling sinners to trust in this Jesus and thereby to be delivered from sin, to obtain acceptance with our holy God, and to receive a right and title to a heavenly inheritance?

On these things hang the eternal destinies of our own souls, and the souls of every man and woman, boy and girl, in this world. Let us, then, love, hold to, and proclaim the Christ of the truth, and love, hold to, and proclaim the truth as it is in Jesus Christ.

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[1] The substance of this article was first delivered as a sermon at a Sovereign Grace Union meeting at Tonbridge, Kent, on Friday 1st July 2005. It has been re-worked and edited for print.
[2] Robert Traill, Justification Vindicated (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2002), 67.
[3] Ibid., 11-17.
[4] C. H. Spurgeon, “Christ – our substitute,” in The New Park Street Pulpit (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1994), 6:190.
[5] John Owen, “The doctrine of justification by faith,” in The Works of John Owen (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1965), 5:7.
[6] Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians (London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1962), 211.
[7] See also Sinclair B. Ferguson, “Preaching the Atonement,” in The Glory of the Atonement, ed. Charles E. Hill & Frank A. James III (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2004), 432-433.
[8] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1961), 32.
[9] John Murray, ‘Justification’ in Works (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1977), 2:214.
[10] Professor Murray carefully points out that this God-righteousness “is not, of course, the divine attribute of justice or righteousness, but, nevertheless, it is a righteousness with divine attributes or qualities, and therefore a righteousness which is of divine property.” Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, 127.
[11] Traill’s point is not that faith does not act, but rather that God does not view us as righteous because of our faith (which would make faith, in essence, a work), but because of Christ’s righteousness, which is appropriated by the God-given instrument of faith.
[12] Traill, Justification Vindicated, 29 and 46.
[13] Martin Luther, Briefwechsel [Correspondence], Works (Weimar Edition), 3:81.
[14] William Gurnall, The Christian in Complete Armour (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1964), 316.
[15] Traill, Justification Vindicated, 27-28.

Jeremy Walker
(Co pastor of Maidenbower Baptist Church, Crawley, Sussex, England)

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