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The Substitute Keeping the Law

Category Articles
Date April 21, 2009

Consider a sinner making his way through this life. Sooner or later, he must die and enter the eternal world. But can he, at that solemn moment, be accepted into heaven? This implies another question: Has his sin been forgiven? It should be obvious that, if the holy God against whom he has sinned is to accept him into heaven, all his iniquities must have been pardoned. But there is a further question: Has this individual kept God’s law? And it is on this second question we will concentrate at present.

It is crucial to recognise that the only acceptable standard of law-keeping is absolute perfection. So no mere human being, no matter how conscientious, can make himself fit for heaven by his own efforts; he cannot possibly claim to have kept God’s entire law perfectly. After all, ‘the commandment is exceeding broad’ (Psa 119:96) – which implies, in Matthew Henry’s words, that ‘there is a great deal required and forbidden in every commandment’, for ‘the Word of God reaches to all cases, to all times. The divine law lays a restraint upon the whole man.’ Paul puts fallen man’s tragic condition in stark terms: ‘There is none righteous, no, not one‘ (Rom. 3:10). No matter how hard the sinner may try to make up for the past, he is bound to fail, for he continues to come short in the present. So if this individual is not to be turned away from heaven at last, he must find a mediator, someone who will stand between himself and God. And that person must be someone whom God will accept as a substitute – someone who can stand in the sinner’s place and keep the law perfectly on his behalf.

Clearly no other human being is capable of taking his place; every such person is in the same position – unable to keep God’s law perfectly, and needing a mediator for himself. What a mercy then if the sinner has access to the revelation which God has given in Scripture! There he can find out about the Mediator whom God has appointed, and therefore the Mediator whom He will accept. ‘For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus’ (1 Tim. 2:5).

The mediator could not be an angel; no creature could undertake that responsibility; besides, the substitute must keep the law in our nature. The Son of God, while continuing fully divine, became man, so that in our nature He might work out a full salvation – and that full salvation included keeping the law of God perfectly as the sinner’s substitute. This corresponded to the description of the coming Saviour: ‘that holy thing’, which was given to Mary His mother. Accordingly we find the man Christ Jesus, fully confident of the absolute spotlessness of His life, confronting the Jews with the question: ‘Which of you convinceth Me of sin?’ (John 8:46). And the sentiment of the question harmonises with the confidence placed in Him by His Father when the voice came from heaven on two occasions: ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased’ (Matt. 3:17; 17:5).

If a mere human being were to keep God’s law perfectly, he would have to show consistently-sincere love both to God and his neighbour. That, of course, no fallen human being can do – which is why he needs a substitute. And Christ Jesus, the substitute whom God provided, showed that degree of love to God and to His neighbour throughout His time in this world, the period for which He was ‘made under the law’ (Gal. 4:4). Though He as God was the lawgiver, and though He could never, in either His divine or His human nature, depart from a perfect standard of holiness, He submitted to the authority of that law; He condescended to have His every thought and word and deed measured against that law.

First, He showed perfect and constant love to God; He never came short in the least degree. He could say to His Father, when coming into the world: ‘I delight to do Thy will, O My God: yea, Thy law is within My heart’ (Psa. 40:8; see also Heb. 10: 5-7), which was the perfect expression of loving obedience. So, however the Father expressed His will, Christ was pleased to obey. The Father sent Him into the world, and He came. It was the will of the Father that He, who was infinitely holy, should suffer in a sinful world, and He did so. We even read that ‘He stedfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem’ (Luke 9:51) – knowing full well the awfulness of the suffering which was before Him. He would not turn back. He persevered, not only out of love to the numberless multitude whom the Father had given to Him in the everlasting covenant, but out of unchanging love to the Father Himself.

Similarly, Christ showed perfect and constant love to His neighbour. He went about doing good on a vast scale: He healed all kinds of diseases and disabilities; He proclaimed spiritual truths from one end of Palestine to the other. Even when His neighbour was a Samaritan woman living in breach of the Seventh Commandment, He patiently answered all her questions before He revealed Himself savingly to her. In the end, though the people of Jerusalem had so often rejected Him as ‘without form or comeliness’, He showed remarkable love to them; He cried: ‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!’ (Matt. 23:37).

Thus Christ not only magnified the law and made it honourable by suffering its penalty, thus making it possible for God to be just when He forgave the transgression of the ungodly. He also magnified the law and made it honourable by yielding it perfect obedience, and so there is a full salvation for all who believe in Him. They are accepted as righteous in the sight of God, not only because their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, but also because His law-keeping is put to their account; they are treated as if they personally had kept that law. Accordingly they are justified.

The teaching of Scripture on this subject is summed up in The Westminster Confession of Faith:

Those whom God effectually calleth He also freely justifieth; not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous: not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone: nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience, to them as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on Him and His righteousness, by faith: which faith they have not of themselves; it is the gift of God. (11:1)

One thing, at least, should be obvious: we cannot earn our salvation. Nor do we need to. The whole work of redemption has been completed, and God the Father indicated His clear acceptance of Christ’s whole work as Mediator when He raised Him from the dead. All that had to be done for the salvation of sinners was accomplished, perfectly.

Where does this leave sinners, who are unable to save themselves? It leaves them within reach of this perfect Saviour, who is calling them to receive, absolutely freely, a complete salvation – and to receive it without delay. And where does this leave those who are already believers? It leaves them within reach of the Saviour whom they have already looked to; from Him they are to receive still-greater blessings even in this world – for in Christ they have a right to all the benefits of the covenant of grace.

The One who was ‘made under the law’ has redeemed them, and one of their many blessings is to receive ‘the adoption of sons’ (Gal. 4:5). The standing of believers is therefore sure; God will never put them out of His family. They will be brought to heaven, where they will – endlessly – receive blessings in perfection. And there they will eternally praise Him who came under the law for them so that, not only will they be delivered from the wrath to come, but also brought to eternal glory, just as if they had been able to keep the law perfectly themselves.

Taken with permission from the Free Presbyterian Magazine, March 2009.

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