Of course, Old Life is a place where you don’t mess with Machen. So it will come as no surprise that Peter Leithart’s recent objections to Machen’s dying words will receive some vinegary blow back.
It is said that as J. Gresham Machen died, he spoke of the comfort he took in the imputation of Christ’s active obedience, which ensured his standing before God.
I don’t know if that was actually Machen’s dying thought. But leave that to the side. I can see the point, but I can’t help but find this disturbing on two grounds. First, nowhere in the Bible is comfort linked with imputation. The closest analogy is Psalm 32:2, which pronounces a blessing on the one to whom God does not reckon sin. Otherwise, imputation in the full theological sense never plays that role.
Second, when the Bible does talk about comfort, the comfort comes from persons. Sometimes from other humans (e.g., Genesis 24:67), often from God. His faithfulness in the past, His word, His promises for the future, but especially God Himself, the God of all comfort, comforts.
“I am comforted by the imputation of Christ’s active obedience” is doubtless often a circumlocution for “I am comforted by my faithful Lord Jesus who is with me by His Spirit.” But the way we say things matters, and de-personalizing and doctrinalizing comfort can, contrary to the best intentions, distance the suffering from the God who comforts.
Aside from a certain amount of reverence for Machen, can Leithart really be that tone deaf? This has nothing to do with kicking a man when he’s on his death bed. It does have to do with trying to obfuscate a relatively simple Reformed belief (which is what those of us who observed Federal Vision always thought their MO was — to raise enough questions, debate enough definitions, cite enough biblical texts to wear out their opponents).
If you take seriously the guilt of sin and its ongoing influence in the life of the believer, you would be inclined to take great comfort in the active obedience of Christ. As Machen explained (can you believe it, he’s not talking about w-w?):
That covenant of works was a probation. If Adam kept the law of God for a certain period, he was to have eternal life. If he disobeyed he was to have death. Well, he disobeyed and the penalty of death was inflicted on him and his posterity. Then Christ by His death on the cross paid that penalty for those whom God had chosen.
Well and good. But if that were all that Christ did for us, do you not see that we should be back in just the situation in which Adam was before he sinned? The penalty of his sinning would have been removed from us because it had all been paid by Christ. But for the future the attainment of eternal life would have been dependent upon our perfect obedience to the law of God. We should simply have been back in the probation again.
Here we begin to understand why Jesus’ passive obedience is not enough – if divorced from his active obedience. The passive sufferings of Christ discharged the enormous debt we owe, due to our sins and the sin of Adam. In effect, Jesus’ passive obedience alone would bring our account from hopelessly overdrawn back to a zero balance – our debt would be retired. But having our debt retired and our sins forgiven does not get us into heaven; it simply returns us to the starting point. More must be done if we are to gain heaven. Righteousness must be completely fulfilled, either by us or by a representative acting on our behalf.
Moreover, we should have been back in that probation in a very much less hopeful way than that in which Adam was originally placed in it. Everything was in Adam’s favour when he was placed in the probation. He had been created in knowledge, righteousness and holiness. He had been created positively good. Yet despite all that, he fell. How much more likely would we be to fall – nay, how certain to fall – if all that Christ had done for us were merely to remove from us the guilt of past sin, leaving it then to our own efforts to win the reward which God has pronounced upon perfect obedience.
But if you think of faith as faithfulness, baptism as regenerational, and salvation as familial, then the forensic character of Christ’s work might seem like an abstraction.
At the same time, why Leithart thinks Machen de-personalized Christ’s work is beyond me. How much more personal could doctrines be that described what Christ actually endured and did in his bodily existence and death on the cross? “My faithful Lord Jesus who is with me by His Spirit” sure seems to abstract from the Christian what Christ actually did. Then again, figuring out Peter Leithart even if intellectually invigorating has never been easy.