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E. S. Ely (1821) On the Imputation of the Active Obedience of Christ


Excerpted from The Presbyterian Magazine, 1.10 (October 1821) 439-441. Thanks to Wayne Sparkman, Director of the of the PCA Historical Center and to Chris Coldwell, editor of The Confessional Presbyterian for providing this text.

On the 29th of August last, I was present at a council of pastors and delegates, convened for the purpose of installing a minister of the gospel. In the course of the examination of his religious sentiments, he was asked what were his views of the atonement. He replied, that he defined the atonement to be, such an exhibition of the real feelings of God in relation to sin as would cause his hatred of it to be believed, even though he should pardon it. The matter of this atonement he said consisted exclusively in the sufferings of Jesus Christ. By these sufferings the moral character of the Deity was manifested as wholly opposed to sin; and he would now be accredited in his declarations of his abhorrence of it, even while remitting; the sins of all true penitents.

To this statement a deacon interposed, and asked the candidate if the active righteousness of Christ constituted no part of the atonement, and no part of the ground of a sinner's pardon. The candidate distinctly expressed his opinion—that IT DID NOT.

Being invited to sit as a corresponding member of the council, and the question being put to me, if I would propose any interrogatories, I asked the candidate, "Has the active righteousness of Jesus Christ, which consisted in conformity to the precepts of the moral law, any influence in meriting the justification of believers? He answered, “ not in the least."

Why then, I resumed, was the obedience of Christ to the precepts of the moral law necessary at all? It was answered, his active obedience was necessary, that he might be a suitable person to make atonement by his sufferings; for had he been a sinner, his sufferings would have been but the punishment of his own sins; and so would have furnished no indication of God's displeasure against the sins of others, who should be pardoned.

I proposed also this question: ”If God is a God of truth, and atonement for sin consists in the mere exhibition of God's real feelings in relation to sin, why might not an atonement for sin have been made by God's DECLARATIONS of his hatred of it? Why might not the mere words of the true God have performed the office of a Saviour? The candidate replied, because mere words would not be believed unless they were accompanied by corresponding actions.

But, might not the declarations of the true God, concerning his hatred of sin, verified by the sufferings of devils and damned spirits, have constituted the atonement, and so have performed the office of Christ? Their sufferings, the candidate conceived, would not be a sufficiently clear and dignified atonement, to have vindicated the Deity in pardoning sin. No exhibition inferior to that made by the sufferings of the Son of God, he thought would sufficiently indicate the divine disposition, so as to render it consistent with the character of Jehovah to pass by the transgressions of men.

In reply to the question of some one, the candidate said, that he considered the justification of a sinner, in the sense of the gospel, as synonymous with the pardoning of a sinner. These answers appeared to meet with the approbation of the council, and it was therefore resolved, unanimously, by all who had a right to vote in the case, to proceed to the installation of the pastor elect.

To one * of the ministers of this council, who occupies one of the most distinguished stations in a sister state, I said, according to your scheme of doctrine, Christ seems to me nothing more than half of a Saviour, for he brings the sinner nothing but the remission of the penalty of the law. Now I feel, that I need of Christ much, much more than this: I need acceptance with God as righteous, and adoption into his family, on account of the merits of Christ's righteousness. I want a Saviour on whose account my person and my best services shall be accepted; for our righteousnesses are as filthy rags. That passage, the clergyman said, referred to the righteousnesses of unrenewed men; but still I thought that the best of men, in their best services, are unprofitable servants. Can God in any other character than that of the God of all grace, favourably regard our best actions?

After all I had time to urge, this brother (and I fear many more of his brethren,) continues to maintain, that the active righteousness of Christ was due for himself, because he was man; that this active righteousness constitutes no part of the ground of the justification and actual redemption of sinners, but merely opens the door for the remission of sins to the penitent; that the atonement by Christ is efficacious in procuring for sinners nothing but pardon; that a sinner is regenerated by a mere act of sovereignty, in the moment in which God as a sovereign pardons him; being enabled, but not obligated to any one, thus to do, by the atonement; and that the ground of a saint's being made happy in heaven is the obedience which he himself, through the aid of the Spirit, renders to the law, after his conversion. The holy actions of a regenerated and pardoned man, he insisted on it, were as proper objects of reward as the holy obedience of the unsinning angels. If, said he, nine actions of the renewed man should be sinful, the tenth may be holy, and that will be a proper object of reward in glory.

I replied, that any action of a creature, to merit a reward, must be absolutely perfect; whereas the best actions of a renewed man are no more than imperfectly good. The law cannot approve and reward any action which does not answer all the demands of the law.

For one, I must say, that could I expect no happiness in heaven but such as I have merited, by my works of new obedience, I should expect very little.

If in any thing I have misunderstood, or misrepresented, any of my brethren of the council, 1 shall gladly be corrected, and acknowledge my error: but at present, I must say, the scheme of doctrine which I have here stated, with regret, to be maintained by many, who now with myself, worship Christ as God, is well calculated to banish Christ from the church. He need not be truly God, to accomplish for us all the atonement and all the redemption which are therein attributed to him. While I rejoice that my native state has hitherto deposed from the ministry all those who have publicly denied the deity of Jesus Christ, I am constrained to express my fears, from the natural tendency of many doctrines now popular there, that Socinianism and Arianism will greatly prevail there within half a century to come; and that hundreds of the clergy will follow the downward course of Sherman, Abbott, and last of all, the Rev. Dan Huntington.

E. S. ELY.

* With another of the ministers of this council I conversed freely, and it is a joy to state, that he did not agree to the doctrines asserted by this brother and the candidate. He viewed the active as well as passive righteousness of Christ as necessary for a sinner's acceptance and pardon ; but still, he did not apprehend the errors of his brethren on this subject to be dangerous.