Doctrine of Christ (Part 12): The Work of Christ (5) - Divine Justice (2)

April 05, 2017

The Motif of Representation

We’ve been thinking about various New Testament motifs for the atonement wrought by Jesus. We’ve looked at the motif of sacrifice, of the suffering Servant of the Lord, and now we want to wrap up our consideration of divine justice.

According to Paul, God’s righteousness is given to all who believe in Jesus. In Romans 4 Paul goes on to explain that this gift is accorded by means of what he calls “reckoning,” in the sense in which a merchant would settle his accounts. Although it is sometimes said that justification involves merely an acquittal (a verdict of not guilty) and not a positive ascription of righteousness to us, nothing in the text, I think, warrants diluting the righteousness of God which is reckoned to us. The righteousness of God, as we’ve seen, is a rich property, not just the bare absence of guilt. Look at Philippians 3:4-6.

If any other man thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law blameless.

Paul says he was blameless with respect to righteousness under the law. But then he goes on to say,

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.

Here I think it is evident that the righteousness from God that is reckoned to us is more than just a mere verdict of acquittal – of not guilty. It is a positive righteousness that makes the righteousness that Paul had under the law look like dung by comparison.

So, at least at face value, it seems that God’s righteousness in all of its full, moral value is reckoned to believers. I think this is clearly expressed in 2 Corinthians 5:21. Paul says, “For our sake he made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” There is no warrant for diluting this statement on Paul’s part: our sin is credited (or reckoned) to Christ’s account and God’s righteousness is in turn credited – or reckoned – to our account.

Let’s go on to the next New Testament motif connected with atonement, and that is representation. The promise of God’s righteousness is given to those who are “in Christ.” This brings us to yet another facet of the New Testament doctrine of the atonement which is Christ as our representative.

Already in certain of the Old Testament sacrifices, the idea of representation plays a role. While the private sacrifices were offered by worshipers on behalf of themselves, when it came to the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) the access to the Tabernacle was permitted only to the high priest alone.[1] He therefore had to act as the people’s representative before God. He would bring the sacrifice for them, and he would confess their sins over the scapegoat before it was driven out into the wilderness. In the Yom Kippur sacrifices and rituals we already seen this element of representation present.

In the New Testament, Paul characterizes Christ as our representative before God. He does this in two ways, I think. First, there is the corporate solidarity of all of mankind with Christ. Christ is the antetype (or the correlate) of Adam, the first man who represents all men. Paul states in Romans 5:18-19,

as one man’s trespass [that is, Adam’s sin] led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness [that’s Christ] leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.

Notice in this capacity Christ’s atoning sacrifice is conceived as universal in its scope. It is for all men, as Paul says. The representative nature of Christ’s death becomes clear in Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians 5:14. Paul writes, “we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died.” Christ did not simply die in my place. He was not simply a substitute for me; rather he was my representative before God. So what my representative did, I did. Christ’s death was representatively our death. In Christ we die to sin. We are crucified with Christ. I think this is the import of the words of the author of Hebrews in Hebrews 2:9. He says, “by the grace of God he might taste death for every one.” Christ is the representative on behalf of all people before God in dying in their place.

Second, there is the more particular union of believers with Christ whereby they become the beneficiaries of his atoning death. This is described in Romans 6:3-11. Paul writes,

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Even though Paul held that Christ was the representative of all mankind before God and had died on behalf of all mankind, Paul was no universalist.[2] He believed that one had to receive and appropriate the benefits of Christ’s atoning death in order to be the beneficiary of it. In Romans 5:17 Paul says, “those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness will reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.” Yes, Christ has died for all men, but it is those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness who will reign in life.

The way in which we appropriate the benefits of Christ’s atoning death (says Paul in Romans 6) is by faith culminating in baptism whereby we identify with his death and resurrection. What Romans 6 is really about is how we are joined with Christ through a faith union with him as Christians. Paul says in Romans 6:3, “all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death.” Therefore, he says in verse 8, “we have died with Christ.” We are “crucified with him” (verse 6). Similarly, by his resurrection we “have been brought from death to life” (verse 13). Because of our union with him, his death and resurrection are our death and resurrection as well. God appointed Christ to be our human representative, but the way in which we benefit from his atoning death is only insofar as we are “in Christ.” We are in Christ through faith and baptism. By faith and baptism we identify with Christ’s death and resurrection. In effect, it is through faith and baptism that we accept his representation of us. Those who reject him reject his representation of them and so are not united with him. They are not in Christ.

I think that Paul’s doctrine of the atonement has a very strong representational aspect to it. Like Adam, Christ represents every human being before God and he dies for that person. But, in addition to this, those who by faith receive God’s righteousness and forgiveness thereby become the actual beneficiaries of Christ’s death and resurrection by identifying themselves with Christ – by being in Christ through their faith union with him.


Student: Just to clarify, I think the baptism he is talking about in Romans 6 is spiritual, not water, baptism. I think other verses would strongly indicate that water baptism doesn’t do anything.

Dr. Craig: Well, we will talk about that more when we get to the doctrine of the church and talk about sacraments and ordinances, however you view them of the Last Supper and baptism. I don’t think, personally, that when you read Romans 6 there is anything to suggest that Paul is not talking about water baptism. He doesn’t qualify it in any way. He seems to be talking about the act of being buried with Christ under the water and then being raised up again. That seems to be the symbolism.[3] I think what you are reacting against, probably, is thinking of this act of baptism as a sort of magical rite that is somehow infused with some sort of power that just by going through the rite you become a beneficiary of it. That is why I emphasized that it is faith and baptism. It is the faith that is the operative means of Christ’s righteousness being reckoned to us. But I would say that water baptism is the external expression of that inner faith, and that therefore Paul can talk about the importance of baptism in this way because he sees it as a public expression of one’s identifying with Christ. It has to be done through faith or it is an empty and meaningless rite. I think that is true. But I don’t see any reason to think he is not talking about water baptism here as the full expression of identification with Christ.

Student: The crucifixion brings to my mind some questions about the Trinity and the relationship between the members of the Trinity. Would it be correct to say that the Father and Spirit also experienced the crucifixion in some sense? Or was it the unique experience of one center of consciousness of the Trinity, as you described it.

Dr. Craig: I think you are quite right in saying that they are all involved. This is an act of God. But they do seem to play different roles. Only the Son has a human nature which is actually crucified and undergoes that imputation of sin that we talked about and the punishment for sin. The Father’s role in the crucifixion, it seems to me, would be to administer justice, to punish Christ for our sins, or at least to inflict upon him the suffering that would have been our punishment had it been given to us instead. It seems to me that the actual experience of being crucified, of being punished, of being the sin-bearer, is unique to the second person alone. The Father and the Spirit are not the sin-bearers. Over and over again the New Testament says, He bore our sins in his body on the tree. He is the suffering Servant of Isaiah 53. That couldn’t be said of the Father or the Spirit. What I am trying to emphasize in this section is that this isn’t just a substitutional suffering. It is a representational suffering. That adds an additional dimension to it. In punishing Christ for my sins, I am punished. But I am punished in my representative. In my proxy. He bears it for me. So I am representationally punished for my sin in Christ. So we do die in Christ insofar as we identify with him and appropriate the benefits of his death.

Student: But when we die, we die without the sting of death because we have hoped and trusted in what he did. That is the new connection that you have of his Spirit again – we are born again. That is the lively hope. We have to be changed to be his hopes and desires.

Dr. Craig: I think that that is true, and it is precisely because I don’t die on my own for my sin. God doesn’t inflict that punishment on me. He inflicts it on my representative. So it is in my representative that I die to sin. This is, as you say, one that then gives hope because it gives acquittal as well as this positive ascription of righteousness to me.

Student: What exactly is the difference between representational and substitutional? What is the distinction there?

Dr. Craig: When someone is a substitute, that person acts in the place of the other person. Think of a pinch-hitter in baseball. The pinch hitter comes into the lineup and bats in the place of the other hitter. But he doesn’t in any way represent that hitter. His performance at the plate will not affect the batting average of the person that he replaces.[4] In no sense is he a representative of that batter that he substitutes for. He is simply a substitute. He is simply someone who hits in the place of that other person. But that baseball player will also have an agent. This agent represents him in negotiations with the team in order to get a good salary, to get benefits, and so forth. So this agent is not a substitute for the player. He is the player’s representative who argues on behalf of, and acts on behalf of, the player. I think you can see a strong distinction between being just a substitute or being a representative. These functions can be combined where a person is both a representative and a substitute. The example I like is a proxy at a shareholders’ meeting. When you sign a proxy form that someone can act on your behalf at the shareholders’ meeting, they will vote instead of you (they attend the meeting – you don’t; they are there as your substitute), but they are also acting on your behalf. Their vote is your vote. If you are asked, “Did you vote at the shareholders’ meeting?” “Yes, I did vote through my proxy (or through my representative).” So I did vote even though I wasn’t there through my representative. That is the idea here of Christ. It is not just that Christ was punished instead of me; rather, he was my representative so that in him I am punished. So this representational aspect of Christ’s death is important to grasp lest we think that Christ was just a mere substitute, like that pinch-hitter.

Student: Is it the acceptance (or you call it spiritual identification) that activates the representation.

Dr. Craig: Yes. I would prefer to say “that appropriates it.” That is why there can be people on behalf of whom Christ has died who yet do not have salvation because they haven’t appropriated it personally through faith and baptism. Or, similarly, consider someone who is elect. This person is part of those that God knows will receive his grace and go to heaven. But prior to his conversion that person hasn’t appropriated the benefits of Christ’s death. So Paul can say in Ephesians, We were like the rest of mankind – children of wrath. He says this of the elect Ephesians. Prior to their conversion, they were just like everybody else. They were children of wrath. Even the elect, in order to be the beneficiaries of Christ’s death, need to do something to appropriate it. The way Paul says you appropriate it is by faith. By faith expressed in baptism you identify with Christ’s atoning death on your behalf, your sins are forgiven, and this righteousness of God is imputed or reckoned to you.

Student: Would Calvinists throw out both of these points? The corporate and both the individual? Because in the corporate he represents all men but Calvinists believe he doesn’t represent all men, only the elect. Right? And secondarily we don’t appropriate it. Calvinists believe he didn’t die for everyone. He only died for a certain group of people.

Dr. Craig: We will talk more about this when we come to assessing a theory of the atonement, but you are quite right in drawing our attention to a distinctive of Reformed, or Calvinistic, theology. They would reject the first point – that point that Christ died for all men – because they would say: if he died for all men then all should be saved. Their punishment has been paid. Everyone should be saved. So they would reject that first point. But they would affirm the second one – that through our faith union with Christ we are made the beneficiaries of Christ’s atoning death.[5] They would say that in fact Christ only died for the elect. It is only those who are in faith union with Christ for whom he died. This gets the Reformed thinker, I think, into a kind of vicious circularity because in order to be a beneficiary of Christ’s death, you have to be in union with Christ. But in order to be in union with Christ, you need to have your sins forgiven and be justified. It gets into a kind of vicious circularity, I think, that we will unfold later on. But I think that both of these aspects are taught in Paul, however we make sense of them. Romans 5 clearly seems to think that Adam and Christ are correlated to each other. Just as Adam’s sin leads to condemnation for everyone, Christ’s death is sufficient for acquittal for everyone. He died for everyone. But then in Romans 6 he seems to emphasize that you’ve got to appropriate this in order to become a beneficiary of what Christ has done on your behalf. Even the elect (as I just said earlier) need to appropriate this because prior to their appropriation (prior to their conversion) they are also children of wrath and under God’s condemnation.


That brings us to the end of our time today. What we will do next time is look at one final New Testament motif concerning the atonement, and that will be the motif of redemption – that Christ’s death is a ransom that redeems us from sin.[6]



[1] 5:06

[2] 10:29

[3] 15:00

[4] 20:06

[5] 25:02

[6] Total Running Time: 27:39 (Copyright © 2017 William Lane Craig)