IHAVE reserved until now my treatment of what I regard as the point in theology which most needs explanation, and which I conceive that I have been the first to explain. My explanation is so bound up with my own personal experience, that I could not easily give it without mention of the steps by which I reached it. I have hope that, as I tell of my own way of coming to the knowledge of the truth, others may be led to follow me.
Three imputations are declared in Scripture as essential to evangelical doctrine. They are, first, the imputation of Adam's sin to the whole human race; secondly, the imputation of all human sin to Christ; and, thirdly, the imputation of Christ's merits and righteousness to the believer.
Each one of these imputations seems at first sight to involve a sort of legal fiction,—the crediting to one party of what belongs exclusively to another; an arbitrary treatment of wholly moral issues; an external transfer, either of guilt or of righteousness. When the federal theology explained all this upon the ground of God's covenant with Adam and with Christ, it seemed to involve God in a merely forensic process, to make him a God of expedients, to reduce divine justice to bookkeeping, to ignore all truth and reality in God.
I was brought up in that system of thought. The preaching to which I listened when a child, and the instruction of the theological seminary which I afterward received, emphasized the doctrine of the Covenants, and answered objections by referring the objector to the unsearchable wisdom or sovereignty of God.
First Phase of Experience My conversion did not awaken doubts since it ignored all doctrine, except the doctrines of sin and salvation. If ever there was a purely Arminian or Pelagian conversion, mine was such an one.
I was one of a rather brilliant and hilarious set of students at Yale. We were not openly vicious, but we were selfishly ambitious, and on the verge of a moral precipice. The timely word of a classmate set me thinking. I saw that I must change, or die.
During a college vacation, at my own home, I found myself at a revival meeting, under the eagle eye of Charles G. Finney, the evangelist. He seemed to speak directly to me, when he said: "If there is any one here who sees that he ought to forsake his sins and to serve God, let him rise and go into the inquiry room, and some one will tell him what to do." So I arose and went out. A minister of the Gospel met me, and asked me if I would begin from that hour to serve God, looking to him to show me the way. After much hesitation, I told him that I would, and I went home in the dark, thinking all the way that I was very foolish, yet determined to begin a new life from that day.
I began to read my Bible. I began to pray. But though I sought God, I did not find him until, some weeks after returning to college, bowed down with a new sense of sin and need, I read the verse in 2 Cor. 6: 17, 18, "Wherefore come ye out from among them and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing, and I will receive you, and will be a Father to you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty." Then I said to myself: "That is /; God is my Father and friend!" And for the first time in my life I felt that there was a tie that bound me to God. I looked out through the elms to the stars that shone that evening, and I knew that when those stars should grow pale and die, the eternal God would be my refuge, and underneath me would be the everlasting arms.
I have narrated this experience not as cause of self-gratulation, but to show how meagre an apprehension of truth may consist with a real turning to God. For if ever I was converted, that decision marked my conversion. The peculiarity of it was, that in it I had absolutely no sense that the change in me was in any way due to the influence of the Holy Spirit, or had been made possible by the work of Christ.
Except for the fact that I had a sort of traditional and theoretical belief in these things, in the background of my consciousness, my conversion might have been a purely Unitarian or agnostic reliance upon the love and truth of God. This fact makes me tolerant of Unitarian Christianity, though I now recognize it as an infantile faith, like that of Peter, James and John on the banks of the Jordan, when they followed Jesus without knowing anything about his deity or his atonement.
Second Phase of Experience
But the faith of my conversion did not suffice for my subsequent life and ministry, and I must tell of a second stage in my experience. I entered the theological seminary, and there encountered the full strain upon my faith of the federal thology. I was docile and determined to believe, but I suspended judgment, and waited for further light. I was accepted by an ordaining council and admitted to the ministry.
I could preach about sin, and I could say that God would forgive the penitent, but the way of salvation I knew little of. I found Jordan a hard road to travel. I was conscientious, and I worked myself almost to death. But the more I worked, the weaker and more helpless I seemed. A universe of evil influences seemed to be fighting against me. People were converted, but I was constantly losing strength and heart. I began to think myself past feeling, and that God had taken his Holy Spirit from me.
Was I indeed a Christian at all? And had I not been deceived in thinking I had ever turned to God? In utter despair of myself, I determined to devote my whole summer vacation to learning where I stood before God, to read nothing but the Bible, and to give up the ministry if I did not find peace.
Then God revealed his Son in me, as he did in the apostle Paul (Gal. 1:16). I read in the Acts that the early Christians were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit. I read the closing chapters of John's gospel, and I learned the secret of their strength and gladness, even the mystery of the gospel, " which is Christ in you, the hope of glory" (Col. 1: 27).
My conversion had been, all unconsciously to myself, the entrance of Christ into my soul; but only now did I learn that he had joined himself to me in a union which death could not part, and had taken me to be his partner in his work of men's salvation. I had only to abide in him, and have him abiding in me, and I should be able to do great things in his name (John 15:4). The God to whom I had surrendered at my conversion proved to be Christ my Savior; and since in him was all the fulness of the Godhead, all things were practically mine (Col. 2:9; 1 Cor. 3:22).
Instead of facing a universe of evil influences, I had all the powers of heaven and earth to back me up, and to make me " mighty through God" to bring to naught fortresses of evil. No least effort of mine should be in vain (1 Cor. 15:58).
I went back to my church as a conqueror. I preached on Union with Christ as the central thought of all theology and of all religion. Christians came to me saying with tears: " We never heard this before." There followed in that congregation many conversions almost as wonderful as that of Saul on the way to Damascus. And I learned my first lesson in the matter of imputations. My federalism was succeeded by a realistic theology.
Imputation is grounded in union, not union in imputation. Because I am one with Christ, and Christ's life has become my life, God can attribute to me whatever Christ is, and whatever Christ has done.
The relation is biological, rather than forensic. I can, on my part, share in all Christ's suffering, and in all Christ's victory. I am lifted up into his eternity, and can take advantage of his acts as fully as if they were my own. So that old tract, "The Seven Togethers," can be justified, as a simple repetition of the teaching of the apostle Paul: I am—
1. Crucified together with Christ (Gal. 2:20);
2. Dead together with Christ (Col. 2:29);
3. Buried together with Christ (Rom. 6:4);
4. Quickened together with Christ (Eph. 2:5);
5. Raised together with Christ (Col. 3:1);
6. Sufferer together with Christ (Rom. 8:17);
7. Glorified together with Christ (Rom. 8:17).
Since Christ is my very life (Col. 3:4), all charge of legal fiction on the part of God disappears; and all charge of immoral appropriation on my own part disappears also, since union with Christ gives me not only his moral status, but also his moral power.
Third Phase of Experience
I make no claim to originality in this discovery, for many so called "mystics" have made it before me. But it transformed my theology none the less, by turning it from a theology of technicalities into a theology of life. It was not long before I saw my way to apply the same general principle to the interpretation of the relation of the race to its first father.
In this matter I was helped by the reading of an old book by Baird, entitled " The Elohim Revealed," in which God's imputation of Adam's sin to all his descendants was explained as a simple recognition of their natural inheritance from him of an enfeebled and perverse will. Here I have only added the idea of subliminal tendencies constantly working against the good, tendencies which can be overcome only by God's regenerating Spirit, and have also added the conception of an act in God's eternity which summed up and judged the whole race of man as one. These two imputations,—that of Christ's righteousness to the believer and that of Adam's sin to the race, ■—I thought I had solved many years ago. There remained a third instance of imputation which only in late years I have been able to explain. It is the most difficult of all.
To me it has been the greatest problem of theology, how to explain God's imputation to Christ of the sins of the whole race. Here I could find no light in any past work of theology. When I privately consulted Dr. Shedd, he could only call it a mystery of God.
I was not satisfied. I wanted to find some union of Christ with humanity which would make this imputation also realistic and biological. I have found it, and have expounded it, in my book entitled, "Christ in Creation." It is my chief contribution to scientific theology; and though I claim to have thrown new light on the doctrine of God's law, and of union with Christ, it is by my explanation of God's imputation of all human sin to Christ that my theology must stand or fall.
In the earlier chapters of this Primer I have shown that God is expressed and known only in Christ; that Christ is the life of humanity as well as the life of nature; that the solidarity of the race, no less than the harmony of the universe, is due to his constant volition; that he is the source of all good, while our wills are the source of all evil; that he has taken upon himself the burden of our sins by suffering in us all our guilt and misery; that in him God has condemned sin by bearing in himself its consequences; that union with the human race in Christ has made God the greatest sufferer in the universe; that this vindication of justice was due to his moral character of holiness, and indispensable to human salvation; that love has paid the penalty of sin by himself enduring that penalty; that all this was done in that one "act of righteousness" when the heart of God was broken on the cross for our salvation.
Dr. Forsyth uttered a great truth, when he said that " God laid a world-sin upon a worldsoul." But I have gone more nearly to the heart of the truth, in showing how Christ becomes the world-soul by being the one and only manifestation of God in nature and in humanity.
Here are the reason and the necessity of the Atonement. He who gives himself to a sinful humanity, if he be holy, must suffer; and the suffering of the holy God on account of sin is the essence of the Atonement.
Bronson Alcott, the school-teacher, held out his own hand to be feruled by the boy who had broken the rules of the school. So the cross of Christ is a symbolic declaration that without suffering there could be no remission, but that it was also possible that the blood of the Son of God could atone for the sins of the world.
Alcott's illustration, however, lacks the element of universality that belongs to the imputation of our sins to Christ, for it is God's own blood that was shed upon the Cross,
"When Christ, the mighty Maker, died
For man, the creature's, sin."
Those who dislike the term "blood-atonement," need to remember that a lower thing is often the preparation and symbol of a higher. We do not think it degrading to eat our lambchop of a morning, because it comes from the shambles. When we hear Christ saying: "This cup is the new covenant in my blood" (1 Cor. 11:25 ), we look forward to the glory that is to be revealed, forgetting the shame by which it was purchased.
That blood was the symbol of Christ's life— the life with which he had endowed us at our creation—but which by regeneration and sanctification he has changed into moral life and power.
Shall we not praise him who so shared his life with us as to begin, a microscopic point in the womb of the Virgin, and from that low beginning grew till he "fills all in all" (Eph. 1:22)?
Shall we not make his shed blood the theme of our earthly song, as they do who surround "the throne of God and of the Lamb that hath been slain" (Rev. 5: 12)?
We read of "the church of God which he purchased with his own blood" (Acts 20:28); and when we speak of " blood-atonement " we are only declaring the merits of him "who is over all, God blessed forever" (Rom. 9:5), but who, " for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame" (Heb. 12:2), in order that he "might bring many sons into glory" (Heb. 2: 10). May we, in virtue of God's third instance of imputation, "overcome through the blood of the Lamb" (Rev. 12:11)!