THE THEOLOGY OF THE SO-CALLED PLYMOUTH BRETHREN EXAMINED AND REFUTED.
THERE is much confused and erroneous thinking and teaching on the subject of imputed righteousness and imputed holiness. Some are confounding the two, and teaching that the only holiness possible to us in this world is the robe of Christ's righteousness thrown around hearts inherently impure. In the interest of clear thought and Christian purity, we invite the reader to a discussion of the radical distinction between imputed righteousness and imputed holiness. The term "impute," literally signifies "to think to," to reckon one thing belongs to another when it really does not. In the Revision it is superseded by the word "reckon."
We define righteousness in man to be conformity to the Divine law, and holiness conformity to the Divine nature.
Jesus Christ is both righteous and holy. These qualities are personal, inherent, and untransferable. But in addition to His personal righteousness He has a mediatorial righteousness, the merit of His passive obedience, labors, sacrifices, sufferings, death, and high-priestly intercessions. Now, although the phrase, "the imputation of Christ's righteousness," or "Christ's imputed righteousness," is not found in the Bible, the doctrine itself is found in the epistles of Paul unfolded extendedly, and it is hinted at in the Gospels when Jesus speaks of giving His life for the world, or as a ransom for many. But it is always His mediatorial, and not His personal righteousness. The absolute necessity of this imputation in the scheme of redemption, arises from the fact that one past sin produces an eternal disconformity to the Divine law, so that the Lawgiver cannot treat us as if we had never sinned without violating the truth of history, and cheating the law of its demands. Hence pardon and salvation would be impossible under the reign of strict and unbending law. But here comes in the mediatoriaI righteousness of Christ to all who plead it as the ground of justification, so that God can be just and the justifier of him who believeth. In other words, there is a constructive, not to say fictitious, conformity, to the law, now possible through faith in the merits of Christ. Otherwise, law would be forever against us. The necessity of this scheme of imputation lies in the fact that God Himself cannot change the past. It is a record absolutely inerasible.
But when God wishes to make men holy, or bring them into conformity to His own nature, there is no such inerasible record in the way. Justification is a work done for us, and has reference to the past; sanctification is a work wrought in us, and always has respect to the present. Hence, imputation of holiness is not necessary. In fact, in the very nature of things, it is impossible. There can be no such thing as vicarious character, for character is the sum total of what we ourselves are. There may be a vicarious assumption of another's debt; there cannot be a vicarious assumption of another's character. Hence, holiness must be personal, inherent, inwrought and imparted by the power of the Holy Spirit, procured by the same atonement by which it is possible for us, through faith, to be conformed to the Divine law, or savingly adjusted to an inerasible, sinful record.
The phrase "in Christ" is perpetually quoted as a proof-text to sustain the doctrine of imputed holiness, a quality not imparted to us, being inwrought by the Holy Spirit and ever afterwards existing inherently in the believer; but an attribute of Jesus Christ regarded by God as belonging to Christians, even when they are unholy in character and wicked in conduct.
The theory is that Jesus Christ is standing today in the presence of the Father as a specimen and representative of glorified humanity, and that faith in Him so intimately unites us with Him, that all His personal excellencies become ours in such a sense as to excuse us if we lack them. It is said that the first act of faith eternally incorporates us into the glorified person of Christ, so that whatever sin we may commit afterwards we incur no condemnation.
Says Fletcher: "People, it seems, may now be 'in Christ,' without being 'new creatures, and 'new creatures' without casting 'old things' away. They may be God's children without God's image; and 'born of the Spirit' without 'the fruit of the Spirit.'"
The favorite proof-text of this piece of rank antinomianism is Rom. viii. 1: "There is therefore now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus," with special attention called to the omission by the critical MSS. and the Revised Version, of the limiting clause: "who walk not after the flesh, but after the spirit." Over this omission the imputationists rejoice, as if it unanswerably demonstrated the truth of their doctrine, that God, seeing the believer only in Christ, beholds no sin in him, even when he has wilfully and flagrantly transgressed the known law. They fail to note that the same limiting clause stands in the fourth verse unquestioned by the critics.
Hence their assertion that the flesh is a sinful state which does not in the least damage our perfect standing in Christ, in whom the carnally-minded believer is as holy as the Son of God Himself. It is said that "the standing is never to be judged by the state, but the state by the standing." The New Testament Scriptures relied on as proofs of this doctrine are those in which our faith is imputed for righteousness. The error is in failing to notice that this refers to the forgiveness of sins, and not to the character after justification.
Another mistake is in not distinguishing between the sum total of Christ's merits, called His mediatorial righteousness, and His own personal righteousness, which is not transferable. Character is personal and unimputable.
Another constantly recurring Scripture is the expression, "in Christ"-- used to prove an actual incorporation into His Person. We take up our pen to examine these words. They are not found in the four Gospels nor in the Acts of the Apostles. They are Pauline, being used by Paul, except in I Pet. iii. 16; v. 14. The words, "in the Lord," are peculiar to Paul also. Elsewhere they are found only in Rev. xiv. 13. What does Paul mean by these phrases?
1. He does not mean incorporation into the glorified Person of Christ, for he always (except in I Cor. xv. 18 --"asleep in Jesus") avoids His purely personal name, Jesus, never saying "in Jesus," but he always adds one of His titular names, Christ, or Lord. "In Christ, "or "in the Lord" must mean, then, some intimate relation to His official work.
2. What this relation is will be seen when we observe that while Luke and Peter use the term "Christian," Paul never used it, but uses the more vivid phrase, "in Christ." Let us now examine a favorite text of the imputationists --1 Cor. i. 2: "To them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus." We heartily endorse the comment of Meyer, "the greatest exegete of the nineteenth century": "In Christ -- namely, in His redemptive work, of which Christians have become, and continue to be, partakers, by means of justifying faith (Eph. i. 4; Heb. x. 10)." In the fourth verse, Meyer's note on "in Christ," is "in your fellowship with Christ." His paraphase of the thirtieth verse, "But of Him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption," is the following: "But truly it is God's work that ye are Christians, and so partakers of the greatest Divine blessings, that none of you should in any way boast himself save only in God." Rom. xvi. 7; "In Christ before me" -- Christians before me. Rom. xvi. 10; "Approved in Christ" -- i.e., says Meyer, "the tried Christian." 2 Cor. v. 17; "If any man is in Christ" a Christian, says the same annotator.
Cremer, in his Biblico-Theological Lexicon, enumerates forty-eight texts where this phrase is used with the above meaning, such as "weak in Christ" and "babes in Christ," for feeble Christians; "growing up in Christ," for an advancing Christian; "perfect in Christ" for a believer fully sanctified, or, in the words of Meyer, "perfect as a Christian, in respect to the whole Christian nature." "Holy in Christ" is a phrase foreign to New Testament diction. The general meaning of the words, "in the Lord," is discipleship to the Lord Jesus, as in Rom. xvi. 2: "which are in the Lord"; 1 Cor. vii. 39; To be married in the Lord"; i.e., to a disciple of the Lord Jesus.
The expressions "in Christ" and "in the Lord" are the Pauline way of denoting a saving relation to the Son of God, a union with Him by faith, a union which ceases when the faith decays. It is quite probable that St. Paul's use of this peculiar idiom is an amplification of the words of Christ, "If ye abide in Me," in His parable of the true vine, John xv. 1-7. That He does not here speak of an inseparable and eternal incorporation into His person, is evident from these words: "Every branch in Me that beareth not fruit, He taketh away." That this taking away is no mere temporary break in the saving relation to Christ, but an eternal cutting off, will be seen by reading the sixth verse: "If a man abide not in Me, he is cast forth as a branch and is withered, and men gather them and cast them into the fire, and they are burned." This solemn and expressive language is utterly meaningless, if the phrase "in Me," or "in Christ," means an inalienable standing in Christ wholly independent of one's real character. Those modern champions of imputed holiness, and opponents of inwrought personal purity, the Plymouth brethren, find their air-castle rudely swept away when these words of Jesus are directed against it. A branch in the true vine may die and be sundered and burned.
This is a complete answer to the words of Rev. John Darby to the writer, that "believers are parts of the glorified Person of Jesus Christ, who does not walk about in Heaven dropping His fingers and toes by self-mutilation, but retains every part and particle of His body for ever." The revised version, in Eph. v. 30, omits "of His flesh and of His bones," and thus re moves a seeming proof-text for the incorporatio n theory.
3. This paper would not be complete if we did not refer to the objective use, by St. Paul, of the phrase "in Christ," as representing, not a peculiar union of the believing subject, but the blessings of redemption included in Jesus. In this Apostle's writings, the idiom, "in Christ," has a Godward, or objective meaning, when he describes the provisions for salvation embodied in the Person and work of the Son, and a manward, or subjective meaning, when he speaks of the believer as appropriating those provisions. As a specimen of the objective use, we quote Rom. vi. 23: "But the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (R. V.). See also Rom. viii. 2, 39; 1 Cor. i. 4 (R. V.); 2 Cor. v. 19; Gal. ii. 4, iii. 14 (R. V.); Eph. i. 3, ii. 6. 7 (R. V.), iii. 11, iv. 32 (R. V.); Phil. ii. 5; 2 Tim ii. 10. In all these passages Jesus Christ is presented as God's treasury of grace and salvation. In examining these texts the reader will be impressed with the superior precision of the revisors in their translation of the preposition "en," in. There are instances in which this Pauline idiom embraces both the subjective and the objective, notably Rom. vi. 11, "Alive unto God in Christ Jesus" (R. V.). Here the believer appropriates the life that exists in Jesus.
Writers in classical Greek exemplify only the objective use of "en." Thus Sophocles: "I in deed am saved wholly in thee"; Hesiod: "Whether Athens shall be enslaved or freed is now in thee"; says Homer: "Complete victory in the immortal gods."
But St. Paul's use of "in," as expressing the activity of the subject appropriating Christ, from the very nature of the case, has no verbal parallels in profane Greek.
In conclusion, we aver that it is just as reasonable to interpret 1 John v. 19, "The whole world lieth in the evil one" (R. V.), as meaning that the whole world is in itself inherently saintly, but by imputation is wicked in the evil one, as it is to say that the best estate of believers on earth is to be inherently impure, while by imputation they are spotless in Christ. According to the testimony of that cosmopolitan evangelist, Wm. Taylor, imputed holiness, enrobing cherished vileness, is a favorite fiction of the pagans of India. A fakir in his presence professing spotless holiness, was rebuked by the crowd as a liar, a cheat, and an adulterer. Admitting the truth of these charges, the fakir triumphantly exclaimed: "I am vile in myself, but perfectly holy in Vishnu."
To be holy with a retention of the old man, would be an untruth and a flat contradiction (Meyer on Eph. iv. 21.)
(The Plymouth Brethren established a mission among the Canarese in India which afterwards was turned over to the Methodists, who found the converts so morally perverted by antinomian doctrines that it became necessary to translate "Antinomianism Revived" into the Canarese in order to save the mission from a demoralization worse than Hinduism. The translation was made by Rev. Ira A. Richards, M.A., as a labor of love for the souls of his deluded fellow-men. It is published in Madras by the M. E. Publishing House, 1896.)
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