THE THREE-FOLD RELATION WHICH MORAL AGENTS SUSTAIN TO THE DIVINE LAW

Taken and adapted from, “The Atonement”
Written by Alexander Hodge

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BUT if the law is immutable, and if its demands are personal, how can the legal relations of one person be assumed by another, and all of his legal obligations be vicariously discharged by the substitute instead of the principal?

In order to throw light upon this question, I propose the following considerations. The Theologian Turretin, well noted the fact that the relations which men sustain to the law may be discriminated under three heads –the natural, federal, and penal relations.

1   To every created moral agent in the universe the law of absolute moral perfection sustains a uniform and constant natural relation as a standard of character and rule of actionIn this relation the law is absolutely perfect and absolutely changeless. All that is moral is eternally and intrinsically obligatory on all moral agents.

All that is not obligatory is not moral. And every particular and every degree in which any moral agent comes short of the standard of perfect moral excellence in being or action is of the nature of sin. The demands of the law therefore are everywhere and always the same; they are inherently, and therefore changelessly, obligatory and incapable of being either intermitted, relaxed, or transferred. In respect to this natural relation to the law therefore, Christ did not, and from the nature of the case could not, take our law-place. In respect to the inherent and inalienable claims of right, it is purely impossible that the obligations of law can be removed from one person and vicariously assumed by another. The law in this relation maintains forever inviolable all its claims over all moral creatures whatever; equally over angels and devils, men unfallen, fallen, regenerate, in perdition, and in glory. The hideous heresy of the Antinomians consists in the claim that Christ has in such a sense fulfilled all the claims of law upon his people that they are no longer required to live in conformity to it in their own persons. This abominable heresy the entire Church has always consistently rejected with abhorrence, maintaining that the immutability of the law and the changeless perpetuity of its claims is a principle lying at the foundation of all religion, whether natural or revealed.

2   The federal relation to the law, on the other hand, has respect to a period of probation, into which man was introduced in a condition of moral excellence, yet fallible; and his confirmation in an immutably holy character, and his subsequent eternal blessedness is made to depend upon his obedience during that period.

It appears to be a general principle of the divine government

(1) that every moral agent is created holy, yet
(2) in a state of instable moral equilibrium, and hence
(3) that confirmation in an estate of stable holiness is a divine gift, above those included in the natural endowments of any creature, and always
(4) suspended upon the condition of perfect obedience during a period of probation. As a matter of fact, this is precisely the relation to the law as a covenant of life, into which Adam (and all his descendants in him) was brought at his creation.

He was created holy, yet fallible, and for a period of probation put under the law as a test of obedience. Upon this obedience his character and condition for eternity were made to depend. If he had obeyed for the period prescribed, he would have attained the reward. The granting of that reward would have confirmed him in holiness, and by thus rendering him impeccable, would have closed his probation and removed him from under the law in this federal relation forever, while his subjection to the same law, in its natural relation, would have been continued and confirmed. We know that the angels have passed through a probation not essentially different. They were created holy, yet fallible, for some did fall. And all who stood at the first appear to have been consequently confirmed in character and the enjoyment of divine favor; since there is no intimation that any have since fallen into sin, and since we cannot believe that it is God’s plan that any of his sinless creatures should continue permanently or even indefinitely in that state of unstable equilibrium in which they were created. We may therefore assume it to be a general principle of the divine government that every new created moral agent is introduced into being holy, yet fallible, and subjected to the law as a covenant for a period of probation, conditioning upon perfect obedience ultimate confirmation in holiness and divine favor forever.

It is evident that this federal relation to the law is in its very nature temporary in any event, being inevitably closed, ipso facto, either by giving the reward in case of obedience, or by inflicting the penalty in case of disobedience. It is evident also that this relation to the law has a special end: not the demanding of perpetual obedience because of its intrinsic rightfulness, but demanding it as a test for a definite period, to the end of an ultimate confirmation of a holy character, which confirmation will terminate the relation itself by securing the end for which it was designed. Hence this federal relation to the law, unlike the natural relation, concerns not at all the unchangeable demands of personal holiness, but simply those conditions upon which God’s favors are to be shown. And hence, unlike the natural relation, the federal is neither intrinsic, perpetual, nor inseparable from the person concerned. Although, of course, it is ultimately founded upon the essential righteousness of the divine nature, yet all the variable conditions of the probationary period and test are evidently largely dependent upon the divine sovereignty, and the relation itself ceases as soon as the trial is closed, either by the grant of the reward or the infliction of the penalty; and, if God pleases, the whole relation may be sustained by a substitute, and its obligations discharged vicariously, as was the case in the instances of Adam and of Christ.

3   The penal relation to the law is that which instantly supervenes when the law is violated.

As shown above, the penalty is an essential element of the law, expressing the essential attitude in which absolute righteousness stands to transgression, just as the perceptive element of the law expresses the attitude in which that righteousness stands to the moral condition and action of the subject. Whenever, therefore, the law is violated by disobedience, the penalty instantly supervenes, and continues for ever until it is fully exhausted in, strict rigor of absolute justice.

It is consequently obvious that the penal and federal relations to the law are naturally mutually exclusive. The instant a moral agent incurs the penalty his federal relation to the law necessarily terminates, because the end of that relation –that is, his confirmation in a holy character –has definitely failed. Adam was created under the natural and the federal relation to law. When he sinned he continued under the natural, and passed from the federal to the penal, where his non-elect descendants remain for all eternity. And it is just here that with respect to the elect the infinitely gracious mediation of Christ intervenes. If it were not for the sovereign supervention of a gracious upon a purely legal economy, they would of course be left, with the rest of mankind, to the just consequences of their sin. Their probation having been abused, the promised confirmation in holy character having been forfeited, nothing but the penalty remains.

But in behalf of the elect, Christ comes as the second Adam, assumes and graciously continues their federal relation to the law just at the point at which Adam failed. If he undertakes their case, there is a need that he assumes both their obligations to obedience, which was the original condition of their being raised to a stable equilibrium of moral character and receiving the adoption of sons, and their obligations to penal sufferings incurred by their disobedience. The law in its natural relation of course remains binding on them as before, while they are forever released from all obligation obey it as a condition of life, and are confirmed in an immutable stability both of character and happiness through the vicarious discharge of all of their original obligations by their Substitute.

When we say that Christ as our Substitute assumed our law-place, the specific thing that we mean is, that he became the federal head of the elect under the Covenant of Redemption, which provided for his assuming in relation to them all the conditions of the violated Covenant of Works. The federal headship of Christ presupposes the federal headship of Adam. The latter is the necessary basis for the former, and the work and position of the former can be understood only when it is brought in mental perspective into its true relation to the latter.

The solution of the question as to the true nature of the federal headship of Adam becomes, therefore, an essential element as to the nature of the Atonement.

The apostle declares that the principles upon which sin and misery came upon the race through Adam are identical with those upon which righteousness and blessedness come upon the elect through Christ. No man can entertain false views as to the former without perverting his faith as to the latter.