CHRIST’S FEDERAL WORK, and What it Means

Taken from, “Studies in the Scriptures”
Written by, Arthur W. Pink (1886-1952)

Lamb of God - Atonement

BY the term “federal”1

…we mean that there was an official oneness existing between the Mediator 2 and those for whom He mediated or, in simpler language, that there is a legal union between Christ and His people. “When, in the Old Testament, the elect are spoken of as the party with whom God makes a covenant, they are viewed as in Christ and one with Him. The covenant is not made with them as alone and apart from Christ. This is taught in Galatians 3:16: ‘To Abraham and his seed were the promises made,’ but this seed ‘is Christ.’ The elect are here (as also in 1Co 12:12) called ‘Christ,’ because of the union between Christ and the elect. And in like manner, when Christ, as in Isaiah 42:1–6, is spoken of as the party with Whom the Father covenants, the elect are to be viewed as in Him. As united and one with Him, His atoning suffering is looked upon as their atoning suffering: ‘I am crucified with Christ’ (Gal 2:20).”3

“Christ is not only the Substitute but the Surety of His people. The Gospel is founded on the fact Adam and Christ are covenant heads and representatives of their respective families. Hence, they are termed ‘the first man’ and ‘the second man’ (1Co 15:47), as if there had been none other but themselves, for the children of each were entirely dependent on their head. In Adam all die; in Christ all are made alive (1Co 15:22). The first ‘all’ includes every individual of mankind, the last ‘all’ is explained by the apostle to mean ‘they that are Christ’s’ (1Cor. 15:23).”4

It was as the Head of His elect that God covenanted with Christ, so that, in a very real sense, that covenant was made with them. This it is that explains all those passages that speak of the saints’ oneness with Christ, as that, they were “crucified with Christ” (Gal 2:20), “died with Him” (Rom 6:8), were “buried with Him” as Scriptural baptism symbolizes (Rom 6:4), were “quickened” with Him (Col 2:12), “raised with Him” (Eph 2:6), and made to “sit together in the heavenlies in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:6). So they were legally one with Him and He with them in all that He did in rendering a full satisfaction to God. On this vitally important point, we cannot do better than give a synopsis of the last section from chapter two of Hugh Martin’s invaluable work:

“How are we to formulate and establish the relation subsisting 5 between Christ and His, as Redeemer and redeemed, unless we fall back upon the doctrine of the Covenant? 6 Some relation, it is evident, must be acknowledged as subsisting between Christ and those on whose behalf He dies, else we do not even come within sight of the idea of a vicarious 7 sacrifice. The possibility of real atonement absolutely postulates and demands a conjuncture between Him Who atones and those for whom His atonement is available. This is beyond the need of proof. And as there is an absolute and obvious necessity for some conjuncture or relation, so in searching for the conjunction or relation that actually subsists, our search cannot terminate satisfactorily until we reach and recognize the covenant oneness. The same reason that demands a relation remains unsatisfied until it meets with this relation.”8

It does not meet the necessities of the case to refer to the union between Christ and His people that is effected in their regeneration by the agency of the Holy Spirit and the instrumentality of the faith that is His gift. True, this is indispensable before any can enjoy any of the blessings of His purchase. But there must have been a relation between Christ and His people before He ransomed them. Nor are the necessities of the case met by a reference to the Incarnation. True, the Redeemer must take upon Him flesh and blood before He could redeem, yet there must be a bond of union more intimate than that which Christ holds alike to the saved and the unsaved. He took hold of “the seed of Abraham” (Heb 2:16), not the “seed of Adam”! Nor is it sufficient to say that the relation is that of suretyship and substitution; for the question still calls for answer, “What rendered it fit and righteous that the Son of God should suffer for others, the Holy One be made sin?” It is to this point the inquiry must be narrowed.

Christ was the Surety of His people because He was their Substitute.

He acted on their behalf because He stood in their room. The relation of a substitute justifies the suretyship; but what shall justify the substitution? There is the hinge upon which everything turns. We heartily concur with Dr. Martin when he says, “We can obtain no satisfaction on this point, no sufficient answer to this question, and therefore no satisfactory conclusion to our whole line of investigation, until the doctrine of the everlasting covenant oneness comes into view. That is the grand underlying relation. That is the grand primary conjunction between the Redeemer and the redeemed, which alone bears up and accounts for all else in respect of relation which can be predicated as true concerning them. ‘For both he that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified are all of one: for which cause he is not ashamed to call them brethren’ (Heb 2:11)…He is substituted for us, because He is one with us—identified with us and we with Him.”9

Promoted by infinite love, Christ as the God-man freely accepted the terms of the Everlasting Covenant that had been proposed to Him and voluntarily assumed all the legal responsibilities of His people. As their Head, He came down to this earth, lived, wrought, and died as their vicarious Representative. He obeyed and suffered as their Substitute. By His obedience and sufferings, He discharged all their obligations. His sufferings remitted the penalty of the Law, and His obedience merited infinite blessings for them. Romans 5:12–19 explicitly affirms that the elect of God are legally “made righteous” on precisely the same principle by which they were first “made sinners.” “Our union with Christ is of the same order and involves the same class of effects as our union with Adam. We call it a union both federal and vital. Others may call it what they please, but it will nevertheless remain certain that it is of such a nature as to involve an identity of legal relations and reciprocal 10 obligations and rights.” 11 “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous” (Rom 5:19)—“made the righteousness of God in him” (2Co 5:21).

More than a thousand years ago, Augustine 12 remarked, “Such is the ineffable 13 closeness of this transcendental 14 union, that we hear the voice of the members suffering when they suffered in their Head and cried through the Head on the cross, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ (Mat 27:46). And, in like manner, we hear the voice of the Head suffering when He suffered in His members and cried to the persecutor on the way to Damascus, ‘Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?’ (Act 9:4).”

The federal relation of Christ to His people was a real one, upon which the infallible God deemed it just to punish Christ for the sins of His people and to credit them with His righteousness, and thus completely satisfy all the demands of His Law upon them. As the result of that union, Christ was in all things “made like unto his brethren” (Heb 2:17), being “numbered (reckoned one) with transgressors” (Isa 53:12). They in turn are “members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones” (Eph 5:30). In consequence of this federal union, Christ is also made “a quickening 15 Spirit” (1Co 15:45), so that, in due time, each of His people becomes a living and vital member of that spiritual body of which He is the Head (Eph 1:19–23).

The relation between Christ and those who benefit from His Atonement was therefore no vague, indefinite, haphazard one, but consisted of an actual covenant oneness, legal identity, and vital union. Suretyship presupposes it. Strict substitution demands it. Real imputation proceeds upon it. The penalty Christ endured could not otherwise have been inflicted. They for whom Satisfaction was made do, by inevitable necessity, share its benefits and receive what was purchased for them. This alone meets the objection of the injustice of the Innocent suffering for the guilty, as it alone explains the transfer of Christ’s sufferings and merits to the redeemed.

1 federal – legal representative.
2 Mediator – a go-between; “It pleased God in His eternal purpose, to choose and ordain the Lord Jesus his only begotten Son, according to the Covenant made between them both, to be the Mediator between God and Man; the Prophet, Priest and King; Head and Savior of His Church, the heir of all things, and judge of the world: Unto whom He did from all eternity give a people to be His seed, and to be by Him in time redeemed, called, justified, sanctified, and glorified. (Second London Baptist Confession, 8.1)
3 William Greenough Thayer Shedd (1820-1894), Dogmatic Theology, Vol. 2 (New York, NY; Scribner’s Sons, 1891), 361.
4 James Haldane (1768-1851), The Doctrine of the Atonement (William Whyte & Co., 1845).
5 subsisting – existing.
6 Moreover man having brought himself under the curse of the Law by his fall, it pleased the Lord to make a Covenant of Grace wherein He freely offereth unto sinners, life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in Him, that they may be saved; and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal Life, His Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe. (Second London Baptist Confession, 7.3; available from Chapel Library)
7 vicarious – suffered by one person as a substitute for another.
8 Hugh Martin (1822-1885), The Atonement: In Its Relations to the Covenant, the Priesthood, the Intercession of Our Lord (London: James Nisbet, 187), 30.
9 Martin, Atonement, 35.
10 reciprocal – given by each of two people to the other.
11 Archibald Alexander Hodge (1823-1886), The Atonement (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1867), 205.
12 Aurelius Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (354-430) – early theologian known by some as the father of orthodox theology; born in Tagaste, North
13 ineffable – incapable of being expressed; indescribable.
14 transcendental – supernatural.
15 quickening – life-giving.