A few weeks ago I had a college student come set up a lunch meeting with me. The student is about to go to southeast Asia for a year to receive some missions training. So I meet up with this guy and figured that he wants to talk about missions; after all he knows that missions and theology are my two passions. So we get to making some small talk and begin to catch up on each other’s lives and what God is doing in each of us. Eventually it gets to the point where he point blank says “I actually wanted to talk to you about atonement.” I was sort of excited; I love discussing theories of atonement. So the student proceeds to tell me the problems that he has with it. Basically the problem isn’t really with atonement per se he has a problem with the imputation of righteousness. He laid out the problem by saying:
If God simply declares us as righteous, and we really aren’t righteous, merely seen as righteous, then it seems like God is unjust or is just blind. Justification doesn’t really seem just.
I had to agree with him. If our righteousness were merely a legal verdict (as some of my fellow reformed friends like to say) then we really do have a problem. We either have an unjust God who decides to overlook the fact that we really aren’t metaphysically righteous, or we have a judge who is blind and can’t see me standing behind Jesus as the verdict comes down.
So is there a way around this problem? Yes there is. You can do one of two things:
- You bite the bullet and say that I really don’t have a metaphysical righteousness worthy of a “not-guilty” verdict. But God justifies me anyway because of Jesus’ death on the cross. (This is what a merely forensic/legal account does.)
- You can say that I am in fact metaphysically righteous because of Jesus. So God justifies me. (The problem with this is that is sure doesn’t seem to be true. As I’m sitting at Starbucks writing this, I am getting angry because the people next to me are annoying. I’m certainly not being loving to those people.)
So what are we to do? T.F. Torrance provides a great solution to this dilemma. Here is what he says in his book Incarnation:
It is only through this union of our human nature with his divine nature that Jesus Christ gives us not only the negative righteousness of the remission of sins but also a share in the positive righteousness of his obedient and loving life lived in perfect filial relation on earth to the heavenly father. If we neglect this essential element in the vicarious humanity and obedience of the Son, then not only do the active and passive obedience of Christ fall apart but we are unable to understand justification in Christ as anything more than a merely external forensic non-imputation of sin.
Basically here is what Torrance is saying, “there needs to be a metaphysical union between me and Christ or else his righteousness (active and passive) are only forensically imputed to me. If there is a metaphysical union between me and Christ then Christ’s whole life lived, starting at his incarnation and all the way up to his ascension, is essentially mine. Thus I really am righteous!”
So Torrance’s solution to the problem of an unjust justification lies in his doctrine of the incarnation. In the incarnation human nature and divine nature are united. Because I participate in human nature (this sounds platonic…) I can, by faith, appropriate what Christ has done in his human and divine nature for me.
I hope this isn’t getting to complicated, but think of it this way:
I am actually united to Christ, its not just a metaphor, so what is true of Christ is actually true of me.
That is why justification really is just. Since I am united to Christ I really share in his righteousness, its not merely a legal verdict.