Second. Was his death, then, of vicarious import simply? or was it strictly vicarious?

That it was of vicarious import cannot reasonably be denied, if we compare it with the legal sacrifices, or attend to the express language of Scripture on the subject.

The victims under the law were vicarious offerings; they suffered in the room and stead of the offerer, and thus far there was a transfer, not of sin or guilt, strictly speaking, but of its penal effects; suffering and death, only, were transferred, and this is what is meant by putting the iniquities of the sinner upon the head of the victim, and of the victim’s bearing the iniquities of the sinner.

To suppose a literal transfer, either of sin or of punishment, would be to suppose something which is entirely unauthorized by the language of Scripture, and at the same time to involve the absurdity of making a man and even a beast guilty by proxy. Sin, guilt, ill-desert, are in the very nature of things personal; and punishment presupposes guilt, and guilt in the subject; neither the one nor the other is properly transferable. Or, to use the language of Magee: “Guilt and punishment cannot be conceived but with reference to consciousness which cannot be transferred.”

While we would maintain, therefore, that the sufferings of Christ were of vicarious import, because he suffered in the room of sinners, and bore the indications of Divine wrath for their sakes, we cannot subscribe to the opinion that they were strictly vicarious, if by this is meant that the sins of those for whom he suffered, their personal desert and their punishment were literally transferred to him. We maintain the doctrine of substitution, but not such a substitution as implies a transfer of character, and consequently of desert and punishment. This we think to be impossible; and unnecessary, if not impossible. It was enough that there should be a transfer of sufferings, and these, not exactly in kind, degree, or duration, but in all their circumstances amounting to a full equivalent in their moral effect upon the government of God. We hold that Jesus died in the room of the guilty, that though innocent himself, he was made sin for us, or treated as a sinner on our account, and in our stead; that the Lord laid on him the iniquities of us all, and that he bore our sins in his own body on the tree, by suffering what was a full equivalent to the punishment due to our offences. But this, we think, is all the substitution which the Scriptures teach, all that the nature of things will admit, and all that was necessary to effect the same moral ends in the government of God which would have been effected by inflicting on the transgressor the penal sanctions of his law.

James Richards, Lectures on Mental Philosophy and Theology (New York: Published by M.W. Dodd, 1846), 312-314.

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4 comments so far


I never thought about the imputation in detail before, so this is a good post to refer to whenever the topic would come up in discussion with someone.

August 11th, 2011 at 10:22 am

Hey there,

Yeah this is actually a big and important issue. In the 17th century, some theologians actually described imputation as transference of sin and guilt. Owen’s double payment argument functions by this assumption. Owen and others spoke of imputation as transference, even using this word as the preferred term. The problem is, imputation is not transference. Ive dubbed this idea, “Forensic Crispianism.”

This defective view of imputation has its counterpoint in the Romanist idea of infused righteousness.

Think of Christ’s righteousness imputed to the believer. This imputation entails no transference of righteousness, it does not leave him and move to you, or anything like that. You are covered by his righteousness, but it is not transferred to you.

Rather, the always innocent Christ is treated as though he was a sinner, charged and punished as though he was guilty. He never becomes guilty in any sense. On the other hand, the Christian is treated as though he were righteous.

I am planning on posting further on this.

Thanks for stopping by.

August 11th, 2011 at 11:19 am

There is a sense in which, by Christ becoming actual sin, would be unable to suffer in His Holy Being the punishment for sin. I’ve obviously not thought through this much but this idea occurs to me, that at transference of guilt Christ would become the sinner suffering for the sin. Well, anyway…

August 12th, 2011 at 8:23 pm

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  1. That UCCF Revise Its Article on Justification | Cogito, Credo, Petam    Feb 27 2012 / 3am:

    […] object to the notion of imputation as transfer of sin and transfer of merit include A. A. Hodge, James Richards and John […]

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