Penpoint Vol. III:7 (December, 1992) Covenant Media Foundation, 800/553-3938

Judicial Theology
By Dr. Greg Bahnsen


While in Edmonton recently I was asked to offer a Biblical assessment of the Reform Party of Canada, whose leader is a professing Christian, Preston Manning. This intrigued me because of a newspaper caption in The Edmonton Journal (Jan. 16, 1992): "Despite his evangelical upbringing, Reform party leader Manning strives to avoid mixing religion and politics." (How could a Christian really avoid it?)

Well, my research led me eventually to read Mr. Manning's autobiographical presentation of the principles of the Reform Party, entitled The New Canada. He is without question a man of good will; I found him sincere and articulate -- someone to be commended for the courage to identify himself in the hostile public arena as a "practising Christian."

Still, his personal testimony reveals a perilous theological error about salvation which is even more critical than his confusion about pretended neutrality in politics. It is an error which has plagued the evangelical church for years, and one which appears to be gaining quiet but deadly impetus in our generation.

The critical error made by Manning and so many others today is the failure to see the saving work of Jesus Christ in judicial terms -- as a forensic transaction which deals with our legal guilt before the judgment of God.

According to non-judicial theology, the saving work of Jesus was an act of mediation, an effort "to restore communication between alienated parties." (It is relevant here that Manning's own professional background is that of a management consultant.) In order to facilitate that restoration, Christ offered Himself as a sacrifice, we are told. But what was the nature of Christ's sacrifice on the cross? "The mediator... asks the alienated parties to accept his sacrifice as payment of the price of reconciling with each other" -- that is, as a compelling gesture of good will. "Visible sacrifice by the mediator is essential to credibility and gaining a hearing if one wants others to make sacrifices for the sake of better relations...."

Briefly put, Christ's atoning sacrifice is valued here for its "moral influence" -- its ability to dissipate mistrust and stir up in the hearts of the alienated parties (God and man) a renewed sense of common interests, thus opening the way to better communication. Christ sets the example for self-giving, showing us the way to remove alienation.

This understanding of the saving work of Christ has a beguiling power and Biblical sound which has subtly drawn away people into theological modernism and neo-orthodoxy (e.g., the Confession of 1967 in the Presbyterian Church USA.) Indeed, the gospel message can be nicely summarized in these terms: "God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself" (2 Cor. 5:19; cf. Rom. 5:8-11).

However, the Bible never presents the problem which alienates God and man as a mere matter of mistrust and broken communications. Alienation exists because of sin and its guilt. "Your iniquities have separated between you and your God" (Isa. 59:2). Sin creates objective, legal guilt before the Almighty which must be penalized with death (Rom. 3:19; 6:23) -- it results in condemnation (Rom. 5:18; cf. 8:1).

Thus the judicial basis for reconciliation cannot be escaped in the New Testament. When Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:19 that "God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself," he immediately adds by way of explanation: "not reckoning unto them their trespasses." Salvation deals with our legal guilt, our trespasses. Paul goes on to say that God's enmity toward us cannot be taken away, thus achieving reconciliation, without resolving the problem of our sin and its condemnation -- that is, without turning away God's judicial wrath and making us stand righteous before His judgment. Christ, the One who knew no sin must be "made sin on our behalf" in order that we might "become the righteousness of God in Him" (2 Cor. 5:21).