This incomparable Jesus

To the Puritan preachers of seventeenth-century England, all Scripture was for one purpose——to show men the incomparable Christ. To fail in communicating this would be to fail at the most crucial point of all, and no preacher worthy of his calling would be found wanting.

Bryan W. Ball, Ph.D., is head of the religion department at Newbold College, Bracknell, England. This article is adapted from a chapter in his recent book, The English Connection.

If every leaf, and spire of grass, . . . nay, all the stars, sands, and atoms, were in so many souls and seraphims, whose love should double in them every moment to all eternity, yet would it fall infinitely short of what His worth and excellency exacts. Suppose a creature composed of all the choice endowments that ever dwelt in the best of men since the creation of the world, in whom you find a meek Moses, a strong Samson, a faithful Jonathan, a beautiful Absalom, a rich and wise Solomon; nay, and add to this the understanding, strength, agility, splendour, and holiness of all the angels, it would all amount but to a dark shadow of this incomparable Jesus." —John Flavel Works (1716) 1, p. 169.

Few Puritan preachers understood the redemptive purpose of Scripture more plainly, and few pressed the claims of Christ upon their people more persistently or more persuasively than John Flavel. The son of a Puritan minister who had died in prison for his refusal to conform to the prescribed religion of the day, Flavel knew well the price which might be required for pursuing the Puritan ideal of a thoroughly biblical faith. His writings, particularly the Fountain of Life and Method of Grace, are said to have influenced, among others, Jonathan Edwards, the early American theologian, George Whitefield, the eighteenth century preacher and theologian, and Archibald Alexander, the first professor at Princeton Theological Seminary. Whitefield ranked Flavel with John Bunyan and Matthew Henry, and Alexander is recorded to have declared, "To John Flavel I certainly owe more than to any uninspired author." Flavel was one of the last in a long line of Puritan divines whose chief energies were spent in extolling the merits of Christ.

Insistent as Puritanism was on a thorough understanding of Scripture, its real character can never be seen simply from that standpoint. ... All that the Old Testament foretold of Christ in type and prophecy and all that Scripture in its entirety said of His humanity and divinity was, in the end, for one purpose. Men must come to understand the immense significance of the cross and of Christ's work as Redeemer. They must know why He had come and why He had died and in what way His life and death affected them. This was that knowledge which more than any other it was essential to have. To fail in communicating the meaning of these things would be to fail at the most crucial point of all, and no Puritan preacher worthy of his calling would be found wanting in that.

The death of Christ on the cross had been necessitated by sin. Of that basic truth there could not be the slightest doubt. "This is that deadly poison, so powerful. . . that one drop of it shed upon the root of mankind hath corrupted, spoiled, poisoned, and undone his whole race at once," said Joseph Alleine, in An Alarme to Unconverted Sinners (1673), p. 141, a work whose influence on the spiritual life of the age must be ranked with Baxter's Saints' Everlasting Rest and Bunyan's Grace Abounding. Since the cross could only be understood adequately from the standpoint of sin, it was essential to press home the awfulness of sin and its consequences. Alleine therefore continues, "This is the traitor that sucked the blood of the Son of God, that sold Him, that mocked Him, that scourged Him, that spit in His face, that pierced His side, that pressed His soul, that mangled His body, that never left till it had bound Him, condemned Him, nailed Him, crucified Him, and put Him to open shame." —Ibid. But where is this "traitor," this "butcher," this "bloody executioner," to be found? Is sin dead or alive? Is it merely an abstract principle outside human experience, at work at one given time in history to achieve the death of the Son of God? No, says Alleine, sin is inside human experience, it is ever-present in man, it is an inseparable part of human personality, and what it accomplished at the cross it accomplished through human beings and on behalf of all humanity. Therefore, says Alleine, "Study the nature of sin till thy heart be brought to fear and loath it." —Ibid., p. 142. The cross is God's way of dealing with the consequences of sin in human experience. "If He take them not away by the blood of His cross, they can never be taken away," John Flavel says of man's sins, and "They will lie down with you in the dust, they will rise with you and follow you to judgement." —Works 1, p. 49, The death of Jesus had been caused by sin and only in that context could it be understood.

How did seventeenth-century preachers understand, and how did they explain, the death of Christ? What did they comprehend by the terms "redemption" and "salvation"? Flavel poses a significant question in this respect when he asks, "Did Christ finish His work for us?" Was all that is requisite for man's salvation accomplished on the cross? Christians of every generation who have thought about their faith have come, sooner or later, to this question. To Flavel, it was rhetorical and the answer follows immediately: "Then there can be no doubt, but that He will also finish His work in us. As He began the work of our redemption, and finished it, so He that hath begun the good work in you will also finish it in your souls." —Ibid., p. 160. The conclusion Flavel reaches concerning the death of Christ is something of a paradox. Christ's work was effective, yet it was incomplete. It was finished in its accomplishment, yet unfinished in its application. The key to the paradox lies in Flavel's word "redemption", and in the relationship of this redemption to salvation as a process in time and in the individual. Redemption was accomplished and finished on the cross. Salvation was not complete until the work of the cross had been translated into human experience. Flavel explains further: "When we say Christ finished redemption-work by His death, the meaning is not that His death alone did finish it, for His abode in the grave, resurrection, and ascension, had all of them their joint influence into it." —Ibid., p. 157. The argument was put clearly enough by John Durant in the introduction to The Salvation of the Saints. Durant, a leading minister among the Congregational Churches of Kent in the middle of the seventeenth century, expressed disappointment that many Christians were satisfied to accept the work accomplished on the cross, without obtaining a fuller knowledge of salvation. Durant's argument was that salvation depended on the total work of Christ and not merely on His death. While it was not to be disputed that His death lay at the heart of the matter, that it was the key to the mystery of salvation, yet it was not the sum total of Christ's work. Salvation had been "purchased" but not "completed" at the cross. There remained beyond the death of Christ "a great deal more to be done ... to apply it unto us." —The Salvation of the Saints by the Appearances of Christ (1653), A7r. This meant in specific terms, Christ's priestly ministry in heaven and His coming again at the end of the age.

This desire to see the cross in perspective, to understand it in relationship to the rest of Christ's life and work, was not intended to minimise in the slightest the immense significance of His death. Flavel, whose thoughts on this matter are quite clear, and whose allegiance to sound Christology has already been demonstrated, was at pains to put beyond any possible doubt the completeness and centrality of the cross: "All that was to be done by way of impetration [achievement] and meritorious redemption, is fully done. No hand can come after His. Angels can add nothing to it. That is perfected to which nothing is wanting and to which nothing can be added. Such is the work Christ finished. Whatever the law demanded is perfectly paid. Whatever a sinner needs is perfectly obtained, and purchased. Nothing can be added to what Christ hath done." —Works 1, pp. 158, 159

The efficacy of Christ's monumental act on the cross is equally conveyed by Joseph Truman in his Great Propitiation, intended principally as an exposition of the doctrine of justification by faith, but warm throughout with the desire to make the historical act of the cross relevant to contemporary human need. "He is able to save to the uttermost them that come to God by Him," says Truman, quoting Hebrews vii 25, and "No spot or stain is of so deep a dye that the blood of Christ cannot wash it out, no disease so desperate that He cannot cure it. ... This red sea of Christ's blood is large enough, deep enough, to drown the tall Egyptian host of any sins." —The Great Propitiation (1669), p. 211. Redemption is therefore complete, and the blood of Christ powerful to cleanse and to save. Redemption leads onwards to full salvation, however, as Christ becomes a reality for the individual, and Flavel concludes, "as He presented a perfect sacrifice to God, and finished redemption work, so will He present every man perfect and complete, for whom He here offered up Himself." —Works, 1, p. 160. . . .

Space will permit examination of only two or three of the more salient concepts by which the meaning of Christ's death was explained by Puritan theologians. The first is the word "ransom." A ransom was the price to be paid in order that a hostage might be freed. Christ's death was a ransom, for it was in this connection that Christ became, in terms of Old Testament custom, the "Goel," the one who provided the required price. Man had sold himself and his inheritance into slavery, and was unable to redeem himself from bondage. When such a situation arose in Old Testament times, it was customary for a near kinsman to exercise the right of redemption. This was usually the elder brother on the mother's side, the heir to the family wealth. From his own resources he would provide the necessary ransom, thereby obtaining the release of the one in bondage. Such a benefactor was the "Goel." So with Christ. He, the elder Brother, the Heir of all things, had by the gift of His life paid the price required, provided the way of release, and procured the assurance of new and eternal life.

It is equally true that Christ is more than the "Goel." He does not simply pay the required price, the ransom—He gives Himself. He does not only set the captive free, He takes the place of the guilty man and vicariously bears his punishment. Christ is man's substitute. Richard Sibbes comes to this point by recalling that Christ was the second Adam, and as such died a substitutionary death on behalf of all those whose right to life had been forfeited by the first Adam. "Christ died," he says, "as a public person, in whom dying all die." —Christ's Exaltation, p. 131. When men die in the ordinary course of events their death holds no meaning or significance beyond that which is common to every man. But with Jesus it is different. "Christ died alone and singular in this respect," says Sibbes, "Because in Him dying, all died that were His." —Ibid., p. 132. Christ's voluntary death is the death which is required of all men as a consequence of sin. "You may sit under Christ's shadow with great delight, shaded from the heat of God's displeasure," says Joseph Truman, continuing, "He was scorched with God's wrath that we might be cooled, shaded, comforted, by that shadow that He hath made for wearied souls by being hanged on a tree. —The Great Propitiation, p. 209. In taking man's place Christ bears vicariously in His body the consequences of sin deserved by sinners themselves.

The ultimate consequence of Christ's death, both in terms of Scripture and in terms of Puritan theology, is reconciliation: "When we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of His son," (Romans v 10). By sin man had been alienated from God, by the cross that alienation had been terminated. Man had broken the relationship. God had moved to restore it. Those who had been put at enmity by sin, were now, through the cross, placed in a new relationship. This is what is conveyed by the theological terms "reconciliation" and "atonement." Those who were estranged had been brought together, made "at one." This is fundamental Christian doctrine and none understood it better or proclaimed it with greater certainty than the Puritan preachers whose writings have been cited. Thomas Adams declared: "God sees all our violations of His law, knows every peccant act better than our own con science, but, withall, He sees the atonement made in the sacrifice of His own Son, a satisfaction able to pay all our debts. Hence no sin shall oblige us to condemnation, no debt shall bear an action against us. The rich creditor sees many items in His books, knows what debts have been owing, but withall, He sees them crossed and cancelled."—Works, p. 1095. The atonement had been made. It is sufficient and satisfactory. The barrier of condemnation has been removed. God and man are brought together. John Flavel, lucid and concerned as ever, explains, "Reconciliation or atonement is nothing else but the making up of the ancient friendship betwixt God and man which sin had dissolved, and so to reduce these enemies into a state of sweet concord and sweet agreement." —Works, I, p. 175. Baxter adds that the sufferings of Christ on the cross were "to bear what was due to the sinner, and to receive the blow that should have fallen upon him, and so to restore him to the life he lost and the happiness he fell from." —Saints' Rest, p. 73. If this introduces the idea of substitution, it also emphasizes the idea of restoration and reconciliation, the ultimate objective of Christ's redemptive work.

We return now to John Flavel. He seems not only to grasp the meaning of redemption, but almost to have the facility to feel within himself the dire consequences of sin, and the price of man's redemption. In a moving comment on the phrase "I come to thee" in the prayer of Jesus recorded in John xvii, Flavel says all that needs to be said by way of conclusion on the redemptive work of Christ: "There is much in these words, 'I come to thee'; I, thy beloved Son, in which thy soul delighteth; I, to whom thou never deniedest anything. Tis not a stranger, but a son, not an adopted, but thine only begotten Son. Tis I that come. I am now coming to thee apace, my Father. I come to thee swimming through a bloody ocean. I come treading every step of my way to thee in blood and unspeakable sufferings; and all this for the sake of those dear ones I now pray for."—Works 1, p. 88.

Did you enjoy this article?


If so, you'll want to read the book! This
article was adapted from the second
chapter of The English Connection, a
recently released volume that explores the
Puritan roots of such major Reformation
doctrines as the authority of Scripture,
salvation by grace and justification by
faith, the perpetuity of the moral law, the
world to come, and others. An editorial
discussing this book's significance appears
on page 22. We have arranged to offer this
book to MINISTRY readers at a special price!
For ordering information see page 30.



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Bryan W. Ball, Ph.D., is head of the religion department at Newbold College, Bracknell, England. This article is adapted from a chapter in his recent book, The English Connection.

May 1982

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