Did Christ as the Incarnate Mediator, Fulfill the Law and All Righteousness for Himself or for Those He Came to Save?

by John Owen

I cannot but judge it sounds ill in the ears of all Christians, "That the obedience of our Lord Jesus Christ, as our mediator and surety, unto the whole law of God, was for himself alone, and not for us;" or, that what he did therein was not that he might be the end of the law for righteousness unto them that do believe, nor a means of the fulfilling of the righteousness of the law in us;--especially considering that the faith of the church is, that he was given to us, born to us; that for us men, and for our salvation, he came down from heaven, and did and suffered what was required of him. But whereas some who deny the imputation of the obedience of Christ unto us for our justification, do insist principally on the second thing mentioned,--namely, the unusefulness of it,--I shall under this part of the charge consider only the arguing of Socinus; which is the whole of what some at present do endeavour to perplex the truth withal.

The substance of his [Socinus de Servat] plea is,--that our Lord Jesus Christ was for himself, or on his own account, obliged unto all that obedience which he performed. And this he endeavours to prove with this reason,-- "Because if it were otherwise, then he might, if he would, have neglected the whole law of God, and have broken it at his pleasure." For he forgot to consider, that if he were not obliged unto it upon his own account, but was so on ours, whose cause he had undertaken obligation on him unto most perfect obedience was equal to what it would have been had he been originally obliged on his own account. However, hence he infers "That what he did could not be for us, because it was so for himself; no more than what any other man is bound to do in a way of duty for himself can be esteemed to have been done also for another." For he will show of none of those considerations of the person of Christ which make what he did and suffered of another nature and efficacy than what can be done or suffered by any other man. All that he adds in the process of his discourse is,--"That whatever Christ did that was not required by the law in general, was upon the especial command of God, and so done for himself; whence it cannot be imputed unto us." And hereby he excludes the church from any benefit by the mediation of Christ, but only what consists in his doctrine, example, and the exercise of his power in heaven for our good; which was the thing that he aimed at. But we shall consider those also which make use of his arguments, though not as yet openly unto all his ends.

To clear the truth herein, the things ensuing must be observed,--

1. The obedience we treat of was the obedience of Christ the mediator: but the obedience of Christ, as "the mediator of the covenant," was the obedience of his person; for "God redeemed his church with his own blood," Acts 20:28. It was performed in the human nature; but the person of Christ was he that performed it. As in the person of a man, some of his acts, as to the immediate principle of operation, are acts of the body, and some are so of the soul; yet, in their performance and accomplishment, are they the acts of the person: so the acts of Christ in his mediation, as to their "energemata", or immediate operation, were the acting of his distinct natures,--some of the divine and some of the human, immediately; but as unto their "apotelesmata", and the perfecting efficacy of them, they were the acts of his whole person,--his acts who was that person, and whose power of operation was a property of his person. Wherefore, the obedience of Christ, which we plead to have been for us, was the obedience of the Son of God; but the Son of God was never absolutely made "hupo nomon",--"under the law,"--nor could be formally obliged thereby. He was, indeed, as the apostle witnesses, made so in his human nature, wherein he performed this obedience: "Made of a woman, made under the law," Gal.4:4. He was so far forth made under the law, as he was made of a woman; for in his person he abode "Lord of the sabbath," Mark 2:28; and therefore of the whole law. But the obedience itself was the obedience of that person who never was, nor ever could absolutely be, made under the law in his whole person; for the divine nature cannot be subjected unto an outward work of its owns such as the law is, nor can it have an authoritative, commanding power over it, as it must have if it were made "hupo nomon",--"under the law." Thus the apostle argues that "Levi paid tithes in Abraham," because he was then in his loins, when Abraham himself paid tithes unto Melchizedek, Heb.7. And thence he proves that he was inferior unto the Lord Christ, of whom Melchizedek was a type. But may it not thereon be replied, that then no less the Lord Christ was in the loins of Abraham than Levi? "For verily," as the same apostle speaks, "he took on him the seed of Abraham." It is true, therefore, that he was so in respect of his human nature; but as he was typed and represented by Melchizedek in his whole person, "without father, without mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life," so he was not absolutely in Abraham's loins, and was exempted from being tithed in him. Wherefore, the obedience whereof we treat, being not the obedience of the human nature abstractedly, however performed in and by the human nature; but the obedience of the person of the Son of God, however the human nature was subject to the law (in what sense, and unto what ends, shall be declared afterwards); it was not for himself, nor could be for himself; because his whole person was not obliged thereunto. It is therefore a fond thing, to compare the obedience of Christ with that of any other man, whose whole person is under the law. For although that may not be for himself and others (which yet we shall show that in some cases it may), yet this may, yea, must be for others, and not for himself. This, then, we must strictly hold unto. If the obedience that Christ yielded unto the law were for himself, whereas it was the act of his person, his whole person, and the divine nature therein, were "made under the law;" which cannot be. For although it is acknowledged that, in the ordination of God, his exinanition was to precede his glorious, majestical exaltation, as the Scripture witnesses, Phil.2:9; Luke 24:26; Rom.14:9; yet absolutely his glory was an immediate consequent of the hypostatical union, Heb.1:6; Matt.2:11.

Socinus, I confess, evades the force of this argument, by denying the divine person of Christ. But in this disputation I take that for granted, as having proved it elsewhere beyond what any of his followers are able to contradict. And if we may not build on truths by him denied, we shall scarce have any one principle of evangelical truth left us to prove any thing from. However, I intend them only at present who concur with him in the matter under debate, but renounce his opinion concerning the person of Christ.

2. As our Lord Jesus Christ owed not in his own person this obedience for himself, by virtue of any authority or power that the law had over him, so he designed and intended it not for himself, but for us. This, added unto the former consideration, gives full evidence unto the truth pleaded for; for if he was not obliged unto it for himself,--his person that yielded it not being under the law,--and if he intended it not for himself; then it must be for us, or be useless. It was in our human nature that he performed all this obedience. Now, the susception of our nature was a voluntary act of his own, with reference unto some end and purpose; and that which was the end of the assumption of our nature was, in like manner, the end of all that he did therein. Now, it was for us, and not for himself, that he assumed our nature; nor was any thing added unto him thereby. Wherefore, in the issue of his work, he proposes this only unto himself, that he may be "glorified with that glory which he had with the Father before the world was," by the removal of that vail which was put upon it in his exinanition. But that it was for us that he assumed our nature, is the foundation of Christian religion, as it is asserted by the apostle, Heb.2:14; Phil.2:5-8.

Some of the ancient schoolmen disputed, that the Son of God should have been incarnate although man had not sinned and fallen; the same opinion was fiercely pursued by Osiander, as I have elsewhere declared: but none of them once imagined that he should have been so made man as to be made under the law, and be obliged thereby unto that obedience which now he has performed; but they judged that immediately he was to have been a glorious head unto the whole creation. For it is a common notion and presumption of all Christians, but only such as will sacrifice such notions unto their own private conceptions, that the obedience which Christ yielded unto the law on the earth, in the state and condition wherein he yielded it, was not for himself, but for the church, which was obliged unto perfect obedience, but was not able to accomplish it. That this was his sole end and design in it is a fundamental article, if I mistake not, of the creed of most Christians in the world; and to deny it does consequentially overthrow all the grace and love both of the Father and [of the] Son in his mediation.

It is said, "That this obedience was necessary as a qualification of his person, that he might be meet to be a mediator for us; and therefore was for himself." It belongs unto the necessary constitution of his person, with respect unto his mediatory work; about this I positively deny. The Lord Christ was every way meet for the whole work of mediation, by the ineffable union of the human nature with the divine, which exalted it in dignity, honour, and worth, above any thing or all things that ensued thereon. For hereby he became in his whole person the object of all divine worship and honour; for "when he bringeth the First-begotten into the world, he saith, And let all the angels of God worship him." Again, that which is an effect of the person of the Mediator, as constituted such, is not a qualification necessary unto its constitution; that is, what he did as mediator did not concur to the making of him meet so to be. But of this nature was all the obedience which he yielded unto the law; for as such "it became him to fulfill all righteousness."

Whereas, therefore, he was neither made man nor of the posterity of Abraham for himself, but for the church,--namely, to become thereby the surety of the covenant, and representative of the whole,--his obedience as a man unto the law in general, and as a son of Abraham unto the law of Moses, was for us, and not for himself, so designed, so performed; and, without a respect unto the church, was of no use unto himself. He was born to us, and given to us; lived for us, and died for us; obeyed for us, and suffered for us,--that "by the obedience of one many might be made righteous." This was the "grace of our Lord Jesus Christ;" and this is the faith of the catholic church. And what he did for us is imputed unto us. This is included in the very notion of his doing it for us, which cannot be spoken in any sense, unless that which imputed unto us. And I think men ought to be wary that they do not, by distinctions and studied evasions, for the defense of their own private opinions, shake the foundations of Christian religion. And I am sure it will be easier for them, as it is in the proverb, to wrest the club out of the hand of Hercules, than to dispossess the minds of true believers of this persuasion: "That what the Lord Christ did in obedience unto God, according unto the law, he designed in his love and grace to do it for them." He needed no obedience for himself, he came not into a capacity of yielding obedience for himself, but for us; and therefore for us it was that he fulfilled the law in obedience unto God, according unto the terms of it. The obligation that was on him unto obedience was originally no less for us, no less needful unto us, no more for himself, no more necessary unto him, than the obligation was on him, as the surety of the covenant, to suffer the penalty of the law, was either the one or the other.

3. Setting aside the consideration of the grace and love of Christ, and the compact between the Father and the Son as unto his undertaking for us, which undeniably proves all that he did in the pursuit of them to be done for us, and not for himself; I say, setting aside the consideration of these things, and the human nature of Christ, by virtue of its union with the person of the Son of God, had a right unto, and might have immediately been admitted into, the highest glory whereof it was capable, without any antecedent obedience unto the law. And this is apparent from hence, in that, from the first instant of that union, the whole person of Christ, with our nature existing therein, was the object of all divine worship from angels and men; wherein consists the highest exaltation of that nature.

It is true, there was a peculiar glory that he was actually to be made partaker of, with respect unto his antecedent obedience and suffering, Phil.2:8,9. The actual possession of this glory was, in the ordination of God, to be consequential unto his obeying and suffering, not for himself, but for us. But as unto the right and capacity of the human nature in itself, all the glory whereof it was capable was due unto it from the instant of its union; for it was therein exalted above the condition that any creature is capable of by mere creation. And it is but a Socinian fiction, that the first foundation of the divine glory of Christ was laid in his obedience, which was only the way of his actual possession of that part of his glory which consists in his mediatory power and authority over all. The real foundation of the whole was laid in the union of his person; whence he prays that the Father would glorify him (as unto manifestation) with that glory which he had with him before the world was.

I will grant that the Lord Christ was "viator" whilst he was in this world, and not absolutely "possessor;" yet I say withal, he was so, not that any such condition was necessary unto him for himself, but he took it upon him by especial dispensation for us. And, therefore, the obedience he performed in that condition was for us, and not for himself

4. It is granted, therefore, that the human nature of Christ was made "hupo nomon", as the apostle affirms, "That which was made of a woman, was made under the law." Hereby obedience became necessary unto him, as he was and whilst he was "viator." But this being by especial dispensation,--intimated in the expression of it, he was "made under the law," namely, as he was "made of a woman," by especial dispensation and condescension, expressed, Phil.2:6-8,--the obedience he yielded thereon was for us, and not for himself And this is evident from hence, for he was so made under the law as that not only he owed obedience unto the precepts of it, but he was made obnoxious unto its curse. But I suppose it will not be said that he was so for himself, and therefore not for us. We owed obedience unto the law, and were obnoxious unto the curse of it, or "hupodikoi tooi Theooi". Obedience was required of us, and was as necessary unto us if we would enter into life, as the answering of the curse for us was if we would escape death eternal. Christ, as our surety, is "made under the law" for us, whereby he becomes liable and obliged unto the obedience which the law required, and unto the penalty that it threatened. Who shall now dare to say that he underwent the penalty of the law for us indeed, but he yielded obedience unto it for himself only? The whole harmony of the work of his mediation would be disordered by such a supposition.

Judah, the son of Jacob, undertook to be a bondsman instead of Benjamin his brother, that he might go free, Gen.44:33. There is no doubt but Joseph might have accepted of the stipulation. Had he done so, the service and bondage he undertook had been necessary unto Judah, and righteous for him to bear: howbeit he had undergone it, and performed his duty in it, not for himself, but for his brother Benjamin; and unto Benjamin it would have been imputed in his liberty. So when the apostle Paul wrote these words unto Philemon concerning Onesimus, "Ei de ti edikese se, e ofeilen, touto emoi ellogei, egoo apotisoo", verse 18,-- "'If he has wronged thee,' dealt unrighteously or injuriously with thee, 'or oweth thee ought,' wherein thou hast suffered loss by him, 'put that on mine account,' or impute it all unto me, 'I will repay it,' or answer for it all,"--he supposes that Philemon might have a double action against Onesimus, the one "injuriarum," and the other "damni" or "debiti," of wrong and injury, and of loss or debt, which are distinct actions in the law: "If he has wronged thee, or oweth thee ought." Hereon he proposes himself, and obliges himself by his express obligation: "Ego Paulos egrapsa tei emei cheiri",--"I Paul have written it with mine own hand," that he would answer for both, and pay back a valuable consideration if required. Hereby was he obliged in his own person to make satisfaction unto Philemon; but yet he was to do it for Onesimus, and not for himself. Whatever obedience, therefore, was due from the Lord Christ, as to his human nature, whilst in the form of a servant, either as a man or as an Israelite, seeing he was so not necessarily, by the necessity of nature for himself, but by voluntary condescension and stipulation for us; for us it was, and not for himself.

5. The Lord Christ, in his obedience, was not a private but a public person. He obeyed as he was the surety of the covenant,--as the mediator between God and man. This, I suppose, will not be denied. He can by no imagination be considered out of that capacity. But what a public person does as a public person,--that is, as a representative of others, and an undertaker for them,--whatever may be his own concernment therein, he does it not for himself, but for others. And if others were not concerned therein, if it were not for them, what he does would be of no use or signification; yea, it implies a contradiction that any one should do any thing as a public person, and do it for himself only. He who is a public person may do that wherein he alone is concerned, but he cannot do so as he is a public person. Wherefore, as Socinus, and those that follow him, would have Christ to have offered for himself, which is to make him a mediator for himself, his offering being a mediatory act, which is both foolish and impious; so to affirm his mediatory obedience, his obedience as a public person, to have been for himself, and not for others, has but little less of impiety in it.

6. It is granted, that the Lord Christ having a human nature, which was a creature, it was impossible but that it should be subject unto the law of creation; for there is a relation that does necessarily arise from, and depend upon, the beings of a creator and a creature. Every rational creature is eternally obliged, from the nature of God, and its relation thereunto, to love him, obey him, depend upon him, submit unto him, and to make him its end, blessedness, and reward. But the law of creation, thus considered, does not respect the world and this life only, but the future state of heaven and eternity also; and this law the human nature of Christ is subject unto in heaven and glory, and cannot but be so whilst it is a creature, and not God,--that is, whilst it has its own being. Nor do any men fancy such a transfusion of divine properties into the human nature of Christ, as that it should be self-subsisting, and in itself absolutely immense; for this would openly destroy it. Yet none will say that he is now "hupo nomon",--"under the law,"--in the sense intended by the apostle. But the law, in the sense described, the human nature of Christ was subject unto, on its own account, whilst he was in this world. And this is sufficient to answer the objection of Socinus, mentioned at the entrance of this discourse,--namely, that if the Lord Christ were not obliged unto obedience for himself, then might he, if he would, neglect the whole law, or infringe it; for besides that it is a foolish imagination concerning that "holy thing" which was hypostatically united unto the Son of God, and thereby rendered incapable of any deviation from the divine will, the eternal, indispensable law of love, adherence, and dependence on God, under which the human nature of Christ was, and is, as a creature, gives sufficient security against such suppositions.

But there is another consideration of the law of God,--namely, as it is imposed on creatures by especial dispensation, for some time and for some certain end, with some considerations, rules, and orders that belong not essentially as before described. This is the nature of the written law of God, which the Lord Christ was made under, not necessarily, as a creature, but by especial dispensation. For the law, under this consideration, is presented unto us as such, not absolutely and eternally, but whilst we are in this world, and that with this especial end, that by obedience thereunto we may obtain the reward of eternal life. And it is evident that the obligation of the law, under this consideration, ceases when we come to the enjoyment of that reward. It obliges us no more formally by its command, "Do this, and live," when the life promised is enjoyed. In this sense the Lord Christ was not made subject unto the law for himself, nor did yield obedience unto it for himself; for he was not obliged unto it by virtue of his created condition. Upon the first instant of the union of his natures, being "holy, harmless, undefiled, and separate from sinners," he might, notwithstanding the law that he was made subject unto, have been stated in glory; for he that was the object of all divine worship needed not any new obedience to procure for him a state of blessedness. And had he naturally, merely by virtue of his being a creature, been subject unto the law in this sense, he must have been so eternally, which he is not; for those things which depend solely on the natures of God and the creature are eternal and immutable. Wherefore, as the law in this sense was given unto us, not absolutely, but with respect unto a future state and reward, so the Lord Christ did voluntarily subject himself unto it for us; and his obedience thereunto was for us, and not for himself. These things, added unto what I have formerly written on this subject, whereunto nothing has been opposed but a few impertinent cavils, are sufficient to discharge the first part of that charge laid down before, concerning the impossibility of the imputation of the obedience of Christ unto us; which, indeed, is equal unto the impossibility of the imputation of the disobedience of Adam unto us, whereby the apostle tells us that "we were all made sinners."

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