Essay / Theology

Christ Did Something or Other

F W Robertson “Robertson believed that Christ did something or other, which, somehow or other, had some connexion or other with salvation.”

This was the judgment of John Duncan on the theology of preacher Fred W. Robertson. It was a rather sharp-tongued remark, and Duncan never put it in print himself. Instead, the comment made it into a “miscellaneous sayings” chapter of a posthumous biography of Duncan by David Brown (p. 401).

Charles Spurgeon liked the sound of it, and quoted it in several of his own sermons as an apt expression of the haplessness of vague liberalism in the pulpit. And, following Spurgeon, the line is pretty widely quoted down to our own day. Of course, Robertson (1816-1853) had passed from the scene by the time Spurgeon (1834-1892) was actively ministering, so Spurgeon was not insulting a living pastor. And in his book-length list of valuable commentaries, Spurgeon could even recommend a Robertson book, with a caveat lector: “Robertson’s doctrinal vagaries are well known; yet he is a great thinker and a prompter of thought in other men. Read with discretion.”

I don’t know if it’s a fair assessment of Robertson’s preaching or not. You can read Robertson sermons here and here. Everybody ought to be evaluated on their own terms, and I just haven’t made time for Robertson. I haven’t seen his “doctrinal vagaries” or tried to follow the thread of his preaching.

“Christ did something or other, which, somehow or other, had some connexion or other with salvation.” That really nails some bad preaching I’ve heard. Anybody who quotes this line these days is surely not interested in putting a particular Victorian pulpiteer in his place, but quotes it only to give an impression of vague preaching and teaching. On the subject of the atonement, I freely confess that whenever a teacher wanders too far from theme of vicarious punishment, I lose the thread of the argument and have trouble following what it is Christ did that has some connection with salvation. “Christus Victor inaugurates the kingdom and demonstrates God’s love by recapitulating humanity in vicarious repentance…” Yes, I believe all those things, but my mind finds no theological rest until I can center those statements on Jesus Christ paying for sin. All I hear is “Christ did something or other, which, somehow or other, had some connexion or other with salvation.”

J. C. Ryle once warned that “you may completely spoil the Gospel by confused and contradictory directions. Complicated and obscure statements about faith, baptism, Church privileges, and the benefits of the Lord s Supper, all jumbled together, and thrown down without order before hearers, make the Gospel no Gospel at all ! Confused and disorderly statements of Christianity are almost as bad as no statement at all ! Religion of this sort is not Evangelical.”

In recent theological writings on the atonement, I’ve been glad to learn about nonviolent atonements and all the things that are going on in the Levitical system besides punishment. But in all that exploration, I’ve been concerned that the clarity and definiteness of the gospel message has been muddied. So I’m very heartened by a resurgence in clear teaching about what it was that Christ did to save us: He died to pay for our sin.

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