Christ's Suretyship: Part I

Robert Riccaltoun


Robert Riccaltoun (1691-1769) was the Church of Scotland minister at Hobkirk, Roxburghshire. His Sober Enquiry is a masterful review and adjudication of the issues debated in the Marrow Controversy. "Riccaltoun attempted to mediate, though making it clear that the Marrow Brethren had the better argument and faulting [Principal James] Hadow for widening breaches rather than seeking peace." (The Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology). Riccaltoun corrects misrepresentations among opponents, examines the real import of the Marrow of Modern Divinity's unfamiliar phrases, and points to the common ground held by all true sons of the Church of Scotland. Though the Sober Enquiry has never been reprinted, the book contains an exceptionally able treatment of the role of the mediator in the covenant of grace, and the instrumentality of faith.

From Robert Riccaltoun, A Sober Enquiry Into the Grounds of the Present Differences in the Church of Scotland, 1723, chapter III: "Of the Law of Faith, or Covenant of Grace; and, First, of Christ's undertaking and Suretyship, with the Fruits and Effects thereof."

Upon the breach of that old covenant by Adam's sin, we have one of the most melancholy prospects presented us, that ever the sun beheld; a creature, but just now the darling of heaven, and whom, we may justly say, God himself delighted to honor, the crown fallen from his head, and himself reduced into such a condition, as might make annihilation a blessing, to be sought for with the most earnest wishes; were there not a door of hope opened, and life and immortality, which might have seemed quite lost under the first covenant, as to man's interest in them, again brought to light in the gospel; where we have another a better covenant revealed, and all the mischief that was done under the first fully remedied.

As the very end and design of this covenant is the salvation and deliverance of sinners, overwhelmed and sunk under the former, it is easy to see how absolutely necessary it must be, to keep this always in one's eye; as, without a just view of our natural misery, it is utterly impossible one can either conceive aright of salvation, and deliverance from it, or embrace it with any suitableness when it is known. And I believe it is unto men's ignorance, or misapprehensions of this, that the many mistakes we find they have fallen into, one or the other, are in a special manner owing; that, before we can stir one foot here, it will be needful to remark something concerning the state of the parties before this covenant is entered into, and upon what terms man stood with God, that is to say, what he owed him, and what he had to expect from his hand.

We have already seen what demands the law, which was then the measure and rule of both his duty and state, had upon man; and how God, who was pleased to bind himself in covenant with man, is and must be by man's failing freed from any obligations, which otherwise might have lain upon him; that now one can have no other view of him, than a just and righteous judge, to see to the execution of his own law, which man himself had owned to be just and equitable, and therefore had no room left to complain of rigor, whatever were its consequences. What remains here to be observed, is no more than this, how man was able to answer these, and what were the effects and consequences of this, with respect to his state and condition? And, as I believe, there will not readily be any controversy upon these heads amongst us, we shall content ourselves with just noticing the heads, without standing upon the grounds and reasons of them, any further, than is just necessary to let us into a right apprehension of them.

The first thing that occurs unto us here is, that now man has no more room left him, either to hope or to look for life in a way of justice; or, which is all one, in the way of this covenant or law, which is the rule and measure of it. This part of man's misery was, in a lively manner, set before him in that awful dispensation the flaming sword guarding the way of the tree of life. It is remarkable how it is represented turning every way, that whatever method one should attempt, he must run himself upon the point of it; plainly intimating to us, that one may as well pretend to force omnipotency, and wrest life out of the hands of the Almighty, as to seek it anymore in the way of this covenant.

And indeed, if we look further into this affair, we shall find it could not be otherwise, as it followed upon the very constitution of the nature of things, and that order which God hath appointed, life and death were there set before man, life in obedience, death in disobedience; and that not only by an arbitrary connection in the covenant of works, but, moreover in the very nature of the thing. Sin is a separation of the soul, and a withdrawing it from God the fountain of life, and by communion with whom alone it is to be had: And whosoever forsakes him in any instance, or pitches upon anything else in opposition to him, in reality forsakes life, and chooses death; and I believe it will hold true, in the most part at least, if not all these connections, which God has laid down in his word, between sin and punishment, that they are no more than a declaration of what would have followed in the nature of the thing, whether ever they had been connected by positive institutions or not.

This will be very evident in the present case, from what is necessary to observe here of the very nature of sin; and that habitude and respect it has unto the punishments assigned it in the law, the loss of life, and the inflicting of death; as there is in it not only what is properly called guilt, arising from its contrariety unto the law, and thereby laying the sinner under the just sentence of it; but moreover, a direct contrariety unto the nature of God, and an opposition unto his holiness, which, one may say, is the result and shine of all his glorious perfections united together, as they are in his most holy nature. And as this is the very immediate and direct notion of sin, so it would have been the same, suppose there had never been such a thing as a law in the world; and should have as effectually separated the sinning soul from God, and made it incapable of any communion and fellowship with him, or any gracious communications from him; and robbed him as certainly of God's image, made him loathsome and abominable in his sight, and laid him under his wrath and displeasure; as now, that this holiness of God is expressed in his law; and these measures, which the infinite rectitude of his nature directed him to, are published and made known to us, which, it is easy to see, make no alteration in the thing itself; though it contributes exceedingly to increase guilt, by aggravating the man's sin, and making him inexcusable.

And as sin would have been sin, though there had been no law thus formally and explicitly given, so it might be easy to show how, even in that case, it must have firmed its own station, if I may say so, that is, it would have kept its ground; and where it got once possession of a soul, there it would maintain it. But as this is not the case before us, we must also take in the constitution and order which God has set before us in his law, where the case, one should think, were put beyond all controversy, especially as we have attested unto us by the Spirit of God upon all occasions. Here it is that we have sin set before us, as it really is, the root and foundation of all our misery, both of one kind and another; and, that only enemy, from whose oppression and thralldom could we but once be delivered, all the rest, which depend upon it, would, at the same time, lose their strength.

I will not stand here to enlarge upon that misery which sin brings upon the person, who is so unhappy as to fall under its tyranny: As it not only shuts up all hopes of life, as has been observed, but moreover binds him under the curse, and all these direful effects of the divine vengeance comprehended under it; it will be more to our present purpose, to take a view of the dominion and tyranny of sin, how strongly it is rooted, and how powerfully supported. There is no better way of judging of the greatness of misery, than the difficulty of its being removed; and the fuller views one has of this, so much better must he be disposed for judging of the deliverance.

The original dominion and power of sin, the apostle assures us, lies in the law, when he points us unto this as its strength; whereby it tyrannizes over those, who are so wretched as to fall under its bondage. What he here points us to in the law, is, I suppose, especially its cursing power; for however there is in the law a rigor and severity, which not only by irritating corruption, but throwing one into despair, mightily strengthens the power of sin, where once it is established; yet it is upon the curse that its sovereignty is founded; as it was by this, that, what was at first but an intruder, came to be vested with a sort of lawful authority, in the just judgment of God so ordaining it. No sooner had the man subjected himself unto sin, than immediately, by the just sentence of the law, he is stripped of any power, he might otherwise have had, to vindicate his liberty. All expectations of assistance are hereby cut off, and himself abandoned unto the pleasure of his enemies; and, as the apostle elegantly expresses it, sold under sin. And upon this it is, that the law comes to be improved, directly contrary unto its first design, to drive men from God; so that until this rigorous connection be, some way or other, removed, sin continues in its strength; and accordingly will keep its hold, and exercise its dominion.

But this is not the only strength which sin has; though it is so much so, that without it, all the rest could not serve to support it. I was saying just now, that by the law the sinner is sold into the hands of his enemies; and by this constitution there is another tyranny erected over him, and that of another kind, it is that of his arch-enemy the devil; whose interest it is to maintain and support sin, and whose creature indeed it is, by maintaining whose possession he effectually secures his own; whence we may assure ourselves, all his power, malice and cunning will be laid out this way; and who must therefore be vanquished, his power broken, and himself dispossessed, and thrown out, before any soul can be saved from sin.

There is yet another enemy, which sin has raised; as a ready instrument, to execute the will and pleasure of the former, it is the world, which, since the curse fell upon it, is good for nothing but to support and maintain sin; and which is thereby become such a stated enemy unto God, that the apostle James assures us, one cannot be a friend with it, without being an enemy to him. This also must be overcome, since there is no compounding with it.

But sin has done yet more toward securing its possession, insomuch that it has wrought so by its enchantments, that man is become his own worst enemy. His nature is so vitiated and debauched, that as he can relish nothing but sin, so he is ready to fall out with any, as his mortal enemy, who shall attempt to rob him of his imaginary pleasures. Hence enmity against God is now become the best definition the Spirit of God gives of man, in this his strangely degenerate state; nor is there any way of deliverance besides this one, of new molding the soul, and restoring it unto that rectitude, which sin has ruined and destroyed.

From this short account of man's natural state, it is easy to see, how utterly impossible it is for any man to accomplish deliverance for himself, from this bondage and thralldom into which sin has brought him; nay, how impossible it is for any created power to do so. It is unto God he stands bound, and that by a most just and righteous constitution, and from which none but himself can release; or, though this were done, what strength has he to wrestle against principalities and powers? Against the blandishments and threats of a world alternately displayed upon him? especially when all within is ready to join issue with them.

Man's powers being thus broken, and access denied him unto life, in the way of his own doing, it is abundantly evident, if he has so much as a moment's reprieve from the threatened vengeance, it must be owing entirely unto the mercy of God; much more, if ever he has life bestowed upon him, it must not, cannot be by virtue of this covenant, which speaks nothing to a fallen sinner but dread, terrors, and death. And the same reasons, which make it impossible under this, will, at the same time, show us the insufficiency of any other of the same kind; I mean, where life is suspended upon man's own doing, and such a threatening annexed unto the transgression of it.

Hence also we will see, that the promises which were sufficient to Adam, in a state of innocency, are far from being so unto us now, that sin and death have entered upon, and made such havoc and spoil in the world; and one may easily perceive, how the salvation, promised in the gospel, must be of a much larger extent, than that life which was held forth in the covenant of works. Two things especially this salvation holds forth unto us, according to these two views we took of sin, deliverance from the guilt of it, and the obligations it laid us under to punishment, according to the law, and deliverance from the stain, filth and pollution of it; the effects of its opposition unto the holiness of God; together with all that is necessary to put an end unto its tyranny and dominion, in both these views.