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THEOLOGY > Sin > Man's Disobedience > The Principle of Identification 


Throughout the Scriptures the principle of identification constitutes the method of God’s dealing with the race. This principle is seen in relationship to evil and good, both in Adam and Christ; that is, the race is identified with each, either with Adam in his sin or with Christ and His salvation.

Some of the concepts associated with identification are usually associated with the principle popularly known as representation, a word that is most often used of Adam and Christ and their relationship to those they represent. But emphases have also accrued to this word making its continued use problematic. While the choice of words is not a major point and possibly does not even qualify as a minor point, the use of identification rather than representation will be made by this study.

To represent means to stand in the place of or to take the place of another in some respect, usually with some type of delegated authority that is legal in nature. In representation there is a certain detachment between the person and those the person represents, so that between Adam and Christ and those associated with each respectively there is distance in the sense that the one stands for the other, so that the deed and consequences of the deed are passed to the other in a judicial sense.

Subsequent to the Reformation representation has come to be closely associated with Federal or Covenant Theology, one of the possible frameworks by which to organize and interpret Scripture. While the framework is not explicitly found in Scripture, its use is justified by its adherents through subtle references in Scripture and logical conclusions drawn from these references. From this perspective representation is associated with the idea of a covenant and legal imputation, the judicial transference of consequences from one to another.

Even though there is a substitutionary and possible legal element in God’s dealing with men (“the just for the unjust” – I Pet. 3:18), to elevate the forensic motif to the dominant position in redemptive understanding is unconsciously to remove or reduce the dynamic character of God’s dealing with man; the dealings become too fixed, rational, and legalistic. Missing is the energetic personal element with its moral dimension.

Involved in the suffering of One for the sin of others is the judicial principle, that is, the fact that a penalty must be paid for sin and that the penalty that is paid can be applied to another; but that is not the sum of the matter. For instance, note the words “for,” “just,” and “unjust” in the above statement; while “for” denotes the transaction, a fixed and legal transaction, the other two words specify the persons involved in the transaction. The statement is about a transaction, but it is also about the persons affected by the transaction. The Gospel is about a deed, but in a greater sense it is about the consequences of that deed when it is applied to persons. Ultimately, the Gospel is the announcement of a deed and also the application of that deed to persons. It is individuals who are saved and reconciled to God.

Again the point can be made that the entire matter of God’s dealing with man when interpreted solely in terms of a forensic model becomes too devoid of the personal dimensions. Judicial aspects cannot be excised from theology because the Scriptures are definitive, but the forensic character cannot be so interpreted that it controls other aspects and becomes the dominating factor. In the covenant model representation has developed this unnecessary and unhealthy baggage, albeit unintentionally. It is probably impossible to extricate representation from its understanding as advocated by Federal Theology. Therefore, the move to a new word is desirable.

In identification the emphasis is on unity or oneness, with the accompanying idea of sameness—so that as is the one so is the other. In identification there is no separation between the two; to speak of the one is to speak of the other. The one does not stand in the place of another, nor is the deed of the one applied to the other, but the one is identified with the other; there is no relationship at a distance as in representation.

From this perspective then to speak of Adam is to speak of the race in its sin with the accompanying corruption and depravity, and to speak of Christ is to speak of those the Father has given to Him, or to speak of His people that He came to save. In the identification associated with the two is a solidarity with those each is identified. So intimate is the relationship between the two (Adam and his descendants, Christ and His people) that to speak of the deed and consequences of either is to include those individuals in the accomplishments and consequences of each deed, whether Adam or Christ. There is a sameness between Adam and Christ and the people with whom each is identified—so that as is the one (Adam or Christ) so is the other (the people).

There is an identification at the deepest and most intimate level; it is not just the judicial transference of consequences, but it is the interpenetration of persons such that the sinful life of the one (Adam) becomes the life of the other (the race), and the spiritual life of the One (Christ) becomes the Life of the other (elect). So the relationship is that of persons not that of the court-room. This allows the personal dimensions to have emphases: in terms of Adam the dimensions are tragic and destructive of hope, while in terms of Christ the dimensions are uplifting with hints of glory.

Identification does not choose between the mechanics of a covenant-representation or a realistic-seminal association, but simply affirms that, according to Scripture, Adam is identified with his people and Christ is identified with His people. Each is identified in such a manner that the one is associated with the other, so the deed of Adam and its consequences becomes identified with the race, and the deed of Christ and its consequences becomes identified with those God has determined to save. The deed of each is the deed of each, but because of this principle the deed of each is identified with those associated with each, either Adam or Christ (see: Two Men: Adam and Christ).

The mechanics of the identification are not to be sought, for they are not recorded in the Canon. Scripture plainly teaches the identification, and thus it is accepted. But the meticulous workings of the identification cannot be specified; unwarranted speculation is without profit. Man cannot exhaust the mind of God, and some concepts must be left alone.

Identification does not imply equality, in terms of Adam and the race and especially in terms of Christ and His people. Though there is identification or union between Christ and those He saves, the ontological distinction between the two is maintained; the one is not merged with or absorbed by the Other. In contrast to the eastern religions the redeemed do not become one with Deity in essence; the saved do not partake of Deity or of the attributes of Deity. The dissimilarity between the two is maintained in both time and eternity, though the identification between the two is real. The point is that the identification does not obliterate the distinction.

Identification makes possible the imputation in a real and literal sense, not merely in a judicial or forensic sense; the identification becomes personal and intimate. Therefore, the identification is viewed more as a moral relationship than as a legal matter. While there are legal dimensions, the basic perspective should be ethical in nature; that is, man as sinner and in need of salvation, and man as reconciled to God by personal faith in Christ. Ultimately, the Scriptures are concerned with personal relationships, not legal transactions. It is true that the legal transactions form the foundations for the relationships, but it must be remembered, that the transactions are a means to an end and not the end.

The terminology in Scripture supports this individual and close relationship that is conveyed by the idea of identification, especially in terms of Christ:

Because I live, you also will live (Jo. 14:19); you in Me and I in you (Jo 14:20 ); abide in Me and I in you (Jo. 15:4); that they also may be one in Us (Jo. 17:21); I in them (Jo. 17:26); if we have been united with Him in a death like His (Rom. 6:5); our old self was crucified with Him (Rom. 6:6); if we have died with Christ (Rom. 6:8); if Christ is in you (Rom. 8:10); fellow heirs with Christ (Rom. 8:17); provided we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him (Rom. 8:17); we, though many, are one body in Christ (Rom. 12:5); they were in Christ before me (Rom. 16:7); your bodies are members of Christ (I Cor. 6:15); you are the body of Christ (I Cor. 12:27); in Christ shall all be made alive (I Cor. 15:22); we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven (I Cor. 15:49); if anyone is in Christ (II Cor. 5:17); Christ who lives in me (Gal. 2:20); baptized into Christ (Gal. 3:27); you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28); blessed us in Christ (Eph. 1:3); He chose us in Him (Eph. 1:4); for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:5); He has blessed us in the Beloved (Eph. 1:6); in Him we have redemption (Eph. 1:7); in Him we have obtained an inheritance (Eph. 1:11); in Him you . . . were sealed (Eph. 1:13); He worked in Christ (Eph. 1:20); made us alive together with Christ (Eph. 2:5); raised us up with Him (Eph. 2:6); seated us with Him (Eph. 2:6); kindness toward us in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:7); created in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:10); in Christ Jesus you . . . have been brought near (Eph. 2:13); to live is Christ (Phil. 1:21); Christ in you the hope of glory (Col. 1:27); if then you have been raised with Christ (Col. 3:1); Christ who is your life (Col. 3:4); you will also appear with Him in glory (Col. 3:4); if we have died with Him, we will also live with Him (II Tim. 2:11) we will also reign with Him (II Tim. 2:12); we have come to share in Christ (Heb. 3:14); you share Christ’s sufferings (I Pet. 4:13).

What is the best word to describe the flavor or meaning of the above phrases? Surely it is the word “identification”; in all of the above instances Christ and His people are closely associated, so closely that they are said to be “one.” The believer is identified with Christ in His life, suffering, death, burial, resurrection, reign, and glory. There is an interpenetration of the persons in the relationship, a mutual sharing with blessings accruing to the believer because of his identification with Christ. Unmistakable is the solidarity or sameness of the believer with his Lord—it is a union of persons.

Can this identification of the race with Adam and the elect with Christ be justified? That is, what can be affirmed that will validate such a concept whereby the acts of one can affect another, be applied to another, accrue to another, be given to another, or be identified with another? Is such thinking Biblical? Several observations will be made.

One, there are examples in Scripture of individuals suffering because of the sins committed by others. For instance, the sailors on the ship endured the storm because of Jonah’s rebellion and race from God; Saul’s family lost the right to rule on the throne after Saul because of his disobedience; three thousand Philistines lost their lives because Samson had previously cut his hair. Scripture and life abound with such examples. In these instances the sin of the one and the consequences of that sin are visited upon others. It matters not how the transaction is verbalized or intellectually explained, the truth is that the transaction takes place; and the transaction takes place because of the principle of identification. Sin impacts more than just the sinner. The sin of the one can and does affect the many.

Two, there is the teaching of Scripture that children suffer for the sins of parents and grandparents. God declares: “I Yahweh your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Ex. 20:5; Deut. 5:9-10), and “Yahweh . . . visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Ex. 34:6-7). Later Moses affirms that the Lord will visit “the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Num. 14:18).

Constantly this principle is seen in daily life: psychological suffering of children because of broken homes and divorce; physical deformity due to the practice of immorality by the expectant mother; financial privation because parents do not practice proper money management; spiritual poverty because parents serve some god rather than the true God. Examples proliferate of this truth. The sins of parents and the consequences of the sins of parents are visited upon their children and grandchildren. Children suffer evil because of the evil of their parents and their identification with their parents.

Three, the Gospel affirms that Christ suffered for His people. Not for his own sin but for the sin of others Christ suffered and died, “the righteous for the unrighteous” (I Pet. 3:18). The angel said that His name would be Jesus, “for He will save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). In order to save His people He who knew no sin had to be made sin (II Cor. 5:21), and the sin that was given to Him was the sin of others. Thus, in the very act of the Atonement, this principle of identification is crucial.

Four, there is our confidence that God is holy and does what is right. In fact, when His own Son unjustly suffered for the sins of others, the Scriptures attest that it pleased the Father: “It was the will of Yahweh to crush Him; He has put Him to grief” (Isa. 53:10). Also the prophet declares that Yahweh laid on Him our iniquity and that the Christ was smitten by God (vs. 6, 4). Would God submit His Son to an unholy act? Is God not three times holy? The real question is not the validity of the principle, but the character of God—identification is the doing of God.

If it be accepted that the sins of others were given to Christ, then why is it an unacceptable thought to think that the sin of Adam was given to the race? Identification is operative in both acts and dominates the acts.

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