The central doctrine in Relly’s theology was the belief that the atonement and justification must be understood in terms of union with Christ. All human beings died with Christ on the cross. Faith is not a condition for justification, but only the knowledge that one has already been justified by Christ.
This summer I have enjoyed studying James Relly’s Epistles, or the Great Salvation Contemplated from 1776. James Relly (1722–1778) was a Methodist minister, but his theology differed much from fellow Methodists. The central doctrine in Relly’s theology was the belief that the atonement and justification must be understood in terms of union with Christ. Humankind is united to Christ in such a way that all human beings are considered as one person with Him. This is a well-known idea in classical and modern theology (compare Relly’s thought with, e.g., Athanasius and Barth), but Relly takes the consequences against the widespread over-emphasis on faith as the condition for justification in much ‘evangelical’ theology:
”When Christ was made a curse for us, all the threatenings wherewith the sinner and the ungodly are threatened, were executed on them in him: the authority and equity of which transaction have their rise, 1. from the will of God; 2. from Christ’s voluntary undertaking; and, 3. from the kindred oneness subsisting between him and the people. According to which, through the whole of his obedience and death, He and they were considered in the eye of justice, as one person: and sinners without distinction, were chastised in him. This is what is called in the Old Testament, “the day of the Lord, a day of darkness, gloominess, and of the shadow of death. The day of Christ’s sufferings, is the day of which the prophet spake: the day which should burn as an oven, and the character of the sinner cease from man, as presented unto God in Christ.” (Relly 1776, pp.72f)
Just as all human beings became sinners with Adam, all became righteous with Christ. As all human beings died with Christ at the cross, all have received the due punishment for sin already. There can hardly be said to be a ’transaction’ of righteousness from Christ to believers through faith, but all human beings suffered the just punishments for sin as they all died with Christ on the cross. Faith is not the condition for union with Christ, but the knowledge, that one has already died with Christ. The only distinction between ’saved’ believers and ’unsaved’ unbelievers is that believers enjoy the comfort of this knowledge here and now, while unbelievers are still unaware that they are already saved in principle. On the words of Psalm 65:2, ”Unto thee shall all flesh come”, Relly argues that this promise is already fulfilled, in the person of Christ:
”Jesus hath, in himself, brought up, all flesh to God; unto whom he hath presented them holy and irreprovable: nor will he cease to rule, until what is true in him, shall be true in them also: until all flesh shall come to the knowledge and enjoyment of his salvation.” (Relly 1776, p. 40)
All human beings have been crucified with Christ, and are thus in principle dead from their sins. This is what Paul meant when he said that he was ”crucified with Christ” in Gal. 2:20:
”Mankind were so comprehended in the person of Christ, through all that he did and suffered, that the soul that sinned died, and every man suffered for his own sin. This is a doctrine familiar to an apostolic christian, who can say as the apostle said, “I am crucified with Christ.”” (Relly 1776, p. 110)
But not only did all human beings die with Christ on the cross. As Christ has fulfilled ”all righteousness”, so have human beings who were united with him.
”Our obligation to obey the law, in order to life eternal; our sins, and penalties due to them, were all made Christ’s in his doings and sufferings; and his resurrection state, in all its success, power, and purity, is ours: “he being made sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” Upon this view and faith of the gospel, the judgment which we form of ourselves, is according to Christ. Has he fulfilled all righteousness? So have we. Is he justified? So are we. Is he accepted of God? So are we. Does he live for ever? So do we: for he hath said, “Because I live, ye shall live also:” hence, we are taught to reckon ourselves dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God by Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Relly 1776, pp. 125f)
Jesus Christ has kept the commandments for us, so that we are considered righteous in him. This might sound like the traditional (protestant) doctrine of Christ’s passive and active vicarious obedience, but notice that Relly is not saying, that Jesus has kept the commandment in our place, but rather that we in some indirect sense have actually kept the commandments through our union with him.
”Therefore, the perfect character of loving God, and keeping his commandments, belongs to Jesus Christ our Lord, and to him only: but as we are made the righteousness of God in Christ, as Christ occupied our nature and persons, in all his doings, sufferings, and obtainments, he has cloathed us with his own garment of salvation, and robe of righteousness; nor is he ashamed to call us brethren. Hence, we are of him who loved God and kept his commandments, and therefore we obtain mercy.” (Relly 1776, p. 111)
A central argument in Relly’s thought is that unbelief in the Gospel can only really be termed unbelief, if the Gospel is true independently on belief. Only if a person is actually saved by Christ can it be said to be an instance of unbelief, if that person does not believe that he or she is saved. To deny the gospel is to deny the fact, that one is already saved, but this denial does not change that fact, which is why it can be said that unbelief makes God ”a liar” (1 John 5:10). To die in ”one’s sins” (John 8:24) means to die while holding the mistaken belief, that one has not been forgiven:
”And thus I would understand the text: “If you believe not that I am he, you shall die in your sins.” But this has no allusion to the final state of man: for, from the text, it is manifest, that their being and dying in their sins, is wholly owing to their ubelief: but unbelief is a lye against the truth; the truth is, that Jesus is their Saviour, who hath saved them from their sins: that he is their wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption: but unbelief influencing the mind to reject the truth, the conscience formed on the principle, retains, in its sense, and guilt, and fear, the very iniquity which the blood of Jesus has expiated; and which God remembers no more. Unbelief in its term, supposes a resistance of truth, yea of revealed truth, yea, of permanent unchangeable truth. For on that moment, the matter which unbelief opposes, ceases to answer to the characters of truth; the opposition ceaseth to be, unbelief is no longer unbelief: it is no longer criminal, but praise worthy.” (Relly 1776, p. 127)
That the gospel is true even before it is believed means that faith is not a condition of participation in Christ, but rather a result of coming to know, that one has already died with Christ as a result of the union between Christ and humankind:
”What is not true, until it is believed, affords no foundation to build upon: it is drawing the line, or plummet, over chaos; and laying the foundation upon space. And yet, that God loves us, and laid the iniquities of us all upon Jesus, that Jesus died for our sins, and put them away by the sacrifice of himself; though preached in the gospel, is not (according to modern systems) true until it is believed. Thus man’s faith is made to give virtue and dignity to the blood of Jesus, and what renders it propitiatory for sin. Yea, Christ himself is formed by faith, if we are to believe, that “an unapplied Christ is no Christ at all.”” (Relly 1776, p. 234)
As was the case with many primitive Particular Baptists such as Samuel Richardson and later John Gill, this meant for Relly, that human beings were made righteous by Christ before coming to faith (though, of course, for the Particular Baptists this was only true in respect of the few ’elect’). Faith is not a means of or a condition for righteousness, but only the revelation of a righteousness which is already there. On 1 Tim. 2:6, where Jesus Christ is said to be ”a ransom for all, to be testified in due time”, Relly says:
”If Jesus gave himself a ransom for all, then are all ransomed: the prey is taken from the mighty, and the lawful captives are delivered: they are ransomed from the dominion of sin, from the curse of the law, and from everlasting death. Thus stands the case with all the children of Adam, as ransomed by Jesus Christ, who, in consequence thereof, are spotless before God. But this is to be testified in due time, i.e. to be made appear or known — which intends, that there is a time with God called the due time, when this truth, that all mankind are ransomed from sin, and from all its consequences, by Jesus Christ, shall be published on the housetop, shall be made manifest to all; not in the report only; but in the blessed, full, and eternal enjoyment thereof.” (Relly 1776, p. 60f)
Perseverance to eternal life is not due to faith, but to Christ (Relly 1776, p. 231). The fact that some do not have faith yet, does not mean that they are not already ”saved” in an eternal sense, but only that those without faith are not aware of their salvation.
”All the children of Adam do not at present know, that judgment came upon them to condemnation by his offence; nay, there are thousands who deny it. But does it follow from thence, that it is not true? Quite the reverse. Their ignorance and opposition confirm the proposition, that all are dead in him. Neither does man’s ignorance of it, nor even his opposition to it, indicate, that the free gift is not come upon him to jusitification of life. It is rather a proof of the free gift.” (Relly 1776, pp. 45f)
Jesus Christ is, says Relly, simultaneously reprobate and the elect, who is predestinated to eternal life, and in him are human beings elected and predestinated to life. Thus Relly’s doctrine of election and atonement is similar to Karl Barth’s in many aspects.
”Jesus, as our fore-runner, is the elect, precious, the predestinated to eternal life; and such are the people in him: He took not on him angels, but he took on him the seed of Abraham: This is their election. Christ also sustained the reprobate character, when made sin for us, and when encompassed with the sorrows of death, and the pains of hell.” (Relly 1776, p. 10f)
In other words, ”When the scriptures speak of the blessed man, Christ is intended: and when they speak of the miserable man, they still mean Christ.” (Relly 1776, p. 227ff). Those who we call ’the elect’, i.e. the church of believers, are not elected at the expense of the non-elect, but are simply those to whom the truth of the gospel is revealed here and now:
”Hence, I propose, that the elect are not a people chosen to be the objects of God’s love and salvation, to the final exclusion of others: but a people chosen to believe the truth, and to rejoice in the salvation of Jesus in time; while others yet remain in a state of ignorance, of what they are equally entitled to with the elect.” (Relly 1776, pp. 27f)
Faith results from God’s choice, i.e. election, not the other way around. Against the erroneous belief in conditional salvation, e.g. Arminianism, Relly argues in traditional Calvinist manner, that God is sovereign and that grace is irresistible:
”The will of God our Saviour is absolute, immutable, and irresistible. The scriptures teach this. After many trials, possibly experience corroborates it. Is it then a mark of humility, self-denial, or lowliness of heart, to submit to his will, the fixed unalterable will of God, which neither men nor angels can resist? Nay, there is no virtue in submitting to what we cannot avoid.” (Relly 1776, p. 56)
In his interpretation of Jesus’ eschatological parables Relly turns out to suggest a preterist reading, i.e., that the judgments of God are not future, but past events:
”I am not persuaded, that the separation of the sheep and the goats, spoken of by our Saviour, is yet future. It was so indeed to the time of our Lord’s speaking it; because he was not then glorified. But why may it not be supposed, that he was then speaking of matters to be effected by his decease, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem? I can easily conceive his cross to be the throne of his gloty; and that all nations were gathered there before him, and that he there made the separation between the sheep and the goats, i.e. between mankind and their sins, as a shepherd divideth the sheep from the goats:” (Relly 1776, p. 77)
This does not mean, however, that there will be no distinction after death between those who ”die in their sins” and those who have faith. Those who die without knowing the gospel, will be in a state of fear of future torments. God does not inflict punishments, but the mere belief that one will be punished, even if mistaken, is in itself a kind of torment. But, again, this distinction between those who believe and those who do not is merely a matter of knowledge, as all human beings have been made righteous through their union with Christ:
”[…]at the general resurrection, some will arise in a perfect consciousness of righteousness and salvation; and are therefore said to come forth to the resurrection of life; while such whose conscience retain their iniquities, will, under that consciousness, arise to the resurrection of damnation. Thus I take the text to mean the different apprehensions, under which mankind will arise at the last day: some in full assurance of a resurrection to life, and others under an apprehension of a resurrection to damnation. But it does not follow they must suffer what they fear.” (Relly 1776, p. 93)
It should be noticed, that even if he defends the belief, that all human beings will eventually be saved, Relly does not state this belief dogmatically. We can only hope, that all human beings will eventually know that they were already saved, as Christ finally reveals himself to all, when all knees will bow, etc.
As is also the case with Elhanan Winchester and others, Relly believed that true experiental knowledge of God’s grace leads to a belief in the infinite scope of grace. Only when limited by human reasoning and systems of thought, is grace believed to be limited to a few:
”Who, that has tasted that God is gracious; who, that has considered his loving-kindness, can yet hesitate to believe, that God is good and gracious unto every man; yea, that his great good will extends to the children of men universally, without respect of persons?” (Relly 1776, p. 35)
When theologians have tried to limit the scope or efficiency of grace, this is only due to their natural dispositions to impose their own limited ideas of goodness and love to God:
”It is customary among men, yea, it is natural to them, to consider their own frames, dispositions, feelings, and opinions, as picturesque of sacred Deity-Hence they aim at setting bounds to the goodness of God, and to the riches of his love: to the freeness, fulness, and extent of his salvation, they constantly object, ‘it is too good to be true;’ as if the human mind had a capacity to conceive of goodness, beyond the power, the love, or will of God, to exercise towards his creature!” (Relly 1776, p. 159)
But rather than trying to impose our systems to Scripture we should be aware, that the Scripture sometimes take the perspective of limited human beings:
”The scriptures speak of things, sometimes as they are with God, and at other times, as the ignorance, unbelief, and fears of man represent them; […] where they speak of the resurrection of the just, and of the unjust; and of some arising to the resurrection of life, and others to the resurrection of damnation; they respect the different consciousness under which mankind are in their death, and at their resurrection: […] But it does not follow, that they stand thus distinguished in the eye and purpose of God; who having loved mankind, and given them grace in Christ, he beholds them only in that grace and person.” (Relly 1776, p. 173f)
This is great stuff. Download it here: James Relly – Epistles, or the Great Salvation Contemplated (pdf)