Volume 38 - Issue 3

“The Voice of His Blood”: Christ’s Intercession in the Thought of Stephen Charnock

By Gavin Ortlund


The nineteenth-century Scottish Presbyterian theologian William Symington wrote concerning Christ’s intercession, “in a practical and consolatory point of view, its interest is not exceeded even by the Atonement. The two are, however, inseparably connected; although we fear that, in this instance, men have not been sufficiently aware of the evil of putting asunder what God has joined together.” It seems that in much contemporary evangelical thought the doctrine of Christ’s intercession has been underappreciated . . . .

The nineteenth-century Scottish Presbyterian theologian William Symington wrote concerning Christ’s intercession, “in a practical and consolatory point of view, its interest is not exceeded even by the Atonement. The two are, however, inseparably connected; although we fear that, in this instance, men have not been sufficiently aware of the evil of putting asunder what God has joined together.”1 It seems that in much contemporary evangelical thought the doctrine of Christ’s intercession has been underappreciated or neglected, despite its rich “practical and consolatory” significance.2 In circles where people have explored the intercessory work of Christ, there has been considerable disagreement as to its relationship to the broader saving work of Christ and especially Christ’s atoning death. William Milligan, another nineteenth-century Scottish Presbyterian theologian, argued that just as the high priest’s sprinkling blood in the Holy of Holies marked the completion of the Day of Atonement sacrifice in Lev 16, so Christ’s heavenly intercession marks the completion of his earthly atoning death. As with the type, so with antitype: the work of atonement is not complete until the presentation of the sacrifice.3

Some contemporary evangelical theologians have followed in this train of thought. I. Howard Marshall, for example, writes, “the work of atonement was not completed until something had been done in heaven that ratified what has been done on the cross; at that point the sacrifice is complete.”4 In an important new monograph, David Moffitt goes a step further, arguing that in the book of Hebrews, Jesus’ heavenly presentation is not merely the completion of atonement, but itself the complete act of atonement.5 Noting that in Leviticus, the blood of an animal represents its life (Lev 17:11), Moffitt argues that in Hebrews, Christ’s offering his blood refers to his post-ascension heavenly presentation.6 While Christ’s death is an essential preparatory step for his heavenly atonement and exemplifies righteous suffering par excellence, it is not itself atoning.7 Moffitt concludes that Christ’s resurrection has greater soteriological significance in Hebrews than has previously been detected in contemporary scholarship since it marks the crucial transition point leading to Christ’s heavenly atonement.8

The purpose of this article is to examine the treatment of Christ’s intercession by the Puritan theologian Stephen Charnock, particularly as it stands in relation to Christ’s death9 and particularly with a view to its practical and devotional use.10 Charnock’s treatment of Christ’s intercession provides a helpful model for how to neither divorce intercession from atonement (thus, as Symington warned, “putting asunder what God has joined together”) nor overwork their relationship (as I argue below that Milligan, Marshall, and Moffitt do). Stated positively, Charnock preserves both the unity of Christ’s saving work and the distinctness and interrelation of its various components. For him, Christ’s heavenly intercession and his earthly atonement stand together in an inseparable relationship as the two correlate components of his priestly ministry, serving the same great end of the salvation of sinners. Nevertheless, by construing Christ’s intercession as the application of atonement rather than the completion of atonement, Charnock maintains the finality and centrality of Christ’s atoning work at the cross. Although an examination of Charnock’s treatment of Christ’s intercession will not constitute a thorough refutation Milligan’s or Moffitt’s view, it may shed light on this neglected but valuable doctrine and open up new avenues of thought concerning its relation to the broader work of Christ.

1. Christ’s Intercession in Relation to Atonement

1.1. Accomplishment and Application

At the beginning of his exposition of 1 John 2:1, Charnock defines Christ’s intercession: “Christ is an advocate with the Father in heaven, continually handling the concerns of believers, and effectually prevailing for their full remission and salvation upon the account of the propitiation made by his death.”11 Already in the italicized portion of this definition appears the dominant theme or emphasis that emerges throughout Charnock’s treatment of Christ’s intercession, namely, its close relationship with Christ’s atoning death. Early on Charnock writes that intercession “is a commemoration of the sacrifice which he offered on earth for our expiation; and the whole power of intercession, with the prevalency of it, is wholly upon this foundation. . . . He speaks by his blood, and his blood speaks by its merit.”12 Charnock reiterates this close atonement-intercession relationship again and again so that at every angle he shows the significance of intercession in relation to atonement, and the images and metaphors that describe intercession draw heavily from atonement. Specifically, as Charnock’s argument deepens, he teases out the significance of intercession in terms of the application of atonement: at the cross, Christ accomplishes a perfect atonement; now, from his heavenly throne, Christ continually applies the benefits of that accomplishment to believers “to preserve by his life the salvation he had merited by his death.”13

Thus, for Charnock, the movement from Christ’s earthly priestly work to his heavenly priestly work is not best represented as a movement merely from the part to the whole, from the inauguration of a work to its consummation, from “phase 1” to “phase 2” of one continuous process, as implied by the more staunch assertions of those in the Milligan tradition. Rather, for Charnock, the movement from Christ’s earthly priestly work to his heavenly priestly work is better represented as a movement from accomplishment to application, from deed to consequence, from event to implication, from “merit” to “preservation.” In other words, the movement is not begun finished, but finished spoken. This conception of the atonement-intercession relationship is evident in the legal language Charnocks uses to describe atonement and intercession. He calls them, respectively, “bill” and “answer;” “acceptation” and “negotiation”; “purchase” and “suing out [of that purchase]”; “payment” and “plea.”14 He can also use the language of “made/managed” and “done/performed” to describe their relationship,15 or the image of foundation and superstructure.16 A sample quotation gives a flavor of Charnock’s treatment:

Because he paid the debt as our surety, he was fit to plead the payment as our attorney; what he finished on earth, he continually presents in heaven. By shedding his blood, he makes expiation; by presenting his blood, he makes intercession; in the one he prepares the remedy, and in the other he applies it. They are not the same acts, but the first act is the foundation of the second, and the second hath a connection with the first.17

The most obvious consequence to construing the atonement-intercession relation as an accomplishment-application relation is that the two become very tightly related, such that the significance of intercession becomes impossible to conceive of apart from the atonement. Thus, to provide one example of this method of argumentation, Charnock’s treatment of what kind of intercessor Christ is in section II of his piece is anchored on every point in Christ’s atoning death:

  • Christ is an authoritative intercessor because of the merit of his death and its claims upon divine justice.18
  • Christ is a skillful intercessor because of his experience being tested to the extreme during his earthly life, including Gethsemane and Calvary.19
  • Christ is a righteous and faithful intercessor because what he pleads for is not contrary to God’s will, but in accordance with the benefits of his death.20
  • Christ is a compassionate intercessor because “his intercession springs from the same tenderness towards us as his oblation, and both are but the displaying of his excessive charity.”21
  • Christ is a ready and diligent intercessor because after his death he passed into heaven and thus remains always at the right hand of God to observe our needs.22
  • Christ is an earnest and pressing intercessor because he has died once for all and now has nothing to divert his attention from securing the happiness of his people.23
  • Christ is a joyful and cheerful intercessor because “his death was sweet to him after his resurrection.”24
  • Christ is an acceptable advocate because his sacrifice is like a sweet incense to God.
  • Christ is the sole advocate (contrary to the doctrine of Rome) because “he only hath the right to plead for us, who had the right to purchase us.”25

1.2. Perfect Atonement Entails Effectual Intercession

But for Charnock it is not merely the fact of atonement that establishes Christ’s intercession, but its nature.26 Charnock does not say merely that atonement entails intercession, but that perfect atonement entails effectual intercession. As Charnock writes, “the efficacy of his plea depends on the value and purity of his sacrifice.”27 And elsewhere: “he could not have been a prevailing pleader if he had not first been an appeasing propitiator. His standing up as a solicitor for us had been of little efficacy, if the atonement he made on the cross had not been first judged sufficient.”28 Nor is it sufficient in Charnock’s thought to say that atonement makes intercession merely possible. For Charnock, atonement ensures the reality and success of intercession. Christ must intercede for us, for his blood is by its very nature a speaking blood: “his blood must be speechless blood before he can be a silent advocate.”29 Charnock makes this point later at greater length:

His intercession must be as powerful as his satisfaction . . . . His death may as soon want its virtue as his intercession its efficacy . . . . If his blood be incorruptible, as being precious in the eyes of God, his intercessions are undeniable, as having an equal value in God’s account . . . . There is a necessary connection between the perfection of the one and the prevalency of the other . . . . His merit must be deficient before his intercession can be successless; and his blood will not want a voice while his death retains a satisfactory sufficiency.30

1.3. Creation : Providence :: Atonement : Intercession

Charnock also highlights the close relationship between atonement and intercession by comparing it to the relationship between creation and providence:

Christ is as much an advocate as he is a sacrifice, as God is as much as governor as he was a creator. As we say of providence, it is a continued creation, so of intercession, it is a continued oblation. As providence is a maintaining the creation, so this intercession is a maintaining the expiation, and therefore is by some called a presentative oblation.31

This analogy highlights the close, organic relationship between atonement and intercession as well as the importance of intercession in Christ’s priestly work, for here intercession becomes not merely the application of atonement but its extension and continuation. It is a “continued oblation . . . a maintaining the expiation . . . a presentative oblation.”

But even here Charnock’s treatment differs from that of Milligan and Moffitt (as well as Roman Catholic and Socinian models of Christ’s priestly ministry). Specifically, Charnock may speak of intercession as an extension of atonement, but not as part of the act of atonement. To make the distinction at its most razor-sharp edge, Charnoock refers to intercession as a continuation of atonement but not as the completion of atonement. The definite, completed nature of atonement in Charnock’s thought may be detected in his opposition, along with Owen and his other Puritan contemporaries, to the Socinian overemphasis on Christ’s heavenly work as a priest. With this danger in view, Charnock writes,

a propitiation and his advocacy are not one in the same thing (as the Socinians affirm) but distinct; the one is the payment, the other the plea; one was made on earth, the other is managed in heaven; the one was by his death, the other by his life; the one was done but once, the other performed perpetually: the first is the foundation for the second.32

Similarly, elsewhere Charnock rejects the idea of eternal sacrifice because Christ “cannot die again.”33

For Charnock, the perpetual duration of Christ’s intercession, its heavenly location, and its historical distance from Christ’s death all signal points of discontinuity with its typical precursor in Lev 16. Charnock may speak of intercession as the application of atonement and even the extension of atonement, but the actual accomplishment of atonement belongs to Christ’s earthly work as priest.34 By the same token, and to locate Charnock’s language within his own metaphor, providence may be called the sustaining of creation, but it is not best conceived of as the completion of creation. We must therefore construe Christ’s priestly ministry as follows:

priestly ministry = atonement (earthly death) + intercession (heavenly life)

Rather than this:

priestly ministry (atonement/intercession) = earthly death + heavenly life

This distinction may appear fine-tuned, but it preserves for Charnock the definite nature of atonement as presented in the NT, as represented in the decisive finality of Christ’s cry at the cross, “it is finished.”35

1.4. Meritorious and Applicational Causes

The close relationship between atonement and intercession in Charnock’s thought is also evident in their respective causal relationships with regard to justification. For Charnock, both atonement and intercession cause justification, but in different ways:

though our propitiation made on the cross by the blood of Christ be the meritorious cause of our justification, yet the intercession upon the throne made by the same blood of Christ, as a speaking blood, is the immediate moving cause, or the causa applicans, of our justification . . . . The propitiation Christ made on the cross, made God capable of justifying us, in an honourable way; but the intercession of Christ, as pleading that propitiation for us, procures our actual justification. The death of Christ accepted made justification possible, and the death of Christ pleaded by him, makes justification actual.36

In an extended legal metaphor, Charnock portrays the Father as judge, Satan as prosecuting attorney, the believer as the accused criminal, sin against God’s law as our crime, our conscience as a witness, and Christ as our advocate. In the imagery of this courtroom setting, Christ is both the satisfaction of the law on our behalf (atonement) as well as the attorney who pleads the case of that satisfaction to the judge, in opposition to the prosecutor’s case (intercession). The satisfaction of the law makes the believer’s acquittal possible, but it still requires the advocate’s case to actually bring about the judge’s sentence.

Elsewhere Charnock employs the metaphor of written letter versus personal appearance to illustrate the difference between these two causes of justification:

A letter from a friend is not so successful as a personal appearance for gaining a suit. This death were meritorious, his prayer must be so too, as being put up in virtue of his meritorious blood; and though we are reconciled by his death, we are saved by his life, with a much more, Rom. v. 10; not formally in regard of merit, for that was the effect of his death, but in regard of application of that merit, the end for which he lives, to render it efficacious to us, as it had been in his passion valuable for us.”37

Thus for Charnock, Christ’s death is like a formal written notice of sorts, meriting a certain outcome (justification), and his intercession is like the personal appearance and delivery of that notice to secure that outcome. Without both of these causes, the merit and application, the law’s satisfaction and the advocate’s case, the formal letter and the personal appearance, there would be no actual justification of sinners.

And not only this, but what is said of justification here may also extend to every other aspect of our salvation. Atonement is the meritorious, objective cause of our adoption, our cleansing, our indwelling, our inheritance, etc.; but intercession is the applicational and moving cause of these same realities. Every good blessing we receive from God was purchased for us at the cross, but we receive these blessings on a moment-by-moment basis as a direct result of Christ’s intercession from his throne: Christ’s “intercession for believers is as large as the intent of his death for them. Whatsoever privilege he purchased for them upon the cross, he sues for upon his throne.”38 And from this it follows that, in Charnock’s thought, no saint has ever received any saving mercy or benefit from God that has not come as a result of Christ’s intercession as well as his atonement. Without Christ’s intercession, there would never be a single instance of justification or any saving blessing in the world. Christ’s death would have, despite infinite saving potency, zero actual effect on anyone.

1.5. Protasis and Apodosis

As his treatment of the subject progresses, Charnock does not argue merely for a close atonement-intercession relationship, but this point becomes so axiomatic in his thought that he also argues by this relationship for other points. The two become “fused together” and thus are related to other doctrines in the same way, such that not only does an argument for one constitute an argument for the other, but each can be used interchangeably in an argument for another point. So, for example, in one place limited atonement entails limited intercession,39 while in another place the efficacy of Christ’s intercession is an argument for the perfection of his sacrifice (whereas prior the order of argumentation had been the reverse).40 Thus also, in arguing (with Calvin) for Christ’s pre-incarnate intercession, Charnock appeals to Rev 13:8: “as he was a lamb slain from the foundation of the world, so by the same reason he was advocate pleading from the foundation of the world.”41 Similarly, to establish the holiness of the content of Christ’s intercessory prayers, Charnock appeals to 1 Pet 1:19: “if [Christ’s] blood were ‘without blemish’ . . . his intercession must be without spot, because the one is the sole foundation of the other.”42 In addition, it is significant that in distinguishing between Christ’s intercession and the Spirit’s intercession, Charnock can speak of “Christ’s intercession” and “Christ’s blood” interchangeably.43 Thus for Charnock, Christ’s atonement and intercession are, as it were, the protasis and apodosis of his priestly ministry—the if . . . then logic of his saving work, necessarily ordered together.

And yet although Charnock’s emphasis here is on the close relationship between intercession and atonement, the categories and images he uses to describe this relationship preserve their distinctness. For an accomplishment and application are not two equally weighted stages of one event; nor are creation and providence, a payment and a plea, a protasis and an apodosis, a foundation and superstructure, a meritorious cause and an applicational cause. In all these images, the former is distinct from the latter and has its own definite shape that determines the latter. So also for Charnock, it is not as though atonement amounts to 50% of his saving work and intercession fills in the remaining 50% that is lacking. Rather, Christ’s atonement is a definite, 100% completed accomplishment; and intercession does not augment it but applies and extends it. Intercession is the voice of Christ’s blood, for the blood of Christ has been shed once for all time with eternal value (cf. Heb 9:11–14) and now needs only to be spoken (cf. Heb 12:24).

2. Christ’s Intercession in Broader Context

Considering intercession in relation to atonement clarifies their specific relationship. But we may further understand Charnock’s doctrine of Christ’s intercession by considering it in a broader soteriological and christological context.

2.1. Christ’s Intercession in Relation to His Priestly Office

For Charnock, Christ’s intercession is a specifically priestly activity, and it cannot be understood without reference to its priestly background in the OT, especially the Day of Atonement ritual in Lev 16. Like Milligan and Moffitt, Charnock notes that the high priest’s responsibilities on this occasion were not limited to slaying the animal in the outer part of the tabernacle (Lev 16:5–11, 15), but also included burning incense (Lev 16:12–13) and sprinkling blood on the mercy seat (Lev 16:14–15) inside the Holy of Holies. It is not the sacrifice of the animal in itself but this sacrifice together with sprinkling blood and burning incense inside the Holy of Holies that constitutes the act of atonement (Lev 16:16).

For Charnock, the high priest’s activity on the Day of Atonement in Lev 16 prefigured Christ’s priestly ministry in at least three ways. First, his sacrificing animals outside the tent was a type of Christ’s death. Second, his entrance into the Holy of Holies was a type of Christ’s ascension to heaven. Third, his sprinkling blood and burning incense inside the Holy of Holies was a type of Christ’s intercession, both in his presentation of his wounds to the Father (sprinkling) as well as in his pleas for the saints (incense).44 The unity of this OT type reflects the unity of their NT reality. Moreover, without the continual exercise of his heavenly intercession, there is no basis for Christ’s retaining after his death this eternal and unchangeable office of priesthood (Heb 6:16–20).45 He would be a priest in name only, without any priestly function.46

This OT background highlights the close connection between atonement and intercession in Charnock’s thought. For just as in Lev 16 there was such a close connection between the killing outside the Holy of Holies and the sprinkling inside it that the two together constituted the priestly ritual, so for Charnock the earthly death and heavenly intercession of Christ together comprise his priestly work. Thus for Charnock while atonement and intercession can be properly be conceived of as two separate but closely related realities, from another angle they are better viewed as two components or phases of one great reality. They are two parts of one whole, more than two related wholes. Nevertheless, as we have seen, the “whole” that they comprise is not atonement per se, but Christ’s priestly work in sum, for Charnock draws out discontinuities between Christ’s intercession and Lev 16 inherent in the fact that Christ’s intercession takes place in heaven. Standing between Christ’s atonement and his intercession is the pivotal event of his ascension, which separates them in time and realm, unlike the high priest’s work on the Day of Atonement.

2.2. Christ’s Intercession in Relation to His Whole Saving Work

In addition, Charnock portrays Christ’s intercession as an integral piece of Christ’s saving work, and helps us view it in relation to its broader soteriological context. Specifically, among the various phases of Christ’s saving work in history, it is the chief purpose of the ascension: “as his death was the end of his incarnation, so his intercession was the end of his ascension; his dignity in heaven was given him for the exercise of this particular office.”47 In other words, Christ’s intercession does not have an accidental relationship to the historical events in Christ’s life surrounding it, but it coheres with them in mutually explanatory ways, as a fitting piece of a puzzle coheres with the pieces around it. As Christ’s incarnation must be seen from the vantage point of his atoning death, so his glorification through bodily resurrection and bodily ascension, the second great phase of transformation in the life of the God-man, must be seen from the vantage point of his intercessory work. The saving deed throws light back on the historical event that undergirds it and helps explain its nature and purpose. From this viewpoint, the nature of Christ’s current heavenly session is suited largely for his intercessory work: “[Christ] cannot look upon his own glory, the robe he wears, the throne he sits on, the enemies prostate at his feet, but he must reflect upon the reason of his present state, and he is excited to a redoubling his solicitation for his people.”48

Thus, for Charnock, Christ has undergone two fundamental changes in his life for the salvation of believers. First, at his incarnation, he entered creation, the chief aim of which was atonement. Second, at his exaltation (resurrection + ascension), he entered heaven, the chief end of which was intercession. He first entered a body (without leaving heaven); he then entered heaven (without leaving his body): both were priestly and saving acts.49 Or better: both were one priestly, saving act in its accomplishment and then its application.

2.3. Christ’s Intercession in Relation to His Person

Furthermore, Charnock teases out Christ’s intercession in relation to Christ’s person, particularly with a view to his divine and human natures and their relation. As his earthly death required the union of human and divine natures in one person in order to be effectual, so his heavenly life requires the same union of a human and divine nature. Anselm’s logic from Cur Deus Homo? may equally apply to the question cur Deus deprecator?50 As Charnock puts it, “he was God-man on earth, man to suffer for us, and God to make that suffering valuable; he is God-man in heaven, man to pity us, and God to render that compassion efficacious to us.”51 Specifically, Charnock argues for a kind of dual knowledge on the basis of Christ’s divine and human natures that equips him to perform his intercessory office with perfect skill. All intercessors or advocates must, he argues, have a thorough knowledge of their client’s situation in order to know how to intercede for them. Christ uniquely has this knowledge, even among the persons of the Godhead, for he has “an infinite knowledge as God, and a full and sufficient knowledge as man.”52 Charnock does not flesh out what exactly he means by “full and sufficient knowledge as man,” but likely he has in view Christ’s experiential acquaintance with human grief and weakness and struggle (cf. Heb 2:17–18; 4:14–16), which complements his infinite divine knowledge. But for Charnock Christ’s human and divine knowledge do not equally complement one another, for such a relation could be viewed as a sort of diminishing of the scope of divine knowledge, as though it were lacking and in need of some external supplement. In this back-and-forth movement of divine and human knowledge, the divine knowledge takes prominence: “His deity communicates the knowledge of our cause to his humanity, and excites the compassion of his nature.”53 Thus even in a duty more typically associated with his human experience, Christ’s divinity stands in the background and controls the relation. The result of this divine and human knowledge is for Charnock a knowledge that is perfect for the purpose of intercession: “[Christ] knows our case better than we do ourselves.”54

Later, however, in an interesting twist, Charnock associates Christ’s intercession specifically with his human nature. While his deity makes his intercessory work effectual, it is not the work of his deity as such, for intercession implies a kind of inferiority in the person interceding to the person being addressed, and God the Son is not inferior to God the Father with respect to his deity.55 Thus, Charnock insists, “Christ as God, essentially considered, doth not intercede.”56 But lest he be charged with a kind of Nestorian division of Christ into two persons at this point, Charnock quickly qualifies this assertion, and it is here that we see the close relationship of Christ’s earthly cross-work and heavenly intercession:

[Christ’s] intercession as well as his passion belong indeed to his person: and as his deity is in personal union with his humanity, so his prayers and intercessions may be called the intercessions of God, as well as his blood was called the blood of God. As the human nature suffered, and the divine nature made it valuable, so the human nature intercedes by way of motion, and the divine nature makes it prevalent. The person of the Son of God suffered, but only in the human nature, the divine not being passible; so may we not say that the person of the Son of God intercedes, but the human nature only supplicates? He is our advocate, as he was our propitiation.57

Thus, Charnock would apparently say that there is a sense in which Christ’s intercession belongs to his human nature alone, and there is a sense in which it belongs to both natures in “personal union” with one another. From this Charnock draws a distinction between intercession (apparently proper to both Christ’s human and divine natures) and supplication (proper to his human nature only). Without taking judgment on Charnock’s distinction here, it is fascinating yet again to consider the tight correlation between atonement and intercession implicit in Charnock’s argumentation, such that the relation of Christ’s person to one becomes the basis for the relation of his person to the other.

2.4. Christ’s Intercession in Relation to Its Biblical Foundations

In explicating his doctrine of Christ’s intercession, Charnock establishes it within a firm biblical bedding. In surveying Charnock’s usage of Scripture, it is evident that in virtually every instance where Scripture teaches, demonstrates, prefigures, or alludes to Christ’s intercession, it figures closely related to Christ’s atoning work. Thus, Charnock notes, Christ’s intercession for believers in Rom 8:34 follows immediately on the heels of Christ’s death and resurrection (8:34) imbedded within a larger context of justification (8:33), reconciliation with God (8:31–32), and inseparability from God’s love (8:34–39). Charnock also draws repeatedly from Rom 5:10 and its amplification from reconciliation by Christ’s death to salvation by his life.

In 1 John 2:1–2, Charnock’s foundational text, Christ’s advocacy with the Father (2:1) is predicated upon his being the propitiation for our sins (2:2). According to Charnock, the righteousness of his atoning death on the cross is the principle intended meaning in his title, “Jesus Christ, the Righteous One” (2:1).58

In Heb 9:24–26, Christ’s once-for-all sacrificial death is the basis for his entrance into heaven on our behalf, just as throughout Hebrews Christ’s atoning work (2:17; 9:11–12) is interlaced with his heavenly intercessory work (6:19–20, 7:24–25). Similarly, in 2:17–18 and 4:14–16, Christ’s propitiating death is closely related to his sympathetic help to believers, and in 5:8–10, Christ’s being made perfect through obedience and suffering is the basis for his appointment to heavenly priesthood.

In Isa 53:12, Christ’s intercession is one piece of a much larger portrait of atonement, sin-bearing, justification, and guilt offering (52:13–53:12). Its close relationship with atonement is evident in its parallel placement with “[bearing] the sin of many,” as well as the fact that Isaiah can conclude this entire section with a reference to intercession without evidencing any awareness of a shift of focus.

The two most notable portraits of intercession in Christ’s earthly ministry, John 17 and Luke 22:31–32, which Charnock refers to as the “map”59 and “model” 60 of intercession, respectively, both immediately precede a passion narrative. The angel of the Lord’s vindication of Joshua the high priest from Satan’s accusations in Zech 3:1–2 turns on his justification and cleansing of Josh in 3:3–5. And atonement and intercession during the Day of Atonement’s annual sacrifice in Lev 16 are closely associated (see §1.3 and §2.1 above).

Space does not permit a more thorough examination of Charnock’s usage of Scripture in explicating the doctrine of Christ’s intercession, but it is fascinating to note the texts he draws from that are not often associated with Christ’s intercession, such as Exod 28:29,61 Ps 2:7–8,62 Zech 1:11–12,63 Song 8:6,64 and Ps 21:2.65 All in all, Charnock’s employment of Scripture once again draws out the close relationship between atonement and intercession.

3. Devotional and Practical Use

Charnock’s treatment of intercession as the application of atonement provides a helpful vantage point from which to view the devotional and practice use of this doctrine. In particular, three themes may be drawn out.

3.1. “Omnipotent Compassion”: Highlighting Christ’s Tenderness and Warmth

The doctrine of Christ’s intercession is of particular value for highlighting Christ’s compassion and warmth toward believers in their weakness and struggle. Inherent in the very nature of intercession is compassion and tenderness, for one cannot effectively intercede with a cold indifference toward those for whom one intercedes. As Charnock puts it, “if he be not tender in misery, he is not faithful to God in the exercise of his office.”66 At times the atoning death of Christ can feel distant and impersonal, and the believer’s forgiven status can feel formal and static. Christ’s intercession channels the compassion of Christ displayed at the cross to believers in their present state in dynamic, personal, and relational terms. It is virtually impossible to conceive of the risen Christ, exalted in heaven above all angels, and yet in earnest prayer for believers amid all their sins and failures, and fail to be moved at his compassion and tenderness. Thus can John Murray refer to this doctrine as “omnipotent compassion”67 and argue that when we truly grasp it “we shall be humbled to the point of being speechless, in a true sense exasperated.”68

3.2. “The Top of Our Comfort”: Freshly Appropriating the Cross

Charnock writes, “it is the top of our comfort that he is in heaven a pleader, as it was the foundation of our comfort that he was once on earth a sufferer.”69 In other words, the cross is the ground of our comfort, but Christ’s intercession is our point of contact with that comfort. Atonement is the bottom of our comfort, and intercession is the “top.” Thus Christ’s intercession is the point of intersection between the benefits accomplished for believers at the cross and the “real time” needs of believers. It is the place where our weakness and sinfulness meet Christ in his atoning merit and mercy. It is the mediating link between the accomplishment of Friday afternoon on Calvary and any other moment of faith in history. It is the storage place of grace and mercy and help, which believers experience afresh as often as we draw near to God (Heb 10:22).

Thus the doctrine of Christ’s intercession provides a vantage point by which to see how the grace of God meets particular sins at particular points in time. It doesn’t merely cover my life as a whole, leaving the details to work out on their own. Christ meets us again and again in our particular moments of lust, resentment, fear, negligence, coldness—and says, “Father, forgive them, for the sake of my blood.” As Charnock puts it,

it is upon every sin he doth discharge this office, and by his interposition procures our pardon thousands of times, and preserves us from coming short of the full fruits of reconciliation at first obtained by him.70

Faith in Christ must be exercised as often as we sin. . . . Every man ought to make reflections on his conscience, lament his condition, turn his eye to his great Advocate, acquaint him with his state, and entertain him afresh in his case.71

3.3. “An Unquestionable Support”: Cementing Our Assurance of Salvation

Symington writes, “[believers’] security springs not from anything naturally indestructible in the principle of the new life of which they are possessed, nor from any want of criminality in the sins they commit, nor from anything less dangerous in the circumstances in which they are placed: but wholly from the intercession of Christ.”72 The doctrine of Christ’s intercession directs our eyes to Christ in his continual intercession on our behalf as our only security and assurance. It cements our assurance of salvation by demonstrating that Christ has a greater commitment to our salvation than we do—a greater concern for our welfare, a greater pity for us in distress, a greater zeal for our advancement, a greater acquaintance with our needs. As Charnock puts it, “our pity to ourselves cannot enter into comparison with his pity to us.”73 Our faith ebbs and flows, rises and sinks, waxes and wanes. His intercession is marked by the constant attention and power of his resurrected life and never wavers for an instant. Christ’s intercession assures us that God will supply all of our spiritual needs. John Murray explains,

The intercession of Christ is interposed to meet every need of the believer. No grace bestowed, no blessing enjoyed, no benefit received can be removed from the scope of the intercession, and the intercession is the guarantee that every exigency will be met by its efficacy. The security of salvation is bound up with his intercession, and outside of his intercession we must say that there is no salvation.74

And as Charnock puts it,

What could comfort itself, saith one, wish more for her children, had she been our mother, than to have so great a person our perpetual advocate at the right hand of God? His death is not such a ground of assurance as this, because that is past; but when we consider how the merit of his death lives continually in his intercession, all the weights of doubts and despondency lose their heaviness; faith finds in it an unquestionable support.75

4. Conclusion

There is much thought and discussion in contemporary evangelical circles concerning “gospel-centered” and “Christ-centered” and “cross-centered” approaches to theology and spiritual life. But what do these terms exactly mean? Does being “Christ-centered,” for example, necessarily entail being “cross-centered?” How do we maintain the centrality of the cross without downplaying other aspects of our salvation or oversimplifying our focus?

Charnock’s treatment of Christ’s intercession can help inform what “cross-centeredness” means by demonstrating how a focus on other aspects of Christ’s saving ministry can itself lead us back to the cross, as a mirror reflecting its source or a stream its river. Christ’s saving ministry is one great interrelated work, one great spider web of intricately interconnected strands. In other words, Charnock’s treatment of Christ’s intercession in relation to his atonement signals the unity of Christ’s work and the reciprocal, mutually reinforcing nature of its various components. As we examine the hill of Calvary, we are led into other arenas—the nature of Christ’s incarnation, his sinless life, resurrection, ascension, session, second coming, to say nothing of related doctrines in theology proper or broader soteriology—which then in turn lead us back to the cross. Thus a rigorous “cross-centeredness,” rightly understood, need not entail a focus on the cross instead of other aspects of salvation—but rather the cross at their center, as in a great spider web.

[1] William Symington, On the Atonement and Intercession of Jesus Christ (Pittsburgh: United Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1864), iv.

[2] As examples, consider the relatively brief systematic treatment of Christ’s intercession in the otherwise helpful works of Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (2d ed.; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 787, 844–45, and Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Bible Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 627–28.

[3] William Milligan, The Resurrection of our Lord (New York: Macmillan, 1881; repr., 1927), 136–42.

[4] I. Howard Marshall, “Soteriology in Hebrews,” in The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology (ed. Richard Bauckham, Daniel R. Driver, et. al.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 271.

[5] David M. Moffitt, Atonement and the Logic of Resurrection in the Epistle to the Hebrews (NovTSup; Leiden: Brill, 2011).

[6] Ibid., 229–85. Moffitt also interprets Christ’s offering of his “body” and “self” in Hebrews as referring to this heavenly act.

[7] Ibid., 42.

[8] Moffitt summarizes his case in ibid., 2–3, 41–43.

[9] Space does not permit detailed interaction with Charnock’s doctrine of atonement considered in its own light, but Charnock held to a propitiating model of atonement in which Christ’s death absorbed the wrath of God for the sins of his people. Readers who hold a different understanding of atonement may nevertheless benefit from Charnock’s treatment of Christ’s intercession.

[10] I focus on his treatise on 1 John 2:1: “Christ’s Intercession,” in vol. 5 of The Complete Works of Stephen Charnock (5 vols.; Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1866).

[11] Charnock, “Christ’s Intercession,” 99, italics mine. Cf. Charnock’s Puritan contemporary John Owen, who defined intercession as Christ’s “continual appearance for us in the presence of God, by virtue of his office as the ‘high priest over the house of God,’ representing the efficacy of his oblation, accompanied with tender care, love, and desires for the welfare, supply, deliverance, and salvation of the church” (John Owen, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews [8 vols.; Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1991], 5:541, italics mine).

[12] Charnock, “Christ’s Intercession,” 113. Charnock may draw this image of “speaking blood” from Heb 12:24.

[13] Ibid., 100. Cf. John Murray’s similar usage of terminology for redemption as a whole in Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), and especially Murray’s discussion of the finality of Christ’s atonement in relation to his eternal priestly office (53–55).

[14] Charnock, “Christ’s Intercession,” 101–2.

[15] Ibid., 102.

[16] Ibid., 116.

[17] Ibid., 102.

[18] Ibid., 103–4.

[19] Ibid., 104–5.

[20] Ibid., 105.

[21] Ibid., 106

[22] Ibid., 107.

[23] Ibid., 107–8.

[24] Ibid., 109.

[25] Ibid., 110. Cf. his later and lengthier argument against the Roman Catholic doctrine of saintly intercession (138–39). Here Charnock also argues from atonement to intercession: “the right of intercession belongs only to him who hath made the propitiation” (139).

[26] Charnock argues (contra Calvin) that intercession consists not merely of a presentation of his scars to the Father but also of vocal pleading accompanying this presentation. Nevertheless, he argues that Christ’s vocal pleading is effectual only in connection to his “presenting the memorials of his death.” As he puts it, “the petitions of his lips had done us no good without the voice of his blood” (113).

[27] Ibid., 102

[28] Ibid., 137.

[29] Ibid., 115.

[30] Ibid., 124.

[31] Ibid., 99.

[32] Ibid., 102.

[33] Ibid., 115.

[34] A more recent proponent of this view in the reformed tradition is Herman Bavinck. Bavinck interacts with Milligan’s view and argues that while Christ’s heavenly intercession is essential for his priestly service, even Hebrews attributes Christ’s death with expiatory power. Discontinuities in typology on this point spring from the imperfection of the OT ritual, which was only a partial picture of the heavenly things it symbolized. In Bavinck, as in Charnock, intercession is conceived as the application, not the completion, of atonement. As Bavinck puts it, “in his intercession his sacrifice continues to be operative and effective” (Reformed Dogmatics: Volume 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ [ed. John Bolt; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006], 478; cf. 476–79.

[35] Charnock’s concern on this point stems from his conviction that the NT portrays Christ’s death as a completed act of atonement. Both Milligan and Charnock draw much from Rom 5:10, and Milligan in particular makes much of the “how much more” amplification from Christ’s reconciling death to his saving life. Yet in Charnock’s more restrained treatment, it is evident that even here reconciliation with God is the accomplishment specifically of Christ’s death: “we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son.” Similarly, Moffitt (Atonement, 276–77, 289–94) acknowledges that in Hebrews Christ’s death is associated with sacrificial language in two texts (Heb 9:15;13:12), but argues that it is not necessary to assume that Christ’s death was specifically a means of redemption in these texts. However, it is difficult to reconcile Moffitt’s reading of 9:15–22 with the fact that Christ’s death is spoken of in this passage as initiating a new covenant guaranteeing the forgiveness of sins: “a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant” (9:15). It is also difficult to suppose that Christ’s death and Christ’s blood are not associated in the two halves of this passage. I am grateful to my friend Bobby Jamieson for helping me think about Moffitt’s reading of Heb 9:15–22.

[36] Charnock, “Christ’s Intercession,” 131, italics his.

[37] Ibid., 116–17, italics his.

[38] Ibid., 129.

[39] Ibid., 127.

[40] Ibid., 137.

[41] Ibid., 125. For Charnock, Christ’s pre-incarnate intercession looked forward to his death as much as his ascended intercession looks back on his death: “he interceded before as a promiser, he intercedes now as a performer” (126).

[42] Ibid., 122.

[43] Ibid., 102–3.

[44] Ibid., 100. Charnock notes that incense in Scripture frequently symbolizes prayer (e.g., Ps 141:2; Rev 8:4).

[45] Ibid., 100–101.

[46] Elsewhere, Charnock considers Christ’s intercession in relation to other OT typical precursors, such as Moses’ intercession for the Israelites in Exod 32:10–14 (120).

[47] Ibid., 102.

[48] Ibid., 115.

[49] The complementary nature of the extra-Calvinisticum and the bodily ascension of Christ is an insight rarely made and worthy of further exploration. Cf. Thomas F. Torrance, Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ (Grand Rapids: IVP, 2009), and his discussion of the ascension as “the reverse of the incarnation” on pp. 287–88.

[50] I.e., why the God intercessor?

[51] Charnock, “Christ’s Intercession,” 106.

[52] Ibid., 104.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Ibid., 110.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Cf. Charnock’s exposition of this verse in ibid., 91–98.

[59] Ibid., 108.

[60] Ibid., 133.

[61] Ibid., 100.

[62] Ibid., 101.

[63] Ibid., 107.

[64] Ibid., 113.

[65] Ibid., 117.

[66] Ibid., 105–6. The depth of Christ’s compassion for the believer does not entail a general softness in his character, for Christ’s intercession is for believers alone, and as Symington emphasizes, “not to have his prayers for us is to have them against us” (On the Atonement and Intercession of Jesus Christ, 301). Christ’s intercession is as terrible for those outside its scope as it is wonderful for those inside it. At the same time as he is compassionate priest toward the church, he is reigning king, making war on his enemies and destroying them (Pss 2:9; 110; cf. also the imagery in Rev 1:16 of a sword coming out of his mouth). Nor are Christ’s prayers beneath his divine and exalted dignity, for he pleads as one with authority, as a king.

[67] John Murray, “The Heavenly, Priestly Activity of Christ,” in The Claims of Truth, vol. 1 of The Collected Writings of John Murray (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1976), 50.

[68] Ibid., 58.

[69] Charnock, “Christ’s Intercession,” 140.

[70] Ibid., 131.

[71] Ibid., 97.

[72] Symington, On the Atonement and Intercession of Jesus Christ, 298–99.

[73] Charnock, “Christ’s Intercession,” 106.

[74] Murray, “The Heavenly, Priestly Activity of Christ,” 55.

[75] Charnock, “Christ’s Intercession,” 140.

Gavin Ortlund

Gavin Ortlund is senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Ojai in Ojai, California.

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