Fredrick William Robertson (1816-1853) was a famous preacher in England during the nineteenth century. The people of Brighton flocked to his Sunday services. He was very popular, but his message was not the Gospel of Jesus. His whole aim in life seemed to be to subvert the Good News of the Lord Jesus Christ. He was a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Why do I bother with this long dead enemy of the cross? Because a biography and appreciation appears in a modern collection entitled, Fifty People every Christian should know. He is represented in this well-meaning volume as a faithful Christian and an encouragement to those who want to follow Jesus. l have nothing to say against the author of the book, except that he took too much at face value from a nineteenth-century biography – the only contemporary biography – which was written by a person who seems to have had the same unhappy disposition as the Rev. F. W. Robertson.
One good thing that this book, Fifty People, does is to urge us to read Robertson’s sermons carefully. A good sermon to start with, in my opinion, would be one entitled, ‘Caiaphas’s view of Vicarious Suffering‘. Here, very clearly, Robertson reveals his hatred for the Gospel that Jesus and his apostles preached.
I mean ‘hatred’. Robertson went to considerable trouble to misrepresent the Gospel as it really is, and to substitute a non-Gospel of his own creating. The teaching that our Lord Jesus Christ took on humanity (became a man) in order to take responsibility for the sins of his people – to die in their place, taking the punishment for their sins – was for Roberson the evil teaching of Caiaphas. Caiaphas was the high Priest in the year Jesus was arrested and killed. He had suggested that it would be better to kill Jesus than for the Romans to destroy the nation of Israel. For Robertson, the message about Christ’s deliberate act of mercy in dying on the cross for his people was a selfish message like the one that Caiaphas promoted.
So what did Robertson substitute for the gospel? His idea of Jesus dying for sinners was this: Jesus suffered – bore the sins of people – only in the sense that he was treated badly by bad people. Their bad attitude and actions toward this good man caused him to suffer. Jesus’ death was represented as an accident. Robertson imagined Jesus went to his death in the same way as an innocent person might walk absent-mindedly into the spinning wheel of steam machinery. Jesus dared to be good in a bad world and met with unintended consequences, his death on a cross.
How does this help sinners like us? Robertson implied that this example of innocent suffering would inspire us to live good lives too. And as we meet with suffering as a result, that suffering would be the means of purifying us even as Jesus was pure. In this view, Jesus is no Saviour. He is merely an example to follow. Sinners like us would be left to do the impossible; to meet the high standard set by Jesus through our own efforts.
Even a superficial reading of Luke 9, or its parallel passages in Matthew and Mark, will show how deliberate our Lord Jesus was in foretelling his future rejection and death, and how insistent he was in asserting its absolute necessity. Again, in that garden on the night of his arrest, Jesus prayed that, if possible, the ‘cup’ might pass from him. The cup was the cup of God’s anger at our sin. The Old Testament spoke of the cup of God’s wrath which the wicked must drink in judgment. Jesus knew that if sinners like us were to be saved, he would have to drink this cup of judgment for his people. He had come to save them in this way, and he did it willingly and deliberately. This is the message of God’s mercy and love given in the Bible, yet it was the message that the Rev. F. W. Robertson hated. I’d rather believe Jesus than the Rev. F. W. Robertson.