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ATONEMENT - D, PREVIOUS SECTION - NEXT LECTURE - HELP - FACEBOOK
These, as every reader of the Bible must know, are only some of the passages that teach the doctrine of atonement and redemption by the death of Christ. It is truly wonderful in how many ways this doctrine is taught, assumed, and implied in the Bible. Indeed, it is emphatically the great theme of the Bible. It is expressed or implied upon nearly every page of divine inspiration.
The next inquiry is what constitutes the atonement.
The answer to this inquiry has been already, in part, unavoidably anticipated. Under this head I will show:
(1.) Christ owed obedience to the moral law, both as God and man. He was under as much obligation to be perfectly benevolent as any moral agent is. It was, therefore, impossible for Him to perform any works of supererogation; that is, so far as obedience to law was concerned, He could, neither as God nor as man, do anything more than fulfil its obligations.
(2.) Had He obeyed for us, He would not have suffered for us. Were His obedience to be substituted for our obedience, He need not certainly have both fulfilled the law for us, as our substitute, under a covenant of works, and at the same time have suffered as a substitute, in submitting to the penalty of the law.
(a.) The obedience of our substitute.
(b.) The same suffering, as if no obedience had been rendered.
(c.) Our repentance.
(d.) Our return to personal obedience.
(e.) And then represents him as, after all, ascribing our salvation to grace. Strange grace this, that requires a debt to be paid several times over, before the obligation is discharged!
2. I must show that the atonement was not a commercial transaction. Some have regarded the atonement simply in the light of the payment of a debt; and have represented Christ as purchasing the elect of the Father, and paying down the same amount of suffering in His own person that justice would have exacted of them. To this I answer:
(1.) It is naturally impossible, as it would require that satisfaction should be made to retributive justice. Strictly speaking, retributive justice can never be satisfied, in the sense that the guilty can be punished as much and as long as he deserves; for this would imply that he was punished until he ceased to be guilty, or became innocent. When law is once violated, the sinner can make no satisfaction. He can never cease to be guilty, or to deserve punishment, and no possible amount of suffering renders him the less guilty or the less deserving of punishment: therefore, to satisfy retributive justice is impossible.
(2.) But, as we have seen in a former lecture, retributive justice must have inflicted on Him eternal death. To suppose, therefore, that Christ suffered in amount, all that was due to the elect, is to suppose that He suffered an eternal punishment multiplied by the whole number of the elect.
3. The atonement of Christ was intended as a satisfaction of public justice.
The moral law did not originate in the divine will, but is founded in His self-existence and immutable nature. He cannot therefore repeal or alter it. To the letter of the moral law there may be exceptions. God cannot repeal the precept, and just for this reason, He cannot set aside the spirit of the sanctions. For to dispense with the sanctions were a virtual repeal of the precept. He cannot, therefore, set aside the execution of the penalty when the precept has been violated, without something being done that shall meet the demands of the true spirit of the law. "Being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in His blood, to declare His righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; to declare, I say, at this time His righteousness: that He might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus" (Romans 3:24-26). This passage assigns the reason, or declares the design, of the atonement, to have been to justify God in the pardon of sin, or in dispensing with the execution of law. "Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise Him; He hath put Him to grief: when Thou shalt make His soul an offering for sin, He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in His hand. He shall see of the travail of His soul, and shall be satisfied: by His knowledge shall My righteous servant justify many; for He shall bear their iniquities. Therefore will I divide Him a portion with the great, and He shall divide the spoil with the strong; because He hath poured out His soul unto death: and He was numbered with the transgressors: and He bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors" (Isaiah 53:10-12).
I present several further reasons why an atonement in the case of the inhabitants of this world was preferable to punishment, or to the execution of the divine law. Several reasons have already been assigned, to which I will add the following, some of which are plainly revealed in the Bible; others are plainly inferrible from what the Bible does reveal; and others still are plainly inferrible from the very nature of the case.
(2.) His great love to the universe at large must have been another reason, inasmuch as it is impossible that the atonement should not exert an amazing influence over moral beings, in whatever world they might exist, and where the fact of atonement should be known.
(3.) Another reason for substituting the sufferings of Christ in the place of the eternal damnation of sinners, is, that an infinite amount of suffering might be prevented. The relation of Christ to the universe rendered His sufferings so infinitely valuable and influential, as an expression of God's abhorrence of sin on the one hand, and His great love to His subjects on the other, that an infinitely less amount of suffering in Him than must have been inflicted on sinners, would be equally, and no doubt vastly more, influential in supporting the government of God, than the execution of the law upon them would have been. Be it borne in mind, that Christ was the lawgiver, and His suffering in behalf of sinners is to be regarded as the lawgiver and executive civil officer suffering in the behalf and stead of a rebellious province of his empire. As a governmental expedient it is easy to see the great value of such a substitute; that on the one hand it fully evinced the determination of the ruler not to yield the authority of His law, and on the other, to evince His great and disinterested love for His rebellious subjects.
(4.) By this substitution, an immense good might be gained, the eternal happiness of all that can be reclaimed from sin, together with all the augmented happiness of those who have never sinned, that must result from this glorious revelation of God.
(5.) Another reason for preferring the atonement to the punishment of sinners must have been, that sin had afforded an opportunity for the highest manifestation of virtue in God: the manifestation of forbearance, mercy, self-denial, and suffering for enemies that were within His own power, and for those from whom He could expect no equivalent in return.
It is impossible to conceive of a higher order of virtues than are exhibited in the atonement of Christ. It was vastly desirable that God should take advantage of such an opportunity to exhibit His true character, and show to the universe what was in His heart. The strength and stability of any government must depend upon the estimation in which the sovereign is held by his subjects. It was therefore indispensable, that God should improve the opportunity, which sin had afforded, to manifest and make known His true character, and thus secure the highest confidence of His subjects.
(6.) In the atonement God consulted His own happiness and His own glory. To deny Himself for the salvation of sinners, was a part of His own infinite happiness, always intended by Him, and therefore always enjoyed. This was not selfishness in Him, as His own well-being is of infinitely greater value than that of all the universe besides; He ought so to regard and treat it, because of its supreme and intrinsic value.
(7.) The atonement would present to creatures the highest possible motives to virtue. Example is the highest moral influence that can be exerted. If God, or any other being, would make others benevolent, He must manifest benevolence Himself. If the benevolence manifested in the atonement does not subdue the selfishness of sinners, their case is hopeless.
(8.) The circumstances of His government rendered an atonement necessary; as the execution of law was not, as a matter of fact, a sufficient preventive of sin. The annihilation of the wicked would not answer the purposes of government. A full revelation of mercy, blended with such an exhibition of justice, was called for by the circumstances of the universe.
(9.) To confirm holy beings. Nothing could be more highly calculated to establish and confirm the confidence, love, and obedience of holy beings, than this disinterested manifestation of love to sinners and rebels.
(10.) To confound His enemies. How could anything be more directly calculated to silence all cavils, and to shut every mouth, and forever close up all opposing lips, than such an exhibition of love and willingness to make sacrifices for sinners?
(11.) The fact, that the execution of the law of God on rebel angels had not arrested, and could not arrest, the progress of rebellion in the universe, proves that something more needed to be done, in support of the authority of law, than would be done in the execution of its penalty upon rebels. While the execution of law may have a strong tendency to prevent the beginning of rebellion among loyal subjects, and to restrain rebels themselves; yet penal inflictions do not, in fact, subdue the heart, under any government, whether human or divine.
As a matter of fact, the law was only exasperating rebels, without confirming holy beings. Paul affirmed, that the action of the law upon his own mind, while in impenitence, was to beget in him all manner of concupiscence. One grand reason for giving the law was, to develop the nature of sin, and to show that the carnal mind is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. The law was therefore given that the offence might abound, that thereby it might be demonstrated, that without an atonement there could be no salvation for rebels under the government of God.
(12.) The nature, degree, and execution of the penalty of the law, made the holiness and the justice of God so prominent, as to absorb too much of public attention to be safe. Those features of His character were so fully revealed, by the execution of His law upon the rebel angels, that to have pursued the same course with the inhabitants of this world, without the offer of mercy, might have had, and doubtless would have had, an injurious influence upon the universe, by creating more of fear than of love to God and His government. Hence, a fuller revelation of the love and compassion of God was necessary, to guard against the influence of slavish fear.
His taking human nature, and obeying unto death, under such circumstances, constituted a good reason for our being treated as righteous. It is a common practice in human governments, and one that is founded in the nature and laws of mind, to reward distinguished public service by conferring favors on the children of those who have rendered this service, and treating them as if they had rendered it themselves. This is both benevolent and wise. Its governmental importance, its wisdom and excellent influence, have been most abundantly attested in the experience of nations. As a governmental transaction, this same principle prevails, and for the same reason, under the government of God. All that are Christ's children and belong to Him, are received for His sake, treated with favor, and the rewards of the righteous are bestowed upon them for His sake. And the public service which He has rendered to the universe, by laying down His life for the support of the divine government, has rendered it eminently wise, that all who are united to Him by faith should be treated as righteous for His sake.