by William Cunningham
[chapter 14 of Historical Theology]
The incarnation of the second person of the Godhead, —the assumption of human nature by One who from eternity had possessed the divine nature, so that He was God and man in one person, —is, as a subject of contemplation, well fitted to call forth the profoundest reverence, and to excite the strongest emotions; and if it was indeed a reality, must have been intended to accomplish most important results. If Christ really was God and man in one person, we may expect to find, in the object thus presented to our contemplation, much that is mysterious— much that we cannot fully comprehend; while we should also be stirred up to examine with the utmost care everything that has been revealed to us regarding it, assured that it must possess no ordinary interest and importance. He who is represented to us in Scripture as being God and man in one person, is also described as the only Mediator between God and man— as the only Saviour of sinners. If it be indeed true, as the Scripture plainly teaches, that the divine and human natures were united in His one person, it is undeniable that this union must have been formed in order to the salvation of sinners, and that the plan which God devised and executed for saving sinners, must just consist in, or be based upon, what Christ, as God and man in one person, did, in order to effect this object. This was the work which the Father gave Him to do; and by doing it He has secured the deliverance from everlasting misery, and the eternal blessedness, of as many as the Father has given Him, —“an innumerable company, which no man can number, out of every kindred, and nation, and people, and tongue.”
I. Connection between the Person and Work of Christ
In systematic expositions of the scheme of divine truth, the subject of the person of the Mediator, or the scriptural account of who and what Christ was, is usually followed by the subject of the work of Christ, or the account of what he did for the salvation of sinners. The terms commonly employed by theologians to describe in general the work of Christ as Mediator, are munus and officium; and divines of almost all classes have admitted, that the leading features of the scriptural representations of what Christ did for the salvation of sinners, might be fully brought out, by ascribing to Him the three offices of a Prophet, a Priest, and a King, and by unfolding what it was he did in the execution of these three offices.
It is plain, from the nature of the case, that the subjects of the person and the work of Christ must be, in fact and in doctrine, intimately connected with each other. If the Mediator was God and man in one person, then we might confidently expect that He would do, and that it would be necessary for Him to do, in order to the salvation of sinners, what no man, what no creature, was competent to do. And when we survey what Scripture seems to hold up to us as the work which He wrought for our salvation, we can scarcely fail to be impressed with the conviction, that, from its very nature, it required one who was possessed of infinite perfection and excellence to accomplish it. Accordingly, we find that the admission or denial of Christ’s divinity has always affected fundamentally the whole of men's views in regard to almost everything in the scheme of salvation, and especially in regard to Christ’s mediatorial work.
Socinians, holding that Christ was a mere man, teach, in perfect consistency with this, that He did nothing for the salvation of men except what may be comprehended under the general head or description of revealing, confirming, and illustrating truth or doctrine, and of setting us an example, —a work to which any creature, even a mere man, of course employed and qualified by God for the purpose, was perfectly competent. Arians, —holding Christ to be a superhuman, but still a created, and not a divine or infinite being, —are accustomed, in accordance with this view of the person of the Mediator, to introduce an additional and somewhat higher notion into their representation of the nature of His work. It is, in substance, that of influence exerted by Him with God, in order to prevail upon Him to pardon sinners and admit them into the enjoyment of His favour. Christ, as a highly exalted creature, who took a deep interest in the salvation of sinners, and was willing to endure, and did endure, humiliation and suffering on their account, did what was very meritorious in itself and very acceptable to God; and thus acquired such influence with God, as that He consented, at Christ’s request, and from a regard to Him, and to what he had done, to forgive sinners, and to bestow upon them spiritual blessings. This is, in substance, the view entertained of the general nature of Christ’s work by those who regard Him as an exalted, superangelic creature; and I fear that a vague impression of something similar to this, and not going much beyond it, floats in the minds of many amongst us, who have never thought or speculated on religious subjects. Almost all who have held the doctrine of Christ's proper divinity, have also believed that His sufferings and death were vicarious, —that is, that they were endured in the room and stead of sinners, —and have regarded the most important, peculiar, and essential features of His meditorial work to be His substitution in our room and stead, —the satisfaction which He rendered to divine justice, —though it must be admitted, that there have been differences of opinion, of no small importance, among those who have concurred in maintaining these general scriptural truths with respect both to the person and the work of Christ.
It is one of the peculiar features of the theology of the present day, that this remarkable and important connection of great principles is overlooked or denied. There are many in the present day, who make a profession of believing in the proper divinity, and even in the eternal Sonship, of the Saviour, who yet deny the doctrine that has been generally held in the Christian church concerning the atonement, and put forth, upon this point, notions substantially the same as those of the Socinians and Arians. They give prominence to the mere incarnation of Christ, without connecting and combining it with His sufferings and death, and with His fulfilment of all righteousness in their room and stead, resolving it into a mere manifestation of the divine character and purposes, intended to make an impression upon our minds. But they have not succeeded in bringing out anything like an adequate cause for so remarkable a peculiarity as the assumption of human nature by the second person of the Godhead; while a confirmation of the great principles we have laid down about the connection of doctrine is to be found in the fact, that the views of these men, even about the divinity of the Son, however plausibly they may sometimes be put forth, turn out, when carefully examined, to be materially different from those which have been usually held in the Christian church, as taught in Scripture; and resolve very much into a kind of Platonic Sabellianism, which explains-away any really personal distinction in the Godhead, and thus becomes virtually identified with the ordinary view of Socinians or Unitarians. The fact that influential writers in the present day make a profession of believing in the divinity and incarnation of the Saviour, while denying His vicarious and satisfactory atonement, is a reason why we should make it an object to understand and develop fully the connection between these two great departments of scriptural truth; to perceive and to explain, —so far as Scripture affords any materials for doing so, —how the one leads to and supports the other, —how the incarnation and atonement of our Lord are closely and indissolubly connected together, —and how, in combination, they form the ground and basis of all our hopes.
There is a manifest enough congruity between the three distinctive schemes of doctrine, as to the person of the Mediator, and the corresponding opinions with respect to His work; and there would, of course, be nothing strange in this, if the whole subject were one of mere intellectual speculation, in regard to which men were warranted and called upon to follow out their own views to all their legitimate logical results. But since all parties profess to derive their views upon this subject from the statements of Scripture, exactly and critically interpreted, it is somewhat singular that they should all find in Scripture a line of different opinions in regard to Christ’s work running parallel to a corresponding series in regard to His person. The fact affords too good reasons for the conclusion, that it is very common for men, even when professing to be simply investigating the meaning of scriptural statements, to be greatly, if not chiefly, influenced by certain previous notions of a general kind, which, whether upon good grounds or not, they have been led to form, as to what Scripture does say, or should say; and is thus fitted to impress upon us the important lesson, that if we would escape the guilt of distorting and perverting the whole word of God, and of misunderstanding the whole scheme of salvation, we must be very careful to derive all our views, upon matters of religious doctrine, from the sacred Scripture, in place of getting them from some other source, and then bringing them to it, and virtually employing them, more or less openly and palpably, to overrule its authority, and to pervert its meaning.
I have said that it has been the general practice of theologians since the Reformation, to expound the scriptural doctrine concerning the work of Christ as Mediator, in the way of ascribing to Him the three distinct offices of a Prophet, a Priest, and a King; and then classifying and illustrating, under these three heads, the different departments of the work which He wrought for the salvation of sinners. This division, if represented and applied as one which certainly comprehends and exhausts the subject, cannot be said to have direct scriptural authority; and yet there is enough in Scripture to suggest and warrant the adoption of it, as a useful and convenient arrangement, though nothing to warrant us in drawing inferences or conclusions from it, as if it were both accurate and complete. The ground or warrant for it is this: —that it is very easy to prove from Scripture that Christ, as Mediator, is a Prophet, a Priest, and a King; that He executed the functions of these three different offices; and that all the leading departments of His work, —of what He did for the salvation of sinners, as it is set before us in Scripture, —fall naturally and easily under the ordinary and appropriate functions of these different offices. The propriety and utility of this division have been a good deal discussed by some continental writers. Ernesti— who was, however, much more eminent as a critic than as a theologian— laboured to show, in a dissertation, “De officio Christi triplici,” published in his Opuscula Theologica, that the division has no sanction from Scripture, and is fitted only to introduce confusion and error; and his views and arguments have been adopted by Doederlein, Morus, and Knapp, There is, however, very little force in their objections, and the division continues still to be generally adopted by the most eminent continental theologians of the present clay. The leading point which the opponents of this division labour to establish is, that in Scripture the functions of these different offices are not always exactly discriminated from each other. But this position, even though proved, is very little to the purpose: for it can scarcely be disputed that Scripture docs afford us sufficient materials for forming pretty definite conceptions of the respective natures and functions of these three offices, as distinct from each other; and that, in point of fact, the leading departments of Christ’s work admit easily and naturally of being classed under the heads of the appropriate functions of these three offices, as the Scripture ordinarily discriminates them. This is quite sufficient to sanction the distinction as unobjectionable, useful, and convenient; while, of course, as it proves nothing of itself, all must admit the obligation lying upon those who make use of it to produce distinct and satisfactory scriptural proof of every position they maintain, as to the nature, object, and effects of anything that Christ is alleged to have done in the execution of these different offices.
It may be described in general, as the characteristic of the Socinian system of theology upon this subject, that it regards Christ merely as a Prophet, —that is, merely as revealing and establishing truths or doctrines concerning God and divine things, —while it denies that He executed the office of a Priest or of a King. But while this is true in substance there are one or two explanations that may assist us in understanding the discussions which occur upon this subject among the older theologians. The original Socinians, as I have already had occasion to mention, usually admitted that Christ executed the office of a King, and they did not altogether, and in every sense, deny that he executed the office of a Priest; while they conjoined or confounded the priestly and the kingly offices. I then explained, that though very far from being deficient either in ingenuity or in courage, they were unable to evade the evidence that Christ, after His resurrection, was raised to a station of exalted power, which in some way or other he employed for promoting the spiritual and eternal welfare of men. Their leading position, in regard to Christ’s priestly office, was, that he did not execute it at all upon earth, but only after His ascension to heaven; and that, of course, His sufferings and death formed no part of it, —these being intended merely to afford us an example of virtue, and to confirm and establish the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. The execution of His priestly office did not commence till after His ascension, and was only an aspect or modification of the kingly office, or of the exercise of the powers with which He had been invested; while everything connected with the objects to which this power was directed, or the way and manner in which it was exercised, was left wholly unexplained. Modern Socinians, having discovered that Scripture gives us no definite information as to the place which Christ now occupies, and the manner in which he is now engaged; and being satisfied that all that is said in Scripture about His priesthood is wholly figurative, —and, moreover, that the figure means nothing, real or true, being taken from mere Jewish notions, —have altogether discarded both the priestly and the kingly offices, and have thus brought out somewhat more plainly and openly, what the old Socinians held in substance, though they conveyed it in a more scriptural phraseology.
It is under the head of the priestly office of Christ that the great and infinitely important subject of His satisfaction or atonement is discussed; and this may be regarded as the most peculiar and essential feature of the work which he wrought, as Mediator, for the salvation of sinners, —that which stands in most immediate and necessary connection with the divinity of His person. We can conceive it possible that God might have given us a very full revelation of His will, and abundantly confirmed the certainty of the information which He communicated, as well as have set before us a complete pattern of every virtue for our imitation, through the instrumentality of a creature, or even of a mere man. We can conceive a creature exalted by God to a very high pitch of power and dignity, and made the instrument, in the exercise of this power, of accomplishing very important results bearing upon the spiritual and eternal welfare of men. But when the ideas of satisfying the divine justice and the divine law, in the room and stead of sinners, —and thereby reconciling men to God, whose law they had broken, —are presented to our minds, and in some measure realized, here we cannot but be impressed with the conviction, that if these ideas describe actual realities, we have got into a region in which there is no scope for the agency or operation of a mere creature, and in which infinite power and perfection are called for. We are not, indeed, to imagine that we fully and rightly understand the prophetical office of the Mediator, unless we regard the great Revealer of God as one who was the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, —as having been from eternity in the bosom of the Father. And it is proper also to remember, that we can scarcely conceive it to be possible that the actual power and dominion which the Scriptures ascribe to Christ as Mediator, and which II(;s ever exercising in the execution of His kingly office, —including, as it does, the entire government of the universe, and the absolute disposal of the everlasting destinies of all men, —could be delegated to, and exercised by, any creature, however exalted. We only wish to remark, that the general ideas of revealing God’s will, and exercising power or dominion, —which may be said to constitute the essence of the doctrine concerning the prophetical and kingly offices of Christ, —are more within the range of our ordinary conceptions; and that though, in point of fact, applicable to Christ in a way in which they could not apply to any creature, yet they do not of themselves suggest so readily the idea of the necessity of a divine Mediator as those which are commonly associated with the priestly office. The priestly office, accordingly, has been the principal subject of controversial discussion, both from its more immediate connection with the proper divinity of Christ’s person, and from its more extensive and influential bearing upon all the provisions and arrangements of the scheme of salvation.
It is very manifest, on the most cursory survey of the sacred Scriptures, that the salvation of sinners is ascribed to the sufferings and death of Christ, —that His sufferings and death are represented as intimately connected with, and influentially bearing upon, this infinitely important result. Indeed, the whole subject which is now under consideration may be regarded, in one aspect of it, as virtually resolving into the investigation of this question, —What is the relation subsisting between the sufferings and death of Christ and the salvation of sinners'? In what precise way do they bear upon men’s obtaining or receiving the forgiveness of their sins and the enjoyment of God’s favour? And in further considering this subject, it will be convenient, for the sake both of distinctness and brevity, to advert only to the death of Christ; for though most of the advocates of the generally received doctrine of the atonement regard the whole of Christ’s humiliation and sufferings, from His incarnation to His crucifixion, as invested with a priestly, sacrificial, and piacular character, —as constituting His once offering up of Himself a sacrifice, —as all propitiatory of God, and expiatory of men’s sins, —yet, in accordance with the general representations of Scripture, they regard His oblation or sacrifice of Himself, as a piacular victim, as principally manifested, and as concentrated in His pouring out His soul unto death, —His bearing our sins in His own body on the tree. And we may also, for the same reasons, —and because we do not intend at present to discuss the whole subject of justification, and the bearing of Christ’s work upon all that is implied in that word, —speak generally, and in the first instance, in adverting to the object to be effected, of the pardon or forgiveness of men’s sins, —an expression sometimes used in Scripture as virtually including or implying the whole of our salvation, because it is a fundamental part of it, and because it may be justly regarded as, in some respects, the primary thing to be attended to in considering our relation to God and our everlasting destinies.
We have already stated generally the different doctrines or theories which have been propounded, —all professing to rest upon scriptural authority, —in regard to the connection between the death of Christ and the forgiveness of men’s sins, taking these two expressions in the sense now explained. The Socinian doctrine is, that the death of Christ bears upon this result merely by confirming and illustrating truths, and by setting an example of virtue; and thus affording motives and encouragements to the exercise of repentance and the performance of good actions, by which we ourselves procure or obtain for ourselves the forgiveness of sin and the enjoyment of God’s favour, —its whole power and efficacy being thus placed in the confirmation of truth and in the exhibition of exemplary virtue. The doctrine commonly held by Arians is, that Christ, by submitting to suffering and to death, on men’s account, and with a view to their benefit, has done what was very acceptable to God, and has thus obtained a position of influence with God, which He exercises by interceding in some way or other for the purpose of procuring for men forgiveness and favour. Now, it may be said to be true, that the Scripture does ascribe these effects to the death of Christ, and that, of course, that event is fitted, and was intended, to produce them. The death of Christ was a testimony to truths, and is well adapted to establish and illustrate them, though what these truths are must depend essentially upon what that event was in its whole character and bearing.
It is fitted, and of course was intended, to afford us motives and encouragements to repentance and holiness. This is true, but it is very far from being the whole of the truth upon the subject. It is likewise true that Scripture sanctions the general idea of Christ— by suffering and dying for the sake of men— doing what was pleasing and acceptable to God, —of His being in consequence rewarded, and raised to a position of high power and dignity, —and of His interceding with God, or using influence with Him, to procure for men spiritual blessings. All this is true, and it is held by those who maintain the commonly received doctrine of the atonement. But neither is this the whole of the truth which Scripture teaches upon the subject. And what in it is true, as ' thus generally expressed, is not brought out so fully and explicitly, as the Scripture affords us ample materials for doing, by connecting it with the doctrine of the atonement.
Some men would fain persuade us that the substance of all that Scripture teaches us concerning the way of salvation is this, —that an exalted and glorious Being interposed on behalf of sinners, —mediated between them and an offended God; and by this interposition and influence procured for them the forgiveness of their sins, and the enjoyment of God’s favour. Now, all this is true. There is nothing in this general statement which contradicts or opposes anything that is taught us in Scripture. But, just as the Scripture affords us, as we have seen, abundant materials for defining much more fully and explicitly the real nature, dignity, and position of this exalted Being, and leaves us not to mere vague generalities upon this point, but warrants and requires us to believe and maintain that He was of the same nature and substance with the Father, and equal in power and glory; so, in like manner, in regard to what He did for men’s salvation, the Scripture does not leave us to the vague generalities of His mediating or interposing, interceding or using influence, on our behalf, but affords us abundant materials for explaining much more precisely and definitely the nature or kind of His mediation or interposition, —the foundation of His intercession, —the ground or source of His influence. The commonly received doctrine of the satisfaction or atonement of Christ just professes to bring out this more full and specific information; and the substance of it is this, —that the way and manner in which He mediated or interposed in behalf of sinners, and in order to effect their deliverance or salvation, was by putting Himself in their place, —by substituting Himself in their room and stead, —suffering, as their substitute or surety, the penalty of the law which they had broken, the punishment which they had deserved by their sins, —and thereby satisfying the claims of divine justice, and thus reconciling them to God. This great scriptural doctrine is thus expressed in our Confession of Faith: “The Lord Jesus, by His perfect obedience and sacrifice of Himself, which He through the eternal Spirit once offered up unto God, hath fully satisfied the justice of His Father; and purchased not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for all those whom the Father hath given unto Him;” or, in the words of the Shorter Catechism, “Christ executeth the office of a Priest, in His once offering up of Himself a sacrifice to satisfy divine justice, and reconcile us to God; and in making continual intercession for us.”
Here I may remark, as illustrating some preceding observations, —though this is not a topic which I mean to dwell upon, —that His intercession succeeds, and is based upon, His sacrifice and satisfaction; and that thus distinctness and definiteness are given to the idea which it expresses. When men’s deliverance, or their possession of spiritual blessings, is ascribed, in general, to the intercession of Christ, without being accompanied with an exposition of His vicarious sacrifice and satisfaction, as the ground or basis on which it rests, no more definite meaning can be attached to it than merely that of rising some influence, in order to procure for men what they need from God. But when His vicarious sacrifice and satisfaction are first asserted as the great leading department of the work which He wrought for the salvation of sinners, and His intercession is then introduced as following this, and based upon it, we escape from this vague generality, and are warranted and enabled to represent His intercession as implying that He pleads with God, in behalf of men, and in order to obtain for them the forgiveness of their sins, this most relevant and weighty consideration, —viz., that he has suffered in their room, that He has endured in their stead the whole penalty which their sins had deserved.
The great doctrine, that Christ offered Himself as a vicarious sacrifice, —that is, a sacrifice in the room and stead of sinners, as their surety and substitute; that He did so, in order to satisfy divine justice and reconcile them to God; and that, of course, by doing so, He has satisfied divine justice and reconciled them to God, —has been always held and maintained by the great body of the Christian church. It was not, indeed, like the doctrines of the Trinity and the person of Christ, subjected, at an early period in the history of the church, to a thorough and searching controversial discussion; and, in consequence of this, men’s views in regard to it continued always to partake somewhat of the character of vagueness and indistinctness. It can scarcely be said to have been fully expounded and discussed, in such a way as to bring out thoroughly its true nature and its scriptural grounds, until after the publication of the works of Socinus; for Anselm’s contributions to the right exposition of this doctrine, important as they are, scarcely come up to this description. It formed no part of the controversy between the Reformers and the Romanists; for the Church of Rome has always continued to profess the substance of scriptural truth on this subject, as well as on that of the Trinity, though, according to her usual practice, she has grievously corrupted, and almost wholly neutralized, the truth which she professedly holds. Socinus was the first who made a full and elaborate effort to overturn the doctrine which the church had always held upon this subject, and which, though not very fully or explicitly developed as a topic of speculation, had constituted the source at once of the hopes and the motives of God’s people from the beginning. This he did chiefly in his Treatise, “De Jesu Christo Servatore," and in his “Pralectiones Theologicae;" and it certainly required no ordinary ingenuity for one man, and without the benefit of much previous discussion upon the point, to devise a whole system of plausible evasions and perversions, for the purpose of showing that the doctrine which the whole church had hitherto believed upon the subject was not taught in Scripture. Ever since that period the doctrine of the atonement or satisfaction of Christ has been very fully discussed in all its bearings and aspects, affecting as it does, and must do, the whole scheme of Christian truth; and the result has been, that the Socinian evasions and perversions of Scripture have been triumphantly exposed, and that the generally received doctrine of the church has been conclusively established, and placed upon an immovable basis, by the most exact and searching investigation, conducted upon the soundest and strictest critical principles, into the meaning of the numerous and varied scriptural statements that bear upon this subject.
In considering this subject, I propose to advert, in the first place, to the doctrine of the atonement or satisfaction of Christ in general, as held by the universal church, —by Papists, Lutherans, Calvinists, and Arminians, —in opposition to the Socinians and other deniers of our Lord’s divinity; in the second place, to the peculiarities of the Arminian doctrine upon this subject, as affected and determined by its relation to the general system of Arminian theology; and in the third place, to the doctrine which has been propounded, upon this subject, by those who profess Calvinistic principles upon other points, but who, upon this, hold views identical with, or closely resembling those of, the Arminians, especially in regard to the extent of the atonement.
II. Necessity of the Atonement
In considering the subject of the atonement, it may be proper to advert, in the first place, to a topic which has given rise to a good deal of discussion, —namely, the necessity of an atonement or satisfaction, in order to the forgiveness of men’s sins. The Socinians allege that a vicarious atonement or satisfaction for sin is altogether unnecessary, and adduce this consideration as a proof, or at least a presumption, against its truth or reality; while the advocates of an atonement have not been contented with showing that its non-necessity could not be proved, but have, in general, further averred positively that it was necessary, —have undertaken to prove this, —and have made the evidence of its necessity at once an argument in favour of its truth and reality, and a means of illustrating its real nature and operation. The assertion, as well as the denial, of the necessity of an atonement, must, from the nature of the case, be based upon certain ideas of the attributes and moral government of God, viewed in connection with the actual state and condition of man as a transgressor of His law; and the subject thus leads to discussions in which there is a great danger of indulging in presumptuous speculations on points of which we can know nothing, except in so far as God has been pleased to convey to us information in His word. It can scarcely be said that the Scripture gives us any direct or explicit information upon the precise question, whether or not the salvation of sinners could possibly have been effected in any other way than through an atonement or satisfaction; and it is not indispensable for any important purpose that this question should be determined. The only point of vital importance is that of the truth or reality of an atonement, and then the consideration of its true nature and bearing. We have just to ascertain from Scripture what was the true character and object of Christ’s death, and the way and manner in which, in point of fact, it bears upon the forgiveness of men's sins, and their relation to God and to His law; and when we have ascertained this, it cannot be of fundamental importance that we should investigate and determine the question, whether or not it was possible for God to have forgiven men without satisfaction.
Had the materials for determining the question of the truth and reality of an atonement been scanty or obscure, then the presumption arising from anything we might be able to know or ascertain as to its necessity or non-necessity, might be of some avail in turning the scale upon the question of its truth or reality. But when we have in Scripture such explicit and abundant materials for establishing the great doctrine that, in point of fact, Christ did offer up Himself a sacrifice to satisfy divine justice, we are entitled to feel, and we ought to feel, that, in stating and arguing this question, we are wholly independent of the alleged necessity or non-necessity of an atonement; and having ascertained what God has done, —what provision He has made, —what scheme He has adopted, —we need not be very anxious about settling the question, whether or not He could have accomplished the result in any other way or by any other means. But while it is proper that we should understand that this question about the necessity of an atonement is not one of vital importance in defending our cause against the Socinians, as we have full and abundant evidence of its truth and reality; yet, since the subject has been largely discussed among theologians, —since almost all who have held the truth and reality of an atonement have also maintained its necessity, —and since the consideration of the subject brings out some views which, though not indispensable to the proof of its truth or reality, are yet true and important in themselves, and very useful in illustrating its nature and bearings, —it may be proper to give a brief notice of the points that are usually introduced into the discussion of this question.
Let us first advert to the ground taken by the Socinians upon this department of the subject. They deny the necessity of an atonement or satisfaction for sin, upon the ground that the essential benevolence and compassion of God must have prompted, and that His supreme dominion must have enabled, Him to forgive men’s sins without any atonement or satisfaction; and that there was nothing in His nature, government, or law, which threw any obstacle in the way of His at once exercising His sovereign dominion in accordance with the promptings of His compassion, and extending forgiveness to all upon the condition of repentance and reformation.
Now, in the first place, an allegation of this sort is sufficiently met by the scriptural proof, that, in point of fact, an atonement was offered, —that satisfaction was made, and that forgiveness and salvation are held out to men, and bestowed upon them, only on the footing of this atonement. And then, in the second place, if we should, ex abundanti, examine the Socinian position more directly, it is no difficult matter to show that they have not proved, and cannot prove, any one of the positions on which they rest the alleged non-necessity of an atonement. As they commonly allege that the doctrine of the Trinity is a denial of the divine unity, so they usually maintain that the doctrine of the atonement involves a denial of the divine placability. That placability is an attribute or quality of God, is unquestionable. This general position can be fully established from revelation, however doubtful or uncertain may be the proof of it derived from reason or nature. Independently altogether of general scriptural declarations, it is established by the facts, that, as all admit, God desired and determined to forgive and to save sinners who had broken His law, and made provision for carrying this gracious purpose into effect. But there is no particular statement in Scripture, and no general principle clearly sanctioned by it, which warrants us to assert that God’s placability required of Him that He should forgive men’s sins without an atonement, and upon the mere condition of repentance. Placability is not the only attribute or quality of God. There are other features of His character, established both by His works and His word, which, viewed by themselves, are manifestly fitted to lead us to draw an opposite conclusion as to the way in which he would, in point of fact, deal with sin and sinners, —well fitted to excite the apprehension that he will inflict upon them the punishment which, by their sins, they have merited. In these circumstances, it is utterly unwarrantable for us, without clear authority from Scripture, to indulge in dogmatic assertions as to what God certainly will, or will not, do in certain circumstances.
Neither Scripture nor reason warrant the position that repentance is, in its own nature, an adequate reason or ground, ordinarily and in general, and still less in all cases, for pardoning those who have transgressed a law to which they were subject. It is in entire accordance with the dictates of reason, and with the ordinary practice of men, to inflict the full penalty of the law upon repentant criminals; and there is no ground on which we are warranted to assert that God cannot, or certainly will not, follow a similar course in regard to those who have transgressed His law. The Socinians are accustomed, in discussing this point, to dwell upon the scriptural statements with respect to repentance, its necessity and importance, and the connection subsisting between it and forgiveness. But there is nothing in these statements which establishes the position they undertake to maintain upon this subject. Those statements prove, indeed, that sinners are under an imperative obligation to repent; and they prove further, that, according to the arrangements which God has actually made, an invariable connection subsists between forgiveness and repentance, so that it is true that without repentance there is no forgiveness, and that wherever there is real repentance, forgiveness is bestowed; and that thus men are commanded and bound to repent in order to their being forgiven, and are warranted to infer their forgiveness from their repentance. The scriptural statements prove all this, but they prove nothing more; and this is not enough to give support to the Socinian argument. All this may be true, while it may still be false that repentance is the sole cause or condition of the forgiveness, —the sole, or even the principal, reason on account of which it is bestowed; and if so, then there is abundant room left for the admission of the principle, that a vicarious atonement or satisfaction was also necessary in order to the forgiveness of sin, and was indeed the true ground on which the forgiveness was conferred.
But while it is thus shown that this may be true, in entire consistency with all that Scripture says about forgiveness, and the connection between it and repentance, and while this is amply sufficient to refute the Socinian argument; we undertake further to prove from Scripture, that the atonement or satisfaction of Christ is indeed the ground on which forgiveness rests, and that this principle must be taken in, and must have its proper place assigned to it, if we would receive and maintain the whole doctrine which the word of God plainly teaches us in regard to this most momentous subject. But, more than this, the advocates of the generally received doctrine of the atonement not only deny and disprove the Socinian allegation of its non-necessity, —not only show that Socinians cannot prove that it was not necessary, —they themselves, in general, positively aver that it was necessary, and think they can produce satisfactory evidence of the truth of this position. There is, at first view, something repulsive— as having the appearance of unwarranted presumption— in asserting the necessity of an atonement or satisfaction, as it really amounts in substance to this, that God could not have pardoned men unless an atonement had been made, —unless a satisfaction had been rendered for their sins; and it may appear more suited to the modesty and reverence with which we ought to speak on such a subject, to say, that, for aught we know, God might have saved men in other ways, or through other means, but that he has adopted that method or scheme which was the wisest and the best, —best fitted to promote His own glory, and secure the great ends of His moral government. We find, however, upon further consideration, that the case is altogether so peculiar, and that the grounds of the assertion are so clear and strong, as to warrant it, even though an explicit deliverance upon this precise point is not given us in Scripture.
As to the general position, that an atonement or satisfaction was necessary, —or rather, that God could not have made provision for pardoning and saving sinners in any other way than that which he has actually adopted, —this seems fully warranted, independently of any other consideration, by the Scripture doctrine of the proper divinity of the Saviour. The incarnation of the eternal Son of God, —the assumption of human nature by One who was at the same time possessor of the divine, —the fact that this Being, who is God and man in one person, spent a life on earth of obscurity and humiliation, —that he endured many sufferings and indignities, and was at last subjected to a cruel and ignominious death; — all this, if it be true, —if it be an actual reality, —as Scripture requires us to believe, is so peculiar and extraordinary in its whole character and aspects, that whenever we are led to realize it, we feel ourselves at once irresistibly constrained to say, that this would not have taken place if it had been possible that the result to which it was directed, —namely, the forgiveness and salvation of sinners, —could have been effected in any other way, or by any other means. We feel, and we cannot but feel, that there is no unwarranted presumption in saying, that if it had been possible that the salvation of guilty men could have been otherwise accomplished, the only-begotten Son of God would not have left the glory which He had with His Father from eternity, assumed human nature, and suffered and died on earth. This ground, were there nothing more revealed regarding it, would warrant us to make the general assertion, that the incarnation, suffering, and death of Christ were necessary to the salvation of sinners, —that this result could not have been effected without them. This consideration, indeed, has no weight with Socinians, as they do not admit the grand peculiarity on which it is based, —namely, the divinity and the incarnation of Him who came to save sinners. Still it is an ample warrant for our general assertion, as being clearly implied in, and certainly deducible from, a doctrine which we undertake to prove to be plainly revealed in Scripture.
It ought, however, to be noticed, that the precise position which this general consideration warrants us to assert, is not directly and immediately the necessity of an atonement or satisfaction, but only the necessity of the sufferings and death of Christ, whatever may have been the character attaching to them, or the precise effect immediately resulting from them, in connection with the salvation of sinners; and that, accordingly, it was only the warrantableness of introducing the idea, and the expression of necessity, as applicable to the subject in general, that we had in view in bringing it forward; and we have now to advert to the indications supposed to be given us in Scripture, of the grounds or reasons of this necessity. Scripture fully warrants us in saying that there are things which God cannot do. It says expressly that he cannot deny Himself; that he cannot he; that he cannot repent (though there is an improper sense in which repentance is ascribed to Him); and he cannot do these things, just because He is God, and not man, —because He is possessed of divine and infinite perfection. And if it be in any sense true that an atonement or satisfaction was necessary, —or, what is in substance the same thing, that God could not have pardoned sinners without it, —this must be because the attributes of His nature, or the principles of His government, —in other words, His excellence or perfection, —prevented or opposed it, or threw obstacles in the way, which could not otherwise be removed. Accordingly, this is the general position which the advocates of the necessity of an atonement maintain.
The most obvious and palpable consideration usually adduced in support of the necessity of an atonement, is that derived from the law of God, especially the threatenings which, in the law, he has denounced against transgressors. The law which God has promulgated is this, “The soul which sinneth shall die.” If God has indeed said this, —if he has uttered this threatening, —this would seem to render it certain and necessary, that wherever sin has been committed, death, with all that it includes or implies, should be inflicted, unless God were to repent, or to deny Himself, or to be, —all which the Scripture assures us He cannot do, because of the perfection of His nature. And it is a remarkable coincidence, that the only cases in which Scripture says explicitly that God cannot do certain things, all bear upon and confirm the position, that he cannot pardon sin without an atonement; inasmuch as to say, that he could pardon sin without an atonement, would, in the circumstances, amount to a virtual declaration that He could he, that He could repent, that He could deny Himself. Upon this ground, the possibility of men who had sinned escaping death, —that is, everlasting misery, —would seem to be precluded. If such a being as God is has threatened sin with the punishment of death, there must be a serious difficulty in the way of sinners escaping. His veracity seems to prevent this, and to present an insuperable obstacle. In pardoning sinners, or in exempting them from the death which they have incurred, it would seem that He must trample upon His own law, and disregard His own threatening; and this the very perfection of His nature manifestly forbids.
Socinians, indeed, have been accustomed to allege, that though God is obliged by His veracity to perform His promises, —because by promising He has conferred upon His creatures a right to the fulfilment of the promise, —yet that His veracity does not oblige Him to fulfil His threatenings, because the party to whose case they apply has no right, and puts forth no claim, to their infliction. But this is a mere evasion of the difficulty. God is a law unto Himself. His own inherent perfection obliges Him always to do what is right and just, and that irrespective of any rights which His creatures may have acquired, or any claims which they may prefer. On this ground, His veracity seems equally to require that He should execute threatenings, as that He should fulfil promises. If He does not owe this to sinners, He owes it to Himself. When he threatened sin with the punishment of death, He was not merely giving an abstract declaration as to what sin merited, and might justly bring upon those who committed it; He was declaring the way and manner in which He would, in fact, treat it when it occurred. The law denouncing death as the punishment of sin was thus a virtual prediction of what God would do in certain circumstances; and when these circumstances occurred, His veracity required that he should act as He had foretold.
We can conceive of no way in which it is possible that the honour and integrity of the divine law could be maintained, or the divine veracity be preserved pure and unstained, if sinners were not subjected to death, except by an adequate atonement or satisfaction being rendered in their room and stead. No depth of reflection, no extent of experience, could suggest anything but this, which could render the sinner’s exemption from death possible. There is much in the history of the world to suggest this, but nothing whatever to suggest anything else. We are not entitled, indeed, apart from the discoveries of revelation, to assert that even this would render the pardon of the sinner possible, consistently with the full exercise of the divine veracity, and full maintenance of the honour of the divine law; and still less are we entitled to assert that, even if an adequate atonement or satisfaction might render the escape of the sinner possible, it was further possible that such an atonement or satisfaction could in fact be rendered. We are not warranted to assert these things independently of revelation; but we have strong grounds for asserting that, if God did threaten death as the punishment of sin, nothing could have prevented the infliction of the threatening, and rendered the escape of the sinner possible, except an adequate atonement or satisfaction, —that this at least was indispensable, if even this could have been of any avail.
But those who hold the necessity of an atonement or satisfaction in order to the pardon of the sin, and the escape of the sinner, usually rest it, not merely upon the law of God as revealed, and upon His veracity as concerned in the execution of the threatenings which He has publicly denounced, but also upon the inherent perfection of His nature, independently of any declaration He may have made, or any prediction He may have uttered, —and more especially upon His justice. The discussion of this point leads us into some more abstruse and difficult inquiries than the former; and it must be confessed that here we have not such clear and certain materials for our conclusions, and that we should feel deeply the necessity of following closely the guidance and direction of Scripture. The representations given us in Scripture of the justice of God, are fitted to impress upon us the conviction that it requires Him to give to every one his due, —what he has merited by his conduct, —and, of course, to give to the sinner the punishment which he has deserved. What God has threatened, His veracity requires Him to inflict, because He has threatened it. But the threatening itself must have originated in the inherent perfection of His own nature prompting Him to punish sin as it deserves; and to threaten to punish, because it is already and antecedently right to do so. God’s law, or His revealed will, declaring what His creatures should do, and what He Himself will do, is the transcript or expression of the inherent perfections of His own nature. The acts of the divine government, and the obligations of intelligent creatures, result from, and are determined by, the divine law, as their immediate or approximate cause and standard; but they all, as well as the divine law itself, are traceable to the divine nature, —to the essential perfections of God, —as their ultimate source or foundation. When, then, God issued the law denouncing death as the punishment of transgression, and thereby became pledged to inflict death on account of sin, because He had threatened, to do so, He was merely indicating or expressing a principle or purpose which was founded on, and resulted from, that inherent perfection which, in a sense, makes it necessary for Him, —although, at the same time, He acts most freely, —to give to all their due, and of course to inflict merited punishment upon sin. This is the substance of what is taught by orthodox divines when they lay down the position that punitive justice— or, as they usually call it, justitia vindicatrix— is essential to God. It is a real perfection of His nature, of which he cannot denude Himself, and which must necessarily regulate or determine the free acts of His will.
All this is in accordance with the statements of Scripture and the dictates of right reason; and these various considerations combined, fully warrant the general conclusion, that, since death has been denounced as the punishment of sin, there must be formidable obstacles in the way of sinners being pardoned and escaping from death, —that, if God should pardon sinners, some provision would be necessary for vindicating His justice and veracity, and maintaining the honour of His law;— and that the only conceivable way in which these objects could be secured, is by an adequate atonement or satisfaction rendered in the room and stead of those who had incurred the penalty of the law. Socinians have very inadequate and erroneous views of the guilt or demerit of sin, and are thus led to look upon the pardon or remission of it as a light or easy matter. But it is our duty to form our conceptions of this subject from what God has made known to us, and especially from what He has revealed to us as to the way and manner in which He must anti will treat it, ordeal with it. And all that Clod’s word tells us upon this point, viewed by itself, and apart from the revelation made of an actual provision for pardoning sin and saving sinners, is fitted to impress upon us the conviction that sin fully merits, and will certainly receive, everlasting destruction from God's presence and from the glory of His power.
Another topic intimately connected with this one of the necessity of an atonement or satisfaction, —or rather, forming a part of it, —has been largely discussed in the course of this controversy, —that, namely, of the character or aspect in which God is to be regarded in dealing with sinners, with the view either of punishing them for their sins, or saving them from the punishment they have merited. Socinians, in order to show that there is no difficulty in the way of God’s pardoning sin, and no necessity for an atonement or satisfaction for sin, usually represent God as acting, in this matter, either as a creditor to whom men have become debtors by sinning, or as a party who has been injured and offended by their transgressions: and then infer that, as a creditor may remit a debt if he chooses, without exacting payment, and as an injured party may forgive an injury if he chooses, without requiring any satisfaction, so, in like manner, there is no reason why God may not forgive men’s sins by a mere act of His good pleasure, without any payment or compensation, either personal or vicarious. There certainly is a foundation in scriptural statements for representing sins as debts incurred to God and to His law, and also as injuries inflicted upon Him. These representations, though figurative, are, of course, intended to convey to us some ideas concerning the true state of the case; and they suggest considerations which, in some other departments of the controversy in regard to the great doctrine of the atonement, afford strong arguments against the Socinian views. But the application they make of them to disprove the necessity of an atonement, is utterly unwarranted. It is manifestly absurd to press far the resemblance or analogy between sins on the one hand, and debts or injuries on the other; or to draw inferences merely from this resemblance. These are not the only or the principal aspects in which sins are represented in Scripture.
The primary or fundamental idea of sin is, that it is a transgression of God’s law, —a violation of a rule which He has commanded us to observe; and this, therefore, should be the leading aspect in which it should be contemplated, when we are considering how God will deal with it. We exclude none of the scriptural representations of sin, and none of the scriptural representations of God in His dealing with it; but, while we take them all in, we must give prominence in our conceptions to the most important and fundamental. And as the essential idea of sin is not, that it is merely a debt or an injury, but that it is a violation of God’s law, the leading character or aspect in which God ought to be contemplated when we regard Him as dealing with it, is not that of a creditor, or an injured party, who may remit the debt, or forgive the injury, as he chooses, but that of a lawgiver and a judge who has promulgated a just and righteous law, prohibiting sin under pain of death, and who is bound, by a regard to His own perfections, and the interests of holiness throughout the universe, to take care that His own character be fully vindicated, that the honour of His law be maintained, and that His moral government be firmly established; and who, therefore, cannot pardon sin, unless, in some way or other, full and adequate provision be made for securing all these objects. The pardon of sin, the forgiveness of men who have broken the law and incurred its penalty, who have done that against which God has denounced death, seems to have a strong and manifest tendency to frustrate or counteract all these objects, to stain the glory of the divine perfections, to bring dishonour upon the divine law, to shake the stability of God’s moral government, and to endanger the interests of righteousness and holiness throughout the universe. And when, therefore, we contemplate God not merely as a creditor or as an injured party, but as the Supreme Lawgiver and Judge, dealing with the deliberate violation, by His intelligent and responsible creatures, of a just, and holy, and good law which he had prescribed to them, and which He had sanctioned with the threatened penalty of death, we cannot conceive it to be possible that He should pardon them without an adequate atonement or satisfaction; and we are constrained to conclude, that, if forgiveness be possible at all, it can be only on the footing of the threatened penalty being endured by another party acting in their room and stead, and of this vicarious atonement being accepted by God as satisfying His justice, and answering the claims of His law.
Whatever evidence there is for the necessity of an atonement or satisfaction, in order to the pardon of sin, of course confirms the proof of its truth or reality. It is admitted on all hands, that God does pardon sinners, —that He exempts them from punishment, receives them into His favour, and admits them to the enjoyment of eternal blessedness, notwithstanding that they have sinned and broken His law. If all that we know concerning God, His government, and law, would lead us to conclude that He could not do this without an adequate atonement or satisfaction, then we may confidently expect to find that such an atonement has been made, —that such a satisfaction has been rendered. And, on the other hand, if we have sufficient evidence of the truth and reality of an atonement as a matter of fact, —and find, moreover, that this atonement consisted of a provision so very peculiar and extraordinary as the sufferings and death, in human nature, of One who was God over all, blessed for evermore, —we are fully warranted in arguing back from such a fact to its indispensable and absolute necessity, in order to the production of the intended result; and then, from an examination of the grounds and reasons of this established necessity, we may learn much as to the true nature of this wonderful provision, and the way and manner in which it is fitted, and was designed, to accomplish its intended object.
III. The Necessity and Nature of the Atonement
The subject of the necessity of an atonement, in order to the pardon of sin, needs to be stated and discussed with considerable care and caution, as it is one on which there is danger of men being tempted to indulge in presumptuous speculations, and of their landing, when they follow out their speculations, in conclusions of too absolute and unqualified a kind. Some of its advocates have adopted a line of argument of which the natural result would seem to be, absolutely and universally, that sin cannot be forgiven, and, of course, that sinners cannot be saved. A mode of representation and argument about the divine justice, the principles of the divine moral government, and the divine law and veracity, which fairly leads to this conclusion, must, of course, be erroneous, since it is admitted on all hands, as a matter of fact, that sin is forgiven, that sinners are pardoned and saved. This, therefore, is an extreme to be avoided, —this is a danger to be guarded against. The considerations on which the advocates of the necessity of an atonement usually found, derived from the scriptural representations of the divine justice, law, and veracity, manifestly, and beyond all question, warrant this position, that there are very serious and formidable obstacles to the pardon of men who have broken the law, and incurred its penalty; and thus, likewise, point out what is the nature and ground of these obstacles. The difficulty lies here, that God’s justice and veracity seem to impose upon Him an obligation to punish sin, and to execute His threatenings; and if this position can really be established, —and it is the foundation of the alleged necessity of an atonement or satisfaction, —the practical result would seem to be, that the law must take its course, and that the penalty must be inflicted. The argument would thus seem to prove too much, and, of course, prove nothing; a consideration well fitted to impress upon us the necessity of care and caution in stating and arguing the question, though certainly not sufficient to warrant the conclusion which some have deduced from it, —namely, that the whole argument commonly brought forward in support of the necessity of an atonement is unsatisfactory.
I have no doubt that there is truth and soundness in the argument, when rightly stated and applied. The law which God has promulgated, threatening death as the punishment of sin, manifestly throws a very serious obstacle in the way of sin being pardoned, both because it seems to indicate that God’s perfections require that it be punished, and because the non-infliction of the penalty threatened seems plainly fitted to lead men to regard the law and its threatenings with indifference and contempt, —or at least to foster the conviction, that some imperfection attached to it as originally promulgated, since it had been found necessary, in the long run, to change or abrogate it, or at least to abstain from following it out, and thereby virtually to set it aside. Had God made no further revelation to men than that of the original moral law, demanding perfect obedience, with the threatened penalty of death in the event of transgression; and were the only conjecture they could form about their future destiny derived from the knowledge that they had been placed under this law, and had exposed themselves to its penalty by sinning, the conclusion which alone it would be reasonable for them to adopt, would be, that they must and would suffer the full penalty they had incurred by transgression. This is an important position, and runs directly counter to the whole substance and spirit of the Socinian views upon this subject. If, in these circumstances, —and with this position impressed upon their minds, as the only practical result of all that they then knew upon the subject, —they were further informed, upon unquestionable authority, that many sinners, —many men who had incurred the penalty of the law, —would, in point of fact, be pardoned and saved; then the conclusion which, in right reason, must be deducible from this information would be, not that the law had been abrogated or thrown aside, as imperfect or defective, but that some very peculiar and extraordinary provision had been found out and carried into effect, by which the law might be satisfied and its honour maintained, while yet those who had incurred its penalty were forgiven. And if, assuming this to be true or probable, the question were asked, What this provision could be? it would either appear to be an insoluble problem: or the only thing that could commend itself to men’s reason, although reason might not itself suggest it, would be something of the nature of an atonement or satisfaction, by the substitution of another party in the room of those who had transgressed. The principles of human jurisprudence, and various incidents in the history of the world, might justify this as not unreasonable in itself, and fitted to serve some such purposes as the exigencies of the case seemed to require.
In this way, a certain train of thought, if once suggested, might be followed out, and shown to be reasonable, —to be invested, at least, with a high degree of probability; and this is just, in substance, what is commonly advocated by theologians under the head of the necessity of an atonement. There is, first, the necessity of maintaining the honour of the law, by the execution of its threatenings against transgressors; then there is the necessity of some provision for maintaining the honour of the law, if these threatenings are not, in fact, to be executed upon those who have incurred them; and then, lastly, there is the investigation of the question, —of what nature should this provision be; and what are the principles by which it must be regulated? And it is here that the investigation of the subject of the necessity of an atonement comes in, to throw some light upon its true nature and bearings.
The examination of the topics usually discussed under the head of the necessity of an atonement, viewed in connection with the undoubted truth, that many sinners are, in point of fact, pardoned and saved, leads us to expect to find some extraordinary provision made for effecting this result, and thereby gives a certain measure of antecedent probability to the allegation that such a provision has been made, and thus tends to confirm somewhat the actual evidence we may have of its truth and reality; while the same considerations which lead us to the conclusion that some such provision was necessary, guide us also to some inferences as to what it must consist in, and what immediate purposes it must be fitted to serve. The general substance of what is thus indicated as necessary, or as to be expected, in the nature and bearings of the provision, is this, —it must consist with, and must fully manifest all the perfections of God, and especially His justice and His hatred of sin; and it must be fitted to impress right conceptions of the perfection and unchangeableness of the divine law, and of the danger of transgressing it. God, of course, cannot do, or even permit, anything which is fitted, in its own nature, or has an inherent tendency, to convey erroneous conceptions of His character or law, of His moral government, or of the principles which regulate His dealings with His intelligent creatures; and assuredly no sinner will ever be saved, except in a way, and through a provision, in which God’s justice, His hatred of sin, and His determination to maintain the honour of His law, are as fully exercised and manifested, as they would have been by the actual infliction of the full penalty which He had threatened. These perfections and qualities of God must be exercised as well as manifested, and they must be manifested as well as exercised. God must always act or regulate His volitions and procedure in accordance with the perfections and attributes of His nature, independently of any regard to His creatures, or to the impressions which they may, in point of fact, entertain with respect to Him; while it is also true that He must ever act in a way which accurately manifests His perfections, or is fitted, in its own nature, to convey to His creatures correct conceptions of what he is, and of what are the principles which regulate His dealings with them. In accordance with these principles, He must, in any provision for pardoning and saving sinners, both exercise and manifest His justice and His hatred of sin, —that is, He must act in the way which these qualities naturally and necessarily lead Him to adopt; and He must follow a course which is fitted to manifest Him to His creatures as really doing all this.
The practical result of these considerations is this, that if a provision is to be made for removing the obstacles to the pardon of sinners, —for accomplishing the objects just described, while yet sinners are saved, —there is no way in which we can conceive this to be done, except by some other suitable party taking their place, and suffering in their room and stead, the penalty they had merited. Could any such party be found, were he able and willing to do this, and were he actually to do it, then we can conceive that in this way God’s justice might be satisfied, and the honour of His law maintained, because in this way the same views of the divine character, law, and government, and of the danger and demerit of sin, would be presented, as if sinners themselves had suffered the penalty in their own persons. All this, of course, implies, that the party interposing in behalf of sinners should occupy their place, and act in their room and stead, and that he should bear the penalty which they had incurred; because in this way, but in no other, so far as we can form any conception upon the subject, could the obstacles be removed, and the necessary objects be effected. And thus the general considerations on which the necessity of an atonement is maintained, are fitted to impress upon us the conviction, that there must be a true and real substitution of the party interposing to save sinners, in the room and stead of those whom he purposes to save, and the actual endurance by him of the penalty which they had incurred, and which they must, but for this interposition, have suffered.
A party qualified to interpose in behalf of sinners, in order to obtain or effect their forgiveness, by suffering in their room and stead the penalty they had deserved, must possess very peculiar qualifications indeed. The sinners to be saved were an innumerable company; the penalty which each of them had incurred was fearful and infinite, even everlasting misery; and men, of course, without revelation, are utterly incompetent to form a conception of any being who might be qualified for this. But the word of God brings before us One so peculiarly constituted and qualified, as at once to suggest the idea, that he might be able to accomplish this, —One who was God and man in one person; One who, being from eternity God, did in time assume human nature into personal union with the divine, —who assumed human nature for the purpose of saving sinners, —who was thus qualified to act as the substitute of sinners, and to endure suffering in their room; while at the same time he was qualified, by His possession of the divine nature, to give to all that he did and suffered a value and efficacy truly infinite, and fully adequate to impart to all He did a power or virtue fitted to accomplish anything, or everything, which He might intend to effect.
We formerly had occasion to show, that in regard to a subject so peculiar and extraordinary as the incarnation, sufferings, and death of the Son of God, —of One who was a possessor of the divine nature, —we are warranted in saying that, if these things really took place, they were, strictly speaking, necessary; that is, in other words, that they could not have taken place, if the object to which they were directed could possibly have been effected in any other way, or by any other means. And the mere contemplation of the fact of the sufferings and death of such a Being, independent of the full and specific information given us in Scripture as to the causes, objects, and consequences of His death, goes far to establish the truth and reality of His vicarious atoning sacrifice. When we view Him merely as a man, —but as a man, of course, perfectly free from sin, immaculately pure and holy, —we find it to be impossible to account for His sufferings upon the Socinian theory, or upon any theory but that of His suffering in the room and stead of others, and enduring the penalty which they had merited.
It is not disputed that sin is, in the case of intelligent and rational beings, the cause of suffering; and we cannot conceive that, under the government of a God of infinite power, and wisdom, and justice, and goodness, any such Being should be subjected to suffering except for sin. The suffering, —the severe and protracted suffering, —and, finally, the cruel and ignominious death of Christ, viewing Him merely as a perfectly holy and just man, are facts, the reality of which is universally admitted, and of which, therefore, all equally are called upon to give some explanation. The Socinians have no explanation to give of them. It is repugnant to all right conceptions of the principles of God’s moral government, that He should inflict upon an intelligent and responsible being suffering which is not warranted or sanctioned by sin as the cause or ground of it, as that which truly justifies and explains it, —that He should inflict suffering upon a holy and innocent Being, merely in order that others may be, in some way or other, benefited by His sufferings. It is, indeed, very common, in the administration of God’s moral government, that the sin of one being should be the means or occasion of bringing suffering upon others; but then it holds true, either that these others are also themselves sinners, or that they are legally liable to all the suffering that has ever been inflicted upon them, or permitted to befall them. The peculiarity in Christ’s case is, that while perfectly free from sin, original as well as actual, He was yet subjected to severe suffering and to a cruel death; and this not merely by the permission, but by the special agency and appointment of God. And this was done, according to the Socinian hypothesis, merely in order that others might, in some way or other, derive benefit from the suffering and death inflicted upon Him. There is here no explanation of the admitted facts of the case, that is at all consistent with the principles of God’s moral government. The doctrine of a vicarious atonement alone affords anything like an explanation of these facts; because, by means of it, we can account for them in consistency with the principle, that sin, —that is, either personal or imputed, —is the cause, the warrant, and the explanation of suffering. The Scripture assures us that Christ suffered for sin, —that He died for sin. And even viewing this statement apart from the fuller and more specific information given us in other parts of Scripture, with respect to the connection between the sin of men and the sufferings of the Saviour, and regarding it only in its relation to the general principles of God’s moral government, we are warranted in concluding that sin was the impulsive and meritorious cause of His suffering; and from this we are entitled to draw the inference, that, as He had no sin of His own, he must in some way have become involved in, and responsible for, the sin of others, and that this was the cause or reason why he was subjected to death. On all these various grounds we have a great deal of general argument upon the subject of the atonement, independent of a minute and exact examination of particular scriptural statements, which tends to confirm its truth, and to illustrate its general nature and bearing.
We have seen that some of the attributes of God, and some things we know as to His moral government and law, plainly suggest to us the convictions, that there are serious obstacles to the forgiveness of sin, —that if sin is to be forgiven, some extraordinary provision must be made for the exercise and manifestation of the divine justice and holiness, so that he shall still be, and appear to be, just and holy, even while pardoning sin and admitting sinners into the enjoyment of His favour; for making His creatures see and feel, that, though they are delivered from the curse of the law which they had broken, that law is, notwithstanding, of absolute perfection, of unchangeable obligation, and entitled to all honour and respect. The only thing that has ever been conceived or suggested at all fitted to accomplish this, is, that atonement or satisfaction should be made by the endurance of the penalty of the law in the room and stead of those who should be pardoned. This seems adapted to effect the object, and thereby to remove the obstacles, while in no other way can we conceive it possible that this end can be attained.
And while the holiness, justice, and veracity of God seem to require this, there is nothing in His benevolence or placability that precludes it. The benevolence or placability of God could produce merely a readiness to forgive and to save sinners, provided this could be effected in full consistency with all the other attributes of His nature, all the principles of His moral government, and all the objects he was bound to aim at, as the Lawgiver and Governor of the universe; and these, as we have seen, throw obstacles in the way of the result being effected. The actings of God, —His actual dealings with His creatures, —must be the result of the combined exercise of all His perfections; and He cannot, in any instance, act inconsistently with any one of them. His benevolence cannot be a mere indiscriminate determination to confer happiness, and His placability cannot be a mere indiscriminate determination to forgive those who have transgressed against Him.
The Scriptures reveal to us a fact of the deepest interest, and one that ought never to be forgotten or lost sight of when we are contemplating the principles that regulate God’s dealings with His creatures— namely, that some of the angels kept not their first estate, but fell by transgression; and that no provision has been made for pardoning and saving them, —no atonement or satisfaction provided for their sin, —no opportunity of escape or recovery afforded them. They sinned, or broke God's law; and their doom, in consequence, was unchangeably and eternally fixed. This is a fact, —this was the way in which God dealt with a portion of His intelligent creatures. Of course, He acted in this case in full accordance with the perfections of His nature and the principles of His government. We are bound to employ this fact, which God has revealed to us, as one of the materials which He has given us for enabling us to know Him. We are bound to believe, in regard to Him, whatever this fact implies or establishes, and to refuse to believe whatever it contradicts or precludes. And it manifestly requires us to believe this at least, that there is nothing in the essential perfections of God which affords any sufficient ground for the conclusion that he will certainly pardon transgressors of His laws, or make any provision for saving them from the just and legitimate consequences of their sins. This is abundantly manifest. And this consideration affords good ground to suspect that it was the flat contradiction which the scriptural history of the fall and fate of angels presents to the views of the Socinians, with regard to the principles of God’s moral government, that has generally led them, like the Sadducees of old, to maintain that there is neither angel nor spirit, though there is evidently not the slightest appearance of unreasonableness in the general doctrine of the existence of superior spiritual beings, employed by God in accomplishing His purposes.
As, then, there is nothing in God’s benevolence or placability which affords any certain ground for the conclusion that he must and will pardon sinners, so there can be nothing in these qualities inconsistent with His requiring atonement or satisfaction in order to their forgiveness, while other attributes of His nature seem plainly to demand this. God’s benevolence and placability are fully manifested in a readiness to bless and to forgive, in so far as this can be done, in consistency with the other attributes of His nature, and the whole principles of His moral government. And while there is nothing in His benevolence or placability inconsistent with His requiring an atonement or satisfaction in order to forgiveness, it is further evident, that if He Himself should provide this atonement or satisfaction to His own justice and law, and be the real author and deviser of all the plans and arrangements connected with the attainment of the blessed result of forgiveness and salvation to sinners, a scheme would be presented to us which would most fully and strikingly manifest the combined glory of all the divine perfections, —in which he would show Himself to be the just God, and the justifier of the ungodly, —in which righteousness and peace should meet together, mercy and truth should embrace each other. And this is the scheme which is plainly and fully revealed to us in the word of God. Provision is made for pardoning men's sins and saving their souls, through the vicarious sufferings and death of One who was God and man in one person, and who voluntarily agreed to take their place, and to suffer in their room and stead; thus satisfying divine justice, complying with the demands of the law by enduring its penalty, and manifesting most fully the sinfulness and the danger of sin. But this was done by God Himself, who desired the salvation of sinners, and determined to effect it; and who, in consequence, sent His Son into the world to die in man’s room and stead, —who spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all. So that here we have a scheme for pardoning and saving sinners which, from its very nature, must be effectual, and which not only is in full accordance with the perfections of God, but most gloriously illustrates them all. The apostle says expressly, “that God set forth His Son to be a propitiation through faith in His blood, to declare His righteousness,” or with a view to the demonstration of His righteousness; and it is true that the shedding of Christ’s blood as a propitiation, viewed with reference to its necessity and proper nature, does declare God’s righteousness, or justice and holiness; while, viewed in its originating motives and glorious results, it most fully declares God’s marvellous love to the children of men, and His determination to save sinners with an everlasting salvation.
IV. Objections to the Doctrine of Atonement
The proper order to be followed in the investigation of this subject, or indeed of any great scriptural doctrine, is the same as that which I stated and explained in considering the doctrine of the Trinity, —namely, that we should first ascertain, by a full and minute examination of all the scriptural statements bearing upon the subject, what the Bible teaches regarding it; and then consider the general objections that may be adduced against it, taking care to keep them in their proper place, as objections, and to be satisfied with showing that they cannot be proved to have any weight; and if they should appear to be really relevant and well-founded, and not mere sophisms or difficulties, applying them, as sound reason dictates, not in the way of reversing the judgment already formed upon the appropriate evidence as to what it is that the Bible really teaches, but in the way of rejecting a professed revelation that teaches doctrines which can, ex hypothexi, be conclusively disproved. But as the objections made by Socinians to the doctrine of the atonement are chiefly connected with some of those general and abstract topics to which we have already had occasion to advert, it may be most useful and convenient to notice them now, especially as the consideration of them is fitted, like that of the necessity of an atonement, already considered, to throw some light upon the general nature and import of the doctrine itself.
Many of the objections commonly adduced against the doctrine of atonement are mere cavils, —mere exhibitions of unwarranted presumption, —and are sufficiently disposed of by the general considerations of the exalted and incomprehensible nature of the subject itself, and of the great mystery of godliness, God made manifest in the flesh, on which it is based. These it is unnecessary to dwell upon, after the exposition of the general principles applicable to the investigation of these subjects which we have already given. Some are founded upon misrepresentations of the real bearing, objects, and effects of the atonement, especially in its relation to the character and moral government of God. Nothing, for instance, is more common than for Socinians to represent the generally received doctrine of atonement as implying that God the Father is an inexorable tyrant, who insisted upon the rigorous execution of the threatenings of the law until Christ interposed, and by His offering up of Himself satisfied God’s demands, and thereby introduced into the divine mind a totally different state of feeling in regard to sinners, —the result of which was, that He pardoned in place of punishing them. This, of course, is not the doctrine of the atonement, but a mere caricature of it. Scripture plainly teaches, —and the advocates of an atonement maintain, not only as being perfectly consistent with their doctrine, but as a constituent part of it, —that love to men, and a desire to save them from ruin, existed eternally in the divine mind, —resulting from the inherent perfections of God’s nature, —that this love and compassion led Him to devise and execute a plan of salvation, and to send His Son to save sinners by offering an atonement for their sins. The atonement, then, was the consequence, and not the cause, of God’s love to men, and of His desire to save them. It introduced no feeling into the divine mind which did not exist there before; though it certainly removed obstacles which other principles of His nature and government interposed to the full outflowing of the love and compassion which existed, and opened up a channel by which God, in full accordance with, and in glorious illustration of, all His perfections, might bestow upon men pardon and all other spiritual blessings, and finally eternal life. This is all that can be meant by the scriptural statements about the turning away of God’s anger and His reconciliation to men, when these are ascribed to the interposition and atonement of Christ. This is all that the defenders of an atonement understand by these statements. There is nothing in their views upon this, or upon any other subject, that requires them to understand these statements in any other sense; and thus understood, they are fully accordant both with the generally received doctrine of the atonement, and with everything else that Scripture teaches concerning God, and concerning the principles that regulate His dealings with men. This objection, then, though it has been repeated constantly from the time of Socinus till the present day, is founded wholly upon a misrepresentation of the doctrine objected to, —a misrepresentation for which there is no warrant or excuse whatever, except, perhaps, the declamations of some ignorant and injudicious preachers of the doctrine, who have striven to represent it in the way they thought best fitted to impress the popular mind.
The only objections of a general kind to the doctrine of an atonement that are entitled to any notice are these: First, that it involves injustice, by representing the innocent as punished in the room of the guilty, and the guilty thereby escaping; secondly, that it is inconsistent with the free grace, or gratuitous favour, which the Scriptures ascribe to God in the remission of men’s sins; and, thirdly, that it is fitted to injure the interests of holiness, or morality. We shall very briefly advert to these in succession, but without attempting anything like a full discussion of them.
First, It is alleged to be unjust to punish the innocent in the room of the guilty, and on this ground to allow the transgressors to escape. Now, the defenders of the doctrine of atonement admit that it does assume or imply the state of matters which is here described, and represented as unjust, —namely, the punishment of the innocent in the room of the guilty. Some of them, indeed, scruple about the application of the terms punishment and penal to the sufferings and death of Christ. But this scrupulosity appears to me to be frivolous and vexatious, resting upon no sufficient ground, and serving no good purpose. If men, indeed, begin with defining punishment to mean the infliction of suffering upon an offender on account of his offence, —thus including the actual personal demerit of the sufferer in the idea which the word conveys, —they settle the question of the penality, or penal character, of Christ’s suffering by the mere definition. In this sense, of course, Christ’s sufferings were not penal. But the definition is purely arbitrary, and is not required by general usage, which warrants us in regarding and describing as penal any suffering inflicted judicially, or in the execution of the provisions of law, on account of sin. And this arbitrary restriction of the meaning of the terms punishment and penal is of no use, although some of those who have recourse to it seem to think so, in warding off Socinian objections;— because, in the first place, there is really nothing in the doctrine of the atonement worth contending for, if
it be not true that Christ endured, in the room and stead of sinners, the suffering which the law demanded of them on account of their sins, and which, but for His enduring it, as their substitute, they must themselves have endured, —and because, in the second place, the allegation of injustice applies, with all the force it has, to the position just stated, whether Christ’s sufferings be called penal or not.
With regard to the objection itself, the following are the chief considerations to be attended to, by the exposition and application of which it is fully disposed of: First, that, as we have already had occasion to state and explain in a different connection, the sufferings and death of an innocent person in this matter are realities which all admit, and which all equally are bound to explain. Christ’s sufferings were as great upon the Socinian, as upon the orthodox, theory with regard to their cause and object; while our doctrine of His being subjected to suffering because of the sin of others being imputed to Him, or laid upon Him, brings the facts of the case into accordance with some generally recognised principles of God’s moral government, which, upon the Socinian scheme, is impossible. The injustice, of course, is not alleged to be in the fact that Christ, an innocent person, was subjected to so much suffering, —for there remains the same fact upon any hypothesis, —but in His suffering in the room and stead of sinners, with the view, and to the effect, of their escaping punishment.
Now, we observe, secondly, that this additional circumstance of His suffering being vicarious and expiatory, —which may be said to constitute our theory as to the grounds, causes, or objects of His suffering, —in place of introducing an additional difficulty into the matter, is the only thing which contributes in any measure to explain it. And it does contribute in some measure to explain it, because it can be shown to accord with the ordinary principles of enlightened reason to maintain, —first, that it is not of the essence of the idea of punishment, that it must necessarily, and in every instance, be inflicted upon the very person who has committed the sin that calls for it; or, as it is expressed by Grotius, who has applied the recognised principles of jurisprudence and law to this subject with great ability: “Notandum est, esse quidem essentiale poenoe, ut infligatur ob peccatum, sed non item essentiale ei esse ut infligatur ipsi qui peccavit — and, secondly, that substitution and satisfaction, in the matter of inflicting punishment, are to some extent recognised in the principles of human jurisprudence, and in the arrangements of human governments; while there is much also, in the analogies of God's providential government of the world, to sanction them, or to afford answers to the allegations of their injustice.
Thirdly, the transference of penal suffering, or suffering judicially inflicted in accordance with the provisions of law, from one party to another, cannot be proved to be universally and in all cases unjust. No doubt, an act of so peculiar a kind, —involving, as it certainly does, a plain deviation from the ordinary regular course of procedure, —requires, in each case, a distinct and specific ground or cause to warrant it. But there are, at least, two cases in which this transference of penal suffering on account of sin from one party to another is generally recognised as just, and in which, at least, it can be easily proved, that all ground is removed for charging it with injustice. These are, —first, when the party who is appointed to suffer on account of the sin of another, has himself become legally liable to a charge of guilt, adequate to account for all the suffering inflicted; and, secondly, when he voluntarily consents to occupy the place of the offender, and to bear, in his room, the punishment which he had merited. In these cases, there is manifestly no injustice in the transference of penal suffering, so far as the parties more immediately affected are concerned; and if the general and public ends of punishment are at the same time fully provided for by the transference, or notwithstanding the transference, then there is, in these cases, no injustice of any kind committed.
The second of these cases is that which applies to the sufferings and death of Christ. He willingly agreed to stand in the room and stead of sinners, and to bear the punishment which they had merited. And if there be no injustice generally in Christ— though perfectly innocent— suffering so much as He endured, and no injustice in this suffering being penally inflicted upon Him on account of the sins of others, —His own free consent to occupy their place and to bear the punishment due to their sins being interposed, —there can be no injustice in the only other additional idea involved in our doctrine, —namely, that this suffering, inflicted upon Him, is appointed and proclaimed as the ground or means of exempting the offenders from the punishment they had deserved; or, as it is put by Grotius, “Cum per hos modos” (the cases previously mentioned, the consent of the substitute being one of them), “actus factus est licitus, quo minus deinde ordinetur ad poenam peccati alieni, nihil intercedit, modo inter eum qui peccavit et puniendum aliqua sit conjunctio.” The only parties who would be injured or treated unjustly by this last feature in the case, are the lawgiver and the community (to apply the principle to the case of human jurisprudence); and if the honour and authority of the law, and the general interests of the community, are fully provided for by means of, or notwithstanding, the transference of the penal infliction, —as we undertake to prove is the case with respect to the vicarious and expiatory suffering of Christ, —then the whole ground for the charge of injustice is taken away.
The second objection is, that the doctrine of atonement or satisfaction is inconsistent with the scriptural representations of the gratuitousness of forgiveness, —of the freeness of the grace of God in pardoning sinners. It is said that God exercises no grace or free favour in pardoning sin, if He has received full satisfaction for the offences of those whom He pardons. This objection is not confined to Socinians. They adduce it against the doctrine of atonement or satisfaction altogether; while Arminians, and others who hold the doctrine of universal or indefinite atonement, adduce it against those higher, stricter, and more accurate views of substitution and satisfaction with which the doctrine of a definite or limited atonement stands necessarily connected. When they are called to deal with this Socinian objection, they usually admit that the objection is unanswerable, as adduced against the stricter views of substitution and satisfaction held by most Calvinists; while they contend that it is of no force in opposition to their modified and more rational views upon this subject, —an admission by which, as it seems to me, they virtually, in effect though not in intention, betray the whole cause of the atonement into the hands of the Socinians. As this objection has been stated and answered in our Confession of Faith, we shall follow its guidance in making a few observations upon it.
It is there said, “Christ, by His obedience and death, did fully discharge the debt of all those that are thus justified, and did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to His Father’s justice in their behalf.” Here the doctrine of substitution and satisfaction is fully and explicitly declared in its highest and strictest sense. But the authors of the Confession were not afraid of being able to defend, in perfect consistency with this, the free grace, the gratuitous mercy of God, in justifying, —that is, in pardoning and accepting sinners. And, accordingly, they go on to say, “Yet, inasmuch as he was given by the Father for them, and His obedience and satisfaction accepted in their stead, and both freely, not for anything in them, their justification is only of free grace; that both the exact justice and rich grace of God might be glorified in the justification of sinners.” Now, the grounds here laid for maintaining the free grace of God in the forgiveness of sinners, notwithstanding that a full atonement or satisfaction was made for their transgressions, are two: first, that Christ, the atoner or satisfier, was given by the Father for them, —that is, that the Father Himself devised and provided the atonement or satisfaction, —provided it, so to speak, at His own cost.— by not sparing His own Son, but delivering Him up for us all. If this be true, —if men had no right whatever to such a provision, —if they had done, and could do, nothing whatever to merit or procure it, —then this consideration must necessarily render the whole of the subsequent process based upon it, in its bearing upon men, purely gratuitous, —altogether of free grace, —unless, indeed, at some subsequent stage, men should be able to do something meritorious and efficacious for themselves in the matter. But then, secondly, God not only freely provided the satisfaction, —He likewise, when it was rendered by Christ, accepted it in the room of all those who are pardoned, and this, too, freely, or without anything in them, —that is, without their having done, or being able to do, anything to merit or procure it, or anything which it involves. Pardon, therefore, and acceptance are freely or gratuitously given to men, though they were purchased by Christ, who paid the price of His precious blood. The scriptural statements about the free grace of God in pardoning and accepting men, on which the objection is founded, assert or imply only the gratuitousness of the blessings in so far as the individuals who ultimately receive them are concerned, and contain nothing whatever that, either directly or by implication, denies that they were purchased by Christ, by the full satisfaction which he rendered in the room and stead of those who finally partake of them; while the gratuitousness of God's grace in the matter, viewed as an attribute or quality of His, is fully secured and manifested by His providing and accepting the satisfaction.
These considerations are amply sufficient to answer the Socinian objection about free grace and gratuitous remission, even on the concession of the strictest views of the substitution and satisfaction of Christ; and without dwelling longer on this subject, I would merely remark in general, that it holds true equally of the grounds of this Socinian objection, and of the concession made to it by Arminians and other defenders of universal atonement, —the concession, namely, that it is unanswerable upon the footing of the stricter views of substitution and satisfaction; and indeed, I may say, it holds true generally of the grounds of the opposition made to the doctrine of definite or limited atonement, —that they are chiefly based upon the unwarrantable practice of taking up the different parts or branches of the scheme of redemption, as unfolded in Scripture, separately, and viewing them in isolation from each other, in place of considering them together, as parts of one great whole, and in their relation to each other and to the entire scheme.
The third and last objection to which we proposed to advert is, that the doctrine of the atonement is fitted to injure the interests of holiness or morality. The general ground on which this allegation is commonly made is, —that the introduction of an atonement or satisfaction by another party is held to release men from the obligations of the moral law; and that the general tendency of the doctrine is to lead men to be careless and indifferent about the regulation of their conduct and their growth in holiness. This is just the common objection usually made to the whole scheme of the doctrines of grace; and in this, as well as in other applications of it, it can be easily shown that the objection proceeds upon an erroneous and defective view of the state of the case, and upon a low and grovelling sense of the motives by which men are, or should be, animated. The whole extent to which the atonement or satisfaction of Christ affects men’s relation to the law is this, that men are exempted from paying, in their own persons, the penalty they had incurred, and are saved from its infliction by its being borne by another in their room and stead. Now, there is certainly nothing in this which has any appearance of relaxing the obligation of the law as a rule or standard which they are bound to follow. There is nothing in this which has any tendency to convey the impression that God is unconcerned about the honour of His law, or that we may trifle with its requirements with impunity. The whole object and tendency of the doctrine of atonement is to convey the very opposite views and impressions with regard to the law, —the obligation which it imposes, and the respect and reverence which are due to it.
In order to form a right conception of the moral tendency of a doctrine, we must conceive of the case of a man who understands and believes it, —who is practically applying it according to its true nature and tendency, and living under its influence, —and then consider how it is fitted to operate upon his character, motives, and actions. And to suppose that the doctrine of the atonement, understood, believed, and applied, can lead men to be careless about regulating their conduct according to God’s law, is to regard them as incapable of being influenced by any other motive than a concern about their own safety— to imagine that, having attained to a position of safety, they must thenceforth be utterly uninfluenced by anything they have ever learned or heard about God, and sin, and His law, and eternity, and totally unmoved by any benefits that have been conferred upon them. When men adduce this objection against the doctrine of the atonement, they unconsciously make a manifestation of their own character and motives. In bringing forward the objection, they are virtually saying, “If we believed the doctrine of the atonement, we would certainly lead very careless and immoral lives.” And here I have no doubt they are speaking the truth, according to their present views and motives. But this of course implies a virtual confession, —first, that any outward decency which their conduct may at present exhibit, is to be traced solely to the fear of punishment; and, secondly, that if they were only secured against punishment, they would find much greater pleasure in sin than in holiness, much greater satisfaction in serving the devil than in serving God; and that they would never think of showing any gratitude to Him who had conferred the safety and deliverance on which they place so much reliance. Socinians virtually confess all this, with respect to their own present character and motives, when they charge the doctrine of the atonement with a tendency unfavourable to the interests of morality. But if men’s character and motives are, as they should be, influenced by the views they have been led to form concerning God and His law; if they are capable of being affected by the contemplation of noble and exalted objects, by admiration of excellence, and by a sense of thankfulness for benefits, —instead of being animated solely by a mere desire to secure their own safety and comfort, —they must find in the doctrine of the atonement, —and in the conceptions upon all important subjects which it is fitted to form, —motives amply sufficient to lead them to hate sin, to fear and love God, to cherish affection and gratitude towards Him who came in God’s name to seek and to save them, and to set their affections on things above, where He sitteth at the right hand of God. These are the elements from which alone— as is proved both by the nature of the case and the experience of the world— anything like high and pure morality will ever proceed; and no position of this nature can be more certain, than that the believers in the doctrine of the atonement have done much more in every way to adorn the doctrine of our God and Saviour, than those who have denied it.
There is, then, no real weight in the objections commonly adduced against the doctrine of the atonement. Not that there are not difficulties connected with the subject, which we are unable fully to solve; but there is nothing so formidable as to tempt us to make a very violent effort— and that, certainly, is necessary— in the way of distorting and perverting Scripture, in order to get rid of it; and nothing to warrant us in rejecting the divine authority of the Bible, because it establishes this doctrine with such full and abundant evidence. We have already seen a good deal, in considerations derived from what we know concerning the divine character and moral government, fitted to lead us to believe, by affording at least the strongest probabilities and presumptions, that the method of an atonement or satisfaction might be that which would be adopted for pardoning and saving sinners; and that this method really involves the substitution of the Son of God in the room and stead of those who are saved by Him, and His endurance, as their surety and substitute, of the punishment which they had deserved by their sin. But the full proof of this great doctrine is to be found only in a minute and careful examination of the meaning of scriptural statements; and in the prosecution of this subject, it has been conclusively proved that the generally received doctrine of the atonement is so thoroughly established by Scripture, and so interwoven with its whole texture, that they must stand or fall together; and that any man who denies the substance of the common doctrine upon this subject, would really act a much more honest and rational part than Socinians generally do, if he would openly deny that the Bible is to be regarded as the rule of faith, or as entitled to reverence or respect as a communication from God.
V. Scriptural Evidence for the Atonement
We cannot enter into anything like an exposition of the Scripture evidence in support of the commonly received doctrine of the atonement, the general nature and import of which we have endeavoured to explain. This evidence is collected from the whole field of Scripture, and comprehends a great extent and variety of materials, every branch of which has, upon both sides, been subjected to a thorough critical investigation. The evidence bearing upon this great doctrine may be said to comprehend all that is contained in Scripture upon the subject of sacrifices, from the commencement of the history of our fallen race; all that is said about the nature, causes, and consequences of the sufferings and death of Christ; and all that is revealed as to the way and manner in which men do, in point of fact, obtain or receive the forgiveness of their sins, or exemption from the penal consequences to which their sins have exposed them. The general observations which we have already made about the Socinian mode of dealing with and interpreting Scripture, and the illustrations we gave of these general observations in their application to the doctrine of the Trinity and the person of Christ, —the substance of all that we have stated in the way of explaining both how scriptural statements should and should not be dealt with, and what are the principles which, in right reason, though in opposition to self-styled rationalism, ought to regulate this matter, —are equally applicable to the subject of the atonement— are equally illustrative of the way in which the scriptural statements bearing upon this point should, and should not, be treated and applied. I shall therefore say nothing more on these general topics. The few observations which I have to make on the scriptural evidence in support of the doctrine of the atonement, must be restricted to the object of giving some hints or suggestions as to the way in which this subject ought to be investigated, pointing out some of the leading divisions under which the evidences may be classed, and the leading points that must be attended to and kept in view in examining it.
That Christ suffered and died for our good, and in order to benefit us, —in order that thereby sinners might be pardoned and saved, —and that by suffering and dying He has done something or other intended and fitted to contribute to the accomplishment of this object, —is, of course, admitted by all who profess to believe, in any sense, in the divine origin of the Christian revelation. And the main question discussed in the investigation of the subject of the atonement really resolves, as I formerly explained, into this: What is the relation actually subsisting between the death of Christ and the forgiveness of men’s sins I In what way does the one bear upon and affect the other? Now, the doctrine which has been generally received in the Christian church upon this all-important question is this: That Christ, in order to save men from sin and its consequences, voluntarily took their place, and suffered and died in their room and stead; that He offered up Himself a sacrifice for them; that His death was a punishment inflicted upon Him because they had deserved death; that it was in a fair and reasonable sense the penalty which they had incurred; that by suffering death as a penal infliction in their room and stead, He has satisfied the claims or demands of the divine justice and the divine law; and by making satisfaction in their room, has expiated or atoned for their sins, and has thus procured for them redemption and reconciliation with God.
The scriptural proof of this position overturns at once both the Socinian theory, —which restricts the efficacy of Christ’s sufferings and death to their fitness for confirming and establishing truths, and supplying motives and encouragements to repentance and holiness, which are with them the true grounds or causes of the forgiveness of sinners, —and also the theory commonly held by the Arians, which, without including the ideas of substitution and satisfaction, represents Christ as, in some way or other, acquiring by His suffering and death a certain influence with God, which he employs in obtaining for men the forgiveness of their sins. The proof of the generally received doctrine overturns at once both these theories, not by establishing directly and positively that they are false, —for, as I formerly explained in the general statement of this subject, they are true so far as they go, —but by showing that they do not contain the whole truth; that they embody only the smallest and least important part of what Scripture teaches; and that there are other ideas fully warranted by Scripture, and absolutely necessary in order to anything like a complete and correct representation of the whole Scripture doctrine upon the subject.
One of the first and most obvious considerations that occurs in directing our attention to the testimony of Scripture upon the subject is, that neither the Socinian nor the Arian doctrine is reconcilable with the peculiarity and the immediateness of the connection which the general strain of scriptural language indicates as subsisting between the death of Christ and the forgiveness of sinners; while all this is in fullest harmony with the orthodox doctrine. If the death of Christ bears upon the forgiveness of sin only indirectly and remotely through the medium or intervention of the way in which it bears upon men’s convictions, motives, and conduct, and if it bears upon this result only in a way in which other causes or influences, and even other things contained in the history of Christ Himself, do or might equally bear upon it, —and all this is implied in the denial of the doctrine of the atonement, —then it seems impossible to explain why in Scripture such special and peculiar importance is ascribed to Christ’s death in this matter; why the forgiveness of sin is never ascribed to any other cause or source of right views or good motives, —such, for instance, as Christ’s teaching, or His resurrection; and why the death of Christ and the remission of men’s sins are so constantly represented as most closely and immediately connected with each other. This constitutes a very strong presumption in favour of the generally received doctrine upon the subject; but in order to establish it thoroughly, it is necessary to examine carefully and minutely the meaning of the specific statements of Scripture which make known to us the nature, objects, and consequences of Christ’s death, and the actual connection between it and the forgiveness of sin. And we would now briefly indicate the chief heads under which they may be classed, and some of the principal points to be attended to in the investigation of them.
First, we would notice that there are some important words, on the true and proper meaning of which the settlement of this controversy essentially depends, and of which, therefore, the meaning must be carefully investigated, and, if possible, fully ascertained. The words to which I refer are such as these: atonement, —used frequently in the Old Testament in connection with the sacrifices, and once (i.e., in our version) in the New Testament; bearing and carrying, as applied to sin; propitiation, reconciliation, redemption, etc. The words which express these ideas in the original Hebrew or Greek, —such as, hattath, asham, kopher, nasa, sabal, in Hebrew; and in Greek, ἱλάω or ἱλάσκομαι, and its derivatives, ἱλάσμος and ἱλάστήριον, καταλλάσσω and καταλλαγή, αγοράζω, λυτρόω, λυτρον, άντίλυτρον, φέρω, and αναφέρω, —have all been subjected to a thorough critical investigation in the course of this controversy; and no one can be regarded as well versant in its merits, and able to defend the views which he has been led to adopt, unless he has examined the meaning of these words, and can give some account of the philological grounds on which his conclusions, as to their import, are founded. Under this head may be also comprehended the different Greek prepositions which are commonly translated in our version by the word for, in those statements in which Christ is represented as dying for sins, and dying for sinners, —viz., διὰ, περί, υττέρ, and ἀντί, —for much manifestly depends upon their true import.
The object to be aimed at in the investigation of these words is, of course, to ascertain, by a diligent and careful application of the right rules and materials, what is their natural, obvious, ordinary import, as used by the sacred writers, —what sense they were fitted, and must therefore have been intended, to convey to those to whom they were originally addressed. It can scarcely be disputed that these words, in their obvious and ordinary meaning, being applied to the death of Christ, decidedly support the generally received doctrine of the atonement; and the substance of what Socinians, and other opponents of the doctrine, usually labour to establish in regard to them is, that there are some grounds for maintaining that they may bear, because they sometimes mast bear, a different sense, —a sense in which they could not sanction the doctrine of the atonement; so that the points to be attended to in this department of the discussion are these: First, to scrutinize the evidence adduced, that the particular word under consideration must sometimes be taken in a different sense from that which it ordinarily bears; secondly, to see whether, in the passages in which, if taken in its ordinary sense, it would sanction the doctrine of the atonement, there be any necessity, or even warrant, for departing from this ordinary meaning. The proof of a negative upon either of these two points is quite sufficient to overturn the Socinian argument, and to leave the passages standing in full force as proofs of the orthodox doctrine; while, in regard to many of the most important passages, the defenders of that doctrine have not only proved a negative upon these two questions, —that is, upon one or other of them, —but have further established, thirdly, that, upon strictly critical grounds, the ordinary meaning of the word is that which ought to be there adopted.
But we must proceed to consider and classify statements, as distinguished from mere words, though these words enter into most of the important statements upon the subject; and here I would be disposed to place first those passages in which Christ is represented as executing the office of a Priest, and as offering up Himself as a sacrifice. That he is so represented cannot be disputed. The question is, What ideas with respect to the nature, objects, and effects of His death, was this representation intended to convey to us? The New Testament statements concerning the priesthood and sacrifice of Christ are manifestly connected with, are in some sense taken from, and must be in some measure interpreted by, the accounts given of the priesthood and sacrifices under the law, and of the origin and objects of sacrifices generally, —in so far as they can be regarded as affording any indication of the principles which regulate the divine procedure with respect to the forgiveness of sin. This opens up a wide and interesting field of discussion, —historical and critical, —comprehending not only all that we learn from Scripture upon the subject, but likewise anything to be gathered from the universal prevalence of sacrifices among heathen nations, and the notions which mankind have generally associated with them.
The substance of what is usually contended for upon this topic by Socinians and other opponents of the doctrine of the atonement is this, —that animal sacrifices were not originally appointed and required by God, but were devised and invented by men, —that they were natural and appropriate expressions of men’s sense of their dependence upon God, their unworthiness of His mercies, their penitence for their sins, and their obligations to Him for His goodness; but that they were not generally understood to involve or imply any idea of substitution or satisfaction, —of propitiating God, and of expiating or atoning for sin: that they were introduced by God into the Mosaic economy, because of their general prevalence, and their capacity of being applied to some useful purposes of instruction; but that no additional ideas were then connected with them beyond what had obtained in substance in heathen nations: that the Levitical sacrifices were not regarded as vicarious and propitiating; and that their influence or effect, such as it was, was confined to ceremonial, and did not extend to moral offences: that the statements in the New Testament in which Christ is represented as officiating as a Priest, and as offering a sacrifice, are mere allusions of a figurative or metaphorical kind to the Levitical sacrifices, employed in accommodation to Jewish notions and habits; and that, more especially, the minute and specific statements upon this subject, contained in the Epistle to the Hebrews, are, as the Improved or Socinian version, published about forty years ago, says, characterized by “far-fetched analogies and inaccurate reasonings.” In opposition to all this, the defenders of the doctrine of the atonement generally contend that animal sacrifices were of divine appointment, and were intended by God to symbolize, to represent, and to teach the great principles which regulate His conduct in regard to sin and sinners, —that they expressed a confession of sin on the part of the person by, or for, whom they were offered, —that they indicated the transference of his sin, and the punishment it merited, to the victim offered, the endurance of the punishment by the victim in the room of the offerer, —and, as the result, the exemption of the offerer from the punishment he deserved; in other words, that they were vicarious, as implying the substitution of one for the other, and expiatory or propitiatory, as implying the oblation and the acceptance of a satisfaction, or compensation, or equivalent for the offence, and, as a consequence, its remission, —that these ideas, though intermingled with much error, are plainly enough exhibited in the notions which prevailed on the subject among heathen nations, and are fully sanctioned by the statements made with respect to the nature, objects, and consequences of the divinely appointed sacrifices of the Mosaic economy;— that these were evidently vicarious and expiatory, —that they were appointed to be offered chiefly for ceremonial, but also for some moral offences, considered as violations of the ceremonial law, though, of course, they could not of themselves really expiate or atone for the moral, but only the ceremonial, guilt of this latter class, —that they really expiated or removed ceremonial offences, or were accepted as a ground or reason for exempting men from the punishment incurred by the violation or neglect of the provisions of the Jewish theocracy, while their bearing upon moral offences could be only symbolical or typical;— that, in place of the New Testament statements about the priesthood and sacrifice of Christ being merely figurative allusions to the Levitical sacrifices, the whole institution of sacrifices, and the place which they occupied in the Mosaic economy, were regulated and determined by a regard to the one sacrifice of Christ, —that they were intended to direct men’s faith to it, —that they embodied and represented the principles on which its efficacy depended, and should therefore be employed in illustrating its true nature and bearings; while everything to be learned from them, in regard to it, is fitted to impress upon us the conviction, that it was vicarious and expiatory, —that is, presented and accepted in the room and stead of others, and thus effecting or procuring their reconciliation to God, and their exemption from the penal consequences of their sins. All this has been maintained, and all this has been established, by the defenders of the doctrine of the atonement; and with the principal grounds on which these various positions rest, and on which they can be defended from the objections of adversaries, and from the opposite views taken by them upon these points, all students of Scripture ought to possess some acquaintance. The most important and fundamental of the various topics comprehended in this wide field of discussion, are involved in the settlement of these two questions, —namely, first, What was the character, object, and immediate effect of the Levitical sacrifices? were they vicarious and expiatory, or not? and, secondly, What is the true relation between the scriptural statements concerning the Levitical sacrifices, and those concerning the sacrifice of Christ? and what light does anything we know concerning the former throw upon the statements concerning the latter? These are questions presenting materials for much interesting discussion; and it is our duty to seek to possess some knowledge of the facts and arguments by which they are to be decided.
Secondly, another important class of passages consists of those which bear directly and immediately upon the true nature and the immediate object of Christ’s death. There are some general considerations derived from Scripture, to which we have already had occasion to refer, which afford good ground for certain inferences upon this subject. If it was the death, in human nature, of One who was also a possessor of the divine nature, as Scripture plainly teaches, then it must possess a nature, character, and tendency altogether peculiar and extraordinary; and must be fitted, and have been intended, to effect results altogether beyond the range of what could have been accomplished by anything that is competent to any creature, —results directly related to infinity and eternity. If it was the death of One who had no sin of His own, who was perfectly innocent and holy, we are constrained to conclude that it must have been inflicted upon account of the sins of others, whose punishment he agreed to bear. A similar conclusion has been deduced from some of the actual features of Christ’s sufferings as described in Scripture, especially from His agony in the garden, and His desertion upon the cross; circumstances which it is not easy to explain, if His sufferings were merely those of a martyr and an exemplar, —and which naturally suggest the propriety of ascribing to them a very different character and object, and are obviously fitted to lead us to conceive of Him as enduring the punishment of sin, inflicted by God, in the execution of the provisions of His holy law.
But the class of passages to which we now refer, are those which contain distinct and specific information as to the real nature, character, and immediate object of His sufferings and death; such as those which assure us that He suffered and died for sin and for sinners; that He bore our sins, and took them away; that He was wounded for our transgressions, and bruised for our iniquities; that He suffered for sin, the just for the unjust; that He was made sin for us; that He was made a curse for us, etc. Such statements as these abound in Scripture; and the question is, What ideas are they fitted— and therefore, as we must believe, intended— to convey to us concerning the true nature and character of Christ’s death, and its relation to, and bearing upon, our sin, and the forgiveness of it? Now, if we attend to these statements, and, instead of being satisfied with vague and indefinite conceptions of their import, seek to realize their meaning, and to understand distinctly what is their true sense and signification, we must be constrained to conclude that, if they have any meaning, they were intended to impress upon us the convictions— that our sin was the procuring cause of Christ’s death, that which rendered His death necessary, and actually brought it about, —that He consented to occupy the place of sinners, and to bear the punishment which they had deserved and incurred, —that, in consequence, their guilt, in the sense of legal answerableness or liability to punishment (reatus), was transferred to, and laid on, Him; so that He suffered, in their room and stead, the punishment which they had deserved and incurred, and which, but for His enduring it, they must have suffered in their own persons. And as this is the natural and obvious meaning of the scriptural statements, —that which, as a matter of course, they would convey to any one who would attend to them, and seek to realize clearly and definitely the ideas which they are fitted to express, —so it is just the meaning which, after all the learning, ingenuity, and skill of adversaries have been exerted in obscuring and perverting them, comes out more palpably and certainly than before, as the result of the most searching critical investigation.
Suffering and dying for us means, according to the Socinians. merely suffering and dying on our account, for our good, with a view to our being benefited by it. It is true that Christ died for us in this sense; but this is not the whole of what the scriptural statements upon the subject are fitted to convey. It can be shown that they naturally and properly express the idea that He died in our room and stead, and thus constrain us to admit the conception of His substitution for us, or of His being put in our place, and being made answerable for us. The prepositions translated for, —when persons, tee or sinners, are the objects of the relation indicated, — are δίά, υπέρ, and ἀντί. Now, it is admitted that δίά naturally and properly means, on our account, or for our benefit, and does not of itself suggest anything else. It is admitted, further, that ὑπέρ may mean, on our account, as well as in our room, though the latter is its more ordinary signification, —that which it most readily suggests, —and that which, in many cases, the connection shows to be the only one that is admissible. But it is contended that ἀντί, which is also employed for this purpose, means, and can mean only, in this connection, instead of, or in the room of, as denoting the substitution of one party in place of another. This does not warrant us in holding that, wherever δίά and ὑπέρ are employed, they, too, must imply substitution of one for another, since it is also true that Christ died for our benefit, or on our account; but it does warrant us to assert that the ordinary meaning of δίά, and the meaning which may sometimes be assigned to ὑπέρ, —namely, on account of, —does not bring out the whole of what the Scripture teaches with respect to the relation subsisting between the death of Christ and those for whose benefit it was intended.
The prepositions employed when sins, and not persons, are represented as the causes or objects of Christ’s suffering or dying, are δίά, ὑπέρ, and περί; and it is contended and proved, that, according to Scripture, what the proper ordinary meaning of dying for or on account of sin, — δίά, ὑπέρ, περί, αμαρτίαν, or αμαρτίας, —is this, —that the sin spoken of was that which procured and merited the death, so that the death was a penal infliction on account of the sin which caused it, or for which it was endured. Bearing or carrying sin, it can be proved, has, for its ordinary meaning in Scripture, being made, or becoming legally answerable for sin, and, in consequence, enduring its punishment. There are, indeed, some other words used in Scripture in regard to this matter, which are somewhat more indeterminate in their meaning, and cannot be proved of themselves to import more than the Socinian sense of bearing sin, —namely, taking it away, or generally removing it and its consequences, such as nasa in the Old Testament, and αίρω in the New; but sabal in the Old Testament, and φέρω or αναφέρω in the New, have no such indefiniteness of meaning. They include, indeed, the idea of taking away or removing, which the Socinians regard as the whole of their import; but it can be proved that their proper meaning is to bear or carry, and thus by bearing or carrying, to remove or take away. As to the statements, that Christ was wounded for our transgressions, and bruised for our iniquities, that he was made sin and made a curse for us, and others of similar import, there is really nothing adduced, possessed even of plausibility, against their having the meaning which they naturally and properly convey, —namely, that our liability to punishment for sin was transferred to Him, and that He, in consequence, endured in our room and stead what we had deserved and incurred.
Thirdly, The third and last class of passages consists of those which describe the effects or results of Christ’s death, —the consequences which have flowed from it to men in their relation to God, and to His law, which they had broken. These may be said to be, chiefly, so far as our present subject is concerned, reconciliation to God, —the expiation of sin, —and the redemption of sinners, — καταλλαγή, ἱλασμος, λύτρωσις. These are all ascribed in Scripture to the death of Christ; and there are two questions that naturally arise to be discussed in regard to them, though, in the very brief remarks we can make upon them, the two questions may be answered together: First, What do they mean or what is the nature of the changes effected upon men's condition which they express? Secondly, What light is cast by the nature of these changes or effects, when once ascertained, upon the true character of the death of Christ, —and more especially upon the great question, whether or not it was endured in our room and stead, and thus made satisfaction for our sins?
Reconciliation naturally and ordinarily implies that two parties, who were formerly at variance and enmity with each other, have been brought into a state of harmony and friendship; and if this reconciliation between God and man was effected, as Scripture assures us it was, by the death of Christ, then the fair inference would seem to be, that His death had removed obstacles which previously stood in the way of the existence or the manifestation of friendship between them, —had made it, in some way or other, fully accordant with the principles, the interests, or the inclinations of both parties to return to a state of friendly intercourse. We need not repeat, in order to guard against misconstruction, what was formerly explained, —in considering objections to the doctrine of the atonement founded on misrepresentations about the eternal and unchangeable love of God to men, —about the atonement being the consequence and not the cause of God’s love, and about its introducing no feeling into the divine mind which did not exist there before. If this be true, as it certainly is, and if it be also true that the death of Christ is represented as propitiating God to men, —as turning away His wrath from them, —and as effecting their restoration to His favour, —then it follows plainly that it must have removed obstacles to the manifestation of His love, and opened up a channel for His actual bestowing upon them tokens of His kindness; and if these obstacles consisted in the necessity of exercising and manifesting His justice, and maintaining unimpaired the honour of His law, which men had broken, then the way or manner in which the death of Christ operated in effecting a reconciliation between God and man, must hare been by its satisfying God’s justice, and answering the demands of His law. Socinians, indeed, allege that it is not said in Scripture that God was reconciled to men by the death of Christ, but only that men were reconciled to God, or that God in this way reconciled men to Himself; and that the only way in which the death of Christ operated in effecting this reconciliation, was by its affording motives and encouragements to men to repent and turn to Him. It is admitted that it is not expressly said in Scripture that the death of Christ reconciled God to men; but then it is contended, and can be easily proved, that statements of equivalent import to this occur; and more especially, that it is in accordance with Scripture usage, in the application of the word reconcile, that those who are said to be reconciled, are represented, not as laying aside their enmity against the other party, but as aiming at and succeeding in getting Him to lay aside His righteous enmity against them; and this general use of the word, applied to the case under consideration, leaves the argument for a real atonement, deduced from the asserted effect of Christ's death upon the reconciliation of God and man untouched, in all its strength and cogency.
The next leading effect ascribed to the death of Christ is that it expiates sin, as expressed by the word ίλάσκομαι, and its derivatives. The statements in which these words occur, bring out somewhat more explicitly the effect of Christ’s sufferings and death upon men’s relation to God and to His law, and thus at once confirm and illustrate what is said about its bearing upon reconciliation. It can be fully established, that the true and proper meaning of these words is, to propitiate, or to make propitious one who had been righteously offended by transgression, so that the transgression is no longer regarded as a reason for manifesting o o o o displeasure or inflicting punishment. Christ is repeatedly described in Scripture as being a propitiation for sins, ίλασμός περὶ ἁμαρτιῶν; and we are also told that His humiliation and His execution of the priestly office were directed to the object of making propitiation for, or expiating the sins of, the people. This is translated in our version, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people: but it would be more correctly rendered, to propitiate by expiating their sins. And in another passage,) where He is also described as a propitiation, — this is expressly connected with His blood as an object of faith, and with the result of the remission of sins: it being a great principle regulating God’s dealings with sinners, that without tin shedding of blood then is no remission. If Christ was thus a propitiation, or propitiated God to men who had sinned against Him, and if He effected this through His humiliation and blood-shedding, it could be only by its being an atonement for their sins, or expiatory of their sins, —that is, by its presenting or affording some adequate cause or reason why the punishment of their sins should not be inflicted upon them; and this, according to every idea suggested in Scripture concerning expiation or atonement, or expiatory sacrifices, —sacrifices which, as is often said in the Old Testament, make atonement,— could be only by its being the endurance in their room and instead of the punishment they had incurred.
The general ideas expressed by some of these leading words, as descriptive of the effect of Christ’s death upon men's condition and relation to God, are well stated by Dr John Pye Smith in this way: In enumerating the glorious effects of Christ’s sacrifice, he specifics as one, “The legal reconciliation of God and all sinners who cordially receive the gospel method of salvation and then he adds, “This all-important idea is presented under two aspects: First, Expiation or atonement. This denotes the doing of something which shall furnish a just ground or reason in a system of judicial administration, for pardoning a convicted offender. Secondly, Propitiation: anything which shall have the property of disposing, inclining, or causing the judicial authority to admit the expiation; that is, to assent to it as a valid reason for pardoning the offender.”
The third leading result ascribed to Christ’s death, in its bearing upon the condition of sinners in relation to God and His law, is redemption. As we are assured in Scripture, both that Christ died fur sins and that he died for sinners, so we are told, both that sins and sinners were redeemed by Him, by His blood, by His giving Himself for them; though the idea most frequently indicated is, that, by dying for sinners, He redeemed or purchased them, he is described as giving His life, —which, of course, is the same thing as His submitting to death, —as a λύτρον, and as giving Himself as an αντίλύτρον for men. Now, there is no doubt about the true, proper, ordinary meaning of these words: λύτρον means a ransom price, —a price paid in order to secure the deliverance of a debtor or a captive; and αντίλύτρον means the same thing, with a more explicit indication, —the effect of the prefixed preposition, —of the idea of commutation, compensation, or substitution, —that is, of the price being paid in the room and stead of something else for which it is substituted. Christ's blood or death, then, is frequently and explicitly represented in Scripture as a ransom price paid by Him, in order to effect, and actually effecting, the deliverance of men from sin, and from the injurious effects of sin upon their relation to God and their eternal welfare. And if there be any truth or reality in this representation, —if anything is meant by it at all corresponding to the words in which it is conveyed to us, then it is manifest that, taken in connection with what we know from Scripture as to men's natural state or condition, and the real nature of the difficulties or obstacles that stood in the way of their deliverance, it shuts us up to the conclusion that Christ, in suffering and dying, acted in the room and stead of sinners; and by enduring, as their substitute, the punishment which they had deserved, rendered satisfaction to the justice and law of God in their behalf.
These, then, are the leading divisions under which the extensive and varied mass of Scripture evidence for the great doctrine of the atonement may be classed: first, the general character of Christ’s sufferings and death, as being the offering up of Himself as a sacrifice; secondly, the true nature and immediate object of His death, as implying that he took the place of sinners, and in all His sufferings endured the punishment which they had merited; and, thirdly and finally, the bearing or effect of His death upon their relation to God and His law, —every feature and aspect of the resulting effect, or of the change produced, affording a strong confirmation of His having acted as their substitute, and rendered satisfaction to divine justice for their sins.
Chapter 14 of Historical Theology