The Necessity of the Atonement

by Jonathan Edwards

IN WHOM WE HAVE REDEMPTION THROUGH HIS BLOOD, THE FORGIVENESS OF SINS, ACCORDING TO THE RICHES OF HIS GRACE.--Ephesians 1:11.

THE doctrine of the forgiveness of sins is a capital doctrine of the gospel, and is much insisted on by the writers of the New Testament; above all, by the author of this epistle. In our text he asserts that we are forgiven according to the riches of grace; not merely in the exercise of grace, as the very term forgiveness implies; but in the exercise of the riches of grace; importing that forgiveness is an act of the most free and abundant grace. Yet he also asserts that this gratuitous forgiveness is in consequence of a redemption by the blood of Christ. But how are these two parts of the proposition consistent? If we be, in the literal sense, forgiven in consequence of a redemption, we are forgiven on account of the price of redemption previously paid. How then can we he truly said to be forgiven; a word which implies the exercise of grace? and especially how can we be said to be forgiven according to the riches of grace? This is, at least, a seeming inconsistence. If our forgiveness be purchased, and the price of it be already paid, it seems to be a matter of debt, and not of grace. This difficulty hath occasioned some to reject the doctrine of Christ's redemption, satisfaction, or atonement. Others, who have not been driven to that extremity by this difficulty, yet have been exceedingly perplexed and embarrassed. Of these last, I freely confess myself to have been one. Having from my youth devoted myself to the study of theoretic and practical theology, this has to me been one of the gordian knots in that science. How far what shall now be offered towards a solution, ought to afford satisfaction, is submitted to the judgment of my candid auditors.

Our text naturally suggests these three inquiries;

Are sinners forgiven through the redemption or atonement of Jesus Christ only? What is the reason or ground of this mode of forgiveness? Is this mode of forgiveness consistent with grace, or according to the riches of grace? Let us consider these in their order.

I. Are we forgiven through the redemption or atonement of Jesus Christ only? I say redemption or atonement, because, in my view, they mutually imply each other. That we are forgiven through the atonement of Christ, and can be forgiven in no other way, the Scriptures very clearly teach. For evidence as to the first of these particulars, I appeal to the following passages of Scripture, which are indeed but a few of the many which exhibit the same truth. First, our text itself: "In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace." Rom. 3: 24; "Being justified freely by his grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus." Acts 20: 28; "To feed the church of God, which be hath purchased with his own blood." Heb. 9: 12; "By his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us." 1 Pet. 1: 18; "Forasmuch as ye know, that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot." Ibid. chap. 2: 24; "Who his ownself bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sin, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed." Is. 53: 4, 5, 6; "He hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows; he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities, the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and with his stripes we are healed. The Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all." Ibid. 10, 11, 12; "Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he hath put him to grief; when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed,--he shall bear their iniquities,--and he bare the sins of many."

The Scriptures also teach the absolute necessity of the atonement of Christ, and that we can obtain forgiveness and salvation through that only. The sacrifices appointed to be made by the ancient Israelites, seem evidently to point to Christ; and to show the necessity of the vicarious sacrifice of him, who is therefore said to be "our passover sacrificed for us;" and to have "given himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God, for a sweet-smelling savor;" and "now once in the end of the world to have appeared, to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself." 1 Cor. 5: 7. Eph. 5: 2. Heb. 9: 26. As the ancient Israelites could obtain pardon in no other way than by those sacrifices, this teaches us that we can obtain it only by the sacrifice of Christ.

The positive declarations of the New Testament teach the same truth still more directly, as Luke 24: 25, 26; "O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory?" verse 46; "Thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day." Rom. 3: 25, 26; "Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness,--that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus." It seems that God could not have been just in justifying the believer, had not Christ been made a propitiation. John 3: 14, 15; "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up." Heb. 9: 22; "Without shedding of blood is no remission." 1 Cor. 3: 11; "Other foundation can no man lay, than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ." Acts 4: 12; "Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is no other name under heaven, given among men, whereby we must be saved."

The necessity of the death and atonement of Christ sufficiently appears by the bare event of his death. If his death were not necessary, he died in vain. But we cannot suppose that either be or his Father would have consented to his death, had it not been absolutely necessary. Even a man of common wisdom and goodness, would not consent either to his own death or that of his son, but in a case of necessity, and in order to some important and valuable end. Much less can we suppose, that either Christ Jesus the Son would have consented to his own death, or that the infinitely wise and good Father would have consented to the death of his only begotten and dearly beloved Son, in whom his soul was well pleased, and who was full of grace and truth, the brightness of his own glory, and the express image of his person, the chiefest among ten thousand, and altogether lovely, if there had not been the most urgent necessity. Especially as this most excellent Son so earnestly prayed to the Father to except him from death, Matt. 20: 39; "0 my father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me ! Nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt." The Son himself hath told us, John 11 : 42, "That the Father heareth him always:" and therefore we may be sure, that if the condition of his pathetic petition had taken place, if it had been possible that the designs of God in the salvation of sinners should be accomplished without the death of Christ, Christ's prayer, in this instance, would have been an. swered, and he would have been exempted from death. And since he was not exempted, we have clear evidence that his death was a matter of absolute necessity.

The necessity of the atonement of Christ is clearly taught also by the apostle, Gal. 2: 21; "If righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain." It is to no purpose to pretend that the law, in this passage, means the ceremonial law, because he tells us, chap. 3, 21, "That if there had been a law given, which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law." But the moral law was a law which had been given; and since no law which had been given could give life, it follows, that forgiveness and life could not be by the moral law, any more than by the ceremonial, and that if they could, Christ is dead in vain.

II. Our next inquiry is, what is the reason or ground of this mode of forgiveness? or why is an atonement necessary in order to the pardon of the sinner? I answer, it is necessary on the same ground, and for the same reasons, as punishment would have been necessary, if there had been no atonement made. The ground of both is the same. The question then comes to this: Why would it have been necessary, if no atonement had been made, that punishment should be inflicted on the transgressors of the divine law? This, I suppose, would have been necessary, to maintain the authority of the divine law. If that be not maintained, but the law fall into contempt, the contempt will fall equally on the legislator himself; his authority will be despised and his government weakened.

And as the contempt shall increase, which may be expected to increase, in proportion to the neglect of executing the law, the divine government will approach nearer and nearer to a dissolution, till at length it will be totally annihilated.

But when moral creatures are brought into existence, there must be a moral government. It cannot be reconciled with the wisdom and goodness of God, to make intelligent creatures and leave them at random without moral law and government. This is the dictate of reason from the nature of things. Besides the nature of things, we have in the present instance fact, to assist our reasoning. God hath in fact given a moral law and established a moral government over his intelligent creatures. So that we have clear proof, that inflnite wisdom and goodness judged it to be necessary to put intelligent creatures under moral law and government. But in order to a moral law, there must be a penalty; otherwise it would be mere advice, but no law. In order to support the authority and vigor of this law, the penalty must be inflicted on transgressors. If a penalty be denounced, indeed, but never inflicted, the law becomes no law, as really as if no penalty had been annexed to it. As well might no law have been made or published, as that a law be published, with an the most awful penalties, and these never be inflicted. Nay, in some respects it would be much better and more reconcilable with the divine perfections. It would be more consistent, and show that the legislator was not ignorant, either of his own want of power to carry a law into effect, or of the rights of his subjects, or of the boundaries between right and wrong. But to enact a law and not execute it, implies a weakness of some kind or other; either an error of judgment, or a consciousness of a depraved design in making the law, or a want of power to carry it into effect, or some other defect. Therefore such a proceeding as this is dishonorable and contemptible; and by it both the law and legislator not only appear in a contemptible light, but really are contemptible.

Hence, to execute the threatening of the divine law, is necessary to preserve the dignity and authority of the law, and of the author of it, and to the very existence of the divine moral government. It is no impeachment of the divine power and wisdom to say, that it is impossible for God himself to uphold his moral government over intelligent creatures, when once his law hath fallen into contempt. He may indeed govern them by irresistible force, as he governs the material world; but he cannot govern them by law, by rewards and punishments.

If God maintain the authority of his law, by the infliction of the penalty, it will appear that he acts consistently in the legislative and executive parts of his government. But if he were not to inflict the penalty, he would act, and appear to act, an inconsistent part; or to be inconsistent with himself. If the authority of the divine law be supported by the punishment of transgressors, it will most powerfully tend to restrain all intelligent creatures from sin. But if the authority of the law be not supported, it will rather encourage and invite to sin, than restrain from it.

For these reasons, which are indeed all implied in supporting the dignity and authority of the divine law, it would have been necessary, had no atonement for sin been made, that the penalty of the law be inflicted on transgressors.

If in this view of the matter it should be said, though for the reasons before mentioned it is necessary that the penalty of the law, in many instances, or in most instances, be inflicted, yet why is it necessary that it should be inflicted in every instance? Why could not the Deity, in a sovereign way, without any atonement, have forgiven at least some sinners? Why could not the authority of the law have been sufficiently supported, without the punishment of every individual transgressor? We find that such strictness is not necessary or even subservient to the public good, in human governments; and why is it necessary in the divine? To these inquiries I answer by other inquiries. Why, on the supposition of no atonement, would it have been necessary that the penalty of the law should be inflicted in any instance? Why could not the Deity, in a sovereign way, without any atonement, have pardoned all mankind? I presume it will be granted, for the reasons before assigned, that such a proceeding as this would be inconsistent with the dignity and authority of the divine law and government. And the same consequence, in a degree, follows from every instance of pardon in this mode. It is true the ends of human governments are tolerably answered, though in some instances the guilty are suffered to pass with impunity. But as imperfection attends all human affairs, so it attends human governments in this very particular, that there are reasons of state which require, or the public good requires, that gross criminals, in some instances, be dismissed with impunity, and without atonement. Thus, because the government of David was weak, and the sons of Zeruiah were too hard for him, Joab, a most atrocious murderer, could not, during the life of David, be brought to justice. In other instances, atrocious criminals are pardoned, in order to obtain information against others still more atrocious and dangerous to the community. In many instances the principals only, in certain high crimes, are punished; the rest being led away by artifice and misrepresentation, are not supposed to deserve punishment. And it is presumed that, in every instance wherein it is really for the good of the community to pardon a criminal, without proper satisfaction for his crime, it is because of either some weakness in the particular state of the government, under which the pardon is granted; or some imperfection in the laws of that state, not being adapted to the particular case; or some imperfection attending all human affairs. But as not any one of these is supposable in the divine government, there is no arguing conclusively, from pardons in human governments, to pardons in the divine.

It may be added, that in every instance in human governments in which just laws are not strictly executed, the government is so far weakened, and the character of the rulers, either legislative or executive, suffers, either in point of ability or in point of integrity. If it be granted that the law is just, and condemns sin to no greater punishment than it deserves, and if God were to pardon it without atonement, it would seem, that he did not hate sin in every instance, nor treat it as being what it really is, infinitely vile.

For these reasons, it appears that it would have been necessary-, provided no atonement had been made, that the penalty of the law should have been inflicted, even in every instance of disobedience: and for the same reasons doubtless was it necessary, that if any sinners were to he pardoned, they should be pardoned only in consequence of an adequate atonement. The atonement is the substitute for the punishment threatened in the law; and was designed to answer the same ends of supporting the authority of the law, the dignity of the divine moral government, and the consistency of the divine conduct in legislation and execution. By the atonement it appears that God is determined that his law shall be supported; that it shall not be despised or transgressed with impunity; and that it is an evil and a bitter thing to sin against God.

The very idea of an atonement or satisfaction for sin, is something which, to the purposes of supporting the authority of the divine law, and the dignity and consistency of the divine government, is equivalent to the punishment of the sinner, according to the literal threatening of the law. That which answers these purposes being done, whatever it be, atonement is made, and the way is prepared for the dispensation of pardon. In any such case, God can be just and yet the justifier of the sinner. And that which is sufficient to answer these purposes has been done for us, according to the gospel plan, I presume none can deny, who believe that the eternal word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and that he, the only begotten and well beloved Son of God, John 1: 14, bare our sins in his own body on the tree, 1 Peter 2: 24, and gave himself a sacrifice to God for us, Eph. 5: 2.

But perhaps some who may readily grant that what Christ hath done and suffered is undoubtedly sufficient to atone for the sins of his people, may also suppose, that if God had seen fit so to order it, we might have made a sufficient atonement for our own sins. Or whether they believe in the reality and sufficiency of the atonement of Christ or not, they may suppose that we might have atoned, or even now may atone, for our own sins. This hypothesis therefore demands our attention.

If we could have atoned, by any means, for our own sins, it must have been either by our repentance and reformation, or by enduring a punishment, less in degree or duration, than that which is threatened in the law as the wages of sin. No other way for us to atone for our own sins appears to be conceivable. But if we attend to the subject, we shall find that we can make no proper atonement in either of these ways.

1. We could not make atonement for our sins by repentance and reformation. Repentance and reformation are a mere return to our duty, which we ought never to have forsaken or intermitted. Suppose a soldier deserts the service into which he is enlisted, and at the most critical period not only forsakes his general and the cause of his country, but joins the enemy and exerts himself to his utmost in his cause, and in direct opposition to that of his country; yet, after twelve months spent in this manner, he repents and returns to his duty and his former service : will this repentance and reformation atone for his desertion and rebellion? will his repentance and return, without punishment, support the authority of the law against desertion and rebellion, and deter others from the Eke conduct equally as the punishment of the delinquent according to law? It cannot be pretended. Such a treatment of the soldier would express no indignation or displeasure of the general at the conduct of the soldier; it would by no means convince the army or the world, that it was a most heinous crime to desert ind join the standard of the enemy. Just so in the case under consideration. The language of forgiving sinners barely on their repentance is) that he who sins shall repent; that the curse of the law is repentance; that he who repents shall suffer, and that he deserves, no further punishment. But this would be so far from an effectual tendency to discourage and restrain from sin, that it would greatly encourage to the commission and indulgence of it; as all that sinners would have to fear, on this supposition, would be not the wrath of God, nor any thing terrible, but the greatest blessing to which any man in this life can attain, repentance. If this were the condition of forgiving sinners, not only no measures would be taken to support the divine law, but none to vindicate the character of God himself, or to show that he acts a consistent part, and agreeably to his own law; or that he is a friend to virtue and an enemy to vice. On the other hand, he would rather appear as a friend to sin and vice, or indifferent concerning them. What would you think of a prince who should make a law against murder, and should threaten it with a punishment properly severe, yet should declare that none who should be guilty of that crime and should repent, should be punished? or if he did not positively declare this, yet should in fact suffer all murderers, who repented of their murders, to pass with impunity? Undoubtedly you would conclude that he was either a very weak or a very wicked prince; either that he was unable to protect his subjects, or that he had no real regard to their lives or safety, whether in their individual or collective capacity.

2. Neither could we make atonement by any sufferings short of the full punishment of sin. Because the very idea of atonement is something done, which, to the purpose of supporting the authority of the law, the dignity and consistency of divine government and conduct, is fully equivalent to the curse of the law, and on the round of which, the sinner may be saved from that curse. But no sufferings endured by the sinner himself, short of the curse of the law, can be to these purposes equivalent to that curse; any more than a less number or quantity can be equal to a greater. Indeed a less degree or duration of suffering endured by Christ the Son of God, may, on account of the infinite dignity and glory of his person, be an equivalent to the curse of the law endured by the sinner; as it would be a far more striking demonstration of a king's displeasure, to inflict, in an igmominious manner, on the body of his own son, forty stripes save one, than to punish some obscure subject with death. But when the person is the same, it is absurd to suppose that a less degree or duration of pain can be equal to a greater, or can equally strike terror into the minds of spectators, and make them fear and no more do any such wickedness. Deut. 13: 11.

Besides; if a less degree or duration of punishment, inflicted on the sinner, would answer all the purposes of supporting the authority of the divine law, &c., equally as that punishment which is threatened in the law; it follows that the punishment which is threatened in the law is too great, is unjust, is cruel and oppressive; which cannot be as long as God is a just being.

Thus it clearly appears, that we could never have atoned for our own sins. If therefore atonement be made at all, it must be made by some other person: and since, as we before argued, Christ the Son of God hath been appointed to this work-, we may be sure that it could be done by no other person of inferior dignity.

It may be inquired of those who deny the necessity of the atonement of Christ, whether the mission, work, and death of Christ were at all necessary in order to the salvation of sinners. If they grant that they were necessary, as they exhibit the strongest motives to repentance, I ask further, could not God by any revelation or motives otherwise, whether externally or internally exhibited, lead sinners to repentance? We find he did in fact, without the mission, work, and death of Christ, lead the saints of the Old Testament to repentance. And doubtless in the same way, he might have produced the same effect, on men of modern times. Why then doth the Scripture say, "Other foundation can no man lay, than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ:" and, "neither is there salvation in any other?" If it be said that these texts are true, as God hath seen fit to adopt and establish this mode of salvation, it occurs at once, that then it may with equal truth be said, concerning those who were converted by the preaching of Paul, other foundation could no man lay, for their salvation, than the apostle Paul. In this sense, too, every event which ever takes place, is equally necessary as the mission and death of Christ: and it was in no other sense necessary, that Christ should be sent and die, than that a sparrow should fall, or not fall, to the ground. In short, to say that the mission and death of Christ were necessary, because God had made this constitution, is to resolve all into the sovereignty of God, and to confess that no reason of Christ's mission and death is assignable.

Besides, if the mission, death, and resurrection of Christ, and the knowledge of them, he, by divine constitution, made necessary to the salvation of sinners, this will seem to be wholly inconsistent with the fundamental principle of the system of those who deny the atonement of Christ; I mean the principle, that it is not reconcilable with the perfections of God to refuse a pardon to any who repent. If bare repentance and reformation be the ground of pardon, doubtless all who repent, though ever so ignorant of Christ, his death and resurrection, and of the motives to repentance therein exhibited, are entitled to pardon; and if so, in what sense will the Socinians say, the mission and death of Christ are necessary to pardon? Not, surely, as purchasing salvation, for even those who are ignorant of them; this is abhorrent to their whole system. Not as exhibiting the strongest motives to repentance; because, in the case now supposed, these motives are perfectly unknown. And they will not say, it is impossible for any to repent who are ignorant of Christ.

Again, how is it more consistent with the divine perfections to confine pardon and salvation to the narrow limits of those who know and are influenced by the motives to repentance, implied in the death and resurrection of Christ, than to the limits of those who repent and depend on the atonement of Christ?

It may be further inquired of those gentlemen mentioned above, whether the pardon of the penitent be according to the divine law, or according to the gospel. If it be a constitution of the law, that every penitent be pardoned, what then is the gospel? And wherein does the grace of the latter, exceed that of the former? Besides, is it not strange to suppose that bare law knows any thing of repentance and of the promise of pardon on repentance? Surely such a law must be a very gracious law; and a very gracious law, and a very gracious gospel, seem to be very nearly one and the same thing. It has been commonly understood that the divine law is the rule of justice. If so, and it be a provision of the law that every penitent be acquitted from punishment; then surely there is no grace at all in the acquittal of the penitent, as the gentlemen, to whom I now refer, pretend there is none on the supposition of the satisfaction of Christ. Again, if the law secure impunity to all penitents, then all the terror or punishment which the law threatens, is either repentance itself, or that wise and wholesome discipline which is necessary to lead to repentance; these are the true and utmost curse of the law. But neither of these is any curse at all; they are at least among the greatest blessings which can be bestowed on those who need them. But if it be granted that the bare law of God does not secure pardon to the penitent, but admits of his punishment, it will follow that the punishment of the penitent would be nothing opposed to justice. Surely God hath not made an unjust law. It also follows, that to punish the penitent would be not at all inconsistent with the divine perfections; unless God hath made a law which cannot, in any instance, be executed consistently with his own perfections. And if the punishment of the penitent, provided no atonement had been made, would not be inconsistent with justice, or with the perfections of God, who will say, that the pardon of the penitent, on the sole footing of an atonement, is inconsistent with either?

If neither strict justice, nor the divine law founded on justice, nor the divine perfections, without an atonement, secure pardon to all who repent, what will become of the boasted argument of the Socinians, against the atonement, that God will certainly pardon and save, and that it is absurd and impious to suppose, that he will not pardon and save all who repent? Are the Socinians themselves certain, that God will not do that which eternal justice, his own law, and his own perfections, allow him to do? The dilemma is this:--eternal justice either requires that every penitent be pardoned in consequence of his repentance merely, or it does not. If it do require this, it follows, that pardon is an act of justice and not of grace; therefore let the Socinians be forever silent on this head. It also follows, that repentance answers, satisfies, fulfils, the divine law, so that, in consequence of it, the law has no further demand on the sinner. It is therefore either the complete righteousness of the law, or the complete curse of the law; for cursed is every one that continueth not in all things written in the book of the law to do them. It also follows, that sin is no moral evil. Doubtless that which deserves no punishment, or token of the divine displeasure, is no moral evil. But the utmost that justice, on this hypothesis, requires of the sinner, is repentance, which is no token of the divine displeasure, but an inestimable blessing. It also follows, that as eternal justice is no other than the eternal law of God, grace and truth, life and immortality came and were brought to light by Moses, since the law came by him; that the law contains exceeding great and precious promises, which promises however, exceeding great and precious as they are, are no more than assurances, that we shall not be injured. It follows, in the last place, that justice and grace, law and gospel, are perfectly synonymous terms.

Or if the other part of the dilemma be taken, that eternal justice does not require that every penitent be pardoned; who knows but that God may see fit to suffer justice, in some instances, to take place? who will say that the other divine perfections are utterly inconsistent with justice? or that wisdom, goodness, and justice cannot co-exist in the same character? or that the law of God is such that it cannot be executed in any instance, consistently with the divine character? These would be bold assertions indeed; let him who avows them, at the same time prove them. Indeed he must either prove these assertions, or own that justice requires the pardon of every penitent, and abide the consequences; or renounce the doctrine, that the divine perfections require that every penitent be pardoned, without an atonement.

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