Great Texts of the Bible
The Ethics of the Atonement
Who his own self bare our sins in his body upon the tree, that we, having died unto sins, might live unto righteousness.—1 Peter 2:24.
There is no subject so surrounded with difficulty and so fruitful of misrepresentation as the one which Passion Sunday suggests—the Atonement effected for us by Christ on the Cross. No thoughtful man can fail to be struck by the intense moral difficulties which its ordinary and naked presentment involves, and even when he has forced his way beyond them to some more rational standpoint, he still sees only a little light that is ever shading into mysterious darkness. If there is any subject which demands in a Christian teacher reverence and modesty, and a profound conviction that he “knows in part,” and that “he sees through a glass darkly,” it is surely this. At the best our standpoint of knowledge is like a little island floating in a sea of mystery.
There are many devout and intelligent Christians to whom it no longer appeals. They may still hold it as an article of their creed, but it is no longer the vital centre of their faith. It is at best a profound mystery, which they must accept but can never hope to understand.
Yet, as we read the New Testament, we feel that to the first Christians the Atonement was not a puzzle, but a revelation. To Paul and John and Peter it was not an intellectual fog, but a glorious flood of light cast upon the fundamental facts of life. The Word of the Cross might be a stumbling-block to the Jew, and folly to the Greek; but to them it was “the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
This thought penetrates the First Epistle of Peter. It will out, even when we least expect it, even when to minds void of Christian experience it would seem to mar the force of his argument. “It is better,” he cries, “if the will of God should so will, that ye suffer for well-doing.” Why? Because Christ gave you the great example? There surely is the supreme motive for Christians. But no. He cannot gaze at the Cross and speak thus. “Because Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.” There is the paradox of the Christian life. The punishment of Jesus became the power of Christian patience just at the point where there is no comparison between His sufferings and ours. More remarkable still is the passage out of which our text is taken. Here there can be no question that in the humility and patience of the Master the Apostle sees a motive for the endurance of the servant. “Because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that ye should follow his steps.” But as though taught by instinct that such an appeal was utterly inadequate when addressed by a Christian pastor to children of the Resurrection, he immediately breaks out into those grand sentences, every syllable of which is redolent of the power of the atoning Sacrifice and breathes the merit of the vicarious Death. “Who his own self bare our sins in his body upon the tree, that we, having died unto sins, might live unto righteousness; by whose stripes ye were healed.”
When St. Peter wrote, “Who his own self bare our sins in his body upon the tree, that we, having died unto sins, might live unto righteousness,” this was not the testimony of a person in a distant age, who never knew our Lord; St. Peter said this of one with whom he had lived, whose words he had noted, and with whom he had been in daily intercourse and communion. And yet what a difficult, what a sharp and trying test this for such supernatural pretensions! To say of one person that His death was an atonement for the sins of the world, that He bore them in His own body on the cross, was to assert a profound and awful mystery respecting Him, because it is saying that the whole world was saved by His death; but to say this of one whom he had lived with and known—this is what we have no example of except in the testimony of the Apostles to Christ.1 [Note: J. B. Mozley.]
The doctrine is the doctrine of vicarious suffering. Now in considering the doctrine of vicarious suffering it is important to remember three things.
(1) The vicarious suffering of Christ is not an isolated fact.—Below the surface of human life lies the great universal fact of vicarious suffering, “not a dogmatic but an experimental truth.” All true service for men involves the bearing of the sins of men, not in the same sense as that in which Christ bore them, but in a sense that helps us to understand the meaning of His suffering.
(2) The vicarious suffering of Christ must not he separated from its purpose—that we, being dead unto sins, should live unto righteousness. The ultimate efficacy of the sacrifice of Christ depends on what it does in us. The old hymn is right—“He died to make us good.”
(3) Only through suffering do we learn the meaning of His suffering.—Slaves bearing ill-usage patiently will by the mysterious power of sympathy learn to see more clearly into the mystery of redemption than the subtlest theologian who has not suffered. The deep truths of Is. 53. were wrung from the heart of the nation as it groaned under the captivity of Babylon, and St. Paul’s knowledge of the meaning of the death of Christ was won on the same battlefield—“I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus” (Galatians 6:17). Christianity is stamped with the image of the Cross, and the whole life of each true Christian has something of the form and look of Christ crucified.
The Vicarious Suffering
“Who his own self bare our sins in his body upon the tree.”
1. Let us first of all try to understand St. Peter’s language. He has here four remarkable phrases.
(1) His own self.—Christ did not employ any one else to accomplish the great work of our redemption; He did it Himself, in His own proper person. The priest of old brought a substitute, and it was a lamb. He struck the knife and the warm blood flowed, but our Lord Jesus Christ had no substitute for Himself. He “his own self bare our sins.” “O thou priest of God! the pangs are to be thine own pangs; the knife must reach thine own heart; no lamb for thee, thou art thyself the Lamb; the blood which streams at thy feet must be thine own blood; wounds there must be, but they must be wounds in thine own flesh.”
A little girl brought me half a sovereign for missions. “Is this all from yourself?” I asked. Pointing to her heart, she said, “Yes, it is all from my own very self.” So St. Peter’s words mean, Christ did bear our sins really and truly; He bore them all alone; He had no rival, or partner, or substitute. When the king travels, the newspapers sometimes tell us that Mr. So-and-so, the superintendent of the line, drove the engine himself. The word himself shows that he did then in person what he usually does by the hand of his servants.1 [Note: James Wells, Bible Echoes, 138.]
(2) Bare our sins.—The word rendered “bare” has a singular fulness of significance; it is a sacrificial term, constantly used in the Septuagint for offering sacrifice: here it includes two meanings. Our Lord took up our sins, and in His own body which He offered on the cross He expiated them. It must also be noted that when He took up our sins, He took them away, enabling us to be rid of them.
If we examine Scripture from Genesis to Revelation, we shall find four senses in which the words “bearing sin,” are used: First, representation; second, identification; third, substitution; and fourth, satisfaction. If we take those four conceptions—representation—one standing as a representative before God; identification—one being made identical with those he represents; substitution—one substituted in the place or stead of others; and satisfaction—the furnishing of a satisfying atonement in behalf of others,—we have the scope of the meaning of these words.2 [Note: A. T. Pierson, The Hopes of the Gospel, 87.]
(3) In His body.—That body so purely born, which must have been a fair casket for the holy jewel it contained; which in the Jordan waters was first identified in outward seeming with the weight of human sin, though in itself without sin; which was the very shrine and home of God, who had prepared it for Him; which was the vehicle for so many blessed words and deeds of ministry—that body was made a sin-offering, and, so to speak, was burnt in fire without the camp, as the bodies of the bulls and goats under the Levitical law.
The depth, the fulness, the perfection, of His Being and of His character endowed Him with capacities for suffering which transcend all our most powerful imaginings. We can reach only imperfect, but still very significant, ideas of what He consciously realized in the Crucifixion. So weak are our powers that great injury stupefies the senses to the pain belonging to it. His perfection of mind would support the sense of pain and intensify it. And not only so, but every part of His Being would be quick, because of His fulness of life, to see and feel all that was contained within the act of men to Him. The pains of the flesh would not so absorb His mind that He could not see and feel also the meaning of all that He endured in His body on the tree. Clear before Him would stand out the hate, the malice, the wrong of His murderers. In the pain of the thorns He would be conscious of and would feel the cruel mockery of that shameful act. When His sensitive frame was pierced by the iron nails and racked with the anguish of hanging on the tree He would in this feel with equal reality the moral state of those who inflicted this upon His body. And as, with that penetrating vision which enabled Him to know what was in man, He looked through the present moral state of His murderers He would see the developments of sin which had built up their evil characters; all the several acts of disobedience and wickedness which had gone to fashion men who would murder the Just One stood out with vivid distinctness. Back beyond the present generation He would see the sins of their fathers, sins whose force lived in their degenerate offspring. A long line of ages of human sin, rank beyond rank, stretching back even to the flood and beyond it to fair Eden’s garden, where man first ate the forbidden fruit. All would be seen and felt in and under the nails which fixed Him to the tree. He would read and realize also in the acts of the immediate instruments of His death the moral state of the teeming millions of living sinners, east and west and north and south. And as all this sin would be seen in its past and present, so also would the latent possibilities in it for the future pass before Him. He would see in the sins of His crucifiers those sins, the very same sins, which still have existence after nineteen centuries of grace—our sins. And knowing, as He alone could know, the dire evils linked everlastingly to all departure from right, He would behold the destined end of sin, if left to work its way—death and misery, hell and anguish—scenes such that only infinite strength of soul could enable Him to look upon them. His all-powerful mind measured this mass of moral corruption; His infinitely pure and infinitely sensitive moral nature felt its terrible turpitude; His love, all-embracing, was pained by the wrong of it; His soul filled with suffering pity at the prospect of its dark issues. That which to us is, at best, but a dim conception in idea, was to Him a most terrible and real experience; “Who his own self bare our sins in his body upon the tree.”1 [Note: R. Vaughan.]
(4) Upon the tree.—The word for “tree” used here is also used twice in Acts (Acts 5:30, Acts 10:39) by St. Peter for the cross. Its use in Galatians 3:13 is due to the Septuagint of Deuteronomy 21:23. “Upon the tree” is a pregnant construction. He bore our sins up to and upon the tree. Irenaeus speaks of Christ as “remedying the disobedience in the matter of the tree of knowledge by the obedience of the tree of Calvary.” And we think of the “tree of life” of Revelation 22:2, whose leaves were for the healing of the nations.
There are three great trees of the Bible, towering above all other trees, as the cedars of Lebanon tower above the humble shrubs. These are the tree of life in Eden, the tree of death on Calvary, and the tree of life in heaven. The first is the tree for the sinless, the second is the tree for the sinful, and the third is the tree for the saved in glory. We are neither sinless nor saints in glory, and therefore the tree for us is the tree on Calvary. Notice that St. Peter calls it simply the tree. A family have been promised a Christmas-tree by a friend. All their talk for weeks beforehand is about the tree, just as if there were no other tree in the world for them. One day a cart with a nodding fir-tree is seen approaching the house. They rush in and shout, “Oh, mother, the tree has come!” And so the Apostle says, “the tree.” No Christian can mistake it. It is the tree of trees, the prince of trees for us.2 [Note: James Wells, Bible Echoes, 145.]
2. Now in what sense can it be truly said that Christ bore our sins as a burden? It cannot mean that He bore the guilt of our sin, for guilt is by its very nature inextricably attached to the sinner, and cannot be transferred; no one else can be guilty of the sin which I have committed. Nor can it mean that He bore the punishment of our sin; for punishment, likewise, can attach only to the one who is guilty of the sin. Another may suffer for my sin, but his suffering cannot be called punishment. In what sense, then, could Christ bear our sins?
(1) He bore them by sympathy.—A good mother once heard that her only son had done a deed of shame. The evil news caused her intense agony, her hair soon grew grey, health and joy forsook her, and soon she was brought down in sorrow to the grave. She bore her son’s sin by sympathy. It caused her such grief, because she was so near him, and loved him so fondly. If one sin, or rather that small part of one sin we can know on earth, be such an awful burden, what must it have been to bear the sins of us all? What bounds can be set to “the unknown agonies” of Christ, who has made Himself one with us sinners? Let Gethsemane and its bloody sweat, let the cross and its pains explain these words, “Who bare our sins.”
(2) Christ also bore our sins by sacrifice and substitution.—The whole Bible is filled with this truth, and the names of Jesus help us to understand it. He is “the Lamb of God,” upon whom the Lord hath laid the iniquities of us all. The Jew laid his hand upon the head of the lamb, and confessed his sins. The lamb then in a type had the burden of the Jew’s sins laid upon it, and bare them by being offered as a sacrifice.
In Dr. Bainbridge’s Around The World: Tour of Christian Missions, there is a curiously interesting and suggestive incident. When in his journey he had reached Tokio, Japan, intending to remain there some little time, he was waited upon one morning by an official, with this singular inquiry, “Who stands for you?” Supposing it to be a question of passports, he presented his, but that was not what was wanted. He then offered some letters of introduction he had, but they also were unsatisfactory, and the question was repeated, “Who stands for you?” It was finally explained that there was an ordinance in that city to the effect that no foreigner could take up his residence there for any length of time, unless he provided himself with a “substitute.” And as a matter of fact there were natives who hired themselves out to foreigners for this purpose. If the foreigner transgressed any law the substitute suffered the penalty for it. Even if the penalty were death, the substitute suffered death. Dr. Bainbridge secured a substitute, and was thereafter permitted to remain in peace and security as long as he chose.
The Ethical Purpose of the Suffering
“That we, having died unto sins, might live unto righteousness.”
What was the object of Christ’s death? Why did He come and live on earth, and die, and rise again? This may seem a very elementary question, but it is really an all-important one. Our answer to it will colour, if not determine, our theory of atonement. Why, then, did Christ die? You would probably answer, offhand, that Christ died to save men. And you would be right, provided you used that word “save” in the right sense. What does “save” mean? “Salvation,” “save,” are great words which have been used so much that, like worn coins, the original sharpness of their meaning has been almost rubbed away. Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes would say they needed “depolarising.” To the ordinary “man in the pew,” salvation too often means simply “safety.” To be saved is to be “safe.” A saved man is a man who has got off the just punishment of his sins, who will escape hell and go to heaven when he dies; and this because he has accepted some mysterious saving work that Christ wrought for him, and instead of him, on the cross. But that is not the New Testament idea of salvation. “To save,” in the New Testament, means to make whole and sound. When a sick man is cured he is said to be “saved”; that is, made well and healthy. To be saved, in the spiritual sense, means to become morally sound, morally healthy, morally well. The idea it conveys is emphatically ethical. In New Testament language, a saved man is a good man, or a man who is on the way to becoming good.
1. Having died unto sins.—Every Christian is like Christ. He was born to die for our sins; and we are born again to die to sin. Our death to sin is like His death for sin; our new life is like His new life when He rose from the grave. Until we have died to sin, we have not begun really to live. We live truly only when we live together with Him.
“Dead to sins.” What a change it speaks of! Offer gold to a corpse. The man may have been a miser all his lifetime, but his eye glistens not now at the sight of the yellow heaps. Place before him the delicacies of the table; he needs them not. Sound in his ear the sweetest strains that the genius of the musician ever gave birth to; they do not touch a single responsive chord; they float by unnoticed, uncared for, unheard.1 [Note: G. Calthrop, Pulpit Recollections, 141.]
A fellow-student, who was a Jew by birth, once gave me the story of his life. By reading the New Testament he was convinced that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah promised to his fathers. He was converted, forsook the synagogue, and was baptized. His parents were shocked, legally disowned and disinherited him, held him as a dead man, and went the length of having a form of burial, and a funeral service over what passed as his coffin. By his conversion he became dead to Judaism, and alive unto Christianity. He was dead to Judaism every way; in law, in love, in life. He was dead in law, for he had lost all his lawful rights as a Jew and the son of a Jew, and Judaism could no longer claim him as its own; he was dead also in love, for his affections had entirely changed, and their love for him was also clean gone; he was dead also in life, for Judaism was as a dead thing to him, and he to Judaism. What cared he for their phylacteries, and new moons, and carnal ordinances? He gloried only in the cross of Christ, by which Judaism was crucified unto him, and he unto Judaism. But he was alive unto Christianity, for he had devoted himself to the work of Christ. On the day of his conversion he died as a Jew, and began to live as a Christian.1 [Note: James Wells, Bible Echoes, 147.]
2. St. Peter’s phrase is in the plural: “dead to sins”—it is not “sin”; and this is even better yet, and more gracious and more satisfying to the soul. The difference between “sins” in the plural and “sin” in the singular may be stated thus: “Sin” refers to our sinful nature, the sin in which and into which we were born, while “sins” refers to the consequences or fruits of that nature in the actual transgressions of our lives. How wonderful, therefore, that the atonement of Christ covers not only our sin but our sins, that in Him we are not only dead to sin in our nature but dead to sins in our everyday life.
What we mostly fail to understand is the measure and extent to which that sacrifice of Christ has to be made practically potent to enable us to cease from sin in its activities, its determinations, its intentions, and in the knowledge of it. We were intended by God to cease from sin. And why? Because, as the Apostle says, “Forasmuch then as Christ hath suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves likewise with the same mind”; that is, once for all put on the armour which you have given to you now by God—the mind and purpose and determination—and you shall be enabled, by arming yourself with this determination—which is not merely a will, but a reasonable ground of expectation—to cease from sin, as your Saviour, Christ, hath ceased from sin. That it is not an absolute deliverance I affirm; that it is not an absolute deliverance that I will affirm to the last breath I draw in this life, for I think I should dishonour my Lord if I were to say I had ever seen a man whom I could speak of as being altogether without sin. I remember (and I speak it tenderly but firmly) some who have claimed to be free from sin, and my only utterance in my heart has been, “God help me if I had no better Christianity than yours; if I could not find One to look at with greater admiration, I would hardly care to leave this world.” But because we yearn in vain after perfection, it does not follow that we need not, and ought not, day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment, to be getting nearer to Christ now, and be more and more reflecting His image. Because we cannot attain to the absolutely perfect is the very reason why we should seek to attain the relatively perfect, and have the ambition of being conformed to that Perfect One, that we may live according to His example, and tread in His steps. Is there nothing beyond the judicial in ch. 3. v. 18—“That he might bring us to God”? Thanks be to God, there is something more than the substitutionary, the representative, the vicarious; there is the drawing up until every faculty of the being is made to approach to God, until we draw nigh to God; and you cannot draw nigh to God except as being “pure in heart”; and the measure of the vision is exactly as we are pure in heart.1 [Note: Prebendary Webb-Peploe in The Keswick Week, 1899, p. 86.]
After the sins of the past have been blotted out, is it necessary to the perpetuity of atoning grace that others shall perpetually take their place? A simple illustration may perhaps show the unreasonableness of this thought. Sins spring from sin, as the eruptions on the skin of a patient suffering from measles or scarlet fever spring from the disease. Now suppose the eruption on the surface were soothed and relieved by medical skill, would this be full healing, even should it be continually repeated and perfectly performed? Surely not. While caring for the effects of the disease, true medical science always aims, as we know, at counteracting the exciting cause of the illness; so our Lord’s atoning work, while making provision for the putting away of sins in forgiveness as fast as they appear and are presented to Him in true repentance by the sin-sick Christian, aims at the healing of the disease, and the raising up of a perfectly healthy organism.2 [Note: Helen B. Harris, Heart Purity, 62.]
3. Might live unto righteousness.—The New Testament writers are full of salvation as a realized, personal experience. They are men who have met Christ, and to whom He has made all the difference. The moral and spiritual change they have experienced is so great that it baffles description. Out of his own experience St. Paul says: “If any man is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old things are passed away; behold they are become new.” They try to describe it by striking metaphors, as a passing from bondage to freedom, from darkness to light, from death to life. And they rightly attribute it to Christ—especially to His death, or rather not so much to His death as to Him dying—Christ crucified.
It is one thing to tell men that Christ died; it is quite another to preach, as St. Peter did, the Death of Christ. It is one thing to declare that by His Cross He taught His brethren and inspired to suffer and to die; it is quite another to proclaim with St. Paul that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” It is one thing for the shepherd to be ready, if need so require, to bleed for the flock; it is quite another to say, “I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.” That, and that alone, is the secret of a life not only like Christ, but in Christ. The Christian life—I cannot begin it unless I am buried with Him by baptism unto death; I cannot continue it unless each closing day it is brought beneath the covering of His finished work, to be within Himself made pure; I cannot end it save as the chief of sinners, pleading not my righteousness, but His, who will put into my story what He did. But when my faith looks up to my crucified Saviour, I begin to be a disciple and in my mouth He puts this new song: “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing.” And I follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth.1 [Note: J. G. Simpson, Christian Ideals, 277.]
The Ethics of the Atonement
Bonar (H.), God’s Way of Holiness, 48.
Brown (C.), Trial and Triumph, 89.
Calthrop (G.), Pulpit Recollections, 133.
Clayton (C.), Stanhope Sermons, 432.
Eyton (R.), The True Life, 49.
Gray (J. M.), Salvation from Start to Finish, 33.
Groser (W. H.), Outlines for my Class, 80,
Hall (J. V.), The Sinner’s Friend, 27.
Hamilton (J.), Works, iv. 217.
Harris (H. B.), Heart Purity, 61.
Horton (R. F.), How the Cross Saves, 41.
Kuegele (F.), Country Sermons, New Ser., ii. 286.
Meyer (F. B.), Tried by Fire, 105.
Moinet (C.), The “Good Cheer” of Jesus Christ, 33.
Mortimer (A. G.), Life and its Problems, 119.
Mozley (J. B.), Sermons Parochial and Occasional, 278.
Palmer (J. R.), Burden-Bearing, 3.
Pierson (A. T.), The Hopes of the Gospel, 85.
Price (A. C.), Fifty Sermons, vi. 345.
Sauter (B.), The Sunday Epistles, 242.
Simpson (J. G.), Christian Ideals, 263.
Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xix. (1873) 649; xlviii. (1902) 361; 1. (1904) 277.
Thomas (W. H. G.), The Apostle Peter, 197.
Wells (J.), Bible Echoes, 137.
Wood (W. S.), Problems in the New Testament, 147.
Christian World Pulpit, xlvi. 170 (Goodrich); xlvii. 245 (Brooks); lxxi. 261 (Martin).
Churchman’s Pulpit: Good Friday and Easter Even: vii. 36 (Vaughan).
Clergyman’s Magazine, New Ser., i. 241 (Mozley).
Homiletic Review, xxxi. 320 (Brooks).
Keswick Week, 1899, p. 84 (Webb-Peploe).