There are at least two reasons, unconnected with Holy Week, why the subject of the Cross of Christ should occupy our attention.
1. The first reason is, that the Cross is commonly recognised as the weak point in our Christianity. It is the object of constant attack on the part of its assailants: and believers are content too often to accept it "on faith," which means that they despair of giving a rational explanation of it. Too often, indeed, Christians have proclaimed and have gloried in its supposed irrationality. To this latter point we shall return. But in the meanwhile it is necessary to say this: all language of harshness towards those who attack the doctrine of the Atonement is completely out of place. For the justification of their attacks has very often come from the Christian side. In former times, far more commonly than now, the sacrifice of Christ has been represented as a substitutory offering, necessary to appease the wrath of an offended God. It used to be said, and in some quarters it is said to-day, that the sins of the human race had so provoked the Divine anger that it could be appeased by nothing short of the destruction of mankind. In these dire straits of mankind, the Sinless Son of God presented Himself as the object on which the full vials of the Father's wrath should be outpoured. God having been thus placated, and His wrath satisfied, such as believe in this transaction, and rest themselves in confidence upon it, are enabled in such wise to reap its benefits that they escape the penalty due to their transgression, and are restored to the Divine favour.
Now this is the crudest representation of a certain popular theology of the Atonement. With some of its features softened down, it is by no means without its adherents and exponents at the present day. But when its drift is clearly understood, it is seen to be a doctrine which no educated man of our time can accept. We may consider four fatal objections to it.
(a) It is true that there is such a thing as "the wrath of God." It is not only a fact, but one of the most tremendous facts in the universe. It is a fact as high as the Divine purity, as deep as the malignity and foulness of sin, as broad as all human experience. It is impossible to construct a theistic theory of the world which shall leave it out. The nature of the fact we shall investigate at a later point. But we can say this at once. It cannot be such a fact as is represented by the theory under review. For that represents the wrath of God as a mere thirst for vengeance, a burning desire to inflict punishment, a rage that can only be satisfied by pain, and blood, and death. In other words, we are driven to a conception of God which is profoundly immoral, and revoltingly pagan. If we are rightly interested in missions to the heathen, are there to be no attempts to convert our fellow-Christians whose conception of God scarcely rises above the heathen one of a cruel and sanguinary deity? Not such, at least, is the New Testament doctrine of Him Who is God and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
(b) There is no moral quality which we esteem higher than justice. Fairness, equity, straight dealing are attributes for which all men entertain a hearty and unfeigned respect. There is no flame of indignation which burns fiercer within us than when we conceive ourselves, or others, to be the victims of injustice. But what are we to say of a view of the Atonement which represents God Himself as being guilty of the most flagrant act of injustice that the mind of man has ever conceived, the infliction of condign punishment upon a perfectly innocent Person, and that for the offences committed by others? It is a further wrong, and that a wrong done to the offenders themselves, that they are, in consideration of the sufferings of the righteous One, relieved of the merited and healthful punishment of ill-doing.
(c) A third defect of this theory of the Atonement is, that it is profoundly unethical. The need of man is represented as being, above all, escape from penalty. Whereas, at least, the conscience of the sinner himself is bearing at all times witness to the truth that his real necessity is escape from his sin, from the weakness and the defilement of his moral nature, which are of the very essence of moral transgression. We are now dealing with the matter from the moral standpoint; but we have to support us the authority of the earliest proclamation of the work of the Christ: "He shall save His people from their sins," not from any pains or penalties attached to their sins. Relief from punishment is not the Gospel of the New Testament, it is not a gospel at all.
(d) Finally, the idea of a transaction between the Father and the Son is clean contrary to the fundamental Christian doctrine of the Unity of God. Once locate justice in the Father, and love in the Son, and view the Atonement as the result of a bargain, or transaction between the Two, and once more we are left with a doctrine not Christian, but heathen and polytheistic. There is unhappily little doubt, that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity suffers, just as that of the Atonement, even more from its defenders than from its assailants. Properly understood, that doctrine is the vindication of the complete fulness of the personal life of the One God. Too often it is so held, and so preached and represented, as in this case, that monotheism is tacitly abandoned in favour of ditheism or tritheism. It needs to be plainly said, that the transaction theory is inconsistent with the trinitarian doctrine. The Three Persons are so called in our Western theology owing to defects inherent in human thought and speech. To set one over against the other as two parties to a contract, is to found a theory upon those very defects. The Miltonic representation of the Father and the Son is Arian; the popular view is, more often than not, a belief either in two gods, or in a logical contradiction.
To sum up, the view of the Atonement with which we have been occupying ourselves, is opposed to the fundamental moral instincts, and to the Christian consciousness, both as it finds expression in the New Testament, and as it reveals itself in the best minds of to-day. And this type of theory, although without some of its coarser features, is by no means extinct. There is all the more need then, in spite of all that has been so well done in this direction, to exhibit the Atonement as the supreme vindication of those instincts which are the witness of the Divine in man. There is laid on all who would preach or teach Christianity to-day to show that Calvinism, and all that is touched with the taint of Calvinism, is not the doctrine of the Atonement which is taught in the Bible or held by the Church. But, as nothing can be built on negations, there is an even greater and more imperative need to exhibit the truth of the Atonement in its beauty and majesty and transcendent moral power.
2. The second of our two reasons for the choice of the Cross of Christ as our subject, is the failure on the part of those who believe in it, trust in it, and even build their lives upon it, to realise the true vastness of its meaning. We are too apt to regard the Cross as one of the doctrines of our religion, or as supplying a motive to penitence, or to Christian conduct. Our view, when we are most in earnest, is one-sided, limited, parochial. We must rise, if we would really understand the Cross, to the height of this conception: that it contains in itself the answer to the problem of human existence, and of our individual lives. The secret of the universe, of our part of it at least, that tiny corner which is occupied by the human race, was revealed in that supreme disclosure of the Divine Mind which was made on Calvary. It was a disclosure necessarily given under the forms of time and space, else it could not have been given to us at all. But it transcends all forms and limitations, and belongs to the spiritual and timeless order, which is also the Real. But it is a disclosure which requires the thought and study, not of one generation only, but of all. It can never be exhausted. There is no view of it (including even that miserable caricature which we have just considered) that is altogether without some elements of truth. There is no view which embodies the whole of the truth. Each generation is meant to read that secret of God, which was uttered to mankind from the Cross of the Christ, a little more clearly than its predecessors. No theology of the Atonement which is not both new and old, can be a true theology. It must be old, because the disclosure was made under the form of historic facts which belong to the past. It must be new, because each age, in the light of the progressive revelation of God, interprets the disclosure under the forms of its own experience, scientific, moral, spiritual, which belongs to the present. "Therefore is every scribe that is instructed unto the kingdom of heaven, like unto a householder which bringeth forth out of his treasures things both new and old."
But the present point is, that we should realise the far-reaching significance of the disclosure of God made on and from the Cross. Human history is like a long-drawn-out drama, in which we are actors. How long is that drama, stretching back beyond the long years of recorded history to our dim forefathers, who have left their rude stone implements on the floors of caves or bedded in the river drift, the silent witnesses of a vanished race. And how short is that little scene in which we ourselves appear, while, insignificant as it is, it is yet our all. And we ask, we are impelled to ask, what is the meaning of the whole vast drama? What is the meaning of our own little scene in it? No questions can be compared in interest and importance to these two. And the answer to them both, so we shall try to see, was given once in time from the Cross. That is one of the chief aspects under which we shall regard the Cross of Christ, as the key which unlocks the mystery of human existence, and of my existence. There is no more majestic or pathetic conception than that of the veiled Isis. But the Cross is the removal of the veil, the discovery of the Divine Secret.
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Before, however, we proceed to our main subject, it will be well to set first before our minds a few elementary considerations.
The existence of God appears to be necessitated in order to account for two things: (i) the appearance of control in the universe; (ii) the facts of moral consciousness.
(i) It seems impossible to get rid of the ideas of direction and control. If we regard the world as it exists at the present moment, as one stage in an age-long process, then at least [Greek text] the facts which now appear were contained in the earliest stage of all. Man appears with his moral and spiritual nature. Then already the moral and the spiritual were somehow present when the first living cell began its wonderful course. [Greek text]. All movements have converged towards this end, and the co-ordination of movements implies control.
This then is our first reason for our belief in God. We live in a universe which seems throughout to manifest evidence of direction and control.
(ii) But I have much surer and more cogent evidence within myself. Whence comes that ineradicable conviction of the supremacy of righteousness, of the utter loveliness of the good, and utter hatefulness of the evil? I am not concerned with the steps of the process by which the moral sense may have developed. The majesty of goodness, before which I bow, really, sincerely, even when by my acts I give the lie to my own innermost convictions, that is no creation of my consciousness. Nor do I see good reason to believe that it has been an invention of, or growth in, human consciousness during the slow development of past ages. There is something deeper in my moral convictions than an outward sanction wondrously transmuted into an internal one. Moreover, in the best men, those who have really developed that moral faculty which I detect, in beginning and germ, as it were, in myself, I see no abatement in reverence for the ideal. Rather, the better and saintlier that they are, the keener do they feel their fallings off from it. A moral lapse, which would give me hardly a moment's uneasy thought, is capable of causing in them acute and prolonged sorrow. The nearer they draw to the moral ideal, strange paradox, the farther off from them does it ever appear, and they from it. It is an apostle who writes, "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the chief." Nor can I discover any tolerable explanation of all this, except that the guiding and directive power in the world, reveals itself in the moral consciousness of men, and with growing clearness in proportion as that consciousness has been trained and educated, as the moral ideal.
I find myself then, when my eyes are opened to the realities of the world in which I live, confronted with the facts of directive control and of the moral ideal. If I seek for some interpretation and coordination of the facts, I am compelled, judging of them on the analogy of my own experience (which, being the ultimate reality I know, is my only clue to the interpretation of the ultimate reality of the universe) to regard them as the activities of a Person, Whom we call God. Certainly to call the Ultimate Reality a Person, must be an inadequate expression of the truth, for it is the expression of the highest form of being in the terms of the lower. But it is an infinitely more adequate presentation, than to represent that Reality as impersonal. For personality being the highest category of my thought, I am bound to think of God as being Personal, if I would think of Him at all. I can be confident that though my view must fall far short of the truth, it is at least nearer to the truth and heart of things than any other view I can form. It is in fact the truth so far as I can apprehend it: the truth by which I was meant to live, and on which I was made to act.
But the question of questions remains -- What is the relation of the Person Whom I call God to my own personal being, to my spirit? And, in answering this question, popular theology makes a grave and disastrous mistake. It regards that Person as being isolated from all other persons, in the same way as each of us is isolated from all other persons. God, that is, is viewed as but One Person among many. Now, without inquiring as to the truth of this conception of personality, as being essentially an exclusive thing, we may at least say this, following the teaching of our best modern thinkers, as they have followed that of St. John and the Greek Fathers, that God is as truly conceived of as being within us, as external to us. His Throne is in the heart of man, as truly as it is at the centre of the universe. No view of God is tenable at the present day which regards Him as outside His own creation. His Personality is not exclusive, but inclusive of all things and all persons, while yet it transcends them. And as He includes us within Himself, as in God "we live and move and have our being," so also He interpenetrates us with His indwelling Presence as the life of our life.
To this point we shall presently return, for it is the keynote of all modern advance in theological knowledge, so far as that is not concerned with questions of literature, history, archaeology, and textual criticism. But we are concerned to notice now, that this recovered truth of the immanence of God in our humanity, affords the full and sufficient explanation of that dark shadow which lies athwart all human lives. That shadow has loomed large in the minds of poets, thinkers, and theologians. The latter know it by the name of sin. But what is sin save the conscious alienation and estrangement of man from the Divine Life which is in him? And if this be true, we can now see clearly why sin, moral transgression, always makes itself felt as a disintegrating force both without and within the individual life. Without, it is for ever separating nation from nation, class from class, man from man. Within, it produces discord and confusion in our nature. And both results follow, because sin is the alienation from the Divine Life, which is both the common element in human nature which binds man to man by the tie of spiritual kinship; and also the central point of the individual life, the hidden and sacred source and fountain of our being, which unites all the faculties and powers of our manhood in one harmonious whole.
Now the Cross of Jesus Christ is the overcoming of this disastrous estrangement and alienation. It is the victory of the Divine life in man. That is the most fruitful way in which we can regard it. The Cross stands for conquest -- the triumph of the Divine Life in us over all the forces which are opposed to it. And in this lies the glory of the Cross; that which made the symbol of the most degrading form of punishment -- that punishment which to the Jewish mind made him who suffered under it the "accursed of God," and which to the Roman was the ignominious penalty which the law inflicted on the slave -- the subject of boasting to that apostle who was both, to the very heart of him, a Jew and also a citizen of the empire.
The object of these lectures is to show how this is indeed the meaning of the Cross. There, in Him Who was the Son of man, the Representative and the Ideal of the race, the Divine Life triumphed, in order that in us, who are not separate from, but one with Him, it may win the like victory.
We fight against sin, and again and again succumb in the struggle. But as often as with the opened eye of the soul we turn to the Cross of Jesus, we behold there the victory, our victory, already won. Already, indeed, it is ours, by the communication to us of the Spirit of Him Who triumphed on the Cross. It only remains for us, by the deliberate act of our whole personal being, our will, our reason, our affections, to appropriate and make our own the deathless conquest won in and for our humanity on the Cross.