No Christian doctrine is more commonly misunderstood than that of the sacrifice of Christ. This misunderstanding arises from ignorance as to the meaning of sacrifices in the ancient world.
Sacrifice is one of the earliest and most widely spread of all human institutions. Behind the laws regulating sacrifice in the Old Testament there lies the long history of Shemitic ritual and religion. These sacrificial rites were not then introduced for the first time. They formed part of the inheritance of the Israelites from their far-off ancestors; an inheritance shared by them with the Ammonites and Edomites, and other kindred and neighbouring nations. They differed from these not in matter or form, but in the loftier moral and spiritual tone which formed the peculiar and distinguishing mark of the Hebrew religion, and in which we to-day can clearly trace the actions in the minds of men of the Spirit of God.
It follows that it is hopeless to attempt to understand the sacrificial teaching of the Old Testament without some grasp of the meaning of sacrifice in the ancient world. Failure to attain this has led to the idea that the sacrifice of Christ must mean the appeasing of an offended Deity by blood and death. But this view of sacrifice is not merely a heathen, but a late and debased heathen conception. "Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of the soul?" was the cry of the King of Moab, and it marks the lowest depth into which the pagan idea of sacrifice had sunk. It is a genuine instance of deterioration in ethnic religion. The primitive view was far loftier and more spiritual than this.
Recent researches, dependent on the comparative method, into the earliest forms of religion have brought to light two principles which underlay the conception of sacrifice, and which to a great extent can be discerned more clearly in the most ancient period than in later times. Now these two principles which, taken together, constitute the primitive theory of sacrifice, which make up the fundamental idea of it, however little prehistoric man may have been capable of giving distinct and logical expression to them, were these:
1. Death is necessary to the attainment of the fulness of life.
2. Man is, by his very nature, capable of sharing in, becoming a partaker of, the Divine life.
The earliest known form of sacrifice is the killing of the sacred animal of the tribe, the animal which was held to be the representative of the tribal god, followed by the sacred tribal meal upon the victim. There, in this earliest totem rite, we have already implicit the two great ideas of sacrifice, the communion of man with God by actual participation in the Divine life (the feast on the sacrifice), and that this communion is rendered possible by the death of the sacred victim.
These ideas were very largely obscured in ancient times by the conception of sacrifice as a gift, a tribute, or a propitiation. But these ideas, though they bulk largely in modern minds unacquainted with the recent researches of specialists in comparative religion, were, in fact, of later growth. They are accretions which, by a very natural and intelligible process, have overlain the oldest and really fundamental ideas which lie at the root and origin of sacrifice.
These two ideas were, however, present all through, in what we might perhaps call (without committing ourselves to any psychological theories) the racial subconsciousness. They were always there, ready to be evoked by the appropriate stimulus, whenever applied. They constituted the real essence and meaning of the ancient mysteries, which from 800 B.C. downwards formed so important a part of the real religion of the ancient world, and which have left their mark on the language of St. Paul and other early Christian teachers. These mysteries, roughly and broadly speaking, were of the nature of a religious reformation. They represented the discarding of the propitiatory idea in favour of the original meaning of sacrifice as communion.
These earliest notions of sacrifice really underlay the sacrifices of the Old Testament, especially in the case of the peace offerings. But, in these, we become conscious of a third element, the conviction that sin is a barrier to the Divine Communion. When the worshipper, in the sin-offering, laid his hands upon the head of the victim, he was, by a significant action, repudiating his sin, and presenting the spotlessness of the victim as his own, his own in will and intention henceforth. The blood was sprinkled upon the altar as the symbol of the life offered to and accepted by God; it was sprinkled upon the worshipper as the sign of the communication to him of that pure Divine life, by virtue of his participation in which man can alone approach God.
All this can be summed up in one word, "symbolism." All the value of ancient sacrifices, including those of the Old Testament, lay wholly in the moral and spiritual truths which, in a series of outward and significant actions, they stood for and symbolised. To attach objective value to that which was external in the Old Testament sacrifices, or even to the outward accompaniments of the Supreme Sacrifice, the Death of Jesus Christ upon the Cross, is to be guilty of a relapse from the Christian, or even the prophetic spirit, into the late and debased pagan idea of sacrifice, from which the ancient mysteries of the Eastern and Greek world were a reaction. Certainly, the outward sufferings of our Lord should sometimes form the subject of our thoughts as a motive, and one of the strongest motives, to penitence and love. But to lay such stress on these as to exalt them into the real meaning of the sacrifice of Christ, as constituting its value as a sacrifice, to regard them as in some way changing the Mind of God towards us, is contrary to the whole spirit of the New Testament. What the real teaching of the gospels is in the matter, is made plain by two significant facts.
(i) While it is quite clear that the inspired writers regard the Death of Christ, and the Christian life, as being, each of them, in a real sense, a sacrifice, direct sacrificial language is applied sparingly to the former, but without stint or hesitation to the latter. This is a point which has been strikingly brought out by Professor Loftus in his recent work on The Ethics of the Atonement.
(ii) While devoting a large portion of their narrative to the account of the Death of Christ, they exercised a very great and marked reserve as regards the physical details of the Crucifixion. In this respect the gospels are in harmony with the earliest Christian representations, as distinguished from the repulsive realism in which the medieval artists revelled.
To ask, then, in what sense the Death of Christ was a sacrifice, is to ask how far that Death realised the moral and spiritual truths which underlay the ancient institution of sacrifice, and to which all sacrifices ultimately pointed.
1. The first of these ideas, as we have seen, is that death is necessary to the fulness of life, that life can only be won by the surrender of life. That ancient conception constitutes the fundamental teaching of Christ: "He that willeth to save his life, shall lose it, and he who willeth to lose his life . . . shall save it unto life eternal." And of that great truth, which is nothing less than the formative principle of the Christian life, the Cross was the supreme expression "Herein have we come to know what love is, because He laid down His life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren."
The laying down of life, self-sacrifice, of which the Cross is the highest manifestation, alone brings life, alone is fruitful. "Except a grain of corn fall into the earth and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit."
Selfishness, whether as self-assertion or self-seeking, is essentially barren and unproductive, both in regard to the lives of others and our own lives. Only so far as we are, in some real sense, laying down our lives for others, denying (not that which belongs to us, but) ourselves, for their sake, can we hope to influence other persons for good, to be the cause of moral fruitfulness, of spiritual life in them. And for ourselves, we only win the fulness of our own lives, so far as we lose them in the lives of others, so far as we identify ourselves with their joys, sufferings, interests, pursuits, well-being; for our lives are real, and rich, and full exactly in proportion to the extent to which they include the lives of others.
And the Death of Christ ceases to be an unintelligible mystery, when it is regarded as the consummation of His Life of self-sacrifice. "Christ also pleased not Himself." "He went about doing good." And at last, in the fulfilment of a mission received of the Father for the good of men, His brethren, He crowned the Life, in which self-pleasing was not, by His Death, the necessary result, as we have seen, of His carrying out that mission in a world of sinful men. For Himself, that Death was, so He willed, the portal to the glory of the Resurrection. And the fruits of His uttermost self-sacrifice are still, after all these centuries, being gathered in, as in innumerable souls brought back from the darkness of sin into the light of the Divine Life, "He sees of the travail of His soul, and is satisfied."
2. But what answers, in the Death of Christ, to that in regard to which the death of the victim served but as a means to an end, the sacred meal of communion? The sacrificial principle has been laid down by the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, "without shedding of blood, there is no remission." Blood to the modern mind speaks of death, and usually of a violent and painful death. To the ancient mind, heathen or Israelite, blood stood for and symbolised life. "The Blood makes atonement by the Life that is in it." Man can only be made at one with God, can only have "remission of sins" -- the barrier which sin interposes to communion with God can only be removed, he can only be restored to that Divine fellowship for which he was made -- by actual reception into himself of the Divine life, of the life of Him Who, being God, became man, in order to impart His own Divine Life to our humanity which He assumed. And Christ's Life only then became available for men, capable of being imparted to each man, when it had passed through Death to Resurrection. If the grain die -- only if it die first -- "it bringeth forth much fruit." "If I go not away, the Comforter, the Paraclete, will not come unto you." Only by virtue of that "going away" of Christ, which includes His Death, Resurrection, and Ascension, could the Spirit which indwells His glorified manhood, come to impart the life of Christ to the members of the Body of Christ. Pentecost is the final consummation of man's atonement and redemption.
We may still more briefly summarise these two fundamental principles which constitute the sacrificial aspect of the Death of Christ.
1. Christ died, not that we should be excused from offering, but that we might be enabled to offer the one acceptable sacrifice to God, that is, the sacrifice of ourselves in that service of God which is the service of our fellow-men.
2. Christ died, in order that we might receive His Divine Life into ourselves, through the indwelling Spirit of Christ bestowed by the Ascended Lord.
Thus the Death of Christ is not merely a sacrifice, one out of many, or (as has been so mistakenly taught) simply the last of a series. It is rather the one sacrifice which alone realises the ideas of which all other so-called sacrifices were but the faint adumbrations. As the one true sacrifice it stands at the end of an age-long spiritual evolution. In the physical evolution, the first protoplasmic cell was not man, though it pointed forward to man, and implied man. So the totem feast and the old Jewish rites, were not truly and genuinely sacrifices, though both pointed forward to and implied the realisation of sacrifice in the Death of Christ. That Death was the fulfilment of the universal human aspiration, the assurance of the truth of that ancient dream of mankind, that man was capable of being, and might attain to be "partaker of the Divine nature."
And this whole teaching of ancient ritual as fulfilled and accomplished on the Cross of Jesus Christ, is summed up for us in our Christian Eucharist where on the one hand we, in union with the sacrifice of Christ, "offer and present ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice "to God; and, on the other hand, by eating the flesh and drinking the blood of the Son of man, become partakers of Him Who, in the words of St. Athanasius, "was made man, that we might be made God," became partaker of our human nature, in order that we might realise the end of our manhood, by being made partakers of His Divine Life.