In discussing this subject, I will --
I. Call attention to several well-established principles of government.
1. We have already seen that moral law is not founded in the mere arbitrary will of God or of any other being, but that it has its foundation in the nature and relations of moral agents, that it is that rule of action or of willing which is imposed on them by the law of their own intellect.
2. As the will of no being can create moral law, so the will of no being can repeal or alter moral law. It being just that rule of action that is agreeable to the nature and relations of moral agents, it is as immutable as those natures and relations.
3. There is a distinction between the letter and the spirit of moral law. The letter relates to the outward life or action; the spirit respects the motive or intention from which the act should proceed. For example: the spirit of the moral law requires disinterested benevolence, and is all expressed in one word -- love. The letter of the law is found in the commandments of the decalogue, and in divers other precepts relating to outward acts.
4. To the letter of the law there may be many exceptions, but to the spirit of moral law there can be no exception. That is, the spirit of the moral law may sometimes admit and require, that the letter of the law shall be disregarded or violated; but the spirit of the law ought never to be disregarded or violated. For example: the letter of the law prohibits all labor on the sabbath day. But the spirit of the law often requires labor on the sabbath. The spirit of the law requires the exercise of universal and perfect love or benevolence to God and man, and the law of benevolence often requires that labor shall be done on the sabbath; as administering to the sick, relieving the poor, feeding animals; and in short, whatever, is plainly the work of necessity or mercy, in such a sense that enlightened benevolence demands it, is required by the spirit of moral law upon the sabbath, as well as all other days. This is expressly taught by Christ, both by precept and example. So again, the letter of the law says, "The soul that sinneth, it shall die;" but the spirit of the law admits and requires that upon certain conditions, to be examined in their proper place, the soul that sinneth shall live. The letter of the law is inexorable; it condemns and sentences to death all violators of its precepts, without regard to atonement or repentance. The spirit of moral law allows and requires that upon condition of satisfaction being made to public justice, and the return of the sinner to obedience, he shall live and not die.
5. In establishing a government and promulgating law, the lawgiver is always understood as pledging himself duly to administer the laws in support of public order, and for the promotion of public morals, to reward the innocent with his favor and protection, and to punish the disobedient with the loss of his protection and favor.
6. Laws are public property in which every subject of the government has an interest. Every obedient subject of government is interested to have law supported and obeyed, and wherever the law is violated, every subject of the government is injured, and his rights are invaded; and each and all have a right to expect the government duly to execute the penalties of law when it is violated.
7. There is an important distinction between retributive and public justice. Retributive justice consists in treating every subject of government according to his character. It respects the intrinsic merit or demerit of each individual, and deals with him accordingly. Public justice, in its exercise, consists in the promotion and protection of the public interests, by such legislation and such an administration of law, as is demanded by the highest good of the public. It implies the execution of the penalties of law where the precept is violated, unless something else is done that will as effectually secure the public interests. When this is done, public justice demands, that the execution of the penalty shall be dispensed with, by extending pardon to the criminal. Retributive justice makes no exceptions, but punishes without mercy in every instance of crime. Public justice makes exceptions, as often as this is permitted or required by the public good. Public justice is identical with the spirit of the moral law, and in its exercise, regards only the law. Retributive justice cleaves to the letter, and makes no exceptions to the rule, "The soul that sinneth, it shall die."
8. The design of legal penalties is to secure obedience to the precept. The same is also the reason for executing them when the precept is violated. The sanctions are to be regarded as an expression of the views of the lawgiver, in respect to the importance of his law; and the execution of penalties is designed and calculated to evince his sincerity in enacting, and his continued adherence to, and determination to abide by, the principles of his government as revealed in the law; his abhorrence of all crime; his regard to the public interests; and his unalterable determination to carry out, support and establish, the authority of his law.
9. It is a fact well established by the experience of all ages and nations, that the exercise of mercy, in setting aside the execution of penalties, is a matter of extreme delicacy and danger. The influence of law, as might be expected, is found very much to depend upon the certainty felt by the subjects that it will be duly executed. It is found in experience, to be true, that the exercise of mercy in every government where no atonement is made, weakens government, by begetting and fostering a hope of impunity in the minds of those who are tempted to violate the law. It has been asserted, that the same is true when an atonement has been made, and that therefore, the doctrines of atonement and consequent forgiveness tend to encourage the hope of impunity in the commission of sin, and for this reason, are dangerous doctrines, subversive of high and sound morality. This assertion I shall notice in its appropriate place.
10. Since the head of the government is pledged to protect and promote the public interests, by a due administration of law, if in any instance where the precept is violated, he would dispense with the execution of penalties, public justice requires that he shall see, that a substitute for the execution of law is provided, or that something is done that shall as effectually secure the influence of law, as the execution of the penalty would do. He cannot make exceptions to the spirit of the law. Either the soul that sinneth must die, according to the letter of the law, or a substitute must be provided in accordance with the spirit of the law.
11. Whatever will as fully evince the lawgiver's regard for his law, his determination to support it, his abhorrence of all violations of its precepts, and withal guard as effectually against the inference, that violators of the precept might expect to escape with impunity, as the execution of the penalty would do, is a full satisfaction of public justice. When these conditions are fulfilled, and the sinner has returned to obedience, public justice not only admits, but absolutely demands, that the penalty shall be set aside by extending pardon to the offender. The offender still deserves to be punished, and, upon the principles of retributive justice, might be punished according to his deserts. But the public good admits and requires, that upon the above condition he should live; hence, public justice, in compliance with the public interests and the spirit of the law of love, spares and pardons him.
12. If mercy or pardon is to be extended to any who have violated law, it ought to be done in a manner and upon some conditions that will settle the question, and establish the truth, that the execution of penalties is not to be dispensed with merely upon condition of the repentance of the offender. In other words, if pardon is to be extended, it should be known to be upon a condition not within the power of the offender. Else he may know, that he can violate the law, and yet be sure to escape with impunity, by fulfilling the conditions of forgiveness, which are upon the supposition, all within his own power.
13. So, if mercy is to be exercised, it should be upon a condition that is not to be repeated. The thing required by public justice is, that nothing shall be done to undermine or disturb the influence of law. Hence it cannot consent to have the execution of penalties dispensed with, upon any condition that shall encourage the hope of impunity. Therefore, public justice cannot consent to the pardon of sin but upon condition of an atonement, and also upon the assumption that atonement is not to be repeated, nor to extend its benefits beyond the limits of the race for whom it was made, and that only for a limited time. If an atonement were to extend its benefits to all worlds, and to all eternity, it would nullify its own influence, and encourage the universal hope of impunity, in case the precepts of the law were violated. This would be indefinitely worse than no atonement; and public justice might as well consent to have mercy exercised, without any regard to securing the authority and influence of law.
II. The term. Atonement.
The English word atonement is synonymous with the Hebrew word cofer. This is a noun from the verb caufar, to cover. The cofer or cover was the name of the lid or cover of the ark of the covenant, and constituted what was called the mercy-seat. The Greek word rendered atonement is katallage. This means reconciliation to favor, or more strictly, the means or conditions of reconciliation to favor; from katallasso, to "change, or exchange." The term properly means substitution. An examination of these original words, in the connection in which they stand, will show that the atonement is the governmental substitution of the sufferings of Christ for the punishment of sinners. It is a covering of their sins by his sufferings.
III. The teachings of natural theology, or the à priori affirmations of reason upon this subject.
The doctrine of atonement has been regarded as so purely a doctrine of revelation as to preclude the supposition, that reason could, à priori, make any affirmations about it. It has been generally regarded as lying absolutely without the pale of natural theology, in so high a sense, that, aside from revelation, no assumption could be made, nor even a reasonable conjecture indulged. But there are certain facts in this world's history, that render this assumption exceedingly doubtful. It is true, indeed, that natural theology could not ascertain and establish the fact, that an atonement had been made, or that it certainly would be made; but if I am not mistaken, it might have been reasonably inferred, the true character of God being known and assumed, that an atonement of some kind would be made to render it consistent with his relations to the universe, to extend mercy to the guilty inhabitants of this world. The manifest necessity of a divine revelation has been supposed to afford a strong presumptive argument, that such a revelation has been or will be made. From the benevolence of God, as affirmed by reason, and manifested in his works and providence, it has been, as I suppose, justly inferred, that he would make arrangements to secure the holiness and salvation of men, and as a condition of this result, that he would grant them a further revelation of his will than had been given in creation and providence. The argument stands thus: --
1. From reason and observation we know that this is not a state of retribution; and from all the facts in the case that lie open to observation, this is evidently a state of trial or probation.
2. The providence of God in this world is manifestly disciplinary, and designed to reform mankind.
3. These facts, taken in connection with the great ignorance and darkness of the human mind on moral and religious subjects, afford a strong presumption that the benevolent Creator will make to the inhabitants of this world who are so evidently yet in a state of trial, a further revelation of his will. Now, if this argument is good, so far as it goes, I see not why we may not reasonably go still further.
Since the above are facts, and since it is also a fact that when the subject is duly considered, and the more thoroughly the better, there is manifestly a great difficulty in the exercise of mercy without satisfaction being made to public justice; and since the benevolence of God would not allow him on the one hand to pardon sin at the expense of public justice, nor on the other to punish or execute the penalty of law, if it could be wisely and consistently avoided, these facts being understood and admitted, it might naturally have been inferred, that the wisdom and benevolence of God would devise and execute some method of meeting the demands of public justice, that should render the forgiveness of sin possible. That the philosophy of government would render this possible, is to us very manifest. I know, indeed, that with the light the gospel has afforded us, we much more clearly discern this, than they could who had no other light than that of nature. Whatever might have been known to the ancients, and those who have not the Bible, I think that when the facts are announced by revelation, we can see that such a governmental expedient was not only possible, but just what might have been expected of the benevolence of God. It would of course have been impossible for us, à priori, to have devised, or reasonably conjectured, the plan that has been adopted. So little was known or knowable on the subject of the trinity of God, without revelation, that natural theology could, perhaps, in its best estate, have taught nothing further than that, if it was possible, some governmental expedient would be resorted to, and was in contemplation, for the ultimate restoration of the sinning race, who were evidently spared hitherto from the execution of law, and placed under a system of discipline.
But since the gospel has announced the fact of the atonement, it appears that natural theology or governmental philosophy can satisfactorily explain it; that reason can discern a divine philosophy in it.
Natural theology can teach --
1. That the human race is in a fallen state, and that the law of selfishness, and not the law of benevolence, is that to which unconverted men conform their lives.
2. It can teach that God is benevolent, and hence that mercy must be an attribute of God; and that this attribute will be manifested in the actual pardon of sin, when this can be done with safety to the divine government.
3. Consequently that no atonement could be needed to satisfy any implacable spirit in the divine mind; that he was sufficiently and infinitely disposed to extend pardon to the penitent, if this could be wisely, benevolently, and safely done.
4. It can also abundantly teach, that there is a real and a great danger in the exercise of mercy under a moral government, and supremely great under a government so vast and so enduring as the government of God; that, under such a government, the danger is very great, that the exercise of mercy will be understood as encouraging the hope of impunity in the commission of sin.
5. It can also show the indispensable necessity of such an administration of the divine government as to secure the fullest confidence throughout the universe, in the sincerity of God in promulging his law with its tremendous penalty, and of his unalterable adherence to its spirit, and determination not to falter in carrying out and securing its authority at all events. That this is indispensable to the well-being of the universe, is entirely manifest.
6. Hence it is very obvious to natural theology, that sin cannot be pardoned unless something is done to forbid the otherwise natural inference that sin will be forgiven under the government of God upon condition of repentance alone, and of course upon a condition within the power of the sinner himself. It must be manifest, that to proclaim throughout the universe that sin would be pardoned universally upon condition of repentance alone, would be a virtual repeal of the divine law. All creatures would instantly perceive, that no one need to fear punishment, in any case, as his forgiveness was secure, however much he might trample on the divine authority, upon a single condition which he could at will perform.
7. Natural theology is abundantly competent to show, that God could not be just to his own intelligence, just to his character, and hence just to the universe, in dispensing with the execution of divine law, except upon the condition of providing a substitute of such a nature as to reveal as fully, and impress as deeply, the lessons that would be taught by the execution, as the execution itself would do. The great design of penalties is prevention, and this is of course the design of executing penalties. The head of every government is pledged to sustain the authority of law, by a due administration of rewards and punishments, and has no right in any instance to extend pardon, except upon conditions that will as effectually support the authority of law as the execution of its penalties would do. It was never found to be safe, or even possible under any government, to make the universal offer of pardon to violators of law, upon the bare condition of repentance, for the very obvious reason already suggested, that it would be a virtual repeal of all law. Public justice, by which every executive magistrate in the universe is bound, sternly and peremptorily forbids that mercy shall be extended to any culprit, without some equivalent being rendered to the government; that is, without something being done that will fully answer as a substitute for the execution of penalties. This principle God fully admits to be binding upon him; and hence he affirms that he gave his Son to render it just in him to forgive sin. Rom. iii.24-26: "Being justified freely by his grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; to declare, I say, at this time, his righteousness; that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus."
8. All nations have felt the necessity of expiatory sacrifices. This is evident from the fact that all nations have offered them.
9. The wisest heathen philosophers, who saw the intrinsic inefficacy of animal sacrifices, held that God could not forgive sin. This proves to a demonstration, that they felt the necessity of an atonement, or expiatory sacrifice. And having too just views of God and his government, to suppose that either animal, or merely human, sacrifices, could be efficacious under the government of God, they were unable to understand upon what principles sin could be forgiven.
10.Public justice required, either that an atonement should be made, or that the law should be executed upon every offender. By public justice is intended, that due administration of law, that shall secure in the highest manner which the nature of the case admits, private and public interests, and establish the order and well-being of the universe. In establishing the government of the universe, God had given the pledge, both impliedly and expressly, that he would regard the public interests, and by a due administration of the law, secure and promote, as far as possible, public and individual happiness.
11. Public justice could strictly require only the execution of law; for God had neither expressly nor impliedly given a pledge to do anything more for the promotion of virtue and happiness, than to administer due rewards to the righteous, and due punishment to the wicked. Yet an atonement, as we shall see, would more fully meet the necessities of government, and act as a more efficient preventive of sin, and a more powerful persuasive to holiness, than the infliction of the legal penalty would do.
12. An atonement was needed for the removal of obstacles to the free exercise of benevolence toward our race. Without an atonement, the race of man after the fall sustained to the government of God the relation of rebels and outlaws. And before God, as the great executive magistrate of the universe, could manifest his benevolence toward them, an atonement must be decided upon and made known, as the reason upon which his favorable treatment of them was conditionated.
13. An atonement was needed to promote the glory and influence of God in the universe. But more of this hereafter.
14. An atonement was needed to present overpowering motives to repentance.
15. An atonement was needed, that the offer of pardon might not seem like connivance at sin.
16. An atonement was needed to manifest the sincerity of God in his legal enactments.
17. An atonement was needed to make it safe to present the offer and promise of pardon.
18. Natural theology can inform us, that, if the lawgiver would or could condescend so much to deny himself, as to attest his regard to his law, and his determination to support it by suffering its curse, in such a sense as was possible and consistent with his character and relations, and so far forth as emphatically to inculcate the great lesson, that sin was not to be forgiven upon the bare condition of repentance in any case, and also to establish the universal conviction, that the execution of law was not to be dispensed with, but that it is an unalterable rule under his divine government, that where there is sin there must be inflicted suffering -- this would be so complete a satisfaction of public justice, that sin might safely be forgiven.
IV. The fact of atonement.
This is purely a doctrine of revelation, and in the establishment of this truth appeal must be made to the scriptures alone.
1. The whole Jewish scriptures, and especially the whole ceremonial dispensation of the Jews, attest, most unequivocally, the necessity of an atonement.
2. The New Testament is just as unequivocal in its testimony to the same point.
I shall here take it as established, that Christ was properly "God manifest in the flesh," and proceed to cite a few out of the great multitude of passages, that attest the fact of his death, and also its vicarious nature; that is, that it was for us, and as a satisfaction to public justice for our sins, that his blood was shed. I will first quote a few passages to show that the atonement and redemption through it, was a matter of understanding and covenant between the Father and Son. "I have made a covenant with my chosen, I have sworn unto David my servant. Thy seed will I establish forever, and build up thy throne to all generations. Selah." -- Ps. lxxxix.3, 4. "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 prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied; by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors." -- Isaiah liii.10, 11, 12. "All that the Father giveth me shall come to me: and he that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out. For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me. And this is the Father's will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day." -- John vi.37, 38, 39. "I have manifested thy name unto the men which thou gavest me out of the world: thine they were, and thou gavest them me; and they have kept thy word. I pray for them: I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me; for they are thine. And now I am no more in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to thee. Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be one, as we are." -- John xvii.6, 9, 11.
I will next quote some passages to show, that, if sinners were to be saved at all, it must be through an atonement. "Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved." -- Acts iv.12. "Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: And by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses." -- Acts xiii.38, 39. "Now we know, that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law; that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore, by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin." -- Rom. iii.19, 20. "Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified. I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain." -- Gal. ii.16, 21. "For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith. And the law is not of faith: but the man that doeth them shall live in them. For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise: but God gave it to Abraham by promise. Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator. Now a mediator is not a mediator of one, but God is one. Is the law, then, against the promises of God? God forbid, for if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law. Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith." -- Gal. iii.10-12, 18-21, 24. "And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission. It was therefore necessary that the patterns of things in the heavens should be purified with these; but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these." -- Heb. ix.22, 23.
I will now cite some passages that establish the fact of the vicarious death of Christ, and redemption through his blood. "But 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. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all." -- Isaiah liii.5, 6. "Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many." -- Matt. xx.28. "For this is my blood of the new testament which is shed for many for the remission of sins." -- Matt. xxvi.28. "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up; that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life." -- John iii.14, 15. "I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world." -- John vi.51. "Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood." -- Acts xx.28. "Being justified freely by his grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. To declare, I say, at this time, his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus. For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. But God commendeth his love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him. And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement. Therefore, as by the offence of one, judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous." -- Rom. iii.24-26; v.9-11, 18, 19. "purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: for I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died far our sins according to the scriptures." -- 1 Cor. v.7: xv.3. "I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live: yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree. That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith." -- Gal. ii.20; iii.13, 14. "But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ. And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet smelling savour." -- Eph. ii.13; v.2. "Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us. For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh; how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission. It was therefore necessary that the patterns of things in the heavens should be purified with these, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ is not entered into the holy places made with hands, which are the figures of the true; but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us. Nor yet that he should offer himself often, as the high priest entereth into the holy place every year with blood of others; for then must he often have suffered since the foundation of the world: but now once in the end of the world hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment: so Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many: and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation." -- Heb. ix.12-14, 22-28. "By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. And every priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins: but this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins, for ever sat down on the right hand of God; from henceforth expecting till his enemies be made his footstool. For by one offering he hath perfected forever them that are sanctified." -- Heb. x.10-14. "Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which he hath consecrated for us through the vail, that is to say, his flesh," etc. -- Heb. x.19, 20. "Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers; but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot." -- 1 Pet. i.18, 19. "Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we being dead to sins should live unto righteousness; by whose stripes ye were healed." -- 1 Pet. ii.24. "For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit." -- 1 Peter iii.18. "But if we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin." -- 1 John i.7. "And ye know that he was manifested to take away our sins; and in him is no sin." -- 1 John iii.5. "In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins." -- 1 John iv.9, 10.
These, as every reader of the Bible must know, are only some of the passages that teach the doctrine of atonement and redemption by the death of Christ. It is truly wonderful in how many ways this doctrine is taught, assumed, and implied in the Bible. Indeed, it is emphatically the great theme of the Bible. It is expressed or implied upon nearly every page of divine inspiration.
V. The next inquiry is what constitutes the atonement.
The answer to this inquiry has been already, in part, unavoidably anticipated. Under this head I will show, --
1. That Christ's obedience to the moral law as a covenant of works, did not constitute the atonement.
(1.) Christ owed obedience to the moral law, both as God and man. He was under as much obligation to be perfectly benevolent as any moral agent is. It was, therefore, impossible for him to perform any works of supererogation; that is, so far as obedience to law was concerned, he could, neither as God nor as man, do anything more than fulfil its obligations.
(2.) Had he obeyed for us, he would not have suffered for us. Were his obedience to be substituted for our obedience, he need not certainly have both fulfilled the law for us, as our substitute, under a covenant of works, and at the same time have suffered as a substitute, in submitting to the penalty of the law.
(3.) If he obeyed the law as our substitute, then why should our own return to personal obedience be insisted upon as a sine quâ non of our salvation?
(4.) The idea that any part of the atonement consisted in Christ's obeying the law for us, and in our stead and behalf, represents God as requiring: --
(i.) The obedience of our substitute.
(ii.) The same suffering, as if no obedience had been rendered.
(iii.) Our repentance.
(iv.) Our return to personal obedience.
(v.) And then represents him as, after all, ascribing our salvation to grace. Strange grace this, that requires a debt to be paid several times over, before the obligation is discharged!
2. I must show that the atonement was not a commercial transaction.
Some have regarded the atonement simply in the light of the payment of a debt; and have represented Christ as purchasing the elect of the Father, and paying down the same amount of suffering in his own person that justice would have exacted of them. To this I answer --
(1.) It is naturally impossible, as it would require that satisfaction should be made to retributive justice. Strictly speaking, retributive justice can never be satisfied, in the sense that the guilty can be punished as much and as long as he deserves; for this would imply that he was punished until he ceased to be guilty, or became innocent. When law is once violated, the sinner can make no satisfaction. He can never cease to be guilty, or to deserve punishment, and no possible amount of suffering renders him the less guilty or the less deserving of punishment: therefore, to satisfy retributive justice is impossible.
(2.) But, as we have seen in a former lecture, retributive justice must have inflicted on him eternal death. To suppose, therefore, that Christ suffered in amount, all that was due to the elect, is to suppose that he suffered an eternal punishment multiplied by the whole number of the elect.
3. The atonement of Christ was intended as a satisfaction of public justice.
The moral law did not originate in the divine will, but is founded in his self-existence and immutable nature. He cannot therefore repeal or alter it. To the letter of the moral law there may be exceptions. God cannot repeal the precept, and just for this reason, he cannot set aside the spirit of the sanctions. For to dispense with the sanctions were a virtual repeal of the precept. He cannot, therefore, set aside the execution of the penalty when the precept has been violated, without something being done that shall meet the demands of the true spirit of the law. "Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; to declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus." -- Rom. iii.24-26. This passage assigns the reason, or declares the design, of the atonement, to have been to justify God in the pardon of sin, or in dispensing with the execution of law. Isa. xliii.10-12: "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 prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors: and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors."
I present several further reasons why an atonement in the case of the inhabitants of this world was preferable to punishment, or to the execution of the divine law. Several reasons have already been assigned, to which I will add the following, some of which are plainly revealed in the Bible; others are plainly inferrible from what the Bible does reveal; and others still are plainly inferrible from the very nature of the case.
(1.) God's great and disinterested love to sinners themselves was a prime reason for the atonement.
John iii.16. "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."
(2.) His great love to the universe at large must have been another reason, inasmuch as it is impossible that the atonement should not exert an amazing influence over moral beings, in whatever world they might exist, and where the fact of atonement should be known.
(3.) Another reason for substituting the sufferings of Christ in the place of the eternal damnation of sinners, is, that an infinite amount of suffering might be prevented. The relation of Christ to the universe rendered his sufferings so infinitely valuable and influential, as an expression of God's abhorrence of sin on the one hand, and his great love to his subjects on the other, that an infinitely less amount of suffering in him than must have been inflicted on sinners, would be equally, and no doubt vastly more, influential in supporting the government of God, than the execution of the law upon them would have been. Be it borne in mind, that Christ was the lawgiver, and his suffering in behalf of sinners is to be regarded as the lawgiver and executive magistrate suffering in the behalf and stead of a rebellious province of his empire. As a governmental expedient it is easy to see the great value of such a substitute; that on the one hand it fully evinced the determination of the ruler not to yield the authority of his law, and on the other, to evince his great and disinterested love for his rebellious subjects.
(4.) By this substitution, an immense good might be gained, the eternal happiness of all that can be reclaimed from sin, together with all the augmented happiness of those who have never sinned, that must result from this glorious revelation of God.
(5.) Another reason for preferring the atonement to the punishment of sinners must have been, that sin had afforded an opportunity for the highest manifestation of virtue in God: the manifestation of forbearance, mercy, self-denial, and suffering for enemies that were within his own power, and for those from whom he could expect no equivalent in return.
It is impossible to conceive of a higher order of virtues than are exhibited in the atonement of Christ. It was vastly desirable that God should take advantage of such an opportunity to exhibit his true character, and show to the universe what was in his heart. The strength and stability of any government must depend upon the estimation in which the sovereign is held by his subjects. It was therefore indispensable, that God should improve the opportunity, which sin had afforded, to manifest and make known his true character, and thus secure the highest confidence of his subjects.
(6.) In the atonement God consulted his own happiness and his own glory. To deny himself for the salvation of sinners, was a part of his own infinite happiness, always intended by him, and therefore always enjoyed. This was not selfishness in him, as his own well-being is of infinitely greater value than that of all the universe besides; he ought so to regard and treat it, because of its supreme and intrinsic value.
(7.) The atonement would present to creatures the highest possible motives to virtue. Example is the highest moral influence that can be exerted. If God, or any other being, would make others benevolent, he must manifest benevolence himself. If the benevolence manifested in the atonement does not subdue the selfishness of sinners, their case is hopeless.
(8.) The circumstances of his government rendered an atonement necessary; as the execution of law was not, as a matter of fact, a sufficient preventive of sin. The annihilation of the wicked would not answer the purposes of government. A full revelation of mercy, blended with such an exhibition of justice, was called for by the circumstances of the universe.
(9.) To confirm holy beings. Nothing could be more highly calculated to establish and confirm the confidence, love, and obedience of holy beings, than this disinterested manifestation of love to sinners and rebels.
(10.) To confound his enemies. How could anything be more directly calculated to silence all cavils, and to shut every mouth, and forever close up all opposing lips, than such an exhibition of love and willingness to make sacrifices for sinners?
(11.) The fact, that the execution of the law of God on rebel angels had not arrested, and could not arrest, the progress of rebellion in the universe, proves that something more needed to be done, in support of the authority of law, than would be done in the execution of its penalty upon rebels. While the execution of law may have a strong tendency to prevent the beginning of rebellion among loyal subjects, and to restrain rebels themselves; yet penal inflictions do not, in fact, subdue the heart, under any government, whether human or divine.
As a matter of fact, the law was only exasperating rebels, without confirming holy beings. Paul affirmed, that the action of the law upon his own mind, while in impenitence, was to beget in him all manner of concupiscence. One grand reason for giving the law was, to develop the nature of sin, and to show that the carnal mind is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. The law was therefore given that the offence might abound, that thereby it might be demonstrated, that without an atonement there could be no salvation for rebels under the government of God.
(12.) The nature, degree, and execution of the penalty of the law, made the holiness and the justice of God so prominent, as to absorb too much of public attention to be safe. Those features of his character were so fully revealed, by the execution of his law upon the rebel angels, that to have pursued the same course with the inhabitants of this world, without the offer of mercy, might have had, and doubtless would have had, an injurious influence upon the universe, by creating more of fear than of love to God and his government. Hence, a fuller revelation of the love and compassion of God was necessary, to guard against the influence of slavish fear.
His taking human nature, and obeying unto death, under such circumstances, constituted a good reason for our being treated as righteous. It is a common practice in human governments, and one that is founded in the nature and laws of mind, to reward distinguished public service by conferring favors on the children of those who have rendered this service, and treating them as if they had rendered it themselves. This is both benevolent and wise. Its governmental importance, its wisdom and excellent influence, have been most abundantly attested in the experience of nations. As a governmental transaction, this same principle prevails, and for the same reason, under the government of God. All that are Christ's children and belong to him, are received for his sake, treated with favor, and the rewards of the righteous are bestowed upon them for his sake. And the public service which he has rendered to the universe, by laying down his life for the support of the divine government, has rendered it eminently wise, that all who are united to him by faith should be treated as righteous for his sake.