SOME OBSTACLES POINTED OUT, WHICH STOOD IN THE WAY
OF GOD'S PARDONING SINNERS WITHOUT AN ATONEMENT
SOME OBSTACLES POINTED OUT, WHICH STOOD IN THE WAY OF GOD'S PARDONING SINNERS WITHOUT AN ATONEMENT
THAT some atonement was necessary, is so clearly revealed in Scripture, and so evident from the event of Christ's death, that among those who have professed to believe the Bible, it has never been extensively denied. The reasons why it was necessary, have furnished a subject of more dispute. Some have supposed it was necessary to conciliate the divine feelings, and render God propitious. They have imagined, that when man sinned, the anger of God was so enkindled against him, and his indignation so excited, as to exclude from his bosom all compassion towards him, and all disposition to do him good; and hence that the atonement was necessary to cool the divine anger, and to produce in the mind of God, a disposition more favorable to the sinner. In short, that it was necessary Christ should suffer, and die on the cross, that the Supreme Being might become compassionate towards sinners.
But this differs very widely from the view which the Holy Scriptures give us of this subject. They represent the Supreme Being as feeling tenderly compassionate towards sinners, antecedently to the atonement, and as being no more compassionate towards them since Christ died, than he was before. If there had been no atonement, his compassion would have been the same. If atonement had been impossible, or, in the view of infinite wisdom, ineligible, still the divine compassion would have been just as great, as it is now since Christ has died. In this case, though God would have been under a moral necessity of executing the penalty of his law upon sinners, yet he would have felt the same compassion and kindness towards them which he now feels; and if it could have been consistent to do them any good, he would have been as much inclined to do it as he now is.
We have abundant evidence in the death of Christ itself, that his death was not necessary to induce the Supreme Being to exercise benevolence, and the tenderest compassion towards sinners. For surely, if God had not been benevolent, if he had not been gracious, and full of compassion to sinners, he would never have concerted the scheme of atonement, at infinite expense, to do them good. If he had not already loved the world, it is inconceivable that he should have given his only begotten and well-beloved Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. Accordingly, the Scriptures evidently lead us to view the gift of Christ, to a lost world, as a fruit of that tender compassion, and as a wonderful expression of that love, which God felt towards sinners, before any atonement was made for them. "God commendeth his love towards us, in that, while we were yet sinners, in due time, Christ died for the ungodly." Rom. 5:8. "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 4:10. This same love and compassion, under the influence of which God gave his Son to be a sacrifice for sin, must forever have remained his immutable disposition, even if Christ had never died.
The scheme which supposes atonement necessary that a change might be produced in the personal feelings of the Divine Being or to render him compassionate towards sinners, presents a very unscriptural idea, both of the nature of sin, and of the character of God. It represents sin as being injurious to God in a private personal capacity only; and it represents God as being in the highest degree inexorable. For, if sin be injurious to God in a private personal capacity only, and he be not an inexorable, but a compassionate being, he might certainly pardon, at least as many sinners as repent, without any atonement whatever. But sin should not be considered in this light. It is an offence against God, in a public capacity, as the Supreme Governor of the universe. Hence, notwithstanding God is infinite in benevolence and compassion, he cannot grant pardon to sinners, unless it can be done under such circumstances, and in such a way, as reader it consistent with the highest interest of the great community over which his government extends. "If wisdom obligeth a temporal prince, in his narrow sphere, on several accounts, duly to guard and qualify his pardons; how much more is it reasonable and expedient, that the Father and Ruler of all things, whose government comprehends and inspects the vast systems of intelligent natures that are, and all that, to all eternity, may possibly be; how much more reasonable is it, that he should order the grand dispensation of granting pardons to a sinful world, in a proper and suitable manner."
If, with the difficulties in view which have stood in the way of dispensing pardon, even among temporal princes, we place ourselves back, in our imagination to the time when the parents of our race first sinned, and inquire why God might not continue them in a state of happiness, notwithstanding their transgression, it is believed difficulties in the way, of very serious importance, may be easily discovered. Though we certainly shall find no want of kindness and compassion in the divine feelings, yet other difficulties may readily be perceived, to remove which an atonement was indispensably necessary, as they were, otherwise, wholly insurmountable. God had given his rational creatures a law, as the rule of their conduct, and sanctioned this law with an awful penalty. Instead of continuing obedient to this law, and conforming to this rule, our first parents departed from it, and transgressed. If, in these circumstances, God had directly pardoned them, and continued them in a state of happiness, without any adequate atonement, would not his character have appeared questionable, in the view of other intelligent beings? By such a procedure, would he not have given rational creatures reason to conclude, or at least to suspect, that he had either given them a law which he did not esteem good, or that he was destitute of a disposition to vindicate and support one, which he did esteem good? In this way, then, how could he declare his righteousness? How could he appear just? Perhaps, indeed, on a careful inquiry, it may be found evident, that, if God had pardoned sinners without an atonement, he would have appeared very unjust in several things, which are infinitely important to the universe.
1. He would have appeared unjust to his holy law. It is unjust to treat any thing with less respect than it really deserves. A law cannot be treated with respect, unless it is executed. Every good law ought to be respected; and, therefore, ought to be executed; while a bad law is entitled to no respect; and, therefore, ought not to be executed. Hence, to decline executing any law is to treat that law as a bad one. It is treating it as every wise and good being would treat a bad law. If, then, any being should treat a good law in this manner, he would treat it with great disrespect. He would practically say it ought to be treated as a bad law; which must be exceedingly disrespectful, and of course highly unjust. Every one must see that to treat a good man, who deserves high respect, as a bad man who deserves no respect, would be highly unjust. The case is precisely the same with respect to a law. To treat a good law as a bad one ought to be treated, is, in the nature of things, as unjust as to treat a good man as a bad one ought to be treated.
Now the law of God is infinitely holy and just and good; and, being such, is infinitely deserving of respect; and, since God is an infinitely just and good being, it must be morally impossible, that he should treat his law in any other manner than it ought to be treated. He cannot treat it disrespectfully. But mankind have sinned, and transgressed this law; for which transgression it condemns them to eternal misery. If, in these circumstances, God had given up the penalty of the law, and offered pardon to guilty man, without an atonement, he would have treated the law precisely as a bad law ought to be treated; and, of course, with the highest injustice and disrespect. But if, when man sinned, God had executed the penalty on him, he would have treated the law with respect, as a good law ought to be treated; and, since the law is perfectly good, this would have been to treat it justly, or as it deserves to be treated. Thus any procedure which should diminish aught from this respect, would be injustice to the law. If, then, the penalty should be remitted, something else must be done, which would manifest for the law as much respect as the complete execution of its penalty; otherwise, the law must be treated unjustly. But if any thing of this kind could be done, then God might grant pardon to sinners without doing any injustice to the law; because, in bestowing pardon in this way, he would show as much respect for his law as he could show by executing its penalty. Any thing which should fully answer this purpose, must be, so far, a complete atonement. It is obvious, therefore, that, if sinners were to be pardoned, atonement was necessary, in order that proper respect might be shown to the divine law.
Besides, if God had pardoned sinners without any atonement, he would not only have treated his law with great disrespect, but he would have utterly failed in the support of its authority. There is no way in which a violated law can be supported, without either executing its penalty, or doing something else, which, as a substitute, will answer the same ends. To neglect the execution of the penalty, when the law is violated, is, in effect, to destroy the existence of the law to which it is annexed; for a law, destitute of authority, is, in reality, no law. But every good law certainly has a just claim upon the lawgiver, to cause its authority to be respected. Hence, if God, by neglecting to execute his law, should destroy its authority, it is manifest that he would treat it with the greatest injustice. If, when mankind sinned, God had proceeded to execute on them the penalty of his law, he would, in this way, have completely supported its authority; and, in this respect, have done it justice. But, without executing the penalty, he could not be just to his law, unless something could be done, which, as a substitute, would as fully support its authority. Any thing which would do this, would be, in this respect, a satisfactory atonement. On the ground of such an atonement, God might appear just to his law in pardoning transgressors; because pardoning them, in this way, would not injure its authority. But if God had pardoned sinners without such an atonement, he must, of necessity, have destroyed the life and authority of an infinitely good law; and this must have been infinite injustice. Atonement was necessary, therefore, that sinners might be pardoned, consistently with doing justice to the law.
2. If God had pardoned sinners without an atonement, he must have been unjust to his kingdom.
That a king may be just to his kingdom, he must adopt all proper means to promote its best interest. That this may be attained, one thing, which is essentially necessary, is, that peace and harmony may be secured as far as possible. But that peace and harmony may be secured among moral beings, they must be placed under the authority of good and wholesome laws, which are calculated to discountenance vice, and encourage virtue. There is no other way in which moral beings can be properly governed. If, then, a king desires to promote the interest and happiness of his kingdom, this desire will lead him to enact good laws for its government; laws which have a tendency to restrain and suppress the various kinds of wickedness which disturb the peace of society. But every good law must be enforced with some suitable penalty. Should a law be enacted without any penalty, however suitable and important its provisions, it must be destitute of all authority. It would be of the nature of advice, rather than of law. For it could have no more power or tendency than mere advice, to restrain from immorality. But if it be necessary that vice should be suppressed or restrained, that the best interest of a kingdom may be secured, it must be equally necessary that efficient laws should be made against it; and, that laws may be of this character, they must be enforced with proper penalties.
Every king, therefore, is under obligation to his kingdom, to enact laws, enforced with suitable penalties, against the practice of vice. If he do otherwise, he must conduct towards his kingdom with the greatest injustice. Because, in no other way can he possibly secure the great object of government.
But if the well being of a kingdom require that laws be enacted against vice, and enforced with penalties, it must equally require that these laws be faithfully executed. However good laws may be in themselves, if they are not carried into execution, they lose their force and energy, and utterly fail of securing the ends for which they were designed. A good king, therefore, having made laws for the benefit of his kingdom, will be very careful to have them executed. Should any king do otherwise he would not promote the best interest of his kingdom. Instead of restraining, he would encourage wickedness. His subjects, perceiving that he disregarded and slighted his own laws, would be encouraged to disregard and slight them likewise. Seeing the laws were not executed, they would not fear the penalty. They would be under no more restraint than if no laws existed. The kingdom would be filled with vice and confusion, and would soon come to an end. Whenever any government ceases to execute the penalty of a law, that law is virtually repealed, because it ceases to produce any effect, and becomes a nullity. Some governments seldom repeal laws in any other way. Whenever any law is judged to be improper, or no longer necessary, instead of being formally repealed, the execution of it is discontinued. The penalty is no longer inflicted. This is designed to answer, and does really answer, the purpose of a repeal. It is necessary, therefore, in order that any king may be just to his kingdom, that he should not only enact good laws, enforced with proper penalties, but that he should cause these laws to be faithfully executed.
All this is as necessary in the divine government, as in human governments, and indeed as much more necessary, as the former is more important than the latter. It is, in the nature of things, impossible, that God should govern moral beings, as moral beings, in any other way than by laws. It is not intended, that God has not power enough to govern them by impulse, as he governs the material world; for he unquestionably has. This, however, would not be to govern them as moral beings, but as material objects. God may as well govern material objects, as such, by the influence of motives, as he can govern moral beings, as such, without the authority of laws. When God gave existence to intelligent beings, he was under the necessity either of leaving them to themselves, without retaining any government over them, or of placing them under the authority of a moral law. For, since it is absurd to suppose a race of moral beings governed as such, without moral laws, it follows, that God must govern moral beings by laws, or else exercise no government over them. But it must be obvious, that it is utterly irreconcilable with wisdom and goodness, to create intelligent beings, and then leave them without government. It clearly results, therefore, that God was under a moral necessity of placing moral beings under moral laws. It must be evident, moreover, that a penalty was no less necessary to give efficacy to the law of God than it is to any other law. Hence it follows, that when God placed intelligent beings under a moral law, he was under a moral necessity of enforcing that law with a proper penalty. He is, also, under the same necessity of executing the law, by inflicting the penalty on every transgressor; unless something can be devised, which will, as a substitute, equally secure the life and energy of the law.
From what has already been said, it is evident that the law of God was necessary to secure the best interest of his kingdom, by discountenancing disobedience or wickedness. Justice to his kingdom required that such a law should be given to his moral subjects; because its best interests could not be secured in any other way. But no law can have any influence to deter moral beings from vice, unless enforced by a proper penalty; nor can it continue to have influence, unless the penalty is executed when the law is violated. Hence if when God gave a law to the subjects of his kingdom, prohibiting wickedness, he had suffered it to be transgressed with impunity, the law would have had no tendency to restrain them. Every law must be enforced, or its authority must cease. If, when mankind transgressed the divine law, they had been suffered to escape with impunity, it must entirely have destroyed the authority and force of the law. Moral beings would have perceived that it was not the determination of God to execute the penalty of his law. When they had learned this, all the restraints which the law had imposed on them would be immediately removed. But if, instead of this, moral beings perceive that God is determined to support his law by executing its penalty they will be under a powerful restraint, because they will be afraid to transgress, lest the penalty should be inflicted on them. In no other way is it possible that the law should impose any restraint, which might not have been equally imposed by mere advice.
If, when man transgressed, God had executed the penalty on him, this would have afforded evidence to all moral beings that he was determined to execute the penalty of his law on transgressors. This would have had a powerful tendency to restrain them from disobedience. They would have been afraid to transgress. Had God done this, therefore, he would have done something which would tend to deter others from transgression, and to secure peace and order in his kingdom. In this way he would have been just to his kingdom. But if when man became a sinner by transgressing the divine law, God had pardoned him without any atonement, this would have been evidence to intelligent beings that he was not determined to execute the penalty of his law. They would, of course, have ceased to be afraid of the penalty, and the law would no longer have imposed any restraint upon them. If, then, God had pardoned sinners without an atonement, he would not have done any thing to deter others from disobedience. Instead of preventing, he would have encouraged wickedness. For when moral beings perceived that God did not respect his own law, they would have been encouraged to treat it with disrespect. When they perceived that God did not honor it, by supporting its authority, they would have been encouraged to dishonor it, by disobeying its precepts. In this way, instead of deterring moral beings from disobedience, God would have encourage them in it. This, instead of promoting and securing, would have destroyed the best interests of his subjects. Hence if God had pardoned sinners without an atonement, he must have been infinitely unjust to his kingdom. If, however, any thing by way of atonement could be done which would tend to deter others from disobedience, as effectually as would the execution of the penalty of the law on transgressors, God might, out of respect to this, pardon transgressors and be just to his kingdom still. But any atonement which would not be as effectual in deterring others from disobedience, as the execution of the penalty of the law would be, must be insufficient; because this would not secure the good of the kingdom so effectually. The execution of the penalty of the law on those subjects who had transgressed, would have deterred other moral subjects, from transgression, and in this way have done justice to the kingdom; but justice could not be done by any thing short of this, unless it were something which, as a substitute, would as fully answer the same purpose; that is, be equally effectual in deterring others from disobedience. It was necessary, therefore, that there should be an atonement in order that God "might be just, and the justifier of" those who had transgressed his law.
3. If God had pardoned sinners without any atonement, he would have been unjust to himself.
Every good being, in order to do justice to his own character, must manifest his goodness. A wise being, in order to do justice to his character, must manifest his wisdom; or, at least, he must not manifest any thing which is opposite to wisdom. All must allow that if one being should knowingly give a wrong representation of the character of another, who is wise and good, he would be very unjust. But if a good and wise being should give a wrong representation of his own character (if this were possible) there would be, the same injustice done, which there would if the same representation were made by another. The injury done to the good character would be the same in the one case as in the other. Hence it must be evident that if God is good, if he is wise, and if he is consistent in his conduct, he must manifest his goodness and his wisdom, or be very unjust to his own character. But if God had pardoned sinners without any atonement, he could not have manifested either his goodness, wisdom, or consistency of conduct. This may clearly appear from the following considerations.
First. In this way, he could not have manifested any regard for holiness, or any hatred of sin.
By God's pardoning a sinner is meant his receiving him to favor, and treating him as if he had never sinned. If, therefore, he had pardoned sinners without any atonement, it must have been impossible, in the nature of things, for him to have given intelligent beings any reason to believe that he is more opposed to sin than to holiness. For, in this case, he would have treated sinners in the same manner that he treats holy beings. He would have put no difference between the holy and the profane. He would have manifested no more disapprobation of the disobedient than of the obedient; nor any more complacency in the obedient than in the disobedient. It is plain, therefore, that in this way he could not have manifested any regard for holiness nor hatred of sin. Hence he would have done infinite injustice to his own character. He never could have appeared an object of holy love and reverence. Holy beings never could have felt safe in his hands. They must have lost that confidence and delight in his character, which resulted from contemplating him as a being who loved righteousness and hated iniquity.
It is vain to object to this, that God might have manifested his hatred of sin by a public declaration of it, even though he had pardoned, sinners. There is no more sure method of determining what any being is, than by ascertaining what he does. The declarations of no being can command rational belief, while these declarations are manifestly contradicted by his actions. If an earthly sovereign should treat his obedient and disobedient subjects precisely in the same manner, they would both conclude, that disobedience is just as pleasing to him as obedience. If a parent should neglect to punish his disobedient child, and to reward the obedient, they would justly come to the same conclusion. No professions of the sovereign or of the parent to the contrary would command rational belief, because their actions would contradict them. The case would be precisely the same with respect to the Supreme Being, if he should profess a regard to holiness and a hatred of sin, and not act accordingly.
If, when mankind sinned, God had executed the penalty of his law upon them, this would have manifested his hatred of sin. By this, therefore, he would have appeared just to his own character. But in no other way could he be just to himself, unless it were by something, which, as a substitute for the execution of the penalty of the law, would make an equally bright display of his hatred of sin. If any thing of this kind could be done, which would manifest the divine hatred of sin as fully as would the just punishment of it, this would be a satisfactory atonement. Out of respect to such an atonement, God might pardon sinners, and still be just to his own character. His pardoning sinners on account of such an atonement, would not lead holy beings to distrust the integrity of his character. But if God should pardon sinners without such an atonement, his character must appear at least doubtful, if not decidedly bad. Holy beings, perceiving that he treated the holy and wicked alike, would be utterly unable to determine, from his conduct towards them, which acted most agreeably to his mind. In this situation, being unable to learn his character, they could not feel safe. His treating the unholy as holy beings ought to be treated would, at least, lead them to suspect, that he might treat his holy subjects as unholy ones deserve to be treated. And thus, in their perplexity, they might fear him, but they could never love or trust him. But if they perceived that he would never pardon sinners without an atonement, this would show them his regard for holiness and his hatred of sin, and would secure their confidence and inspire their love. Thus it appears that an atonement was necessary to the pardon of sinners, in order that God might manifest his hatred of sin, and thus be just to himself.
Secondly. If God had pardoned sinners without an atonement, he could not have manifested any wisdom in giving the law, but would have been chargeable with the greatest inconsistency of conduct.
It is evidently impossible for God to manifest any wisdom in giving a law which could answer no valuable purpose. But, certainly, if he had entirely neglected to execute the law which he has given, this law must have been utterly useless. Nor would he have appeared merely destitute of wisdom; but his conduct would have involved glaring inconsistency. This inconsistency might have been thus stated: God has given a law to his creatures, which he refuses, or, at least, entirely neglects to support. This law is either good, or not good. If it is not good, why did he give it? If it is good, why does he not execute it? In either case, he must be chargeable with imperfection. If God has given a law to his creatures which is not good, it must be because he either could not devise, or did not choose, a good one. In the one case, he must be deficient in wisdom; in the other, he must be destitute of goodness. But if the law be good, and God does not support it, this must be either because he is not able, or because he does not choose, to support it. Here, therefore, must be, either a deficiency of power, or, as before, a destitution of goodness. In either case, the divine character is ruined. But if God had pardoned sinners, without art atonement, all this must have followed. It must have been forever true, that God had given a law, and refused or neglected to support it; that he had denounced evil against transgressors, and never fulfilled his threatening. In this case, his character could never have been cleared of the most glaring inconsistency, and imperfection.
Nothing can be plainer than this, if God does not execute what he has threatened, he must appear inconsistent, if not destitute of virtue. If it was necessary, when God gave his law, that he should enforce it with an awful penalty, or accompany it with the threatening, "In the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die," it must, for the same reason, be necessary, that this threatening should be executed. If the execution of this threatening would be hard, unmerciful, or unnecessary, then the threatening itself must have been highly unreasonable. If it would be wrong in God to execute what he has threatened, it must follow, that he has threatened to do wrong. But if it would not be wrong in God to execute his threatening, then, certainly, it must be wrong not to execute it; for if he should not execute his threatening, it would be in reality an acknowledgment that his threatening was unreasonable and unnecessary, and that, on this account, it ought not to be executed. It would appear, on the part of God, like repentance; as if he now regretted that he had annexed any such threatening to his law, and resolved that he would be more reasonable than to carry it into execution. It is necessary, therefore, that God should execute what he has threatened, unless something be done by way of atonement, which, as a substitute, will fully answer the same purpose, in order that his own character may remain unsullied, and he appear glorious in holiness.
If, when mankind sinned, God had executed the penalty of the law upon them, his conduct would then have appeared consistent. He would have appeared just to himself. Hence, in order that he might pardon sinners, and still appear consistent, it was necessary that something should be done, by way of atonement, which would answer every purpose, which the execution of the penalty of the law would have answered.
When all these purposes were answered, by art atonement, as fully as they could have been by the execution of the law, then God might pardon sinners, and be consistent, and just to his own character. But any thing, which would have failed of answering all these purposes, could not have been a sufficient atonement. This must be evident from the consideration, that nothing short of the execution of the whole penalty could answer the ends of the law.
Some have supposed that though an atonement was necessary, in order that sinners might be pardoned, yet it was not necessary that the atonement should be sufficient to answer all the purposes which the execution of the penalty of the law would have answered. But this cannot be true, unless it is also true that if there had been no atonement, it would not have been necessary to execute the whole penalty of the law on transgressors. But the same reasoning which shows that it was necessary that any part of the penalty should be executed, also shows that it was equally necessary that the whole should be executed. For if it is not necessary that God should execute all that he has threatened, it must follow that he has-threatened too much, and, consequently, that his threatenings are unreasonable and improper. If God's threatenings are too severe, if they are unreasonable, then it was unreasonable for God to make them. And it is readily granted, that if divine threatenings are unreasonable, if the penalty of the law is too great, then it is not necessary that it should be fully executed. But if the penalty be not unreasonable, if it be not too great, then it is necessary, that the whole should be executed. Because if it should appear that God had given a law, and annexed a penalty which is hard and unreasonable, it must be impossible ever to clear the divine character of imperfection. But if God had neither executed the whole penalty of the law, nor done any thing by way of atonement which would fully answer the same purposes, his conduct must have implied an acknowledgment that the penalty of his law was unreasonably severe, and ought not to be fully executed. There was, therefore, the same necessity that God should execute the penalty of his law fully, in order to preserve his character, that there was that he should execute it in part. No objection can be urged against one, which will not lie against the other with equal force. If God has made threatenings which are unreasonable, in any respect, it as really proves him imperfect, as though they were unreasonable in every respect. But if God should not execute his threatenings in every respect, it would be an acknowledgment that they are, in some respect, unreasonable. It was necessary, therefore, that God, if he would do justice to his own character, should execute, literally, all his threatenings, unless something could be done by way of atonement which, as a substitute, would fully answer all the same purposes. Hence it is evident that an atonement was necessary, in order that sinners might be pardoned.
This exactly agrees with the view which the apostle has given of the subject in the third chapter of his Epistle to the Romans. Having freely remarked on the universal and total depravity of mankind, and shown the impossibility of their being justified by the law, he introduces the method of justification revealed in the gospel. "But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God, which is by faith in Jesus Christ, unto all, and upon all them that believe. 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. To declare, I say, at this time, his righteousness, that he might be just, and the justifier of him that believeth in Jesus." Here the apostle decides the point respecting the necessity and design of atonement; that it was to manifest the rectitude of the divine character; that God might be just in the justification of sinners.Return To Index Page