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THE atonement, which the Lord Jesus Christ by his death gave to the divine government, is a subject of stupendous interest to every sinner. It concerns him personally: it is a matter of life and death to him. No man can be innocently indifferent to the doctrine of the gospel concerning this atonement. By its dignity and authority, it deserves and demands the most serious consideration of every man who hears of it.

It is extremely difficult to make this subject plain to a careless inquirer, or to a captious disputant. Should this book be read by a convicted offender, whose eternal life depends on the answer to the question, "How shall a man be just with God?" I should regard the task of unfolding this doctrine as comparatively easy. On the contrary, should the offender think lightly of the evil of his offence, he will care proportionately little about the means of his acquittal. It is always found, that slight thoughts of the atonement of Christ, engender and foster slight thoughts of the evil of sin.

"WHAT IS AN ATONEMENT?" This is a question rarely if ever pondered, either by those who deny the atonement as an absurdity, or by those who wrest it for licentiousness. Yet a distinct and well-defined conception of the nature of an atonement is indispensably necessary to a successful inquiry into the design, the aspect, and the extent of the atonement. What, then, is an atonement?

An atonement is any provision that may be introduced into the administration of a government, instead of the infliction of the punishment due to an offender--any expedient that will justify a government in suspending the literal execution of the penalty threatened--any consideration that fills the place of punishment, and that answers the purposes of government, as effectually as the infliction of the penalty on the offender himself would; and which thus supplies to the government just, safe, and honorable grounds for offering and dispensing pardon to the offender.

This definition or description may be more concisely expressed thus: ATONEMENT is an expedient substituted in the place of the literal infliction of the threatened penalty, so as to supply to the government just and good grounds for dispensing favors to an offender.

Let this definition of atonement be fairly tried by the usage of the word in the administration of civil justice; and let it be compared with the sense of all the passages of holy scripture in which the word, or the doctrine of the atonement is introduced. It will not wrest one text of scripture; it will not torture one doctrine of Christian theology.

In the administration of a government, an atonement means, something that may justify the exercise of clemency and mercy, without relaxing the bands of just authority. The head of a commonwealth, or the supreme organ of government, is not a private person, but a public officer. As a private person he may be inclined to do many things which the honor of his public office forbid him to do. Of this we have an instance in the feelings of David towards his son Absalom in rebellion. Therefore, to reconcile the exercise of his personal disposition with that of his public function, some expedient must be found, which will preserve the honor of his government in the exhibition that he makes of his clemency and favor. For want of such an expedient, a public organ of government must often withhold his favors. This principle is practically adopted every day in the discipline of children in a family, as well as in the civil administration of public justice.

I will endeavor to illustrate this definition of an atonement by two remarkable instances, one, borrowed from the holy scriptures, and the other from profane history.

The first instance is that of Darius and Daniel, in Dan. vi. 14, 15, 16. King Darius had established a royal statute, and made a firm decree, and signed the writing, that whosoever should ask a petition of any god or man for thirty days, save of the king himself, should be cast into the den of lions. Daniel, one of the children of the captivity of Judah, was found to be the first offender. "Then the king, when he heard these words, was sore displeased with himself, and set his heart on Daniel to deliver him: and he labored till the going down of the sun to deliver him. Then these men assembled unto the king, and said unto the king, 'Know, O king, that the law of the Medes and the Persians is, That no decree or statute which the king establisheth may be changed.' Then the king commanded, and they brought Daniel, and cast him into the lions' den."

Here is an instance of an absolute sovereign setting his heart on the deliverance of an offender, and laboring to obtain it; and yet prevented from exercising his clemency, by a due sense of the honor of his government. Could not Darius at once have pardoned Daniel? Yes; Darius could, as a private person, forgive any private injury; but he could not, as a public officer, privately forgive a public offence committed against the authority of his office. Could not Darius have repealed the law which he himself had made? Yes; but not with honor to the laws of the Medes and Persians. Such a repeal would have shown egregious fickleness in him; and such a fickleness and uncertainty in the administration of his government, might encourage any disaffection or treason among the presidents, princes, and satraps of the provinces. Could not Darius have banished or silenced all the abettors of the law, and enemies of Daniel? Yes; but such a deed would have published his folly, imbecility, and injustice, in every province of his empire: his folly, in enacting a law which he found it unreasonable to execute; imbecility, in want of due authority in his own council, and of due firmness to enforce his own edict; and his injustice, in protecting and favoring an offender at the expense of the loyal supporters of the law and the throne.

What, then, is to be done? Cannot some means be found which will enable the king to keep the honor of his public character, and yet save Daniel? No: the king labored till the going down of the sun to deliver him. He pondered, and thought, and devised, about a way to deliver him honorably, but failed. Consequently, the very personage who had set his heart to deliver him, "commanded" with his own lips that Daniel be brought forth, and thrown into the den of lions.

Why was this done? Not because the king had no mercy in him, but simply and only, because no expedient could be found, which would at once preserve the honor of the government, and allow the exercise of clemency towards the offender. Daniel, then, was cast into the lions' den, merely because no atonement was found to vindicate and to "show forth" the public justice of the governor in his deliverance. Here, then, is an instance of mercy being withheld, merely from the want of an honorable ground or medium for expressing it: i. e., the want of an atonement.

The other instance to which I alluded, is from profane history. In this instance also there was a strong disposition to save the offender, and yet there was a difficult, almost insurmountable, in the way of his honorable acquittal. His deliverance, however, was devised by a wise expedient introduced by the governor himself. I allude to the case of the son of Zaleucus.

ZALEUCUS, the king of the Locrians, had established a law against adultery, the penalty of which was, that the offender should lose both eyes. The first person found guilty of this offence, was the king's own son. Zaleucus felt as a father towards his own son, but he felt likewise as a king towards his government. If he, from blind indulgence, forgive his son, with what reason can he expect the law to be respected by the rest of his subjects? and how will his public character appear in punishing any future offender? If he repeal the law, he will brand his character with dishonor--for selfishness, in sacrificing the public good of a whole community to his private feelings; for weakness, in publishing a law whose penalty he never could inflict; and for foolishness, in introducing a law, the bearings of which he had never contemplated. This would make his authority for the future a mere name.

The case was a difficult one. Though he was an offended governor yet he had the compassion of a tender father. At the suggestion of his unbribed mercy, he employed his mind and wisdom to devise a measure, an expedient, through the medium of which he would save his son, and yet magnify his law and make it honorable. The expedient was this:--the king himself would lose one eye, and the offender should lose another. By this means, the honor of his law was preserved unsullied, and the clemency of his heart was extended to the offender. Every subject in the government, when he heard of the king's conduct, would feel assured that the king esteemed his law very highly; and though the offender did not suffer the entire penalty, yet the clemency shown him was exercised in such a way, that no adulterer would ever think of escaping with impunity. Every reporter or historian of the fact would say that the king spared not his own eye, that he might spare his offending child with honor. He would assert that this sacrifice of the king's eye, completely demonstrated his abhorrence of adultery, and high regard for his law, as effectually, AS IF the penalty had been literally executed upon the sinner himself. The impression on the public mind would be, that this expedient of the father was an atonement for the offence of his son, and was a just and honorable ground for pardoning him.

Such an expedient, in the moral government of God, the apostles asserted the death of Christ to be. They preached that all men were "condemned already,"--that God had "thoughts of peace, and not of evil" towards men,--that these thoughts were to be exercised in such a manner, as not to "destroy the law," and that the medium or expedient for doing this, was the sacrifice of his ONLY SON, as an atonement or satisfaction to public justice for the sin of men.

The sufferings of the Son of God were substituted in the room of the execution of the penalty threatened to the offender. The atonement in the death of Christ is not the literal enduring of the identical penalty due to the sinner; but it is a provision, or an expedient, introduced instead of the literal infliction of the penalty; it is the substitution of another course of suffering, which will answer the same purposes, in the divine administrations, as the literal execution of the penalty on the offender himself would accomplish.

Had Darius found any person willing to be thrown into the lions' den instead of Daniel, and literally to bear the penalty threatened, this could never have been deemed an atonement to the laws of the Medes and the Persians. These laws had never contemplated that the offender should have the option of bearing the penalty, either in person, or by his substitute. It would have been a much more likely atonement of the laws, if one of the presidents of the provinces, one high in the esteem of the king, one concerned for the honor of the government, and one much interested in Daniel, had consented, either to lose his right hand on a public scaffold, or to fight with a lion in an amphitheater, for the sake of honorably saving Daniel. In that case, one class of sufferings would have been substituted instead of inflicting another class.

Atonement is not an expedient contrary to law, but above law: It is what law, as Law, cannot contemplate. It is introduced into an administration, not to execute the letter of the law, but to preserve "the spirit and the truth" of the constitution. The death of Christ is an atonement for sin committed; it is a public expression of God's regard for the law which has been transgressed; and it is an honorable ground for showing clemency to the transgressors. That the atonement is a doctrine of the word of God, is evident from the following facts,--that it suggests itself to every unprejudiced reader of the New Testament,--that, in the churches which used the Greek text only, it was never deemed a heresy,--and that one end of the modern opponents of it, in constructing an "Improved Version of the New Testament," was to exclude it. The simple and unbending language of the scriptures speaks of Christ as an atoning Mediator, "whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation, through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins past through the forbearance of God, to declare at this time his righteousness, that he might be just, AND the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus." Rom. iii. 25.

If this representation of the death of Christ be correct and scriptural, it must be evident that the atonement of the Son of God did not consist in suffering literally the identical penalty threatened, or the identical amount of penalty due to a certain number of offenders for a certain number of offenses. The atonement of Christ is represented by men sometimes, as if he would have had to suffer more, had there been more to be saved; or less, had there been fewer to be saved. Sometimes also another aspect is given to the atonement, as if God saved a number more or less, of offenders, in proportion to the value received for them, in the obedience and suffering from their substitute. This is what is called by divines, COMMERCIAL ATONEMENT.

Here, let us pause. Let us bethink ourselves, and seriously consider--" IS THIS the atonement of the scriptures ? "This invests with the meanest calculating mercenariness a moral transaction of the utmost grandeur in the universe. By supposing the literal infliction of the threatened punishment upon the substitute, it exalts the condemned supplicant into a presumptuous claimant, it excludes grace from the dispensation of pardon, and, in fact, annuls the idea of an atonement. By maintaining the certain salvation of so many persons, in consideration of so much suffering endured for them, and for them only, this hypothesis prescribes dimensions to the mercy that "loved the world;" it makes the salvation of some offenders utterly impossible; and it destroys the sincerity of that universal call which summons all men to "receive the atonement."

This commercial atonement accumulates the obligations of the elect, to the Son, at the expense of their obligations to the Father; for, on this showing, the Father has granted no boon without being compensated for it. And it completely darkens the justice of that "sorer punishment" which shall befall the rejecters and despisers of salvation. By its absurdity, it furnishes the most plausible apology for Socinianism, and every other system of opposition to the doctrine of an atonement: and by its boldness it unbridles all the licentiousness of Antinomianism. The character and aspect of such an action of atonement show that it is not the atonement of the scriptures.

It is a suspicious circumstance in any system of theology, when it is so promulgated as to excite objections and controversies, which were not raised by the ministry of the apostles. We can clearly ascertain the theological doctrines of the apostles, partly from their direct assertions, and partly from their replies to the objections proposed by their adversaries. If the apostles shunned not to declare the whole counsel of God, and if this whole counsel was delivered unto us, when the inspired code of theology was completed, we have no safe ground to expect the revelation of any new doctrine of Christianity.

When the announcing of our theological doctrines raises the same objections as those to which the apostles have already replied we may safely conclude that such a statement of the doctrine is apostolical. But if we, by any of our theological statements, excite objections which the apostles did not excite, we have good grounds, not only for being very jealous of such a doctrine, but also for a total and immediate renunciation of it.

The doctrines of the apostles did excite controversies about predestination to life, the sovereignty of divine grace, the accountableness of a sinner to the moral law, the reality of the atonement, etc.; but there is not the most remote allusion to any controversies having been raised concerning the EXTENT of the atonement, Some of the Jews, indeed, at one time, had doubts about the universal calling of the Gentiles; but those doubts arose from their views of the Mosaic covenant, and not from considerations relative to the intrinsic aspect and design of the atonement.

The apostles declare, in language the most distinct and unequivocal, that the death of Christ was a ransom for all, and a propitiation for the sins of the whole world, that he tasted death for every man, and that God, consequently, was in him reconciling the world unto himself. Yea, they openly declared that persons, who denied or renounced the Lord who had bought them, would, notwithstanding, meet with a damnation that slumbered not. Yet this universal aspect of the atonement is never supposed to have shocked the minds, or clashed with the doctrines, of the primitive churches. In all the apostolical writings, there is no hint given that the churches had any narrow views of the design of the death of Christ; and no reply is given to any objection which might imply a misapprehension of such an unshackled, unqualified, and unlimited, testimony concerning the extent of the atonement.

That the apostles represented Christ to have died "for the church," "for the people," etc., does not in the least weaken this position; for what is true of the whole of mankind, must be true of a part; and such a language expresses the actual result of the atonement, and not the nature, aspect, and adaptation, and design of it.

It is, then, evident that the advocates of a limited atonement, and the inspired apostles, do not publish their message in the same style. Do the advocates of a limited atonement ever cheerfully and fearlessly declare, that "Christ died for all?" and that his death is "a propitiation for the sins of the whole world?" Do they not hesitate to use such unmeasured phraseology? Do they not call sinners to repentance, rather on the ground that perhaps they are elected, than on the firm and broad basis of a "ransom for all?

The apostles, on the contrary, understood their commission to be general and indiscriminate for "every creature:" so they received it from Him, who laid the foundation of such an extensive ministration, by "tasting death for every man." Accordingly, they went forth on their commission to preach the gospel to "all the world." They did not square their message by any human systems of theology, nor measure their language to the lines of Procrustean creeds. They employed a dialect that would traverse the length and breadth of the world. They did not tremble for such an unreserved exhibition of the ark and the mercy seat. They could not bring themselves to stint the remedy which was prepared and intended to restore a dying world; nor would they cramp the bow, which God had lighted up in the storm that threatened all mankind.

To avoid some of the absurdities of a commercial atonement, its advocates allow, that it was sufficient for all, but not designed for all. This then is conceding the point, that the particularity of the atonement consists, not in its nature and aspect, but in its application. The phrase "sufficient for all," should be well weighed. If the atonement be "sufficient for all," sufficient for what is it? It was, no doubt, sufficient to show that the throne and government of God were quite guiltless in the intrusion of sin, and that sin is a wrong, and an evil of tremendous malignity. But is the atonement sufficient to justify the government in the salvation of every man provided such a salvation would take place? Is the atonement sufficient to demonstrate to all the offenders of the world the evil of their revolt, and the inexcusableness of persisting in it? Is the atonement sufficient to show, that if any sinner perished, he perished not through any deficiency in the provision made for his salvation? In a word, is the atonement sufficient to justify a free, a full, and a sincere offer of cordial acceptance to every applicant at the throne of mercy? If the atonement be not sufficient for these purposes, in what senses can it at all be sufficient for men, and for all men? And if it be actually sufficient for these purposes, let it be preached as such; let it be fearlessly exhibited in its true character, sufficient for every sinner.

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