THE EXTENT OF THE ATONEMENT
RELATION TO GOD AND THE UNIVERSE.
REV. THOMAS W. JENKYN, D. D.
ON THE ATONEMENT IN ITS RELATION TO THE PERFECTIONS OF GOD.
THE WHOLE CHARACTER OF GOD CONCERNED IN THE ATONEMENT.
THE divine perfections are those properties, attributes, and dispositions of the divine nature which form the character of God, and are made manifest in his works, and in his conduct towards the universe. We ascertain the properties and qualities of a king's mind, by the institutions and laws established and promulgated in his government. Should any event transpire in the kingdom which might appear incompatible with this declared and well known character, every subject would be concerned to know how far the king himself was concerned in that event and by what measures he could vindicate and maintain his character notwithstanding such an event.
Let us suppose a case. In the history of the empire it is recorded that a vast many of the inhabitants of one of the provinces revolted, and that the king immediately condemned them to perpetual bonds and punishment. Some time afterwards, the inhabitants of another province renounced their allegiance to his throne; but, instead of being, like the others, summarily punished, a flag of truce is sent to their province, and a message of reconciliation addressed to the rebellious offenders. When such a measure would become known, it would involve the character of the king in great mystery, if not in contradiction. The revolters who had been summarily punished would say, "The king has changed his mind. There is no such wrong, after all, in the revolt; the king has thought better of it, and we have been harshly and cruelly treated." The subjects that continued in their loyalty would say, "This is mysterious. Here is the same law broken as in the former revolt in the other province, yet the same punishment does not follow. Perhaps the king sees now that such a law required too much, and that the infliction of its penalty is too severe. Peradventure, probably, the penalty shall never again be executed in any case." The indulged offenders would say, "This very message implies that the king himself sees, that we had some grounds for our rebellion, that it was unwise to make such a strict law for us, and that the punishment is greater than our insurrection deserves. And as this message of truce and mercy comes altogether unsought, we may now be sure, that the king has determined never to inflict such a severe and disproportionate punishment again."
In such circumstances the character of the king would appear, even to some of his friends, as clouded, if not eclipsed. It is true it would become the subjects to consider, that they might not know all the state of the case, and that they do not know all the arcana imperii of the administration. And their confidence in the king should not be weakened, when they hear that, he has appointed a day, in which he will fully and amply vindicate his character and government. More especially would we expect their confidence in the king to be strengthened, when it was proclaimed to them from the throne, that he was about to introduce speedily into his administration a measure that would effectually maintain, vindicate, and explain, his whole character as connected with the events that had puzzled them. Such a measure would show that the king was concerned for his character among his subjects, and that he wished the validity of such a measure to be tried, more by its bearings on the royal character, than by its influence on the respited offenders.
Such an expedient, we have seen, was introduced by Zaleucus into the government of the Locrians. And such a measure has, we think, been introduced by God into the administration of his moral government; and this measure is the atonement of his own Son.
The intrusion of sin into the universe, and the discrepancy in the divine administration towards fallen angels and fallen men, were calculated to obscure the character of God. His justice appeared fickle and capricious; his forbearance and clemency seemed unaccountable and unreasonable. Therefore the atonement was introduced, "to declare his RIGHTEOUSNESS for the remission of sins that are past, through the FORBEARANCE of God--that he might be just, and the justifier of him that believeth in Jesus."
Hence the atonement is a measure inseparably connected with the whole of the divine character, and involves the honor of every attribute in God. It is a safe ground for the public exercise, or display, of every divine perfection, and it is an honorable medium for expressing the glory of every attribute. As the relation of the atonement to the divine perfections has been, we think, much misunderstood and misrepresented, our examination of such an aspect of it should be careful, serious, candid, and scriptural.
WRONG VIEWS OF THE RELATION BETWEEN THE ATONEMENT AND THE DIVINE PERFECTIONS.
I. In the Holy Scriptures, the atonement is never represented as calling into exercise any divine perfection which it does not suppose to be in exercise before.
By exercise I do not mean expression. Probably grace to the unworthy, and mercy to the miserable, would never have been expressed but for the atonement. Nevertheless, the atonement supposes that grace and mercy were previously in exercise, suggesting and providing such a measure for the honorable deliverance of the unworthy and the miserable. In the case of Daniel, the mercy of Darius was in exercise, though it was not expressed. The satisfaction which Zaleucus provided in the case of his offending son, was not the means of calling his mercy into exercise, but the medium of publicly expressing it.
The Moral Governor of the universe was as much disposed and inclined to grace and mercy, without an atonement as with it, provided they could be expressed with honor to the government, and with safety to the public good. Grace and mercy are, as well as justice and truth, attributes essential to the nature and character of God. Hence the Scriptures represent the atonement as the means of expressing, and not as the cause of exciting, the exercise of any divine perfection. When the atonement is represented by men as exciting, or inducing, in God an inclination to be merciful, and as producing a disposition to save, it is, in other words, adding a new perfection to God, of which the absurdity and the blasphemy are equal. God gave his Son to be an atonement because he had loved the world: and redemption is through the blood of his Son, according to the riches of his grace.
II. The atonement is never represented in the Scriptures as changing or modifying the nature of any divine attribute.
In the theology of popular declamation, and in some of our hymns and spiritual songs, God is often exhibited as maintaining inexorably every jot of the utmost claims of strict justice, as unflinching in his anger and severity, as high-toned and unbending in his wrath and fury against the sinner, and then, by mercy's exhibition of the atonement, he is represented as calmed, assuaged, pacified, and ready to forgive. This is the kind of theology that is always embodied in the dialogues or colloquies which writers frequently introduce between justice, mercy, etc., etc., about the salvation of man.
It is true that the inspired writers often speak of the indignation, the wrath, the anger, and the fury of Jehovah against his foes; and of his being reconciled towards an offender, and of his being propitiated through the atonement. Such figurative and metaphorical language, as employed by these holy men of God when speaking of him, is bold, elegant, and suitable. Nevertheless a literal construction of it would not only offend against every good canon of Biblical interpretation, but would lead to every species of absurdity. These anthropopatheia of the Scriptures, these figurative expressions concerning wrath indignation, reconciliation, etc., refer to the aspect of the divine dispensations, and to their effects upon the offender, and never to the properties, affections, and dispositions, of the divine nature. When the aspect and effects of the divine dispensations alter, the change is not in the infinite and eternal mind, but in the state and relations of the offenders towards the divine government. The cloudy pillar had an aspect, towards the Egyptians, very different from that which it had towards the Israelites. A change in this aspect would have been produced, not by a change in the, pillar, but by a change in the relations of the two different people.
When a change is produced in the aspect of the divine administrations, that is, when God is said to be propitiated or reconciled through the atonement; it is not meant that the atonement made him propitious, or rendered him favorable and kind: but what is meant is, that the atonement was the ground on which he declared himself propitious and the medium through which he expressed himself gracious. The actual change is in the state of the sinner. The atonement places the sinner on a ground, where the divine administration may have a favorable aspect on him. It should, however, be never forgotten that until the sinner himself personally avail himself of the atonement, and plead it in his own behalf; that until his own individual moral relations be changed, God will not express himself propitiated towards him. God was, indeed, reconcilable and propitious to the three friends of Job, yet he would not express himself propitious, and declare himself reconciled, until the three friends had offered their sacrifices. Then, after a change in them, there was a change in the aspect of the divine dispensations towards them. God was still unchanged, and therefore they were not consumed. Their sacrifices produced no change in him, but they were expressive of a change in their moral relations towards him. Just so is the act of a sinner, pleading the atonement of Christ in his personal behalf, expressive of a change in his state and moral relations towards God.
III. The word of God never represents the atonement as restraining, or preventing, the free exercise and expressions of any divine perfection.
It cannot be concealed that, some human systems of theology represent the atonement as an effectual barrier raised against the operations of infinite and inexorable justice, Our books, and our pulpit discourses, have abounded such statements as the following:--that the Lord Jesus Christ endured or paid to infinite justice the utmost farthing of its demands against a certain number of offenders; that he endured the identical amount of the punishment due for their sins;--that it is a grievous wrong to exact the same punishment once of the surety, and again of the offenders: and that, consequently, justice can now lay nothing to their charge, can never proceed against them in judgment, and that they are now within the enclosures of the atonement, where justice cannot reach them. Thus, the atonement is frequently represented as the city of refuge, and infinite justice as the avenger of blood, thirsting for the death of the sinner.
It is not a way likely to promote reverential piety, to represent infinite justice as an infinitely dreadful and unlovely attribute; nor can it promote practical holiness to represent our salvation as secured, not only in direct opposition to divine justice, but, also in manifest superiority and triumph over it. This species of atonement would entirely subvert all moral government. The language of the scriptural atonement is, that the blood of Christ redeemed us to God, not from God.
The claims of infinite justice are as honorable, as unabated, and as unimpaired, with an atonement, as without it. Eternal righteousness has not resigned a single demand, nor relaxed a single bond, nor withdrawn a single threatening. Every iota and tittle of the law is as much in force and honor after the atonement as before it; with it, as without it. Atonement has no ground enclosed out of the domains of justice.
No sinner pleading the atonement before the throne of God shall be accepted, unless he also distinctly acknowledge and own that the claims of justice on him are right and true. Under this practical acknowledgment, every good man is to live as one that must give an account to infinite righteousness. And, eventually, all the despisers of salvation will feel that the operations of justice towards them are free and unshackled, notwithstanding the glorious atonement once offered for their sins.
We have now brought under notice three representations of the atonement in connection with the divine attributes, which we deem incorrect and unscriptural. The atonement that is exhibited as exciting, changing, or restraining the exercise of any perfection in God, is not the atonement of the Scriptures.
It ought to be remarked, that these three representations of the atonement originate in the conception that the atonement is of the nature of a commercial transaction, the payment of a debt, of the literal endurance of a threatened punishment. A commercial atonement is, therefore, the ______ ______, the first mistake, and the occasion of every error connected with unscriptural views of redemption. We prove this by the following considerations. This is the only principle that can maintain that God is, by the atonement, induced to be merciful, just as a creditor is indeed to release his debtor, only upon the full payment of his debts. This is the only principle that can aver that the atonement effects a modification or change in the divine feelings, or dispositions, towards the sinner, just as a judge would be disposed to remit a criminal's punishment, after his severity had spent itself, in the unmitigated lashes inflicted on the criminal's friend. This is the only principle that can assert that the atonement restrains and checks the operations of infinite justice, just as a creditor cannot again imprison a debtor for a debt once discharged--or, as a tyrant cannot claim a captive for whom he has received a ransom price. And I must add, this is the principle, that unnerves our ministerial addresses, that jaundices our view of Christian doctrines, that cramps and crushes missionary efforts, that drives its thousands to apostasy, and lulls its millions into a false and fatal security.
Since the atonement does not produce the effects and modifications above mentioned, it may be asked, what is the relation which the atonement does sustain towards the divine perfections? The reply is, that the atonement does not affect or modify the character of any of the perfections of God; but it is a medium capable of giving full expression to them all. It is a public expression, display, and vindication of all the divine attributes.
THE DIVINE PERFECTIONS HONORED BY THE ATONEMENT.
In the evangelical history of the sufferings of the Son of God, we often meet with the remark, that in them, or by them, "God glorified his name." The name of God is the entire character of all his perfections. It is the purpose of this section to show how this has been fully honored in the atonement.
In the first place,--The atonement shows that no divine Perfection was implicated in the intrusion of sin into the universe.
The revolters against the divine government are loth to ascribe their disaffection entirely to themselves; and many have roundly asserted that the origin of evil is in God himself. Reflections have been cast upon infinite wisdom for contriving a moral system capable of evil, upon infinite power for permitting the entrance of sin, upon infinite rectitude for suffering the continuance of sin, and upon infinite benevolence for preserving a system in which evil is so prevalent. But the atonement shows that God was in no wise accessory to the intrusion of sin, neither by secret decree, by arbitrary withdrawment of influences, nor by any deficiency in government.
The atonement demonstrates that God has done everything, to oppose sin, which could be done in a moral government. The language of God in the atonement is, "What could I have done more unto my vineyard, that I have not done in it?" By the publication of the moral law, by the sanction of rewards and punishments, by the execution of judgments, by solemn oracles through prophets, and by sacrificial institutions, God has borne a constant and unvarying testimony against sin. The whole of this testimony is most amply corroborated by the atonement, for it magnifies the law, enforces the legal sanctions, justifies all judicial inflictions, confirms divine revelations, and verifies all sacrificial types and shadows.
The atonement itself is the greatest and the clearest proof of God's abhorrence of sin, and of his determination to oppose and to punish it. In the atonement God has "condemned sin;" and by condemning sin, he has vindicated every attribute from the suspicion of being implicated in it. God could never have been accessory to an evil, which he has been at such cost and expense to oppose and remove.
It vindicates infinite wisdom by showing that it introduced into the system nothing calculated to produce evil, but everything to prevent it. It vindicates infinite power by showing that omnipotence never was, and never could be made, the rule or the measure of the divine conduct in a moral government. It vindicates infinite rectitude by showing that it had provided abundant means and inducements to prevent sin, that it sincerely prohibited every sin, that it is determined to punish every sin, and that it has expressed its detestation and condemnation of it in the highest Personage in the universe. It vindicates infinite benevolence by showing that sin is the exception, and not the rule, in the universe; that a compensative measure had been introduced into the divine government which would bring an accession of good to the universe, and that all the divine perfections are more fully and more gloriously developed, in the appointed remedy, than they would have been in the prevention of the moral disorder.
In the second place,--The atonement shows that no divine perfection was unconcerned about the honors of moral government:
The instantaneous punishment of fallen angels had given a demonstration that the honors of moral government stood high in the divine estimation; but the forbearance towards man was calculated to excite a suspicion whether they were so now, or not.
A suspension of the penalty or punishment due to sinful man, was calculated to awaken in holy angels, and in wicked spirits, a thought that probably, even JUSTICE itself, which had been erst so prompt. and vigorous in punishment, had now become somewhat lax, hesitating, and indifferent, towards the interests of moral government. There is also, I think, a general impression on the minds of unrenewed men, that LOVE, GRACE, and MERCY, are some perfections in God which are always kindly disposed towards an unfortunate criminal, always side with him, always plead for him, are always concerned for his liberation and safety;--honorably, indeed, if means can be found to make it so, but honorably or not, these perfections are always supposed to feel very tenderly towards the criminal. Now, it is evident, that if moral government is to be carried on, both these impressions must be removed. These impressions would not be removed by the actual liberation of fallen angels, nor by the eventual punishment of all the human race. Hence, then, arises the necessity of some wise expedient, and the expedient is the atonement of the Son of God. And the atonement removes these impressions, by its vindications of the divine character.
The atonement defends MERCY from the charge of indifference to moral government, by showing that mercy would not express itself, nor deal out a favor, nor deign a smile, to the offender, until it had given a public expression of its abhorrence of his sin, and had seen every claim of the government honored. It defends JUSTICE from the charge of indifference to the government, by showing that the ends of justice are as effectually answered by the atonement, as by the literal infliction of the threatened penalty, and that it has not abated any one of its claims upon the sinner. The atonement is introduced, and shown forth, for the very intent and purpose of declaring infinite justice, that God might be JUST, and the justifier of him that believeth. God was just without an atonement, and would have been gloriously just in the punishment of our entire race; but in that case he would not have been a JUSTIFIER of believers. The atonement is shown forth, therefore, that he. might be a JUSTIFIER as well as the JUST that is, that he might be just in justifying. We see then, that in the atonement, mercy and justice unite to magnify the law, and to make divine moral government honorable.
In the third place,--The atonement shows that no divine perfection has been injured, or wronged, by the substitution of a Mediator between the government and the offenders.
The attributes which are supposed to have been apparently slurred, by the introduction of a compensative scheme into the divine administration, are truth, justice, and grace.
We have stated that the sufferings of Christ made an atonement, not by being a literal infliction of the identical penalty threatened, but by being substituted and accepted in the room of the penalty due to the offender. These pages assert that Jesus Christ in his death did not endure the identical punishment which the law had threatened against the sinner, but sufferings substituted instead of it.
This statement is met by an argument employed in behalf of the honor of eternal TRUTH. It is said, "Death was threatened in the penalty, and eternal and immutable veracity, therefore, requires that the substitute should suffer the identical death threatened to the transgressor, just as Pythias would have suffered for Damon."
This is the strongest argument in favor of the position that Christ suffered the literal penalty of the law. In this argument, however, it is overlooked or forgotten, that eternal and immutable veracity requires that THE sinner ONLY should die, and not a substitute. The threatening is, "the soul that sinneth, IT shall die." Therefore, should a substitute even suffer the identical death, truth is still very far from being literally fulfilled, and, consequently, immutable truth remains unhonored. If eternal veracity can dispense with the identical sufferer may it not also, under the direction of perfect wisdom, dispense with the identical sufferings? I think it may; and in proof that it has done so, and in vindication of the honor of divine verity, I submit the following considerations;
The truth of any proposition or declaration consists more in the spirit than in the letter of it. Truth in a promise, and truth in a threatening, are different, especially in measures of government. Truth in a promise obliges the promiser to perform his word, or else to be regarded as unfaithful and false. But truth in a threatening does not, in the administration of discipline or government, actually oblige to literal execution; it only makes the punishment to be due and admissible, if the legislator think fit to inflict it. The threatening of a penalty, does not deprive the lawgiver of his sovereign and supra-legal power to dispense with it, if he can secure the ends of it by any other measure. And if the spirit of the threatening be preserved, the truth of it is not violated by its not being executed to the letter. If a criminal be sentenced to lose his life, the spirit of the sentence is, that his life shall be no longer continued among good subjects, to wrong and injure them. Should this sentence be commuted to transportation for life, the letter of the sentence is not fulfilled, but every one will see that the spirit of the law is preserved.
This supra-legal prerogative of suspending punishment God has exercised in many instances, as in the sparing of Nineveh, and, I believe, in the sparing of our first parents. The identical penalty of the Eden constitution was not literally executed either on man, or on Christ, It was not executed on man, for then there would have been no human race. The first pair would have been destroyed, and mankind never would have come into being. It was not executed on Christ. He did no sin; he violated no constitution, and yet he died. Surely no law or constitution under which he was, could legally visit him with a penalty. If it be said that he suffered it for others; this is giving up the point; for immutable verity as much requires that the penalty should be inflicted on the literal sinner only, as that it should be inflicted at all.
Nevertheless eternal and immutable truth gathers its fairest and fullest honors from the atonement of Christ. The atonement answers all the ends of government, as effectually as they would have been answered, by the punishment of the offenders. Though the letter of the penalty be not executed, yet the spirit of it is preserved; and not only preserved, but it is more transcendently demonstrated, and honored, by the atonement than by literal inflictions upon all the millions of the human race.
INFINITE JUSTICE has also been deemed dishonored, in the substitution of a Mediator, by the supposition that it punished the innocent instead of the guilty.
It seems to me that it is thoughtless and wrong to say that God has in anywise punished the substitute. It were better to say that God allowed sufferings to be inflicted on him. Indeed I deem it incorrect to say that justice has punished an innocent being at any time, though thousands of innocent persons have been involved in the punishment of the wicked. The character of justice is as much obscured by the sufferings of the innocent with the wicked, as by the sufferings of the innocent for the wicked. The history of the divine government presents an immovable array of facts, mustered from the general deluge, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, earthquakes, war, famine, and pestilence, in which the innocent have suffered with the guilty. Yet, in every case, we cannot gainsay that "the judge of the whole earth has done right." Before, therefore, any persons renounce the doctrine of the atonement, or that Christ died for transgressors, let them account for his suffering with transgressors. Or, indeed, let them find a reason for his suffering at all.
Without entangling the death of Christ with the difficulties of having been either with sinners, or for sinners, let any inquirer single out his death, as a simple fact in the divine administration, and account for it on the principles of justice. He was innocent, harmless, undefiled, did no sin, and kept the law in all points: and yet he suffered pain, reproach, and death. Where is the justice of this? Will it be said that he died to prove the truth of his doctrine? Then we would ask, Does the justice of God deprive a holy and innocent being of life, to prove and confirm the veracity of God? Such awful sufferings are rather calculated to disprove the truth of his doctrine, by exhibiting him as a disowned imposter, "smitten of God and afflicted." If infinite justice can admit of the death of an innocent being, to prove the veracity of God in any doctrine, there is nothing to prevent it from admitting the same measure to express his hatred of sin and his willingness to save. It is sometimes said that Christ died for an example to men. This does not vindicate, much less explain, the justice of his death. Christ did not justly deserve to be made such an example of; to see the innocent suffer like the most flagitious sinner, gives no encouragement to one to be innocent; and the death of an innocent person can never teach the guilty not to fear the evil of death. The difficulties about the justice of the death of Christ are not removed by saying that, he died, for our benefit and advantage: for, let it be asked, was this a proceeding of justice towards Christ? Does justice by such a measure treat Christ, an innocent person, according to his due? Does not this inclose the whole doctrine of imputed worth and righteousness, since in it some are benefited for the sake of another? Examine the death of Christ as you will; try it by any test; it is utterly inexplicable, except on the principle of its being a substituted expedient in moral government.
Let it be considered that the Lord Jesus Christ is always, in the Scriptures, signally marked out for sufferings. All the prophecies of the Jewish church pointed to these sufferings, all the doctrines and administrations of the gospel refer to them; and, I might say, all the counsels of eternity looked forward to them, and all the everlasting songs of the redeemed will look backward to them. What, then, can be the meaning of sufferings, which centre in themselves all interests from everlasting to everlasting? What principle can explain them? The divine oracles, simple and dignified, respond, "Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation, through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness in the forgiveness of sin."
So say the oracles that speak from heaven, but not so say some men professing themselves to be wise. These men charge these very propitiatory sufferings with injustice and wrong. Strange! that God should ever think of declaring his RIGHTEOUSNESS, by a measure that was in itself unrighteous and wrong! Surely the judgment of men, in this case, is not according to truth. The Scriptures explicitly assert, that the atonement was a medium for God to declare his righteousness. But for God, by an unjust expedient, to declare his righteousness with such a slur upon it, would be to expose it to contempt and desecration.
The supposition that justice is obscured by the atonement, proceeds from misapprehensions of the nature of the atonement, and from wrong conceptions of the nature of divine justice. It is rarely considered and defined, what is the JUSTICE to which the atonement relates. By divine, justice is generally meant that perfection in God which gives to every being his due, and deals with every being according to his character. This is called distributive justice. Now upon the showing of either the friends or the foes of atonement, I ask, was this justice at all declared in the sufferings of Christ? Our opponents themselves being judges, were the sufferings of Christ due to him? Did the justice of God treat Christ according to the deservings of his character?
Take it for granted, if you please, that the sufferings of Christ were only a testimony to the truth of his doctrine, or an example of obedience to the divine will, and that thus, his sufferings were for the benefit of sinners: and then try to answer the following questions. Were such an example and testimony, in justice, due to sinners? Did sinful men, in justice, deserve such benefits? Did infinite justice in conferring such favors on them, treat them according to their character?
It is impossible to explain either the nature, or the consequences, of the death of Christ on the principles of distributive justice; because that upon this principle neither Christ nor the sinner is treated according to what is due to his respective character. The justice that was declared and honored in the atonement, is PUBLIC JUSTICE. As public justice is rather a principle in the administration of a government, than an attribute of the divine essence, I shall reserve the full consideration of it to the chapter on the atonement in its relation to moral government. I will just observe, that when we say that Christ has satisfied justice, or that justice was satisfied in the atonement, our meaning is, that the wise and just ends of government were completely secured by the atonement, and that through it the lawgiver's prerogative to pardon was exercised with safety to the public good, or that "grace reigned through righteousness."
SOVEREIGN GRACE is another perfection which is supposed to be obscured and clouded by the atonement. It is said, if the good that comes to the sinner, comes through an atonement, then it is not free and gratuitous.
This argument has been fairly met, and answered a thousand times, yet quick or dead, it is constantly used, as if its friends thought that a bad argument was as indestructible and immortal as a good one. It ought to be enough to remark now, that this argument is in direct opposition to the express declaration of Scripture.
The writers of the New Testament uniformly and explicitly represent the mediatorial undertaking of Jesus Christ as the highest proof, and the most powerful expression, of sovereign grace and infinite love. Their language is; "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son." "Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins." "God commendeth his love towards us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us." "We have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace."
Is it not strange that God should show forth to public admiration, and "commend," in the atonement, a perfection which men declare to be utterly destroyed by it? It is impossible for us to avoid the conclusion, that the abettors of this arguement, and the writers of the New Testament, differ "wide as the poles," in their views of the grace of God, and of the sufferings of Christ. The apostles represent the atonement of propitiation as "commending" the grace of God, and as "declaring" the righteousness of God. The abettors of this argument "declare" the atonement to be utterly subversive of all grace and righteousness. The question which of the parties is right, must be settled by the evidences of the inspiration of the New Testament. Our opponents will allow us to recommend them to consider, whether their views are likely to be accurate and sound, when they profess to see in the atonement tendencies which are the very reverse of what Christ and his apostles saw.
The argument which we have been combating is not at all available, except on the principle of the atonement being a commercial transaction, a quid pro quo.
If sin be represented as properly, and literally, a debt, and not a moral offence; and if the atonement be set forth as a literal payment of that debt, and not a moral transaction supplying to the government honorable grounds for pardoning a criminal; then, I think that grace does not appear in the discharge of the debtor. The creditor received what was due to him, and release is now justly due to the debtor. The release, therefore, of such a debtor is no favor.
Sin is called a debt only in figurative language. No one will say that our sins are owing or due to God. The real nature of sin is an abstraction, or withdrawment, of what is due,--a transgression of the law, a moral and a public offence against God as the Governor of the universe. The atonement is represented in the Scriptures, not as a bribe for exciting divine love, but as a medium for exercising it; not as a motive to induce God to be gracious, but as the means of expressing himself gracious; not as a commercial payment making release due, but as an honorable ground for making pardon admissible and safe.
Take the following illustrations of the possibility of favor being perfectly gratuitous and free, though conferred on valuable considerations and honorable grounds. When the Athenian senate granted pardon to Aeschylus for the sake of his brother Amyntas, the pardon was unbribed, and entirely of favor and grace. When Philemon received Onesimus for the sake of Paul, his reception back again to favor was all of grace. When David showed favor to Mephibosheth for the sake of Jonathan, the favor was entirely of grace. And when God forgives sinners "for Christ's sake," it is to the praise of the glory of his GRACE. The loss of Amyntas's arm at Salamis, the labors of Paul, and the kindness of Jonathan, were not causes to produce benevolence, but grounds for the safe and honorable expression of it. David wanted nothing as a motive to induce him to spare Absalom, but he did want something as an expedient, through which he could spare him, with honor to his throne and government. Even if a medium had been found, as in the instances of AEsehylus, Onesimus, and Mephibosheth, still the expression of David's love would not have been due to Absalom; for the medium found for expressing it, would not at all destroy the grace and freeness of it.
This argument from the freeness of divine grace is never used by its friends, except when they oppose the atonement. It is not that they care for the honors of free and sovereign grace. They do not consider, that their use of the arguement is as much opposed to the doctrine of repentance as it is to the hypothesis of a commercial atonement. None of them preach pardon without repentance; and even those of them who preach universal restoration make that restoration honorable only after an intervening punishment. If divine grace, to be free and unconditional, must be supposed to act without safe grounds, without a just reason, without an honorable medium, then, why not do away with punishment altogether? Why not renounce the doctrine of repentance as well as that of the atonement ? The hardened sinner no more approves of free pardon through repentance, than the self-righteous relishes a free pardon through an atonement. The apostles openly preached both the atonement, and repentance, as if never suspecting that they infringed on the honors of sovereign grace. I apprehend, then, that what I have here dignified with the name of an "argument" of our opponents, deserves no better name than that of a sophism.
To plead that a boon cannot be free, and gratuitous, if granted upon honorable grounds only, goes to destroy and subvert moral government entirely. For a governor to treat the injured and the injurious subject alike, is to destroy the difference between right and wrong, virtue and vice. Rectoral love is as much exercised and honored in punishing the injurious, as in protecting the injured. In God the attribute of love does not consist in private affection towards man, but in good-will towards the universe. This love is as much concerned for the public good as for individual happiness. In the atonement, God appears to be LOVE, love to sinners, and love to law and justice.
The love of God is not love expressed by a weak and unreasonable fondness, nor love exercised by arbitrary power; it is rectoral love, expressed, indeed, freely and gratuitously, but expressed honorably and safely, "even as a father pitieth his children." Even in the days of Job, it was clearly understood, that an atonement did not destroy the freeness of divine love, or the sovereignty of divine grace: for God was freely disposed to pardon Job's friends before they offered their sacrifice, and their pardon, when expressed, was freely granted and conveyed through their sacrifice. The deliverance of a sick man from the borders of the grave is ascribed to free grace expressed on honorable grounds. "He will be gracious unto him, and will say, Deliver him from going down to the pit, for I have found a ransom." Hence then our conclusion is warrantable, that in the atonement infinite love is freely exercised, and transcendently honored.
In the fourth place.--The atonement shows that there is no perfection in God opposed to the well-being of the sinner.
This well-being is not due to the sinner; and of himself, he will never reclaim it, for every sin is moral suicide. But neither the loss, nor the irretrievableness of it, is to be ascribed to God.
The Scriptures sometimes describe God as angry daily with the wicked, and as whetting his sword against him. This figurative mode of expression is used, to teach us the certainty of the fact, that to retrieve our well-being in sin is as hopeless, as if all that is in God's nature were opposed to us. Taking their position on such inspired testimony, some theological writers have proceeded so incautiously, as to give an idea of a kind of clashing among the perfections of God, on the subject of the well-being of a sinner. They therefore speak of love, and grace, and mercy, as if favorable to the sinner; but holiness, justice, and truth, as seemly opposed to him.
The provision of atonement, as an honorable medium of salvation to the chief of sinners, is a demonstration that God was on the side of "good," that his thoughts were thoughts of peace, and not of evil; and that in these thoughts there was no clashing of perfections, no jarring of inclinations and dispositions. Mercy was never opposed to the exercise of justice and truth. Justice and truth have never opposed the exercise of mercy. Whatever divine perfections can be exercised in a moral government,--only find a suitable and honorable medium, and they can all be exercised freely and gloriously.
The design of the atonement is to bring sinners to love and esteem everything that is in God, and to honor every divine attribute, that he may honor justice, even as be honors mercy. The theology that represents mercy as the darling attribute, of God, and his justice as the sinner's foe, cannot be conducive to the formation of a full-orbed piety. Infinite holiness is opposed to man's sin, without being opposed to his well-being; and infinite justice treats him as a criminal, not that it might hinder his individual happiness so much, as that it might protect the well-being of the universe.
Theological discourses have frequently represented Mercy, as if it were the Darling Attribute of God: but God in the atonement shows that every perfection is "darling" to him. He has devised a way to exercise them all in the name, and for the sake, of the dearest object to him in the universe, his only begotten Son. The sinner who looks to the atonement, sees and feels that there is no perfection in God opposed to his welfare. The author of sin is alone the author of misery. Even in hell, no sinner will ever feel that his misery has originated in some divine attribute having been opposed to his happiness. He will never condemn God, though he may wickedly blaspheme him. He will never suspect that he perished because that infinite love had not been sufficiently expansive,--that infinite wisdom had not contrived a plan sufficient in extent to meet his case,--that the honors of infinite justice had not been sufficiently provided for to admit of his pardon, that infinite mercy had not been sufficiently free,--or because that the, law had not been sufficiently magnified. No; he will feel that he is his own destroyer, that every attribute in God had provided for his welfare, that not a single perfection had given one smile of encouragement to his sin and rebellion, and that no divine attribute had thrown, or left in the way, any obstacle to his reconciliation. "This is the condemnation,"--not an angry attribute, or a frowning perfection, but "that light is come into the world, and men love darkness rather than light." The whole gospel of God says, "Fury is not in me." It is not a few attributes, but the whole Godhead, it is God, "all in all," that is in Christ reconciling the world unto himself, without imputing to them their transgressions.
In the fifth place,--The atonement provides, that in the final results of its operations in moral government all the divine perfections will be fully honored and glorified.
The atonement does not secure that all its designs shall be infallibly accomplished. Such an arrangement would have been inconsistent with the nature of moral government, which is a government of free agents, and exercised, not by force, but by the exhibition of inducements, and reasons.
The measure of atonement, like every other measure in a moral administration, designed and adapted for the use of free agents in a state of probation, must be supposed to be susceptible of failure. The measure in Eden failed to keep our first parents in innocency. The measure in Sinai failed to preserve the Israelites from idolatry. And the atonement may fail to prevent some from neglecting so great a salvation, and from denying the Lord that bought them.
Nevertheless, the issue, and the upshot of the whole will exhibit every divine perfection in untarnished lustre and glory. The atonement is, like its own ministry, "unto God a sweet savor of Christ, in them that are saved and in them that perish." In the perdition of the rejecters of salvation, eternal veracity will be glorified, by the literal infliction of the threatened penalty upon the offenders themselves, who had despised and refused the benefits of the substituted atonement of the Son of God. Infinite rectitude also will be glorified in their condemnation, as distributive justice, by rewarding every offender according to his character; and as public justice, by making their punishment a memento and example to the universe. In this punishment, even the goodness, grace, mercy, and love of God, will be honorably and gloriously vindicated, by the impression produced by the atonement upon all intelligences, and principalities, and powers, in heavenly places, that such a punishment was abundantly deserved and merited; and also by the self-condemnations of the despisers themselves, as men who had voluntarily rejected the counsel of God, against themselves.
In the salvation of believers also every perfection will be honored gloriously. At the close of the administration of the atonement, the Mediator will appear "to be glorified in his saints, and to be admired in them that believe." He could not present himself thus publicly to the homage of the universe, for he would be neither glorified nor admired in the effects of the atonement on the redeemed, if any attribute of God were tarnished or dishonored in their salvation. By the salvation of believers infinite benevolence will be glorified in the accession of happiness to the universe; wisdom, in the success of the stupendous expedient; mercy, in the bliss and number of the saved; truth, in the fulfillment of all engagements and promises; holiness, in the triumphs over all sin; justice, in the secured ends of law and government; and love, in the established harmony of all intelligences in the universe.
THE EXTENT OF THE ATONEMENT ILLUSTRATED BY ITS RELATION TO THE DIVINE ATTRIBUTES.
It has been shown that in the atonement as a compensative measure, substituted instead of the punishment of offenders, and supplying honorable grounds for offering pardon, the honors of all the attributes of God are carefully consulted, perfectly vindicated, and gloriously displayed. On the contrary, in an atonement which is commercial in its character, and limited in its design, the divine perfections seem to clash in their interests, and to be displayed without harmony.
If the atonement be a transaction of commutative or commercial justice, that is, if the atonement consist in the substitute suffering the identical penalty due to a limited number of offenders, and in suffering it for that number only, to the exclusion of all the lost, then, such an atonement mars the character of every attribute of God.
I. A commercial and limited atonement dishonors the infinite veracity of God. By such an arrangement veracity appears violated, unfulfilled, and compromised, because it is not expressed in the literal execution of the threatening. It threatened only "the soul that sinneth;" and yet it was a substitute who never sinned, that died; and even a literal execution upon a substitute would not have been a measure of strict and immutable verity. Divine verity is also dishonored in the apparent, if not indeed the manifest, insincerity of divine invitations, and of the offers of the gospel to sinners. If the atonement was not designedly offered up for all, its benefits cannot with sincere purpose be offered to all. If the gospel offers be true, they are true, not for ought the sinner or the preacher may know, but they are true according to the simple and real verity of the case between God and the sinner. If the general offers of the gospel be false, if they are not simple, sincere, and unsophisticated verities, "then is our preaching vain, and our faith is also vain," for truth is fallen in the street, its crown is in the dust, and its pure robes are sullied.
II. An atonement of a commercial and limited character exhibits infinite mercy as inadequate, restrained, and exclusive. It brings forward a provision that is not sufficient to meet all the exigency of the case. If Christ sustained only the sufferings due to a limited number, in proportion to the aggravation of their respective guilt, then upon what principle can the suffering of a penalty due to a part of mankind, be sufficient for the whole? Sufficient for what is it? Is it sufficient to save them, though the punishment due to them was never endured by Christ? If it be not sufficient for this, the conclusion cannot be avoided, that it is sufficient for nothing, as far as they are concerned. In such an atonement the character of mercy does not appear with the bland, open, generous, free, and unbounded aspect, which it wears in the scriptural propitiation for the sins of the whole world.
III. Infinite justice has its glory obscured by a commercial and limited atonement. Justice is honored by it, neither in the salvation of the believer, nor in the punishment of the unbeliever. In the salvation of a sinner, neither Christ nor the sinner is treated by Justice, according to what was due to personal character respectively. The perdition of the unbeliever throws a cloud around the honors of justice. Justice has provided "a sorer punishment" for the despisers of the blood of atonement; yet in real verity, on the showing of commercial redemption, that blood was to them an unappropriable thing; a thing which they ought not, and must not make their own, for it had not been shed in enduring the penalty which was due to them. Yet, on this showing, the despisers of the atonement are punished more sorely, for not appropriating to themselves, what did not verily belong to them, and what was never intended to benefit them. Infinite justice punishes them awfully and eternally for not having committed a stealth and a sacrilege upon the sacred and exclusive inheritance and possession of the church. How different is this calculating and mercenary hypothesis from that expedient which God shews forth to declare his righteousness, with a character unrebukable, and with an honor unsullied!
IV. The hypothesis of a commercial and limited atonement destroys the glories of free and sovereign grace in dispensing pardon and salvation. Free grace does not appear in the method of dispensing pardon upon this scheme; for after the identical punishment due to the offenders has been endured by the substitute, the deliverance of the offenders becomes a matter of right due, and claimable, on the principle of distributive justice. Hence some of the advocates of such an atonement represent pardon as a boon not to be supplicated for, but to be "sued out" as a claim. And hence also the language which is sometimes used, that "the believer now stands on higher grounds than God," because it would be unjust to refuse him salvation.
V. The honors of infinite benevolence are disparaged by this commercial redemption. Sometimes it is said, that the atonement of Christ was sufficient for all, had it pleased God to have designed and intended it for all. This is a mere evasion, and supplies neither a proof, nor a vindication, of divine and infinite love. Apply this principle to any other administration of God. Suppose God to have introduced into the material universe a principle, say gravitation, of sufficient force and fitness, to preserve order among all the orbs of space; yet, notwithstanding this, in some places of his dominions, stars were hurled against stars, and systems rushed against systems, spreading ruin everywhere. If we found it difficult to reconcile this crash of worlds with infinite benevolence, would it be enough to say, "the principle of gravitation was sufficient for all worlds, had it pleased God to have designed it for them all?" Or, suppose England provided a sum, or any other consideration, sufficient to ransom all the slaves in her colonies, and yet thousands of slaves were still languishing and dying in the gall of bitterness and bonds of iniquity, would it be a vindication of the benevolence of the government to say, "the ransom was sufficient to redeem all the slaves, had it been designed for them all?" No; designing for a few a ransom sufficient for all, would confer no honor upon benevolence.
The wisdom of God shares in all the dishonor which a commercial and limited atonement casts on the other perfections of God. If the atonement consisted in sufferings sufficient for all, but designed for a limited number, such prodigality in agonies, sufferings, and blood, would reflect no credit on the wisdom that planned it. Sometimes, the perdition of the wicked is advanced as an irrefragable evidence against the death of Christ being an atonement for all; because that in the case of the lost, Christ must have died in vain. That Christ should die in vain, is supposed to be a reflection on the wisdom of God. Though I think this argument is raised from inattention to the nature of all measures of moral government, yet it comes with a very bad grace from the advocates of a limited atonement. If the atonement was sufficient for all, sufficient for the saved, and sufficient for the lost, what is become of that amount which was sufficient for the lost? Even on their own showing, Christ has died partly in vain. The hypothesis assumes that out of the lavish expenditure of sufferings, and out of the infinite accumulation of merits, only a small amount is designed by God to be of any service to himself, or of use to any of his creatures. What becomes then of more than was sufficient to save the elect? It is, on their own showing, vain. A moral atonement that does not calculate the sufferings of Christ arithmetically, supposes that though it may not profit those who receive its grace in vain, yet it shall not be in vain as to the great ends of moral government: and it should be remembered, that the salvation of offenders is not the chief end of an atonement, but the glory of God's public character. The atonement does this, even if not one soul were saved. On the other hand a commercial atonement, measuring the amount of merits by the quantum of sufferings endured, or by the mass of blessings conveyed, squanders and throws away as useless, vast treasures of all-sufficient merit. It makes that part of the blood of the covenant an unholy thing, unconsecrated to any holy end, unappropriated to any good purpose.Return to Index Page