ESSAY ON THE SCRIPTURE DOCTRINE OF ATONEMENT: SHOWING ITS NATURE, ITS NECESSITY, AND ITS EXTENT.
THE SUBJECT INTRODUCED.
THE doctrine of atonement for sin, by Jesus Christ, is unquestionably of primary importance in the gospel system. It is the foundation of all the doctrines of divine revelation which respect the salvation of mankind: the grand pillar on which they are supported. If this fall, these other doctrines must fall with it; but if this stand, the gates of hell cannot prevail against them. It is not improbable, that a conviction of this truth has been a principal cause of that peculiar opposition which wicked men have ever made to this doctrine. Christ crucified was a stumblingblock to the Jews, and foolishness to the Greeks, in the apostolic age; nor has the offence of the cross ceased. Wicked men still feel the same opposition to this fundamental doctrine. It is probable, however, that a view of other doctrines, which necessarily result from this, is a principal occasion of this opposition. It is easy to perceive, that an infinitely wise God would never become "manifest in the flesh," unless it were for the performance of some vastly important work, to accomplish which, the absolute perfection of a God was requisite. And it must also be perceived, that if none other than a being of infinite perfection could take away sin, or make such an atonement for it as would render it consistent for God to pardon sinners, it must clearly follow, that sin is an infinite evil; and if sin be an infinite evil, then sinners deserve endless punishment; and if they deserve endless punishment, and neglect to embrace Jesus Christ, as the gospel requires, then this punishment must be inflicted. But these are truths which the wicked are unwilling to admit.
To get rid of them, some have denied the divinity of the Saviour, and others have rejected the whole system of revealed religion.
Mankind, having by nature a strong attachment to their own works, are unwilling to consider their own righteousness as filthy rags, and come to an Almighty Saviour for pardon. Hence they are under a strong temptation to believe, that the Son of God, instead of coming into the world to make atonement for sin, and open a way of salvation for sinners, came merely to bear witness to the truth, obey the divine law, show that it is good, and capable of being obeyed by man, set a good example, and encourage creatures "to do and live." While it is much to be feared that many have deceived themselves on this subject by yielding to the feelings of a carnal mind, which is "enmity against God," charity hopeth, that much of the diversity of opinion, which has obtained among professing Christians, may be owing to causes less criminal.
Whether atonement was, in the nature of things, necessary, in order that sinners might be pardoned, or whether it was necessary only because God was pleased to require it; that is, whether God might not have pardoned sinners without an atonement, or any sort of conditions, and without injuring his character, or the interests of his kingdom, if this had pleased him; and if not, what were the reasons which rendered such a procedure improper; whether the atonement, which Christ made, consisted in his obedience, or in his sufferings, or in both united; whether it was made for all mankind, or for the elect only; whether it is, or is not, of the nature of the payment of a debt; whether the sufferings of Christ were the very penalty of the divine law, or, rather, a substitute for the execution of that penalty; and whether the righteousness of Christ must be imputed to believers, that they may be justified and saved, are inquiries which frequently arise among professing Christians. They are inquiries too, concerning, which correct information is highly desirable. The Scriptures are the only source from which such information can be derived. By them we are taught for what purpose Christ came into the world, and also what he has done for the accomplishment of that purpose.
Hence if the plain instructions of the Scriptures are kept in view, it is believed, a satisfactory solution of all such questions may be obtained. Let those Scriptures, then, which speak in plain and simple language of Christ's coming into the world, of the object he came to accomplish, and of what he did and suffered for the attainment of that object, be first examined; and let these be the standard by which to construe those other parts of Scripture which represent this subject in metaphorical language or in rites and ceremonies, which are merely typical.
The necessity of some atonement, in order that sinners may be consistently pardoned, is sufficiently evident from the event of Christ's incarnation and death. For no one can rationally suppose, that the Son of God would have left the bosom of the Father, and the glory which he had with him before the world was, to take on him the form of a servant in this world, and subject himself to the pains and sorrows incident to human life, if such humiliation had not been indispensably necessary, in order that the purposes of grace, in the salvation of sinners, might be answered. Nor is it supposable that he would have died, in an ignominious manner, on the cross, if such a death could have been dispensed with consistently with such purposes. He earnestly prayed, "O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me! Nevertheless, not "as I will, but as thou wilt!" And considering that the Father heareth him always, it is inconceivable why this petition was not granted, if, indeed, it had been possible; and the designs of God, in the salvation of sinners, could still have been accomplished.
We have, however, more direct evidence concerning this matter. The Scriptures speak of the necessity of atonement in language too plain to be misunderstood. "Without shedding of blood is no remission." Heb. 9:22. "Other foundation can no man lay, than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ." 1 Cor. 3:11. "Neither is there salvation in any other; for there is no other name under heaven, given among men, whereby we must be saved." Acts 4:12. Our Lord himself, speaking of his sufferings and death, taught that it was what must be, that he ought to suffer, and that it behooved him to suffer. "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up." John 3:14. O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory?" Luke 24:25, 26. "Thus it behooved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead on the third day." Luke 24:46.
These plain declarations of Scripture cannot be easily reconciled with the idea that the bare repentance of a transgressor must be available with an infinitely holy God, to procure his pardon. Nor can it be any more easy to reconcile this idea with the commonly received opinion of rectoral goodness, drawn from the judicious conduct of temporal princes, in dispensing pardons and inflicting punishments. Should it be allowed, that repentance and reformation place sinners in the most fit state to receive pardon, and that God is ever disposed to bestow pardon on those who are qualified to receive it, still it would by no means follow, that repentance, however sincere, would, of itself, secure to its subjects divine forgiveness. For many things, in themselves considered, may be desirable, in the view of the Divine Being, which, when viewed in relation to other things, he cannot desire. If sin could be considered as injurious to God, in a private capacity only, we might, indeed, conclude, that since he is infinitely benevolent, he would readily pardon the penitent. Our confidence in this conclusion would receive support from the rule prescribed for our conduct in cases of private offence. "If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him." But let sin be considered as committed against God, not in a private, but in a public capacity, as the Governor of the universe, and, certainly, no such conclusion can be fairly drawn.
A benevolent individual might grant an immediate and unconditional pardon of an offence which had been privately committed, in a case where only the offender and himself were concerned; while, at the same time, if he sustained the character of a public magistrate, the same benevolence might lead him to withhold pardon from a criminal, although he should have full evidence of his repentance. If he viewed immorality as a disorder tending to the corruption and ruin of his subjects, his benevolence would, above all things, lead him to adopt the most effectual measures to prevent the evil. Hence he might behold a criminal, in the exercise of unfeigned repentance, in the most fit state to receive pardon; and he might even acknowledge that the penitent criminal, so far as it respected himself, being truly penitent, was qualified to receive forgiveness; be might feel benevolence towards him, and a strong disposition to pardon him; and yet this very benevolence might lead him to inflict the deserved punishment. If he believed that granting pardon, even to the penitent, would give encouragement to transgression, by leading his subjects to entertain a light opinion of the wickedness of transgression, he would withhold his pardon. For his benevolence would no more allow him to exceed the bounds of wisdom in granting pardon, than it would the bounds of justice, in executing punishment. Accordingly, all temporal princes and governors, who have professed a regard for the public good, have ever deemed it necessary to qualify and guard their pardons in such a manner as in their judgment was calculated to extirpate a spirit of disorder, and promote a spirit of loyalty and obedience among their subjects. Indeed, it is the united voice of the civilized world, that it would be unwise and unsafe to dispense pardon in any other way.
It must be evident, therefore, that, before any argument in favor of the absolute pardon of all who repent, can be allowed to result from the natural fitness of the penitent to receive it, or from the disposition of benevolence to bestow it on all who are the subjects of such fitness, it certainly must be shown, either that sin is no offence, otherwise than as it is an affront offered to God, in a private personal capacity; or, that repentance effectually repairs all the damages which the sin repented of has occasioned, or has a tendency to occasion, in the system of intelligent beings. But neither of these things, it, is apprehended, can be made to appear.
But, in the economy of redemption, pardon is offered to the guilty. On condition of repentance, the gospel promises not only an exemption from punishment, but an eternal inheritance of glory. Yet, what is repentance, that it should thus be available with God? It cannot be thus available, surely, by virtue of its own natural value. For the most which can be said in favor of a sinner who repents is, that, having rebelled, he now gives up his rebellion and returns to his duty. What, then, can this possibly merit? Can it entitle him to the pardon of his sins, for which he actually deserved destruction; and also to a new and glorious state of existence in heaven? Surely the conscience of no repenting sinner, unacquainted with the gospel, would ever suggest a hope of this inestimable good. Yet God has, in his abundant grace, offered and promised not the pardon of sin only, but eternal blessedness and glory also to all who will truly repent. It is, therefore, as unreasonable as it is unscriptural, to suppose that God has done this merely because a state of repentance is the most fit state, in which a sinner can be to receive pardon. Such a state being the most fit, it is obvious, indeed, that the repentance of a sinner is necessary; but it by no means appears, that this is all that is necessary. It shows a reason why repentance is required; but it certainly does not show that it did not behoove Christ to suffer in order that the sinner, prepared by repentance, might be consistently forgiven.
The sufferings of Christ constituted the most affecting scene which was ever exhibited on earth. His death was the most grand and awful event which the world ever witnessed. In view of it, the sun withheld his beams, and the heavens were clothed in mourning; the earth trembled, and the graves of the dead were opened. Nature sympathized with her suffering and dying Lord. But, why did it please the Lord thus to bruise his Son? Why did it behoove the Son of God thus to suffer? It certainly affords very little satisfaction to answer such inquiries, by resolving the necessity of this august event into the mere sovereign pleasure of Jehovah. If the question were asked, why it is necessary that a sparrow should fall, it might be a satisfactory answer to say, God has been pleased so to order it; because it cannot be reasonably expected, that God will assign to his creatures, the reasons of his conduct respecting every event, which is of no greater magnitude than this.
But, though events of the smallest magnitude may thus be resolved into the sovereignty of God, it by no means follows, that events of the greatest magnitude may be disposed of in the same manner. The Scriptures assure us, that God loved the Son, and was well pleased in him. How, then, should he smite him, awake the sword against him, and put him to grief? Our feelings revolt at the thought that the Father of mercies should ever be pleased to do this, unless there existed some important reason, some urgent necessity for the affecting procedure. If the Scriptures furnished us with no means of ascertaining what that necessity was, yet, in view of the divine attributes, we should be constrained to believe that such necessity existed. But, thanks be to God, who has not left us in darkness respecting this primary article of our holy faith, he has clearly revealed to us: the reason, why the Son of man must be lifted up; why his cross should be so highly extolled by the inspired writers, and why the blood of sprinkling should speak better things than the blood of Abel. Perhaps there is no one passage in the Scriptures, which more clearly unfolds this great doctrine, than that of the Apostle Paul, Rom. 3:25, 26; "Whom God hath set forth, to be a propitiation, through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins which are past, through the forbearance of God. To declare, I say, at this time, his righteousness, that he might be just, and the justifier of him that believeth in Jesus." In this passage, and the context, we have something more than a bare mention of the atonement, or a declaration concerning it; we have rather a development of its nature and necessity. The apostle here expressly informs us, that the sufferings of Christ were necessary, to declare God's righteousness for the remission of sins; that God might be just, and yet the justifier of the sinner, who believeth in Jesus.
There is such a connection between the doctrines of grace, that it is sometimes difficult to illustrate one of them clearly without bringing others into view. This is peculiarly the case with the doctrine of atonement. Two of the points, more immediately connected with this, are total depravity, and justification by grace through faith. These points are illustrated, in the passage last quoted, and its context, in their natural order and necessary connection. One is mentioned as a ground of the necessity of atonement; and the other as a consequence of atonement. The atonement would never have been necessary, if man had not sinned; neither could sinners ever have been justified by grace, if Christ had not died. The apostle clearly illustrates this order and connection of these leading doctrines. On the subject of depravity, he quotes from the Psalms the following description of the character of man, in his natural state: "There is none that understandeth; there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way; they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no not one. Their throat is an open sepulchre; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips; whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness; their feet are swift to shed blood; destruction and misery are in their ways; and the way of peace they have not known; there is no fear of God before their eyes."
From this description of the character of man, the apostle concludes that no flesh can ever be justified by the deeds of the law. "Therefore, by the deeds of the law shall no flesh be justified in his sight." This very naturally leads to the atonement as being necessary to the salvation of any sinner. And, if there is no way in which sinners can be saved, except through the atonement, it plainly follows, that justification must be "freely, by grace," This the apostle states. "Being justified freely by his grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus."
Having thus cleared his way, with much ease and perspicuity he unfolds the nature and necessity of Christ's atonement. "Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past through the forbearance of God." By this it appears, that God could not have declared his righteousness in forgiving sins, if he had not set Christ forth to "be a propitiation." It also appears, that the work of Christ, which was strictly propitiatory, was, he shed his blood; so that if he had not shed his blood, all which he did besides could have made no propitiation. "He was set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood." It appears, moreover, that the nature of the atonement is such, that God cannot appear righteous, in saving any, unless they have faith in Christ's blood. The object for which he was set forth was, "to be a propitiation through faith in his blood." This the apostle teaches us was done, that God might "declare his righteousness for the remission of sins;" or, in other words, that he might appear righteous in forgiving sins. Having said this he proceeds, in the next verse, to state the same thing again, in language a little different, as if anxious, by all means, to prevent mistakes, on a subject of such importance. "To declare, I say, at this time, his righteousness, that he might be just, and the justifier of him that believeth in Jesus." On the whole, it appears evident that the doctrine, which the apostle designed to teach, is this; if God had not set forth Christ to shed his blood for the remission of sins, he could not have been just, in saving sinners; nor can he now, unless they believe in Jesus.
This passage of the apostle will be made the theme of the following discussion. No one will be surprised, therefore, if it should be frequently mentioned, and alluded to, in the course of the work. If the reader is a believer in the correctness and divine authority of the sacred Scriptures, he will readily assent to any thing, which shall be fairly proved from them. In perfect consistency with this, however, he may, if inquisitive, desire to know why God could not have declared his righteousness, if he had pardoned sinners, without setting forth Christ to be a propitiation. He may wish to see the very reasons pointed out, which would have rendered such a procedure inconsistent with a manifestation of divine righteousness; that is, he may wish to see the very thing which rendered atonement necessary, and have the precise obstacles which stood in the way of the sinner's happiness clearly pointed out. If this necessity should be distinctly brought into view, and the obstacles plainly described, he may then wish to know what Christ has done, to meet that necessity and to remove those obstacles. He may also wish to see clearly how what Christ has done meets that necessity, and the precise manner, in which those obstacles are removed. If all this should be accomplished, it will certainly afford him much satisfaction to find the scheme fully supported, by the uniform tenor of inspired truth. How far this is accomplished, in the following essay, is submitted to the judgment of the impartial reader.
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