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THE ATONEMENT.


THE seven allusions to the atonement in John's First Epistle demand a more extended discussion, in view of the importance of this central doctrine of Christianity so strongly emphasized by St. John.

The word " atonement" appears but once in the New Testament, and is in that text a mistranslation for "reconciliation," as in the R. V. of Rom. v. 11. But the idea of the atonement, hinted at in the Gospels, where it could not be intelligibly explained as a ransom for many (Matt. xx. 28), is after the death and resurrection of Christ fully unfolded under such terms as "redemption through His blood," "gave Himself for our sins," "reconcile . . . by the cross," "hath given Himself a sacrifice to God," "Christ suffered for us in the flesh," "He is the propitiation for our sins," and many similar expressions. It is the central fact of Christianity perpetually emphasized in the Lord's Supper, which ordinance sooner or later is discontinued wherever the idea of redemption through the blood of the Son of God is no longer preached. When Ralph Waldo Emerson was pastor of a Unitarian church in Boston, about seventy years ago, he ceased to administer the Holy Communion, and being asked by his deacons for the reason for omitting this sacrament,, replied that "it was giving undue prominence to one among many good men." From the standpoint of his theology, which made Jesus Christ a mere man, the son of a Jewish sire, his answer was logical, the memorial of the death of Christ was an invidious distinction.

If liberalism has no place for the atonement, orthodoxy has no ground to stand on without it. Hence we must defend it against all assailants. We must demonstrate it as a fundamental fact, and we must so wisely state the philosophy of that fact that its enemies will find it impregnable. We are, however, very thankful that men can be saved by relying on the fact with little or no knowledge of the philosophy, and even with an exceedingly erroneous philosophy, as we shall soon see.

But if a correct philosophy of the atonement is not necessary for the salvation of penitent believers, it is necessary to the salvation of that orthodoxy which produces penitent believers in Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world. The Gospel is under obligation to answer the inquiries which it has awakened by stimulating the intellect in all the Bible-reading nations. The question must be answered,

WHY IS THE ATONEMENT NECESSARY?


Who or what demanded it? We pass by the first answer, that it was necessary to satisfy the claim of Satan, who had captured the sinful race of men, and was holding them as his prisoners. For more than a thousand years this was the common answer. I do not say the only answer, because here and there one, like Athanasius, and John of Damascus, declared that the satisfaction was paid to God the Father. But under the stimulus of the Gospel quickening the intellect, this theological crudity of a tribute to Satan was outgrown, and the way was opened for a thorough discussion of the necessity of Christ's atoning death, for He must be lifted up, He must needs have suffered. Out of the various answers we shall have time to speak of only three: first, God's essential justice; secondly, man's obduracy in sin; and thirdly, the requirements of a Divine government, offering conditional pardon to a race of sinners. The first and the last locate the necessity on the Godward side, while the second locates it wholly on the manward side.

I. The first theory for three hundred years widely prevailed in both branches of orthodoxy — Calvinism and Arminianism — although it logically belongs to that branch which teaches an unconditional election and a particular or limited atonement. It is grounded upon the necessity of satisfying that moral attribute of God called exact, or distributive, justice, defined by Webster as that "which gives every man his exact deserts." This principle of essential justice, or eternal right, demands punishment for violated law. If the sinner is exempted from penalty, it must be inflicted upon some substitute who is personally not worthy of punishment; otherwise, if himself guilty, he could not be a substitute for the guilty. He must suffer for his own sins. Now there are several reasons why I have never been able to preach this theory of the atonement.

1. It is not exact justice to punish the innocent. "The soul that sinneth it shall die," says distributive justice.

2. Guilt is personal and not transferable.

3. It leaves no room for a literal and true pardon of sin, as Dr. Hodge concedes. Pardon, being a gracious remission of deserved penalty, cannot be required after the penalty has been fully endured by the substitute. Sin having been thoroughly expiated, there can be only a nominal, not a real, forgiveness. There is no longer any penalty due to sin, and of course there is none to remit. I cannot indorse a theory which reduces the New Testament doctrine of justification by faith to a mere sham.

4. The punishment of innocence is repugnant to man's moral intuitions, variously called ethical axioms, first truths, necessary beliefs, self-evident truths. No system can endure or can be true which collides with these ultimate truths, defined by Joseph Cook as "the mode of action of Omnipotence." If it is said that while it is wrong for man knowingly to punish innocence, it may be right in God, this is denied by the fact that man is in the image of God and is a subject of moral government only because there is between him and God a common standard of right to which both may appeal. Moreover, the assertion that moral qualities in man may be entirely different in kind from the moral attributes of God makes Him an unknown and an unknowable being, thus strengthening the foundations of the prevalent agnosticism which is a blight upon modem Christendom. Every agnostic on earth will thank you for saying that justice in God may be a totally different thing from justice in man.

5. Our next objection to the theory that the atonement is a penal satisfaction paid to distributive justice is that, if it is universal in extent, the inevitable, logical outcome is Universalism. For if the sins of all men were punished in Jesus Christ, no man can be justly punished, either in this world or in the world to come, for sins already expiated by suffering their penalty. I lay no foundations for the delusive doctrine of the final salvation of all men.

6. Wherever it is taught that God punished His Son on the cross there have always been some who indulge in the rhetorical statement that "Christ on Calvary was the greatest sinner in the universe" –– language which I have heard within thirty years. Within that time I have heard an English Wesleyan doctor of divinity in public prayer represent the Father as "hurling the hottest thunderbolts of His wrath down upon the head of His devoted Son in punishment for the sins of mankind."

Such statements give occasion to the liberalists to caricature the orthodox doctrine of the atonement, making the Father the embodiment of unsparing distributive justice, a relentless Shylock demanding his pound of flesh; and the Son, the incarnation of mercy and love, appeasing His personal wrath and making Him willing to be compassionate.

II. We come now to our second division, in which the necessity of the atonement is located wholly in the obduracy of the sinful race which needs this wonderful display of love and sacrifice to melt it into contrition and obedient faith. It is commonly called

THE MORAL INFLUENCE THEORY,


though moral influence is incidental to all theories. But here it is the principal thing, the sole need and aim of the atonement. Man, not God, is to be propitiated; the work of Christ has no Godward aspect. If men would repent under other moral influences, the atonement were unnecessary. Christ is only a Saviour, not the Saviour. He is only one, the most prominent, of many moral benefactors, the efficacy of whose self sacrifice for others is the same in kind. He stands at the head of the noble army of martyrs who by their unselfish labors and contagious example of heroic self-immolation have turned many from sin unto righteousness. If this does not discrown our Divine Lord Jesus it certainly detracts from His honor as the unique Saviour. He cannot be put into a class without dimming His glory. He must stand alone.

This is our first objection. Our second is this, that if Christ saves only by the moral influence of His atoning death, He can save none who have no knowledge of Him — the countless millions who have never heard of Him in pagan lands, half the human race dying in infancy and the myriads of millions who lived and died before Christ came in the flesh. An atonement whose sole efficacy is moral influence can have no retrospective virtue. It must be known in order to be effectual. The sun must shine upon the ice in order to melt it. The only way to adjust this theory of the atonement to the whole race is to extend probation beyond death. This brings us to an inference for which I find no sufficient Scriptural support. With me this is an insuperable objection to the moral influence philosophy of the atonement. It weakens the motive to immediate repentance. But we cannot further dwell on this point.

Our next difficulty with this theory of salvation through moral influence is that it offers no satisfactory explanation of all those Scriptures which speak of the remission of sins that are past, that is, before Christ's incarnation; those which declare that there is no salvation except through Him; those which represent His death as a substitute, and those which present it as a propitiatory sacrifice. All of these texts teach that the atonement has a Godward efficacy. For these reasons, however popular and pleasing this view may be, I must reject it.

Our last objection is that this theory always tends to a soft theology, a hazy view of sin and a vague and nebulous statement of its consequences in the life to come.

THE GOVERNMENTAL THEORY.


III. The Scripture which comes nearest to a statement of the philosophy of the atonement is Rom. iii. 25: "Whom God set forth as a propitiation through faith, by His blood, for the exhibition of His righteousness, because of the passing over of the sins before committed in the forbearance of God." The question is, What is the nature of the righteousness exhibited in the setting forth of Jesus Christ as a propitiation? Is it the justice of the Judge or the justice of the Governor? In probation God is not dealing with us as a Judge, but as a Governor. The righteousness exhibited is not judicial, exact, distributive, giving to each his exact deserts, but rectoral, governmental, general justice, defined by Webster as that "which carries out all the ends of law, though not in every case through the channels of distributive justice, as we often see done by a parent or ruler in his dealings with those who are subject to his control." The atonement was necessary for the same reason, precisely, that the penalty of the violated law was necessary: it takes the place of that penalty, in the case of penitent believers, answering the same end as would be answered by the infliction of the penalty, maintaining divine law. A more exact definition is that of Miley: "The vicarious sufferings and death of Christ are an atonement for sin as a conditional substitute for punishment, fulfilling, on the forgiveness of sin, the obligation of justice in moral government." The advantages of this theory are:

1. It can be preached without mental reservations.

2. It does not conflict with intuitive, self-evident truth, and it avoids the irrational idea that Christ was literally made sin and became a curse.

3. It is founded upon just and consistent views of the divine character. It makes no dualism or collision between the divine Persons, the Father punishing the Son.

4. It satisfies the Protector of the divine law in forbearing to inflict the penalty which was threatened. Men in expressing this truth in popular figurative language do not utter exact truth when they say that the law was satisfied. The figure is that of hypostatizing or personifying law. Only persons can be satisfied.

5. This theory is Biblical, harmonizing with all the statements and including all the facts or Scripture, ascribing a peculiar moral efficacy to the work of Christ, investing the cross with a peculiar moral influence over men, while its necessity lies in the Godward direction. This view teaches that the atonement was vicarious, originating in the bosom of the Father, who showed His love by the sufferings which wrung His heart in the gift of His only begotten Son. Fairbairn, in his recent work, thinks it one of the greatest errors of Christian theology to teach that God is impassible, incapable of suffering. He suggests that "The Son, cheered by the prospect of a reward, did not suffer as much in the redemption of the world as did the Father with no hope of reward in the surrender of the Son," with whom He had been in delightful communion face to face from eternity. The sufferings of the parents in sending their sons to fight and die for the Union were different in kind but probably greater than theirs. This view of the atonement presents — instead of an antagonism between the Father, as the impersonation of justice, and the Son, the embodiment of love — the three Persons of the Trinity co-operating to the utmost in self-sacrifice for the salvation of men, so that at the funeral of every lost soul the Father, Son and Holy Spirit will head the procession as the chief mourners.

6. It affords a basis for the salvation of such pious pagans as live up to their best light. "They are saved through Christ though they know Him not." (J. Wesley.) How about the condition of faith in Him? They have the spirit of faith and the purpose of righteousness; that is, the disposition to trust in the object of faith, the historical Christ, were He revealed to them in the Gospel, and a willingness to walk by the revealed law of God were it made known to them. What is your Scriptural authority? Jesus Christ intimates that the judgment day will proceed by the use of a sliding scale. Where much is given much will be required; where little is given little will be required. St. Paul declares: "There is no respect of persons with God. For as many as have sinned without the written law will be judged by the law written on their hearts." Peter looking upon a group of God-fearing heathen at the headquarters of Brigadier General Cornelius, declared: "Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons, but in every nation he that feareth Him and worketh righteousness is accepted with Him." "Many shall come from the east and the west, and shall sit down with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven." Mr. Joseph Cook, who defends the rectoral theory, advocates the doctrine of salvation by possessing the essential Christ where the historical Christ is unknown. The essential Christ is an obedient attitude of the will toward "the eternal Ideal required by self-evident truths, which has in Christ, and in Him only, become the historically Real." In the last day the Judge will say, "Come, ye blessed," not only to those who have enthroned the historical Christ in their hearts, but also to those who have exhibited towards His brethren, any forlorn man, the spirit of love, the essential element in the character of Christ — "Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of the least of these, My brethren, ye did it unto Me." The standard is so low as to be applicable to all who know the distinction between right and wrong. The rectoral theory of the atonement needs no probation after death. What effect does this have on the missionary motive? None. That word stands in full force — Go ye and teach all nations." While the pagan can be saved without a knowledge of Christ, the Christian cannot be saved while selfishly withholding that knowledge. I believe it is easier for God to save a pagan without the Bible in Bombay than it is to save a professed Christian in Boston without a disposition to send him a Bible; in other words, without a missionary spirit. I repudiate the doctrine of geographical election and reprobation expressed in the saying, "To exchange cradles would be to exchange destinies."

7. It can be preached as objectively universal in extent as a provision, but subjectively limited as a realization by a failure of free agents to fulfil its conditions. Hence it lays no foundations for Universalism. Dr. Edward Dorr Griffin was settled over the Park Street Church in 1811, when orthodoxy was a byword and a reproach and hardly dared to show its head in any pulpit in Boston. The crisis required just such a master spirit, and this city felt the power of God working through this pulpit dynamo. From the day of his coming orthodoxy began to revive. He preached fundamental truths so plainly that the irreverent called this church "brimstone comer." But the great work which he did was to restate New England theology, especially to rescue the fundamental doctrine of a substitutional atonement from the just reproach of Dr. Channing that it conflicted with the moral intuitions. This he grandly did in developing and popularizing the governmental theory. Let me rehearse some of the themes on which he lectured on Sunday evenings during his four years' pastorate there before he went to Williams College to save it from dying by promoting sweeping revivals of religion. These are his propositions: "Christ did not suffer the literal penalty of the law for us; He did not satisfy the law of God for us;" "Christ did not satisfy the distributive justice of God for us;" "The law and distributive justice eternally demand the punishment of every one who has sinned;" "The atonement consisted not in the obedience, but in the sufferings, of Christ, such sufferings as fulfilled the design of punishment and render the sins of believers pardonable;" "The atonement was designed equally and indiscriminately for all men viewed as moral agents. It implies that all men as moral agents have natural power to comply with the conditions of life, and to repent without the special influences of the Spirit;" "The general atonement implies that all probationers have a fair chance to obtain eternal life." It was the elaboration of such propositions that arrested orthodoxy from further decline and sent it forth on a career of enlargement and reconquest of its lost ground in New England. Substituting "gracious ability" for "natural power," and adding that the Holy Spirit so reproves the world as to enable every man to repent, I can personally, and as a representative of Arminian theology, say Amen to that philosophy of the atonement first suggested by the great Grotius.