by Michael Bremmer
The word Atonement is commonly used to describe Christ’s sacrifice of Himself on the cross, reconciling the sinner and God. This definition, however, fails to give complete recognition to all that Christ did in redeeming his people; it conveys to most people only the idea of the removal of guilt by His suffering the penalty, but not the equally important truth that through Christ’s active obedience He has gained for His people eternal life. Consequently, many in the past have preferred the term “Satisfaction,” to describe the work of Christ. Christ has satisfied all God’s righteousness for His people by suffering the penalty of their sin, and by perfectly obeying God’s law for His people, or, as some old divines would say, “The doing enough.” The word atonement is used in this fuller sense in this article.
THE NECESSITY OF THE ATONEMENT
“For if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died needlessly.” (Gal. 2:21).
The cause of the atonement, or the motive for it, is God’s gracious mercy and sovereign love for His people, “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 Jn. 4:10; See also: Lk. 2.14). But nothing in us motivated God to affect a way of reconciliation between Himself and us, for “while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5.8). In other words, as the Scriptures declare, we “are justified freely by His grace” (Rom. 3.24).
However, when speaking of the necessity of the atonement, we are seeking an answer to the question, Did Jesus have to die? The answer is no, in the sense that God was not under any obligation to redeem and save anyone. The Father did not have to send the Son, nor did the Son have to sacrifice Himself. That the Father did send the Son, and that the Son willingly came, is an act of pure grace. But once the Triune God decreed to save sinners, was the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ the only means by which He could graciously accomplish the salvation of His people?
To say that God “must” do this, or “cannot” do that, seems to contradict the Biblical notion of God’s sovereignty. However, Scripture teaches that all what God wills He can do. Nevertheless, we still recognize that God “must” do right, and that he “cannot” lie. In other words, God cannot will to do wrong. This necessity is the result of God’s own perfections, and not cause by anything outside Himself. Similarly, whatever means God uses in the salvation of sinners, once He decreed to saved them, must be in harmony with who and what He is. In the salvation of sinners, God’s nature–particularly His Holiness, Justice , and Immutability– necessarily requires the death of His beloved Son if anyone will be saved.
The Holiness of God not only means that He is infinitely separate and exalted above all creation, but also that He is infinitely pure in an ethical sense. “Far be it from God to do wickedness, and from the Almighty to do wrong” (Job 34:10b); “Surely, God will not act wickedly, and the Almighty will not pervert justice” (Job 34:12); God is infinitely pure, infinitely Holy; therefore He cannot have any association with evil, “Thine eyes are too pure to approve evil, And Thou canst not look on wickedness with favor” (Hab. 1:13); “For Thou art not a God who takes pleasure in wickedness; No evil dwells with the” (Ps. 5:4). To stand in His presence we would, like Isaiah, be overwhelmed with the sense of His Holiness: “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I live among a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the Lord of host” (Isa. 6.5). (Ps. 7:11; 5:4, 6:45:7; Deut. 4.24; Prov. 11:20; Jer. 44:4; Isa. 61:8). The Holiness of God must preclude any notion that God can will to ignore sin.
“The Lord reins, let the people tremble;
He is enthroned above the cherubim, let the earth shake!
The Lord is great in Zion, and He is exalted above all the peoples.
Let them praise Thy great and awesome name;
Holy is He.
And the strength of the King loves justice;
Thou hast established equity;
Thou hast executed justice and righteousness in Jacob.
Exalt the Lord our God,
And worship at His footstool;
Holy is He.” Psalm 99:1-5
Because God is Holy, He is also Just. In other words, He must do right. All His acts from eternity are according to His justice. He does what is right, because He is right. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Gen. 18.25). God, because He will do right, must reward the righteous and punish the wicked. This truth is so often repeated in Scripture that no proof is required for those who take the word of God seriously. Justice, then, “is that phase of God’s holiness which is seen in His treatment of the obedient and the disobedient subjects of His government. It is that attribute whereby He gives to everyone what is due him” ( Shedd 1.365). If God is just, then not only does God give everyone what is due him, but he MUST do so. This is proven from the following considerations:
(1) Scripture many times and in many ways states it:
“Who will render to every man according to His deeds” (Rom. 2:6).
“God is a righteous judge, And a God who has indignation every day” (Ps. 7:11).
“He will judge the world in righteousness” (Ps. 96:13)
“Because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof by raising Him from the Dead” (Acts 17:31).
“For the LORD is a God of justice” (Isa. 30:18).
“He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished” (Ex. 34:7).
“Vengeance is Mine, and retribution” (Deut. 32:35)
“Dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thess. 1:8)
(2) That God is just and must punish sin, is the leading argument of the apostle Paul in Romans 1:18-3:20 where he carefully shows all are guilty sinners and all, because of God’s justice, stand condemned. God is a God of justice, and a righteous judge whose law and nature demand that He punished sin. Only after these facts are firmly established, does Paul share the good news of justification through faith.
(4) The OT sacrifices suggest sin must be punished, “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb. 9:22)
(5) “Christ was set forth as a propitiation, in order that God would be just in justifying the ungodly. This assumes that it would be unjust, i. e., contrary to moral rectitude, to pardon the guilty without propitiation” (C. Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, p. 423).
God is a righteous and Holy God and must punish all sin, and He will render to every person according to their deeds. The justice of God is manifest in the punishment of sin; and the motive for it is not the benefit of the sinner, although this may result, but the holiness of God. God hates sin and He must punish it. If this were not so, then there is no need for an atonement or even the doctrine of justification by faith. The atonement and justification are necessary if God is just and merciful, and is only means by which God can be just and forgive the sinner.
God’s immutability means He does not change– “For I, the LORD, do not change” (Mal. 3.6). A change is for better or worse. For God to change for the better means He is not perfect; for God to change for the worse means He is not wise. God cannot change. Because God does not change, He must remain true to Himself and to His Law.
The Law is a reflection of God’s immutable character; it too is unchangeable. In the words of our Lord Jesus Christ: “For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished” (Mt. 5.18). Furthermore, if God’s law is immutable, then so are penal punishments for they are not only part of God’s Law but are frequently given as the principal part, “The soul that sins will die,” “the wages of sin is death,” etc.; and the Law says, “Cursed is he who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them” (Deut. 26.27), to which the Apostle Paul confirms, “For as many as are of the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the Law, to perform them'” (Gal. 3.10).
Herein is problem, the law condemns all: “There is none righteous, not even one,” and “all have sin and come short of the glory of God.” If all sin, and if all are condemned by God’s law, then God must carry out His law. God must be holy and just. He cannot pretend there is any sin; He cannot forgive and forget; He can only accept the exact or equivalent punishment that the law demands, because He does not change.
Throughout Scripture sin is never overlooked by God. Because of His holiness, justice, and immutability, sin demands His wrath and condemnation (Rom. 1:18; Gal. 3:10); If one accurately understands the magnitude of sin’s offense in God’s eyes, and understands the nature of God, particularly His holiness and justice; and that God demands perfect righteousness (Mt. 5:48), who, “will by no means leave the guilty unpunished,” (Ex. 34:7) then it is not conceivable how God can be just, and justify the sinner (Rom. 3.25-26) apart from the perfect obedience and sacrificial death of the Beloved. (Gen. 18:25; Ps. 11:5-7; 97:2; 50:21; Hab. 1:13; Num. 14.18; Nah. 1:2, 3; Ps. 5.4-6). Christ’s Atonement is the only way God can be both a “righteous God and Savior” (Isa. 45:21).
Charles Hodge writes,
“All that the Bible teaches of the truth of God; of the immutability of the law; of the necessity of faith; of the uselessness and worthlessness of all other sacrifices for sin; and of the impossibility of salvation except through the work of the incarnate Son of God, precludes the idea that satisfaction was not necessary to our salvation, or that any other means could have accomplished the object. And if thus absolutely necessary, it must be that nothing else has worth enough to satisfy the demands of God’s law. It is the language and spirit of the whole Bible, and of every believing heart in relation to Christ that His blood alone has power sufficient to atone.” (Charles Hodge 2.486)
Many vainly believe that God, on that dreadful day, will simply forgive and forget their iniquity. After all, they reason, if they can forgive and forget without demanding satisfaction for wrong, a noble thing in their eyes, why cannot this supreme being of ours do the same? But if the Cross says anything to these foolish people, it says this: God cannot over look sin. God must be true to Himself, and He cannot forgive and forget without satisfaction to His justice; to do otherwise would be a contradiction against Himself. The Scriptures say, “God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent; Has He said, and will not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it Good?” (Num. 23.19).
But justice, mercy and truth meet in the Cross of Jesus Christ. In the Words of our Lord and Savior: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whosoever believes may in Him have eternal life” (Jn. 3.14-15). The alternative is one day “The Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. And these will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the Glory of His power” (2 Thess. 1:7b-9). Sin will not be overlooked, or merely forgiven and forgotten on the day of judgement.
“Ye who think of sin but lightly,
Nor suppose the evil great
Here may view its nature rightly,
Here its guilt may estimate.
Mark the sacrifice appointed
See who bears the awful loss;
Tis the Word, The Lord’s anointed,
Son of Man and Son of God.”
THE NATURE OF THE ATONEMENT
It will be helpful in understanding the nature of the atonement to first understand the one who atones–Jesus Christ. Clearly He is no ordinary person. For if He were, then His sacrifice could not merit anything for His people. If He were an ordinary man, then His death was merely a cruel accident. Yet Scripture teaches us that by His life and death the “requirements of the law” are satisfied for all those who put their trust in Him; and the Scriptures also teach us that His death was no accident, but a fulfilling of an eternal plan (Acts 2:23). Therefore, even if the Scriptures were silent regarding the person of Christ, both the nature and effects of His work, clearly tell us that Jesus Christ was no ordinary man.
The Scriptures, however, are not silent about the person of Christ. He is both Son of God, and Son of man; fully divine, fully human, the God-man; and as such, His sacrifice has intrinsic value and infinite worth, sufficient to redeem the sins of the whole world and has completely satisfied God’s Holiness, Justice and Law. This is not to say the work itself has no or little value. The only way of reconciling God’s Holiness and justice with His grace and mercy in redeeming a sinful people is Christ’s work of atonement; nothing else for sin could atone. Yet the intrinsic value and infinite worth of the work is because of who Jesus Christ is–God-man, who bought “the Church of God with His own blood” (Acts 20:28b).
The atonement includes four elements Christ’s work. His death was, (a) a propitiation, (b) a redemption, (c) a reconciliation, (d) and a substitution. This is not an exhaustive list of word-pictures describing the death of our Lord. Notable missing is the picture of sacrifice. A separate discussion on the relationship of the Old Testament sacrificial system and Christ’s Sacrifice, however, would take many times the space of this article. The reader can find an excellent treatment of this subject in Leon Morris’s work, The Atonement: Its Meaning & Significance.
“Being justified as a gift by grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; Whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith” (Rom. 3.24-25).
To propitiate means to placate, pacify, appease, conciliate. Christ, by His sacrifice of Himself, has satisfied all of God’s demands, making expiation for sin, and propitiating God’s holy wrath.
In the Septuagint, the same word translated propitiation in New Testament is use in the following verses:
Concerning Esau whom Jacob had wrong: “And you shall say, Behold, your servant Jacob also is behind us.’ For he said, I will appease him with the present that goes before me. Then after I will see his face; perhaps he will accept me'” (Gen. 32:20).
“The wrath of the king is as messengers of death, but a wise man will appease it” ( Prov. 16:14).
Concerning the sin offering: “Thus the priest shall make for him in regard to his sin which he has committed, and he shall be forgiven” (Lev. 4:35).
“But no sin offering of which any of the blood is brought into the tent of meeting to make atonement in the holy place shall be eaten; it shall be burned with fire” (Lev. 6:30).
Shedd notes that:
“The Septuagint idea of Propitiation, rather than the Hebrew idea of covering, is prominent in the New Testament, . . . The difference between the two is not essential, since both terms are objective; but there is a difference. The Hebrew term . . . denotes that the sacrificial victim produces an effect upon sin. It is covered up. But the corresponding Septuagint term hilaskomai denotes that the sacrificial victim produces an effect on God. It propitiates his holy displeasure” (Shedd 2.394).
The doctrine of propitiation presupposes the wrath of God. Consequently, many deny the doctrine of propitiation because they cannot accept a wrathful God. For them, God is love, and only love. The archaic doctrine of God’s wrath has no place in their theology of love. But the Bible teaches clearly that God is a God of wrath.
But Christ is not trying to win over an angered Father so that the Father will become loving to His people, a silly caricature used against the doctrines of the wrath of God and propitiation. The Scriptures tell us that God the Father sent the Son to redeem His people, and the Son is truly God. Therefore, the argument that propitiation makes Christ’ work an appeasement of a wrath crazed God, trying to make Him loving, does not even attempt to consider seriously all of what the Scriptures teach, nor to understand what the advocates of propitiation are actually teaching.
Furthermore, we must make careful distinction between human wrath and the wrath of God. Often, human anger is sinful, out of control, and can be the result of many factors. We must not compare human wrath with divine wrath. God is never out of control. Unlike many pagan deities, who are fickle and unpredictable, God’s wrath is revealed only against sin. God’s wrath is His abiding anger for all evil. The wrath of God is His abiding hatred of all sin. Our God is not fickle or unpredictable; sin brings His wrath.
THE WRATH OF GOD
“He who loves the good, by this very fact hates the evil” (Lactantius).
The wrath of God is a doctrine disliked and denied by many today. Yet for those who take Scripture seriously, it must be admitted that God is not only a God of love, but of wrath too. The Old Testament mentions the wrath or anger of God over 580 times. In the New Testament, although far less frequently then the Old, the wrath of God is clearly stated many times. In Johns gospel, for example, God’s wrath is said to abide on those who do not believe. Paul in Romans alone mentions it over ten times. In Ephesians Paul writes, “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience” (5:6). Likewise, in Colossians he writes, “For it is on account of these things that the wrath of God will come” (3:6).
The wrath of God is personal, not merely an out-working of natural law– a cause and effect as when one sticks their finger in a fire and is burned. God’s wrath, as depicted in Scripture, is GOD’s wrath–His personal reaction and action against sin. God is offended; God reacts; God acts. The apostle Paul writes, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven . . .” Furthermore, throughout this passage Paul tells us that God “gave them over” as judgment for their sin, not some impersonal force of cause and effect. (Rom. 1:18-32).
We must ask, if wrath is impersonal, merely the effect of human sin, as many who deny God’s personal wrath claim, then what is mercy? For Scripture tells us both wrath and mercy belong to God. In fact, both are many times put side by side: “And nothing from that which is put under the ban shall cling to your hand, in order that the Lord may turn from HIS BURNING ANGER and show MERCY to you, and have COMPASSION on you . . .” (Deut. 13.17 See also: Mi. 7:18; Ps. 85:2-3; 78:38). If God’s wrath is merely the impersonal effect of human sin, a mere cause and effect relationship, then is mercy also the natural cause of human goodness? If not, and mercy is inherent in God’s character, then so is His wrath, for Scripture puts them side by side as God’s attributes.
Any Biblical understanding of the atonement, then, must include God’s wrath. The judgement of sin, in all forms, is God’s wrath revealed, and apart from His wrath there is no judgement or any need for an atonement. Sin must be atoned for because God’s wrath is revealed against all ungodliness; and for any atonement to be effective in atoning for sin, God’s wrath must be put away; His wrath must be propitiated.
Although God’s wrath is dreadful reality, Christians can rejoice, being assured that God’s wrath is propitiated. Jesus Christ, our Brother and High Priest, has propitiated God’s wrath for His people: “Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, that H might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17).
“Complete atonement Thou has made,
And to the utmost Thou has paid,
Whate’er Thy people owed;
How then can wrath on me take place,
If sheltered in Thy righteousness
And sprinkled with Thy blood?” (Toplady)
Reconciliation is another Biblical image defining the nature of the atonement. The Scriptures say that by Christ’s death we are reconciled to God: ” ” (Rom. 5:10). Reconciliation “is that sovereign work of God the Father in which His alienation from sinners is removed through the propitiatory sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Reconciliation is based upon propitiation. . . . Thus reconciliation does not primarily refer to a changed attitude in man’s attitude toward God but, rather in God’s attitude toward man. Reconciliation provided the forensic or legal basis upon which God can turn to save sinners” (Morey, Studies in the Atonement, p. 31 & 32)
When man sinned in Adam, God and man became enemies (Rom. 5:10). Man is at enmity with God (Rom. 8:7) and God, as we have noted, is hostile toward sinners. Nevertheless, God reconciles us to Himself: “Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ, and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18). In Reconciliation, God’s hostility and alienation is removed through Christ, death so that He and His people can be reconciled. It is not primarily the removal of man’s alienation, but God’s.
Some argue it is not God’s alienation and hostility in view, after all, they say, God is a God of love. They argue “we were reconciled to God” (Rom. 5:10) meaning it is our alienation that is removed in reconciliation. But John Murray answers:
“When in Matthew 5:24 we read, “Be reconciled to thy brother,” we have an example of the use of the word “reconcile” that should caution us against a common inference. In this instance the person bringing his gift to the altar is reminded that his brother has something against him. It is this grievance on the part of the other that is the reason for interrupting his act of worship. It is the grievance and, in that sense, the “against” of the other that the worshiper must take into account, and it is the removal of that grievance, of that alienation, of that against,’ that the reconciliation which he is required to effect contemplates. He is to do all that is necessary to remove the alienation in the mind and attitude of the other. It is plain, therefore, that the situation requiring reconciliation is the frame of mind or the attitude of the other and what the reconciliation must effect. is the change of mind on the part of the other, namely, the person called the brother. Thus we are pointed in a very different direction from that which we might have expected from the mere formula “be reconciled.” And although it is the “against” of the brother that is in view as requiring a change, the exhortation is in terms of “be reconciled to thy brother” and not at all “Let thy brother be reconciled to thee.” By this analysis it can easily be seen that the formula “reconciled to God” can well mean that what the reconciliation has in view is God’s alienation from us and the removal of that alienation. Matthew 5:23, 24 shows how indefensible is an interpretation that rests its case upon what, at best, is mere appearance” (Murray, The Atonement, p. 16).
Furthermore, Paul writes in Rom. 5:9: “Much more then, having been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him.” How are we saved form God’s wrath? Paul explains in verse 10: “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son” According to the Apostle Paul, it is God’s wrath and hostility that is the central issue, and its removal, through the death of His beloved Son, Paul calls reconciliation.
The Biblical idea of redemption means to set free by the payment of a price. Redemption presupposes someone or something is in bondage. In the atonement, Jesus Christ, by His blood, purchased God’s elect and secured for them release from the bondage of sin, Satan, and the curse of the law. “The language of redemption is that of securing release by the payment of a price, and it is this concept that is applied expressly to the laying down of Jesus’ life and the shedding of His blood. Jesus shed His blood in order to pay the price of our ransom. Redemption cannot be reduced to lower terms” (Murray, The Atonement, P. 21 [Pamphlet]).
The Greek uses several words to describe redemption. One is agorazo, and means to buy or purchased. For example, in Rev. 5.9: “Worthy art thou to take the book and to break its seals; for Thou was slain and didst purchased for God with Thy blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.” When agorazo is used in 1 Cor. 6.20, 7.23, and 2 Pet. 2.1, the meaning is clearly redemption through the atonement of Christ. It is deliverance by purchase. Another word is exagorazo and is “From ex . . . out or from and agorazo, to buy. To buy or redeem from as applied to our redemption by Christ from the curse of the Law” (WSD). The word lutron, along with its word group, however, is the most significant for understanding the NT idea of redemption. B. B. Warfield noted that:
“In the group of words built up around [lutron] the Greek language offered to New Testament a series of terms which distinctly said ransom’; and just in proportion as we think of the writers of the New Testament as using Greek naturally we must think of them as feeling the intrinsic significance of these words as they used them, and as using them only when they intended to give expression to this their intrinsic significance. It is safe to say that no Greek, to the manner born, could write down any word, the center of which was [lutron], without consciousness of ransoming as the mode of deliverance of which he was speaking” (Biblical Doctrines, P. 340-341).
In ancient times, the victor in battle would take as many survivors as possible for slaves. Afterward, they notified the conquered enemy of the capture of the more important prisoners so that the enemy could redeem or purchase them back from captivity. This is one way many would understand the words ransom and redemption. A more prominent image, however, that lutron would bring to the mind of the NT person is Sacral Manumission. According to ancient law, a slave can free himself by paying a ransom price in a rite of sacral manumissions. Deissmann describes the process:
“Among the various ways in which the manumission of a slave could take place by ancient law we find the solemn rite of fictitious purchase of the slave by some divinity. The owner comes with the slave to the temple, sells him there to the god, and receives the purchase money from the temple treasury, the slave having previously paid it there out of his savings. The slave is now property of the god; not however, a slave of the temple, but a protege of the god. Against all the world, especially his former master, he is a completely free man; at utmost a few pious obligations to his old master are imposed on him” ( Light Form the Ancient East, P. 322).
Morris cites this inscription:
“Chaeremon to the agoranomus, greeting. Grant freedom to Euphrosyne, a slave, age 35 years, born in her owner’s house of the slave Demetrous. She is being set at liberty under . . . by ransom [(epi lutrois)] by her mistress Aloine, daughter of Komon, son of Dionysius of Oxyrhyncus, under the wardship of Komon, the son of Aloine’s deceased brother Dioscortus. Aloine’s deceased brother Dioscorus. The price is 10 drachmae of coined silver and 10 talents, 3,000 drachame of copper. Farewell” ( The Oxyrhyncus Papyri, cited by Morris, Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, P. 13).
The meaning of redemption is clearly that of buying back a person or thing in bondage through a ransom price. The idea is not unlike our present day pawn shops. In NT thought, Jesus Christ, through His substitutionary death on the cross, buys back His people out of bondage–His blood is the payment of that price. Through His shed blood we are forgiven: “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace” (Eph. 1:7).
For the person aware of his sin, and under the curse of the law and wrath of God, there is no greater comfort then to know God’s forgiveness. Yet God’s forgiveness is an even greater comfort for God’s children! We sin daily with full knowledge of Christ’s sacrifice; and we sin not as slaves, but as free. Yet, Christ’s redemption has brought us forgiveness of all our sins.
God’s children must avoid two extremes. We must avoid making too light of sin. Sin is an offense to our God, and God will discipline His children. However, we must also avoid self-condemnation and despondency over our sin. Christ’s has redeemed us; we are forgiven. The apostle John writes: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from ALL unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9).
It is a common experience of Christians at times to fear God, and, like Adam, hide from His presence because of our sin. We sometimes fear going to Him because of some grievous sin. But in doing so we commit a greater sin! It implies that Christ’s blood has not redeemed; That there is no forgiveness; That God is not faithful and righteous; That Christ’s death was in vain! Scripture, however, tells us, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). In Jesus Christ, we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our sins. We are bought with a price. We are redeemed by Christ’s precious blood to become a “People of God’s own possession.” We are His! We belong to Him as adopted children. Do not fear God, He is our Father. We must go to Him, confess our sins, and trust Him and His word that we are forgiven.
” Dear dying Lamb, Thy precious blood
Shall never lose its power
Till all the ransomed Church of God
Be saved to sin no more.” (Cowper)
“O sweet exchange!” (Epistle to Diognetus)
“Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (Jn. 15:13).
Substitutionary atonement, also called by some writers vicarious atonement, is the work of Christ in which He freely and graciously took the place of His people and bore the punishment of their sins: “Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mt. 20.28). The word for is the Greek word anti, and is used almost exclusively in the sense of “instead,” or, “in the place of.” The word is used “in order to indicate that one person or thing is or is to be replaced by another, instead of, in place of” ( A & G, P. 73). Our Lord says that His mission in the incarnation was not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life in place of the many (Mk. 10:45). Christ understood His impending death to be a substitution for many.
However, in most other Scripture passages expressing the substitutionary element of the atonement, the Greek word translated for is huper and normally carries the meaning “on behalf of, or, on the account of.” However, as the DNTT notes, “The emphasis in huper is on representation, in anti on substitution; yet a substitute represents and a representative may be a substitute. That is, huper sometimes implies anti” (Dictionary of New Testament Theology, vol. 3, p. 1197). Since we know that our Lord understood His death as substitutionary, and since huper can mean substitution, then when huper is used to represent the relationship between Jesus’ death and the sinner, the meaning must include substitution. For example, “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for (huper) the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit” (1 Pet. 3.18). Obviously, “for” means “in place of.” Another example is 2 Cor. 5.14, “For the love of God controls us, having concluded this, that one died for (huper) all, therefore all died.” The only possible meaning of huper in this context is “in place of” since the result of Christ’s death is “all died.” (See also 2 Cor. 5.21; Philemon 13)
Is this theological quibbling of the meaning over a word necessary? Indeed it is, for Jesus did not merely die on our behalf, which is true, but He died in our place. The difference is significant. It is not merely that Christ’s death has the potential of atoning for sin, but His death has, for all of God’s elect, atoned for sin. As surety for His people, He stood in our place, and taking in our stead the punishment for our sins.
Payment God cannot twice demand,
First at my bleeding surety’s hand
And than again at mine.
Those who reject Christ’s substitutionary death argue that Christ did not pay what the sinner really owed–eternal suffering. Therefore it is not a true substitution. In answer Dabney gives this insightful illustration:
“A mechanic is justly indebted to a land-owner in the sum of one hundred pounds; and has no money wherewith to pay. now, should a rich brother offer the landlord the full hundred pounds, in coin of the realm, this would be a legal tender; it would, ipso facto, cancel the debt, even though the creditor captiously rejected it. Christ’s satisfaction is not ipso facto in this commercial sense. There is a second supposition: that the kind brother is not rich, but is himself an able mechenic; and seeing that the landlord is engaged in building, he proposes that he will work as a builder for him for two hundred days, at ten shillings per diem (which is a fair price), to cancel his poor brother’s debt. The proposal, on the one hand, is not legal tender,’ and does not compel the creditor. He may say that he has already enough mechenics, who are paid in advance; so that he cannot take the proposal. But, if he judges it convenient to accept it, although he does not get the coin, he gets an actual equivalent for his claim, and a fair one. This is satisfacto. The debtor may thus get a valid release on the terms freely covenanted between the surety and creditor” (Systematic Theology, p. 504).
Such was the case between God the Father and God the Son.
WHAT THE ATONEMENT MEANS FOR US
(1) “Nothing can pacify an offended conscience but that which satisfied an offended God” Matthew Henry. Nothing can ease the accusations of a guilty conscience but Christ vicarious death for the guilty. What the law of God condemns, our conscience too condemns. And only when divine justice is satisfied, is the guilty conscience pacified. The cure, therefore, for a guilty conscience, aware of its debt before God, is the Cross of Jesus Christ, not Christian pop psychology or a Christianized twelve step program. Yet, it not a mere belief that Christ’s death has satisfied God’s righteousness and has obtained forgiveness of sin that pacifies the conscious. Rather, only an abiding trust and reliance on Christ’s work will pacify the guilty conscience and bring peace and rest (Shedd). It is the one who can say along Charles Wesley:
“Other refuge have I none
Hangs my helpless soul on Thee.”
that receives the blood bought forgiveness and the peace and rest the belongs to it. A mere historical faith, by its nature, can never pacify a guilty conscience.
(2) “In looking, therefore, for the inmost seat and centre of the Divine compassion, we should seek it rather in the work of the atonement than in the act of forgiveness; rather in the cause than the effect. That covenant-transaction in the depths of the Trinity, in which God the Father commissioned and gave up the Only-Begotten as a peculiar oblation for man’s sin, and in which the Only-Begotten voluntarily accepted the commission, is a greater proof and manifestation of the Divine pity, than the that other and subsequent transaction in the depths of a believers soul in which God says, Son, be of Good cheer, thy sin is forgiven thee.’ The latter transaction is easy enough, after the former has occurred. But the former transaction cost the infinite and adorable Trinity an effort, and a sacrifice, that is inconceivable, and unutterable. This is the mystery which angels desire to look into. That a just God should release from penalty after an ample atonement has been made, is easy to understand and believe. But that he should himself make atonement, is the wonder and the mystery” ! (Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, vol. 2, p. 393).
(3) Christ sacrifice and satisfaction is perfect. Nothing else is needed. NOTHING! “For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens; who does not need daily like those high priest, to offer up sacrifices, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself” (Heb. 7:26-27). “And every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which could never take away sins; but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all times sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time onward until His enemies be made a footstool for His feet. For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified”(Heb. 10.10-14; See also: Rom. 5:8; Heb. 9:24-28; 1 Pet. 3:18). Because of Christ’s perfect sacrifice and satisfaction God’s people can joyfully sing:
Not the labors of my hands,
Can fulfil the laws demands;
Could my zeal no languor know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.
Nothing in my hands I bring
Simply to the cross I cling.
(4) “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weakness, but one who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4.15-16). Because of Christ’s High Priestly work we have a throne of grace not only go to, but to go to with confidence and there find mercy and grace!
(5) The atonement, (a) accomplishes the redemption God’s elect (Heb. 9.12-24). By it God’s elect are forgiven (Eph. 1.7), reconciled (Col. 1.21-22), justified (Rom. 3.24), adopted (Gal. 4.4-5) and given eternal life. (b) The atonement gives a time of grace for all to repent, and gives temporal blessings to all. (c) The atonement made objectively possible the salvation of the human race, and is the basis for a sincere offer of salvation. (d) The atonement is the basis for the just condemnation and eternal punishment for all who reject the gospel. (e) The atonement reveals God’s glory, mercy, truth, and justice. The question is, Who are the SAVING benefits given to other then the elect of God? The answer to this question establishes the atonement’s extent in relation to its redemptive benefits. If Jesus came to this earth and with His own blood redeemed people who nevertheless perish, then the nature of the atonement must be altered. The atonement now must be a satisfaction that does not satisfy, a redemption that does not redeem, a propitiation that does not propitiate, a reconciliation that does not reconcile. Those who universalize the extent of the atonement by saying Christ died for all, also limits its efficacy. In other words, it is the Arminian notion that limits the atonement — not the Calvinist!
John Owen, in Life by His Death, an abridgment the classic, Death of Death, concludes that:
“If the death of Christ actual obtains redemption, cleansing, purification, bearing away sins, reconciliation, eternal life, and citizenship in a kingdom, then He must have died only for those who do get those things. It is not true that all men have those things, as is very clear! The salvation of all men therefore cannot have been the purpose of the death of Christ” (P. 20).
He goes on to say:
“Christ then, by His death, purchased, for all whom he died, all those things which the Bible says were the effects of His death. The value of His death purchased deliverance from the power of sin and God’s wrath, from death and the power of the devil, from the curse of the law and the guilt of sin. The value of His death obtained reconciliation with God, peace, and eternal redemption. These things are now God’s free gifts, because Christ purchased them. If Christ died for all men, then why do not all men have these things? Is the value of His death not enough? Is God unjust, not to give us what Christ bought for us? It must be immediately obvious that Christ cannot have died to purchase these things for all men, but only for those who actually enjoy them” (p. 44).
(6) To deny the doctrine of Christ’s perfect satisfaction for sin is to deny the gospel: “Now I make known to you, brethren, the Gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance that which I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures (1 Cor. 15:1-3)
(6) “The blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us fro ALL sin” (1 Jn.1.7).
(7) “Love so amazing, so divine, DEMANDS my soul, my life, my all! (Isaac Watts)
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18).
The apostle Paul told the Romans in verses 16-17 that no other way of salvation is possible except by believing and accepting the gospel through faith. The reason Paul gives is that the “Wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” Paul then labors diligently to explain that all are ungodly and guilty, therefore, all, apart from Christ’s work, will suffer God’s wrath. The only means of escape is the gospel.
Note that Paul says it is God’s wrath, and not some impersonal force or merely the consequence of natural law. It is “The wrath OF GOD.”
“He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides ON him” (Jn. 3:36).
“What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction?” (Rom. 9:22).
“Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 5:6).
“Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17).
“In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (Jn. 4:10).
“For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified (set apart)” (Heb. 10.14)
“And walk in love, just as Christ also loved you, and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma” (Eph. 5.2).
Note here that the Apostle Paul links the right understanding of the doctrine of the Atonement with a Godly walk. In other words, walking in love and purity is the fruit of correct doctrine, and Paul connects the doctrine of Christ’s atonement with that walk and purity.
“Being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith.” (Rom. 3.24-25a).
“For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weakness, but one who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4.15-16).
“For this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt. 26.28).
As the Mosaic covenant was ratified with blood (Ex. 24.8) so Christ ratified the New Covenant with His very own blood.
“For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit” (1 Pet. 3.18).
“He made Him who new no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21).
“All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him” (Isa. 53.6).
Isaiah 53 clearly teaches that Christ was as substitute for His people. (note verse 4-7) And Christ applies Isa. 53 to Himself, (Lk. 22:37).
FALSE THEORIES CONCERNING THE DEATH OF CHRIST
This section on Erroneous Theories of the Atonement is taken from Chapter 5 section 9 of Loraine Boettner’s excellent work, Studies In Theology.
Erroneous Theories of the Atonement
As might have been expected, this great comprehensive doctrine of the atonement which lies at the very heart of the Gospel has not been allowed to go unchallenged. Numerous “theories of the atonement” have emerged from time to time and have been more or less prominent in the Church. Practically all of these with small variations can be included under three main heads: (1) The Moral Influence Theory; (2) The Governmental Theory; and (3) The Mystical Theory.
THE MORAL INFLUENCE THEORY
The most widely held and the most influential of the erroneous theories of the atonement is the moral influence theory. It denies that Christ died to satisfy any principle of divine justice, and holds that His death was designed primarily to impress men with a sense of God’s love and thus soften their hearts and lead them to repentance. According to this view the crucifixion was a dramatic exhibition of suffering intended to produce a moral impression in awe-stricken spectators. It represents Christ as suffering for us as a loving father or mother suffers for an ungrateful son or a wayward daughter and with the purpose of moving us so that we will turn and repent. The atonement is then conceived of as directed not toward God, with the purpose of maintaining His justice, but toward man, with the purpose of persuading him to right action. Christ’s work on the cross is then made to be an impressive proclamation to the world that God is willing to forgive sin on the sole condition that men turn from it. His suffering and death is explained as merely that of a martyr in the cause of righteousness, and as the natural consequence of His having taken human nature upon Himself. He is then supposed to have shared in the woes and griefs which human living naturally involves, and His suffering was not an atonement or an expiation in any true sense of the word, but a supreme example of self-sacrifice. And we in turn are to be inspired by His example so that we too become willing to bear our crosses and give our lives in the service of some good cause, perhaps even in martyrdom, and thus work out our own salvation.
The moral influence theory holds that while Christ may have had a great influence in persuading us to walk in the way of the cross, the way of service and self-sacrifice, it is after all our walking in it and not Christ’s walking it which really saves us. This means that in the final analysis we are saved by our own efforts, not by Christ’s blood. Christ is then not our Saviour in any true sense of the word, but only a friend and example; and the world has had as many saviours as it has had good men and women. It is the same old notion that sinful man can save himself. It is basically the religion of naturalism, decked out in new garments and dishonestly making use of Christian terminology.
This theory rests on the assumption that God is love and only love; and, holding that repentance is the only requirement for forgiveness, it denies the existence of any law which demands that sin shall receive its just punishment. This is really the root of the whole modern assault upon the doctrine of the atonement. Dr. Warfield has very effectively analyzed and exposed this one-sided emphasis on the attribute of love, and we can do no better than to quote his words:
“In the attempt to give effect to the conception of indiscriminate and undiscriminating love as the basal fact of religion, the entire Biblical teaching as to atonement has been ruthlessly torn up. If God is love and nothing but love, what possible need can there be of an atonement?… Well, certainly, God is love. But it does not in the least follow that He is nothing but love. God is Love: but Love is not God and the formula ‘Love’ must therefore ever be inadequate to express God. It may well be — for us sinners, lost in our sin and misery but for it, it must be — the crowning revelation of Christianity that God is love. But it is not from the Christian revelation that we have learned to think of God as nothing but love. That God is the Father of all men in a true and important sense, we should not doubt. But the indiscriminate benevolencism which has taken captive so much of religious thinking of our time is a conception not native to Christianity, but of distinctly heathen quality. As one reads the pages of popular religious literature, teeming as it is with ill-considered assertions of the general Fatherhood of God, he has an odd feeling of transportation back into the atmosphere of, say, the decadent heathenism of the fourth and Fifth centuries when the gods were dying, and there was left to those who would fain cling to the old ways little beyond a somewhat saddened sense of the benignitas numinis. The benignitas numinis! How studded the pages of those genial old heathen are with the expression; how suffused their repressed life is with the conviction that the kind Deity that dwells above will surely not be hard on men toiling here below! How shocked they are at the stern righteousness of the Christian’s God, who loomed before their startled eyes as He looms before those of the modern poet in no other light than as ‘the hard God that dwelt in Jerusalem’! Surely the Great Divinity is too broadly good to mark the peccadillos of poor puny man; surely they are the objects of His compassionate amusement rather than of His fierce reprobation. Like Omar Khayyam’s pot, they were convinced, before all things, of their Maker that ‘He’s a good fellow and ’twill all be well.”
“The query cannot help rising to the surface of our minds whether our modern indiscriminate benevolencism goes much deeper than this. Does all this one-sided proclamation of the universal Fatherhood of God import much more than the heathen benignitas numinis? When we take those blessed words, ‘God is Love,’ upon our lips, are we sure we mean to express much more than that we do not wish to believe that God will hold man to any real account for his sin? Are we, in a word, in these modern days, so much soaring upward toward a more adequate apprehension of the transcendent truth that God is love, as passionately protesting against being ourselves branded and dealt with as wrath-deserving sinners? Assuredly it is impossible to put anything like their real content into these great words, ‘God is Love,’ save as they are thrown out against the background of those other conceptions of equal loftiness, ‘God is Light,’ ‘God is Righteousness,’ ‘God is Holiness,’ ‘God is a consuming fire.’ The love of God cannot be apprehended in its length and breadth and height and depth — all of which pass knowledge — save as it is apprehended as the love of a God who turns from the sight of sin with inexpressible abhorrence,, and burns against it with unquenchable indignation. The infinitude of His love would be illustrated not by His lavishing of His favor on sinners without requiring an expiation of sin, but by His — through such holiness and through such righteousness as cannot but cry out with infinite abhorrence and indignation —still loving sinners so greatly that He provides a satisfaction for their sin adequate to these tremendous demands. It is the distinguishing characteristic of Christianity, after all, not that it preaches a God of love, but that it preaches a God of conscience.. . And a thoroughly conscientious God, we may be sure, is not a God who can deal with sinners as if they were not sinners. In this fact lies, perhaps, the deepest ground of the necessity of an expiatory atonement.
“And it is in this fact also that there lies the deepest ground of the increasing failure of the modern world to appreciate the necessity of an expiatory atonement. Conscientiousness commends itself only to awakened conscience; and in much of recent theologizing conscience does not seem especially active. Nothing, indeed, is more startling in the structure of recent theories of atonement, than the apparently vanishing sense of sin that underlies them. Surely it is only where the sense of the power of sin has profoundly decayed, that men can fancy that they can at will cast it off from them in a ‘revolutionary repentance.’ Surely it is only where the sense of the heinousness of sin has practically passed away, that man can imagine that the holy and just God can deal with it lightly. If we have not much to be saved from, why, certainly a very little atonement will suffice for our needs. It is, after all, only the sinner that requires a Saviour. But if we are sinners, and in proportion as we know ourselves to be sinners, and appreciate what it means to be sinners, we will cry out for that Saviour who only after He was perfected by suffering could become the Author of salvation” — Studies in Theology, p. 294 f.
The advocates of the moral influence theory are never tired of ridiculing the idea that God must be propitiated. They give no hint of the Scripture doctrine of the subjective effects of sin on the human heart by which it is alienated from God and unable to respond to any appeal of right motives however powerful. They see no impassable gulf between the holy God and sinful man, and, consequently, they see no reason why satisfaction should be made to divine justice. If, as they say, God is continually reaching out His arms from heaven toward man, and the whole difficulty is in inducing men to permit themselves to be pardoned, why, then, of course, there can be no need for an atonement, and in fact the whole idea of atonement is reduced to absurdity. But the Scriptures teach, on the one hand, that the justice of God must be vindicated, and on the other, that an internal action of the Holy Spirit upon the human heart is necessary before man can comprehend spiritual truth, or repent, and that this gift of the Spirit has been purchased for the believer by the sacrifice of Christ. Paul very explicitly grounds the necessity for the atonement, not in the love of God, but in His righteousness or justice, declaring that the ultimate purpose of the atonement was “that He might be just, and the justifier of him that hath faith in Jesus,” Rom. 3:26.
The history of the doctrine of the atonement shows how very difficult it is to maintain belief in the Deity of Christ in connection with the moral influence theory. On the basis of this theory the example of a human Christ who, supposedly, is nearer to us, serves as well or even better than a divine Christ. Most modern books on the atonement refuse to impute to man either the sin of Adam or the righteousness of Christ, and so they logically deny both the fall of the race in Adam and the redemption of the race in Christ. They see in Jesus only a great teacher and friend, and consequently their religion tends downward toward the level of humanism.
The far-reaching effect of the moral influence theory and the thoroughness with which it disrupts the whole Christian system has been well stated by Dr. A. H. Strong, who declares that
“logically it necessitates a curtailment or surrender of every other characteristic doctrine of Christianity — Inspiration, sin, the Deity of Christ, justification, regeneration, and eternal retribution. It requires surrender of inspiration; for the idea of vicarious and expiatory sacrifice is woven into the very warp and woof of the Old and New Testaments. It requires an abandonment of the Scripture doctrine of sin; for in it all ideas of sin as perversion of nature rendering the sinner unable to save himself, and an objective guilt demanding satisfaction to the divine holiness, is denied. It requires us to give up the Deity of Christ; for if sin is a slight evil, and man can save himself from its penalty and power, then there is no longer need of infinite suffering or an infinite Saviour, and a human Christ is as good as a divine. It requires us to give up the Scripture doctrine of justification, as God’s act of declaring the sinner just in the eyes of the law, solely on account of the righteousness and death of Christ to whom he is united by faith; for it cannot permit the counting to man of any other righteousness than his own. It requires a denial of the doctrine of regeneration; for this is no longer the work of God, but the work of the sinner; it is no longer a change of the affections below consciousness, but a self-reforming volition of the sinner himself. It requires a denial of eternal retribution; for this is no longer appropriate to finite transgression of arbitrary law, and to superficial sinning that does not involve [a change in the moral] nature.” — Systematic Theology, p. 730.
We readily acknowledge that the surpassing love of God as displayed in the death of Christ on the cross should cause men to forsake their sin and return to God; but the fact of the matter is that this kind of an appeal does not and cannot touch the unregenerate heart. The experience of New England Unitarianism and of present day Modernism makes it perfectly clear that the moral influence theory of the atonement is morally powerless,– and that for the reason that it puts man back on the plane of the so-called natural religions. It takes from Christ His own garment (the garment which the writer of the book of Revelation says is “sprinkled with blood,” which has inscribed on it His name, “King of Kings and Lord of Lords,” 19:13, 16), and puts on another, divests Him of His glory, and proceeds to proclaim, not the Gospel of the New Testament, but a man-made gospel, which has no power to move sinners to repentance. The convicted sinner knows that he is guilty and polluted, and that he has a debt to be paid to divine justice. And not until he is convinced that Christ has paid that debt for him can he think hopefully of reforming his life.
Furthermore, it should be realized by all that a tragedy gotten up for the transparent purpose of affecting our feelings, having no inherent principle or necessity in itself, necessarily defeats itself and produces only disgust. An unjust punishment is a crime in itself. To hang an innocent man for the good of the community is both a crime and a blunder. Only when the hanging is justified by the ill-desert of the person can it be seen by all the community as either just or necessary.
The moral influence theory furnishes no proper explanation of the suffering and death of Christ, but rather makes absurd if not even criminal His voluntary acceptance of such suffering and death in the very prime of His manhood. Furthermore, if He died simply as a martyr instead of the sin-bearer for His people, it is utterly impossible to explain why in His deepest suffering He was utterly forsaken by the Father.
THE GOVERNMENTAL THEORY
The governmental theory of the atonement holds that because of His absolute sovereignty God is able to relax at will the demands of the law and to forgive men freely without any expiation or sacrifice for sin, but that in order to preserve a fair degree of discipline and respect for law so that men shall not be encouraged to believe that they can commit sin with impunity, He must at the same time give some exhibition of the high estimate which He sets upon the law. The primary purpose in the suffering of Christ then was, not to satisfy any eternal principle of divine justice as the satisfaction view holds, nor to break down man’s opposition to God by a manifestation of His love as in the moral influence theory, but to secure man’s reformation by inducing in him a horror for sin through the awful spectacle of Christ on the cross. With that spectacle before their eyes men were to be made to understand what a serious thing sin really is, that it will not be allowed to go unpunished, and so induced to maintain respect for divine government even in the face of repeated acts of executive clemency. The governmental theory does not hold that Christ suffered the precise penalty which was originally attached to the law, nor even an equivalent of that penalty, but something much less, which God in His sovereignty is at liberty to accept as a substitute for that penalty. Having given this exhibition of His displeasure with sin, God is now able to offer salvation on much easier terms than those originally announced. Instead of demanding perfect obedience He now demands only faith and a reasonable degree of good works, all of which is, of course, worked out by the person himself. There is, therefore, a vast difference between this theory and the satisfaction view which holds that we are saved solely through the perfect obedience of Christ, which obedience conforms to the high demands which were originally set forth as the condition of salvation.
The element of truth in the governmental theory is that the death of Christ actually is a warning that sin shall not be allowed to go unpunished, and that the orderly government of the universe can continue only as men do have respect for law. But we hold that the primary object of punishment is not to instill devotion to the idea of government, or to an abstract idea of law, but the satisfaction of divine justice, and that righteousness must be done for its own sake, because it is right. No deeply convicted sinner feels that his controversy is with government or law as such, but that he is confronted with an intensely personal problem, that he is polluted and undone, and in antagonism to the parity of a personal God,– “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned,” said the truly penitent David when he saw his sin in its true light, Ps. 51:4; and the humble publican cried out, “God, be thou merciful to me a sinner,” Luke 18:13.
The governmental theory makes no provision for, and in fact it denies the possibility of, the imputation of the sinner’s guilt to Christ or of Christ’s righteousness to us. It therefore represents God as unjust in that He punishes an innocent person merely for the sake of the impression that it will make on others. Ill-desert must always go before punishment. Unless the punishment is right and just in itself it can work no good to society. This theory fails to recognize the extreme heinousness of sin, and assumes that sin can be adequately punished with a penalty less than that which God Himself originally set against it. But if that is true and if God in His sovereignty is at liberty to assign whatever value He pleases to every created thing presented to Him, then the blood of bulls and goats could just as well have taken away sins,– the sufferings of Christ were superfluous, and He died in vain. This theory assumes that man has the power to change his moral nature at will and that to accomplish this he needs only to be surrounded by good influences, whereas the Scriptures teach that he needs a complete change of nature, or regeneration, which benefit was purchased for him by Christ and can be made effective only through the power of the Holy Spirit. And finally, the light view of sin which this theory holds fails utterly to show forth the deep love of God for His people; for it has no adequate understanding of the cost involved when God Himself — not a mere man, but God himself in the person of Christ — took our place on the accursed tree.
The governmental theory is, of course, an inconsistent and unstable theory, and it is held by only a comparatively small number of people. It was invented by a prominent Dutch theologian and jurist of the seventeenth century, Hugo Grotius, who approached the subject from the judicial standpoint. He held that in the forgiveness of sin God is to be regarded primarily as a moral governor or ruler who must act, not according to His emotions or desires, but with a view to the best interests of all of those under His authority. The work of Christ was thus conceived of as purely didactic, and the cross was but a symbol, designed to teach, by way of example, God’s hatred for sin.
The governmental theory is sometimes called the “intermediate view.” It is not as seriously in error as is the moral influence theory. which conceives of the whole purpose of the atonement as designed to influence man, while this theory acknowledges that it is in part directed toward God in that it is designed to maintain respect for His law. But in principle the two are not essentially different, for each denies any necessity of satisfying divine justice and each holds that the primary design of the cross was to produce an effect in man.
THE MYSTICAL THEORY
There is one more theory that we must mention, generally known. as the “mystical theory.” In this theory the human race is looked upon as a mass or unit or organism rather than as individuals, and the seeds of death and corruption which were introduced into the race through the sin of Adam are counteracted and overcome by the principles of life and immortality which Christ is supposed to have introduced into the race through His incarnation. Redemption is regarded as having been accomplished not by anything that Christ taught or did, but by the incarnation in which Deity was infused into or united with humanity. According to some advocates of this theory, in the incarnation, Christ assumed human nature as He found it, that is, fallen human nature, and not only kept it from sinning but purified it by the power of His own divine nature; and men are saved as, by faith, they become partakers of this purified humanity. According to others, the original depravity which the race inherited from Adam was supposed to have been gradually overcome during the earthly life of Jesus until at the time of His death human nature was restored to its original glory and fellowship with God. According to some, humanity is finally to be deified. Redemption is thus conceived of as terminating physically on man in that the transforming essence of Deity was put into the mass of humanity as leaven into a lump of dough. Christ is regarded as having taken into union with Himself not a real and separate human body and soul, but humanity as a generic substance; and the result was a blood brotherhood in which Christ’s inner spiritual life was communicated to man, awakening in him the dormant God consciousness and enabling him to overcome the sensuous world consciousness.
The mystical theory has never been held by a large number of people, although it has persisted since the early Greek Fathers and has been held by widely separated groups. Its strength lies in the fact that it lays stress on an important truth, namely, the fact that all believers are in a true sense united with Christ and partake of a new nature. But we hold that this union is made effective, not through the incarnation, but through the work of the Holy Spirit, and in individuals rather than in humanity as a mass. This theory is also commendable in that it ascribes redemption to divine grace and emphasizes the importance of holy living.
But there are serious objections against it. In the first place it contradicts the plain teaching of Scripture. It asserts that Christ’s suffering and death form no essential part of His redemptive work, while the Scriptures strongly emphasize His suffering and death as the basis for the remission of sin. Nowhere in Scripture are we told that Christ became incarnate in order that He might infuse divine life into humanity. Rather we are told that He assumed human nature in order that in it He might suffer the penalty which was due to His people and thus free them from the obligation which rested upon them.
The mystical theory is essentially pantheistic in its tendency. Its assertion that divine life was infused into the human in order to purify and lift the human to the divine breaks down the fundamental distinction between God and man, and leaves the way open for a pantheistic interpretation of life. Its logical corollary is that ultimately the entire human race which has lived since the time of Christ will be transformed and restored to holiness and God.
It leaves unexplained the redemption of the saints who died before the time of Christ, since the subjective and somewhat mechanical process through which redemption is supposed to have been accomplished could not have affected them. Some of its advocates have gone so far as to say that there was no salvation before the time of Christ and that all of the patriarchs perished.
In concluding this study we should observe that each of the erroneous views errs by defect. Each substitutes for the chief aim of the atonement one which is subordinate and incidental. But at no time in the history of the Church has any one of these been able to displace the doctrine of “satisfaction,” either in the creeds or in the hearts of believers. In the final analysis no one of them makes any provision for the satisfaction of divine justice, and therefore offers nothing that can honestly be called an atonement. The burden of the apostolic preaching was not that Christ’s death was designed primarily to move men by a transcendent display of God’s love, nor that it was designed to induce respect for some general or abstract principle of law, nor that all mankind was to be reunited to God by some mysterious union of the divine and human, but rather that He “was delivered up for our trespasses and was raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). Very few earnest Christians can ever be persuaded to believe that the life and death of Christ was only “a liturgical service, a chant and a dirge, to move the world’s mind; a pageant with a moral.”
Neither the moral influence nor the governmental nor the mystical theory finds any support in the sacrificial system of ancient Israel. In no instance is there the slightest indication that any Old Testament sacrifice was ever designed to produce a moral influence on the offerer, or to teach a general respect for law or government, or to illustrate the infusion of the divine nature into the human. Always the immediate and primary end sought in sacrifice was forgiveness; and the effect is said to be “to make atonement for sin,” Lev. 4:20, 26, 31; 6:30; II Chr. 29 .24.
The fact of the matter is that the satisfaction view sets forth much more profoundly and effectively the elements of truth which each of these theories embraces, while at the same time it refutes and excludes their erroneous elements. In revealing to us the infinite love of God for His people and showing at what great cost our redemption was purchased it far excels the moral influence theory in producing in us the particular moral effect which that theory was designed to produce, while at the same time it avoids the error of assuming that the sufferings of Christ were designed primarily to influence men rather than to satisfy divine justice. In revealing to us the true nature of the law of God as a transcript of the divine nature, which therefore is perfect and holy and immutable, it far excels the governmental theory in producing respect for that law, while it avoids the errors of assuming that punishment laid on an innocent person can of itself produce a good reaction in human society. And in revealing to us how we are legally and representatively united with Christ so that our sin and punishment becomes His while His righteousness and inheritance and glory becomes ours, it far excels the mystical theory in portraying the true nature of our union with Him, while it avoids the error of assuming that sinful human nature is cleansed by an infusion of divine life such as that theory supposes to have occurred at the incarnation.
Quite often we hear it said that it makes little difference what “theory” of the atonement we hold. The fact of the matter is that it makes all the difference in the world. If when we contemplate the cross of Christ we see there the eternal Son of God who loved us and gave Himself for us, who assumed the curse and bought us with His own most precious blood, we shall have the supernatural Christian faith which is set forth in the Scriptures. But if in the suffering of Christ we see only a noble example of self-sacrifice which we in turn are to emulate as well as we can and so work out our own salvation, we shall have only a man-made naturalistic religion such as has deluded so many multitudes down through the ages.
With so much of the world in confusion and men’s souls so sorely tried as they are today, this certainly is no time to talk of bloodless atonement. The truly penitent soul, conscious of the burden of sin and guilt, cries out for redemption and refuses to be satisfied with anything else. Others may build on the sands of human speculation if they wish. We are convinced that Christ’s death is the only means of salvation, and that where it is unknown or neglected or rejected the soul perishes. The distinction is indeed vital. It is the most momentous that can confront any person.
That the doctrine of the atonement has been neglected and obscured in our day is very evident. Only rarely do we hear a sermon or see an article printed on it. Yet it is the very heart of the Christian message and without it the Gospel is powerless. The minister who neglects it either because of a lack of spiritual experience or because of intellectual difficulties associated with it, becomes hesitant and ineffective or eccentric and sensational,– and that for the very simple reason that his message will then be seriously lacking either in spiritual depth or in intellectual background. In either case it cannot be taken seriously by either minister or hearers. No doubt much of the lack of spiritual power and warmth so frequently charged against the religious life of our day is due in large measure to the neglect of this cardinal truth in so many churches. We do not mean to imply that it has been lost from the hearts of the Christian community. For, as Dr. Warfield has said,
“It is in terms of the substitutive atonement that the humble Christian everywhere still expresses the grounds of his hope of salvation. It is in its terms that the earnest evangelist everywhere still presses the claims of Christ upon the awakened hearer. It has not even been lost from the forum of theological discussion. It still commands powerful advocates wherever a vital Christianity enters academic circles; and, as a rule, the more profound the thinker the more clear is the note he strikes in its proclamation and defense.” — Studies in Theology, p. 287.
While the satisfaction view was in substance the view held by the Church from the earliest days, it was not analyzed and set forth in systematic form until the eleventh century, when Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, set it forth in his epoch-making book, Cur Deus Homo. Since that time it has been an essential part of the creeds and doctrines of all Christian churches, Catholic and Protestant.
At the time of the Reformation the Protestant theologians put the strongest emphasis on the doctrine of the atonement. Calvin in particular in his Institutes worked it out broadly in all of its implications. The result was a dynamic and evangelistic faith. A return to that emphasis probably would do more to re-vitalize the Church and to restore its evangelistic zeal than anything else that could possibly be done. The hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church has been quick to realize that their main hold on the minds and hearts of the plain people through all the centuries has been the Mass, which is the visible re-enactment, by the use of symbols, of the suffering and death of Christ. Even the pagan religions, with their elaborate temple services and systems of sacrifice, are witnesses to the fact that something more than a lovely system of ethics or a winsome example of fine behaviour is needed to lift the burden of sin from the human soul.
The doctrine of the atonement thus emerges as a vital doctrine in the Christian system. On no other basis than that of Christ’s redemptive work is any one warranted in calling himself a Christian. In all other systems one’s entire relation with Christ, the ground of His acceptance with God and therefore the entire nature of his religious life, is different. The validity of Christianity as a God-given supernatural system of redemption from sin is bound up with the truth or falsity of its distinctive doctrine of the atonement. We are living in a day when many things pass for “Christianity.” But Christianity has a fixed and definite doctrinal content as certainly as Mormonism, Mohammedanism, and Christian Science have their fixed and definite doctrinal contents. At a minimum Christianity involves (1) acknowledgment of one’s sin; (2) sorrow for that sin; and (3) trust in Christ as one’s only Redeemer from sin. The doctrinal content of Christianity has been fixed by Christ, either personally or through His Apostles, and has been unchangeably recorded in the Bible. For any one to call himself a Christian only because it is popular to do so, or because he approves of the general moral or social life that is found in a Christian community, is as dishonest and unethical as it would be for him to call himself a Mormon or a Mohammedan only because he likes certain outward features in one of those systems. We are not at liberty to call anything “Christianity” unless it conforms to the system of doctrine that was established by Christ Himself.