The two great objectives to be accomplished by Jesus Christ in His mission to this world were, first, the removal of the curse under which mankind labored as a result of the disobedience and fall, and second, the restoration of men to the image and fellowship of God. Both of these were essential to salvation. The work of Christ in reconciling God and men we call the Atonement; and this doctrine, we believe, lies at the very heart of the Christian system.
In the nature of the case we are altogether dependent on Scripture for our knowledge concerning this doctrine and can know only what God has seen fit to reveal concerning it. Human philosophy and speculation can contribute practically nothing toward its solution, and should be held in abeyance. Our present purpose is to give a systematized account of what the Scriptures teach concerning it, and to show that this fits in perfectly with the longings and aspirations of an enlightened spiritual nature.
In one of Paul’s most condensed statements of Christian truth we read: ‘For I delivered unto you first of all that which also I received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures; and that He was buried; and that He hath been raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,’ I Cor. 15:3. In this statement first place is given to the death of Christ. ‘Christ died for our sins’ was the fundamental fact of the early Christian message, the corner-stone of its faith. But as soon as this simple fact is stated a number of vital questions are bound to arise. In order that we may have an intelligent understanding of this vital truth it is necessary that we know precisely what it was that Christ accomplished on the cross and how He did it. We cannot rest content with teaching that leaves the central doctrine of our faith shrouded in mystery and uncertainty. This does not mean that all mystery can be removed. But the Scriptures do supply the interpretation of the death of Christ that the inquiring mind legitimately asks for, and the salient factors concerning it should be known by all Christian people. Relieving that the Bible is God’s word to man, and that the statements of Scripture regarding the death of Christ were meant to be understood by ordinary Christian men and women, we shall not be deterred from this study by those who deprecate any ‘theory of the atonement.’ Rather we hold it to be our task and privilege under the promised guidance of the Holy Spirit to ‘search the Scriptures’ until we reach that understanding which satisfies the mind and heart and conscience, and leads to certainty and finality.
We cannot expect to give a full explanation of the Atonement any more than we can give a full explanation of the nature of electricity, or of the force of gravity, or of our own mental and physical processes. But the main outlines of the plan of salvation are clearly revealed in the Scriptures, and it is both our privilege and our duty to acquaint ourselves with as much of that plan as God has seen fit to reveal. We are told, for instance, in broad terms that we are members of a fallen race, that God has given His only-begotten Son for our redemption, and that salvation is through Him and not through any works which we ourselves are able to do. Certainly anyone who accepts these facts and acts upon them will be saved. Yet, accepting these facts and acting upon them would appear to represent only a minimum of faith, and God has made it possible for us greatly to enrich and expand our knowledge of the way of salvation if we will but give careful attention to His word.
By way of background for this subject we are to remember that after God had created man He established certain moral laws by which man was to be governed, and solemnly announced that disobedience to these laws would bring an awful punishment. As a pure test of obedience man was given permission to eat of every tree of the garden except of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In regard to that tree he was told: ‘In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.’ But man deliberately and defiantly disobeyed that command. Through that disobedience he not only corrupted his moral nature, but made necessary the infliction of the prescribed penalty. In view of God’s previously expressed good will toward man, the large degree of liberty granted to him, and his full knowledge of the consequences, this disobedience was especially heinous; because through it man in effect transferred his allegiance from God to the Devil.
Moreover, by his fall Adam corrupted not only himself but all of his posterity, since by divine appointment in this test he acted as their federal head and representative. Had man been left to suffer the penalty alone, he would have experienced not only physical death, but spiritual death as well, which means eternal separation from God and therefore endless progress in sin and suffering. Like the Devil and the demons, who also are fallen creatures and who have been abandoned to their fate, man was morally polluted and guilty and had neither the desire nor the ability to reform himself. Furthermore, it is very evident that no member of this fallen race was capable of paying the debt owed by any other, since each one was preoccupied with his own sin. Even if it had been possible to have found a truly righteous man who was also willing to bear the penalty for others, he could at most have delivered but one other person since he himself was only a man. Nowhere outside the Trinity was there a person either capable or willing to take the place of another, no one capable of suffering and dying, the one for the many. Nor had man the slightest grounds on which to base a request that he be excused from the penalty of the law. Hence his condition was truly desperate.
But fortunately for man there was One both able and willing to perform that service. It was for this purpose that the Lord Jesus Christ, the second Person of the Trinity, became incarnate and performed for man a double service, discharging, on the one hand, the penalty through His own suffering and death, and on the other, restoring to man holiness and life through His perfect obedience to the moral law. Thus was redeemed a multitude which no man can number. How appropriate, then, the words of Peter, ‘Ye were redeemed, not with corruptible things, with silver or gold, from your vain manner of life handed down from your fathers; but with Precious blood, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot, even the blood of Christ,’ I Peter 1 :18, 19. And how appropriate the words of the heavenly songs, ‘Worthy art thou to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and didst purchase unto God with thy blood men of every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation, and madest them to be unto our God a kingdom and priests; and they reign upon the earth,’ Rev. 5:9, 10; ‘Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honor, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever,’ Rev. 7:12; ‘Great and marvelous are thy works, 0 Lord God, the Almighty; righteous and true are thy ways, thou King of the ages. Who shall not fear, 0 Lord, and glorify thy name? For thou only art holy; for all the nations shall come and worship before thee; r for thy righteous acts have been made manifest,’ Rev. 15:3, 4.
THE INFINITE VALUE OF CHRIST’S SACRIFICE
The chief mystery in regard to the Atonement appears to lie in the fact that God chooses to accept the unmerited sufferings of Christ as a just equivalent for the suffering due to sinners. The question then arises, How can the suffering of an innocent person be set to the account of a guilty person in such a way that the guilty person is freed from the obligation to suffer? Or, to state the question more specifically, How can the suffering which was endured by Christ be set to the credit of His people, and how can that suffering suffice to save the millions of mankind, or even all of the people of the world if they would but trust Him? Or again, as it is sometimes asked although somewhat erroneously, How can God, the first person, take the sin of a guilty man, the second person, and lay it on Christ, an innocent third person ?
That this last form of the question does not state the case correctly is quite evident; and here we get at the heart of the matter. For when God, the first person, takes the sin of a guilty man, a second person, and lays it on Christ, He lays it not on a third person but on Himself. There is no third person in this transaction, because Christ is God, Deity incarnate. This last consideration many people fail to keep in mind, and their failure to do so is often times the reason for their rejection of the whole Christian system, which then is, of course, made to appear fantastic, unreal, unjust. If God had taken the sin of one man and laid it on another mere man, that would indeed have been a flagrant violation of justice as the Unitarians and Modernists charge.
In view of the fact that Christ is God, and therefore a Person of infinite value and dignity, we have no hesitation in saying that the crucifixion of Christ was not only the world’s worst crime, but that it was a worse crime than that which would have been committed if the entire human race had been crucified. Isaiah tells us that in comparison with man God is so great that even ‘the nations are as a drop in a bucket, and are accounted as the small dust of the balance,’ 40:15. Christ’s Deity and creatorship is set forth by John when he says, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … All things were made through Him; and without Him was not anything made that hath been made … He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world knew Him not,’ 1:1, 3, 10. Paul declares that ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself,’ I Cor. 5:19; and in another place adds, ‘In Him were all things created, in the heavens and upon the earth, things visible and things invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things have been created through Him, and unto Him; and He is before all things, and in Him all things consist,’ Col. 1:16, 17. Even the first chapter of Genesis, which gives an account of the original creation, declares this same truth; for when read in the light of the New Testament we see that it was counsel within the Trinity when it was said, ‘Let us make man in our image.’ Paul states this same general truth in even more graphic words when he declares that the rulers of this world ‘crucified the Lord of glory,’ I Cor. 2:8, and when he refers to ‘the Church of the Lord’ (the King James Version reads, ‘the Church of God’) ‘which He purchased with His own blood,’ Acts 20:28. For sinful man thus to crucify his God was an infinitely heinous crime. Whatever may be said about the Atonement, it certainly cannot be said that the debt paid by Christ was of lesser value than that which would have been paid if all of those for whom He died had been left to suffer their own penalty.
In order to illustrate a little more clearly the infinite value of Christ’s atonement we should like to use a very simple illustration. Doubtless all of us, for instance, have killed thousands of insects such as ants, beetles, grasshoppers. Perhaps we have even killed millions of them if we have plowed a field or set a large brush fire. Or perhaps we have killed a considerable number of birds or animals, either for food or because they had become pests. Yet we suffer no accusing conscience. But if we kill just one man we do have an accusing conscience which condemns us bitterly; for in that case we have committed murder. Even if we could imagine a whole world full of insects or animals and if we could kill them all at one stroke, we would have no accusing conscience. The reason for this difference is that man was created in the image of God, and is therefore of infinitely greater value than the insects or animals. Now in a manner similar to this, Christ, who was God incarnate, was not only of greater value than a man but was of greater value than the sum total of all men; and therefore the value of His suffering and death was amply sufficient to redeem as many of the human race as God sees fit to call to Himself. Christ did not, of course, suffer eternally as men would have done, nor was His pain as great as the sum total of that which would have fallen on man; but because He was a Person of infinite value and dignity His suffering was what God considered a just equivalent for that which was due to all of those who were to be redeemed.
And as we who have been redeemed read that awful account of the crucifixion let us remember that we had a part in it, that it was for our sin and as our Substitute that He suffered and died, regardless of whether or not we personally clamored for His death or drove the nails. In order for us to understand how it was possible for Christ to have accomplished this work of redemption it is necessary for us to keep in mind the fact that He possessed two natures, one Divine and the other human, and that it was in His human nature that He suffered on the cross. But in our own persons — which are composed of two natures in vital union, the spiritual and the physical– whatever can be affirmed of either of our natures can be affirmed of us as persons. If a certain man is good, or if he is a keen thinker, or happy, or sorrowful, we say that he as a person is good, intellectual, happy, or sorrowful. If his body weighs one hundred and fifty pounds, or if he suffers a broken leg, or is sick, we say that that person weighs that amount or suffers those things. Our spiritual nature is the more important, more dominant and controlling; yet what happens to either of our natures happens to us as persons. In a similar manner, Christ’s Divine nature was the more important, more dominant and controlling; but since the two natures were vitally united what He experienced in either He experienced as a Person. Hence His suffering on the cross was God’s suffering, and His death was in a real sense God’s death for His people. This means that the death of Christ, through which the Atonement was accomplished, was a stupendous event; the most important event in the history of the universe, the central event in all history.
That an atonement of some kind was necessary if human beings were to be pardoned is very evident. The justice of God demands that sin shall be punished as definitely as it demands that righteousness shall be rewarded. God would not be just if He failed to do either. Consequently, the law which was set forth in the beginning, that the punishment for sin should be death–involving, of course, not only destruction of the body, but eternal separation of the spirit from God–could not simply be brushed aside or nullified. The honor and holiness of God were at stake, and when man sinned the penalty had to be paid. The idea of vicarious suffering underlay the entire sacrificial system of the Jews, impressing upon them the fact that a righteous God could make no compromise with sin, and that sin must be and eventually would be punished with its merited recompense, death.
In the Incarnation human nature is taken, as it were, into the very bosom of Deity, and is thus accorded an honor far above that given to angels. Although Christ’s work of Atonement is completed, He still retains His resurrection body and will retain it forever; and thus will be exhibited one of the strongest possible evidences of God’s unity with man and His measureless love for man.
NO INJUSTICE DONE WHEN OUR PENALTY WAS LAID ON CHRIST
Unitarians and Modernists sometimes object to this doctrine on the grounds that it is unjust to punish one person for the sins of another, and assert that the idea of vicarious suffering is abhorrent. We reply that there can be no injustice or impropriety connected with it when the person who suffers is the same one who, having made the law that such and such an offense should be followed by such and such a penalty and himself actuated by love and mercy, steps in and receives the penalty in his own person while at the same time he makes provision for the reformation of the offender. In financial matters we readily see that there is no injustice when a creditor remits a debt, provided that he assumes the loss himself. Now what God has done in the sphere of redemption is strictly parallel to this. He has assumed the loss Himself and has set us free. In this case God, who is the offended party, took the initiative and (1) permitted a substitution, (2) provided a substitute, and (3) substituted Himself. If after man fell, God, as the sovereign Ruler of the universe and with the purpose of manifesting His attributes of love and mercy before men and angles throughout eternal ages, voluntarily chose to pay man’s debt, surely there are no grounds for objecting that such action was not right. And this, Paul tells us, is precisely what God has done: ‘God, being rich in mercy, for His great love wherewith He loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace have ye been saved), and raised us up with Him, and made us to sit with Him in the heavenly places, in Christ Jesus: that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus: for by grace have ye been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God,’ Eph. 2:4-9. The work of redemption, including its purpose, method and result, could hardly be stated in clearer language than this.
But it is small wonder that the Unitarians and Modernists object to the Christian doctrine of the Atonement. Since they see in Jesus only a man the Atonement can be, from their point of view, nothing but a colossal travesty, an insult to man’s intelligence and to God. Unless Christ was both Divine and human, the whole Christian system is reduced to foolishness. Had Christ been only a man He no more could have saved others than could Stephen, or Huss, or Lincoln, or any other martyr. God cannot take the sins of a criminal and lay them on a good man, but He can take them and lay them on Himself; and that is what the doctrine of the Atonement teaches us that He has done.