Before we can have any adequate understanding or appreciation of the work that Christ has done for us it is necessary that we know something of the nature and effect of sin in the human soul. In substance the Bible tells us that sin is open and defiant rebellion against the law of God. There are, of course, many forms in which it may manifest itself, such as murder, robbery, adultery, lying, profanity, idolatry, pride, envy, covetousness, disrespect for parents. But regardless of the different forms which it may assume essentially and definitely one thing: It is crime committed against God. Perhaps the best known formal definition of sin is that of the Westminster Confession which says, ‘Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of. the law of God.’ The law of God is moral in the highest sense, and has been given for the good of mankind. It is a revelation of, or a transcript of, God’s own character, and is therefore perfect and immutable.
The person who commits sin transfers his allegiance from God to the Devil, although but few seem to realize that they are actually serving the Devil. But the Scripture says, ‘He that doeth sin is of the Devil,’ I John 3:8. Paul was divinely appointed to preach to the Gentiles, ‘to open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan unto God,’ Acts 26:18. We have the word of Jesus that ‘Every one that committeth sin is the bondservant of sin’ John 8:34; and to the Pharisees who maliciously opposed Him He said, ‘Ye are of your father the Devil, and the lusts of your father it is your will to do,’ John 8:44.
The nature of sin being what it is, it is not surprising that the penalty that God has established against it is severe. That penalty is death. ‘In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die,’ Gen. 2:17, was the clearly announced penalty spoken to Adam at the very beginning of the race. It was repeated by the prophets, e.g., ‘The soul that sinneth, it shall die.’ Ezek. 18:4; and in the New Testament, ‘The wages of sin is death,’ Rom. 6:23.
We have already pointed out that death in this sense included a great deal more than physical death, which is the separation of the soul from the body, that it was primarily spiritual death, or the eternal separation of the soul from God. In this broader sense death means an abandoned spiritual condition such as that of the Devil and the demons. It involves the immediate loss of the divine favor, the sense of guilt, the corruption of the moral nature (resulting of course in the commission of other and more flagrant transgressions), and the pains of hell. The reward promised for obedience, as is clearly implied in the Genesis account and in later Scripture, was life, the exact opposite of the penalty threatened, not merely physical life as we know it, but eternal life such as is enjoyed by the holy angels. And since Adam by divine appointment stood representative for all of those who were to come after him by natural descent and acted precisely as they would have acted under similar circumstances, the reward for his obedience or the penalty for his disobedience was designed to fall not only on him but equally on them. Thus situated, Adam made his choice,–and fell. The results were disastrous, for by that fall he brought himself and his descendants into a state of depravity, guilt, and condemnation, a state in which the intellect is blinded to spiritual truth, the affections corrupted, and the will enslaved. From that condition there was no possible way of escape–except by divine grace.
That the penalty for sin did relate primarily to man’s spiritual nature is seen in the fact that Adam did not die a physical death for 930 years after he had disobeyed, although he died spiritually and felt himself estranged from God the very instant he sinned. It is also shown by the fact that Adam’s unregenerate posterity since that time have invariably and persistently gone the way of evil, displaying the same aversion to righteousness and the same affection for sin.
UNCHANGEABLE NATURE OF THE LAW AGAINST SIN
The moral law which God gave to man in the beginning was no arbitrary or whimsical pronouncement, but an expression of His being. It showed man what the nature of God was, and was designed to bring man’s nature into closer conformity with His nature. It was very explicit, both in its command and in its threatened penalty. Now sin is the absolute contradiction of that nature, and cannot therefore be lightly set aside. In all of His dealings God reveals Himself as a holy, just, and truthful God. As a holy God He hates sin and burns against it with a consuming zeal. As a just God he scrupulously rewards righteousness and punishes sin, for strict justice is as insistent in its demand that sin shall be punished as it is in its demand that righteousness shall be rewarded. God cannot give the reward of obedience for disobedience. The same God who is a God of mercy and who in virtue of His mercy desires to save human souls, is also a God of justice and in virtue of His justice must punish sinners. And as a truthful God He must put into effect the penalty which He has said would be enforced against transgressors. For Him to fail to punish sin would be for Him to remove the penalty against it, to consent to it or to become partaker in it, and therefore to violate His own nature and to destroy the moral order of the universe. Consequently when sin is committed it simply cannot be ignored or canceled out with mere pardon. The penalty must be paid. God’s honor and justice are at stake. However much God in His love might have desired to have saved man, it was not possible for Him to do so until satisfaction was made to the divine law. Hence the truth of the Scripture statement: ‘Apart from shedding of blood [i.e., the payment of the prescribed death penalty there is no remission’ (of sin), Heb. 9:22.
Hence even if man possessed the power to repent and turn to God, forgiveness could not be granted on the basis of mere repentance. For repentance does not expiate crime, even under civil government. The fact that the murderer, or robber, or adulterer, or liar is sorry does not excuse him from obligation. He must restore what he has taken. He must make right what he has made wrong. Otherwise the injury remains. We instinctively feel that wrong-doing must be balanced by a corresponding penalty. This feeling is especially noticeable after a particularly atrocious crime has been committed. We say that the crime calls for vengeance, and that a moral order which would allow it to go unpunished would not be right. The truly penitent man never feels that his repentance constitutes a ground of acceptance, either with God or with his fellow men. The more sincerely he repents the more truly he recognizes his need of reparation and expiation.
Fortunately for us, God meets the demands of His own holiness and justice and of man’s conscience by Himself providing an atonement, a satisfaction. He does not forgive sin merely because He cares so little about it, nor because He is so exclusively the God of love that all other considerations fall into insignificance beside it; but in His own person and by the sacrifice of Himself He pays the penalty which frees man from obligation and provides that righteousness which alone admits him into heaven: For as Dr. Wm, C. Robinson has recently said, ‘The cross is not a compromise, but a substitution; not a cancellation, but a satisfaction; not a wiping off, but a wiping out in blood and agony and death.’ Thus mercy does not cheat justice. Holiness is rewarded, sin is punished, and the moral order of the universe is maintained in its perfection.
Years ago in England and in our own country there were debtor’s prisons in which those who could not pay their debts were incarcerated. The law was inexorable. The man who had borrowed money and squandered or mismanaged it had to go to prison. He could not make things right merely by saying that he was sorry. Some one had to stand the loss, either the borrower or the person from whom it had been borrowed. But if a wealthy friend of the borrower came forward and paid the debt he was set free. In fact, in such a case his freedom became mandatory, for the law was satisfied. And so it is with the Christian doctrine of the atonement. Christ has done for His people exactly what a man does for his friend,–He has paid the debt for them. That is the meaning of the cross. God Himself assumed man’s nature, and in that nature took man’s place before His own law, suffered its penalty, and saved mall through pure grace.
It must be perfectly evident to every one that if God allowed sin to go unpunished, or if He dealt with it in a free and loose manner, it would mean that justice had been cast to the winds and that He was governed by weak sentimentality. In the original creation God made man in His own image and implanted in him a deep sense of moral responsibility. He would be unfaithful to Himself if after having implanted that great principle He did not rule in accordance with it. For He is not only a loving Father but also a righteous Judge. He cannot permit His righteous laws to be violated with impunity. If the sinner is to be forgiven, then for his own sake as well as for the sake of truth and righteousness, that forgiveness must not come in such a way as to diminish or benumb his sense of guilt. While God’s love and tenderness are manifested in His forgiveness of sin, that forgiveness must not be accomplished in a manner which fails to show sin to be what it really is, something hateful and painful to God, diametrically opposed to His holy nature and subversive of His rule throughout the universe. Otherwise man will be misled into an easy-going, good-natured carelessness, and will have no adequate understanding or appreciation of the favor that has been granted to him.
For the righteousness of God is not, as so many people seem inclined to believe, mere disinterested benevolence which can pass lightly over sin. It is rather a distinct and separate attribute of the divine nature which demands that sin shall receive its adequate punishment. We regret that so much of our modern theological literature shows an almost complete lack of any adequate sense of the heinousness and guilt of sin. It is only when men hold superficial views of sin and think that it can be cast off by simple repentance that they deny the need of an expiatory atonement. But in proportion as an aroused conscience tells us that we are sinners we realize how deep is our guilt and cry out for that Savior who alone is ‘able to save to the uttermost them that draw near unto God through Him.’
HOLINESS IS PRIOR TO AND CONDITIONS LOVE
The most fundamental attribute of God’s nature is, not love, but holiness. His holiness may be defined as His self-perpetuating righteousness or purity, in virtue of which He eternally wills and maintains His own moral excellence. He has constituted the universe, and humanity as a part of it, so that it shall express His holiness,-positively by connecting happiness with righteousness, and negatively by connecting unhappiness or suffering with sin. Love, in itself, is irrational and capricious except as it is governed by holiness. And the fact that holiness is logically prior to and conditions love makes it impossible for sin to be pardoned without an atonement. There must be an adequate infliction of misery to offset that sin. Many of the Greek gods were notoriously immoral. But our God is a God of holiness, a God of perfect morality; and He can tolerate no sin. If the forgiveness of sin depended only on the sovereign will of God, there would, of course, be no need for an atonement. In Muhammadanism, for instance, where the sovereignty of God is so emphasized that all other attributes are dwarfed beside it, no need is felt for satisfying divine justice. Muhammadanism holds that God can pardon whom He will, and on whatever grounds He pleases. The immeasurable superiority of Christian theology is evidenced by its clear and emphatic demand that the justice and holiness of God must be maintained and that the affront which has been offered to it by human sin shall not go unpunished, The tendency in some modern systems of theology is to merge holiness and love and to assume that God can forgive sin without an atonement. But such an easy-going optimism either does not know what the holiness of God involves, or fails utterly to understand the heinous nature of sin.
That God is love is, of course, one of the clear revelations of Scripture. And to us who would be forever lost if it were not for His love, that is the crowning revelation of Christianity. But love is not all that God is, and can therefore never adequately express all that God is. It is equally true that God is just and that He must punish sin. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews says that His attitude toward the workers of iniquity is that of ‘a consuming fire’ (12:29). The popular literature of our day abounds with many ill-considered assertions of the indiscriminate love of God, as though He were too broadly good to hold man to any real account for sin. But we can never know the depth of the meaning of God’s love until it is thrown up against the background of those other lofty conceptions which arise from and are based on a true view of His holiness, righteousness and justice. In brief, we may say that whereas the Modernist reasons, God is love and therefore there is no need for an atonement, the truth is, God is love and therefore He provides an atonement.
This brings us to the question, What is true love? We may say that one person truly loves another when he has a greater desire to please that person than he has to please himself. And the correlated truth is: One person truly loves another when he would rather suffer himself than see that one suffer. In the final analysis there are just two moral principles which may govern one’s action: the first is that which has one’s own interests as its final motive or supreme object, and is therefore the selfish principle; the second is that which has the interests of others as its final motive and is therefore the self-giving, sacrificial principle. This second is the principle which God manifests in His relations with His people. Consequently the greatest message that any one can hear is that ‘God is love,’ (I John 4:16) ; for that means that God’s holy nature seeks to express itself actively toward him, and that he will therefore be fitted for the divine presence.
On Calvary more than anywhere else the great loving heart of God has been revealed to man. There was love, unspeakable love, ‘When God the mighty Maker died for man the creature’s sin.’ This redeeming love originated in the Trinity and was first exhibited in God’s attitude toward man, not in man’s attitude toward God; for man showed only opposition and hatred for everything that was good. ‘Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins,’ I John 4:10. ‘God commendeth His own love towards us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us,’ Rom. 5:8. The atonement is not the cause, but the effect, of God’s love for His people. Because He loved them He redeemed them. In the cross there was revealed to us the love of the Father who proposed the covenant of grace, the love of the Son who in His own body freely accomplished that redemption, and the love of the Holy Spirit who makes that love effective in our hearts. This general thought has been beautifully expressed in a recent book by Dr. Wm. C. Robinson. Says he: ‘In the very being of God Himself there are eternal love relationships: ‘God is love.’ And hence out of that self-moving and self-motivated love ever existing between the Persons of the adorable Trinity love came forth into this world of sin. Out of God’s great eternal love, out of the heart of the Trinity came the love of Calvary. Before the foundation of the world He did in love predestinate us unto the adoption of sons through Jesus Christ unto Himself (Eph. 1:4, 5). The eternal Son brought the love of heaven into this world of hate, and lifted it so high on that hill called a skull that every nation shall behold its light, every age be mellowed by its glow,’ (The Word of the Cross, p. 118.)
The great classical passage with reference to the Atonement is Rom. 3:25, 26. There Christ is declared to be the One ‘Whom God set forth to be a propitiation, through faith, in His blood, to show His righteousness because of the passing over of the sins done aforetime, in the forbearance of God; for the showing, I say, of His righteousness at this present season: that He might Himself be just, and the justifier of him that hath faith in Jesus.’ Here we are told, (1) that God set forth Christ as an effective propitiatory offering; (2) that man is saved by the exercise of faith in the substitutionary suffering and death of Christ; (3) that while up to this time God, in His mercy and in anticipation of the certain coming of a Redeemer. had saved men without exacting an adequate punishment for their sins. He determines that at this time He will provide that adequate and public exhibition of the punishment of sin; and (4) that the purpose of this sacrifice is that God Himself may be just while forgiving and saving the sinner. Because God had in pre-Christian times saved sinners while allowing their sins to go unpunished His own righteousness had been lost sight of and obscured, and it was necessary that an adequate exhibition of the punishment of sin be made before men and angels. The sacrifices of animals in Old Testament times were not real atonements, but only signs and tokens pointing to the real atonement which was to come later. As the Baptist theologian, Dr. A. H. Strong, has boldly expressed it, ‘Before Christ’s sacrifice, God’s administration was a scandal,–it needed vindication. The Atonement is God’s answer to the charge of freeing the guilty.’
Hence- the first and primary effect of the atonement is upon God Himself in that through it He is enabled to remain righteous even when pardoning the sinner,–‘that He might Himself be just, and the justifier of him that hath faith in Jesus.’ Because God Himself, in the person of Christ, has borne the penalty for sin, He is now able to show Himself as perfectly just and holy while at the same time He grants forgiveness and eternal life to those who put their faith in Christ.
CHRIST ALONE ABLE TO REDEEM MEN
We have said that man’s condition after the fall was one of absolute helplessness, that he was morally alienated from God, and that his whole attitude toward God, so far as he thought of God at all, was one of opposition and enmity. In Scripture language he was ‘dead’ in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1, 5). In that fallen state, however, he was still able to do works which considered only in themselves or in reference to his fellow men were good,–he was still able to love his family, to deal honestly with his neighbors, to feed the hungry and comfort the sorrowing, etc. But in doing these things he acted only from selfish or humanitarian motives. In no instances were they done with the purpose of honoring or glorifying God. He might give a million dollars to build a hospital, but he could not give so much as a cup of cold water to a disciple in the name of Christ. However good his works might appear in themselves, none of them were done with right motives toward God. All of them, therefore, had a vitiating principle, a fatal defect, and could in no wise merit salvation. Man’s vital need, then, was not good advice, nor an impressive example of right conduct, but to be ‘made alive’ spiritually (Eph. 2:1, 5), to be ‘born anew’ (John 3:3), to experience ‘regeneration’ and ‘renewing’ by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5).
Since men were in that ruined and helpless condition there was only one possible way by which they might be saved. That was for another person of infinite value and dignity to take upon himself their nature, that is, human nature, and, with the consent of God, suffer the penalty which was due to them. His higher personality would give unlimited value to his suffering, which would then be a just equivalent for that which was due to them. And at this point comes in the importance of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. For God is not only unity, but tri-personality, so that there are within the Godhead three Persons, each possessing full Deity, the same in substance and equal in power and glory. Hence because of this fact alone it was possible that there might be One who would offer Himself as Mediator between God and man, One possessing a personality of infinite value and dignity who therefore as man’s Agent could work out an atonement of infinite value. Christ, the second Person of the Trinity, did offer Himself as such a Mediator between God and man. In order to accomplish that work He became incarnate, uniting Deity and humanity in His person as intimately and harmoniously as our souls and bodies are united in ours. Only Christ, then, in His Divine-human person, that is, as the God-man, was qualified to accept that penalty and discharge that obligation. No other person in all the universe was capable of assuming that role. The sacrifice of no creature could have availed anything. Nor could either the Father or the Holy Spirit as such have performed that work. Only the two-natured Christ was capable of providing redemption. And only in His organic and official union with His people can we find that vital relation which makes His vicarious suffering either possible or just. The entire Bible from Genesis to Revelation is God’s account of the work that He has done for man. In strict literalness it might have been called, ‘The History of Redemption,’ for the main features dealt with are the original creation of man, his fall, his condition after the fall, God’s merciful staying of the full execution of the penalty, the long course of preparation for the coming of the Redeemer, the nature of the work performed by the Redeemer when He did come, His ascension to heaven and His future coming when He shall assign all men their eternal rewards.
Consequently, we find that in the accomplishment of that work Christ did not die a natural death. The kind of death that He died was particularly designed to show that satisfaction was being made to divine justice, that somehow He was dying because the penalty of sin is death. Had He been unexpectedly assassinated, or died as a result of accident, or disease, or old age, there would have been no appearance of a satisfaction having been made to satisfy the demands of divine justice. But when He is placed as a criminal before a tribunal, accused, overpowered by the testimony of witnesses, officially condemned to death, and crucified and His life taken from Him in the very prime of His manhood, we are given to understand that on this righteous Person was inflicted the punishment due to criminals, to malefactors,-in short, the punishment due to us as sinners. He died not merely a corporal death, but a particular kind of death in which He experienced the severity of the divine vengeance against sin. By paralleling even in detail the Old Testament ritual for the sin-offering it was made plain that He was our sin-bearer. What He did and suffered He did and suffered, not for any sin of His own, but for that of His people, in their name and on their account. Hence Paul could say, and we can say with him, ‘I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I that live, but Christ liveth in me.’ Gal. 2:20.
Since man’s sin was directed against God, who is an infinitely holy and just Being, and since fallen man if left to himself would have continued to sin throughout endless ages as do the evil and the fallen angels, it is very evident that nothing less than an atonement of infinite value could have rescued him from that condition. This does not mean that Christ suffered as much during the space of one lifetime as His people would have suffered in an eternity of punishment. But it does mean that since the divine and human natures were united in the person of Christ, His suffering possessed a value equal to or rather greater than that which all of His people deserved, and that it was therefore amply sufficient for the redemption of all who put their trust in Him. His suffering was not the same as theirs either in kind or in duration; for He could suffer no remorse because He had no personal sin, and His was terminated within a few hours whereas theirs, due to their endless persistence in sin, would have continued through all eternity. A finite being could never have exhausted that penalty, but an infinite Being can exhaust it in a comparatively short time. But while not identical with the sufferings that sinners would have borne, His sufferings were of such kind and degree and duration as divine wisdom, interpreting divine justice, decreed was a full legal equivalent of that penalty when suffered vicariously by a divine person. Only when Calvary is regarded as revealing eternal principles of the divine nature can we see how the sufferings of those few hours can suffice to save millions of mankind. Certainly the fundamental conception of Christ’s redeeming work as it is set forth in the Scriptures is that through His vicarious suffering and death He made full satisfaction to the justice of God and by His vicarious obedience He has merited eternal life so that all those who by faith accept Him as their Lord and Savior receive, firstly, deliverance from the guilt of sin, so that they are no longer under obligation to suffer for it; secondly, emancipation from the power of sin, so that they are cleansed from it and enabled to live a holy life; and, thirdly, a life of eternal blessedness in heaven.
To those who are accustomed to look upon man as sufficient for all things, the death of Christ and redemption through blood atonement is, of course, nonsense. When it was first announced it was ‘unto Jews a stumblingblock, and unto Gentiles foolishness,’ but unto them that believed it was ‘the power of God, and the wisdom of God,’ I Cor 1:23. Some call it repulsive. It is indeed repulsive and humiliating to the self-confident natural man. ‘When Unitarians and Modernists represent it as a cruel demand on God’s part and as an expiation from without in which one man’s sin is laid on another while they themselves profess to believe in a God of love, they consciously or unconsciously caricature the Christian doctrine. For the plain and repeated teaching of Scripture is that it was not an outsider but God Himself in the person of Christ who met the demands of His own justice in order that He might be free to save man. For ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself,’ II Cor. 5:19. Nor is this doctrine difficult to understand. A little child can understand its essential features, and can receive it to the salvation of his soul. And certainly it is not a system of human invention, for all men naturally feel that they should earn salvation by their own good works. A system of salvation by grace is so radically at variance with what man sees in the natural world where every thing and person is evaluated in terms of works and merits that he has great difficulty in bringing Himself to believe that it can be true. There is real point in the words of the great English preacher, C. H. Spurgeon: ‘The doctrine of substitution must be true; it could not have been invented by human wit.’ In one way or another all of the pagan religions and all of the philosophical systems teach that man must earn his own salvation. Christianity alone sets forth a system of salvation by grace. Time and again the Scriptures repeat the assertion that salvation is by grace, as if anticipating the difficulty which men would have in coming to the conclusion that they could not earn it by their own good works.