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Lecture XVI. The Idea of the Atonement


MANY of the errors into which theological controversialists have been betrayed may be traced to the tendency to deal with figures and metaphors as exact equivalents for spiritual realities. Ordinary thinking, even in the domain of spiritual or supernatural truth, consists in a great measure of generalized images, anthropomorphic conceptions, symbols for thought derived from the outward, phenomenal world, and charged more or less with the characteristics of their sensuous origin. And though the religious mind in a certain instinctive and unconscious way rises above the poverty of the medium it employs, so as to derive or distil from it much genuine knowledge, yet the medium, considered in itself, is not an adequate organ of spiritual ideas, and when treated as such leads to illusion and error. In our scientific or speculative inquiries we are seldom completely emancipated from the tendency to substitute illustration for argument, description for definition, pictorial images addressed to the imagination for pure ideas grasped by the reason. We are thus ever in danger of carrying the conditions that are applicable only to the sensuous form in which all language is steeped, into the sphere of purely spiritual things, and so, of ascribing to the latter the relations and limitations that pertain only to the things of sense and sight. Our solutions of spiritual problems have thus not seldom a superficial and unreal clearness, and the conclusions we seem to reach are gained by mistaking rhetorical suggestion for rational deduction.

Of this tendency, and the erroneous results to which it leads, many examples are to be found in our theological inquiries and controversies, and in none more remarkably than in the history of the doctrine before us, the doctrine of the Atonement.

The Bible is not a book of scientific theology. The religious instruction which it conveys to us, as it is intended for all, is conveyed in a form which is intelligible to all,—not, that is, in the form of logical propositions and deductions, of abstract theological principles accurately defined and woven into systematic coherence by the logical understanding, but rather, for the most part, in the form of historical and biographical narrative, of ideas couched in familiar language, of symbols, analogies, material images derived from the realm of nature and from the relations, incidents, experiences of ordinary life. It furnishes thus a rich treasure of knowledge appealing to the intuitions and emotions of the religious mind, and feeding with divine nutriment the energies of our moral and spiritual nature. But it is obvious that much of its language with reference to God and His relations to us, whilst profitable for spiritual instruction, cannot be construed literally or taken as an immediate repertory of theological doctrine. When, as I have elsewhere said, we read of a Divine Being who has eyes to behold the righteous, who cares to listen to their prayer, to whom the smell of incense or the savour of sacrifice is sweet; when He is represented as working, being fatigued, taking rest, or, again, of His anger being kindled and abating, of His repenting of former acts or intentions, of His being induced by persuasion or interposition to change His plans and purposes;—in these and similar instances, though the representation conveys an impression which for the spiritual mind is of the nature of knowledge, it is obvious that it cannot be taken as, literally construed, an exact expression of religious truth.

The same remarks apply to the doctrine before us. The informal language of Scripture, with regard to the relation of the actions and sufferings of Christ to the salvation of men, has been made the basis of elaborate theories of the Atonement. Figurative expressions, such as “ransom,” debt,” “cleansing or washing from sin,” “remission of penalty,” have been treated as literal equivalents for spiritual truth, without considering that these figures are various and sometimes inconsistent with each other. They bring before us manifold aspects of the work of redemption, and awaken in the way of suggestion or analogy ideas concerning it which are profoundly true. But if we take any one of these figures and deal with it as we would with a logical definition, the result cannot fail to be erroneous and illusory.

Before, therefore, attempting to treat of the Atonement in its positive aspect, it may be useful to adduce one or two examples of the errors into which theologians on this subject have been betrayed by basing their theories on figurative or metaphorical conceptions, which, at best, are only partial and analogical representations of spiritual truth. The most important of the cases in point are perhaps these three: theories which are based either on Commercial, or on Forensic, or on Sacrificial analogies; theories, in other words, in which the work, and especially the sufferings and death of Christ, are regarded as corresponding to the payment of a debt, or to the enduring of penalty exacted for transgression in a criminal court, or to the sacrificial death of a victim in expiation of the sins of the offerer.

The theory of Anselm in his Cur Deus Homo is, if not the first, yet the most serious attempt to give speculative grounding to the relation between the obedience and sufferings of Christ and the remission of sins. Neither in its principle nor in its details can it be said to have survived to modern times, but indirectly it has had and continues to have much influence on theological speculation. The hinge on which it turns is the conception of the Atonement as the payment by the God-man of a debt to the divine honour, which sin has contracted. The will of every rational creature ought to be absolutely subjected to the will of God. Whoever, therefore, gives not to God this honour withholds or withdraws what is due to Him. Nor is this tribute of the nature of a mere private or personal debt, which by an arbitrary act of clemency could be remitted; for the nature of God is identified with absolute righteousness, and His personality cannot be thought of apart from that nature. He can never, therefore, by an act of will, remit any demand which absolute righteousness does not remit. The moral glory of God would be tarnished, if He pardoned sin without receiving an adequate compensation for human disobedience.

Now, this compensation must be rendered by man, for the satisfaction must be rendered by the very being by whom the offence has been committed; and yet no mere man can render it, in the first place, because the debt is practically infinite. This Anselm curiously infers from the consideration that it were better the universe should fall into ruin than the least act should be done against the will of God; the offer of the whole universe, could it be made to Him, would be no adequate compensation for a single sinful act. He, therefore, who would give satisfaction for sin must be able to offer to God something greater than the whole created universe. That no ordinary man can give satisfaction for sin is further proved by the consideration that man, regarded as a creature, still more as an imperfect and sinful creature, has nothing to offer to God. The highest exercise of human power, the noblest sacrifice or service, is no more than is due to God. Humanity can achieve no fund of superfluous or supererogatory merit with which to meet its past defalcations. Moreover, even if it were possible by extraordinary merit to cancel the debt due for past transgressions, the sinful nature of man, instead of diminishing, is ever increasing the debt of sin. It follows, therefore, that if satisfaction is ever to be made for sin, it must be made by one who is able to offer to God something that is not already due to Him—as all goodness is due from the creature to the Creator—by one whose untainted perfection implies the absence of any demand for compensation on his own account, and also by one who can offer to God something that transcends in value the whole finite universe.

The obedience and death of Christ fulfils these conditions. It is an obedience rendered by man, yet rendered also by one who is sinless and has no personal guilt to cancel, by one who is above law and has no personal obligations to meet. It is an obedience, therefore, which, on His part, is purely gratuitous, and may be set down to our account as an equivalent for the debt contracted by sin. Finally, it is an obedience which has in it, as rendered by one who is Himself the Creator of the universe, what is more valuable than the whole created universe; it is, in other words, of infinite value.

I conclude, in Anselm's own words, the account of this strange commercial view of the moral order in which we live: “You will not think it right that He who can freely surrender to God such a gift should go unrewarded…But what can be given to Him as a reward which He does not already possess? Before the performing of this great act, all that the Father had was His, nor is there any obligation due by Him which could be cancelled…Shall the Son therefore appear to have done so great a work in vain? To some other surely must that reward be paid which He cannot personally receive…To whom more fitly shall He transfer the fruit of His death than to those for whose salvation He became man?…Or whom shall He more justly make heirs of what is due to Him and what He needs not for Himself, than His brothers whom He beholds laden with so many and great debts and languishing in the depths of wretchedness?…Thus the mercy of God, which seemed to be sacrificed to His justice, we find to be perfectly accordant with it. For what can be thought of as more merciful than that the Father should thus accost the sinner condemned to eternal torments and incapable of redeeming himself: ‘Take My only begotten and give Him for thyself,’ and that the Son should say: ‘Take Me and ransom thyself’? What more just than that He should cancel the debt, who receives a payment far exceeding the debt?”1

The main criticism to be made on this theory is, as I have said, that it is an attempt to extract, from what is merely a figure or metaphor, the solution of a moral and spiritual problem; or, in other words, to exhibit moral and spiritual relations under forms of expression which do not adequately represent them.

It is no doubt true that, taken simply as a pictorial representation, there are points of view from which the position of the insolvent debtor vividly represents that of the sinner. We may say of the latter, for instance, that he is one who has squandered a wealth more precious than any material possessions: one who has wasted on the world and the things of the world capacities which no finite object can satisfy, and who at the end of life, if not before, finds himself confronted by obligations unfulfilled, and bankrupt of all true happiness. Or, again, we may say that the debtor's embarrassments are a graphic picture of the burden which a sense of guilt imposes on the soul, that has become awakened to its moral condition before God.

When a man becomes deeply and inextricably involved in debt, his condition is one of deplorable incapacity and impotence. Debt acts like a deadweight on his energies. He who rises day by day to the consciousness of obligations he cannot meet, and from which he sees no possibility of extricating himself, not seldom loses all elasticity of mind. He has no heart to enter on any new work or enterprise. The stimulus to exertion is gone. Unable, do what he may, to retrieve the past, he perhaps resigns himself with dull hopelessness to his lot; or even, feeling that he cannot make things better, he becomes careless how much he makes them worse. What he needs, in order to rouse him to effort, is that he should be absolved of his connection with the past; that the accumulated load of obligation should be swept away, and it should be made possible for him to have a fair start in life again.

And, in like manner, conscious guilt hangs upon the awakened spirit, and clogs its moral energies. Of what avail is any new attempt at amendment, so long as the record of neglected duty and unfulfilled obligation confronts it? The utmost exertion is insufficient to meet the demands of the present day, not to speak of wiping off old scores of guilt. The burden on the conscience, do what the man may, becomes only heavier and heavier. If he could but begin anew, if, freed from the miserable past, he could enter on a new life, with all the elasticity of innocence, then all might yet be well. But no earthly power can effect such a discharge, or dissever the soul from its terrible responsibility for the debt of sin.

But whilst thus, in a figurative or suggestive way, the moral relations of man to God may be represented by the relation of the debtor to the creditor, the former are infinitely more comprehensive than the latter—they involve problems which a financial analogy cannot solve, and the attempt so to solve them can only lead to misconception and error.

(i.) In the first place, moral obligations are only imperfectly represented by the notion of debt. The very principle of goodness, and therefore of sin, is left out when we so represent them. The owner of money or of property is, of course, made poorer by giving it away, richer by retaining or withholding it from another. But it is of the very essence of our relation, as spiritual beings, to God, that we gain by what we lose or surrender, and that we are truly impoverished by what we keep. We are not our own. All that we have, all that we are—our capacities, talents, opportunities, our very life and being—are not ours to use at will; nor have we any right for a single moment so to use them. But the man who devotes himself to the service of Infinite Goodness, who lives a life of self-sacrifice for the good of humanity or the glory of God, is no loser thereby; in the enriching, expanding, elevating of his nature, in the touching of the springs of thought and feeling, in the hidden sweetness of a life of self-forgetful, self-denying love, he regains a thousand-fold all he gives. On the other hand, the man who, by an unholy or sinful life, can be represented as defrauding God of His due, still more defrauds himself. What he refuses to surrender he does not retain. In the attempt to grasp all he loses all. Moral goodness, in short, is not the paying of a debt, but it is love or self-devotion; and love loses its essence so long as it is felt to be merely something due to God. To be figured as a debt, goodness must be something that can be paid by us or for us, and with the payment of which the creditor must be satisfied. But love is a debt that is immeasurable, a debt with the payment of which neither the giver nor the receiver can ever be satisfied.

(ii.) And this leads us to another consideration, namely, that debts are in their nature transferable, but moral obligations are not. A debt may be discharged for us by another, and the creditor must be satisfied whoever pays it; but moral obligations can only be fulfilled by the agents in person, nor can any payment by another affect the force of the original claim. There is a sense, indeed, as we shall see, in which through union with Christ we become partakers of His obedience and sufferings; but no mere external transference can, from the nature of the thing, achieve this result. There are many burdens which others may bear for us, but this is a case in which “every man shall bear his own burden.” Toil, pain, penury, sorrow, may be, and are daily, borne by some that others may not know what it is to bear them. And even when such burdens cannot be outwardly transferred, we know how the sense of human sympathy has a wonderful power to make our burden lighter. Even moral disaster and conscious guilt are not beyond alleviation, if there is a love which infamy and shame has not been able to alienate. But there is a point beyond which human sympathy cannot go. However closely another may implicate himself with us, it is nevertheless true that, beyond our relations to others, to each of us, as, spiritual, self-conscious being, there has been given an incommunicable individuality, a moral career to make or mar, each for himself alone. Your goodness or guilt in this literal sense can never become mine, nor mine yours. In my sin you may grieve for me; my misery and guilt may blight the happiness of those who are implicated with my life; but you can no more be literally innocent or guilty for me than by eating you can satisfy my hunger, or by suffering remove my disease or pain. Sin, therefore, cannot be adequately represented as a debt, inasmuch as, unlike debt, it can be paid only by him who has contracted it.

(iii.) Once more, according to the principle of this theory, there is no need for any moral relation to Christ in order to our receiving the benefit of His atoning work. Whatever view we take of the nature of the Atonement and its relation to the remission of sin, I suppose most theologians, even those who reject the purely moral theory—the theory that its sole end is the subjective moral influence which it exerts on the mind and heart of the transgressor—would admit that Christ's atoning work does not secure the salvation of man apart from any moral relation of the sinner to the Saviour. If there be no salvation apart from goodness, if God cannot look with complacency on the impenitent and unbelieving, whatever Christ's redeeming work has accomplished for us, the benefit of it cannot be communicated to those who remain in moral estrangement and unbelief; and the reception of that benefit implies as its necessary condition—call it faith, trust, self-surrender, or by whatever name you will—a moral and spiritual act, a new moral and spiritual attitude or relation to Christ. But under the theory before us no such moral or subjective relation to Christ is needed. When payment is made by another on a debtor's behalf, nothing more on his part is necessary to complete the transaction. The whole process of clearing off is accomplished outside of him. No prior or present moral or spiritual connection with the benefactor is required in order to the debtor's getting full advantage of the payment. Suppose the debtor knew nothing about the payer, or knowing, regarded him with indifference or even with dislike, the money paid would still suffice to discharge the debt, as much as if it were paid by his dearest friend. If, as is likely, he does feel gratitude to the benefactor, the moral emotion, however commendable, does nothing to complete the transaction or to enable him to benefit by it. Such gratitude, indeed, presupposes the benefit as already received and adds nothing to the right to receive it.

Lastly, the artificial and untenable character of Anselm's theory is nowhere more obvious than in the concluding part of it, in which he deals with the relation of Christ's sufferings and death to the salvation of mankind. That salvation is achieved, according to him, by the transference of Christ's merits, or of the reward to which, by His meritorious obedience, He is entitled, to “His brethren and kinsmen,” “whom,” to use Anselm's own words, “He beholds laden with so many and great debts and languishing in the depths of wretchedness.” But it is not to the whole life and obedience of Christ that this quality of meritoriousness pertains. Perfect obedience is no more than is due to God by every moral agent, therefore it does not possess that quality of merit which belongs only to what transcends strict moral obligation. But that quality does pertain to Christ's suffering and death, inasmuch as these are the penalty of sin, and are not exigible from one who is, by supposition, sinless. On the part, therefore, of the sinless, all-perfect man, submission to suffering and death is a thing in virtue of which, as it passes wholly beyond the region of strict obligation and is purely gratuitous and voluntary, He becomes entitled to the reward of what is absolutely meritorious.

Now, apart from other objections, the notion of superfluous goodness, of the moral desert of actions exceeding the limits of strict obligation, is obviously irrational and untenable. It proceeds on the assumption that, beyond that measure of obedience to the moral law which is required of all men, there are actions which are in excess of duty, and which demand an extraordinary reward. However much they may move us to admiration by their heroic and saintly elevation, they are more than is necessary to satisfy our normal obligations. Though great souls may achieve them, they imply a self-abnegation, a moral enthusiasm, a superiority to ordinary motives, with which the great majority of men are not endowed. As they are more than moral law requires, we may conceive of such actions—as in the Catholic doctrine of the supererogatory merits of the saints—as accumulating a capital of merit, or creating a title to reward in this world or the next which, inasmuch as it exceeds what is required of any individual man, may be carried over to the account of those who can plead no merit of their own. And if this be true as regards the merits of saints, heroes, martyrs, may it not be maintained to be pre-eminently true of Him whose goodness reaches the height of supreme, absolute, unapproachable moral elevation?

But, as I have said, this distinction between actions of strict obligation and actions of extraordinary or supererogatory merit is a purely fictitious one. From one point of view, all moral acts, even those of the most exalted self-devotion, and the most heroic self-sacrifice, are, for him who performs them, of strict obligation. For, to live a good or holy life, is to live a life in accordance with the moral ideal as it reveals itself to the human spirit; and the revelation of the moral ideal is never complete. It rises with every past attainment. It is never exhausted and never satisfied. The very best and noblest of men would repudiate the notion that their life has been holier and better than it reasonably or safely might have been. In all the future of their life, here or hereafter, that which is, will still be distinguished from that which ought to be; and the lustre of the saintliest human life must grow pale or vanish in the sight of one whose eye is fixed on the far-off vision of the Absolute Ideal. If it be urged, with Anselm, that submission to death, which is the wages of sin, could never be obligatory in the case of one who is perfectly sinless, is not the answer that death, when we are called to meet it in the discharge of duty, is no merely gratuitous act, or one which a noble nature would feel less bound to perform than any other? It is not because death is due from him as a sinner that the hero or martyr dies, but because truth, goodness, fidelity to conscience, demand that he should surrender all, even life itself, rather than be disloyal to them. And so, even in the sacrifice of the Cross there is, from one point of view, no surplus of merit. If Christ's death be, as Anselm represents it, a tribute to the infringed or wounded honour of God, in virtue of which His arrested grace and mercy may flow forth to fallen and guilty man, can it be regarded as an act of superfluous or gratuitous merit, and not rather, for Christ, as an act of the highest moral necessity?

Let me add, in conclusion, on this point, that the conception of the salvation of men as a reward of Christ's righteousness, or as a boon arbitrarily conferred on men apart from any moral and spiritual relation to Christ, is an obviously erroneous one. The blessedness that flows from goodness or righteousness, it is a truism to say, is inseparable from goodness or righteousness itself. We cannot share in the blessed results of Christ's obedience unto death without in some way sharing in the essence and spirit of that obedience. If salvation consisted in outward and material benefits, in escape from outward and physical calamities and the enjoyment of outward and physical happiness, then it could be bestowed on its recipients wholly irrespective of moral and spiritual character, and by a mere act of favour on the part of the donor. But it is not so with the blessings which constitute the Christian salvation. The peace of purity, the tranquillity of a holy mind, the happiness of conscious reconciliation and fellowship with God, the joy of being and doing good, the sense of divine favour welling up within the soul as a perennial spring of blessedness which pain and sorrow and death itself can never affect,—these things constitute the highest and, in one sense, the only reward of righteousness; and it is a reward which not even Omnipotence could bestow on the unrighteous or unholy mind. If the essence of religion be love to God, the surrender of the soul to the infinite goodness, the fellowship of the human spirit with the divine, then, whatever other or ulterior benefits may flow from it, it is its own end and aim, and to make anything else its reward is to vitiate and destroy its very essence; nor can even we have entered on the true sphere of religion until we know and feel it to be so.

Even human love, as we see at once, would be rendered spurious and corrupt by the intrusion of any regard to ulterior advantages. “What am I to gain by all this expenditure of affection? Why should I repair to the presence and reciprocate the affection of those who are dear to me? What return shall accrue to me from all this self-sacrifice, this squandering of personal ease and enjoyment for the sake of others?” Would not the instant reply to such questions be—“Gain, result, reward? I think of none, desire none. The only reward of love is its own presence in the heart, and it would be an imputation on its purity and reality to think of any other.” And so is it with that higher, sublimer love which is of the very essence of the spiritual life, that mingled awe and tenderness, reverence and devotion, aspiration and self-surrender, which human hearts are capable of feeling towards the Father of Spirits, the Lord and Redeemer of the soul. To hearts once touched by it, it is as much its own end and satisfaction as light and beauty and harmony are the satisfaction, the immediate joy and delight, of eye and ear, of sense and soul. And so when we turn to the person and work of Christ, the highest blessing which He has procured for us is simply participation in that life of love of which His whole earthly history was the manifestation.

  • 1.

    Cur Deus Homo? 11. 19–20.