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Lecture XVII. The Idea of the Atonement


I POINTED out in the last lecture that many of the errors in the doctrine of the Atonement into which theological theorists have been betrayed may be traced to the tendency to treat metaphors as exact equivalents for thought. In theology, as in philosophy, we seldom escape the error of substituting illustration for argument, description for definition, the pictures for thoughts. In the informal language of Scripture, the obedience and sufferings of Christ and their relation to the salvation of men are presented to us under a variety of images, such as ransom or redemption from bondage, the payment of a debt and release of the debtor from pecuniary obligations, the substitutionary sacrifices of victims in heathen and Jewish ritual, the deliverance of a condemned culprit from the sentence of a court of justice. These figures bring before us the atoning work of Christ in various aspects, each of which can be only a partial and analogical representation of spiritual truth. But in the history of doctrine they have often been otherwise treated, and from this cause, as I have said, have arisen many of the errors and inconsistencies into which controversialists have been betrayed. I endeavoured in the last lecture to illustrate this observation by a review of the well-known theory of Anselm, which attempts to treat the atonement under the figure of the payment of a debt.

Another, and perhaps still more important, case in point is that which is furnished by forensic theories, in which the atoning work, and especially the sufferings and death of Christ, are represented as analogous to the penalty inflicted on offences against human law in a court of justice. In this case the difficulties connected with the doctrine become much more formidable than when it is treated under a commercial analogy. A debt the creditor may forego or wipe out by a simple act of will; but a lawgiver or judge may not by a mere act of clemency forego the penalty due to a criminal offence, or, at least, he can do so only by outraging the principle of justice which he represents. Debt, again, is transferable, but guilt is not; the creditor must be satisfied with payment, whether by the debtor or by another on his behalf; but moral obligations can be fulfilled only in person, and neither guilt nor the punishment it deserves can be transferred to another. The satisfaction of justice is a satisfaction which absolutely and unalterably distinguishes between the innocent and the guilty, and is achieved only when the penalty of transgression falls on the latter.

In considering, therefore, the theory which bases the Atonement on the notion of the satisfaction of justice, two questions present themselves:

First, Is there an Absolute Justice which precludes the forgiveness of sin until it obtain satisfaction by punishment?

And, secondly, Is there any sense in which this satisfaction to Justice can be rendered by an innocent person on behalf of the guilty?

The argument of those who base their theory of the Atonement on the idea of Absolute Justice is somewhat to the following effect. It is of the very essence of sin that it involves the idea of guilt or desert of punishment. A moral offence is an offence, not against any individual, private personality, but against the eternal law of Right, or the Being whose nature is identified with it. It cannot therefore be cancelled by any arbitrary act of forgiveness. An injured person may by a mere act of clemency forgive the bitterest wrong done to himself individually; he may forego all acts of retaliation or demands for reparation; he may even re-admit the offender to his good graces. But there is a part of the offence which it lies wholly beyond his power to remit. So far as it is a moral wrong—an act that not merely does hurt or damage to a fellow man, but transgresses the eternal law of righteousness, which transcends all private interests, asserts its supremacy over all individual wills, and is the principle whereon the very existence and stability of the moral order of the universe is based—this and the punishment due to it, no individual by an act of arbitrary clemency can remit or cancel. Even human laws, imperfect as they are, make plain to us this distinction between private offences and offences against retributive justice. If we suppose the representative of the authority of law to be related to a convicted culprit by the tenderest bonds of kinship or per-sonal affection—to be, say, at once his father and his judge—however much he may shrink from the sacrifice, however eager he may be to save the criminal from the consequences of his misdeeds, he cannot, without an abuse of his office, refrain from pronouncing the sentence and exacting the penalty which the law demands. Hence all objections to the theory of penal justice, which are based on the beauty of forgiveness in the relations of man to man, are irrelevant and futile.

It is, indeed, often urged that such a view of divine justice is over-strained and unreal. Can that virtue, it is asked, which is praiseworthy in man, be impossible in God? Can we regard that quelling of personal exasperation and enmity, that foregoing of vengeance or that forgiveness of wrong and readiness to show kindness to our bitterest foe—can we regard an attitude of mind which touches the supreme height of goodness in a human being, as altogether foreign to the nature of the infinitely good and gracious Father of Spirits? And, on the other hand, can we ascribe to God a relentless insistence on punishment, a refusal to forgive till the offence has been wiped out by suffering, which would indicate moral hardness and implacability in a fellow man?

But to all this, it is maintained, there is a sufficient answer. Sin is not to be conceived of as a personal affront to a Divine Person. Moral wrong is not simply a disturbance of the relations between man and God, regarded merely as an Almighty Personality. Moral right and wrong are not created by any personal will, nor can any such will abrogate the guilt of the wrong-doer. The pardon which it is impossible for me as an individual to grant, it is equally impossible for God, conceived of as an individual, to bestow. If He could, the eternal Law of Right which, after He had pronounced remission, still persists in condemning, would be greater than He. But the truth is that God has no personality apart from moral right. He is the very impersonation of justice and righteousness; and what justice and righteousness demand, that the Being whose essence is identified with them can never cease to demand. If, therefore, even at a human tribunal a just judge is debarred from indulging personal tenderness at the expense of justice, much more is the Infinite Moral Ruler of the universe debarred by His own essential nature from the false clemency which would let the sinner be forgiven before justice has been satisfied by the punishment of his sin.

Such, briefly stated, is the fundamental principle of the theory which bases the Atonement on the necessity for the satisfaction of justice. Let us briefly inquire how far it is tenable, how far the notion of a necessity for the satisfaction of justice by punishment is a defensible one.

Now obviously, in the first place, we must concede, that the satisfaction of justice is to be distinguished from vindictiveness—the satisfaction which arises from gratified personal revenge. There is, as we all know, a malign pleasure of which vindictive passion is susceptible, in inflicting or witnessing the infliction of pain or suffering on the man who has done us wrong. Stronger, often, than any other desire is the craving for vengeance, and keener than any other pleasure the unhallowed delight which the gratification of this passion brings. There have even been states of society in which the retaliative impulse has been invested with a spurious consecration, and in which, the more remorselessly a man pursued a personal or family feud to the bitter end, so much the more did other men respect and honour him. Obviously, however, the satisfaction of justice which is held to be the necessary condition of forgiveness, can have nothing in common with the satisfaction of vindictive feeling. Not only is this not a feeling sanctioned by morality, but it is a feeling the restraining or quelling of which is recognized by Christian morality as one of the highest virtues.

Is, then, the satisfaction of Divine Justice which, according to this theory, is the indispensable condition of forgiveness, analogous, if not in any way to individual vindictiveness, yet to that satisfaction which human criminal law finds in the detection and punishment of crime? In an ordered and civilized society the penalty of detected crime is inevitable. Whether legal punishment be regarded as retributive or deterrent—whether, in other words, we find its explanation simply in the righteous reaction of injured society against the injurer, or in the necessity of its self-protection by threatened pains and penalties—in any case, justice can never be satisfied to forego the loss or suffering which is the penalty of crime. Nor is there anything harsh or cruel in this insistence on the infliction of penalty, or in the voice of public opinion which sanctions it. The resentment against evil and evil-doers which supports legal condemnation, and insists upon the execution of legal penalties, or of those social penalties which attend offences the law cannot reach, is a resentment which we are not called to stifle, but rather to cherish and strengthen, in the individual mind and in the heart of the community; nor is the demand for retribution and redress a demand that is unjustifiable or ignoble.

Is this, then, a satisfaction which we can conceive of Divine Justice as demanding? Can we think of God as the Supreme Judge making endurance of penal suffering the indispensable condition of forgiveness? Now there is, no doubt, a sense in which the satisfaction which arises from the punishment of crime is predicable of divine as well as human jurisprudence. But it may be maintained that, whilst this is the only satisfaction possible to human justice, there is another and higher satisfaction possible to divine justice. The only atonement for crime, the only reparation for infringement of law, of which human jurisprudence can take cognizance, is simply the outward atonement or reparation of pain, loss, suffering inflicted on the transgressor. By fines or imprisonment or physical inflictions, or, in the extreme case, by capital punishment, human law can make sure at least of this, that the breach of its requirements shall carry with it the forfeiture of outward happiness, or even of life itself. But human law can go no further. It cannot penetrate to the realm of spirit, to the inner life of thought, feeling, will, and exact the higher penalty of spiritual misery, the deeper, keener torture of mental anguish for acts of disobedience. Alike in what it does exact and in what it does not and cannot exact, it falls short of the highest satisfaction of which justice is capable. Its penalties never transcend physical or material suffering; but mere pain or suffering, as such, has no moral and spiritual value. Sin is an evil which belongs to the realm of spirit, and if it can be atoned for at all, it must be by an atonement of its own order. Physical torture prolonged for ages would have in it nothing commensurate with, or that could be regarded as a set-off or compensation for, a single sinful deed.

Nor does society regard its outward inflictions as establishing a claim to forgiveness. At the expiry of a criminal's sentence it does not forgive him; it simply lets him go, exempts him from further outward penalty. The stamp of felony, the loss of caste, the irreversible suspicion, still rest upon him; and society, which can look no further than the outward life and employ no other than external sanctions, remains unreconciled and unforgiving. And he, on his part, may be none the better for his endurance of penal misery. It may have a hardening rather than a softening influence on his spirit. He may only hate the more the social order that has made him suffer, and be as ready, or more ready than ever, to carry on the war with it and to give way to his unextirpated criminal instincts.

And so, in like manner, is it with the penalties for transgression of the divine law. Here, too, pain, as pain, possesses no atoning virtue. It has in it nothing commensurate with moral guilt; nor, though prolonged for ages, could it be regarded as obliterating that guilt, or as any, even the faintest, compensation for it. If we conceive of the punishment of sin as analogous to that of human laws, at the expiry of the sinner's sentence of incarceration or banishment to some dismal penal settlement of the universe, the moral guilt that was there at the beginning would not have vanished, would still cling to him at the end. By an arbitrary act of clemency, he might be released from longer penal endurance; but the stain of selfishness, or sensuality, or other sin that was the cause of his condemnation, would remain unobliterated and unmodified.

Are we, then, compelled to hold that what this theory represents as the satisfaction of justice is a conception entirely devoid of meaning? Is there no sense, in which Infinite Justice can receive satisfaction from the pain or suffering of the transgressor, and in which that pain or suffering can become the condition of forgiveness? Yes, it has been answered by some thoughtful modern writers, there is a kind of suffering which, if we were capable of experiencing it in its full and exhaustive intensity, would constitute the only possible or adequate expiation for sin, the only conceivable expedient for the wiping out or annulling of a guilty past. Literally, of course, the past can never be annulled. Whatever our record has been—that of a life stained with the grosser vices, or, at best, of a life of moral poverty and neglect of duty, governed only by worldly and selfish motives and aims—its historic reality can never be obliterated, its sins can never be unsinned, nor can Infinite Justice ever come to regard them without moral condemnation and abhorrence. The only conceivable moral expunging of them would be, that we in our inmost soul should feel and respond to the divine condemnation of them, stand self-condemned at the bar of our own conscience, become alive to the misery and degradation, or the moral poverty and meanness, of our byegone life, and with deepest shame and self-abasement, long to renounce and escape from it. And along with this shrinking and self-abasement that comes to the soul from seeing sin as God sees it, there must arise in it a profoundly painful consciousness of the loss that is implied in a life of estrangement from God, of the infinite wealth which it has squandered, the infinite blessedness it has forfeited, of the loneliness even here of a life that is without God, and of the dread darkness that gathers over its future.1

Here then, it would seem, is a kind of suffering that, if it were only possible to us, might be supposed to possess in it an expiatory value which can never be ascribed to any outward penal infliction. It meets the demand that, for a moral and spiritual evil, a material instead of a moral and spiritual satisfaction will not suffice. As penetrating to the realm of spirit, it is a kind of suffering essentially deeper than any external and arbitrary torture; and, finally, it is a kind of suffering which prepares the soul to estimate the value of forgiveness, and without which forgiveness would be impossible. If divine forgiveness meant exemption from any outward penalty in this world or the next, it might come to us wholly irrespective of our moral and spiritual state, and could be bestowed on all alike by an arbitrary act of clemency. It would need, in order to appreciate it, no moral sensibility, no awakening of conscience, no conviction of sin. But if it mean deliverance from guilt, escape from an accusing conscience, restoration to the infinite purity and goodness, then can divine forgiveness be no indiscriminate boon bestowed on the hardened or indifferent, alike with the soul that is plunged in deepest compunction and sorrow for sin. It is only the latter, only the soul that has sorrowed with godly sorrow, become alive to the intolerable burden of guilt, felt the loathsomeness of the taint of evil, recognized in its bitter experience the justice of the divine condemnation—it is only the soul that has rendered to the Infinite Righteousness this satisfaction of moral suffering that can know and appreciate the blessedness of reconciliation with God. And it is only this suffering, the suffering of a soul to which sin and the consciousness of guilt is a worse evil than any outward infliction, that is the indispensable condition of forgiveness.

But here arises the great difficulty which any such view is called to meet. If a sorrow and self-condemnation adequate to the evil of sin be the condition of forgiveness, can any human being render such a satisfaction for sin to the Infinite Righteousness? To say that he must do so, is surely a doctrine of despair rather than of hope. Can any imperfect, sinful being ever look on sin with a moral condemnation equivalent to the divine condemnation of it? Is it not one inevitable effect of sin that it blunts our moral perceptions and dulls our sense of its abhorrent nature? Has any imperfect, sinful being ever looked on sin with the eye of God, or with a moral condemnation equivalent to the divine condemnation? Does not our sorrow for sin partake of the general imperfection of our moral nature, so that our very repentance needs to be repented of, and increases instead of atoning for our guilt? Is there not truth in the apparent paradox that it is only the sinless who can fully know what sin is: seeing it is he only that can measure it by the standard of moral perfection? It is for the sinful that a satisfaction or atonement is needed, yet none can render that satisfaction who is not free from personal sin; to be a sinner is to be incapable of rendering it.

The answer which has been given by those who hold this theory is, that the difficulty has been met and solved in the person and life of Christ. For here is presented to us, in one who is a partaker of our nature, that infinite sorrow for sin which is the perfect response to the divine condemnation of it. Here is one who is the living embodiment of that ideal of moral perfection by which alone can the discovery be made to the human consciousness of the moral deformity and degradation of sin; here, too, is one, in whose pure and perfect nature the presence of sin creates a moral recoil, a pang of nameless pain and grief, such as the sinful can never experience for themselves.

But now—delaying for the present any further exposition of this theory—let me briefly indicate two objections to it which at first sight may seem to be insuperable. Is not the satisfaction for sin on which it turns, an unreal satisfaction; and even if it were otherwise unexceptionable, can its virtue ever be transferred from the sinless to the sinful? Is not the sorrow for sin of one who is by supposition sinless, that only of an observer, and not that of the actual perpetrator? Can we leave out of a real moral contrition the element of personal guilt? In order to any true satisfaction for sin, must it not be rendered by one who can feel the shame and sorrow, as shame and sorrow for his own transgression, his own disobedience and departure from goodness? A sinless being, it is true, may, in one sense, know sin more thoroughly, and appreciate more fully the disastrous consequences it involves, than the sinner himself. A morally perfect being would also be capable of a deeper moral sympathy, a love and compassion more intense than the sinful can feel for each other. But one element of moral suffering for sin which is absolutely essential to its reality, such a being could never feel, namely, conscious guilt, the sense of personal ill desert, the pain and shame we can feel only for evil deeds that have been part of our own moral record.

And, even if we suppose that all the ingredients of an adequate sorrow for sin could enter into the conscious experience of the sinless, there would remain the seemingly insuperable difficulty, involved in this, as in all other substitutionary theories, the inconceivability of the transference of merit or guilt from one moral agent to another, or of the imputation of moral character to any other than the author of it—of innocence or righteousness to the guilty, of guilt to the innocent or righteous. However close the relations of the individual to other members of the social organism, however true it be that our social relation makes others, in a sense, a part of ourselves, there is, it would seem, a point beyond which this merging of our life in the life of others cannot go, without sacrificing that principle of individual and personal responsibility apart from which morality could not be said to exist.

In the next lecture, I shall attempt to show to what extent these difficulties can be met, and under what modifications the theory we have been considering may be regarded as at least an approximation to a true theory of the Atonement.

  • 1.

    Cf. The Nature of the Atonement, by Dr. John M'Leod Campbell, p. 133 seq.