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Lecture XVIII. The Idea of the Atonement


IN the last lecture I submitted to you some criticisms of the theory which bases the Atonement on the idea of the satisfaction of offended justice by penal suffering; or, in other words, which makes the endurance of penal suffering for sin the condition of forgiveness and reconciliation with God. Without recapitulating the train of thought in which we were engaged, it may help us to gather up the results of the preceding lectures, if, looking at the subject from a slightly different point of view, we attempt in the present lecture to answer the following questions:

First, What kind of suffering for sin can we ascribe to a being by supposition sinless?

And, secondly, Is there any sense in which the moral benefits of the sufferings of a sinless being can be transferred to the sinful?

1. In answer to the first question, it is admitted by theologians of all schools—as indeed it must be admitted—that there are elements of suffering for sin which lie beyond the possible experience of a being incapable of any personal taint of sin. One of these, for instance, is conscious guilt. Wide as the range of human sympathy which we must ascribe to Christ, if we think of Him as morally perfect, it could never go one step beyond the limit where condemnation of sin passes into self-condemnation, loathing of moral evil into loss of self-respect, into that shame and self-reproach which is the most terrible ingredient of sin's penalty. And must we not regard as the main element of the punishment of sin, not any outward inflictions, but the inward evils that cling to it—the darkening and degradation of the moral nature, the loss of innocence, the dying out of pure affections and aspirations, and that conscious shame and self-contempt of which I have just spoken? If the punishment of sin, like the penalties for the infringement of human law, consisted simply in external or arbitrary inflictions, such as imprisonment, banishment, forfeiture of money or outward status, or, in extreme cases, capital punishment, it is at least conceivable that an exact equivalent for the sinner's punishment might be borne by the sinless.

But there is a penalty for sin which is not arbitrary, which follows it by a law as irreversible as that of physical causation—the penalty which consists in such things as the stings of conscience, the darkening of the moral perceptions, the extinction of the light of purity in the soul, the hateful bondage of evil passion, the bitterness of remorse, the shrinking from hateful memories of the past, the vague forebodings of the unknown future. These and the like are the worst ingredient of sin's penalty, and they are those which cannot be separated from it, and which only the soul that has sinned can ever know. From all these, or the faintest participation in them, He who knew no sin was of necessity exempted.

Another element, again, of the penalty of sin which a being, by supposition sinless, could never experience, is what in Scripture language is designated “the wrath of God,” in other words, a personal sense of divine disapproval. Conscious guilt, indeed, is but the inward reflexion of the divine hostility to evil, the shadow of the darkened countenance of infinite righteousness cast on the soul; and the soul that is incapable of the former must be equally exempted from all consciousness of the latter. If Christ was not guilty, it was impossible that God should ever think Him guilty, or entertain towards Him the same disapproval or anger with which He regards the guilty. The infamy of unholy deeds could never in the eye of Infinite Wisdom fall on Him who was holy, harmless, undefiled. In one sense, as we shall see, He might identify Himself with the sin, as well as the sorrow of the world that is the fruit of sin; but even in those last scenes of His earthly history in which a world's iniquities were lying heavy on His soul, there could be no anger against Him in the mind of God.

And if there was none in reality, there could be none fictitiously assumed. Nay, it was just in the midst of His sufferings that we are permitted to think of the divine approval and complacency as, most of all, resting upon Him. In the very article of His agony He was conscious of doing the will of the Father, and of the unwavering confidence in His love; and though physical weakness might take the form of a momentary sense of loneliness and forsakenness, yet with His latest breath He is represented as committing Himself with childlike trust to the everlasting arms: “Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit.” The peace of innocence, the imperturbable repose of goodness under the un-eclipsed light of divine favour, were, all through life and to the close of life, ever His.

Turning now from the negative to the positive side, let us inquire whether there are any elements of the suffering which flows from sin, which a sinless or morally pure and perfect being can experience. Now, in answer to this question, let me say, in the first place, that there is a view of the sufferings of Christ which many able theologians have propounded, in virtue of which they can be regarded as penal sufferings, and as having, in relation to the sin of the world, an expiatory value. “Christ,” writes one great authority on this subject, the well-known American theologian, Jonathan Edwards, “suffered the wrath of God for men's sins in such a way as He was capable of, being an infinitely holy person, who knew that God was not angry with Him personally, knew that God did not hate Him, but infinitely loved Him.” He could not, therefore, suffer for sin, as the wicked hereafter will, “from the sense of God's infinite displeasure towards them.”

How, then, consistently with the absence of all personal guilt, could Christ be said to have suffered the punishment of sin? The answer which Jonathan Edwards and kindred writers give is simply this, that Christ, though not a sinner, suffered the effects of sin. He experienced by divine appointment in His own person those penal evils which, in the case of all others, are the expression of God's moral condemnation or the penal results of their evil deeds. All physical evils, even that which is endured by the good and holy, are traceable, directly or indirectly, to moral evil as their ultimate source; and all experience of such evil is experience of the penal effects of sin. Pain, grief, toil, the sufferings that spring from the malignant passions of men, from envy, malice, hatred, cruelty, ingratitude, treachery, revenge,—evils which it is not only possible for the innocent to experience, but which fall with redoubled force upon them, just because they are innocent; and finally, that evil which is emphatically “the wages of sin,” which in anticipation hangs all through life as a dark shadow of doom on the human spirit, and from which in its awful reality no innocence can exempt any sharer of our mortal nature,—these and such as these are the dire effects of sin and the manifestations of God's anger against it. And all these Christ could and did in His earthly history, and especially in the last tragic passage of that history, in their full and unmitigated force, endure.

And what is specially to be noted is, that it was not merely theoretically, as a spectator or observer, that Christ contemplated these evils which are the penalty of sin; but they were evils which were stamped and impressed on His consciousness till they suffused His whole breath and being, by the bitter teaching of personal experience.

Finally, it is to be added that, along with and underneath all this experience of the effects of sin, there was in the consciousness of Christ a recognition of them as in themselves the just and righteous expression of the divine condemnation of sin, a profound response to that condemnation as just and righteous.

To sum up the scope of this view of the penal character of Christ's sufferings, let me quote the words of a recent very able and thoughtful writer. “It is, I own, difficult to frame a theory to which no exception can be taken, which shall show how the sufferings of Christ, which were in large part sufferings endured for righteousness sake, had at the same time an expiatory value; yet it is the clear teaching of Scripture that they possess this character. As aids to the apprehension of the subject, the facts remain that these sufferings of the sinless Son of God were voluntarily undertaken, and (what can be said of no other of the race) wholly undeserved; that Christ did enter, as far as a sinless Being could, into the penal evils of our state, and finally submitted to death—the doom which sin has brought on our humanity; that He did this with a perfect consciousness and realization of the relation of these evils to sin; that He experienced the full bitterness of these evils, and, especially in His last hours, was permitted to endure them without even the alleviations and spiritual comforts which many of His own people enjoy; that there were mysterious elements in His sufferings, which outward causes do not seem adequate to explain (e.g. the agony in Gethsemane, the awful darkness of His soul on Calvary), which appear related to His position as our Sin-bearer; finally, that in this mortal sorrow He still retains unbroken His relation to the Father, overcomes our spiritual enemies, so transacts with God for men, so offers Himself to God in substitutionary love on our behalf, so recognizes and honours the justice of God in His condemnation of sin, and in the evils that were befalling Him in consequence of that sin, that His death may be fitly regarded as a satisfaction to righteousness for us.”1

I shall not attempt any elucidation or examination of this theory, further than to say that it seems to meet the conditions of the problem which the authors of it set themselves to solve, and that it certainly gives a meaning to many passages of Scripture with reference to the sufferings and death of Christ which would be otherwise unintelligible.

There is, however, a further view of the subject which may tend to throw some additional light on the question we are now considering, namely, whether there are any elements of the suffering which flows from sin which a morally pure and sinless being can experience. And, in answer to this question, we return to certain considerations which have already been in part suggested. Not only can a good man suffer for sin, but it may be laid down as a principle that he will suffer for it in proportion to his goodness. Not only can the sinless suffer for sin, but there are sufferings for sin which only he who is himself sinless can in the fullest measure undergo. It was possible for Him who knew no sin to bear on His soul a burden of humiliation, shame, sorrow, for our sins, which in one aspect of it was more profound and intense than we could ever feel for ourselves. Consider how far, to a very pure and holy nature, and one which is at the same time intensely loving and benignant, the sins of those who are dear to him may become a moral burden almost equivalent to his own. Let us conceive for a moment what the feeling of such an one would be, if he learned that one related to him by the ties of kindred and home, and with whose welfare his own happiness was deeply implicated—child, brother, sister, husband, wife, had fallen into dishonour and infamy. Suppose him to be a man of intense affections, and of high moral principle, and think what an overwhelming, inexpressible shock of pain and grief it would be to him to hear, that one dearer to him than life had been detected in some act of shameful baseness and so had fallen into irretrievable disgrace. Would he not be stung by an anguish, a borrowed humiliation, as bitter as if the sin had been his own? Nay, would not the borrowed grief be in one respect more poignant than that of the evil doer himself? For the very fact that the latter could commit the sin would indicate a comparative moral insensibility; so that it would be possible for one of keen moral susceptibility to discern, as the culprit himself could not, the gravity of the guilty deed, and to feel the burden of borrowed guilt harder to bear than the original. Few, indeed, are they who are endowed with a sympathetic sensitiveness so keen, and a moral nature so elevated, as this illustration implies. If we had many such burdens to bear, what heart of mortal mould could long sustain the load?

But what ordinary men, even the best, can only rarely and feebly experience, He in whom was no sin was called in fullest measure constantly to bear. “He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” “He was made sin for us.” “Our iniquities were laid upon Him.” What most men can feel intensely in the case only of those who are closely related to them, and even then only with regard to flagrant instances of moral excess, our Lord is represented as feeling for all men and for all the sin and sorrow of the world. He loved all men with a love which our feeble philanthropy can feel only for a few, and compared with which our most ardent affection is coldness. On the vilest, the lowest, the least, He looked as made in the very image of God, as the children of the heavenly Father. And, so regarding them, He saw them everywhere beset by the moral plague that had wrought in them deformity and disaster.

And further, as I have said, as He was endowed with a moral susceptibility infinitely more quick and keen than the best and purest of mankind, the presence of sin created in Him a repugnance, a moral recoil, a sorrow and shame, which the fallen and guilty could never feel for themselves.

Such, then, were some of the elements of suffering for sin which are not only possible but necessary in the experience of a morally pure and sinless nature; and these, could they in any way be conceived of as transferred to us, would constitute, for the reasons I have already specified, an atonement or satisfaction more real and adequate than any external and arbitrary infliction. It meets, as I have said, the demand that the atonement for sin should belong to its own order of things, that a moral and spiritual evil should be expunged or cancelled by a suffering which is itself moral and spiritual. And further, it possesses this virtue, that it is the only kind of suffering that prepares for forgiveness. For forgiveness is not a boon that can be bestowed by an arbitrary will on the indifferent and impenitent, alike with the soul that is penetrated with a sense of the evil of sin. It is the latter only who, feeling the intolerable burden of guilt, can know and appreciate the blessedness of forgiveness and reconciliation to God.

But here arises, of course, the great problem, as to the imputation of the suffering and death of the sinless to the sinful. Can this moral satisfaction, this expiatory moral suffering, be in any way transferred from the innocent to the guilty? Is there any way in which the moral benefit of it can be conceived as accruing to us, or in which, in its moral and spiritual results, it can become equivalent to our own?

Now, in answer to this question, and to obviate the moral difficulty which it seems to involve, appeal has often been made to the fact that we live under a moral order, of which the suffering of the innocent for the guilty is one of the most unquestionable characteristics. The innocent child is born to a heritage of disease and suffering on account of the vices of the parent or ancestor; the selfish spendthrift entails penury and hardship on those who are dependent on him; the benefactor sacrifices ease, wealth, health, life itself, for the sake of the miserable, the down-trodden, the ignorant and degraded. The pioneers of civilization sow in tears what subsequent generations reap in joy; and often it is the lot of the noblest of men, whose ideas and projects are in advance of their time, to pass their lives in unfriended toil or persecution, and to leave to future ages the precious legacy of their thought and labour.

But, though human society is so ordered that its members are implicated with each other in good or evil, and the results of our moral actions are passed over from one to another, this fact does not afford any countenance to the notion of imputation of moral merit or demerit, or its transference from the innocent to the guilty or vice versa. We suffer for others, but we do not, and cannot, sin for them. To take the instances above adduced, the innocent offspring suffer for the vices of the profligate parent, but their sufferings do nothing to lessen his guilt, nor is his guilt in any sense imputed to them. The benefactor or philanthropist offers up his life as a sacrifice for the emancipation of the lost and miserable from ignorance and vice; but, while they reap the benefit of his self-devotion, the moral merit remains his alone.

Though, however, the notion of a merely external imputation of moral merit to those who are yet in their sins is untenable, there is a profound meaning in the Christian doctrine known by the theological formula of “Justification by faith.” Whatever else it means, one idea expressed by it is that faith is the spiritual link that brings us into living union with Christ; so that, not by any arbitrary supposition or legal fiction, but actually, in the fundamental principle of our moral life, we become one with Him. It is not that the merit of the perfect righteousness and atoning sacrifice and death of Christ is, in some incomprehensible way, ascribed to us; but that there is a profound sense in which they become actually our own—His sorrow our sorrow, His sacrifice our sacrifice, His perfect life, in all its ideal beauty and elevation, the very life we live. It is only thus by the conception that the essential principle of the life of Christ becomes by faith the essential principle of our own, that the doctrine of Christ's satisfaction for sin and imputed righteousness can be freed from that character of unreality and fiction which has been often ascribed to it.2

It is true, indeed, that there is a sense in which the atoning work of Christ is a thing achieved for us apart from any effort on our part. It is a finished work, a satisfaction for sin complete in itself, anterior to any act of faith by which the individual believer appropriates its benefits. The satisfaction which it renders to divine justice, it may be truly averred, needs no supplementary act of faith on our part to render it adequate. Further, it is not difficult to understand why many religious men have always been disposed to deplete faith of any moral value and significance—why, in other words, they have been jealous of any attempt to regard the subjective act by which the believer appropriates its benefits as a necessary element in the work of redemption. For any such attempt has seemed to them to detract from the aspect of free and unmerited grace in which they desire and delight to regard it, and to make it a conjunct work of God and man rather than a manifestation of divine love absolute and unmingled.

It is, moreover, the very sense of moral weakness and helplessness that drives the sinner to the feet of God. It is our felt incapacity, by anything we can do or suffer, to free ourselves from the hateful bondage of evil, that deprives us of all self-confidence, gives rise to the cry for help and deliverance by a power which is other than our own, and disposes us to welcome the revelation that all we need has been done for us by the redeeming and saving work of Christ. It is obvious how this attitude of mind should create a predisposition to minimize the moral or subjective element in faith, and to regard it as nothing more than the passive reception of a boon that has been already won for us, the stretching forth of the hand to receive from the Divine Benefactor the inestimable benefit of a satisfaction to which nothing on our part can be added.

Yet, if we turn from the side of the giver to that of the receiver, there is obviously a point beyond which the purely objective aspect of the Atonement cannot be pressed. To emphasize it so as to exclude every subjective element, would be to make its benefits attainable indiscriminately by the indifferent and impenitent, alike with the soul that is penetrated by the sense of its spiritual needs. A salvation that is absolutely complete independently of any moral activity in the recipient, would be a salvation that superseded any demand for moral goodness or holiness of life, and that could be claimed and possessed by those who remained in their sins, impenitent and unbelieving.

Further, it is to be considered that no moral and spiritual good can ever be conveyed to us passively. In the very passivity of the receiver, so to speak, an element of activity must be present. Material blessings can be conferred on a being who remains as inert as the vessel into which water is poured, or the coffer in which money is deposited. But a spiritual blessing can only be spiritually received. The intelligence must apprehend it, the conscience must recognize and appreciate it, the will and active energies of the soul must go forth to grasp and appropriate it.

And in an especial manner must this be true of that highest and most precious of all spiritual blessings, the salvation that comes to us through the redemption that is in Christ. The faith that makes us participants in His perfect righteousness and His atoning sacrifice and death, so far from being an attitude of mind inert, unintelligent, passive, is one of the most intense moral activity; so far from being destitute of moral value and significance, it may be said to be itself the principle of all moral excellence, in which all goodness is virtually contained. For what it means is nothing less than the absolute surrender of the soul to God, the renunciation of self, and the identification of our whole life and being with that perfect ideal which is presented to us in the life and death of Christ. It is only another name for that which the great Christian Apostle so often represents as a dying to self and living to Christ.

“I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” “That I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death.” “If one died for all, then were all dead: and that he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him.” What in such forms of expression St. Paul seems to point to as the distinctive principle of the Christian life, is an annulling of the life of self and of all selfish desires and impulses, and a blending of my will with the mind and will of Christ so absolute that, in a sense, my private, particular self may be said to have become extinct and my very being to be absorbed and lost in His. So close, so nearly approaching to identification becomes this union with Christ that, not in a figure, but in a most real sense, we become participants in the spirit and virtue of His life and death, sharers in His condemnation of sin, in His divine sorrow and sacrifice, in His sense of the misery of estrangement from God, and in His sense of the joy and blessedness of reconciliation with the Father of Spirits.

It is true, indeed, that when we thus describe self-surrender to Christ as of the essence of our Christian faith, we seem to speak rather of the final end and aim than of the initial act of the Christian life. Faith, however earnest and sincere, leaves the life even of the best of men far short of perfection, subject, it may be, to many blemishes and shortcomings. The re-awakening of selfish impulses and passions often detracts from the completeness of our self-renunciation; and it might even seem as if devotion to Christ were only the exceptional experience of our higher and more emotional moments, rather than the uniform spirit and genius of our life. But the answer is, that the Christian life, like all other kinds of life, is not a series of disconnected acts, but of acts that are the manifestation and evolution of one organic principle; and that here too, as elsewhere, the germ, though it were only as a grain of mustard seed, contains in it virtually and potentially the future fruit and flower, the undisclosed beauty and perfection that are yet to be. Absolute assimilation to Christ may be an ideal which, even in the lives of the holiest and best of men, is only a far-off attainment; nevertheless, in the first, faint breath of a living faith, in the earliest touch of a genuine aspiration after goodness, the principle of that divine life which is its final outcome is already contained; and though not extensively and exhaustively, intensively and in essence, the perfect union of the soul with Christ is there. The residuum of selfishness that still clings to us, the vain fears and vainer hopes that pertain to the things seen and temporal, so far as they intrude on us, are only the survival of a life that is no longer ours. The true and real life of the soul is that which is “hid with Christ in God.” Effort, struggle, conflict with indwelling sin, nay, the painful consciousness of moral relapse, may be in some measure the characteristics of the outward life; but in that inner sphere in which the true life lies, the strife is over, the pain of conflict is ended, the victory is already won, the peace of perfect reconciliation with God, the peace that passeth understanding, is already ours.

  • 1.

    The Christian View of God and the World, by Professor James Orr, p. 362.

  • 2.

    Cf. the sermon, “Can Righteousness be imputed?” University Sermons, p. 112 seq.