By William S. Plumer, 1867
"Come, let us shout joyfully to the Lord, shout
The word Atonement is found but once in the English New Testament: "We also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement." Romans 5:11. Yet the Greek word here rendered atonement frequently occurs elsewhere. Our word atonement is compounded of at and one. At-one-ment is therefore the same thing as a reconciliation. It brings together those who have been at variance. The words reconcile, reconciled, reconciling, and reconciliation, in application to the work of Christ, are found in the New Testament nine or ten times. "The ministry of reconciliation" is the ministry that makes known the atonement of Christ. "The word of reconciliation" is the doctrine of atonement.
Here are four striking passages from the New Testament in which the word occurs: "In all things it behooved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people." Heb. 2:17. "All things are of God, who has reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ." 2 Cor. 5:18. "God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them." 2 Cor. 5:19. "It pleased the Father that in him should all fullness dwell; and having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things to himself." Col. 1:19, 20. In like manner Daniel, 9:24, says: "Seventy weeks are determined upon your people and upon your holy city, to finish the transgression, and to make an end of sins, and to make reconciliation for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness." Each of these phrases used by Daniel is explanatory of the others. Each of them points to an atonement; and an atonement is a reconciliation, a bringing together of those who have been alienated.
We have forsaken, insulted, and rebelled against God. He has followed us with mercies, reproofs, and expostulations, and yet we persist in iniquity. As a moral Governor, he must punish sin in his dominions. He is holy, and hates iniquity. His nature and his office both require that transgression be punished. He saw men ruined and lost, yet he pitied them. He provided a mode of reconciliation by the life and death of his Son. Jesus Christ is the Reconciler. He is fit for this work. He has the nature of God, and so can appear with honor before the heavenly Majesty. He has the nature of man, and is by experience acquainted with all our natural infirmities. He knows what temptation and sorrow and death are.
In the passage cited from Colossians, God is said "to reconcile all things to himself" by Jesus Christ. This mode of speaking is not unusual in the sacred writings. The reason of this seems to be, that God is the offended party and we are the offenders. As such, we have need to be reconciled to him. The price of reconciliation was, therefore, paid to him, not to us. The learned Grotius has very justly remarked that in heathen authors men's being reconciled to their gods is always understood to signify appeasing the anger of their gods. When our Savior commanded the offending one to go and be reconciled to his brother, the plain meaning is, that he should go and try to appease his brother's anger, obtain his pardon, and regain his favor by humility, entreaty, and, if required, by reparation or restitution. This is also the use of the word reconciled, in 1 Samuel 29:4, where the Philistines say of David and his difficulty with Saul. "Wherewith should he reconcile himself unto his master? Should it not be with the heads of these men?" They thought David would try to assuage Saul's anger and regain his favor by destroying his enemies. Indeed, this is the ordinary sense of the term in Scripture. To make reconciliation, therefore, is to offer an atonement.
The doctrine of atonement is vital in the Christian system. It claims our candid and careful study. When we speak of atonement, we mean that "Christ, by his obedience and death, did fully pay the debt of all his people, and did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to his Father's justice in their behalf." It was a proper satisfaction; that is, it was not figurative or emblematical. It was real, not imaginary, not feigned, not fictitious, not theatrical. It was full, and not partial. It was complete, entire, lacking nothing. The only possible THEORIES respecting the work and death of Christ are these:
1. That Jesus Christ fully satisfied all the penal claims of the law for all men, and that all shall therefore infallibly be saved. This was formerly the doctrine of Universalists. They held that Christ had paid all the debts of all men, and that God would certainly save all men by the merits of his Son.
2. Another theory respecting the atonement is, that Christ did not by his death satisfy Divine justice for any of the sins of any man; that he died merely as a martyr to the truth; that no man required any real atonement, and that God required no satisfaction to his justice. This was the view held by old Socinians of Europe, and embraced by their modern followers.
3. Another theory of the death of Christ is, that he made atonement for some of the sins of all men, and left them by their own works and sufferings to satisfy for their other sins as best they could. This view presents the work of Christ as partial and incomplete. It is practically the theory of all who by pains, prayers, penances, and acts of voluntary humility--propose to make themselves acceptable to God.
4. The last view is, that Jesus Christ made full and complete satisfaction for all his people; that in him they are complete; that in him they possess full redemption and perfect righteousness before God. This is the true, Scriptural doctrine of atonement. It is full of comfort to all who are so humble as to be willing to be saved by sovereign grace. It puts the conscience at rest, so that it demands no more atonement. Indeed, it kindles up untold delights. "We rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ--by whom we have now received the atonement," says the Scripture.
As the doctrine of atonement is not of human origin, but is matter of pure revelation from God, it is evident we must be guided in the formation of our opinions by the Scriptures alone. If they settle not the points involved, all our logic and philosophies will be useless. Our appeal is directly to God's word.
No one will deny that in the sacred writings Christ is called a Savior, a Redeemer, a Deliverer, a horn of salvation. He is said to be the Bread of life, the Tree of life, the Water of life. Indeed, he is said to be the Life itself.
The Scriptures as clearly ascribe our salvation to the death of Christ. They say he "died for the ungodly;" that "to this end Christ both died, and rose and revived;" that Christ "died for our sins;" that saints should live to him who died for them; that he died for us that we should live with him. Romans 5:6; 14:9; 1 Cor.15:3; 2 Cor. 5:15; 1 Thess. 4:14; 5:10.
The Old and New Testaments wondrously harmonize in their teachings on this subject. Isaiah says, "Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. . . . He was wounded [margin, tormented] for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace [or, which procured our peace] was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. . . . You shall make his soul an offering for sin. . . . For the transgression of my people was he stricken. . . . The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. . . . He bore the sin of many."
In sin are two things: one its defilement or pollution; the other its desert of punishment. To say that God laid on Christ the pollution of our sins is blasphemous; but to say that Christ "bore our sins in his own body on the tree," is a heavenly doctrine. When the prophet says, "You shall make his soul an offering for sin," we know he refers not to any iniquity in Christ, for he had no sin. Nor did our Lord bear the sin of fallen angels. He took not on him their nature. Between them and God there is no mediator. They are reserved in chains under darkness, to the judgment of the great day. And yet his soul was an offering for sin. What sin can be meant but ours? One says, "We may, in many cases, say that the innocent suffers for the guilty, when one is exposed to loss or pain by means of another's fault, or for his benefit; but can it be said, with propriety, that the Lord lays upon the innocent sufferer the iniquity of the offender, or that the former bears the sins of the latter, when no translation or imputation of guilt is intended and no real atonement made? If so, what words can convey the ideas of imputation or atonement? What determinate meaning can there be in language?" [Scott.]
Peter declares that "Christ also has once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust." 1 Pet. 3:18. If he suffered for sins--whose sins were they? They were the sins of the unjust, even of those whom he would rescue from a righteous and eternal destruction. Indeed, almost every form of language is employed to show that Christ's sufferings were vicarious, not for himself but for others. Paul says, "God has made him to be sin [or a sin-offering] for us." 2 Cor. 5:21. In the very same verse it is declared that Christ knew no sin. Surely he bore the wrath of God, which was due to us.
When Peter says that he, "his own self, bore our sins in his own body on the tree," 1 Peter 2:24, what is the meaning of this solemn language? The expression bearing sin, or bearing iniquity, occurs more than thirty times in Scripture, and in every instance it means to bear the sufferings or penalty of sin. Thus in Leviticus 5:1, God ordains that if a person does not speak up when he hears a public charge to testify regarding something he has seen or learned about, he will be "bear his iniquity." This means that guilt shall so rest upon him that he shall be liable to punishment. So also in Leviticus 22:9, God says "they shall therefore keep my ordinance, lest they bear sin for it and die." So in Ezekiel 23:49, God says, "You shall bear the sins of your idols." Clearly, the meaning is, you shall be held liable to punishment for worshiping your idols. Again, in Leviticus 24:15, the Lord says, "Whoever curses his God, shall bear his sin." In Hebrews 9:28, Paul says, "Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many;" and in Isaiah 53:11, God says, "My righteous servant . . . shall bear their iniquities." Could words more plainly teach that Christ endured the wrath of God for us, and bore the penalty of the law in our room and stead?
In Galatians 3:13, Paul says, "Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us." This passage seems specially intended to meet all cavillings. In the language of an Israelite, the law consisted of a precept, a statute, a rule, or a direction--and of a curse, or penalty, and of a promise or blessing. The rule or command was for all. The promise or blessing was for the obedient; the curse or penalty was for the transgressor. Indeed, our Anglo-saxon word curse has precisely the same meaning with the Latin word penalty. As we were all transgressors, we were all under the curse. But Christ has redeemed us by enduring the penalty or by being made a curse for us. The slight variations in the sense of the word curse in this passage need mislead no one. In the latter case, it means a victim, one devoted or accursed for us. In quite a number of passages is Christ spoken of as a lamb, a Lamb slain, a Lamb who takes away sin, as a Lamb who is worshiped in heaven, a Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. Isaiah 53:7; John 1:29; Acts 8:32; 1 Pet. 1:19; Rev. 5:8, 12, and 13:8.
It is admitted that Christ resembled a lamb in his uncomplaining gentleness. But in what sense did a lamb ever take away sin, but by dying in the room of the offerer, and how could Christ as a lamb take away sin, but by the sacrifice of himself? If he were slain, it was not for himself--but for us. All the lambs offered in sacrifice died the innocent for the guilty; the spotless for the criminal. Do not these things clearly teach that Christ endured the penalty of the law, that he died as a substitute for others?
The same doctrine is variously taught in the Scriptures in connection with the phrase, the blood of Christ. It is expressly said that he "made peace through the blood of his cross," Col. 1:20; that "by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us," Heb. 9:12; that his blood shall purge our "conscience from dead works to serve the living God," Heb. 9:14; that "the blood of Jesus Christ . . . cleanses us from all sin," 1 John 1:7; that he has redeemed us to God by his blood, Rev. 5:9; and that we "are made near by the blood of Christ." Eph. 2:13. Now the shedding of the blood of Christ by his enemies was the greatest crime ever committed on this earth. It is impossible that such wickedness could be pleasing to God. In what sense then does his blood cleanse us from sin? It cannot be otherwise than as he offered himself as a Lamb without spot unto God; poured out his soul unto death--that we might live forever. Blood, innocent blood, calls for vengeance. The blood of Abel cried from the ground, and the cry went up to heaven. But the blood of Christ speaks better things than that of Abel. It calls for salvation to all who believe.
The Scriptures no less clearly declare that Christ endured his sufferings for the iniquities of his people. Isaiah says, "For the transgression of my people was he stricken;" 53:8. Paul says that "he was delivered for our offences," Romans 4:25; that he "died for our sins according to the Scriptures," 1 Cor.15:3; and that he "gave himself for our sins," Gal. 1:4. There is no desirable sense in which Christ could have done and suffered these things for sin, unless it be as an atonement. And it is very clear from the New Testament that Christ's dying for sin is matter of exultation to all the pious. Indeed the only feast instituted under the gospel is a feast expressly ordained to show forth his death until he come.
The Scriptures no less frequently declare that Christ died for guilty men. "This is my body which is given for you." Luke 22:19. "I lay down my life for the sheep." John 10:15. "In due time Christ died for the ungodly." Romans 5:6. "While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." Romans 5:8. There is danger of weakening the force of such clear and solemn passages by any explanation. Still it may be asked, In what conceivable sense could Christ die in our place if it be not as a vicarious, atoning sacrifice?
The Scriptures also declare that all hope of pardon for us lost men is centered in Christ. But why in him--if he is not our atoning priest? Thus says Peter, "Him has God exalted with his right hand to be a Prince and a Savior, for to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins." Acts 5:31. Paul says as explicitly, "Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins." Acts 13:38. Again, "In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace." Eph. 1:7. Where is the fitness of connecting the remission of sins in so remarkable a manner with the person and the blood of Jesus Christ--unless he is indeed the substitute of his people and their Savior in the highest sense ever claimed by the Christian world?
These clear, Scriptural proofs and statements receive confirmation and elucidation from the following CONSIDERATIONS:
1. If we deny that Jesus Christ endured the penalty of the law, and that his sufferings were vicarious--then we must deny that he was the substitute of his people, and that their sins are imputed to him. If this is true, we are of all men most miserable; for we have given up this world in the hope of attaining a better world, through Christ's substitution for us. But all our sins still remain, unless we have remission through his blood. We are eternally disappointed, and our guilt is still upon us. If we go thus far, we must in consistency maintain that justice is unsatisfied and must ever remain so, and that if there is any salvation for sinful men, it must be in derogation of the justice of God; it must be by trampling under foot the penalty of God's law.
2. Some who deny that Christ's death and sufferings were vicarious and for us, yet admit that the Scriptures seem to teach that doctrine. But they warn us against being led astray by figurative language. To this these answers may be given:
1. If figurative language teaches nothing, then it is nonsense.
2. In all languages, the very strongest things that are said are said in metaphor.
3. A great variety of metaphors are employed by the sacred writers on this subject.
4. Oftentimes the Scriptures speak in language perfectly plain. "He bore the sin of many." "He was wounded for our transgressions." "He died for our sins." "He suffered the Just for the unjust." These are forms of expression as free from figure as language can well be.
3. If the Scriptures which are generally relied on as teaching the doctrine of a vicarious atonement may be so explained as not to teach it, then it is useless to attempt to prove anything by the word of God.
4. Any scheme of doctrine which opposes the retributive justice of God will, if carried to its legitimate results, subvert also the doctrine of the Divine holiness. God punishes sin because his nature leads him to abhor it.
5. If God has set aside the penalty of his law without a full satisfaction, must it not have been at first too severe? And if the penalty was at first wrong, may not the precept for the same cause be too strict? Thus by our speculations, we subvert the whole law.
6. In like manner we shall subvert the gospel. What the convinced sinner needs and seeks is, not merely that he may escape hell and reach heaven, but he wishes to do it in a manner that will secure the honor of God. He wishes to see how God can be just and yet justify the sinner. On the old Bible doctrine of a vicarious atonement, all is plain; but on any other scheme there is no way of satisfactorily accounting for the death of Christ or the offer of salvation. If Jesus Christ bore the penalty--why did God smite the man that was his fellow?
7. How well does the true doctrine, and how ill does the opposite doctrine, agree with the types of the Old Testament. Without referring to the many great offerings in detail, let any one carefully consider the offering of even the young pigeons or the rite of the scape-goat, and see what can be the meaning of such services, if Jesus Christ did not die for us. If Christ bears our sins, well may we be forgiven.
8. How well does the true doctrine, and how ill does the opposite doctrine, harmonize with the worship of heaven: "The songs of the redeemed in heaven, even of those 'who had come out of great tribulation,' and had shed their blood in the cause of Christ, afford an unanswerable argument in favor of a real atonement and a vicarious sacrifice in the death of Christ. Without one discordant voice, they ascribe their salvation to 'the Lamb who was slain, and redeemed them unto God by his blood,' who washed them from their sins in his own blood. But in what sense could the Lamb who was slain wash them from their sins in his own blood, unless he was literally an atoning sacrifice?" [Scott.] What is there to make exultant the worship of sinners saved if, after all, God merely connives at their transgressions?
9. It cannot be safely denied—indeed it is commonly admitted—that the early Christian writers, the reformers, and the Christian world generally, until after the middle of the eighteenth century, held and taught that Christ bore the curse and endured the wrath of God in the room and stead of sinners. Is not this fact a strong presumptive proof that the doctrine is true? Is it possible that God's hidden ones have so generally mistaken the prophets and apostles, and been left to embrace delusion?
10. It is a great fact confirmatory of the true doctrine, that it has a mighty power over all right hearts. "O what a melting consideration is this, that out of Christ's agony comes our victory; out of his condemnation our justification; out of his pain our ease; out of his stripes our healing; out of his gall and vinegar our honey; out of his curse our blessing; out of his crown of thorns our crown of glory; out of his death our life: if he could not be released, it was that we might be; if Pilate gave sentence against him, it was that the great God might never give sentence against us; if he yielded, that it should be with Christ as they required, it was that it might be with our souls as well as we can desire." [Hopkins.] Hearts must be harder than the rocks, if the love and death of Christ do not move them! When he died--the rocks were rent.