By William S. Plumer, 1867
"Come, let us shout joyfully to the Lord, shout
THE FOLLY OF OBJECTING TO THE ATONEMENT
The minds of the apostles were warm with saving truth. The more fully the way of salvation was understood, the more did they glory in the cross and in its power to save. With them, worldly philosophies were as nothing. Learned heathen had wasted centuries in idle debates, in refuting one another, and in deceiving mankind; but they had effected nothing truly useful. Not a sinner was saved, not an aching heart found ease, not an idol was abolished. But when the gospel was fully and faithfully preached, it wrought wonders. It saved men's souls. It was full of power. The early preachers of righteousness gave to mankind the triumphant challenge, "Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?" 1 Cor. 1:20. Yet the wise, the scribe, and the disputer, had many objections. They mocked; they cavilled; they scorned; they counted the gospel foolishness. Anon they pretended to reason. Their utmost powers were directed against the cross and the person of Jesus Christ. They hated the doctrine of atonement. It is even so still. Time, which mends many things and wears out many things, has not improved the temper of the carnal heart, nor exhausted its fondness for debate.
Let us look at some of the objections made against the atonement. These are sometimes stated, with apparent modesty, in the form of questions, and sometimes categorically and polemically.
1. It has been urged against the doctrine of vicarious atonement, that it involves a transfer of moral character.To meet this, it is sufficient to ask, Is there not a difference between the penalty of sin—and its pollution? between the penalty of the law incurred—and the vileness of the heart indulged? between legal responsibility—and moral character? If an innocent man pays the penalty for a guilty man—does that make the surety a partaker of the moral character of the criminal? Surely one may voluntarily assume pains and penalties for even a guilty man without approving of his wrong, or without being like him in moral character. The truth is, a transfer of moral character is simply impossible; but nothing is more common than a transfer of legal responsibilities. The correct doctrine on this subject is well expressed by Owen in his work on justification: "Nothing is more absolutely true, nothing more sacredly and assuredly believed by us, than that nothing which Christ did or suffered, nothing that he undertook or underwent, did or could constitute him, subjectively, inherently, and therefore personally, a sinner, or guilty of any sin of his own. To bear the guilt or blame of other men's faults—makes no man a sinner, unless he did unwisely or irregularly undertake it."
2. Again, it is urged that if Christ bore the curse due to us, and fully satisfied Divine justice, then it is no mercy in God to forgive and accept us.But was there no mercy in God's providing that justice should be satisfied, so that salvation might flow forth to sinners? Was it not mercy in God so to love the world as to give his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him might not perish, but have everlasting life? Is it not mercy in the blessed Spirit of God to purify our hearts? To Christ, indeed, who has bought us with his blood, justice and the covenant of God require that he have a seed to serve him. But to the seed who do serve him, considered in themselves, salvation from first to last is the fruit of infinite grace. To believers, considered as in Christ and confessing their transgressions, God is faithful and just to forgive their sins. He is faithful and just to himself, faithful and just to his Son. But to those forgiven it is never of debt—but all of mercy, pity, and love.
The whole objection goes on the supposition that justice and mercy—in the gospel scheme, even after all that Christ has done—are antagonistical to each other. Whereas Christ's first and great work was to satisfy the claims of justice—and now justice and mercy gloriously harmonize in man's salvation. Mercy abounds and grace is free, because justice is fully satisfied. "The transcendent graciousness of the gospel covenant consists not in requiring less righteousness to give title to life than was done at first; not in requiring a perfect righteousness of us personally to that end; but in providing and accepting that of the Surety, according to the apostle, Romans 8:3, 4. The law could not give us life, because, being weakened by sin, we could not perform the perfect righteousness which it required; but what the law could not do Christ has done, giving us a title to life, fulfilling the righteousness of the law on our behalf." [Clarkson.]
3. It is sometimes said that if Christ bore the curse due to us for sin, there is no increase of happiness in the universe by means of his mediation.Such an objection goes on the supposition that Christ's sufferings were in exact proportion to the number of those who shall finally be saved, and that they were in amount equal to what would have been the everlasting sufferings of all his people if they had not been rescued from wrath. But this is not the doctrine of the Scriptures. It is wholly unsupported by the word of God. It is shocking to the feelings of pious men. It is not maintained by one enlightened friend of the doctrine of a vicarious atonement. It utterly overlooks the infinite dignity of the eternal Son of God, from which his sufferings derive their chief value, and which puts them far beyond all comparison with the sufferings of mere creatures. So that there is no ground whatever for the objection. His sufferings, though great, were short. They were soon followed by unparalleled glory, in which all his redeemed partake. The happiness of the universe is already infinitely increased by the death of Christ; and yet his kingdom is far from being completed, and all its subjects have an eternity of bliss before them.
4. Sometimes it is asked, How could Christ make an atonement for us?how could he bear our sins, endure the penalty of the law for us, and for us work out a perfect righteousness?
So far as there is a real difficulty in this matter, and so far as it has not its seat in our depravity, let the following things be carefully considered:
(1.) God was under no obligation to provide any Savior for us. He might justly have left us to perish—as he did the fallen angels. But if in his mercy he has provided a Redeemer, who has satisfied divine justice, why should we find fault? If the demands of the law and Lawgiver are fully met, it is perverseness in us to cavil or object.
(2.) God could not relax his demands and accept a righteousness less perfect than the law requires. "Christ's righteousness is called the righteousness of the law. For, though righteousness does not come by our obedience to the law, yet it does come by Christ's obedience to it. Though by the deeds of the law as performed by man no flesh living can be justified; yet, by the deeds of the law as performed by Christ, all the elect are justified." [Gill.] Romans 8:4. So the penalty of the law is death, and without the shedding of blood there is no remission, even though Christ undertake for us.
(3.) The whole work of Christ from first to last was voluntary. He was not forced to obey the law or bear the curse for us. No man took his life from him. He laid it down of himself.
(4.) Mere suffering, even of such a one as Christ, would not of itself avail for us without the consent of the sufferer and of God the Lawgiver. Jesus Christ died in fulfillment of a covenant between himself and his Father. Hence the efficacy of his blood shedding.
(5.) When we say that Jesus Christ bore the penalty of the law in the stead of sinners, we do not deny that his sufferings were different from those of sinners on whom the curse falls. He felt neither despair nor remorse. His holy soul could feel neither, because he had done no sin, and because he knew his sufferings would soon be followed by great glory. But despair and remorse are nowhere said to be the penalty of the law. They are indeed incidents to the wicked, who suffer the curse, but they are not the curse itself. Christ also suffered but for a short time, whereas sinners who bear their own iniquity must suffer eternally.
The reasons of this difference in the duration of sufferings are, first, Christ's infinite dignity and glory, which made his humiliation in time of more avail than the anguish of man to all eternity; and secondly, when Christ bore our sins, he bore them all, and made provision that his people should cease from sin; but the wicked, who fall under the wrath of God, sin always, and provoke the Most High by new transgressions forever. But an eternity of suffering is nowhere in Scripture said to be an inherent element of the penalty of the law. It accompanies it only when borne by finite creatures, themselves sinners. The death of the body and that endurance of the wrath of God in the mind, which is properly called the death of the soul, constitute the penalty of the law. Jesus Christ bore these, for all admit that his body died and was buried; and that his soul was exceeding sorrowful even unto death. This is the sense, and the only sense, in which any sound writer maintains that Christ bore the penalty of the law.
Admitting these views, how plain is it that God could be just and yet justify the ungodly. But if we reject these views, and maintain that in saving his people it was the deliberate purpose of God to set aside the penalty of the law—who can conceive of the object of Christ's death? All admit that he died not for his own sins, for he had none. If divine justice requires the punishment of sin, how is God just in not punishing his people, unless the wrath due to them was borne by their Substitute? We cannot prove that God is righteous in permitting any one personally innocent, not standing in the place of the guilty, to suffer much or little. Good angels have sometimes visited our world in the form of men; and some have sought to harm them. But God never permitted one of them to endure the least pain. There can be no greater injustice than to visit with stripes, one who is under no penalty. The sufferings of Christ can never be reconciled with justice, unless he bore the wrath of God due to us. For God to inflict pain on one who has done no wrong or who has not assumed legal responsibilities for others, is absurd.
Some hold that Christ's sufferings were not penal, yet that his death was an exhibition of God's justice, and hatred of sin. But how can it illustrate these excellent attributes of the Most High to inflict unparalleled sufferings on one who had never displeased him, and who had not undertaken to bear the penalty of the law in the room of others? The only legal obstacle to the salvation of any sinner is the penalty of the law. If that is not borne, it remains in full force, and forever demands satisfaction. To admit men to heaven with the penalty of the law still unsatisfied, would be trampling the law under foot. No government can maintain its authority when the penalty of its laws is not enforced. The penalty not executed, the precept falls into contempt. If sinners were thus saved, the heavens would be filled with thieves and robbers, as Christ speaks, that is, with men who would be there in spite of law and right, and in contempt of God's retributive justice.
Where, then, is the difficulty in the case? God, the Judge of all, objects not to our salvation by the death of his Son. The Son died and lives for this great purpose. The Holy Spirit calls men to repentance. Why should we waste our lives in crying, "How can these things be?" A little simple faith in Jesus Christ will scatter the difficulties men make about this doctrine.
5. Others say that if Jesus Christ made a vicarious atonement for those who believe on him, and laid down his life for his sheep—how can we offer the salvation of the gospel to all men, as we are commanded to do?
Let us look at this matter candidly and fairly. In reply it may be stated that the Scriptures clearly teach that Christ died to save his people, and with the covenant engagement on the part of his Father that he should effect that great end. He himself says, "I lay down my life for the sheep;" and prophecy said, "He shall prolong his days; he shall see his seed." Yet we have the example of God, of the prophets, of the Lord Jesus Christ, and of the apostles—in favor of making an indiscriminate and urgent offer of salvation to our fellow-men. But it is no part of the true doctrine of the atonement that the merit of our Savior is exhausted in the salvation of those who believe on him. No respectable writer teaches that Christ's humiliation and sufferings would have been less if the number of his chosen people had been smaller; nor that his humiliation and sufferings would have been greater, if the number to be saved had been greater. The old standard writers all held that the offer of salvation was to be made to men indiscriminately, earnestly, and tenderly; that it was entirely consistent to make such an offer; that there is an infinite fullness in Christ—a sufficiency of merit to save the souls of all who would come. Mark the testimony of eminent divines.
Calvin: "We know the promises to be effectual to us only when we receive them by faith: on the contrary, the annihilation of faith is the abolition of the promises. If this is their nature, we may perceive that there is no discordance between these two things: God's having appointed from eternity on whom he will bestow his favor and exercise his wrath—and his proclaiming salvation to all. Indeed, I maintain that there is a most perfect harmony between them."
Owen: "It was, then, the intention and purpose of God that his Son should offer a sacrifice of infinite worth, value, and dignity, sufficient in itself for the redeeming of all and every man, if it had pleased the Lord to employ it for that purpose; yes, and of other worlds also, if the Lord should freely make them and would redeem them. Sufficient, we say then, was the sacrifice of Christ for the redemption of the whole world, and for the expiation of all the sins of all and every man in the world. This sufficiency of his sacrifice has a two-fold rise. First, the dignity of the person that did offer and was offered. Secondly, the greatness of the suffering he endured, by which he was able to bear and did undergo the whole curse of the law of God due to sin: and this sets out the innate, real, true worth of the blood shedding of Jesus Christ."
Thomas Boston: "There was virtue and efficacy enough in Christ's oblation to satisfy offended justice for the sins of the whole world, yes, and of millions of worlds more; for his blood has infinite value because of the excellency and dignity of his person."
John Brown of Haddington: "Such is the infinite dignity of Christ's person that his fulfillment of the broken law is sufficient to balance all the debts of all the elect, nay, of millions of guilty worlds. . . . In respect of its intrinsic worth as the obedience and sufferings of a divine person, Christ's satisfaction is sufficient for the ransom of all mankind; and being fulfilled in human nature, is equally suited to all their necessities."
What broader, surer foundation for a sincere and consistent offer of mercy, than is found in such views as these, can any one demand?
Hervey: "The obedience and atonement are as sufficient to secure perfectly all sinners that fly by faith under the covert of his wings, as the immeasurable circuit of the sky is roomy enough for a lark to fly in, or as the immense brightness of the Sun is lightsome enough for a laborer to work by. When the thunders roar, and the lightnings flash; when the clouds pour down water, and a horrid storm comes on; all, that are in the open air, retire under the branches of a thick tree, or fly to some other commodious shelter. So the blood and righteousness of Christ are a covert. Hither we may fly and be screened; hither we may fly and be safe."
Witherspoon: "I shall lay down three propositions which I think can hardly be called in question, and which are a sufficient foundation for our faith and practice."
"1. The obedience and death of Christ is of value sufficient to expiate the guilt of all the sins of every individual that ever lived or shall live on earth. This cannot be denied, since the subjects to be redeemed are finite, the price paid for their redemption is infinite. Christ suffered in the human nature, but that nature was intimately and personally united to the divine; so that Christ the Mediator, the gift of God for the redemption of sinners, is often called his own and his eternal Son. 'He who spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things.' Romans 8:32. Such was the union of the divine and human nature in Christ, that the blood which was the purchase of our redemption, is expressly called the blood of God. Acts 20:28. This is the great mystery of godliness, God was manifest in the flesh, in which all our thoughts are lost and swallowed up.
"2. Notwithstanding this, every individual of the human race is not in fact partaker of the blessing of the purchase, but many die in their sins, and perish forever. This will as little admit of a doubt. Multitudes have died who never heard of the name of Christ, or salvation through him; many have lived and died blaspheming his person and despising his undertaking; many have died in unbelief and impenitence, serving divers lusts and passions, and if the Scripture is true, he will at last render to them according to their works. But
"3. There is in the death of Christ a sufficient foundation laid for preaching the gospel indefinitely to all without exception. It is the command of God that this should be done: "And he said unto them, Go into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature." Mark 16:15. The effect of this is, that the misery of the unbelieving and impenitent shall be entirely at their own door; and they shall not only die in their own sins, but shall suffer to eternity for the most heinous of all sins—despising the remedy and refusing to hear the Son of God.
"Let us neither refuse our assent to any part of the revealed will of God, nor foolishly imagine an opposition between one part of it and another. All the obscurity arises from, and may be resolved into, the weakness of our understandings; but let God be true, and every man a liar. That there is a sense in which Christ died for all men, and even for those who perish, is plain from the very words of Scripture."
In like manner Symington: "We hold that the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus possessed an intrinsic value sufficient for the salvation of the whole world. In this sense it was adequate to the redemption of every human being. . . . The worth of Christ's atonement we hold to be, in the strictest sense of the term, infinite, absolute, all-sufficient . . . . This all-sufficiency is what lays the foundation for the unrestricted universality of the gospel call . . . . Such is my impression of the sufficiency of the atonement, that were all the guilt of all mankind concentrated in my own person, I should see no reason, relying on that blood which cleanses from all sin, to indulge despair."
So also Dr. Candlish has written at length to show that there is a fitness in the "universality of the gospel offer," and that it is sincere and in "good faith on the part of God."
"We maintain that the death of Christ lays the foundation for the offer of the gospel to all men universally, and lays the foundation for that offer being honest and free on the part of God."
Precious as is the doctrine of a vicarious atonement, and glad as must be the heart of him who hopes that he personally is interested in the sacrifice of Calvary, yet it abates nothing from the riches of divine grace, but on the contrary, enhances its glories, that the blood of Christ will never lose its power; and when all the redeemed shall have obtained a full supply, the treasure of gospel grace will be as ample as ever. Let sinners everywhere know that if they perish, it is not because there is not merit in Christ sufficient to meet all the demands of law and justice against them. Let them all turn and embrace the kind, the sincere, the urgent call to life and salvation by mere gratuity on the part of God: "Whoever will, let him take the water of life freely." As God is not mocked, so neither does he mock any of his creatures.
Other objections have been urged against the doctrine of a vicarious atonement, but it is not necessary here to dwell upon them.
1. Let the Christian glory in the fullness and sufficiency of the work of Christ. His crown and his inheritance are sure. In this world's possessions you may be poor; but "a poor ragged Christian is dearer to God than a godless millionaire." "God is a portion of which his people can never be robbed. Impoverished you may be, but not undone; discouraged, but not disinherited." [Arrowsmith.] I recommend Christ to you more and more. Hold fast to him. Never let him go.
2. Especially, let all sinners everywhere accept the salvation that is so fully provided and so freely offered. Why will men stand and cavil, and wonder, and perish—when they are called to return to God and seek salvation? "There is mercy enough in God, and merit enough in Christ, and power enough in the Spirit, and scope enough in the promises, and room enough in heaven." O why will men refuse salvation?