The Grace of Christ, or,
Sinners Saved by Unmerited Kindness

William S. Plumer, 1853

"We believe it is through the grace of our
 Lord Jesus that we are saved." Acts 15:11

The Death of Christ
The Atonement


When we speak of the cross and death of Christ, we intend to set forth all his expiatory work. Christ's sufferings did not begin at the time of his crucifixion. Nor were his last sufferings alone possessed of value. The flight into Egypt no less than the nailing to the cross; the hunger and subsequent temptation in the wilderness no less than the thirst upon the cross—belonged to the sum of those things, which he endured for others. From most men the time and manner of their death are mercifully concealed until they are about to leave the world. But the Lord Jesus knew the end from the beginning. He had all the revolting circumstances distinctly before his mind for long years before his crucifixion. His life was as a death. He died as it were a thousand times. No words nor acts of our blessed Lord convey more just conceptions of the anguish he endured than that saying of his spoken long before his betrayal: "There is a terrible baptism ahead of me, and I am under a heavy burden until it is accomplished." Luke 12:50.

Here is one secret of the sorrows of his life. I marvel not that his visage was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men. No sorrows were ever so keen, so consuming, and so long continued as his. Well may we blush to have made an ado over the comparatively little ills, to which our sins, or our sense of duty may at any time have subjected us. Yet the actual death of Christ was necessary. If it had not been, it would not have occurred.

The modes of bringing Christ's mediatorial work on earth into disesteem, are countless. Some, using great swelling words, have said that his death was unnecessary, and that one drop of his blood was sufficient to all the ends of his death. But the Scriptures teach no such doctrine. They clearly declare that Christ ought to have suffered all that came upon him, and so to enter into his glory. Such a view is also very derogatory to the character of God. Flavel says: "I dare not affirm, as some do, that by reason of the infinite preciousness of Christ's blood, one drop thereof had been sufficient to have redeemed the whole world: for if one drop had been enough, why was all the rest, even to the last drop, shed? Was God cruel, to exact more from him than was needful and sufficient? Besides, we must remember, that the sufferings of Christ, which were inflicted on him as the curse of the law, these alone are the sufferings, which are sufficient for our redemption from the curse of the law. Now it was not a drop of blood, but death, which was contained in the curse: this therefore was necessary to be inflicted. But surely as none but God can estimate the weight and evil of sin, so none but he can comprehend the worth and preciousness of the blood of Christ, shed to expiate it."

The DEATH of Christ was necessary. The victim, because it stood in the place of the transgressor, must die. "A testament is of force after men are dead: otherwise it is of no strength at all while the testator lives." While Jews, infidels and Christians all agree in holding that Christ died; the latter only hold, that without his death we could not be saved.

Of the nature and intention of Christ's sufferings, which terminated in his death, the human mind has indulged many wild and dangerous fancies. There are still men on earth, who boldly deny that Jesus Christ endured the penalty of the law in the room and stead of sinners, or that the sins of any were imputed to him, or that he was a substitute for others, or that his sufferings were strictly vicarious. With very various degrees of ignorance or hatred of the truth, men reject all the established forms in which sound doctrine is taught. Yet all error is dangerous, and all truth is precious.

The doctrine of the death of Christ holds a very prominent place in the Christian system. In fact it is a central truth and demands our warmest love. The common doctrine of the Christian world has been that our sins were imputed to Christ, that he bore the curse due to us for our transgressions, that he endured the penalty of the law in our stead, that his sufferings were those of a substitute for guilty men. It has been the judgment of the people of God for ages on ages that this doctrine is well established in both the Old and the New Testaments. It is natural to inquire whether our Lord himself explained the nature and object of his own death. In the Gospels we gain light on this point. "The Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister—and to give his life a ransom for many." Matt. 20:28, and Mark 10:45.

In full agreement with this declaration Paul says that Christ "gave himself a ransom for all to be testified in due season." 1 Tim. 2:6. The words translated ransom in these passages are not the same. One is lutron—the price of redemption. The other is antilutron—which also signifies ransom, the price of redemption. Our Lord then did not die reluctantly, nor as the martyrs died, but he died as a 'payment', as Grotius says. His life was the price of our deliverance. It was all the price demanded. It was the ransom, the full ransom. Robinson's definition of lutron is "a ransom, the price paid for the release of any one." His definition of antilutron is "an equivalent for redemption—a ransom." Christ paid the price for which many, who had been justly detained as prisoners to sin and death, are released.

Our Lord also said: "This is my blood of the New Testament which is shed for many for the remission of sins." Matt. 26:28. Whose blood besides was ever shed for the same end? Isaiah, John the Baptist, Stephen and many others died for the truth, but not for the remission of sins. In full accordance with this Paul says that Christ "purged our sins." Heb. 1:3. "Without shedding of blood is no remission." Heb. 9:22. Here is the reason why "repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations." Luke 24:47. Remission is by no other name given under heaven among men. Not the blood of the prophets, nor of the martyrs, nor of beasts—but only the blood of Christ secures the forgiveness of sins. Rev. 1:5; Acts 20:28; Heb. 9:12. Again, Christ says: "I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd gives his life for the sheep." John 10:11. "Great and good, just and holy, as he is—he saw his sheep about to perish in their wanderings, and in order to expiate their guilt, and to ransom them from destruction, he not only endured hardship, and encountered danger, but he 'laid down his life for them,' and in their stead!"

With the truths thus explicitly taught well agree all those general statements of Christ respecting his mission into this world, such as this, "The Son of man has come to seek and to save those who were lost." Luke 19:10. He is the Savior. That is his name. The reason why he bears his name JESUS is that he saves his people from their sins. The apostles and prophets give an account of the death of Christ every way coincident with that given by the Lord himself. Thus Peter says: "Christ also has once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God." 1 Pet. 3:18. All suffering under the moral government of God is in some sense "for sins." "Death by sin." Some suffering is purely by way of deserved punishment. Thus lost angels suffer for their own sins. Some suffering is disciplinary, and is designed to wean men from error. Thus the pious Christian often suffers for his follies. Some suffering is exemplary. Thus the old prophets often suffered. James 5:10. But the ground of their suffering was always their own sins. God never permitted a holy angel to be a sufferer. The wicked who are suffering the vengeance of eternal fire, are also an example to us, but they suffer justly for their own sins.

The last kind of suffering for sin is expiatory, where "the just" suffers "for the unjust." Christ in no sense suffered for himself. In fact the apostle in the next chapter says expressly that "Christ has suffered FOR us in the flesh." 1 Pet. 4:1.

In like manner the Scriptures generally and explicitly teach that Christ died for our sins. "He was delivered for our offences." Romans 4:25. "He gave himself for our sins." Gal. 1:4. "Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures." 1 Cor. 15:3. No words could more clearly teach that Christ's death was because of our offences against God, on account of our rebellion against the Most High. The word of God as clearly expresses the same truth in other language. "While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." Romans 5:8. "Christ died for the ungodly." Romans 5:6. "This is my body, which is broken for you." 1 Cor. 11:24. Here is substitution taught in the clearest terms. Christ died in the room and stead of us—sinners and ungodly.

By two different writers of Scripture Christ is said to be the propitiation for our sins. "Whom God has set forth to be a propitiation, through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins, that are past." Romans 3:25. "He is the propitiation for our sins." 1 John 2:2. "He loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins." 1 John 4:10. In the above verses it is not the same word in all places that is rendered propitiation. Paul's word is hilasterion; John's is hilasmos. They are, however, both correctly rendered propitiation, meaning an expiation for sin. In full harmony with the foregoing, Paul says that "Christ also has loved us and has given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling savor." Eph. 5:2. All Christ did—he did "for us." In particular when he offered himself a sacrifice it was not for himself, but for us. He needed no expiation on his own account, because he was holy and personally innocent. But just as surely as Abel's firstlings were sacrifices in his room and stead, so surely was Christ a sacrifice "for us." Accordingly he is said to have "offered himself without spot to God." Heb. 9:14. So also Christ is called "the lamb of God" and "a lamb without blemish and without spot." There is no significance in any bloody sacrifice unless the victim offered is a substitute for some one.

Christ is also called our Surety. Heb. 7:22. A surety binds himself to perform something for others, and this obligation is either absolute or conditional. If one be hopelessly insolvent, the surety unconditionally assumes the payment of his debts. This was precisely our case. Our ruin was complete. We were utterly bankrupt, and Christ undertook to extricate us:

1. by obeying the precept of the law for us, and

2. by enduring the punishment due to us for our transgressions.

In our helplessness Christ pitied us, voluntarily and lovingly undertook our cause for us, was fully able to accomplish all he engaged to do, and did satisfy all the demands of the law against us as rebels. The Scriptures teach that Christ did all this. "He was manifested to take away our sins, and in him was no sin." 1 John 3:5. He took away our sins by taking them upon himself. Accordingly the Scriptures clearly assert that he "his own self bore our sins in his own body on the tree." 1 Pet. 2:24. "Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many." Heb. 10:28. No such language is ever used of any other. Men bear their own sins in many cases. But Christ alone is the offering for the sins of many, to bear them quite away as the scape-goat did.

In Romans 8:3, Paul says: "What the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God, by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh." That the word here translated condemned means punished is satisfactorily shown by Dr. Hodge in his commentary. That the doctrine thus taught is true many Scriptures declare. God then punished sin, not in those who committed it and who deserved his wrath—but in the flesh of his dear Son! In like manner Paul says: "Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us." Gal. 3:13. If language has any force or meaning, this passage teaches that Christ has rescued his people from the penalty of the law, and that he did this by enduring the penalty in their room and stead. It is not probable that any man, who will deny that these words teach as much as is here supposed, would be profited by any teachings on the subject, whether from men or from heaven. The curse of the law can mean nothing but the penalty of the law. Christ's being made a curse for us can mean nothing less than that he bore the penalty for us.

The Scriptures also expressly teach that Jesus Christ is the sole author of reconciliation between God and sinners, that by him "we have received the atonement" (or reconciliation); Romans 5:11; that we are "reconciled to God by the death of his Son;" Romans 5:10; and that God has reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ." 2 Cor. 5:18. Now there is no way that the death of -God's Son could make reconciliation but by his satisfying divine justice in our place and stead. Christ is our peace. Having seen what Christ and his apostles taught respecting the intent of his death, let us look at two portions of the Old Testament, which have been supposed to teach that Christ bore the punishment due to his people for their sins. The first is in the 40th Psalm "Sacrifice and offering you did not desire; my ears have you opened [or bored, as Hebrew masters bored the ears of their servants]: burnt-offering and sin-offering have you not required. Then said I, Lo I come, in the volume of the book it is written of me: I delight to do your will, O my God." The apostle Paul, in Heb. 10:5-12, has given us an inspired and therefore infallible interpretation of this passage. It is fully coincident with what has already been argued. The other portion of the Old Testament to which attention is here called is the precious 53d chapter of Isaiah, where many of the forms of speech already noticed occur and others are introduced, all teaching that Christ was our substitute, that he was punished for us, that he bore the wrath of God in our stead.

The whole chapter is very dear to God's people. But a few quotations must suffice: "Surely he has borne our grief and carried our sorrows," v. 4. William Lowth says of this: "He has borne the evils and punishments which were due to our sins. The Hebrew verbs [rendered he has borne and has carried] properly signify to bear the punishment due to sin.' Matthew Henry says: "The load was heavy, and the way long, yet he did not tire, but persevered to the end, until he said, It is finished." Dr. Scott says: "He endured our griefs and sorrows, becoming a sufferer to redeem us from eternal sufferings."

The fifth verse of the chapter reads thus: "But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and with his stripes we are healed." Lowth says, "He suffered those chastisements or punishments, by which our peace with God was wrought, and satisfaction was made to the divine justice." Scott says, "He was wounded,' but it was not for his own sins, but for our transgressions; he was crushed with most intense agonies of body and soul, but it was for our iniquities." Dr. J. A. Alexander says: "The chastisement of peace is not only that which tends to peace, but that by which peace is procured directly."

"The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all," v. 6. Lowth says: "The letter of the Hebrew runs thus, The Lord has made the iniquities of us all to meet on him, or to fall upon him." Scott says, "The justice of God must be satisfied, before the criminals could be again received into his favor and under his care, and therefore JEHOVAH laid, or 'caused to meet' upon Christ, the Surety, not the punishment only, but the iniquity of them all, imputing it to him, and requiring of him satisfaction for it." Dr. Alexander says that our version "is objectionable only because it is too weak, and suggests the idea of a mild and inoffensive gesture, whereas that conveyed by the Hebrew word is necessarily a violent one, namely, that of causing to strike or fall."

"For the transgression of my people was he stricken," v. 8. Dr. Alexander translates it, "for the transgressor of my people (as) a curse for them." Dr. Scott says: "For the transgression of his people, the stroke or punishment was on him."

"It pleased the Lord to bruise him; he has put him to grief; when you shall make his soul an offering for sin," v. 10. Surely none will blaspheme his blessed name by saying that his soul was an offering for his own sin. He was holy, harmless, undefiled and separate from sinners. As his soul was the offering also, and not merely his body, so it was the sword of the Lord that pierced him much more deeply than the nails or the spear. Zech. 13:7. Awake, O sword, and smite the man, that is my fellow, says Jehovah."

"For he shall bear their iniquities," v. 11. Dr. Alexander on this verse remarks that Christ "becomes a Savior only by becoming a substitute." His people shall receive his righteousness, "and he shall bear their burdens." Such is a very brief view of the express and precious teachings of this portion of God's word, which makes Matthew Henry say that "this chapter is so replenished with the unsearchable riches of Christ, that it may be called rather, The Gospel of the evangelist Isaiah, than the prophecy of the prophet Isaiah."

In teaching the imputation of our sins to Christ no one holds that there is or could be any personal identity between Christ and his people. When we say that he and they are one, we mean that for their sakes and on their account, he was regarded and treated as if he deserved evil, and that for his sake and on his account they are regarded and treated as if they were innocent and deserving of good. Nor is it any portion of sound doctrine that the moral turpitude of our sins was transferred to Christ. This, in the nature of things, is impossible. The moral qualities of personal acts are confined to the acts themselves, or to those who perform them. The defilement of our sins is not imputed to Christ any more than the moral excellence of his acts is imputed to us. Of course Christ felt no consciousness of personal ill-desert, and consequently no remorse. This was as impossible as that we should feel self-delight for Christ's righteousness imputed to us. A surety is not partaker of the misdeed, which has brought a party into trouble, but he simply agrees to pay the penalty or debt.

Bitter as may be the sufferings brought on us by the sins of others, we cannot upbraid ourselves for having committed them. Neither did our Savior feel the cruel gnaw of despair. O no. "For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of God." Heb. 12:2. Neither remorse nor despair was the penalty denounced against transgression. The penalty was death. And although despair and remorse come on those, who are personally depraved, yet this is because they are thus sunk in sin.

It may be well also here to say that Christ's sufferings, though protracted, were not eternal, because of the infinite dignity of his person. "The eternity of punishment," says Charnock, "arises from the condition of the subject suffering, not from the nature of punishment itself. A creature, being a limited nature, cannot give an infinite satisfaction commensurate to an infinite justice, without suffering eternally. Therefore though infinite punishment be due, yet eternal punishment is not in itself due, but falls in, for lack of the creature's ability to satisfy the demands of legal justice. Since it cannot satisfy the law by one, or many acts of sufferings, it is always suffering, but never fully satisfies. But the infinite dignity of the person of Christ transcending all creatures, made the satisfaction he offered valuable without an eternal duration of those torments."

As our Savior was a voluntary surety there was no injustice in requiring of him the satisfaction due from us. So true and so old is the doctrine that our Lord suffered the just for the unjust, the innocent for the guilty, that to this day we have no better means of illustrating the whole method of pardon and acceptance than by a simple explanation of many of the types, and especially the sacrifices of the Old Testament.

The doctrine of the imputation of the sin of one to the person of another is as old as the institution of shedding blood in solemn worship, and slaying victims at earthly altars. One of the most painful things in the life of a lover of sound doctrine is, that where his own views and feelings would lead him to rejoice and adore, he finds cavilers calling him to refute frivolous objections. "The highest wonder ever exhibited to the world, to angels and men, is the Son of God suffering and dying for sinners." But such is the wickedness of men that instead of being charmed and awed by the glories of redemption by Christ Jesus, they often sit down in cold blood, as did his murderers, and without emotion contemplate the most amazing sufferings ever witnessed. Beware of self-conceit, beware of all opinions on the subject of the atonement, unless you can prove them by the tenor of Scripture. Respecting the satisfaction of Christ four views have been taken:

1. That he fully satisfied all the claims of the law for all men, and that all shall therefore infallibly be saved. This was the doctrine of the old Universalists. As it is fallen into general disfavor, further notice need not here be taken of it.

2. Another theory is that Christ did not satisfy divine justice for any of the sins of any man. In other words there was no atonement required and none made. This theory teaches that Christ's death was a symbol, a testimony, a display of justice against one on whom no sins were laid. The old Socinians held that Christ's death was a mere martyrdom. Is it not strange that they should thus hold, when our Lord gave signs of distress and agony never witnessed in any of his people when called to die for the truth? John Newton says, "No words can be more select and emphatic than those which the evangelists use in describing his consternation in the garden of Gethsemane. How can this his dejection and terror be accounted for by those, who deny that his sufferings and death were a proper atonement of sin; and who suppose, that when he had given to men a perfect rule of life, and commended it to them by his own example, he died merely to confirm the truth of his doctrine, and to encourage his followers to faithfulness under sufferings? Many of his followers, who were thus witnesses for the truth, and patterns of faithfulness to us, have met death in its most terrible forms with composure, yes, with pleasure, yes, with transports of joy. But is the disciple above his Lord? If Christians have triumphed in such circumstances, why did Christ tremble? Not surely because their constancy and courage were greater than his. The causes were entirely different. The martyrs were given up to those who could kill the body only; but Jesus suffered immediately from the hand of God. One stroke of his mighty hand can bruise the spirit of man more sensibly than the united power of all creatures."

3. Another theory is that Christ satisfied for some of the sins of all men, and left them by their own works and sufferings to satisfy for the rest. This theory is seldom stated in so many words, but it is very pleasing to many, and is the actual scheme of thousands. It is virtually the plan of many Roman Catholics, who add their own merits and those of the saints to the merits of Christ. The Archbishop of Paris dying of wounds, received in fightings, said: "O God, I offer to you my present sufferings as an atonement for the errors of my episcopate." This sounds indeed as if his own sufferings were his sole reliance; but his creed mentions the sufferings and death of Christ.

4. The last theory is that Jesus Christ made satisfaction for all the sins of all his people, that he paid the last farthing of the debt they owed to the broken law and injured government of God, and that in him they are complete and have full redemption. The Westminster Assembly says: "Christ by his 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." The essence of the atonement consists in this satisfaction, which was proper, not figurative, not emblematical; real, not imaginary, nor pretended; and full, not partial, nor incomplete—not needing our merits to eke it out. We have already seen how well this doctrine agrees both with the very words and with the general scope of Scripture. Were not this chapter already long, it would be easy to add the concurrent testimony of the best reformed churches and of many great divines. Some of these will hereafter be adduced for the purpose of illustrating other points. In the meantime the foregoing is the plain simple doctrine of the atonement as held in the Presbyterian and many other churches.