THE ATONEMENT AS FITTED TO GIVE PEACE TO A CONVICTED SINNER.
1 John i. 7.—" The blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin."
In the previous discourses we have been conducted to the great inquiry respecting the gospel,—What are its provisions and arrangements to save the guilty ? The gospel is a system to save sinners. This is its grand peculiarity; with reference to this all its arrangements are adjusted, and all other things that are connected with it are subsidiary to this, or collateral to it. The question, we are to suppose, which was before the Divine Mind in originating this scheme was, How may arrangements be made to save the guilty f This is the position which a speculative inquirer ought to take when he examines the gospel; this the point from which a convicted sinner ought to look at the gospel; this the point from which infidels and Christians should regard it.
The inquiry relates now, not so much to the speculative philosopher, the infidel, or the Christian, as to the convicted and guilty sinner. When he looks into this revealed plan, what does he see to meet his case ? He turns away from all other things as furnishing a hope of salvation; he despairs of every other method; he is condemned by the law of God and by his own conscience; he feels that he is to die, and that there is a God of justice before whom he must soon appear; he looks out tremblingly on a dark and dreaded eternity; and he comes to the Bible, as a professed revelation from God, to find something that will meet his ease. What is the way of salvation which it reveals for a lost sinner ?
Foremost in all its revelations he sees Christ and his cross. All the great statements in that book arrange themselves around one truth—that a Saviour has died; that an atonement has been made. Every promise of pardon is originated there; all the assurances of Divine mercy have their sources there ; all that is said of justification and sanctification is founded on that work ; all the invitations, encouragements, and assurances of favour in the book are based on that. Everything that is said in the book about the salvation of a sinner may be regarded as concentrated and embodied in my text:—" The blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin."
What can be more important for us sinners than to consider this ? Yet I do not propose to discuss the doctrine of the atonement, as such, as I should feel myself called upon to attempt to do if I were addressing myself to infidels and philosophers. I should then regard myself as bound to endeavour at least to vindicate the doctrine from objections; to demonstrate its consistency with law; to show why it is not found in a scheme of human administration; to exhibit the defects of all human governments without it; to prove that man has everywhere shown that he has felt his need of it; and to convince such men that it, in fact, maintains the harmony of justice and mercy in a moral government. But these, however great and important in themselves, would be points foreign to the present position to which we are brought in the progress of this discussion. We are now to look at the atonement as a revealed arrangement to meet the condition of a convicted sinner. The inquiry is, how that meets his case; how that will lay the foundation for restoration to peace.
To see the real point of this inquiry, you are to recollect the state of the sinner as it has been illustrated. The following points, then, are to be borne in remembrance:—(1.) He has violated the law of God, and is in fact, and in feeling, a guilty man. (2.) He cannot now change the fact that he has sinned, for that is to remain historically true for ever, whatever may be the consequences. (3.) He cannot repair the wrong done to a violated law; the wrong done to society; the wrong done to his own soul and to his Maker. (4.) He cannot, by any act of his, now remove the penalty—for that has a connexion with the violation of the law which the offender cannot himself dissolve. (5.) He cannot urge any claim to pardon—for pardon is never a matter of claim, and a violator of law is dependent on sovereignty.
The inquiry then is, What does the death of Christ—the atonement—do to meet this case ? It is my wish, as well as I am able, and as simply and plainly as possible, to explain this. There are substantially but two inquiries:—I. What is meant by the atonement ? And, II. What is accomplished by it in the salvation of a sinner ?
I. The first inquiry is, What is meant by the atonement f What is the idea when it is said that the blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth from all sin ? What in all those passages which speak of him as "a propitiation" for sin; as giving himself a "ransom for many;" as dying in the place of sinners; as being " made a curse for us;" as " bearing our sins in his own body on the tree;" as being our " peace," and as " reconciling us to God ?" What may we suppose Paul preached among the Corinthians when he resolved to "know nothing among them but Jesus Christ and him crucified ?"
It seems proper, in order to a clear understanding of this, to state, first, what the atonement is not, or what we should not expect to find in it,—for the hope of heaven, so far as based on the atonement, or on anything else, should not be founded on falsehood, but on truth. No false view on any subject will be of value to a man on his final trial.
We have seen, by an incidental remark already made, that there are some things in regard to sin and the sinner which cannot be done by the atonement or by any other arrangement. They are, that the historical fact of the commission of sin cannot now be changed; that it will always remain true of the sinner that he has violated the law of God, and is a guilty man; that the wrong cannot now be repaired, since there is a wrong done by the very act of sin which nothing subsequent can entirely remove, however it may be overruled; and that nothing can now be done by which the offender can urge, in any proper sense, a claim to pardon.
In addition, I wish now to state the following things as points not contemplated by an atonement, and which the sinner is not to expect to find in the atonement. I state them because they are sometimes supposed by an inquirer to be a part of the atonement, and because there are sometimes representations made by the friends of Christianity as if they were; and because the enemies of the atonement sometimes evince a desire to represent these things as constituting a part of it.
(a) The atonement, then, does not change God, or make him a different Being from what he was. He is in nowise, now that the atonement is made, a different Being from what he was before, or from what he would have been if the atonement had not been made; he will never be a different Being from what he now is, and always has been, whatever may be the destiny of man. He is no more benevolent, no more disposed to show mercy now, than he was before the atonement was made; he was no more disposed to do justice then, or to punish offenders, than he is now, and always will be. It is a great principle in all correct views of God that he is, in all respects, unchangeably the same, " without variableness or shadow of turning;" and this principle is to be held in all its integrity in relation to every doctrine of natural or revealed religion.
(6) Similar to this, and growing out of it, is a second thought, that the atonement is not designed, so to speak, to buy. God over to mercy; to make a Being before harsh and stern and severe, mild; or to melt a heajt, naturally hard, to compassion. I do not deny that there have been representations by even the friends of Christianity which would bear the interpretation that this is their belief; and I do not deny that some of the language i of our sacred poetry is liable to this construction. Thus such language is found in our own Watts, whose devotional poems are in general so correct in sentiment, and so well adapted to express the feelings of true piety:—
"Rich were the drops of Jesus' blood,
That calm'd his frowning face;
That sprinkled o'er the burning throne,
And turn'd the wrath to grace."
In this language the representation undoubtedly is, that God was originally stern and unforgiving; and that he has been made mild and forgiving by that "blood" of atonement which " calmed his frowning face." It cannot be denied that such representations as this would be conveyed by the language used sometimes in the pulpit; or that there are views of the death of Christ prevailing in the Christian church which would justify such a construction.
Blit_lhese views cannot be correct; and those who use such language must do it, as Watts seems to have done, under the influence of warm poetic or devotional feeling, where the language conveys more than it was possible in their soberer moments to believe to be true; or else they hold views of the atonement which can in no way be vindicated. God cannot change. He cannot be a different Being from what he always has been. He cannot be bought over to mercy by blood. He never has been a stern and inexorable Being, and then made mild and forgiving by the death of his Son. The human mind is so made that it cannot believe that doctrine; and no man can be required to go and proclaim such a doctrine to mankind. The true statement on this point will be seen from another part of this discourse. It is, in a word, that God was always merciful, benevolent, and kind; but that, in his government, as in all governments, there existed obstacles to the pardon of the guilty lying in eternal justice, and in the necessity of maintaining the authority of law; that until these were removed he could not consistently make a proclamation of mercy; that in order to remove them, he gave his Son to die; and that the gift of his Son, therefore, was just an expression of the eternal benevolence of his character; a proof, not that he was originally stern and severe, and that he was made mild and forgiving by the atonement, but that he was so mild and benevolent that he was willing to stoop to any sacrifice, but that of truth and justice, to save a lost world.
(c) A third thought sometimes supposed to be a part of the doctrine of the atonement, hut not properly connected with it, is, that Christ died to endure the strict and proper penalty of the law. But it is equally plain that this cannot be, and that men cannot be required to believe it; and that when they profess to believe it, they either have no clear ideas of what they profess to believe, or use language without any definite signification. The penalty of the law in the case of transgression is what the law appoints as an expression of the evil of the offence, and as designed to give sanction to the law and to maintain it. The proper penalty of the law can be borne by the offender only, and cannot be transferred to another. A substitute may bear something in the place of the penalty, or something which shall answer the same end ; but when a man offends, the law threatens him, and no other. It was not true, either, that the law which man had violated ever threatened, as its specific penalty, a death on a cross; and it was not true that the Saviour endured on that cross what properly enters into the notion of the penalty of the law. It was not true that he suffered remorse of conscience ; it was not true that he suffered eternal death; it cannot be believed that, in those short hours, he endured as muck pain as all the wicked for whom he died would have endured in the horrora of an eternal hell. And, moreover, if he had endured the literal penalty of the law, no small part of the glory of the atonement would have been taken away. If this had been so, the short account of the whole transaction would be, that the entireness of guilt and punishment were transferred from the guilty to the innocent, and that there had been no gain to the uerse, since all the punishment originally threatened had been rigidly inflicted, not indeed on those who deserved it, but on One who did not deserve it.
Laying these things, therefore, out of view, as not necessary, in any just conceptions of the atonement, and as inconsistent with any proper view of that great work, the simple statement of it is, that it is an arrangement designed, by the substituted
suffering■s and death of the Lord Jesus Christ, to make the exercise of mercy towards the guilty consistent with justice and the honour of law; or an arrangement which will make it proper for God to exercise the original mercy of his nature consistently with a due regard to the stability of his government, and a due expression of his hatred of sin. The origin of the atonement is the benevolence, not the justice of God; the object aimed at is the manifestation of that benevolence consistently with justice; it would not have been resorted to, if benevolence towards the guilty could have been properly exercised without it.
II. We are led, then, in the second place, to inquire what it in fact accomplishes in the plan of salvation.
I look upon it, so far as it comes before the mind of a sinner convinced of guilt, and inquiring how peace and salvation may be found, as having two great features. First, it is an expression of the willingness of God to pardon the guilty; and, secondly, it is a device for removing the obstacles to pardon, so as to make the forgiveness of sin consistent with justice and truth.
First. It is an expression of the willingness of God to pardon the guilty. It is in this light that a sinner convicted of sin will naturally look at it; it is with reference to this that he will study it. The grand question which he wishes now to be solved, and which must now be solved, if he ever finds peace, is this:—■ whether he may hope that God will he willing to forgive offenders against his law. It is not whether he is benevolent in general; or whether he is just and true ; but it is specifically whether he is willing to forgive the sin which now gives the inquirer so much trouble, and to receive one conscious of guilt to his favour. This is the question which the child asks respecting a parent whose law he has violated; this is the question which the offender against a human law asks when he confesses his guilt, and throws himself upon the mercy of his country; this is the question which is asked all over the heathen world, when the worshippers there, conscious of guilt, come with bloody sacrifices to their altars; and this is the question which the sinner everywhere asks, when convicted of sin, and when he feels that he deserves to be banished to the abodes of despair.
Now a simple and single declaration on the part of God might have settled that question for ever, and put the agitations of a troubled soul at once to rest, even if nothing were said about the way in which such a declaration could consistently be made. But that is not the method which has been in fact adopted. "What I beg your particular attention to is the fact, that all the offers of pardon in our world, and all the assurances of the Divine mercy to the guilty, have come through the sufferings and death of Jesus Christ—through the atonement.
(a) If you go outside of that, or look anywhere else, where will you see evidence, where will you find an assurance, that God is willing to pardon the guilty ? If you go to the heathen of ancient or modern times, none of their oracles give any assurance that pardon can be obtained from an offended God; from not one of their priests could a response be obtained that would give peace to a troubled conscience. If you go to an infidel, he has no communication that will give peace to such a conscience. All the assurances in the Bible he on principle rejects, and he professes to have none that can be a substitute in their place. If you open the Koran, the Shasters, the Vedas, the Zendavesta, you meet no assurance on which you can rely as a communication from Heaven, that God is willing to forgive the violator of his laws. If you ask the philosopher, he has nothing to say on this point, but will rather endeavour to convince you that you do not need pardon,—that you should attempt to discipline your own soul to meet the trials of this life, and to bo ready for the future, and not to trouble yourself about feelings that spring up from the indulgence of the passions implanted in you by your Maker. As to pardon, in the proper sense of the term,—as to forgiveness, such as a convicted sinner feels that he needs,—all these oracles, priests, and philosophers, are dumb.
(b) But how is this matter presented in the atonement made by Christ ? The inquiry of the mind is, whether God is willing to pardon him who has violated his law, and who is troubled at the remembrance of the past, and in anticipation of the future.
There is much, it would be idle to deny, that is mysterious in the incarnation of the Son of God, and in the atonement made by Him: and what is there that comes before the minds of mortals that is divested of mystery ? There are many questions which the sinner, in the state of mind in which I am supposing him to be, is not yet able to solve, if he ever will be in this life, or ever afterwards. But, in reference to the main matter,—to the great inquiry which perplexes him—to the question whether God is willing to pardon a sinner—to the disclosure of the character of God with this view, made by the gift of a Saviour and by his death on the cross,—the following things are so plain in the Bible that there can be no doubt of them in his mind, and they are of such a nature as just to meet his case:—
(1.) The atonement is, on the part of God, an expression of mere benevolence—a gift of love: " God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son." He did not give him because there was a claim on him; he did not give him that he might in some mysterious way he made merciful;—nor did the Saviour come that he might change the character of his Father, and make an inexorable being mild and kind; or that he might buy him over to mercy by his sacrifice;—but God gave him because he loved the world, and as the expression of his original and eternal benevolence.
(2.) It is the highest possible expression of benevolence. For, to use human language, what higher expression of love can there be than for a father to give an only, a much-beloved son ? And when has there been in a human soul benevolence of so high an order as to be willing to give up a son to die for such an object ? What earthly monarch has ever occupied a throne who would be willing to give up a much-beloved son to death, to save his guilty subjects from deserved punishment ? In our own land—rich as it has been in examples of benevolence and self-sacrifice — what judge has ever been seated on the bench who, to save the convicted murderer at his bar, much as there might be in his youth, or beauty, or high connexions, or endowments, to excite sympathy, would be willing to give an only son to occupy his vacated place on the gallows ? Who would give up his child to save an enemy; who, even to save a friend ? His own life he might give for his friend; but who would give himself for his foe f " For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us," Horn. v. 7, 8. And when the trembling and anxious sinner looks upward toward the eternal throne, and asks for a proof of love—for some intimation that God is willing to pardon—for something that shall soothe his feelings with the assurance that God is a God of mercy, and is slow to anger, and is not willing that the sinner should die,—here he sees it—sees all that the soul can ask—sees all that it can conceive of as a high expression of love.
(3.) Contemplating the death of Christ with reference to the question of so much interest to him, whether God is willing to pardon the guilty, he meets the assurance everywhere in the Bible that the sacrifice of Christ was made for all men. " God loved the world." " One died for all." " By the grace of God he tasted death for every num." " If I be lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men unto me." " He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world." He came that " whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."
Nothing is plainer in the Bible than that the atonement was, in some proper sense, made for all mankind. That it is so is stated in language so plain that it would seem not possible to mistake it; in language as plain as any found in the creeds of those churches which profess to believe the doctrine ; in language as plain as any ever employed by those who wish to defend the doctrine; in words so plain that if it be admitted that it was intended to teach it, it would not be possible to do it in human language unless that actually employed in the Bible teaches it. It was an offering made for the race. It was a gift for a fallen world. It had respect not so much to individuals as to the law, the perfections, and the government of God. It was an opening of the way of pardon; a method of making forgiveness consistent ; a device for preserving truth ; a scheme for " magnifying the law and making it honourable ;" an arrangement—such as has been wanted in all human governments, but which has been found in none—by which he who forgives can be at the same time strictly just. It is, therefore, as applicable to one individual as to another; for, having made arrangements for securing these great interests in the salvation of one soul, the arrangement is necessarily one that may be extended to all.
The full benefit of this atonement, therefore, is offered to all men—to each and all of the human family. God makes the offer; and he makes it in sincerity and in good faith; and he expects that his views and feelings in this will be respected and honoured by all who presume to speak in his name. He has never commissioned any class of men to make a partial offer of salvation; to limit the invitation to any favoured class—few or many—of mankind; to show any special respect in this matter to any tank, to any complexion, to any kindred or tongue. He has commissioned his servants to go and preach the gospel to " every creature;" that is, the good news that salvation is provided for them—for in no other sense would it be the gospel to them. He that does not do this; that goes to offer the gospel to a part only; to elect persons only; or that teaches that God offers the gospel only to a certain portion of mankind, violates his commission, practically charges God with insincerity, and makes the language which God has used with such apparent plainness, delusive, ambiguous, or unmeaning. It is never to be forgotten that the offer of salvation is not made by man, but by God. The offer stands recorded in his own word ; the business of the ambassador is to go and proclaim that, and that only. It is the risen Saviour's commission—his solemn charge, when he was about to ascend to heaven—that the offer of salvation should be made to every creature. It is not the fault of his commission, or to be traced to any limitation in the merits of the atonement, that all that dwell upon the earth have not heard it:—that every Hindoo, African, and Islander has not long since been told that he might be saved through a Saviour's blood.
I assume the free and full offer of the gospel to all men to be one of those cardinal points of the system by which all other views of truth are to be determined. It is the corner-stone of the whole edifice; that which makes it so glorious to God, and so full of good-will to men. For one, I hold no doctrines, and never can hold any, which will seem to me inconsistent with the free and full offer of salvation to every human being, or which will bind my hands, or palsy my tongue, or freeze my heart, when I stand before sinners to tell them of a dying Saviour. I have no fellow-feeling for any other gospel; I have no " right hand of fellowship" to extend to any scheme that does not teach that God sincerely offers all the bliss of heaven to every child of Adam—be he a Caffi arian, a Hindoo, a Laplander; a beggar, or a king; a man of wealth, learning, and respectability, or an abandoned wretch;—to the man that, by the grace of God, will ultimately reach heaven, and to the man that by his own fault will wander for ever as an outcast on the plains of despair.
This scheme of salvation I regard as offered to the world, as freely as the light of heaven, or the rains that burst on the mountains, or the swellings of broad rivers and streams, or the bubblings of fountains in the desert. And though millions to whom it is offered do not receive it, and are not savingly benefited by it, though in regard to them the provisions of the plan may be said to be, in a certain sense, in vain, yet this result does not stand alone in the arrangements of God. I sec in this the hand of the same God that pours the beams of noonday on barren sands, that sends showers on desert rocks, and that gives bubbling springs where no man is—to our eyes, but not to his, in vain. It is the overflowing of benevolence, the richness of the Divine mercy ; the profusion of the gifts of the Creator, the fulness of compassion, that can afford thus to flow over all the earth—even on wastes and solitudes ; for the ocean of love which supplies all can never be exhausted or diminished.
I have thus endeavoured to show that the atonement made hy the Saviour meets the awakened and convicted sinner as a practical expression of the willingness of God to pardon the guilty; as answering a question which the mind must ask in that state, whether it is right for men to hope in the mercy of God, or whether there is mercy for the lost.
Second. The other aspect, as I remarked, in which the atonement is presented in the Bible, is, that it is a device or scheme, on the part of God, for removing the obstacles under a moral government to the exercise of pardon, and for making the forgiveness of a sinner consistent with the maintenance of the honour of the law, and with justice and truth. This will open before us these inquiries:—What are the obstacles in a government to the exercise of pardon ; what devices are resorted to in human governments to meet these difficulties; and how the atonement removes the difficulties, and makes it consistent for God to pardon the guilty ?
It was my intention to enter on this inquiry, and to complete it in this discourse; but I must reserve it for the ensuing.
In conclusion, and as a proper application of this part of the subject, I beg leave to ask your attention to one particular point; it is this:—that this view of the atonement meets an anxious inquiry which has always been made by the human mind, and which must continue to be one of the important questions before our race. It is, whether God is willing to pardon the guilty; whether those who are conscious of having violated his law may come to him with the hope that he will forgive them. Now, taking the race at large—embracing the ancient Hebrew people, the ancient and modern heathen world, and the multitudes who have resided, and do reside in Christian lands—I do not know that there is any one question that has interested so many minds, or interested them so deeply, as this. I admit that there have been many in all these lands who have felt no immediate interest in it, and whose attention could not be awakened to it; I admit that there are many who profess to look upon the inquiry as superfluous, and many who profess to consider it a question which could not be answered ; I admit that it is not a question which has been extensively considered in the books of philosophy; and I admit that there have been other inquiries that have excited a more immediate, and, for the time, a deeper interest in many minds than this. But I am speaking of the race at large; and what I am saying is, that there is no one question that lias, in one way or another, excited so deep an interest as this. It was the origin of all the sacrifices of the Hebrews. It lies at the foundation of all the bloody rites of the heathen. It is the source of all the pilgrimages and penances—the fastings and scourgings—the self-torture by uncomfortable postures, by iron beds, and by hair-cloth, among the Papists. It is the explanation of swinging on hooks, and holding the hand in one position till the muscles become immovably rigid, and walking on sharp spikes, and sacrificing children, among the heathen. And it is the cause of the anxious inquiry of the man convinced of sin iu Christian lands, and under the full light of science and religion, how he may be saved. No man can be convinced that he is himself a sinner, and not ask this question; and there is no man who may not be convinced that he is a sinner; no one, I believe, who at some time will not be. It is a question which men ask in solitude—in the shades of evening, in the gloom of midnight, when the remembrance of long-forgotten guilt comes stealing over them; it is a question which men ask when in sudden danger, and when they feel that they are soon probably to be called into the presence of an offended God; it is a question which men ask when, under the preaching of the gospel, their sins are plainly set before them; it is a question which is asked with the deepest possible interest when the Spirit of God descends with power on a community in a revival of religion ; it is a question which a man who has been careless, and worldly, and wicked in his life, asks with the intensest interest on the bed of death. Can the Maker of the world show mercy f is the great inquiry—the leading, prominent inquiry —that has stood before the minds of men. Will he pardon a transgressor of his law ? Can a guilty being trust in his compassion ? May one who is conscious of deep criminality, and who is soon to stand before him in judgment, hope for his favour ? Can the past be forgiven ? Can peace be restored to a soul, when conscience is doing its fearful work ? Oh ! where shall an answer be found to these questions ? From what hidden recesses; from what shrines, and oracles ; from what sacred groves ; from what deeps of earth or of the blue ether ; from what lips of the living, and from what whisperings of the " pale and sheeted dead," shall the answer come ?
I believe that the answer—the sole and sufficient answer—to all these questions is found in the Cross of my Redeemer. I see there—in the gift of such a Saviour; in the avowed design of his coming; in the wonderful work of the atonement which he performed—an assurance that God loves a guilty race, and that he is ready to pardon. What more do I need than the assurance of the Son of God ? What other confirmation of it do I demand than what I have in his agony and bloody sweat, his cross and passion ? Mystery still there may he on a thousand questions pertaining to the Divine administration ; and a thousand questions I might wish to ask even about this work, hut the main inquiry is answered. I am assured there that God loved the world. I am assured that my Redeemer died, that God might show his willingness to pardon. I am assured that he tasted death for every man. I am assured that whosoever will may take the water of life freely. The agitations of my soul die away ; my mind settles down into peace ; my fears subside ; I can look calmly up to God, calmly to the grave, calmly to the eternal future ;—for the great question in which I feel more interest than in all others is answered—whether I, a sinner, may hope in the mercy of my God!