The Necessity of the Atonement



In these words of our Lord, which I read from the Revised Version, we find plainly asserted the necessity of his atonement. They are still better translated in the Biblo Union Version which reads: "Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things?" Why was it needful that Christ should suffer? In order that prophecy might be f ulfilled? Yes,— but why were Christ's sufferings matters of prophecy? It must be because they were included in the purpose of God — the purpose of God to redeem the world. Why could not the world be redeemed without the sufferings of Christ? There are two answers to be given to this question. First, because there is an ethical principle in God's nature which demands that sin shall be punished. The holiness of God requires satisfaction for sin, and Christ's penal sufferings furnish that satisfaction. Secondly, because Christ stands in such a relation to humanity that what God's holiness demands, Christ is under obligation to pay, longs to pay, inevitably does pay, and pays so fully, in virtue of his twofold nature, that every claim of justice is satisfied and the sinner who accepts what he has done in his behalf is saved.

With regard to the first of these aspects of the atonement — its necessity as regards God — so much is said in Scripture that little room is left for doubt or ambiguity. In his sacrifice, Christ offers himself through the eternal Spirit without spot to God. He is set forth in his blood as a propitiatory sacrifice, so that God may be just and yet justify him that believes. Without the shedding of blood there is no remission, but the blood of Jesus cleanseth from all sin, for he is the propitiation for our sins and not for ours only but for the sins of the whole world. These passages declare that the righteousness of God demands an atonement if sinners are to be saved.

It is to the second and more difficult aspect of the atonement — its necessity as regards Christ himself — that I wish to direct special attention. Many who can see how God can justly demand satisfaction, cannot see how Christ can justly make it. The suffering of the innocent in place of the guilty seems to them manifestly unjust. They recognize no obligation on the part of Christ to suffer. I am persuaded that light can be thrown upon this particular point in the great doctrine. We shall understand the necessity of Christ's sufferings, when we consider what Christ was, and what were his relations to the race.

What were the results to Christ of his union with humanity? I shall mention three. The first was obligation to suffer for men; since, being one

* A sermon upon the text, Luke 24 : 26—" Behoved it not the Christ to suffer these things?"

with the race, he hail a share in the responsibility of the race to the law and the justice of God — a responsibility not destroyed by his purification in the womb of the Virgin. There is an organic unity of the race. All that there is of humanity has descended from one common stock. In our first parents that humanity fell from holiness and incurred the great displeasure of God, and each member of the race since that time has been born into the state into which our first parents fell. The universal prevalence of perverse affections, and the universal reign of death, are evidences that the whole race is under the curse. What were the two main consequences of sin to Adam? They were first, depravity, and secondly, guilt. First the corruption of his own nature; and secondly, obligation to endure the penal wrath of God. What are the two consequences to us of Adam's sin? Precisely the same: first, depravity; secondly, guilt. We are born depraved, or with natures continually tending to sin; we are born guilty, or under God's displeasure and justly bound to suffer. And so because of this race-unity and raceresponsibility we bear a thousand ills not due to our individual and conscious trausgre.ssions, and even infants, who have never in their own persons violated a single command of God, do notwithstanding suffer and die.

Now if Christ had been born into the world like other men, he too would have had both these burdens to bear,— first, the burden of depravity, and secondly, the burden of guilt. But with regard to the first, he was not born into the world like other men. In the womb of the Virgin, the human nature which he took was purged of its depravity even at the instant of his taking it, so that it could be said to Mary: "That holy thing that shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God," and the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews could speak of Christ as "holy, harmless, undefiled, separated from sinners." With regard to the second consequence of sin, however, Christ was born into the world like other men. The purging away of all depravity did not take away guilt, in the sense of just exposure to the penalties of violated law. Although Christ's nature was purified, his obligation to suffer yet remained. All the sorrows of his earthly life, and all the pains of death which he endured, were evidences that justice still held him to answer for the common sin of the race.

The justice of Christ's sufferings has been illustrated by the obligation of the silent partner of a business firm to pay debts which he did not personally contract; or by the obligation of the husband to pay the debts of his wife; or by the obligation of a purchasing country to assume the debts of the province which it purchases. There have been men who have spent the strength of a life-time in clearing off the indebtedness of an insolvent father long since deceased. They recognized an organic unity of the family which made their father's liabilities their own. So Christ recognized the organic unity of the race, and saw that, having become one of the sinning race, he had involved himself in all its liabilities, even to the suffering of death, the great penalty of sin. He might have declined to join himself to humanity, and then he need not have suffered. He might have sundered his connection with the race, and then he need not have suffered. But once born of the Virgin, and possessed of the human nature that was under the curse, he was bound to suffer. The whole mass and weight of God's displeasure against the race fell on him, when once he became a member of the race. It was this that Jesus chiefly shrank from when he prayed that the cup might pass from him. And when at last God's face was hidden from the sufferer, and he cried in agony :—"My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me !" there would have been no sting in death if it had not been the wages of sin, justly paid to him who not only stood in the sinner's place, but who was made sin for us in the sense of being guilty of the original sin of the race, while yet he was utterly free from inherited depravity or personal transgression.

It has been common enough for theologians to recognize an imputed guilt, as furnishing an explanation of Christ's sufferings. The poet says:

"My soul looks back to see

The burdens thou didst bear
When hanging on the accursed tree,
And hopes her guilt was there."

But this imputation of others' guilt is very difficult to reason, even when helped out by John Miller's hypothesis of Christ's federal relation to the race. The doctrine of the atonement needs something more than this to make it comprehensible. It needs such an actual union of Christ with humanity and such a derivation of the substance of his being by natural generation from Adam as will make him, not simply the constructive heir, but the natural heir, of the guilt of the race. Edward Irving saw this, and he declared therefore that Christ took human nature as it was in Adam, not before the fall, but after the fall. But he ignored the qualification that, in his taking it, that human nature was completely purified by the Holy Spirit, and so he taught that Christ's humanity was depraved. The true doctrine is that the humanity of Christ was not a new creation, but was derived from Adam through Mary his mother. Christ, then, so far as his humanity was concerned, was in Adam just as we were, and, as Adam's descendant, he was responsible for Adam's sin like every other member of the race; the chief difference being that, while we inherit from Adam both guilt and depravity, he whom the Holy Spirit purified, inherited not the depravity but only the guilt.

The first effect upon Christ of his union with humanity, then, was that it put him under obligation to suffer for the sins of men. But there was a second effect — it was the longing to suffer which perfect love to God must feel, in view of the demands upon the race of that holiness of God which he loved more than he loved the race itself; which perfect love to man must feel, in view of the fact that bearing the penalty of man's sin was the only way to save him. I have spoken of Christ's shrinking from suffering and death because it was the penalty of sin. But this is perfectly consistent with an intense longing to pay that penalty, as it was the demand of infinite righteousness. That righteousness he loved, more than he loved the whole universe besides. That righteousness he saw to be the only worthy object .of adoration for the universe — the only security for the peace of the universe. He understood the requisitions of righteousness, as only one who was perfectly pure could understand them. And when that righteousness presented its demands to him as a member of the condemned and guilty race, there was that in him which moved him to respond: "Let that righteousness bo exalted, though I die!"

Think how urgent the demand of conscience sometimes is, even in the case of sinful men, and you will get some idea of the yearning of Christ's pure heart to offer his great sacrifice. All great masters in literature have recognized it. The inextinguishable thirst for reparation constitutes the very essence of tragedy. Marguerite in Goethe's Faust, fainting in the great Cathedral under the solemn reverberations of the "Dies Irm;" Dimmesdale in Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter, putting himself side by side with Hester Prynne, his victim, in her place of obloquy ; Bulwer's Eugene Aram, coming forward, though unsuspected, to confess the murder he had committed, all these are illustrations of the inner impulse that moves even a sinful soul to satisfy the claims of justice upon it.

Nor are these cases confined to the pages of romance. That was an unusual and exciting scene in a Plattsburg court-room, near the close of a trial for murder. The murderer was a life-convict who had struck down a fellow-convict with an axe. The jury, after being out two hours, came in to ask the judge to explain the difference between murder in the first, and murder in the second, degree. Suddenly the prisoner arose and said : "This was not murder in second degree. It was a deliberate and premeditated murder. I know that I have done wrong, that I ought to confess the truth, and that I ought to be hanged." This left the jury nothing to do but to render their verdict, and the judge sentenced the murderer to be hanged, as he deserved to be. The other case of Earl, the wife-murderer, is still fresh in public recollection. Earl thanked the jury that had convicted him, declared the verdict just, begged that no one would interfere to stay the course of justice, said that the greatest blessing that could be conferred upon him would be to let him suffer the penalty of his crime. Now, if wicked men can be moved with such desire to suffer, how much more must he desire to suffer whose sympathy with the righteousness of God was perfect and complete. For man's sake Christ longed to suffer, because only through his suffering could man be saved. But chiefly for God's sake Christ longed to suffer, for only through his suffering could God's righteousness be vindicated. Hence we see him pressing forward to the cross with such majestic determination that the disciples were amazed and afraid. Hence we hear him saying —"With desire have I desired to drink this cup;" "I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how am I straitened till it is accomplished." Here is the truth in Campbell's theory of the Atonement. Christ is the great Penitent before God — making confession of the sin of the race, which others of that race could neither see nor feel. But the view which I present is a larger and completer one than that of Campbell, in that it makes this confession and reparation obligatory upon Christ, as Campbell's view does not, and recognizes the penal nature of Christ's sufferings, which Campbell's view denies.

There is but one point further. I have shown that Christ's sufferings were necessary, first, because he was under obligation to suffer; and secondly, because his love to God and man made him long to discharge this obligation. Now, thirdly, I would show, that, being such as he was, he could not help suffering — in other words, the obligatory and the desired were also the inevitable. Since he was a being of perfect purity, contact with the sin of the race, of which he was a member, necessarily involved an actual suffering of an intenser kind than we can conceive. There are moments in our own experience when the wickedness of some past misdeed is revealed to us in a light so appalling, that we get some conception of what hell must be to the everlastingly condemned. There are moments when our unbelief and ingratitude seem abhorrent and shocking beyond description. There are times when the sin of others to whom we are closely bound, their disregard of Christ and his claims, their grieving of his Spirit, affect us so deeply that the remorse which they ought to fool seems to take possession of us. So the parents feel, whose daughter has gone astray,— they identify themselves with her, feel her shame as if it were their own, cannot absolve themselves from the feeling of responsibility. And there are men whose hearts are so large and deep, that they feel thus for the sin and misery of the world. They look upon the bonds of their brethren, and feel bound with them, as Moses identified himself with his suffering people in Egypt. And this suffering in and with the sins of men, which Dr. Bushnell emphasized so strongly, though it is not, as he thought, the principal element, is notwithstanding an indispensable element, in the atonement of Christ.

In the last illness of John Woolman, one of the early members of the Society of Friends, he gave utterance to the following words. They are in the form of an address to God: "O Lord, my God, the amazing horrors of darkness were gathered about me and covered me all over, and I saw no way to go forth ; I felt the depth and extent of the misery of my fellow creatures separated from the divine harmony, and it was greater than I could bear, and I was crushed down under it; I lifted up my hand, I stretched out my arm, but there was none to help me ; I looked round about and was amazed. In the depths of misery, O Lord, I remembered that thou art omnipotent, that I had called thee Father, and I felt that I loved thee, and I was made quiet in thy will, and I waited for deliverance from thee; thou hadst pity upon me when no man could help me. I saw that meekness under suffering was showed to me in the most affecting example of thy Son, and thou wast teaching me to follow him, and I said : 'Thy will, O Father, be done.'" He had vision of a "dull, gloomy mass " darkening half the heavens, and which he was told was "human beings, in as great misery as they could be and live; and he was mixed with them, and henceforth he might not consider himself a distinct and separate; being."

Sin is self-isolating, and its watchword is: "Am I my brother's keeper?" But love and righteousness have in them the instinct of human unity. Nothing human is foreign to the man who lives in God. We do not know how completely a perfectly holy being, possessed of superhuman knowledge and love, may have felt even the pangs of remorse for the condition of that humanity of which he was the central conscience and heart. Such a holy being was Christ. In him all the nerves and sensibilities of humanity met. He was the only healthy member of the race. Ho could feel the condition of humanity, when no other member of the race could feel it. When a man has been exposed to intense cold and his limbs are frozen, he feels no pain, but rather the disposition to sleep, even though he knows this sleep will be the sleep of death. But bring the man to the fire, thaw the frozen limbs, and the first return of circulation is accompanied by exquisite pain. Pain is the very sigu of life. So Christ was the only sensitive and healthy member of a benumbed and stupefied humanity. His soul felt all the pangs of shame and suffering which rightfully belonged to sinners, but which they could not feel, just by reason of the depth and depravity of their sin. Because Christ was pure, therefore he must suffer. Not because of what he was in himself, but because of what the race was to which he had united himself, "it must needs be that Christ should suffer." As he was God, he could be the proper substitute for others; as he was man, the penalty due to human guilt belonged to him to bear.

I have already alluded to the great proof-text which Paul gives us; let me a little more fully elucidate it. In the Second Epistle to the Corinthians, the fifth chapter and the twenty-first verse, we read: "Him who knew no sin, he made to be sin on our behalf; that wo might become the righteousness of God in him." The two members of the sentence stand in contrast to each other; the evident meaning of the one may teach us something with regard to the meaning of the other. '' Righteousness " here cannot mean subjective purity, for then "made to be sin" would mean that God made Christ to be subjectively depraved. As Christ was not made unholy, the meaning cannot be that we are made hoi// persons in him. Our "becoming the righteousness of God in him" can only mean that we became justified persons in Christ. Correspondingly, Christ's "being made sin" must mean that he is made to be a condemned person "on our behalf." When the text speaks of "him who knew no sin," it declares that Christ was not personally n sinner— this was the necessary prerequisite of his work of atonement. When the text says he was '' made to be sin on our behalf," it declares also that he was made a sinner, in the sense that the penalty of sin fell upon him.

But not simply penalty — the text declares that guilt was his also. For, justification is not simply the remisson of actual punishment, but is also the deliverance from the obligation to suffer punishment, and as "righteousness " means "persons delivered from the guilt as well as the penalty of sin," so the contrasted term "sin" in the text means "a person not only actually punished, but also under obligation to suffer punishment"; in other words, Christ is "made sin," not only in the sense of being put under penalty, but also in the sense of being put under guilt.

How was this guilt put upon Christ? The same text intimates the answer. It was by Christ's becoming one with our race. As Adam's sin is ours only because we are actually one with Adam, and as Christ's righteousness is imputed to us only as we are actually united to Christ, so our sin is imputed to Christ only as Christ becomes actually one with the race. He was "made sin," by being made one with the sinners; he took our guilt by taking our nature. He "who knew no sin" came to be "sin for us," by being born of a sinful stock; by inheritance the common guilt of the race became his. Guilt was not simply imputed to Christ; it was imparted also. As we become justified persons by taking part in his new and redeemed nature, so he was made guilty for us by taking our condemned nature in the womb of the Virgin. Thus, having our guilt, he can atone; by virtue of his divine nature, he can exhaust the penalty of sin aud be our substitute; becoming justified himself, he can make all believers partakers of his justification.

In this doctrine of the atonement, I see the only vindication of the justice •of God. On any theory of mere human martyrdom, on any theory of mere human sympathy, God would seem to bo unjust. That the holiest man of all the ages should have been the greatest sufferer, impugns God's justice, and fills me with terror and despair. But if Christ stood in the place of sinners, and bore the guilt of the race to which he had united himself, then in his suffering I see the greatest possible proof of the divine righteousness — righteousness that will maintain itself even at the cost of the suffering and .death of the Son of God. Yes, in the cross I see the glory of God's righteousness— the Judge himself coming down from his judicial tribunal and taking the sinner's place, rather than that one jot or tittle of the law should fail. If God so honored his own righteousness, how ought we to honor it!

In this doctrine of the atonement I see the only way of escape for the sinner. I once tried to tell a convicted sinner about Christ's power to renew his heart. But he replied: "That is not what I want — there is first a debt that I must pay. I must make up for my past sins." That is the utterance of the unsophisticated heart, when God's Spirit enlightens it. It must have atonement, before renewal. It must see some reparation made, before it can begin the work of reformation. It was a great delight to me to tell that man that his debts had been paid by Christ; that the reparation had been made upon the cross; and that now, '' uothi ng, either great or small, remained for him to do," but only to take what Christ had done for him. Yes, it was needful for Christ to suffer, if any sinner was ever to be saved. But now Christ has suffered once for all. "He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities. The chastisement of our peace was upon him," and, thank God! "by his stripes we are healed." The worst of sinners, who believes in Jesus, can say in the language of Toplady's hymn:—

"From whence this fear and unbelief?
Hust thou, O Father, put to grief

Thy spotless Son for me;
And will the righteous Judge of men
Condemn me for that debt of sin

Which, Lord, was laid on thee?

"If thou hast my discharge procured,
And freely in my room endured

The whole of wrath divine,
Payment God cannot twice demand
First at my bleeding Surety's hand.

And then again at mine.

"Complete atonement thou hast mndo.
And to the utmost farthing paid

Whate'er thy people owed;
How then can wrath on me take place,
If sheltered in thy righteousness
And sprinkled with thy blood 'I

"Turn then, my soul, unto thy rest
The merits of thy great High Priest

Speak peace and liberty;
Trust in his efficacious blood;
Nor fear thy banishment from God,

Since Jesus died for thee "!