The Atonement


We have reached the point of view from

which we must regard the Atonement.

Let us strip the doctrine of all materialistic implications, and let us remember that God is essentially spirit. Apart from Christ, he has no form or body.

As spirit, independent of space and time, God, with all his attributes of knowledge, love and power, can make himself manifest when and where he will. In Christ, the divine Being is present in every atom of the universe, in every pulsation of my body, in every exercise of my will, and in every movement of human history.

The only qualification we have a right to make is this: the human will has granted to it a delegated power, which can resist the divine will, and can use God's forces and impulses for the production of evil, as the motorman can direct, though he does not furnish, the force that propels his car.

Christ's Natural Oneness with the Sinner

But Christ, as the life of the universe, is the life of humanity; so that the Redeemer is close at hand to redeem, by sharing with the sinner his guilt and misery, and by turning the sinner's enmity into love.

There is a natural union of Christ with all humanity, which precedes and prepares the way for his union with all believers. Whatever is due to the sinner falls upon Christ, to whom he is joined by a tie of life so close as to free it from all charge of book-keeping or external transfer.

When we give ourselves to Christ, and Christ gives himself to us, not only do all our needs become his, but also all his resources become ours. Since Christ is God, the whole Godhead died for me on the cross, as absolutely as if I were the only being to be saved. In receiving Christ, I make the whole Godhead my own, and can say: " Thou are my God" (Ps. 31: 14).

With these preliminary remarks, let us see what union with Christ implies in the way of atonement and of salvation. I sum it all up in saying that it implies giving and taking, on the part of God, and also giving and taking on the part of the believer.

What Christ's Oneness with the Believer Implies

When God interpenetrates our life with his own in Christ, he gives his all to us. The infinite One so joins us to himself, that all things become ours (1 Cor. 3:22); that is, "all things that pertain unto life and godliness" (2 Pet. 1:3) "shall be added unto us," if we "seek first his kingdom and his righteousness" (Matt. 6:33).

In Christ, God gives himself to us, more fully than any earthly husband gives himself to his wife; endowing us with all his earthly and heavenly goods, and cleaving to us in a union which death cannot part.

But in Christ, God takes, as well as gives. Think what is meant by love, and you will perceive that God must be an atoning Savior. For love not only gives its all to the object of its affection, but it so identifies itself with that object, as to share all its burdens and sorrows and sins. The whole weight of our guilt and penalty falls upon him who is our life, and he bears all for us. "Blessed be the Lord God who daily beareth our burden," says the Psalmist (Ps. 68: 19); "In all their affliction he was afflicted," says Isaiah (63:9).

But the New Testament makes this more plain, when it tells us of the Lamb of God, who takes, and so "takes away, the sins of the world" (John 1:29). Love not only gives, but also takes; gives all its own good, and takes all the other's guilt and pain and need. This is the Christian doctrine of the Atonement. God was in Christ, reconciling himself to the world, and the world to himself. "Him who knew no sin he made to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in him" (2 Cor. 5 : 21). If critics had only seen the Atonement as a fact of life, all their objections to its vicarious element, as a matter of book-keeping, would have vanished. If Christ is our life, if all we have and are is derived from him, and if he is God manifest in the flesh, but essentially independent of space and time, then the Atonement is a biological necessity.

What the Believer's Oneness with Christ

But I have not yet exhausted the meaning of the Cross. The salvation of man as well as the suffering of God was "finished" there. The believer gives and takes, as well as his Savior.

The whole appropriation of salvation by the redeemed was" assured and condensed in that one act of God's righteousness. The Father saw our faith as a result of his work on our behalf Predestination and human reception of salvation were joined together in one timeless event, that left no room for contradiction between them.

And the faith that appropriates what Christ is and what Christ has done, is a giving as well as a taking, and a taking as well as a giving. We give all to Christ, in a complete consecration, and we take all from him, by an appropriating faith.

So our salvation is delivered from the charge of an unmoral reliance upon the work of another, by showing itself to be the surrender of our very life to him who is the only source of moral life, to be moulded and fashioned into his likeness.

So our salvation is relieved of the charge that it makes us the slaves of another will, by showing that it is the only way to make us free; since in union with Christ we receive the very fullness of God to energize and gladden us. By union with Christ, the principle of the Atonement, in all its giving and taking, is inwrought into our hearts and lives, so that we, like Paul, "fill up that which is behind of the sufferings of Christ, for his body's sake, which is the church" (Col. 1:24).

Atonement and Holiness The necessity of the Atonement, however, cannot be fully appreciated, until we see its relation to the holiness of God. "It must needs be that Christ should suffer," said our Lord (Luke 24:26); and Paul tells us why Christ's suffering was necessary. It was in order " that God might himself be just," while at the same time he might be "the justifier of him that hath faith in Jesus" (Rom. 3 : 26).

Let me repeat in this connection what I have already said. The fundamental attribute of God is holiness, of which justice or righteousness are only forms of manifestation. Holiness is not self-communicating love, but rather, self-affirming righteousness. Holiness limits and conditions love, for love can will happiness, only as happiness results from or consists with righteousness, that is, with conformity to God. All non-conformity to God in moral relations is sin; and sin is hateful in God's sight, for it is the enemy and destroyer of all purity and peace. He therefore attaches suffering to sin, as its proper penalty; though he himself shares in that suffering, because he is the Creator and the life of the sinner.

Christ's suffering, during his earthly life and on the cross, was simply the expression of the age-long suffering of God; indeed, those few hours of agony could not of themselves have redeemed the race, if they had not been the revelation of an eternal fact in the being of God. Christ accomplishes his atonement through the solidarity of the race, of which he is the life, and so is its representative and surety, justly yet voluntarily bearing its guilt and shame and condemnation as his own (Systematic Theology, 2: 761).

Christ, therefore, as incarnate, rather revealed the Atonement, than made it. The historical work of atonement was finished upon the cross; but that historical work only revealed to men the Atonement made both before and after by the extra-mundane Logos. The eternal love of God, suffering the necessary reaction of his own holiness against the sin of his creatures and with a view to their salvation,— this is the essence of the Atonement. God has laid upon Christ the iniquity of us all, and with his stripes we are healed (Is. 53:5, 6); but this is no external transfer of guilt and penalty, but the voluntary suffering of God himself in the person of his Son.

Christ for Us and Christ in Us Christ must be an atoning, in order that he may be a cleansing Savior. Christianity, indeed, is summed up in the two facts: Christ for us, and Christ in us—Christ for us upon the cross, revealing the eternal opposition of holiness to sin, and yet, through God's eternal suffering for sin, making objective atonement for us; and Christ in us by his Spirit, renewing in us the lost image of God, and abiding in us as the all-sufficient source of purity and power (Miscellanies, 1:53, 54).

Here we have the two foci of the Christian ellipse: given either one, with the smallest fraction of the curve, and you can describe the whole scheme of doctrine.

Let me illustrate these two truths from our American geography. We have two great lakes, Erie and Ontario, and these are connected by the Niagara River, through which Erie pours its waters into Ontario. The whole Christian church throughout the ages has been called the overflow of Jesus Christ, who is infinitely greater than it. Let Lake Erie be the symbol of Christ, the preexistent Logos, God revealed in the universe. Let Niagara River be to us the picture of this same Christ, now confined to the narrow channel of his manifestation in the flesh, but within those limits showing the same eastward current and downward gravitation which men perceived so imperfectly before. The tremendous cataract, with its waters plunging into the abyss and shaking the very earth, is the suffering and death of the Son of God, which for the first time make palpable to human hearts the forces of righteousness and love operative in the divine nature from the beginning. The law of universal life has been made manifest; now it is seen that justice and judgment are the foundations of God's throne; that God's righteousness everywhere and always makes penalty to follow sin; that the love which creates and upholds sinners must itself be numbered with the transgressors and must bear their iniquities. Niagara has demonstrated the gravitation of Lake Erie. For from Niagara there widens out another peaceful lake. Ontario is the offspring and likeness of Erie. So redeemed humanity is the overflow of Jesus Christ; but only of Jesus Christ after he has passed through the measureless self-abandonment of his earthly life and of his tragic death on Calvary. As the waters of Lake Ontario are ever fed by Niagara, so the church draws its life from the cross. And Christ's purpose is, not that we should repeat Calvary, for that we can never do, but that we should reflect in ourselves that same onward movement and gravitation toward self-sacrifice which he has revealed as characterizing the very life of God.

I have said that there are two foci of the Christian ellipse: Christ for us, who redeemed us from the curse of the law by being made a curse for us, and Christ in us, the hope of glory, whom the apostle calls "the mystery of the gospel" (Syst. Theol. 3:804, 805). The second of these still waits for my illustration.

We need Christ in us, as well as Christ for us. How shall I, how shall society, find purification and healing within? Let me remind you of what they did at Chicago. In all the world there was no river more stagnant and fetid than was Chicago River. Its sluggish stream received the sweepings of the watercraft and the offal of the city, and there was no current to carry the detritus away. There it settled, and bred miasma and fever. At last it was suggested that by cutting through the low ridge between the city and the Desplaines River, the current could be set running in the opposite direction, and drainage could be secured into the Illinois River and the great Mississippi. At a cost of fifteen millions of dollars the cut was made, and now all the water of Lake Michigan can be relied upon to cleanse that turbid stream. What Chicago River could never do for itself, the great lake now does for it.

So no human soul can purge itself of its sin; and what the individual cannot do, humanity at large is powerless to accomplish. Sin has dominion over us, and we are foul to the verydepths of our being, until with the help of God we break through the barrier of our self-will, and let the floods of Christ's purifying life flow into us. Then, in an hour, more is done to renew, than all our efforts for years had effected.

Thus humanity is saved, individual by individual, not by philosophy, or philanthropy, or self-development, or self-reformation, but simply by being filled, in Christ, with all the fullness of God (Syst. Theol. 3 :804,805; Misc., 1: 191-195).

The Appeal of the Cross

In the Cross of Christ, therefore, we see God's whole revelation to men summed up, and thrust upon us for our reception or rejection.

In that Cross are condensed and expressed his character of holiness and of love, his judgment upon sin and his provision for the salvation of the sinner, his suffering in and with his creatures and his sacrificial offering in their behalf.

When God, in the person of his Son, dies of a broken heart for me, a sinner, I feel his appeal to my own heart to be unspeakably affecting. If I resist that appeal, I show myself to be the chief of sinners and to deserve nothing but death. For Christ's Cross reveals not only the greatness of our sin and the greatness of God's love, but it opens to us the whole meaning of human history, the whole secret of the universe, the whole purpose of God when he laid the floor of the firmament with its mosaic of constellations and bade the curtain of night and chaos to rise at the creation (John 3:16; 16:9; Eph. 1:10). Well may the apostle Paul say: "God forbid that I should glory, save in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ!" (Gal. 6: 14).