The doctrine of the atonement, to which we will now call your attention, the Lord willing, is, of course, of the utmost importance. It is certainly of the greatest significance as following upon the doctrine of sin. Sin is guilt and it is also the power of corruption. And the extent of the guilt and power of sin is of such a nature that the sinner is helplessly and hopelessly lost in sin and evil. He can never save himself. He can never pay his guilt, and this payment of his debt is absolutely necessary if he is to return into the favor of God. The justice of the Lord must be satisfied. And this implies that a sinner’s salvation is utterly impossible unless and until this satisfaction be brought in full harmony with the righteousness of Him Whose Name is Jehovah, the unchangeable God, with Whom there is no change or shadow of turning. Too much emphasis can never be laid upon this Scriptural truth, also and particularly in our present day and age which has such little understanding of the righteousness of the alone living God. How important, therefore, is the Scriptural doctrine of the atonement, the doctrine which sets forth the vicarious and atoning sufferings and death of Him Who alone is and can be the Mediator of our salvation.
However, the doctrine of the atonement is also of the greatest significance because of the doctrine itself. It is surely the emblem and symbol of Christianity. Of the cross of Jesus Christ the apostle Paul exclaims in Gal. 6:14: “But God forbid that I should glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.” In I Cor. 2:2 the same apostle writes to the Corinthians: “For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.” And in I Cor. 1:17-18 we read: “For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect. For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.” And throughout the ages the child of God and the church of the living God glories in the cross of Calvary as the only ground of its salvation, the only ray of hope and beam of light in the midst of a world which otherwise lies in unfathomable darkness and despair. Indeed, in the cross of Christ we shall glory.
Finally, another reason why the doctrine of the atonement is of the greatest significance is its gross distortion and denial in our present day. We hear much nowadays of the conservatives and the liberals. The liberals in the church are those who attack the inspirational character of Holy Writ, the historicity ofGenesis 1-3, the miracles of the Word of God, the virgin birth of our Lord, His resurrection from the dead and return, bodily, upon the clouds of heaven. That these liberals attack the Scriptural truth of the atonement of our Lord Jesus Christ need not surprise us. But, the Scriptural doctrine of the atonement is also corrupted and distorted by many conservatives. They generalize this work of Christ upon the cross of Calvary. They present the death of Christ as having occurred for all men, head for head. And, if we generalize the atonement of Calvary, the result will inevitably be that we lose that atonement. A Christ for all is really a Christ for none. The choice is not between a Christ for all and a Christ for some, but between a Christ for all and a Christ for none. And, the presentation of a general atonement, a Christ for all, must inevitably lead to modernism. The teaching of a general atonement is surely a denial of the holiness and righteousness of the alone living God.
Writing now on the doctrine of the atonement and directing attention, first of all, to the development of this doctrine in the period, 80-254 A.D., we would first quote the following from the notes of Rev. H. Hoeksema:
Concerning the conception of the early fathers in regard to the suffering and death of Christ, the following general remarks may suffice:
a). All without exception taught that Christ died for our sins and that His death is a sacrifice for sin; not only through His incarnation or by His doctrine and example, but through His death redemption and salvation are accomplished.
b). The doctrine of the “satisfactio vicare” was not completely developed or defined in this first period. Irenaeus does indeed speak of reconciliation through satisfaction but it is not quite clear just what this church father meant even by this phrase. Justin Martyr also teaches the principle of reconciliation through satisfaction. Origen presents the suffering of Christ as an offering for sin but with equal ease and readiness he speaks of the death of Christ as the death of a hero and, besides, just as Clement of Alexandria, he ascribes purifying power also to the blood of the martyrs. The peculiar view is found with Origen that Christ was offered to the devil as a ransom for the redemption of His people and that the devil not understanding that he could do nothing with the pure nature of Christ accepted this ransom and was thus deceived.
c). The application of Christ’s redemption was generally presented by the early fathers as taking place through faith. Faith, however, was not clearly defined.
d). The fathers did, however, understand that the sinner did not possess this faith of himself, that it was a gift of Divine grace. This led them to the contemplation of the truth of eternal predestination. A clear conception of this truth, however, was not developed. It seemed that, in as far as the fathers speak of this doctrine, they present it as being grounded in the fore-known deeds of men.
e). Incidentally, it may be remarked that the early fathers on the basis of some expressions in Scripture taught that Christ literally and locally descended into Hades and there had contact with the departed spirits.
Now it lies in the very nature of the case that the doctrine of the atonement of our Lord Jesus Christ has been developed and set forth by the Church of the New Dispensation in distinction from the Old Dispensation. This is true of all the truths in the Word of God. This is due to the distinction between the Old and New Dispensations. The beginning of the New Dispensation, we know, is marked by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ into our flesh and blood. This means that the manifestation of the living God as the God of our salvation is much clearer in the New Testament than in the Old Testament. In the coming of Jesus Christ into the flesh we have historically the fulfillment and revelation of the promise of salvation as set forth throughout the ages of the Old Dispensation. In the New Dispensation we have historically the fulfillment and manifestation of the love of God in Jesus Christ, God’s Son and our Lord. It lies, therefore, in the very nature of the case that this salvation of the Lord is more clearly set forth in all its implications in the New Testament than in the days of the shadows and types and symbols.
However, there is another reason why the New Dispensation should be characterized by this development of the doctrines of Holy Writ. The Old Testament is not only characterized by the fact that God’s revelation of Himself as the God of our salvation was confined to one people, but also by the fact that the Lord revealed Himself directly and by infallible inspiration to His Church in the midst of the world. In the Old Dispensation of the shadows the Word of the Lord came by infallible inspiration to a few, His prophets, who communicated this word of the Lord to the people of the Lord. How different things are in the New Dispensation! The time of infallible inspiration terminated with the apostles. They were the last to be personally inspired by the Lord, so that they wrote, unerringly, the word of the Lord. They completed the written word of God. And although it is true that the Church of God received from its risen and glorified Lord that He would lead them into all the truth, it is also true that this promise was given to the Church as it was confronted by the wicked world and constantly threatened by the forces of darkness as they attempt to distort and destroy the Scriptures. With the passing of the apostles these enemies of the truth assert themselves as never before. The church of the living God is now called upon to defend the truth once delivered to the saints and to answer these attacks upon the Word of God with the Word of God and to glean from the Scriptures its answer to these fiery darts of the forces of darkness to deny us the truths of God, which alone are a lamp upon our path and a light before our feet. One can easily understand, therefore, why the new dispensation would be characterized by the history of the development of doctrine, also of the doctrine of the atonement of our Lord Jesus Christ.
To one more thing we would call attention in this connection. How difficult it would be to generalize the doctrine of the atonement of Christ in the light of the Old Dispensation! Fact is, the revelation of the living God as the God of our salvation was limited then to a single people, that of Israel. The sacraments, the Passover and circumcision, were limited to one people! Let us apply this to the institution of the Passover in the land of Egypt. How strictly particular this was! After the Lord had devastated the land of Egypt with nine mighty plagues, He was about to deliver that final plague, the slaying of the firstborn of man and beast. Surely, if we may use the expression, Egypt “never had a chance.” The revelation of the institution of the Passover, the slaying of the lamb and subsequent sprinkling of its blood upon the doorposts was given exclusively to Moses and to the children of Israel. Egypt was never informed of this. They were never instructed to slay a lamb and to escape and ward off the avenging angel of the Lord. Only Israel received this Divine revelation! Why? This is stated by Moses in Deuteronomy 7:7-8, and we quote: “The Lord did not set His love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people: But because the Lord loved you, and because He would keep the oath which He had sworn unto your fathers, hath the Lord brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you out of the house of bondmen, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” God loved Israel, sovereignly, and not because they were in any sense worthy of this love of God. But the fact that the institution of the Passover was revealed exclusively to Moses and to the children of Israel surely establishes the truth that the atonement of our Lord Jesus Christ is exclusively particular. It would be very difficult to conclude from this institution of the Passover that the blood of Christ is to be viewed in the universal and common sense of the word. However, with the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and His glorification at the right hand of God, the devil rages furiously against the cause of Christ in the midst of the world. With all his ingenuity he seeks to undermine and to destroy the truths of the Word of God. And, of course, one of these truths is the atonement of the Christ of God. And the Church is called to defend also this pillar of the Word of God. It is to the history of this dogma that we now would call your attention.