Chapter 6: The One Sacrifice
The moral theory of the suffering of Christ stands condemned, first of all, in the light of all that Scripture teaches us concerning the state and condition of the natural man, and the character of sin.
For, according to Scripture, sin is guilt, and the sinner is liable to punishment, worthy of damnation, wholly unworthy of God’s favor, a child of wrath. Sin is not only, and not in the first place, an inherent weakness or defilement of the human nature, some moral imperfection that may be removed by the influence of some sound moral example: it is guilt. And this means that the sinner, as the object of God’s just condemnation, lies in the midst of death, and has no right to life. This also implies his spiritual death, according to which he is incapable of doing any good and inclined to all evil. He is legally a slave of sin. His moral depravity is the punishment that is inflicted upon him by the righteous judgment of God. Hence, suppose even that it were possible to reform man, to deliver him from his moral depravity by a mere example or moral influence, the natural man would not even have the right to such deliverance from the slavery of sin. Before he may be delivered the justice of God against sin must be satisfied. And, as we have repeatedly emphasized, this satisfaction of God’s justice can be accomplished only through such a voluntary bearing of the wrath of God and of the punishment of sin that constitutes an act of the perfect obedience of love. There is no deliverance from sin without atonement for sin. There is no possibility of sanctification without justification. If the death of Christ is not the sacrifice of vicarious atonement, it certainly cannot have the power of moral improvement or reformation.
Besides, this moral theory of the atonement really proceeds from the supposition that man is inherently good, though his nature is weakened and morally incapacitated somewhat. If only he considers how in finitely good and loving and merciful God is, he will, by the contemplation of this good and loving Father, be persuaded to love Him too, and strive for improvement that he may be pleasing in God’s sight. And that he may be able to understand and contemplate this great love of God, the Most High enters into our deepest woe through the death of His Son. However, Scripture teaches us, not that man is morally weak by nature, but that he is dead through trespasses and sins. He is not in need of reformation, but of regeneration, and unless he is born again, he cannot even see the kingdom of God. No amount of moral influence will do him a particle of good. The very contrary is true. The more the love of God is demonstrated, provided it is truly the love of GOD that is shown, the more he will hate God and hold the truth in unrighteousness. The very cross of Christ, that is supposed to exert this salutary moral influence upon the sinner, is sufficient proof of this. Let us not be oblivious of the fact, that, although God delivered His only begotten Son to the death of the cross, he was taken and slain by the hands of wicked men. And rather than being morally improved by the sight of the suffering of the righteous Son of God, they jeered and mocked and blasphemed as long as they dared at the spectacle of Golgotha! Apart from God’s act of reconciliation through the atoning death of His Son, the cross reveals nothing but wrath and judgment. It is the condemnation of the world.
Further, what demonstration of God’s love could one possibly discern in the cross of Jesus, considered as an act of God, if the death of Christ is not an atoning sacrifice for sin? If Christ did not bear our sins upon the accursed tree, He did not represent us. And if He did not represent us, He could not justly enter into our death, and God could not justly send Him into our death and hell. Surely, it is quite impossible to discern how such an unjust and quite superfluous infliction of suffering on the righteous Son of God, which apart from the idea of atonement and suffering for sin can be little more than an empty, though terrible show, could be a revelation of God’s love, and a power for the moral improvement of the sinner.
Lastly, it is quite true that the Bible holds before us the sufferings of Christ as an example, which we must follow. But, let it be noted, first of all, that this example of Christ’s suffering is held, not before the natural man and for his moral improvement, but before those that have been redeemed by the death of Christ, called by His grace out of darkness into the light, and in principle delivered from the power and dominion of sin and death, that they might be to the praise of the glory of God’s, grace in the Beloved. And, secondly, though the Scriptures certainly present the suffering of Christ as an example for us to follow, it never does so except after it has first proclaimed the death of Christ as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of His own. Jesus Christ, the righteous, is a propitiation for our sins, I John 2:2. He is the faithful and merciful High Priest, that makes reconciliation for the sins of the people, Heb. 2:17. He Himself bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness, I Pet. 2:24. The Church is bought with a price, I Cor. 6:20; 7:23. And all the sacrifices of the old dispensation point to the same truth: Christ’s death is the vicarious atonement, whereby the justice of God is forever satisfied against the sins of His people, and through which they are reconciled to Him.
A second theory of the significance of the death of Christ that denies the Scriptural truth of satisfaction and vicarious atonement, is known as the governmental theory. It denies that it was necessary that God’s justice be satisfied. Christ did not have to suffer and die in order to bear the sins of many, and thus to atone for them. God’s mercy is exactly that He forgives sin, that He cancels the debt without payment. However, it would be a dangerous, a morally impossible thing to forgive the sinner, and to treat him as if he had never committed any sin, without first causing him to acknowledge the righteousness and justice of God. He would get the impression that God is indifferent to sin, that He is not terribly displeased with the workers and work of iniquity. Even though God forgives the sinner, and receives him again into His favor, He must maintain the moral order of the universe, and the sinner must repent and acknowledge that God is holy and righteous. And to bring him to the acknowledgement of God’s righteousness, and to true repentance, God gives a demonstration of His wrath and justice in the death of His Son. In delivering up His own Son He clearly reveals to the sinner what He might righteously do to every sinner. Just as a general might court martial and sentence to death every soldier of a regiment that committed mutiny, but singles out only one, the ringleader, perhaps, and hangs him in the sight of all the rebels, so God demonstrated His righteousness and displeasure against sin by sending Christ into death that we might go free. And the sinner, looking by faith at that demonstration of the justice and wrath of God, will confess his sins, acknowledge that God is righteous, and thus assume the position in which God, while maintaining His moral government of the universe, may forgive him, and treat him as if he had never had or committed any sin.
That also this theory must be rejected as contrary to the plain teachings of Holy Writ, and, besides, as inherently absurd and impossible, is not difficult to see. All the Scriptural passages that speak of the death of Christ as a sacrifice for sins, a ransom, as a price that was paid for our redemption, as a propitiation for sin, as an atonement and reconciliation through blood, condemn this presentation of the significance of Christ’s death and of the redemption of the Church as contrary to the revealed Word of God. To be sure, the death of Christ is a setting forth, a demonstration, a declaration of the righteousness of God in justifying the ungodly, but only and exactly because it is a payment of the debt, a satisfying of the justice of God, a “propitiation through faith in His blood,” Rom. 3:25, 26. Only because Christ represented His people in the hour of the righteous judgment of God, and as their Representative took upon Himself the guilt of their sins, so that He could justly bear the wrath of God in their stead and in their behalf, was the death of Christ indeed a demonstration of God’s unchangeable righteousness.
How otherwise could it possibly be such a demonstration? Even if, according to the illustration used above, the general of an army selects one of the guilty mutineers to punish him in the sight of all the rebels, and lets the others go free, this can hardly be considered a demonstration of righteousness and justice, for all were guilty and deserved punishment. However, in such a case it is, at least, one of the guilty ones that is selected to receive the punishment as an example to all the rest. An innocent outsider could not possibly serve such a purpose. But with Christ this is different. He knew no sin. Unless the guilt of His people could be and was imputed to Him so that He could suffer their punishment in their stead, there was no sin and guilt upon His head for the which He could justly be made to suffer death. If, therefore, our Lord suffered merely as a demonstration of the justice and righteousness of God against sin, in order to impress us sinners with the truth that God might justly damn us all to eternal death, the demonstration misses the point entirely. To make the just suffer as an example for the unjust is not a show of righteousness and of justice, but of the grossest injustice, Such a demonstration, even though this method would be sufficient to satisfy and maintain the justice of God, would be quite devoid of power to bring men to an acknowledgement of the justice of God, and to true repentance and sorrow over sin, simply because it is no demonstration of justice, but of injustice.
And finally, such a demonstration of the righteousness of God could never accomplish the reconciliation of men with God. Sin is not merely a denial of the justice of God in the consciences and consciousness of men, it is also in the objective sense a violation of God’s law. It is rebellion against the Most High. It is guilt. It must be blotted out. And it can be blotted out only through satisfaction, that is, through an act of obedience that is the complete antithesis of the act of sin committed. Not the mere acknowledgement that God could justly punish every sinner with eternal death, not the most earnest and heartfelt repentance can satisfy the justice of God. But only such an act of obedience, whereby the sinner voluntarily and from the love of God suffers the punishment for sin to the end, is capable of blotting out the guilt of sin. This act of loving disobedience in the suffering of eternal death the sinner could never perform, still less accomplish perfectly to the end. But God’s own eternal Son in our flesh, ordained to be the Head of all His elect, was authorized and capable to bring this willing sacrifice instead of His guilty people. This, and not a mere demonstration of the justice of God, is the meaning of the cross of Christ. And this is also its power unto salvation unto everyone that believes.
Finally, we must briefly review in this connection what is known as the mystical theory of the death of Christ. This theory, in common with the two presentations of the meaning of Christ’s suffering which we already discussed, also denies that Christ’s death is substitutional. It must have nothing of what is often called “blood theology.” Those who support this view scoff at the idea of the necessity of satisfaction. They will not hear of guilt and punishment, but rather emphasize that the sinner is morally weak and sick, and must be delivered from the power of sin. To this end Christ entered into our nature, and on the cross He actually bore our sinful nature and delivered it up unto death. On the cross our sinful nature died principally. And in the resurrection He arose with a new, glorified, holy nature, wholly free from sin and death. Now, through faith we become mystically one with that Christ, who led to death and buried our sinful nature, and who arose in glory and righteousness. Through this mystical union also their sinful nature is crucified, and also they rise unto newness of life. And so they become reconciled to God.
There is, of course, an element of truth in this mystical theory, provided it is left in its proper connection, and viewed in the proper light. The Word of God teaches us, indeed, that by grace we become one plant with Christ, so that our old nature is crucified with Him, and with Him we are raised to newness of life. We are crucified with Christ, and we are raised with Him, and we are set with Him in heavenly places. Scripture teaches, indeed, that in and through the suffering and death of Christ, sin itself was condemned in the flesh, so that it has no longer the right and the power to have dominion over us. Rom. 8:3. And thus there is surely power in the cross to deliver us from the power and corruption of sin through our union with Christ. But we must not overlook the fact that the Word of God always presents this power of deliverance from the dominion and defilement of sin as the fruit of the cross, never as the ground of our reconciliation and justification. The latter is found only in the vicarious suffering of our Lord, in His perfect sacrifice for sin, never in our being crucified with Christ in mystical union with Him. And, secondly, this spiritual fruit of the death of Christ is given us only on the ground of His perfect satisfaction, and of our being justified by faith in Him. We are not justified because we die and rise with Christ in the mystical sense, but we are delivered and sanctified because we are justified through His blood. Justification is ever the ground of our sanctification.
All these theories of the meaning and power of the death of Christ must be rejected. They are a denial of the one sacrifice of Christ accomplished on the cross. They deprive us of the sure ground of our salvation, and of the only comfort in life and death, that we are not our own, but belong to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who fully satisfied for all our sins, and delivered us from all the power of the devil. For this sure ground can only be the righteousness of God, realized in the perfect obedience and satisfaction of Christ, imputed to us freely by grace, and given unto us and appropriated by us through faith. All these theories somehow substitute a righteousness of man for the righteousness of God; and the former can never be the ground of our salvation. God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them. For He hath made Him sin that knew no sin, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. All this was actually accomplished nineteen hundred years ago. It is purely of God, in no wise of us. Not our goodness, not our faith, not our religion or piety, not anything that is of us can possibly be the ground of our salvation. But the righteousness of God through Jesus Christ, and that righteousness absolutely alone, is the ground of our hope in God, the sure basis of all our salvation, our eternal peace!
Chapter 7: Atoned For The Elect
Christ is the High Priest of His people, and His people are they whom the Father hath given Him before the foundation of the world. And these are the elect, chosen and ordained unto eternal life out of free and sovereign grace.. And His sacrifice to atone for the sins of sinful men, was brought, not for all men head for head, but only for those whom the Father had sovereignly ordained unto eternal life, and chosen in Him. That this is true is abundantly testified by all the Scriptures. Christ Himself frequently speaks of this. To the Jews in Capernaum He declares: “For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me. And this is the Father’s will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day.” John 6:38, 89. Hence, the Lord is never discouraged, even though under His preaching the things of the kingdom of heaven are hid from the wise and prudent, and revealed only to the babes, for He knows that this is the good pleasure of the Father, Matt. 11:26. And “all that the Father giveth me shall come to me.” John 6:37. He is the good shepherd, and He knows His sheep, and is known of His. And He lays down His life, not for all men, but for His sheep. It is not the free will of man that determines who shall belong to His sheep, for the Savior knows His sheep as those whom the Father gave Him, even before they know Him. Hence, he can declare: “And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also must I bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.” John 10:14-16. To the opposing and murmuring Jew’s he says: “But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep, as I said unto you.” Let us take note of this remarkable word. Many may be inclined to turn this saying of the Lord about, so that it would read: “Ye are not of my sheep, because ye believe not.” Nevertheless, the Lord emphatically declares the very opposite: because they are not His sheep, i.e. because they do not belong to His God-given flock, therefore they do not believe. His sheep surely hear His voice, and He knows them, and they follow Him, and He gives them eternal life. And no one is ever able to pluck them out of His hand. His Father who gave Him the sheep is stronger than all, and no one can pluck them out of His Father’s hand. John 10:26-29. Only those, then, whom the Father ordained to life and gave to Jesus, belong to His sheep. And for them He gave His life, and offered the perfect sacrifice on the cross.