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THE PRIESTHOOD OF CHRIST.-HIS ATONEMENT.- OBJECTIONS
Romans iii. 24—26. Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is
in Christ Jesus ; whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation, through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God, lo declare, I say, at this lime his righteousness : that he might be just, and the Justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.
HAVING finished the observations, which I intended, concerning the atonement of Christ, as proofs of its existence, and explanations of its nature; I shall now proceed to consider some Objections to this doctrine; and to suggest several practical Remarks, to which it naturally gives birth.
Among the Objections, alleged, against this doctrine, I select the following, as particularly deserving attention.
1st. It is objected, that a Vicarious Atonement for sin is not consistent with the dictates of reason.
“ The sin, it is observed, is ours; and cannot belong to another. Whatever atonement is to be made ought, therefore, to be made by us : particularly such an atonement, as is here insisted on ; viz. such an one, as is to be made by suffering. The sufferings, which are necessary to expiate our guilt, are due from the sinner only; and cannot be justly inflicted on any other person.”
I cheerfully agree with the objector, that the sinner cannot claim such an interference on his behalf, as is made by the atonement of Christ. Strict justice demands the punishment of the sinner only; and can, in no wise, require the punishment of another in his stead. But I still deny the consequence, which the objector derives from these premises.
No person, who has observed the affairs of the present world with attention, can hesitate to admit, that vicarious interference, to a great extent, producing in great numbers both good and evil consequences, is a prominent feature of the providential system, by which the affairs of this world are regulated. Children thus be
. come rich, well educated, intelligent, religious, and everlastingly happy, by the agency of their parents : while other children owe, in a great measure, to the same agency
evils of poverty, ignorance, vice, and final ruin. Friends by their interference become the means of wealth, reputation, advancement, holiness, and everlasting life, to their friends, and rescue them from pover
ty, bondage, disgrace, profligacy, and perdition. Enemies accomplish all the contrary evils for their enemies; and by temptation, slander, fraud, and treachery, effectuate for those, whom they hate, every kind of destruction. A great part of the business of human life, both public and private, is in the strict sense vicarious: the benefits, or the injuries, rarely terminating in the personal good of the agent only, but almost of course extending to others. The agency of Washington has beneficially affected every inhabitant of the United States. That of Moses extended blessings to the Israelitish nation through fifteen hundred years. That of St. Paul and his companions has spread holiness through the Christian world for seventeen centuries; and added many millions to the general assembly of the first-born. Nay, this very agency will hereafter become the means of converting the whole human race to Christianity; people heaven with a great multitude, which no man can number, of all nations, kindreds, and tongues; and diffuse glory, honour, and immortal life, throughout never ending ages.
From these observations it is evident, that vicarious agency is so far from being an unreasonable thing in itself, as in one form and another to constitute an important part of the present system of things, and to have a very extensive, and very efficacious, influence on the most interesting concerns of mankind. The whole analogy of human affairs in the present world furnish us, therefore, with every reason to expect, that vicarious agency would be adopted, more or less, in every part of the providential system.
What the state of the world thus naturally teaches us to look for, Revelation countenances in the strongest manner. A single instance will be sufficient to place this truth in the clearest light. Every one, who is at all acquainted with the Scriptures, perfectly well knows, that they require of all men intercession for their fellow-men; and that to this intercession blessings are both promised, and declared to be given. Is any sick among you? says St. James, let him call for the Elders of the Church, and let them pray over him—and the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and, if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him. If restoration from disease, and the forgiveness of sins; blessings of the greatest temporal and spiritual magnitude; are promised, and given, in consequence of the intercession of others; our minds can set no limits to the propriety, or the efficacy, of vicarious interference, exhibited in other forms.
In the present case, (the case objected to) the propriety of admitting vicarious interference is complete. Mankind were all sinners; were all condemned by the unalterable law of God; and were all, therefore, destined to final ruin. In themselves there was no power to expiate their sins, or to prevent their destruction. When it is remembered, that their number was incalculable, and that each of them was immortal, the case must be admitted to have heen great, and interesting, beyond any finite comprehension.
Both the magnitude of the case, therefore, and its desperate nature, demanded of a benevolent being every effort capable of being demanded. Whatever could with propriety be done was plainly, and loudly, called for by circumstances so deplorable; a wretchedness so vast; a doom extending to a collection of intelligent creatures so plainly incomprehensible. But vicarious efforts could here be made, and made with propriety, and success. The law and government, here dishonoured, could, and I hope it has been proved that they could, be supported in their full strength and efficacy; the sin could be expiated; the sinners restored io holiness, the favour of God, and immortal life; and the character of God appear, not only with the same, but increased, glory. Thus from the nature of the case, as well as from the analogy of things, a vicarious interference is so far from being in the present instance improbable, or improper, that it is strongly recommended to our belief by the very best presumptive evidence.
2dly. It is objected, ihat the punishment of an innocent person, such as Christ was, is inconsistent with the plain dictates of justice.
To punish an innocent person for a fault, not his own, will not be denied to be unjust. Nor will an inquiry now be instituted concerning the question, whether it would be consistent with justice to require, in any possible case, a being perfectly holy to suffer for the sake of other beings of a different character, in order to relieve them from greater sufferings. Neither of these will be necessary at the present time. The objection may be completely answered in another manner. For,
1st. That Christ actually suffered, while yet he was perfectly holy, the objector cannot deny. He, therefore, suffered for himself, or for mankind. If he suffered for mankind, the existence of an atonement is admitted. If he suffered for himself; then the objector must admit, that he was punished, while yet he was perfectly holy; and, of course, that God can inflict suffering, not only on holy beings, but for their own sake; or, in other words, can retribute punishment to obedience. I leave the Objector to choose which part of this alternative he pleases.
2dly. Christ was not required to suffer. This is taught in the Scriptures, in a great multitude of passages, and in many forms, too well known to be specified here. Christ voluntarily assumed the office of a Redeemer; voluntarily became a substitute for man; and of his own accord gave his life as a ransom for many. It is true, that in all this he obeyed the will of his father ; but it is not true, that he did not voluntarily enter upon every part of this course of obedience. When he was in the form of God, and thought it no robbery to be equal with God; he took upon himself the form of a servant; and laid down his own life, when none could take it out of his hand. But it is evident, that there can be no injustice in requiring a being, perfectly holy, to fulfil his own engagements, and to do what he has covenanted to do; although by this covenant he has engaged to yield himself to personal suffering. To consent to suffer may be on his part right, when by his suffering he can redeem others from greater suffering, or accomplish in any way what will, on the whole, be superior good. On the part of God also, it may, and, if nothing extraneous prevent, must, be right to accept of his sufferings in such a case, if voluntarily proffered. The objection, therefore, is destitute of weight.
3dly. It is further objected, that, if Christ expiated the sins of mankind, God is obliged by justice to bestow on them Salvation.
This objection is derived from misapprehensions concerning the nature of the atonement. The Scriptures in speaking on this subject very frequently, as well as very naturally, speak in figurative language. Particularly, they exhibit us as bought with a price ; as purchased; as redeemed; that is, literally understood, as bought from a state of bondage and condemnation by the blood of Christ; as ransomed by the auogov, or price of redemption. This language, derived from that fact in human affairs, which, among the customary actions of men, approaches nearest in resemblance to the atonement of Christ, seems unwarily to have been considered as describing literally this atonement. But this mode of considering it is plainly erroneous. We are not, in the literal sense, bought, or purchased, at all. Nor has Christ, in the literal sense, paid any price, to purchase mankind from slavery and death.
The error, into which the objector has fallen, has, I acknowledge, been countenanced by many Christians, who have held the doctrine of the atonement. These have supposed the satisfaction for sin, made by the Redeemer, essentially to resemble the satisfaction, made for a debtor by paying the debt, which he owed. In this case, it is evident, that, if the creditor accept the payment from a third person, he is bound in justice to release the debtor. As the two cases have been supposed to be similar, it has been concluded, that, since Christ has made such a satisfaction for sinners, God is in justice also bound to release them.
This, however, is an unfounded and unscriptural view of the subject There is no substantial resemblance between the payment of a debt for an insolvent debtor, and the satisfaction, rendered to distributive justice for a criminal. The debtor owes money; and this is all he owes. If, then, all the money, which he owes, is paid, and accepted; justice is completely satisfied, and the creditor can demand nothing more. To demand more, either from the debtor, or from any other person, would be plainly unjust. When, therefore, the debt is paid by a third person, the debtor is discharged by justice merely. But, when a criminal has failed of doing his duty, as a subject to lawful government, and violated laws, which he was bound to obey; he has committed a fault, for which he has merited punishment. In this case, justice, not in the commutative, but the distributive, sense ; the only sense, in which it can be con-,
cerned with this subject; demands, not the future obedience, nor an equivalent for the omitted obedience, but merely the punishment, of the offender. The only reparation for the wrong, which he has done, required by strict justice, is this punishment: a reparation necessarily and always required. There are cases, however, in which an atonement, such as was described in the first of these discourses, may be accepted: An atonement, by which the honour and efficacy of the government may be preserved, and yet the offender pardoned. In such a case, however, the personal character of the offender is unaltered. Before the atonement was made, he was a criminal. After the atonement is made, he is not less a criminal. As a criminal, he before merited punishment. As a criminal, he no less merits it now. The turpitude of his character remains the same; and, while it remains, he cannot fail to deserve exactly the same punishment. After the atonement is made, it cannot be truly said, therefore, any more than before, that he does not deserve punishment. But if the atonement be accepted, it may be truly said, that, consistently with the honour of the government, and the public good, he may be pardoned. This act of grace is all that he can hope for; and this he cannot claim, on account of any thing in himself
, or any thing to which he is entitled, but only may hope, from the mere grace, or free-gift, of the ruler. Before the atonement was made, the ruler, however benevolently inclined, could not pardon him, consistently with his own character, the honour of his government, or the public good. After it is made, he can pardon him, in consistency with them all; and if the offender discover a penitent and becoming disposition, undoubtedly will, if he be a benevolent ruler.
From these observations it is manifest, that the atonement of Christ in no sense makes it necessary, that God should accept the sinner, on the ground of justice; but only renders his forgiveness not inconsistent with the divine character. Before the atonement, he could not have been forgiven: after the atonement, this impossibility ceases. The sinner can now be forgiven, notwithstanding the turpitude of his character, and the greatness of his offences. But forgiveness is an act of grace only; and to the same grace must the penitent be indebted for all the future blessings connected with forgiveness.
I have now considered all the objections against the doctrine of the atonement, which I consider as claiming an answer; and shall therefore proceed, as I proposed at the commencement of this discourse, to make some practical remarks, arising from the preceding observations on this important subject.
REMARKS. From these observations it is evident,
1st. That those, who trust in the expiation of Christ, will certainly inherit the favour of God.