Chapter 3: The Cross an Effective Propitiation for Sin
Men must have a religion; and if they reject the religion of the Bible, they will devise one for themselves. What the religion is which they thus devise is not a matter of theory. Facts tell us what it is. The entire narrative of paganism, both ancient and modern, shows that the religion of the pagan world is a religion of terror, and that its most important rites and institutions are sustained by its appeals to a guilty conscience. There is that in the human bosom, in virtue of which, every deed of wickedness visits the perpetrator with more or less of the bitterness of remorse. Benighted and erring as it is, conscience everywhere summons man before her bar as a culprit; she tries him, and finds him guilty. The religion of conscience, therefore, is a self-condemning religion, and its altars are altars of blood. For ages upon ages, blood has been flowing through the temples of heathen idolatry. From the seven nations of Canaan that were cut off by Joshua, to the more bright periods of Assyrian and Egyptian history—from refined Greece and Rome, through the successive ages of Gallic, German and Saxon history, down to the modern nations of the east, men have erected altars to the sun, to the moon, to the stars; to demons, and hero-gods; to Moloch, to Ashtaroth, to Baal, to Juno, to Bacchus, to Diana, to Woden; whose worship consisted in the most horrid acts of cruelty and blood. The practice of shedding human blood on the altars of idol gods has not been peculiar to any one age of the world. Even at the present day, the car of Juggernaut, and the pagoda of American western savages, are stained with the blood of men.
This is a remarkable, as well as melancholy fact in the history of our race. Men have no natural instincts to gratify in offering human sacrifices; it is a moral instinct which leads them to it; it is with the view of averting the displeasure of the offended Deity. It is conscience, clamorous for restitution, and demanding amends for human wickedness. Conscience requires obedience, or the penalty of disobedience; nor is it in the power of man to dissolve the wrathful bond. Sin deserves punishment, because it is sin. The connection between crime and suffering is founded in the moral nature of man, and is absolutely indestructible. Conscience establishes it by her immutable sentence that the transgressor is "worthy of death;" reason confirms it by her immutable convictions that God is just; while the history of Divine Providence recognizes it in the perdition of the most exalted race who "kept not their first estate," and in the misery and woes, the sighing, agony, and death, which reign in a world originally filled only with expressions of the Creator’s goodness.
The demand is not therefore one of minor importance, which is made by the prophet. "With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the high God?" It is no easy matter to persuade a man who is fallen by his iniquity, and who is deeply sensible that he deserves to perish, that there is a refuge from the coming wrath. He may discover some probabilities of pardon; he may indulge some flickering hopes—but these occasional flashes from the dark sky do not soothe his fears. Nor are they tranquilized, nor can they be, until the storm has spent its fury, and he sees the rainbow painted on the cloud. Such a man, more especially if, in the days of his thoughtlessness and vanity, he has had loose notions of the Divine justice, and presumptuous expectations from the Divine mercy, is much more disposed to believe that God cannot be just and pardon, than that he would be unjust to punish and destroy. To stand on a strong and immovable foundation, he must be placed in the position where justice has no claims upon him, and where the penalty of the law is satisfied, because all his sins are atoned for. This is the only solace for the wounded conscience; this is the refuge the sinner needs; it is the refuge furnished by the cross, because the cross furnishes the only effective propitiation for his sins.
Modern Jews, the ancient heretics who maintained that Christ was a mere man, Muhammadans, Socinians, and infidels, are, so far as my knowledge extends, the only sects that have ever affirmed that God forgives sin without regard to an atonement. There is no intimation of pardon in the Old Testament Scriptures, except through an atoning sacrifice. The great truth recognized in the bloody sacrifices throughout the patriarchal age, was the doctrine of expiation. Under the Mosaic dispensation, the offerings appointed by God, as an atonement for sin, consisted of animals that were slain, and whose blood was offered on their altars. "The life of the flesh is in the blood—and I have given it to you upon the altar, to make an atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes an atonement for the soul." Nothing is more obvious from the Jewish ritual, than that it was the design of God to teach his ancient church the indispensable necessity of an atonement in order to procure the forgiveness of sin. The entire history of the Jewish nation, from their deliverance out of Egypt to the final overthrow of their civil and ecclesiastical polity, is written in the blood of their sacrifices—repeated every morning and evening, on every sabbath and at every new moon, and with emphatic solemnity on the annual recurrence of the great "day of atonement;" while for sins that could not be pardoned, but were punished with death, there was no appointed expiation.
If we look into the New Testament, we find this great truth more distinctly, and, if possible, more abundantly revealed. The sufferings and death of Jesus Christ, himself the only personage in human nature against whom law and justice, either of earth or heaven, could offer no claim, cannot be accounted for under the righteous government of God, on any other principle, than that he was "cut off not for himself." Never would he have uttered that heart-rending and unanswered cry in Gethsemane, "Father, if it be possible let this cup pass from me," nor ever have bowed his head on the cross, were there any other than "redemption through his blood." "If there had been a law that could have given life, verily righteousness would have been by the law." "It became him for whom are all things, and by whom are all things, to make the Captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings." This is heaven’s high method of mercy. "Without shedding of blood
is no remission."
Nor are the reasons for this decision unrevealed. "Clouds and darkness are round about him—righteousness and judgment are the habitation of his throne." The throne of God is built and stands firm only upon the principles of righteousness and judgment. They are the place, the habitation, the basis of his government. I do not see how men can question the necessity of an atonement, who are themselves the friends of justice; who celebrate its praises as many a celestial anthem celebrates them; who feel towards it as God himself feels. Under the imperfect administration of human laws, justice may be tempered with mercy. It should be so tempered, not only because the administration is imperfect, but because it is written, "Vengeance belongs unto me, I will recompense, says the Lord."
Human laws, in their best form, are professedly and always founded upon considerations of expediency, and never graduate the punishment of the offender by the ascertained and exact measure of his ill-desert. Justice, simple justice, calls for merited punishment; and, in the Divine government, it is determined by the ill-desert of the transgressor. In men, it may be a flexible principle, and lead to a vacillating policy; but not in God. It is an essential perfection of the Divine Being. It is his nature. If there had been no creatures for him to govern, or no transgressors of his law to punish, he would still have been a Being of unchangeable, invincible justice. It belongs to his nature as truly as his spirituality, or his goodness, or his power. "You are not a God who has pleasure in wickedness—neither shall evil dwell with you." It were just as impossible for him to forgive sin in the way of sovereignty, or by any arrangement of mere expediency and general benevolence, and without regard to the claims of equity and moral principle, as it were for him to be unjust. In pardoning the guilty, his prerogatives as the sovereign are merged in his obligations as the Lawgiver. Justice demands the punishment of the transgressor, and forever stands in the way of his exercising pardon as a mere sovereign. Nor is this a fancied difficulty, nor one which any strength or ardor of love may leap over, or break through. What he once views as sinful, he always views as sinful; what he once views as deserving punishment, he always views as deserving punishment; and what he is once disposed to punish, he is always disposed to punish.
He has proclaimed this disposition in his law; nor is it a mere parade of authority, or an empty declaration, nor is it any the worse for being violated or executed. Nor is there any reason for waiving the execution of it, unless that reason be found in a satisfactory atonement. If there be good and solid reasons why the penalty should be inflicted where no atonement exists, there are the same reasons why an atonement is called for if the penalty be remitted. God was not bound to forgive; it was not necessary for him to forgive; but if he does gratify his love in acts of pardon, he owes to himself, and to that everlasting difference between right and wrong which he himself has established, to do it in a way that satisfies and supports his immutable justice.
The necessity for the sacrifice of the cross, therefore, is absolute. It is a necessity that is felt in all the stages of Christian experience; and where it is not felt, there is, there can be, no Christianity. Unbelief in Christ as a Savior is a necessary part of unbelief in God as a Judge. Men despise his mercy, because they do not respect his justice. One of the first lessons which the anxious sinner learns, is to feel his need of Christ. His conscience finds no relief, nor can it ever be disburdened of its mighty woes, except at the cross. I have never known a man awakened to a sense of his sin and danger by the Spirit of God, however loose his religious training, and however unscriptural his previous views of truth, who had not the most unqualified conviction that the cross was his only hiding-place, and who had not the utmost horror of all his former refuges of lies. The most stout-hearted sinner needs but to be under this Divine teaching, in order to feel that that sacred victim bleeding on Calvary, and he alone, can keep him from despair.
It is not, as some have supposed, an improper inquiry to be instituted, ‘How do the sufferings and death of the cross constitute an effective propitiation for sin?’ Atonement is an expiation, or an expiatory equivalent. It is that which makes amends for an offence, so that the offender may be pardoned. It is a reparation which is made by doing or suffering that which is received as a satisfaction for the injury committed. By the Christian atonement, I understand that satisfaction to Divine justice made by the sufferings and death of Christ, in the room and stead of sinners, in virtue of which pardoning mercy is secured to all who believe the gospel. It may be desirable to present a brief view of the different parts of this general position.
The propitiation of which we are speaking, consists in the sufferings and death of Christ. His instructions and his example do not form the matter of his atonement; nor ought his prophetic and priestly offices to be thus confounded. The pardon of sin is not procured except by his sufferings, by the influence of his death, and that simply by its expiatory power. To award him no other honor than that he came as a Divine teacher, is to put him upon a level with his own apostles; to take the crown from his head; to have no part in the song, "Unto him who redeemed us unto God by his blood." Whoever undertakes to atone for the sins of men must suffer. His arrangement is with penalty. As the authority of the law lies in its penalty, so the emphasis of the atonement lies in the sufferings of the Mediator. And hence the prominence which the sacred writers give to the cross. Hence it is, too, that the trembling conscience is always directed by the Spirit of God to the blood of the guiltless victim. The steady though slowly-burning flame that is lighted up in the bosom of the transgressor, is extinguished only by that fountain of sorrows. It is upon his priestly office, upon the altar where he bled, upon the ignominy and woes of the last scene and the last sighs, that Christian hope rests all her expectations.
A suffering Savior is the glory of the gospel, and involves truths which, if once subverted, would lay the Christian structure in ruins. Nor do I regard the thought as a trivial one, that the sufferings of Christ were truly and properly PENAL (punishment for sin). They were penal, and not disciplinary. Nor were they simply declaratory and instructive; for if this were their main design, I see not why they might not have been spared, nor why all the solemn lessons they read, are not read from the fiery walls of the prison where men and angels suffer to show that God is holy, and sin is vile. It is doubtless true that the sufferer did not endure the penalty, nor was the sentence of the law to the very letter executed upon him. Yet were his sufferings penal, because they were inflicted by justice, and imposed in execution of a legal sentence. They were executed in the form of justice; and, though not the penalty the law incurred, were accepted in the place of it, and as a full equivalent.
In order to constitute the sufferings of Christ an effective propitiation for sin, they were endured in the room and stead of those who themselves deserve the curse. They were truly and properly vicarious. This is a truth not free from difficulties; and had there been no revelation from heaven, we should be slow in believing it. But since God has revealed it, we receive it with adoring thankfulness, and can only express our lasting admiration of the unsearchable riches of his wisdom and mercy which it discloses.
If we look back to the covenant with Adam, we find the figure, the nucleus, the germ of this truth, in the fact that he was the representative and substitute of his race. "By the offence of one, judgment came upon all men to condemnation." The great doctrine of substitution was thus early revealed, which is perfected in the sufferings of the "Word made flesh." If man fell in the person of his representative, why may not a representative, in carrying into effect the same economy of grace, suffer for him? Both these Divine arrangements stand or fall together.
We do not mean, by substitution, a transfer of the moral character of the transgressor to the representative; for this is impossible. The sins of men did not and could not make Christ a sinner. Nor is there anything in this substitution that removes personal criminality from the transgressor; for no substitution, no personal punishment even, can ever make the guilty innocent. A vicarious sacrifice does not diminish or palliate the criminality of sin, much less take it away. It assumes the sinner’s obligation to punishment. The substitution of Christ imports that the sins of the transgressor are set down to his account, and so imputed to him that he endures the punishment of them in the transgressor’s place. He stands in law just where the sinner stands, and takes upon himself its curse. The penal debt of the believer is thus cancelled, and his account with the law settled by the sufferings of his Surety.
Such was most certainly the significance of the sacrifices under the levitical law. They were substituted for the offerer; the offerer deserved to die, and the innocent victim stood in his place. The whole transaction indicated that the punishment due to the offender was transferred to the appointed sacrifice; and its great design was a significant prefiguration of that great act of Divine justice which imposed upon the Lamb of God, sins not his own. "Surely," says the prophet, "he has borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows. The Lord has laid upon him the iniquity of us all." The memorable words of the Savior to his disciples, at the institution of the supper, were, "This cup is the New Testament in my blood, which is shed for you." "He suffered," says the apostle, "the just for the unjust;" he "bore our sins in his own body on the tree;" he was "made a curse for us."
The manner in which the death of Christ is connected with the forgiveness of sins, is therefore clearly revealed. The weakest and the strongest believer, the most holy and the most imperfect child of God, have remission of sins only because his sufferings come in place of theirs. If the Scriptures give any definite information on this great subject—a subject on which of all others they are full and explicit—they teach that the undeserved sufferings of the cross come in the place of the deserved sufferings of all those who by faith make this sacrifice their own, and that they are thus regarded and accepted by the great Lawgiver. I have yet to learn the only foundation of a sinner’s hope—if it be not in the penal suffering and death of Christ, in the room and stead of the guilty, and as an accepted satisfaction to the justice of God.
I have said that the cross is an effective propitiation for sin; and by this is meant that there is that in the death of Christ which possesses this expiatory power. The substitution of the innocent for the guilty is a singular fact in the history of the Divine government. It is no ordinary procedure. Nothing like it has ever existed. "It seems to stand by itself, an insulated department of Divine Providence." It originated with the offended Lawgiver, and was sanctioned in the counsels of his own profound and unsearchable wisdom. It was no injustice to the Sufferer of Calvary, because, on his part, it was perfectly voluntary; the relation he bore both to Deity and humanity eminently qualified him for this arduous work; while the infinite excellence of his Divine character imparted a consideration, a value to his intense and unequaled sufferings, that rendered them an all-sufficient and effective propitiation "through faith in his blood."
The sentence of the law is, "The soul that sins, it shall die;" and the voice of the archangel, the sign of the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven, the irrevocable sentence and the lake of fire, proclaim what that death shall be. And it is no more than justice, and the sinner’s due. The transgressor is bound in justice to suffer the penalty for his sins, and the Lawgiver is bound in justice to inflict it. It is by thus punishing the sinner according to his ill-desert, that the claims of eternal justice are asserted; the foundation of the eternal throne stands firm, and the assurance made sure, that the "wages of sin is death."
The sufferings of Christ constitute an effective propitiation for sin by securing these high and important ends. The Divine Lawgiver himself being Judge, there is the same justice in the death of his Son that were found in executing the penalty of the law with rigid impartiality upon the person of the transgressor. When Zaleucus, the Italian lawgiver, enacted the law that adultery should be punished with blindness, and his own son was the first transgressor, he honored the law by putting out one of the eyes of his son, and one of his own. Imperfect as the resemblance is, this was a sort of atonement, because it showed that rather than the law should remain unexecuted, the lawgiver himself would share the penalty with the offender.
The selected substitute in this great redemption was not one in whom the Eternal Father had no interest, and to whom he felt no attachment. It was not an enemy, it was no alien to the court of heaven, nor was it the loftiest and most favored of adoring angels, that descended from the high and holy place to direct his way towards Calvary and the curse. It was God, with and like himself, distinctly comprehending the greatness and bitterness of the work he had undertaken, "traveling in the greatness of his strength," and in his own agonies furnishing a complete payment of the claims of inflexible justice, such as was never seen before, and will never be repeated.
We have already told the story of the cross; but how little do we know of that bitter cup, conscious as the mighty Sufferer was of his majesty as God, and his lowliness as a worm, emptied of all his glory, unsupported and alone in his tremendous conflict with the powers of darkness! The law he had undertaken to satisfy showed him no mercy; and in vain do we search the annals of the universe for justice—if it be not here. We look to the cross, and feel that God is just. Nor can we resist the impression that the same justice which awoke against the Son, if directed against the guilty, would kindle a flame that never could be quenched. In its efficacy in accomplishing the great ends of law, of justice—the propitiation of the cross is not surpassed by the literal execution of the penalty of the law. Does the law show that God is just? so does the cross. Does the law proclaim the sinner’s ill desert? so does the cross. Is the law the appointed guardian and protector of the Divine government? so is the cross. Is the law the unsleeping preserver of the order and security of the universe? so is the cross. Does the sacredness of the Divine character, and its uncompromising rectitude, and its consuming jealousy, and its stainless honor, shine in all fearful radiance in the law? so do they shine in equal, in superior splendor in the cross.
This then is one of the attractions of the cross. Here is the religion of conscience, because there is here an effective propitiation for sin. Conscience, which, with so much agitation and anxiety, looks elsewhere in vain, here finds the repose it seeks for. This oppressive burden, these inward convictions of guilt, are relieved by the assurance that "the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanses us from all sin." That blood of the everlasting covenant, while it makes the conscience more sensitive and tender, at the same time renders it tranquil, because it is the unfailing token of peace with God.
As a sinner who deserves to die, and uttering the messages of mercy to my fellows in sin and guilt, I love to dwell on this great characteristic of the cross, "a just God and a Savior." It discloses a "new era in the government of God, and a new creation to the hopes of men." It unfolds that deep design, the reconciliation of justice and mercy. The eternal throne henceforth rests on this mountain of the covenant; and though justice still guards it by her even balances, and her flaming sword, mercy is its highest ornament. Parted at the primeval apostasy, mercy and justice meet at the cross, there to mingle their exultations in the pardon of the guilty—through the atonement of the guiltless.
I know not what interest the reader feels in this view of the cross of Christ. The great atonement is a work that is finished, and the scene now lies on the page of history. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so has the Son of man been lifted up. But it is not like the history of other facts, in which we had nothing to do, and in which we ourselves did not bear a part. No living man has the warrant thus to sever himself from the cross of Jesus; nor can he do it, but by his own voluntary and cherished unbelief. Like the cloud in the wilderness, the cross has a dark and a bright side; but its dark side is towards its enemies. If you would not be numbered with its enemies, go up and lay your hand on the head of its guiltless sufferer. And though you were the malefactor at his side, Jesus would hear the cry, "Lord, remember me, when you come into your kingdom!"
The cross should banish despair. Is it not enough that "Christ has died?" Is it not enough that the believer, instead of paying the penalty of the law himself, may present the sufferings of Christ? Justice asks no more than what faith thus offers. Does conscience, with her voice of thunder, still proclaim that you deserve to die? There is One who died for you. The cross says to the believer, that if there is One who died for him, in that very death he himself died. The law is satisfied with the substitution. "Christ is the end of the law to every one who believes." "There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus." Faith may be confident here. No, she may triumph, and hold aloft her deed of absolution sealed with blood. The cross should prevail over unbelief and despair. It should enkindle hopes that never wither, and are full of immortality. Shame on this weakness! "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?"
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