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REASON FOR NOT RESTING IN THE CONCEPTION OF THE
NATURE OF THE ATONEMENT ON WHICH THESE SYSTEMS
THE idea that the Divinity of our Lord was a pre
requisite to the atonement, because it made the endurance in time of infinite penal sufferings—sufferings therefore commensurate with the eternal sufferings which were the doom of sin--possible, has, as we have seen, been felt repulsive; and it has been thought a worthier conception to regard the personal dignity of Christ as giving infinite value to His sufferings, without relation at all to their amount. Yet the immeasurably great, if not infinite amount of Christ's sufferings is still dwelt upon; nor is any attempt made on the ground of the dignity of the sufferer to weaken the impression which the sacred narrative had hitherto been felt to give of what was endured by the man of sorrows, and more especially of the awful and mysterious agony in the garden and on the cross. Faithfulness to the inspired record is not alone the explanation of this. The awful conceptions of the Saviour's sufferings which have from the beginning entered into men's thoughts of the atonement, have been so manifestly at the foundation of the apprehensions of the divine wrath against sin, and the divine mercy towards sinners, which the faith of the atonement has quickened in men, that it could not but be felt, that to lower these conceptions would be to lessen the power of the atonement on human spirits. But the truth is, that however much it may be felt that the dignity of the sufferer gave infinite
value to any suffering to which He submitted, and however true it is—and it is most true—that infinitely less than we believe our Saviour to have suffered for us would, being believingly apprehended by us as expressing our preciousness to the heart of God, inspire in us hope towards God; and however much, on the other hand, we may feel repelled by that weighing in scales of the sufferings of the Son of God, and the sufferings of the damned, in which their conceptions of divine justice and of the atonement which it demanded, engaged the earlier Calvinists, the sufferings of Christ arose so naturally out of what He was, and the relation in which He stood to those for whose sins He suffered, that though His divine nature might be conceived of as giving them weight, however small in themselves, yet, to that very divine nature must we refer their awful intensity, and, to us, immeasurable amount. The necessity which has, as we have seen, been felt alike by earlier and later Calvinists, in attempting to specify the elements of the Saviour's sufferings, to keep within the limits indicated by who and what He was that suffered, has obliged them to recognise holiness and love as what in Christ made the sources of pain specified, sources of pain to Him; and if the sinfulness of sin, and the misery to which it exposed sinners, were painful to Christ because of His holiness and love, then must they have been painful in proportion to His holiness and love.
But there is a further and a still more important thought which these details, on which (in much reverence of spirit, I believe, and love to Him who was their hope) these men of God have ventured, seem to me fitted to suggest. What I have felt-and the more I consider it, feel the morem-is, surprise that the atoning element in the sufferings pictured, has
been to their minds sufferings as sufferings, the pain and agony as pain and agony. It no doubt arose out of the conception that the sufferings endured was the punishment of our sin,-endured for us by our substitute,—that the pain present should as pain become the prominent object of attention. But my surprise is not that, believing the sufferings contemplated to be strictly penal—a punishment, the pain as pain should be the chief object of attention, being indeed that for which alone, on this view, a necessity existed; but my surprise is, that these sufferings being contemplated as an atonement for sin, the holiness and love seen taking the form of suffering should not be recognised as the atoning elements—the very essence and adequacy of the sacrifice for sin presented to our faith.
President Edwards seems to have put this question to himself, “Christ being what He was, how could God, when imputing the sins of the elect to Him, lay the weight of these sins upon Him and punish Him for them, subjecting Him to the infinite suffering which was their due?” And he has answered thus:-“Christ being infinitely holy, God was able to cause Him to feel the awful weight of the sins of the elect by revealing their sins to Him in the spirit-so bringing Him under a weight and pressure of these sins to be measured by His holiness ;—thus God laid the sins of the elect on Christ:-and again, Christ loving the elect with a perfect love, God was able,—by bearing in upon Christ's spirit the perfect realisation of what these objects of His love were exposed to suffer,—to make, through His love to them, their conceived-of suffering, real, infinite suffering to Him.” In this way God is represented, not only as punishing the innocent for the guilty, but as, in doing so, availing Himself of a capacity of enduring pain which consisted in the perfection of holiness and love,
-pain endured by holiness through being holiness, and by love through being love, being represented as the punishment inflicted.
Now, while it is easy to realise that the sin of those whom He came to save, and the misery to which through sin they were obnoxious, being present to the spirit of Christ, these would press upon Him with a weight and affect Him with an intensity of suffering, proportioned to His hatred to sin and love to sinners; and while in respect of the suffering thus arising, the sufferer is seen, to be a sacrifice,--and a sacrifice in which if we meditate upon it, it seems to me that we may see atoning virtue ;-yet it seems to me impossible to contemplate the agony of holiness and love in the realisation of the evil of sin and of the misery of sinners, as penal suffering. Let my reader endeavour to realise the thought :-The sufferer suffers what he suffers just through seeing sin and sinners with God's eyes, and feeling in reference to them with God's heart. Is such suffering a punishment? Is God, in causing such a divine experience in humanity, inflicting a punishment? There can be but one answer.
Reflecting on this answer, and seeing it to be impossible to regard suffering, of which such is the nature, as penal, I find myself forced to distinguish between an atoning sacrifice for sin and the enduring as a substitute the punishment due to sin,-being shut up to the conclusion, that while Christ suffered for our sins as an atoning sacrifice, what He suffered was not–because from its nature it could not be—a punishment. I say, I find myself shut up to this conclusion, and that I am obliged to recognise a distinction between an atonement for sin and substituted punishment-a distinction, the necessity of which might have been expected to force itself upon the attention of those who, in endeavouring to conceive of Christ's sufferings, have found themselves constrained to seek for these in the region of holiness and love-divine holiness and divine love,-feeling in humanity towards man and man's sin and man's misery through sin what in God they eternally feel.
Reader, permit me to ask you to pause here and consider what the question is to which I have led your mind. It is not a question as to the fact of an atonement for sin. It is not a question as to the amount of the sufferings of Christ in making atonement. It is not a question as to the elements of these sufferings. It is not so even between me and those who believe in the imputation of our sin to Christ in the strictest sense. Even they introduce no element into His consciousness which amounted to His being in His own apprehension the personal object of divine wrath. The question to which I have led you is this: The sufferings of Christ in making His soul an offering for sin being what they were, was it the pain as pain, and as a penal infliction, or was it the pain as a condition and form of holiness and love under the pressure of our sin and its consequent misery, that is presented to our faith as the essence of the sacrifice and its atoning yirtue?
The distinction on which this question turns appears to me all-important in our inquiry into the nature of the atonement, and we shall be greatly helped by keeping it steadily in view; for my conviction is, that the larger and the more comprehensive of all its bearings our thoughts of the atonement become, the more clear will it appear to us, that it was the spiritual essence and nature of the sufferings of Christ, and not that these sufferings were penal, which constituted their value as entering into the atonement made by the Son of God when He put away sin by