The Sufferings of Christ Absolutely Unintelligible
If Not an Ample and Special Atonement
Of all the great truths of the gospel respecting which a diversity of opinion exists in the church of God, probably none, either in ancient or modern times, have occasioned more numerous and more lengthened controversies than the great doctrine of the atonement. This may be accounted for both by the importance of the doctrine itself, and by the fact that its place in the system of divine truth necessarily affects the validity of every form of religious belief, of which it forms an essential component part.
The theories advanced by theologians in relation to this cardinal truth, are almost endless, and some of them, to say the least, are plausible and fascinating to the mind. We have long, however, been firmly of opinion that the subject of these revived speculations, stripped of the drapery with which it has been clothed, resolves itself into a question of atonement or no atonement. The controversy on this subject in relation to the Unitarian heresy, has invariably taken this form, and if we are not greatly mistaken, the arguments which for centuries have been successfully employed in demolishing the strongholds of Socinianism are equally subversive of every theory of the atonement which admits not, to the fullest extent, the punitive inflictions of Divine Justice as the legitimate result of the personal, proper, and actual transfer of sin and guilt to the great Surety.
The argument is stated in the following paragraph, in reply to the Socinian hypothesis:—’Yes, I repeat, that on your theory, the death of Christ is an utterly incomprehensible enigma; we cannot assign, we cannot imagine, any reason for a sacrifice at once so costly, yet to gratuitous. In Christ we have the only example (yourself being witness) of Perfect faultless innocence which has ever been exhibited to the world, and we see him through life, involved in the deepest shades of sorrow, and subjected to a death of terrible and mysterious agonies!
Perfect holiness, perfect obedience to God, perfect love to man, requited with more scorn and oppressed with more suffering, than ever the foulest guilt in this world was ever subject to. And all for — what? For nothing, absolutely nothing, that is intelligible. You tell me that He suffered as an example to us. As an example! An example of what? Was it as an example of this, that the more men obey and love God, the darker may be the Divine frown, and the greater the liability to suffer under the incomprehensible mysteries of the Divine administration. So that if we were to become absolutely perfect as Christ was, that moment we might reach the climax of misery. That He who was alone ‘without spot,’ was condemned to the worst doom; so, for aught we can infer from such an example, innocence and happiness may be in inverse proportion. If you say, he suffered to show us with what sweetness and patience we ought to suffer, you forget that not only would less than such bitterness as his teach that lesson, but that his suffering so much more than we do, with no guilt, his own or ours, to cause it, unteaches the lesson; it unhinges our trust in the Divine equity altogether.
You forget, it seems to me, that there is a double aspect in these sufferings. How do they affect our apprehensions of God? Can we reconcile it with that benignity and equity for which you are so jealous, to visit perfect innocence with more sorrow than guilt, merely to show the guilty how they ought to learn to bear a just punishment? I assure you that on such a theory of the Divine administration, the death of Christ is to me the darkest blot on the Divine government— the most melancholy and perplexing phenomenon of the universe—the most gratuitous apparent departure from rectitude and equity with which the spectacle of the Divine conduct presents us.’
The above is an extract from Letters on the Atonement, contained in the recently published correspondence of R. E. H. Greyson, Esq., a gentleman obviously possessing talents of a varied and superior order. The quotation is presented to our readers chiefly for the sake of the argument therein contained in support of the really vicarious and substitutory nature of the atonement, not only as affecting the Socinian hypothesis, but as being opposed to all those generalizing views of that doctrine which distinguish and diversify the creeds of many of our ministers and churches in the present day.
The argument, we contend, is complete. The reasoning on the ground of the Divine equity, against the sufferings of a perfectly innocent person (unless as a substitute for the guilty), is of the greatest force. But not only on the Socinian theory, a theory which rejects, in every sense, the idea of a substitution as pertaining to the Redeemer’s sufferings, is the death of Christ ‘an utterly incomprehensible enigma;’ but on any and every theory of divine substitution which abnegates and excludes the actual imputation of sin to the Divine Sufferer, the ‘terrible and mysterious agonies’ he endured are perfectly ‘unintelligible,’ and totally irreconcilable with the Divine ‘benignity and equity’
We contend that upon no other principle than that of imputation, i.e. the legal and actual transfer of sin and guilt to our sinless and blessed Lord, can the benignity of Jehovah’s character be established, or the equity of his government be maintained.
If it be denied that by a sovereign imputation act of the Divine Father, the sins of the church were so ‘laid upon him,’ as to be placed to his account, charged upon him, and consequently followed by the infliction of the full measure of punishment due to the transgressors, we not only demur to the ‘ benignity’ which characterises such a procedure as his death presents, but we challenge the advocates of any modified view of the atonement of Christ to show the equity of the transaction, or that it is anything else than an ‘utterly incomprehensible enigma.’
Every theory of the sacrifice and sufferings of the great Redeemer, as based on what is called ‘Divine expediency,’ or the demands of ‘public justice,’ and comprehending a ‘universal sufficiency of merit’ for the salvation of the whole world—every view of the sufferings and death of Christ that excludes the substitutionary element —that denies the legal imputation and attachment of guilt to the great Surety, and ignores the punitive character of the awful chastisement he endured — as truly invalidates the atonement of the Saviour, as does the hypothesis which, while it admits the fact of his great sufferings, denies their vicarious nature and design. Such a representation of the death of ‘the Man of Sorrows,’ while it repudiates the only principle of which his sufferings could have been justly inflicted, equally with the Socinian theory, leaves the subject involved in inexplicable mystery, and exhibits that feature of the Divine administration, ‘as the most melancholy and perplexing phenomenon in the universe.’
The question, be it remembered, does not simply refer to the value of the sufferings endured, but it also relates to the righteousness of the sufferings inflicted on Him who ‘was made sin for us; ‘had our iniquities ‘ laid on him;’ and thus ‘bare our sins in his oven body on the tree.’ When we are told that our dear Lord was subjected to a death of ‘terrible and mysterious agonies,’ without any personal contact with the iniquity of those for whom he died — when it is contended that the death of Christ was simply a ‘Divine expedient’ designed to illustrate the holiness of God; to teach us the exceeding sinfulness of sin; to supersede the necessity of punitive inflictions altogether, and to disclose a system of ‘commutative,’ or ‘public justice,’ on the ground of which some men will be indubitably saved, and the salvation of all rendered possible—when such is the representation of sufferings surpassing all that the ‘foulest guilt in this world was ever subjected to,’ we are led to demand, Why were such ‘terrible and mysterious agonies’ inflicted?
Would not less, ‘far less than such bitterness as his’ have sufficed to express Jehovah’s displeasure at sin, to accomplish the ‘Divine expedient’ and to establish the claims of ‘public justice,’ in the salvation of men? Whatever may be intended by this figment of ‘commutative justice,’ something less must be signified by it than the full claims of Jehovah’s law in relation to the sinner; and it is clearly an evasion of the irrevocable demands of the justice of God, and involves a compromise of the rights of the Divine moral government.
Therefore the argument so triumphantly urged against the Socinian doctrine, is founded upon the very principle for which we contend in opposition to the above objectionable theory of the sufferings and death of Christ, viz. THE ESSENTIAL CONNEXION BETWEEN SUFFERING AND SIN. The sufferings of Christ, it is justly remarked, ‘have double aspect.’ They necessarily ‘affect our apprehensions of God.’ But if, on any theory, the infliction of those sufferings is attempted to be vindicated on any principle that excludes the personal and actual imputation of offence, whatever ‘lesson’ such a transaction may be supposed to teach, it is a fact that such an infliction of sufferings without sin and guilt by imputation attaching to the victim, at once ‘unleashes the lesson’ thereby taught, and ‘unhinges our trust in the Divine equity altogether.’ Upon such a theory of the Divine administration, ‘the death of Christ appears to us to be the darkest blot an the Divine government—the most melancholy and perplexing phenomenon of the universe — the most gratuitous apparent departure from the rectitude and equity with which the spectacle of the Divine conduct presents us.’
While, therefore, modern theories of the atonement of Christ exclude the very principle on which the essence of so atonement must necessarily be founded, we reject them as ‘ absolutely unintelligible,’ and enigmatical. They may be advocated as being in harmony with the genius of the gospel, and as adapted to the present age, but they are utterly subversive of the doctrine of distinguishing grace and the claims of eternal righteousness. ‘We hear,’ says an able writer, ‘much now-a-days of adapting preaching to the age in which we live, and if by that be meant the sterner and more rigid Christian system of by-gone ages, I say let us have it, but if by “adaptation” be meant more philosophy and less Christianity— more mystic spiritualism and less evangelical simplicity — may God in his mercy save us from it.’