The Need to be Met.
The cross of Christ is the central fact in the history of man. To it all former ages pointed on; from it all future ones take shape and character. Eternity, no less than time, is ruled by it: Christ is the "Father of Eternity." (Isa. 9:6, Heb.) The new creation owns Him as last Adam, of whom the failed first man was but the type and contrast. The wisdom, the grace, and the glory of God are displayed, for the ceaseless adoration of infinite hosts of free and gladsome worshipers, in this work and its results.
The doctrine of atonement is thus the centre and heart of divine truth. Unsoundness here will be fatal to the character of all that we hold for truth, and in exact proportion to the measure of its unsoundness. Again, all fundamental error elsewhere will find, of necessity, its reflection and counterpart in some false view of atonement, if consistently carried out. Thank God, this is often not the case, because the heart is often sounder than the creed; but this, while admitted fully, scarcely affects, for a Christian, the seriousness of such a consideration.
In taking up this subject for examination, we must remember the gravity of such a theme; one in which a mere critical spirit will be as much at fault as out of place; where we must be, not judges, but worshipers, yet thoroughly alive to the importance of testing by the Word of God every thing presented. The blessedness of a devout and believing contemplation of the work to which we owe our all will be at least proportionate to the gravity of error as to it; while our preservative from this will be found, not in neglect or slight treatment of so great and important a truth, but in deeper, more attentive and prayerful consideration.
Here, too, we have to avoid, as elsewhere, the opposite dangers of an independent and a weakly dependent spirit. We dare not call any man master, for One is our Master, even Christ. On the other hand, and for that very reason, we dare not despise His teaching, even were it from the babe. There is need continually to remind ourselves of this, simple as it surely is. For while the multitudinous voices of Christendom rebuke our belief in the authority which they claim, we cannot doubt that the Spirit of truth has been communicating truth in proportion to the simplicity of the faith that trusted Him. We may listen to and gain by teachers just in the measure that we realize the apostle's words, that we have an unction from the Holy One, and need not that any man teach us.
Let us take up, then, the great subject before us, and see reverently what we may be able to learn from Scripture as to it, not refusing to consider along with this, as it may seem profitable, current views, not for controversy on a theme so sacred; testing for the gold and not the dross. The failure of others, where we may have to judge they fail, should surely only serve the purpose of making us cling more humbly, but not less confidently, to the Hand that alone can lead us safely. Just as the works of God need the Sustainer still, so does the word of revelation still need the Revealer.
Before we come to consider the fact and truth of atonement, we have need, first of all, to consider the necessity that exists for it. That it was absolutely necessary, Scripture settles decisively for him that will listen to it. "For as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so MUST also the Son of Man be lifted up, that whosoever believeth on Him should not perish, but have everlasting life." Nothing can be plainer, nothing more authoritative, than such an announcement from the lips of Him who came into the world to meet the need that He declares. Whatever is implied in that lifting up of the Son of Man, — the cross, most assuredly, — was necessary for man's salvation: and that the cross was an atonement, or propitiation, for our sins, I need not pause to insist on now.
But while the necessity of the cross is thus put far beyond dispute for all such as I am writing for at this time, it is still needful to inquire, What is the nature of that necessity. It is to our need that God reveals Himself, and as meeting it, while more than meeting it, that He has glorified Himself forever; and to know His grace, we must know the state to which it answers. It is thus that through repentance we come to faith in the gospel. Scripture alone gives the knowledge, in any adequate way, even of man's condition; it is well if we do not resist God's judgment when He has given it.
Man is a fallen being: all have sinned; and all are "by nature children of wrath." In the order of statement, in that epistle which takes up most fully what we are, as prefatory to the unfolding of that salvation which is its theme, the first is insisted on first, and as if wholly independent of the other. Men excuse their sins by their nature, with how little truth their own consciences are witness; for what they excuse in themselves they condemn in another, and especially if it be done against themselves. God has taken care that within us we should carry a voice which sophistry can never completely silence, and which asserts our responsibility, spite of our natures, for every sin of our hearts or lives. In that day to which conscience ever points, "the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ," He "will render to every man according to [not his nature, but] his deeds." And for which of his deeds could he excuse himself with truth by the plea that he could not help it? Surely not for one. The free-will of which man boasts comes in here to testify fearfully against him. His nature, whatever its corruption, is not, in the sense in which he pleads, prohibitory of good or obligatory to evil. Conscience, anticipating the righteous judgment of God, refuses to admit the validity of such a plea. It is the intuitive conviction of every soul that sins, that for that sin it is justly liable to judgment.
On this ground it is that the law brings in — every man for his own sins, — "all the world guilty before God." In all that part of Romans, from the first to the middle of the fifth chapter, in which this as to man is taken up, the apostle will raise no question as to his nature, — speaks as yet no word of Adam or the fall. Before he can bring it forward at all, it must be absolutely settled that as all have sinned, so "all have come short of the glory of God." That which for Israel the impassable wall of the holiest declared, is what is affirmed by the gospel as to all, without exception. It is upon this common basis of judgment lying upon all, that justification for the ungodly is proclaimed to all.
The question of nature comes in in the second part of the epistle, in connection with the power for a new life. It is after man's guilt, proved to be universal, is met, for all that believe, by the precious blood of Christ, and "being justified by faith, we have peace with God," our standing in grace, "and rejoice in hope of the glory of God," that the apostle goes on to compare and contrast the first Adam and his work with Him of whom he is the type: "Wherefore as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin, and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned; . . . therefore as by the offense of one [or by one offense] toward all men to condemnation, so by one righteousness toward all men for justification of life. For as indeed by the disobedience of the one man the many have been constituted sinners, so also by the obedience of the One the many will be constituted righteous." (I quote this from a version more literal than our common one, which is very faulty here.) Afterward, this corruption of constitution is fully dealt with, and the remedy for it shown; but of this it is not yet the place to speak.
It is evident, however, that this increases the gravity of man's condition immensely. The apostle, following the Lord's own words to Nicodemus, calls this fallen nature of flesh, stamping it thus as the degradation of the spiritual being which God had created, hopeless naturally, as the Lord's words imply: "That which is born of the flesh is flesh." The apostle states it thus: "The mind of the flesh is enmity toward God, for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be; so then they that are in the flesh cannot please God."
With the many questions which spring out of this we are not now concerned; but such are the solemn declarations of Scripture, with which all the facts of observation and experience coincide. For man thus guilty and alienated from God, atonement is necessary ere there can be mercy. "Deliver him from going down into the pit" must have this as its justification: "I have found a ransom."
The penalty upon sin is the necessary expression of His essential holiness. He can neither go on with sin nor ignore it; and this is a question not alone of His government, but of His nature also. To be a holy governor, He must be a holy God. Government would be simply impossible for God that did not represent aright His personal character. If, then, in His government He cannot let sin escape, it is because the holiness of His nature forbids such an escape. This we shall find to be of very great importance when we come to the consideration of what the atonement is; but it is important to realize from the outset. Law, what ever its place, can never be the whole matter; while yet its enactments must be in harmony with the deeper truth upon which it rests.
"To men it is appointed once to die, but after this the judgment." This is the inspired statement as to what he naturally lies under. Both these things have to be considered in their character and meaning, for as to both of them many a mistake has been made.
Death entered into the world by the sin of Adam. It is not necessary to take this as applying to the lower creatures. No express word of Scripture affirms this, and the whole web and woof of nature seems to contradict the thought. Life, without a miracle to prevent it, must be destroyed continually, apart from all question of carnivorous beasts or birds, by the mere tramp of our feet over the earth, in the air we breathe, the water we drink, the plants or fruits we consume. The herbivorous animals thus destroy life scarcely less than the carnivorous. Scripture, too, speaks of the "natural brute beasts" as "made to be taken and destroyed," and of "man being in honor and understanding not becoming like the beasts that perish." But unto the world — the human world, — by one man sin entered, and death by sin; "and so death passed upon all men [he speaks only of man], for that all have sinned." It is the stamp of God's holy government upon sin; the outward mark of inward ruin.
This death which came in through sin we must distinguish from the judgment after death, as the apostle distinguishes them in the text already quoted. This has not always been done, and yet not to do it is to make difficult what is simple, and to obscure not a little the perfection of the divine ways. The sentence upon Adam was not a final sentence, but one in which the mercy is evident amid all the severity of righteous judgment. Without the ministration of death, sad as has been the history of the world, it would have been much sadder; but upon this I do not now need to pause. The sentence on Adam is sufficiently clear from what is actually passed upon him after the transgression, and whose meaning no one can doubt: — "Until thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken; for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return." Of the second death this may be, and is, a type, and a warning: but no more.
Again, to confound the penalty upon sin with sin itself would seem almost impossible did we not know that it had been really done. It is true that man's sinful state is spoken of as death — a "death in trespasses and sins." But unless God could inflict sin as such, which is impossible, this would turn the penalty into a prophecy merely. The testimony of conscience should be enough in such a case; but the words of the sentence when actually given, as I have just now quoted them, should preclude the possibility of doubt.
Yet here too it is a type — the outward manifestation of the state to which it answers; for as the body without the spirit corrupts into sensible abomination, so with man away from God.
Death is judgment; to the natural man, how solemn an one! smiting him through the very centre of his sensitive being, and sending him forth from every thing he knows and values into a gloom surcharged with the foulness of corruption, and with the terrors of God, to which he goes forth naked and alone.
Death is judgment, but not "the judgment." For this, the "resurrection of judgment" must have come in, — judgment claiming for this the body as well as the spirit — the whole man, in short. And here, that separation from God, chosen by the soul itself, becomes manifest in its true horror, and its definitive portion forever. This is the "outer darkness," when God the light of life is withdrawn forever.
But not in every sense withdrawn. For the second death is not only darkness, though it is darkness. The second death is none the less the "lake of fire:" a figure indeed, but none the less fearful because a figure: "our God is a consuming fire." Worse than withdrawn, the light has become fire. For God cannot forget, cannot simply ignore: where sin is, there must be the testimony of His undying anger against it. Here, "according to the deeds done in the body," there is the searching, discriminating apportionment of absolute righteousness.
Death then, and after death the judgment: this is man's natural portion; these are the two things from which he needs to be delivered. For judgment he cannot abide; if he dream of the possibility of it, it is but a dream: "Enter not into judgment with Thy servant, O Lord; for in Thy sight shall no man living be justified." This is what Scripture with one voice affirms. If it were but believed, how many wrong thoughts would it not set right! how many theological systems would it not utterly sweep away!
This, then, is the portion of man as man: this is the burden that atonement has to lift from off him.