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Bible Dictionaries

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


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the satisfaction offered to divine justice by the death of Christ for the sins of mankind, by virtue of which all true penitents who believe in Christ are personally reconciled to God, are freed from the penalty of their sins, and entitled to eternal life. The atonement for sin made by the death of Christ, is represented in the Christian system as the means by which mankind may be delivered from the awful catastrophe of eternal death; from judicial inflictions of the displeasure of a Governor, whose authority has been contemned, and whose will has been resisted, which shall know no mitigation in their degree, nor bound to their duration.

This end it professes to accomplish by means which, with respect to the Supreme Governor himself, preserve his character from mistake, and maintain the authority of his government; and with respect to man, give him the strongest possible reason for hope, and render more favourable the condition of his earthly probation. These are considerations which so manifestly show, from its own internal constitution, the superlative importance and excellence of Christianity, that it would be exceedingly criminal to overlook them.

How sin may be forgiven without leading to such misconceptions of the divine character as would encourage disobedience, and thereby weaken the influence of the divine government, must be considered as a problem of very difficult solution. A government which admitted no forgiveness, would sink the guilty to despair; a government which never punishes offence, is a contradiction,—it cannot exist. Not to punish the guilty, is to dissolve authority; to punish without mercy, is to destroy, and where all are guilty, to make the destruction universal. That we cannot sin with impunity, is a matter determined. The Ruler of the world is not careless of the conduct of his creatures; for that penal consequences are attached to the offence, is not a subject of argument, but is matter of fact evident by daily observation of the events and circumstances of the present life. It is a principle therefore already laid down, that the authority of God must be preserved; but it ought to be remarked, that in that kind of administration which restrains evil by penalty, and encourages obedience by favour and hope, we and all moral creatures are the interested parties, and not the divine Governor himself, whom, because of his independent and all- sufficient nature, our transgressions cannot injure. The reasons, therefore, which compel him to maintain his authority do not terminate in himself. If he treats offenders with severity, it is for our sake, and for the sake of the moral order of the universe, to which sin, if encouraged by a negligent administration, or by an entire or frequent impunity, would be the source of endless disorder and misery; and if the granting of pardon to offence be strongly and even severely guarded, so that no less a satisfaction could be accepted than the death of God's own Son, we are to refer this to the moral necessity of the case as arising out of the general welfare of accountable creatures, liable to the deep evil of sin, and not to any reluctance on the part of our Maker to forgive, much less to any thing vindictive in his nature,—charges which have been most inconsiderately and unfairly said to be implied in the doctrine of Christ's vicarious sufferings. If it then be true, that the release of offending man from future punishment, and his restoration to the divine favour, ought, for the interests of mankind themselves, and for the instruction and caution of other beings, to be so bestowed, that no license shall be given to offence;—

that God himself, whilst he manifests his compassion, should not appear less just, less holy, than he really is;—that his authority should be felt to be as compelling, and that disobedience should as truly, though not unconditionally, subject us to the deserved penalty, as though no hope of forgiveness had been exhibited;—we ask, On what scheme, save that which is developed in the New Testament, are these necessary conditions provided for? Necessary they are, unless we contend for a license and an impunity which shall annul all good government in the universe, a point for which no reasonable man will contend; and if so, then we must allow that there is strong internal evidence of the truth of the doctrine of Scripture, when it makes the offer of pardon consequent only upon the securities we have before mentioned. If it be said, that sin may be pardoned in the exercise of the divine prerogative, the reply is, that if this prerogative were exercised toward a part of mankind only, the passing by of the rest would be with difficulty reconciled to the divine character; and if the benefit were extended to all, government would be at an end. This scheme of bringing men within the exercise of a merciful prerogative, does not therefore meet the obvious difficulty of the case; nor is it improved by confining the act of grace only to repentant criminals. For in the immediate view of danger, what offender, surrounded with the wreck of former enjoyments, feeling the vanity of guilty pleasures, now past for ever, and beholding the approach of the delayed penal visitation, but would repent? Were the principle of granting pardon to repentance to regulate human governments, every criminal would escape, and judicial forms would become a subject for ridicule. Nor is it recognised by the divine Being in his conduct to men in the present state, although in this world punishments are not final and absolute. Repentance does not restore health injured by intemperance; property, wasted by profusion; or character, once stained by dishonourable practices. If repentance alone could secure pardon, then all must be pardoned, and government dissolved, as in the case of forgiveness by the exercise of mere prerogative; but if an arbitrary selection be made, then different and discordant principles of government are introduced into the divine administration, which is a derogatory supposition.

The question proposed abstractedly, How may mercy be extended to offending creatures, the subjects of the divine government, without encouraging vice, by lowering the righteous and holy character of God, and the authority of his government, in the maintenance of which the whole universe of beings are interested? is, therefore, at once one of the most important and one of the most difficult that can employ the human mind. None of the theories which have been opposed, to Christianity affords a satisfactory solution of the problem. They assume principles either destructive of moral government, or which cannot, in the circumstances of man, be acted upon. The only answer is found in the Holy Scriptures. They alone show, and, indeed, they alone profess to show, how God may be "just," and yet the "justifier" of the ungodly. Other schemes show how he may be merciful; but the difficulty does not lie there. The Gospel meets it, by declaring "the righteousness of God," at the same time that it proclaims his mercy. The voluntary sufferings of the Divine Son of God "for us," that is, in our room and stead, magnify the justice of God; display his hatred to sin; proclaim "the exceeding sinfulness" of transgression, by the deep and painful manner in which they were inflicted upon the Substitute; warn the persevering offender of the terribleness, as well as the certainty, of his punishment; and open the gates of salvation to every penitent. It is a part of the same divine plan also to engage the influence of the Holy Spirit, to awaken penitence in man, and to lead the wanderer back to himself; to renew our fallen nature in righteousness, at the moment we are justified through faith, and to place us in circumstances in which we may henceforth "walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit." All the ends of government are here answered—no license is given to offence,—the moral law is unrepealed,—a day of judgment is still appointed,—future and eternal punishments still display their awful sanctions,—a new and singular display of the awful purity of the divine character is afforded,—yet pardon is offered to all who seek it; and the whole world may be saved.

With such evidence of suitableness to the case of mankind, under such lofty views of connection with the principles and ends of moral government, does the doctrine of the atonement present itself. But other important considerations are not wanting to mark the united wisdom and goodness of that method of extending mercy to the guilty which Christianity teaches us to have been actually and exclusively adopted. It is rendered, indeed, "worthy of all acceptation," by the circumstance of its meeting the difficulties we have just dwelt upon,—difficulties which could not otherwise have failed to make a gloomy impression upon every offender awakened to a sense of his spiritual danger; but it must be very inattentively considered, if it does not farther commend itself to us, by not only removing the apprehensions we might feel as to the severity of the divine Lawgiver, but as exalting him in our esteem as "the righteous Lord, who loveth righteousness," who surrendered his beloved Son to suffering and death, that the influence of moral goodness might not be weakened in the hearts of his creatures; and as a God of love, affording in this instance a view of the tenderness and benignity of his nature infinitely more impressive and affecting than any abstract description could convey, or than any act of creating and providential power and grace could exhibit, and, therefore, most suitable to subdue that enmity which had unnaturally grown up in the hearts of his creatures, and which, when corrupt, they so easily transfer from a law which restrains their inclination to the Lawgiver himself. If it be important to us to know the extent and reality of our danger, by the death of Christ it is displayed, not in description, but in the most impressive action; if it be important that we should have an assurance of the divine placability toward us, it here receives a demonstration incapable of being heightened; if gratitude be the most powerful motive of future obedience, and one which renders command on the one part, and active service on the other, "not grievous but joyous," the recollection of such obligations as those which the "love of Christ" has laid us under, is a perpetual spring to this energetic affection, and will be the means of raising it to higher and more delightful activity for ever. All that can most powerfully illustrate the united tenderness and awful majesty of God, and the odiousness of sin; all that can win back the heart of man to his Maker and Lord, and render future obedience a matter of affection and delight as well as duty; all that can extinguish the angry and malignant passions of man to man; all that can inspire a mutual benevolence, and dispose to a self-denying charity for the benefit of others; all that can arouse by hope, or tranquillize by faith; is to be found in the vicarious death of Christ, and the principles and purposes for which it was endured.

The first declaration, on this subject, after the appearance of Christ, is that of John the Baptist, when he saw Jesus coming unto him, "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world;" where it is obvious, that when John called our Lord, "the Lamb of God," he spoke of him under a sacrificial character, and of the effect of that sacrifice as an atonement for the sins of mankind. This was said of our Lord, even before he entered on his public office; but if any doubt should exist respecting the meaning of the Baptist's expression, it is removed by other passages, in which a similar allusion is adopted, and in which it is specifically applied to the death of Christ, as an atonement for sin. In the Acts of the Apostles, the following words of Isaiah are, by Philip the evangelist, distinctly applied to Christ, and to his death: "He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; and like a lamb dumb before his shearer, so opened he not his mouth. in his humiliation his judgment was taken away: and who shall declare his generation? for his life is taken from the earth." This particular part of the prophecy being applied to our Lord's death, the whole must relate to the same subject; for it is undoubtedly one entire prophecy, and the other expressions in it are still stronger: "He was wounded for our transgressions; he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed: the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all." In the First Epistle of Peter, is also a strong and very apposite text, in which the application of the term "lamb" to our Lord, and the sense in which it is applied, can admit of no doubt: "Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot," 1 Peter 1:18-19 . It is therefore evident that the Prophet Isaiah, six hundred years before the birth of Jesus; that John the Baptist, on the commencement of his ministry; and that St. Peter, his friend, companion, and Apostle, subsequent to the transaction; speak of Christ's death as an atonement for sin, under the figure of a lamb sacrificed.

The passages that follow, plainly and distinctly declare the atoning efficacy of Christ's death: "Now once in the end of the world hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself." "Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation." Hebrews 9:26; Hebrews 9:28 . "This man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sin, for ever sat down on the right hand of God; for by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified," Hebrews 10:12 . It is observable, that nothing similar is said of the death of any other person, and that no such efficacy is imputed to any other martyrdom. "While we were yet sinners Christ died for us; much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him: for if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life," Romans 5:8-10 . The words, "reconciled to God by the death of his Son," show that his death had an efficacy in our reconciliation; but reconciliation is only preparatory to salvation. "He has reconciled us to his Father in his cross, and in the body of his flesh through death,"

Colossians 1:20; Colossians 1:22 . What is said of reconciliation in these texts, is in some others spoken of sanctification which is also preparatory to salvation. "We are sanctified,"—how? "by the offering of the body of Christ once for all," Hebrews 10:10 . In the same epistle, the blood of Jesus is called "the blood of the covenant by which we are sanctified." In these and many other passages that occur in different parts of the New Testament, it is therefore asserted that the death of Christ had an efficacy in the procuring of human salvation. Such expressions are used concerning no other person, and the death of no other person; and it is therefore evident that Christ's death included something more than a confirmation of his preaching; something more than a pattern of a holy and patient martyrdom; something more than a necessary antecedent to his resurrection, by which he gave a grand and clear proof of our resurrection from the dead. Christ's death was all these, but it was something more. It was an atonement for the sins of mankind; and in this way only it became the accomplishment of our eternal redemption. See DAY OF EXPIATION .

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Atonement'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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