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§ 3. The Moral Theory.

A third general theory concerning the work of Christ is that which rejects all idea of expiation, or of the satisfaction of justice by vicarious punishment, and attributes all the efficacy of his work to the moral effect produced on the hearts of men by his 567character, teachings, and acts. On this account it is usually designated the “moral view of the atonement.” The assumption is that there is no such attribute in God as justice; i.e., no perfection which renders it necessary, or morally obligatory, that sin should be punished. If this be so, there is no need of expiation in order to forgiveness. All that is necessary for the restoration of sinners to the favour of God is that they should cease to be sinners God’s relation to his rational creatures is determined by their character. If they are morally corrupt they are repelled from his presence; if restored to holiness, they become the objects of his love and the recipients of his favours. All that Christ as the Saviour of men, therefore, came to accomplish was this moral reformation in the character of men. Here, as so generally elsewhere, errors are half truths. It is true that God’s relation to his rational creatures is determined by their character. It is true that He repels sinners, and holds communion with the holy. It is true that Christ came to restore men to holiness, and thus to the favour and fellowship of God. But it is also true that to render the restoration of sinners to holiness possible it was necessary that the guilt of their sins should be expiated, or that justice should be satisfied. Until this is done, they are under the wrath and curse of God. And to be under the curse of God is to be shut out from the source of all holiness.

Some of the advocates of this view of the work of Christ do indeed speak freely of the justice of God. They recognize Him as a just Being who everywhere and always punishes sin. But this is done only by the operation of eternal laws. Holiness, from its nature, produces happiness; and that is its reward. Sin, from its nature, produces misery; and that is its punishment. Remove the sin and you remove the punishment. The case is analogous to health and disease. If a man is well, he is physically happy; if diseased, he is in a state of suffering. The only way possible to remove the suffering is to remove the disease; and further than this nothing can be required. This is the view presented by John Young, D. D.444444Life and Light of Men, London and New York, 1866, pp. 115, 116. He says, “There is no such attribute in God [as rectilineal justice.] But the inevitable punishment of moral evil always and everywhere, is certain nevertheless. The justice of the universe is a tremendous fact, an eternal and necessary fact which even God could not set aside. There is an irresistible, a real force springing out of its essential constitution whereby sin punishes sin. This is the fixed law of the moral universe, a law in perfect harmony 568with the eternal will, and which never is and never can be broken. God’s mercy in our Lord Jesus Christ does not in the least set aside this justice; what it does is to remove and render non-existent the only ground on which the claim of justice stands. Instead of arbitrarily withdrawing the criminal from punishment, it destroys in his soul that evil which is the only cause and reason of punishment, and which being removed punishment ceases of itself.” The same doctrine is taught by Dr. Bushnell.445445Vicarious Sacrifice grounded in Principles of Universal Obligation, edit. New York, 1866, p. 449. Speaking of Christ, he says, “His work terminates, not in the release of penalties by due compensation, but in the transformation of character, and the rescue, in that manner, of guilty men from the retributive causations provoked by their sins.” Remission is declared to be “spiritual release;” a deliverance from sin which secures exemption from the natural effects of transgression. This system necessarily excludes the idea of forgiveness in the ordinary sense of the word. To subdue inflammation in a wound removes the pain; to remove sin from the soul secures exemption from the pain which sin necessarily produces. The idea of pardon, in the latter case, is as incongruous as in the former. The Bible, however, is full of the promises of forgiveness and of the prayers of the penitent for pardoning mercy. It is very plain, therefore, that this scheme does not agree with the Scriptures; and it is equally plain that it is not a religion suited to those who feel the need of forgiveness.

Coleridge, in his “Aids to Reflection,” presents the same view. In a note at the end of that work he gives the following illustration of the subject. A widow has a prodigal son, who deserts her and leaves her desolate. That son has a friend who takes his place and performs all filial duties to the unhappy mother. The prodigal, won by the exhibition of goodness on the part of his friend, returns to his home penitent and reformed. How unreasonable and revolting, says Coleridge, would it be to say that the friend had made expiation or rendered a satisfaction to justice for the sins of the prodigal.

This moral view of the atonement, as it is called, has been presented in different forms. In the first form the work of Christ in the salvation of men is confined to his office of teacher. He introduced a new and higher form of religion, by which men were redeemed from the darkness and degradation of heathenism. This was so great a good, and so patent to the eyes of those who themselves were converts from heathenism, and who were surrounded by its evils, that it is not wonderful that some of the fathers exalted 569this function of Christ as a saviour, almost to the neglect of every other. In the early Church, however, frequent as were the recognitions of the obligations of men to Christ as the Redeemer from heathenism, He was still regarded by all Christians as a sacrifice and a ransom. In later times these latter aspects of his work were rejected and the former only retained.

A second form of this theory, while it retains the idea that the real benefit conferred by Christ was his doctrine, yet ascribes his title of Saviour principally to his death. As the Scriptures so constantly assert that we are saved by the blood, the cross, the sufferings of Christ, this feature of the Scriptural teaching cannot be overlooked. It is therefore said that He saves us, not as a sacrifice, but as a martyr. He died for us. By his death his doctrines were sealed with blood. Not only, therefore, as attesting his own sincerity, but as giving assurance of the truths which He taught, especially the truths concerning a future life, the love of God, and his willingness to forgive sin, and as confirming to us the truth of those doctrines He is entitled to be regarded as the Saviour of men.

Thirdly, others again regard the power of Christ in saving men from sin, as not due to his teaching, or to his sealing his doctrines with his blood, but to the manifestation which He made of self-sacrificing love. This exerts a greater power over the hearts of men than all else besides. If the wicked cannot be reclaimed by love, which manifests itself not only in words of gentleness, by acts of kindness, and by expressions of sympathy, but also by entire self-sacrifice, by the renunciation of all good, and by voluntary submission to all evil, their case must be hopeless. As such love as that of Christ was never before exhibited to men; as no such instance of self-sacrifice had ever before occurred, or can ever occur again, He is the Saviour by way of eminence. Other men, who through love submit to self-denial for the good of men, are within their sphere and in their measure, saviours too; the work of salvation by the exhibition of self-sacrificing love, is going on around us continually, and from eternity to eternity, so long as evil exists, in the presence of beings imbued with love. Still Christ in his work occupies a place peculiar and preeminent, and therefore we are Christians; we recognize Christ as the greatest of Saviours.

Such is the view elaborately presented by Dr. Bushnell in the work just referred to. Toward the end of his book, however, he virtually takes it all back, and lays down his weapons, conquered 570by the instincts of his own religious nature and by the authority of the Word of God. He says, “In the facts [of our Lord’s passion], outwardly regarded, there is no sacrifice, or oblation, or atonement, or propitiation, but simply a living and dying thus and thus. The facts are impressive; the person is clad in a wonderful dignity and beauty; the agony is eloquent of love; and the cross a very shocking murder triumphantly met. And if then the question arises, how we are to use such a history so as to be reconciled by it, we hardly know in what way to begin. How shall we come unto God by help of this martyrdom? How shall we turn it, or turn ourselves under it, so as to be justified and set in peace with God? Plainly there is a want here, and this want is met by giving a thought-form to the facts which is not in the facts themselves. They are put directly into the moulds of the altar, and we are called to accept the crucified God-man as our sacrifice, an offering or oblation for us, our propitiation; so as to be sprinkled from our evil conscience, washed, purged, purified, cleansed from our sin. Instead of leaving the matter of the facts just as they occurred, there is a reverting to familiar forms of thought, made familiar partly for this purpose; and we are told, in brief, to use the facts just as we would the sin-offerings of the altar, and make an altar grace of them, only a grace complete and perfect, an offering once for all. . . . . So much is there in this that, without these forms of the altar, we should be utterly at a loss in making any use of the Christian facts, that would set us in a condition of practical reconciliation with God. Christ is good, beautiful, wonderful, his disinterested love is a picture by itself, his forgiving patience melts into my feeling, his passion rends open my heart, but what is He for, and how shall He be made unto me the salvation I want? One word — He is my sacrifice — opens all to me, and beholding Him, with all my sin upon Him, I count Him my offering, I come unto God by Him and enter into the holiest by his blood.” “We want to use these altar terms just as freely as they are used by those who accept the formula of expiation or judicial satisfaction for sin; in just their manner too, when they are using them most practically.” “We cannot afford to lose these sacred forms of the altar. They fill an office which nothing else can fill, and serve a use which cannot be served without them.”446446Bushnell, On Vicarious Sacrifice, edit. New York, 1866, pp. 534, 535; p. 537; p. 545.


Objections to this Theory.

The obvious objections to this moral view of the atonement in all its forms, are, —

1. That while it retains some elements of the truth, in that it recognizes the restoration of man to holiness and God, as the great end of the work of Christ, and regards his work as involving the greatest possible or conceivable manifestation of divine love, which manifestation is the most powerful of all natural influences to operate on the hearts of men; yet it leaves out entirely what is essential to the Scriptural doctrine of atonement. The Bible exhibits Christ as a priest, as offering Himself a sacrifice for the expiation of our sins, as bearing our sins in his own body on the tree, as having been made a curse for us, and as giving Himself is a ransom for our redemption. The Scriptures teach that this expiation of guilt is absolutely necessary before the souls of the guilty can be made the subjects of renewing and sanctifying grace. Before this expiation they are spiritually dead under the penalty of the law, which is death in all its forms. And therefore while thus under the curse, all the moral influences in the world would be as useless as noonday light to give sight to the blind, or sanitary measures to raise the dead. In rejecting, therefore, the doctrine of expiation, or satisfaction to justice, this theory rejects the very essence of the Scriptural doctrine of atonement.

2. This theory does not meet the necessities of our condition. We are sinners; we are guilty as well as polluted. The consciousness of our responsibility to justice, and of the necessity of satisfying its demands, is as undeniable and as indestructible as our consciousness of pollution. Expiation for the one is as much a necessity as sanctification for the other. No form of religion, therefore, which excludes the idea of expiation, or which fails to provide for the removal of guilt in a way which satisfies the reason and conscience, can be suited to our necessities. No such religion has ever prevailed among men, or can by possibility give peace to a burdened conscience. It is because the Lord Jesus Christ is revealed as a propitiation for our sins, as bearing in our stead the penalty which we had incurred, that his blood cleanses us from all sin, and gives that peace which passes all understanding.

The idea that there is no forgiveness with God; that by inexorable law He deals with his creatures according to their subjective state and character, and that therefore the only salvation necessary or possible is sanctification, is appalling. No man is in such an 572inward state, either during life or at death, that he can stand before God to be dealt with according to that state. His only hope is that God will, and does, deal with his people, not as they are in themselves, but as they are in Christ, and for his sake; that He loves and has fellowship with us although polluted and defiled, as a parent loves and delights in a misshapen and unattractive child. We should be now and always in hell, if the doctrine of Dr. Young were true, that justice by an inexorable law always takes effect, and that sin is always punished wherever it exists, as soon as it is manifested, and as long as it continues. God is something more than the moral order of the universe; He does not administer his moral government by inexorable laws over which He has no control. He can have mercy on whom He will have mercy, and compassion on whom He will have compassion. He can and does render sinners happy, in spite of their sin, for Christ’s sake, remitting to them its penalty while its power is only partially broken; fostering them, and rejoicing over them until their restoration to spiritual health be completed. Anything that turns the sinner’s regard inward on himself as a ground of hope, instead of bidding him took to Christ, must plunge him into despair, and despair is the portal of eternal death. In any view, therefore, whether as bold rationalistic Deism, or as the most high-toned portraiture of divine love, the moral theory of the atonement presents no rational, because no Scriptural, ground for a sinner’s hope toward God. He must have a better righteousness than his own. He must have some one to appear before God in his stead to make expiation for sin, and to secure for him, independently of his own subjective state, the full pardon of all his offences, and the gift of the Holy Ghost.

3. All the arguments presented on the preceding pages, in favour of the doctrine of expiation, are of course arguments against a theory which rejects that doctrine. Besides, this theory evidently changes the whole plan of salvation. It alters all our relations to Christ, as our head and representative, and the ground of our acceptance with God; and consequently it changes the nature of religion. Christianity is one thing if Christ is a sacrifice for sin; and altogether a different thing if He is only a moral reformer, an example, a teacher, or even a martyr. We need a divine Saviour if He is to bear our iniquities, and to make satisfaction for the sins of the world; but a human saviour is all that is needed if the moral theory of the atonement is to be adopted. Gieseler says, what every Christian knows must be true without being told, that 573the fathers in treating of the qualifications of Christ as a Saviour, insisted that He must be, (1.) God; (2.) a man; and (3.) as man free from sin.447447Dogmengeschichte, pp. 384, 385, being the sixth volume of his Ecclesiastical History. It is a historical fact that the two doctrines of the divinity of Christ, and expiation through th blood of the Son of God, have gone hand in hand. The one has seldom been long held by those who deny the other. The doctrine of expiation, therefore, is so wrought into the whole system of revealed truth, that its rejection effects a radical change, not only in the theology but also in the religion of the Bible.

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