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The Necessity of the Atonement


by Francis Turretin


The Priesthood of Christ, according to the Apostle Paul and the
types of the Jewish ritual, is divided into two parts: the atonement
which he made to divine justice, and his intercession in heaven, (1
John 2: 2. Heb. 9: 12). The necessity of such an atonement, which is
the foundation of all practical piety and all Christian hopes, must
therefore be firmly established, and defended against the fiery
darts of Satan, with which it is attacked by innumerable
adversaries.

Upon this subject, the opinions of divines may be classed under
three heads: 1. That of the Socinians, who I not only deny that an
atonement was made, but affirm that it was not at all necessary,
since God both could and would pardon sin, without any satisfaction
made to his justice. 2. That of those who distinguish between an
absolute and a hypothetical necessity; and in opposition to the
Socinians maintain the latter, while they deny the former. By a
hypothetical necessity they mean that which flows from the divine
decree, God has decreed that an atonement is to be made, therefore
it is necessary. To this they also add a necessity of fitness; as
the commands-of God have 1 been transgressed, it is fit that
satisfaction should be made, that the transgressor may not pass with
impunity. Yet they deny that it was absolutely necessary, as God,
they say, might have devised some other way of pardon than through
the medium of an atonement. This is the ground taken by Augustine in
his book on the Trinity. Some of the reformers who wrote before the
time of Socinus, adopt the opinions of that father. 3. That of those
who maintain its absolute necessity; affirming that God neither has
willed, nor could have willed to forgive sins, without a
satisfaction made to his justice. This, the common opinion of the
orthodox, is our opinion.

Various errors are maintained on this point, by our opponents. The
removal of the grounds upon which they rest will throw light upon
the whole subject. They err in their views of the nature of sin, for
which a satisfaction is required; of the satisfaction itself; of the
character of God to whom it is to be rendered; and of Christ by whom
it is rendered.

1. Of sin, which renders us guilty, and binds us over to punishment
as hated of God. It may be viewed as a debt which we are bound to
pay to divine justice, in which sense the law is called "a
hand-writing," (Col 2:14) as a principle of enmity, whereby we hate
God and he becomes our enemy: as a crime against the government of
the universe by which, before God, the supreme governor and judge,
we become deserving of everlasting death and malediction. Whence,
sinners are expressly called "debtors," (Matt. 6:12); "enemies to
God," both actively and passively, (Col. 1:21); "and guilty before
God," (Rom. 3:19.) We, therefore, infer that three things were
necessary in order to our redemption; the payment of the debt
contracted by sin., the appeasing of the divine wrath, and the
expiation of guilt.

2. From the preceding remarks, the -nature of the satisfaction which
sin requires may be easily perceived. That which we are chiefly to
attend to in sin being its criminality, satisfaction has relation to
the penalty enacted against it by the Supreme Judge.

But here we must attend to a twofold payment, which is noticed by
jurists. One which, by the very deed of payment, sets at liberty the
debtor, and annuls the obligation, whether the payment is made by
the debtor in his own person, or by a surety in his name. Another in
which the fact of payment is not sufficient to liberate the debtor,
because, the payment is not precisely that which is demanded in the
obligation, but all equivalent. In this case, though the creditor
such payment, has a right to refuse the acceptance of yet if lie
admits it and esteems it a payment, it is a satisfaction. The former
of these takes place in a pecuniary, the latter in a penal debt. In
a pecuniary transaction, the fact of the payment of the sum due
frees tile debtor, by whomsoever the payment is made. Respect here
is bad, not to the person paying but to the payment only. Whence,
the creditor, having been paid the full amount due, is not said to
have treated with indulgence the debtor, or to have forgiven the
debt. But in penal matters the case is different. The debt rewards
not things, but persons; not what is paid, so much as him who pays;
i.e., that the transgressor may be punished. For as the law demands
individual personal obedience, so it demands individual personal
suffering. In order that the guilty person may be released through
an atonement made by another in his stead, the governor or judge
must pass a decree to that effect. That decree or act of the judge
is, in relation to the law, called relaxation, and in relation to
the debtor or guilty person., pardon; for his personal suffering is
dispensed with, and in its place a vicarious suffering accepted. But
because, in the subject under discussion, sin has not a relation to
debt only, but also to punishment, satisfaction is not of that kind,
which by the act itself frees the debtor. To effect this there must
be an act of pardon passed by the Supreme Judge, because that is not
precisely paid, i.e., a personal enduring of the penalty, which the
law demands, but a vicarious suffering only. Hence we discover how
perfectly accordant remission and satisfaction are with each other,
notwithstanding the outcry made by the enemy respecting their
supposed discrepancy. Christ made the satisfaction in his life and
at his death, and God, by accepting this satisfaction, provides for
remission. The satisfaction respects Christ, from whom God demands a
punishment, not numerically, but in kind, the same with that which
we owed. Pardon respects believers, who are freed from punishment in
their own persons, while a vicarious suffering is accepted. Hence we
see how admirably mercy is tempered with justice. Justice is
exercised against sin, and mercy towards the sinner; an atonement is
made to the divine justice by a surety, and God mercifully pardons
us.

3. This reasoning is greatly fortified from a consideration of the
relations in which God stands to the sinner. He may be viewed in a
threefold relation: as the creditor; as the Lord and party offended;
and as the judge and ruler. But though both the former relations
must be attended to in this matter, yet the third is to be chiefly
considered. God here is not merely a creditor, who may at pleasure
remit what is his due, nor merely the party offended who may do as
he will with his own claims without injury to any one; but he is
also a judge and rectoral governor, to whom alone pertains the
infliction of punishment upon offenders, and the power of remitting
the penal sanction of the law. This all jurists know belongs to the
chief magistrate alone. The creditor may demand his debt, and the
party offended reparation for the offence or indemnity for his loss;
but the judge alone has the power to compel payment, or exact
punishment. Here lies the capital error of our adversaries, who
maintain that God is to be considered merely in the light of a
creditor, who is at liberty to exact or remit the punishment at
pleasure. It is however certain, that God sustains the character of
judge and ruler of the world, who has the rights of sovereignty to
maintain, and professes himself to be the guardian and avenger of
his laws; and hence lie possesses not only the claims of a creditor,
which he might assert or remit at pleasure, but also the right of
government and of punishment, which is naturally indispensable. We
must, however, in the punishment itself, distinguish accurately
between the enforcing of the penalty, and the manner and
circumstances under which it is enforced, as they are things widely
different. Punishment may be viewed generally; and in this respect
the right of Heaven to inflict it is indispensable, being founded in
the divine justice. If there be such an attribute as justice
belonging to God, then sin must have its due, which is punishment.
But as to the manner and circumstances of the punishment, the case
is altogether different. They are not essential to that attribute.
They are to be arranged according to his will and pleasure. It may
seem fit to the goodness of God that there should be, in relation to
time, a delay of punishment; in relation to degree, a mitigation of
it; and in relation to persons, a substitution. For although the
person sinning deserves punishment and might suffer it with the
strictest justice, yet such punishment is not necessarily
indispensable. For reasons of great importance, it may be
transferred to a surety. In this sense, it is said by divines that
sin is of necessity punished impersonally, but every sinner is not
therefore of necessity to be punished personally. Through the
singular mercy of God some may be exempted from punishment, by the
substitution of a surety in their stead.

But that we may conceive it possible for God to do this, he must not
be considered as an inferior judge appointed by law. An officer of
that character cannot remit anything of the rigour of the law by
transferring the punishment from the actual offender to another
person. God must be viewed in his true character, as a supreme judge
who giveth account of none of his matters, who will satisfy his
justice by the punishment of sin, and who, through his infinite
wisdom and unspeakable mercy, determines to do this in such a way as
shall relax somewhat of the extreme rigour of punishment, by
admitting a substitute and letting the sinner go free. Hence we
discover to whom the atonement is to be made; whether to the devil,
(as Socinus, with a sneer, asks,) or to God, as sovereign judge. For
as the devil is no more than the servant of God, the keeper of the
prison, who has no power over sinners, unless by the just judgment
of God, the atonement is not to be made to this executor of the
divine vengeance, but to the Supreme Ruler, who primarily and
principally holds them in durance. We may add, that it is a
gratuitous and false supposition, that in the suffering of
punishment, there must be some person to whom the punishment shall
be rendered, as in a pecuniary debt. It is sufficient that there is
a judge, who may exact it in order to support the majesty of the
State, and maintain the order of the empire.

4. The person who makes the atonement is here to be considered. As
sin is to be viewed in the threefold light of debt, enmity, and
crime; and God in the threefold light of creditor, party offended,
and judge; so Christ must put on a threefold relation corresponding
to all these. He must sustain the character of a Surety, for the
payment of the debt. He must be a Mediator, a peace-maker, to take
away the enmity of the parties and reconcile us to God. He must be a
Priest and victim, to substitute himself in our room, and make
atonement, by enduring the penal sanction of the law. Again: that
such an atonement may be made, two things are requisite: 1. That
the same nature which sins shall make restitution. 2. That the
consideration given must possess infinite value, in order to the
removal of the infinite demerit of sin.

In Christ, two natures were necessary for the making of an
atonement: a human nature, to stiffer, and a divine nature, to give
the requisite value to his sufferings. Moreover, we must demonstrate
how it is possible, in consistency with justice, to substitute an
innocent person, as Christ was. in our room; because such a
substitution, at first view, appears to be not only unusual, but
also unjust. Though a substitution, which is common in a pecuniary
debt, rarely occurs in penal transactions nay, is sometimes
prohibited, as was the case among the Romans, because no one is
master of his own life, and because the commonwealth would suffer
loss in such cases yet it was not 'unknown among the heathen. We
have an example of it in Damon and Pythias; two intimate friends,
one of whom voluntarily entered himself bail for the other to
Dionysius in a capital cause. Curtius, Codrus, and Brutus devoted
themselves for their country. The right of punishing hostages, when
princes fail in their promises, has been recognized by all nations.
Hence hostages are called anti-psukoi substitutes. To this Paul
alludes, when he says, (Rom. 5:7) "For a good man some would even
dare to die." The Holy Scriptures often give it support, not only
from the imputation of sin, by which one bears the punishment due to
another, but from the public use of sacrifices, in which the victim
was substituted in the place of the sinner and suffered death in his
stead. Hence the imposition of hands, and the confession of sins
over the head of the victims.

But, that such a substitution may be made without the slightest
appearance of injustice, various conditions are requisite in the
substitute or surety, all which are found in Christ. 1. A common
nature, that sin may be punished in the same nature which is guilty,
(Heb. 2:14). 2. The consent of the will, that he should voluntarily
take the burden upon himself, (Heb. 10:9) "Lo, I come to do thy
will." 3. Power over his own life, so that he may rightfully
determine respecting it, (John, 10:18) "No one taketh away my
life, but I lay it down of myself, for I have power to lay it down,
and take it up again." 4. The power of bearing the punishment due to
us, and of freeing both himself and us from the power of death;
because, if he himself could be holden of death, he could free no
one from its dominion. That Christ possesses this power, no one
doubts. 5. Holiness and immaculate purity, that, being polluted by
no sin, he might not have to offer sacrifice for himself, but for us
only, (Heb. 7:26-27.)

Under these conditions, it was not unjust for Christ to substitute
himself in our room, while lie is righteous and we unrighteous. By
this act no injury is done to any one. Not to Christ, for he
voluntarily took the punishment upon himself, and had the right to
decide concerning his own life and death, and also power to raise
himself from the dead. Not to God the judge, for he willed and
commanded it; nor to his natural justice, for the Surety satisfied
this by suffering the punishment which demanded it. Not to the
empire of the universe, by depriving an innocent person of life, for
Christ, freed from death, lives for evermore; or by the life of the
surviving sinner injuring the kingdom of God, for he is converted
and made holy by Christ. Not to the divine law, for its honour has
been maintained by the perfect fulfillment of all its demands,
through the righteousness of the Mediator; and, by our legal and
mystical union, he becomes one with us, and we one with him. Hence
he may justly take upon him our sin and sorrows, and impart to us
his righteousness and blessings. So there is no abrogation of the
law, no derogation from its claims; as what we owed is transferred
to the account of Christ, to be paid by him.

These preliminary remarks we have thought necessary, in order to the
lucid discussion of the question concerning the necessity of the
atonement. We now proceed to inquire whether it was necessary that
Christ should satisfy for us, as well absolutely, in relation to the
divine justice, as hypothetically, on the ground of a divine decree:
whether it was absolutely necessary, in order to our salvation, that
an atonement should be made, God not having the power to pardon our
sins without a satisfaction, or whether it was rendered necessary
only by the divine decree? The Socinians, indeed, admit no kind of
necessity. Some of the old divines, and some members of the Reformed
Church, contend for a hypothetical necessity only. They think it
sufficient for the refutation of the heretic. But we, with the great
body of the orthodox, contend for both. We do not urge a necessity
simply natural, such as that of fire to burn, which is in-voluntary,
and admits of no modification in its exercise. It is a moral and
rational necessity for which we plead; one which, as it flows from
the holiness and justice of God, and cannot be exercised any other
way than freely and voluntarily, admits of various modifications,
provided there is no infringement of the natural rights of Deity.
That there is such a necessity, is evinced by many arguments.
1. The vindicatory justice of God. That such an attribute is natural
and essential to God, has been proved at large elsewhere. This
avenging justice belongs to God as a judge, and he can no more
dispense with it than he can cease to be a judge or deny himself;
though, at the same time, he exercises it freely. It does not
consist in the exercise of a gratuitous power, like mercy, by which,
whether it be exercised or not, injustice is done to no one. It is
that attribute by which God gives to every one his due, and from the
exercise of which, when proper objects are presented, he can no more
abstain, than he can do what is unjust. This justice is the constant
will of punishing sinners, which in God cannot be inefficient, as
his majesty is supreme and his power infinite. And hence the
infliction of punishment upon the transgressor or his surety is
inevitable. No objection to this can be drawn from the liberty of
God, for that is exercised only in matters of positive enactment,
not in such as are of natural right: nor from his mercy, because
that, while it may free the sinner from punishment, does not demand
that sin shall not be punished.

2. The nature of sin, which is a moral evil and essentially opposed
to holiness, forms another argument. The connection between it and
physical evil is natural and necessary. As physical or penal evil
cannot exist without moral evil, either personal or imputed, so
there cannot be moral evil without producing natural evil. Moral and
physical good, or holiness and happiness, are united together by the
wisdom, as well as by the goodness and justice of God; so that a
good man must be happy, for goodness is a part of the divine image.
The wicked must be miserable, because God is just; and this the
rather, because when God gives blessings to the righteous, he does
it of his own bounty, without any merit on their part; but when he
punishes the sinner, he renders to him precisely what he has merited
by his sins.

3. The sanction of the Law, which threatens death to the sinner,
(Deut. 27:29, Gen. 2:17, Ez. 18:20, Rom. 1:18, 32, and 6:23). Since
God is true and cannot lie, these threatenings must necessarily be
executed either upon the sinner, or upon some one in his stead. In
vain do our opponents reply, that the threatening is hypothetical,
not absolute, and may be relaxed by repentance. This is a gratuitous
supposition. That such a condition is either expressed or
understood, neither has been nor can be proved. Nay, as the penal
sanction of the law is a part of the law itself, which is natural
and indispensable, this sanction must also be immutable. With the
judicial threatenings of the law, we must not confound particular
and economical comminations, or such as are paternal and
evangelical, which are denounced against men to recall them to
repentance. Such threatening's may be recalled in case of penitence.
Of this kind were those denounced against Hezekiah, (Isaiah 38) and
against Nineveh, (Jon. 3).

4. The Preaching of the Gospel, which announces the violent and
painful death of the Mediator and Surety on the cross, is another
argument which power fully confirms the necessity of that event. For
we cannot believe that God would multiply sufferings unnecessarily.
His goodness and wisdom do not permit us to harbour an idea that the
Father could expose his most innocent and beloved Son to an
excruciating and ignominious death, without a necessity which admits
of no relaxation. The only necessity which can be possibly imagined
here,, is that of making an atonement to the divine justice for our
sins. Every, one must perceive that it was absolutely necessary. I
know that our opponents affect to produce various other reasons for
the accursed death of the cross, such as to confirm Christ's
doctrine, and to set an example of all kinds of virtue, especially
of charity and constancy! But since Christ had confirmed his
doctrines by numerous stupendous miracles, and 11 through his life
had given the most illustrious examples of every human virtue, who
could believe that God, for that one cause alone, would expose his
only begotten Son to such dire torments? Therefore, without all
doubt, there was another cause for that dispensation, to wit: a
regard for the honour of his justice. To this the Holy Spirit bears
witness by the Apostle Paul, (Rom. 3:5) who affirms that "God hath
set forth Christ to be a propitiation for our sins to declare his
righteousness," which was inexorable, and did not suffer our sins to
be pardoned on any other terms, than by the intervention of the
death of Christ.

Again: if God was able and willing by his word alone without any
atonement to pardon our sins, why does the Apostle Paul so often and
emphatically refer our justification and salvation to the blood of
Christ? "We are justified- by the redemption which is in his blood,"
(Rom. 3:24.) "We have redemption through his blood; the remission of
sins," (Eph. 1:7). "He hath reconciled all things to himself by the
blood of Christ," (Col. 1:20). Now there was no need that his blood
should be shed if remission depended solely upon the divine will. On
this supposition, the apostle would rashly and falsely affirm, what
he often Arms, that the blood of bulls and of goats, that is, the
sacrifices under the law, could not take away sins; and that the
oblation of Christ alone could If there was no need of any
purgation, but penitence alone was sufficient to take away sin, that
is, the guilt of sin, without any sacrifice, the apostle's assertion
is groundless. What could be taken away without any sacrifice at
all, could surely be removed by legal sacrifices. If the divine will
alone is necessary, why is it that Paul never refers to it, but
always ascends to the nature of things, as when he asserts that it
was impossible for the blood of bulls to take away sins? Surely it
must be because sin is so hateful to God, that its stain can be
washed away by nothing less than the blood of the Son of God.
5. If there was no necessity that Christ should die, the greatness
of God's love in not sparing his own Son, but delivering, him up for
us all, which the apostle commends, will be not a little diminished.
If there was no obstacle on the part of justice, in the way of our
salvation, it would indeed have been great grace in God to have
forgiven our sins. But it would have fallen far short of that
stupendous love which, though justice inexorable stood in the way,
removed, by means found in the treasures of infinite wisdom, all
impediments to our redemption, displaying a most amiable harmony
between justice and mercy. Nor can Christ be said to have appeased
the wrath of God, if he, without demanding any satisfaction, could
by a mere volition have laid aside his own wrath.

6. Finally, our opinion relative to the necessity of an atonement
does not, in the least, derogate from any of the Divine Perfections.
Not from God's absolute Power, because he can neither deny himself
nor any of his attributes, nor can he act in such a way as to give
the appearance of delighting in sin, by holding communion with the
sinner. Not from the Freedom of his Will, because he can will
nothing contrary to his justice and holiness, which would be injured
should sin go unpunished. Not from his boundless Mercy, for this is
exercised towards the sinner, though punishment is inflicted on the
Surety. On the contrary, it makes a glorious display of the most
illustrious of the divine perfections: of his Holiness, on account
of which he can have no communion with the sinner, until, by an
atonement, his guilt is removed and his pollution purged; of his
Justice, which inexorably demands punishment of sin; of his Wisdom,
in reconciling the respective claims of justice and mercy; and of
his Love, in not sparing his own Son in order that he might spare
us.


 

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