On the Perfection of the Atonement
Translated by James R. Willson (1859)
In the preceding chapter we reasoned against the followers of Socinus. In this chapter we contend for a doctrine that is denied by the Romanists. They indeed pretend to hold the unity and perfection of the satisfaction of Christ, and often exclaim that great injustice is done them, when they are charged with maintaining that “Christ by his sufferings did not make a full and complete satisfaction for our sins:” (Bellarmine, Book II. Concerning Indulgences, chapter 14), while in reality they in many ways weaken and overturn this doctrine by maintaining that it must be confined to sins committed before baptism and to the pollution of sin: but that it does not extend to punishment either temporal or eternal.
Statement of the Question.
In order to ascertain distinctly the question, we observe that a satisfaction made to God is of a nature different from a satisfaction made to man. Among men satisfactions are of two kinds. One is private and is called a reparation: the other public and is called canonical, because prescribed by the ancient canons of the Church. Satisfaction of the latter kind is very often demanded by civil and ecclesiastical courts, for the reformation of offenders and the removal of scandals. In treating of the satisfaction made to God, we speak strictly concerning the λυτρον, the price of redemption, by which Christ as our surety atoned for our transgressions. This is by Romanists in part ascribed to certain meritorious, expiatory works, by which they pretend to atone for their own sins and for those of others. It is of the atonement for sin and satisfaction to justice which Christ made that we are to treat in this chapter. The point in controversy is not whether the satisfaction of Christ bars all human satisfactions, public and canonical, or private, which are imposed upon offenders for their correction, and to remove scandals from the Church. We admit that these were with propriety often demanded under the Old Testament dispensation, and may yet be laudably exacted. But we inquire whether besides the satisfaction made by Christ other satisfactions for sin are to be made to God, and should be imposed upon the saints? Here we and our opponents are at issue. They affirm that such additional satisfactions are to be made by the saints themselves: while we maintain that they are not only useless, but contrary to the Scriptures.
The infliction of chastisements on the people of God when they go astray—chastisements which are of a medicinal or corrective character, such as are inflicted upon children in their father’s house—forms no part of this controversy. We cheerfully admit that God for valuable purposes exercises his people with such wholesome discipline. But does the atonement of Christ exclude penal expiatory sufferings on the part of the saints; sufferings designed, not as proofs of their piety, or to heal their backslidings, but as a satisfaction to avenging justice. Not inflicted by God as a father and through parental love, but decreed by God as a judge; sufferings which the law denounces against the wicked? Our adversaries affirm that the atonement does not exclude such sufferings. We maintain that it does.
The Church of Rome teaches, that though the satisfaction of Christ is of infinite value, yet that it is not so full and ample, but that various atonements are to be made by believers in their own persons. These, they say, are necessary, if not on account of their guilt and liability to eternal punishment, which they admit are taken away by Christ, yet to save them from temporal punishment. Hear what they say:
“If any one shall affirm that on account of the merits of Christ, there is no necessity that we should make any satisfaction to God, through temporal punishments inflicted by Christ and patiently borne by us, or through punishments enjoined by the priest, not voluntarily undertaken—such as penances, prayers, fastings, alms, and other pious exercises—and shall further say that the new life only is the best penitence, let that man be accursed.” (Council of Trent, section 4, cap. 8, canon 13)
The Remonstrants—[a name given to Arminians, on account of the remonstrance which they presented to the Synod of Dort against the act by which their tenets were condemned]—endeavour not a little to destroy the perfection of the atonement. Though they have not yet been so bold as, with the disciples of Socinus, to reject the atonement entirely, yet they make every effort in their power to diminish its efficacy and fulness. They maintain that the satisfaction of Christ was accepted by God, not on account of its own dignity, but merely through grace; that it was not a real, but a nominal satisfaction. The substance of the doctrine which they teach on this head is that God forbore to punish after the death of Christ, not because satisfaction had been truly rendered to his justice, but because he was graciously pleased to admit the satisfaction, notwithstanding its imperfection, as altogether sufficient.
The doctrine for which we contend is that Christ hath so perfectly satisfied divine justice for all our sins, by one offering of himself; and not only for our guilt, but also for both temporal and eternal punishment, that henceforth there are no more propitiatory offerings to be made for sin. And that though, for the promotion of their penitence and sanctification, God often chastises his people, yet no satisfaction is to be made by them either in this or a future state of existence.
Such is the perfection of the atonement, that it corresponds to the justice of God revealed in the Word, to the demands of the law, and to the miseries and necessities of those for whom it was made. Had it been in its own nature deficient, and derived its sufficiency only from God’s acceptance of it through mere grace, then the victims under the law might have possessed equal efficacy in making atonement for sin, contrary to Hebrews 10:4, “For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins.” Its perfection is derived from its own intrinsic fulness of merit.
It is perfect: (1.) In respect to parts: because it satisfied all the demands which the law makes upon us, both in relation to the obedience of life and the suffering of death. By enduring the punishments due to us, it has freed us from death and condemnation (Rom. 8:1; 1 Cor. 15:55). And by its meritorious efficacy, it has reconciled God the Father to us and has acquired for us a title to eternal life. (2.) It is perfect in degree: for Christ has not only done and suffered all that which the law claims of us, but all this in a full and perfect degree: so that nothing more, in this respect, can possibly be desired. The perfection in degree is derived from the infinite dignity of the person who suffered and the severity of the punishment exacted. (3.) Hence follows the perfection in its effects. (A.) In respect of God, it has effected an entire reconciliation with him (Rom. 5:10; 2 Cor. 5:18); (B.) in relation to sin, it has wrought full expiation and pardon (Eph. 1:7; Heb. 1:3; 9:26); and (C.) in relation to believers, its effects are perfection in holiness and complete redemption, both as to deliverance from death, and as to a title to life and its possession (Heb. 9:12; 10:14).
We now offer the proofs which establish this view of the atonement.
I. The dignity of Christ’s person.
I. The dignity of Christ’s person, which is not only of immaculate purity, but also truly divine; a person in which all fulness dwells (Col. 1:19). In Christ’s person there is a fulness of divinity, a fulness of office, a fulness of merit and graces. Who, then, can doubt but that the satisfaction which he has made is one of infinite value and efficacy, and therefore of such fulness and all-sufficiency, that nothing can be added to it? For though Christ’s human nature, which was the instrument in the obedience and sufferings, was finite, yet this does not lessen the value of the satisfaction because it derives its perfection from the divine person of Christ, to which all his actions must be attributed: as he is the person who obeyed and suffered.
II. The Oneness of Christ’s Offering.
II. Our view is also established by the oneness of Christ’s offering. Why does the Apostle Paul assert that Christ has once offered himself for us (Heb. 10:10-12), and that by one offering of himself he hath forever perfected them that are sanctified (v. 14)? Why does he always set before us the obedience of Christ alone as the ground of our justification, unless this obedience is full and complete? As a repetition of the same offering argues its imperfection, so on the other hand, an offering’s having been but once made, necessarily imports its plenitude and the full accomplishment of its object.
III. The Approval of God the Judge.
III. The Perfection of the Atonement is confirmed by the Approbation of God as Judge. If God declares that he is perfectly satisfied, let no one dare to say that the satisfaction is imperfect. The question is whether the Supreme Judge, who demands the satisfaction, approves of and receives it as altogether sufficient. That the atonement has been approved and accepted by God, is established, not only by the appointment of Christ to the mediatorial office, of whom the Father often declares that he is his beloved Son, in whom he is well pleased; but especially by his resurrection from the dead, which is irresistible evidence both of his divinity and of the perfection of the atonement (Rom. 1:4). Unless Christ had satisfied to the uttermost, can we believe that God the judge, whose inexorable justice demands full payment, would have freed him and have exalted him to that supreme glory, which was the reward of his sufferings? (Philip. 2:9). Would the creditor free the surety from prison before he had paid the full debt? Could Christ, when he had undertaken to pay to divine justice the debts which man owed, be set free until he had to the full redeemed the debt? Seeing then, that Christ has gloriously arisen, being raised by the power of the Father, there is no room left for doubt respecting the perfection of the satisfaction, the full payment of the price of redemption; of the full discharge of which the Father has given us such indubitable testimony.
IV. Its Effects.
IV. The effects which are produced by the atonement prove its entire sufficiency. Why are our reconciliation with God and the appeasing of his wrath: the expiation and pardon of sin, and this not partial, but full and complete: and our redemption and glorification, all attributed to the death and obedience of Christ (Col. 1:20; 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 John 1:7; Rom. 3:24; 5:10; Heb. 1:3; 9:14; 10:14), unless his atonement was full and complete? A perfect effect requires a perfect cause to produce it.
Hence follows the overthrow of the Romish dogma of supplementary satisfactions.
The doctrine thus established overthrows at once the Romanist dogmas of the sacrifice of the Mass, of human merits in this life and of Purgatorial expiations hereafter. For if these are allowed it follows either that Christ’s satisfaction is inadequate, or else that God unjustly exacts a double satisfaction for the same sins.
In vain do our opponents contend that, by pleading for satisfactions to be made by the saints, they do not derogate from the infinity of Christ, nor from his satisfaction; since they make all their virtue and efficacy to depend upon the atonement of Christ, who not only has satisfied for us, but also gives us the power to satisfy for ourselves; and since they do not esteem our good works as atonements to be associated with that of Christ, and as of the same exalted nature, but inferior and subordinate.
They assume what they ought to prove. We do not grant that Christ gives us any power to atone for ourselves. Such a supposition receives no countenance from Scripture, and is contrary to the very nature of an atonement. It is one thing to make satisfaction, another to give the power to make satisfaction. They are indeed utterly inconsistent with each other. If Christ has made a complete satisfaction, why is any other demanded? Where the primary cause is solitary, no co-operative or subordinate causes are admissible. So far is this doctrine of our opponents from advancing the glory of Christ, that it in reality, by resorting to other grounds of salvation than those afforded by him, it offers an indignity to him and his atonement. What he, as our Redeemer has engaged to accomplish, they pretend to effect, at least in part, by other agents. And though in the application of this redemption men are bound to contribute by their efforts as fellow-workers with God, yet they are unable to co-operate with him in its acquisition.
Equally futile is their reasoning when they resort to the distinction between sin and punishment, contending that though Christ has satisfied for our sin, he has not fully satisfied for our punishment; or if for eternal punishment, at least not for temporal, which must be suffered by the saints themselves, either in the present or a future state. Because the remission of sin on account of the satisfaction made by Christ is perfectly complete: “there is no condemnation to them who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1), and in consequence of his atonement, their justification is perfect, and in due time they shall obtain full glorification (Rom. 8:9). Besides, the distinction thus made between sin and its punishment is absurd, for there is a necessary connection between sin and suffering. Sin is the cause and suffering the effect; take away the cause, and the effect is necessarily destroyed. Remission of sin is nothing but a deliverance from all punishment, which cannot be justly inflicted where there is no transgression. Would it be just to demand the payment of a debt which is already either paid or remitted?
They also assert that Christ, in a limited sense, makes satisfaction for temporal punishment, in and by us.
1. This assertion is rash, having no countenance from Scripture.
2. It is dangerous, associating men with Christ in making satisfaction, and thus taking a part of the work of redemption out of his hands; for redemption and satisfaction are words of similar import, there being no other way to redeem, but by rendering satisfaction.
3. It is false and contrary to Scripture, which asserts that Christ by himself hath satisfied once for sin and that there is no further satisfaction to be made by others.
Hence follows also the overthrow of the Arminian scheme of an imperfect atonement graciously accepted as if complete.
The view which we have given of the perfection of the atonement prostrates the Arminian doctrine of nominal atonement. When a full payment is made, there is no room for the exercise of grace in accepting what was no more than nominal. In making payments grace is not considered, nor merely the dignity of him who pays, but also the value of the thing given, or its equality to the debt.
This is confirmed from Romans 8:3-4, “For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.” — where Christ is said to have been sent that all righteousness might be fulfilled. Christ fulfilled all righteousness, or satisfied all the demands of the law, by doing what we ourselves were not able to do, on account of the weakness of the law. Now if, by the satisfaction of Christ, the demands of the law are fulfilled in us, this satisfaction must equal the claims of the law.
Farther, an imperfect atonement graciously accepted, we cannot admit, for Christ took upon himself (Isa. 53:6–8) all the punishment which was due to us, even that which was the most grievous, the curse of the law itself (Gal. 3:13).
Finally, if God might have accepted of any imperfect satisfaction, it was unnecessary that Christ should stand as our surety, and be exposed to extreme tortures and a most painful death; for satisfaction could have been received from any other man.
We shall now proceed to remove objections.
1. That the Apostles suffered for the Church.
An objection is drawn from those expressions of Scripture, where the Apostles are said to suffer for the Church. But it is one thing to suffer for the Church, in order to purchase her by paying a price of redemption, and another to suffer persecution and death for the purpose of consoling and confirming the people of God, by placing before them an example of patience and obedience. When Paul says that he suffers for the Church or for the body of Christ (Col. 1:24), it is not in the former sense, for he elsewhere denies that any one except Christ alone is crucified for us (1 Cor. 1:13); but in the latter, as he himself teaches us, 2 Cor. 5:6, “for your consolation.” In 2 Timothy 2:10, he says that he endures all things for the elect’s sake, not to redeem them from temporal punishment, but that, confirmed and animated by his example, they may obtain salvation by Christ. The remark made by Thomas on this subject is a correct one. “The sufferings of the saints are profitable to the Church, not as a price of redemption, but as affording it example and exhortation not to depart from the truth.” (ST. III, Quest. 48, Art. 5, Rep. Obj. 3).
2. That Paul completed Christ’s sufferings.
When Paul says that he “fills up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ” (Col. 1:24), he means not the sufferings endured by Christ in his own person, but the sufferings of Christ mystical, i.e. of his body, the Church—sufferings which are to be endured by every Christian after the manner of Christ, whose members they are. Paul, as well as all other saints, had to take up his cross and follow Christ, and endure that share of tribulation which God allotted him, while on the way to the Kingdom of Heaven. In filling up this measure of tribulation, the apostle bears his cross with alacrity. Christ is often thus, by a figure, put for his body, the Church: “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” (Acts 9:4; 1 Cor. 12:12). The sufferings of the saints are often called the sufferings of Christ: “For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us” (2 Cor. 1:5). They are called so in relation to their origin, because Christ, as supreme director of the theatre of life, appoints them to us, and calls upon us to suffer them (Acts 9:16; 1 Peter 2:21; Philippians 1:29); in relation to their object, for they are laid upon us on account of Christ and his Gospel; and also in relation to our union and communion with Christ, for we are one with him; so that blessings and sufferings are in some sense common to us and Christ; “In all their afflictions he was afflicted” (Isa. 63:9). We are called to participate in his sufferings, that we may be conformed to him in his cross, before we are conformed to him in his glory (Rom. 8:18).
3. That sins are broken off by repentance & charity.
It is one thing for a person to atone for his sins by a real satisfaction, another to break them off by works of repentance and charity. It is in the latter sense that Daniel (4:27) advises Nebuchadnezzar to break off his sins. The Hebrew word peraq, used by the prophet here, does not primarily signify to redeem, nor even to deliver; its primary sense is to tear away, or break off, and hence, as a collateral signification, to deliver. The prophet exhorts the king to repentance and a change of life, in order to make reparation to men, and not to God, for the injuries and oppressions which he had practiced; and that thus, by breaking off his course of sinning, he might be more prosperous, escape from the ruin which was hanging over him, and obtain a longer continuance of peace in his empire. To the same purpose are all those places of Scripture in which pardon of sin is promised to repentance. The repentance is not a meritorious cause, but a condition annexed, the medium through which pardon is obtained.
4. That believers still suffer in this life.
Sufferings are of two kinds. In the one, they are exacted by a judge to make satisfaction to justice; in the other, they are inflicted for the correction of the offender. We admit that the latter species of offering is often appointed to believers, not for vengeance, but for healing; not for destruction, but for correction. God lays it upon them, not as a Judge, but as a Father; not out of hatred, but out of love. Cyprian says, “The Lord chastises the saints that he may advance their holiness, and he advances their holiness that he may save them.” To the same purpose Thomas speaks: “Before pardon, the sufferings of the elect are punishments for sin; after pardon, they are exercises.” (ST. III. Q. 96). Augustine happily explains the difference between the punishments of the wicked and the chastisements of the saints:
“All, both good and evil, suffer the same afflictions; nor by their afflictions can we distinguish between the righteous and the wicked; for all things happen alike to all; there is one lot to the righteous and to the wicked. There is, however, a distinction between the persons who suffer. All who are subjected to the same pains are not alike vicious or virtuous. In the same fire, gold shines and stubble smokes; by the same fan the chaff is blown away and the wheat purged. Dregs must not be confounded with oil, because both are pressed in the same press. The very same afflictions which prove, purify, and refine the righteous, are a curse and destruction to the wicked. Hence, under the pressure of the same calamities, the wicked detest and blaspheme God, while the righteous pray to him and praise him. Thus the difference is not in the nature of the punishments, but in the character of those who suffer them.” (De Civ. Dei., lib. i. cap. 8).
The chastisements which the saints experience sometimes, indeed, retain the name punishments, but not in a strict sense:
1. Because punishments, in a strict sense, are inflicted by the Supreme Judge upon transgressors, on account of their violation of his law. Hence, even after the state of a man is changed and he becomes a saint, the pains and griefs which he suffers are called by the same name, because, though not formally, they are materially the same.
2. Because there are many points of resemblance between them and punishments properly so called; like them, they are not joyous, but grievous to the flesh, which they are designed to subdue; they are dispensed to the saints, by the will of a gracious God, with as much care and attention as he, in the character of an avenging judge, dispenses punishments; sin gives occasion to both. Both produce in the mind the same apprehension that God is an angry judge; and both serve as an example salutary to other offenders. But this grand difference still remains—that, in the punishments of the wicked, God, as a Judge, has in view satisfaction to his justice; while in the chastisements of his people, he, as a Father, designs the correction and amendment of his disobedient children.
The death of David’s child, which affliction happened to him after the pardon of his sin (2 Sam. 12:14), was not a judicial punishment, but a fatherly chastisement; for his sin having been once pardoned, no punishment could remain to be borne. The reason which God assigns for thus afflicting the King of Israel gives no countenance to the idea that the affliction was judicial and expiatory. By his sin,he had given occasion to the enemy to blaspheme the name of God, and thus the discipline of the house of God had been most basely violated. This breach of discipline must be healed by a salutary example. Nor can we infer that it was judicial, from David’s deprecating it. It is the part of human nature to endeavour to escape whatever is painful, just as a sick man deprecates the caustic powders, the pain of the amputating knife, and the bitterness of medicine; though nothing can be further from the nature of punishment than these.
5. That believers are liable to death.
Though death cannot be inflicted upon us to guard us against future transgression, nor for our amendment, yet it by no means follows that it is designed as an atonement for sin. There are many other weighty reasons rendering it necessary that all should die: such as that the remains of sin may be destroyed: that we may pass from a natural and terrestrial state to one spiritual and heavenly: that piety may be exercised: that Christian virtues may be displayed in the most brilliant manner: and finally, that we may have a most powerful excitement to amend our life, and prepare for entering upon a better inheritance.
6. That judgment begins at the House of God.
The judgement which, the Apostle Peter tells us, must begin at the house of God (1 Peter 4:17), is not the legal judgement of avenging justice, which proceeds from God as a wrathful judge, but a fatherly and evangelical chastisement; not to punish and destroy, but to hold out a useful example, and to correct us, that thus we may not be condemned with the world, as Paul says (1 Cor. 11:32). The revenge mentioned in 2 Corinthians 7:11, is not properly a punishment inflicted by God in the character of judge; but either an ecclesiastical censure, such as excommunication, which is adjudged by the Church for the removal of scandal; or it rather denotes the repentance and contrition in which a sinner is offended with himself, and as it were, takes vengeance on himself for his offences.
7. That Jewish saints, although forgiven, had to offer sacrifices.
Though those under the Old Testament dispensation, whose sins were pardoned, had still to offer sacrifices for sin, yet a warrant for attempting to make human atonements is not thence to be inferred. The sacrifices then offered were not, properly speaking, a satisfaction for sin; they were types of a future atonement to be made by Christ, through the efficacy of which they procured pardon.
8. That “by mercy and truth iniquity is purged.“
When Solomon says that “by mercy and truth iniquity is purged” (Prov. 16:6a), no countenance is given to the human satisfaction for which the Church of Rome contends. There are two opinions maintained respecting this passage. One is, that by “mercy and truth” are meant the mercy and truth of God; then the wise man would directly allude to and assert the atonement of Christ. The other opinion is that the mercy and truth of man are intended; then the doctrine which the text teaches would be that mercy and truth are a condition always required when sin is pardoned (but not the cause for which the sentence of pardon is pronounced;: because, against the unmerciful, judgement without mercy will be exercised; while on the other hand, “the merciful shall obtain mercy” (Mat. 5:6).
The Hebrew word kaphar, which is here translated “purged,” does not properly signify expiatory purging, but either covering and remission only, which God bestows on the believing and merciful; or else the removal of the power of sin, in which sense it is used by the Prophet Isaiah (28:18). Then the passage would intimate that the exercise of mercy and sincere piety removes the contrary vices. The following clause of the verse confirms this interpretation of the word: “By the fear of the Lord men depart from evil.” (Prov. 16:6b).
Though nothing defiled can enter into the New Jerusalem, yet there is no need of any satisfaction in this life besides that of Christ, nor of a Purgatory in another, to purge away the pollutions of sin; for in the moment of death, when the soul is separated from the body, all the remains of sin are entirely removed by the Spirit of Christ.