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We come now to the consideration of a very important feature of the moral government of God; namely, the atonement. In discussing this subject, I will:
Call attention to several well-established principles of government.
1. We have already seen that moral law is not founded in the mere arbitrary will of God or of any other being, but that it has its foundation in the nature and relations of moral agents, that it is that rule of action or of willing which is imposed on them by the law of their own intellect.
2. As the will of no being can create moral law, so the will of no being can repeal or alter moral law. It being just that rule of action that is agreeable to the nature and relations of moral agents, it is as immutable as those natures and relations.
3. There is a distinction between the letter and the spirit of moral law. The letter relates to the outward life or action; the spirit respects the motive or intention from which the act should proceed. For example: the spirit of the moral law requires disinterested benevolence, and is all expressed in one word love. The letter of the law is found in the commandments of the decalogue, and in divers other precepts relating to outward acts.
4. To the letter of the law there may be many exceptions, but to the spirit of moral law there can be no exception. That is, the spirit of the moral law may sometimes admit and require, that the letter of the law shall be disregarded or violated; but the spirit of the law ought never to be disregarded or violated. For example: the letter of the law prohibits all labor on the Sabbath day. But the spirit of the law often requires labor on the Sabbath. The spirit of the law requires the exercise of universal and perfect love or benevolence to God and man, and the law of benevolence often requires that labor shall be done on the Sabbath; as administering to the sick, relieving the poor, feeding animals; and in short, whatever is plainly the work of necessity or mercy, in such a sense that enlightened benevolence demands it, is required by the spirit of moral law upon the Sabbath, as well as all other days. This is expressly taught by Christ, both by precept and example. So again, the letter of the law says, "The soul that sinneth, it shall die" (Ezek. 18:20), but the spirit of the law admits and requires that upon certain conditions, to be examined in their proper place, the soul that sinneth shall live. The letter of the law is inexorable; it condemns and sentences to death all violators of its precepts, without regard to atonement or repentance. The spirit of moral law allows and requires that upon condition of satisfaction being made to public justice, and the return of the sinner to obedience, he shall live and not die.
5. In establishing a government and publishing law, the lawgiver is always understood as pledging himself duly to administer the laws in support of public order, and for the promotion of public morals, toward the innocent with his favor and protection, and to punish the disobedient with the loss of his protection and favor.
6. Laws are public property in which every subject of the government has an interest. Every obedient subject of government is interested to have law supported and obeyed, and wherever the law is violated, every subject of the government is injured, and his rights are invaded; and each and all have a right to expect the government duly to execute the penalties of law when it is violated.
7. There is an important distinction between retributive and public justice. Retributive justice consists in treating every subject of government according to his character. It respects the intrinsic merit or demerit of each individual, and deals with him accordingly. Public justice, in its exercise, consists in the promotion and protection of the public interests, by such legislation and such an administration of law, as is demanded by the highest good of the public. It implies the execution of the penalties of law where the precept is violated, unless something else is done that will as effectually secure the public interests. When this is done, public justice demands, that the execution of the penalty shall be dispensed with by extending pardon to the criminal. Retributive justice makes no exceptions, but punishes without mercy in every instance of crime. Public justice makes exceptions, as often as this is permitted or required by the public good. Public justice is identical with the spirit of the moral law, and in its exercise, regards only the law. Retributive justice cleaves to the letter, and makes no exceptions to the rule, "The soul that sinneth, it shall die" (Ezek. 18:20).
8. The design of legal penalties is to secure obedience to the precept. The same is also the reason for executing them when the precept is violated. The sanctions are to be regarded as an expression of the views of the lawgiver, in respect to the importance of his law; and the execution of penalties is designed and calculated to evince his sincerity in enacting, and his continued adherence to, and determination to abide by, the principles of his government as revealed in the law; his abhorrence of all crime; his regard to the public interests; and his unalterable determination to carry out, support and establish, the authority of his law.
9. It is a fact well established by the experience of all ages and nations, that the exercise of mercy, in setting aside the execution of penalties, is a matter of extreme delicacy and danger. The influence of law, as might be expected, is found very much to depend upon the certainty felt by the subjects that it will be duly executed. It is found in experience, to be true, that the exercise of mercy in every government where no atonement is made, weakens government, by begetting and fostering a hope of impunity in the minds of those who are tempted to violate the law. It has been asserted, that the same is true when an atonement has been made, and that therefore, the doctrines of atonement and consequent forgiveness tend to encourage the hope of impunity in the commission of sin, and for this reason, are dangerous doctrines, subversive of high and sound morality. This assertion I shall notice in its appropriate place.
10. Since the head of the government is pledged to protect and promote the public interests, by a due administration of law, if in any instance where the precept is violated, he would dispense with the execution of penalties, public justice requires that he shall see, that a substitute for the execution of law is provided, or that something is done that shall as effectually secure the influence of law, as the execution of the penalty would do. He cannot make exceptions to the spirit of the law. Either the soul that sinneth must die, according to the letter of the law, or a substitute must be provided in accordance with the spirit of the law.
11. Whatever will as fully evince the lawgiver's regard for his law, his determination to support it, his abhorrence of all violations of its precepts, and with guard as effectually against the inference, that violators of the precept might expect to escape with impunity, as the execution of the penalty would do, is a full satisfaction of public justice. When these conditions are fulfilled, and the sinner has returned to obedience, public justice not only admits, but absolutely demands, that the penalty shall be set aside by extending pardon to the offender. The offender still deserves to be punished, and, upon the principles of retributive justice, might be punished according to his deserts. But the public good admits and requires, that upon the above condition he should live; hence, public justice, in compliance with the public interests and the spirit of the law of love, spares and pardons him.
12. If mercy or pardon is to be extended to any who have violated law, it ought to be done in a manner and upon some conditions that will settle the question, and establish the truth, that the execution of penalties is not to be dispensed with merely upon condition of the repentance of the offender. In other words, if pardon is to be extended, it should be known to be upon a condition not within the power of the offender. Else he may know, that he can violate the law, and yet be sure to escape with impunity, by fulfilling the conditions of forgiveness, which are upon the supposition, all within his own power.
13. So, if mercy is to be exercised, it should be upon a condition that is not to be repeated. The thing required by public justice is, that nothing shall be done to undermine or disturb the influence of law. Hence it cannot consent to have the execution of penalties dispensed with, upon any condition that shall encourage the hope of impunity. Therefore, public justice cannot consent to the pardon of sin but upon condition of an atonement, and also upon the assumption that atonement is not to be repeated, nor to extend its benefits beyond the limits of the race for whom it was made, and that only for a limited time. If an atonement were to extend its benefits to all worlds, and to all eternity, it would nullify its own influence, and encourage the universal hope of impunity, in case the precepts of the law were violated. This would be indefinitely worse than no atonement; and public justice might as well consent to have mercy exercised, without any regard to securing the authority and influence of law.
The term Atonement.
The English word atonement is synonymous with the Hebrew word cofer. This is a noun from the verb caufar, to cover. The cofer or cover was the name of the lid or cover of the ark of the covenant, and constituted what was called the mercy-seat. The Greek word rendered atonement is katallage. This means reconciliation to favor, or more strictly, the means or conditions of reconciliation to favor; from katallasso, to "change, or exchange." The term properly means substitution. An examination of these original words, in the connection in which they stand, will show that the atonement is the governmental substitution of the sufferings of Christ for the punishment of sinners. It is a covering of their sins by His sufferings.
The teachings of natural theology, or the a priori affirmations of reason upon this subject.
The doctrine of atonement has been regarded as so purely a doctrine of revelation as to preclude the supposition, that reason could, a priori, make any affirmations about it. It has been generally regarded as lying absolutely without the pale of natural theology, in so high a sense, that, aside from revelation, no assumption could be made, nor even a reasonable conjecture indulged. But there are certain facts in this world's history, that render this assumption exceedingly doubtful. It is true, indeed, that natural theology could not ascertain and establish the fact, that an atonement had been made, or that it certainly would be made; but if I am not mistaken, it might have been reasonably inferred, the true character of God being known and assumed, that an atonement of some kind would be made to render it consistent with His relations to the universe, to extend mercy to the guilty inhabitants of this world. The manifest necessity of a divine revelation has been supposed to afford a strong presumptive argument, that such a revelation has been or will be made. From the benevolence of God, as affirmed by reason, and manifested in His works and providence, it has been, as I suppose, justly inferred, that He would make arrangements to secure the holiness and salvation of men, and as a condition of this result, that He would grant them a further revelation of His will than had been given in creation and providence. The argument stands thus:
2. The providence of God in this world is manifestly disciplinary, and designed to reform mankind.