Alexander Campbell The Christian System: CS - 10-10 Sacrifice for Sin

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Alexander Campbell The Christian System: CS - 10-10 Sacrifice for Sin

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The history of sacrifice is the history of atonement, reconciliation, redemption, and remission of sins. These are not, at least in the Jewish and Christian style, exactly synonymous terms. Sacrifice atones and reconciles. It propitiates God, and reconciles man. It is the cause, and these are its effects on heaven and earth, on God and man.

For form's sake, and perhaps, for the sake of perspicuity, four questions ought here to be propounded and resolved, at the very threshold of our inquiries. 1. What is sacrifice? 2. To whom is it to be offered? 3. For whom is it to be offered? 4. By whom is it to be offered? The answers are as prompt and as brief as the interrogations. 1. In its literal primary acceptance, it is "the solemn and religious infliction of death upon an innocent and unoffending victim, usually by shedding its blood." Figuratively, it means the offering of any thing, living or dead, person or animal, or property, to God. 2. Religious sacrifice is to be offered to God alone. 3. It is to be offered for man. 4. It is to be offered by a priest.

The greater part of sacrifices were lambs. Hence Christ is called the LAMB OF GOD, not because of his innocence or patience, but because "he taketh away," or beareth "the sin of the world." It is rather, then, with a reference to his death than to his life, that he is called the Lamb of God. Neither his example nor his doctrine could expiate sin. This required the shedding of blood: for without shedding of blood, there never was remission of sin.

Priests are mediators in their proper place and meaning. But at first every man was his own priest. For as it was once right for a man to marry his sister, because he could find no other person for a wife, so was it lawful and expedient for every man to be his own priest. Thus, Adam, Abel, Noah, etc., were their own priests. In the next chapter of time, the eldest sons--then the princes of tribes, were priests for their respective tribes and people. But finally, God called, and appointed such persons as Melchizedek and Aaron to those offices.

Sacrifice, doubtless, is as old as the Fall. The institution of it is not recorded by Moses. But he informs us, that God had respect for Abel's offering, and accepted from him a slain lamb. Now had it been a human institution, this could not have been the case for a divine warrant has always been essential to any acceptable worship. The question, "Who has required this at your hands?" must always be answered by a "Thus saith the Lord," before an offering of mortal man can be acknowledged by the Lawgiver of the universe. "In vain," said the Great Teacher, "do you worship God, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men." God accepted the sacrifices of Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, etc., and in the Jewish system gave many laws and enactments concerning it.

Now as sacrifice may be contemplated in different aspects, in reference to what it is in itself, to whom it is tendered, for whom and by whom it is offered; so in each of these relations, it may be represented under different names. Hence, it is a "sin offering," a thank offering, a propitiation,1 a reconciliation, a redemption. Contemplated in reference to God, it is a propitiation; in reference to mankind, it is a reconciliation; and in another point of view, it may even be regarded as a redemption or ransom. On each of these it may be expedient to make a few remarks.

Sacrifice, as respects God, is a propitiation; as respects sinners, it is a reconciliation; as respects sin, it is an expiation; as respects the saved, it is a redemption. These are aspects of the thing of cardinal value in understanding the Scriptures. As a propitiation or atonement2 it is offered to God; not, indeed, to move his benevolence or to excite his mercy, but to render him propitious according to law and justice. It sprang from everlasting love, and is the effect and not the cause of God's benevolence to sinners. But without it God could not be propitious to us. The indignity offered his person, authority, and government, by the rebellion of man, as also the good of all his creatures, made it impossible for him, according to justice, eternal right, and his own benevolence, to show mercy without sacrifice. True, indeed, he always does prefer mercy to sacrifice, as he prefers the end to the means. But divine mercy forever sits upon the propitiatory; upon law and justice. Thus affirms Paul of Jesus, "Whom God has set forth as a propitiatory through faith in his blood, for a declaration of his justice--that he might be just, and the justifier of the ungodly, or of him that believeth in Jesus." In this sense only, God could not be gracious to man in forgiving him without a propitiation, or something that could justify him both to himself and all creatures. In this acceptation of the term atonement, it is found often in the law, not less than twenty-five times in the single book of Leviticus.

As respects the sinner, we have said it is a reconciliation. Indeed, the term reconciliation very appropriately applies to sacrifice, inasmuch as it brings forth the offended and the offender together. So far as it honors law and justice, it reconciles God to forgive; and so far as it displays to the offender love and mercy, it reconciles him to his offended Sovereign. It is, in this view, a reconciliation indeed. It propitiates God and reconciles man. God's "anger is turned away;" (not a turbulent passion, not an implacable wrath); but "that moral sentiment and justice," which demands the punishment of the violated law, is pacified or well pleased; and man's hatred and animosity against God, is subdued, overcome, and destroyed in and by the same sacrifice. Thus, in fact, it is, in reference to both parties, a reconciliation. Still, however, when we speak according to scriptural usage, and with proper discrimination, sacrifice, as respects God, is atonement or propitiation, and as respects man, it is reconciliation. These are its reasons and its effects. "For this cause," says Paul, "Jesus is the mediator of a new institution, that by means of death for the redemption of the transgressions under the first institution, those who have been called might receive the promise of the eternal inheritance."3 Again, the same writer makes the death of Christ the basis of reconciliation, saying, "Be reconciled to God: for he has made Christ a sin offering for us;" and now "God is in Christ, reconciling the world to himself."4

As respects sin, it has been observed, sacrifice is an expiation. The terms purification or cleansing, are in the common version preferred to expiation. Once, at least (Num_35:33,) we have a need of a better word to represent the original than the term cleansing. "There can be no expiation for the land" polluted with blood, "but by the blood of him that shed it." Still, if any one prefer purification to expiation, or even cleansing to either, so long as we understand each other, it is indeed a matter of very easy forbearance. The main point is, that sacrifice cancels sin, atones for sin, and puts it away. "He put away sin," says Paul, "by the sacrifice of himself." This is expiation.

"The redemption, then, which is in Christ Jesus," is a moral, and not a commercial consideration. If sin were only a debt, and not a crime, it might be forgiven without atonement. Nay, if sin were a debt, and sacrifice a payment of that debt, then there could be no forgiveness at all with God! For if the Redeemer or Ransomer of man, has paid the debt, justice, and not mercy or forgiveness, commands the release, not the pardon of the debtor. Some there are, however, who from inattention of the sacred style, and the meaning of biblical terms, have actually represented the death of Christ, rather as the payment of an immense debt, than as an expiation of sin, or a purification from guilt, and have thus made the pardon of sin wholly unintelligible, or rather, indeed, impossible. Every one feels, that when a third person assumes a debt, and pays it, the principal must be discharged, and cannot be forgiven. But when sin is viewed in the light of a crime, and atonement offered by a third person, then it is a question of grace, whether the pardon or acquittal of the sinner shall be granted by him against whom the crime has been committed; because, even after an atonement or propitiation is made, the transgressor is yet as deserving of punishment as before. There is room, then, for both justice and mercy; for the display of indignation against sin, and the forgiveness of the sinner, in just views of sin, and of the redemption there is in and through the Lord Jesus Christ.

Redemption, however, is the deliverance from sin, rather than the expiation or atonement for it. Thus, Christ is said "by his own blood, to have obtained an eternal redemption for us."5 Thus pardon, sanctification, and even the resurrection of the bodies of the saints, are severally contemplated as parts of our redemption, or deliverance from guilt to sin, from the power of sin, and from the punishment of sin.6

There is a number of incongruities and inaccuracies in the controversy about the nature and extent of the atonement, which, as the mists of the morning retire from the hills before the rising sun, disappear from out mental horizon, when the light of scriptural definition breaks in upon our souls. The atonement or propitiation has no "extent," because God alone is its object. It contemplates sin as a unit in the divine government, and therefore the "Lamb of God beareth away the sin of the world," and his death is a "sin offering." As to its value, it is unspeakable. Commensurate it is, indeed, with the sin of the world; for it makes it just on the part of God, to forgive and save every one that believeth in Jesus. Reconciliation and redemption, have, however, a certain limited extent. Reconciliation is not universal, but partial. All do not believe in Jesus, all are therefore not reconciled to God through him. Redemption, or deliverance from the guilt, pollution, power, and punishment of sin, is only commensurate with the elect of God, 1: e., with those who believe in Jesus and obey him.

They who affirm that one drop of Christ's blood could expiate the sin of the whole world, teach without knowing it, that Christ has died in vain: for, surely, the Messiah might have shed many drops of blood and still have lived. They make his death an unmeaning superfluity or redundancy, who reason thus. They also agree, without intending it, with those who view sin merely as a debt, and not a crime, and therefore say that there is no need of sin offerings, or sacrifice, or of a divine Saviour, in order to its forgiveness.

They, too, seem to mistake the matter, and I am sorry to find such names among them as Butler, Whitby, and Macknight, who, while they contend, that the death of Christ, was a sacrifice or a propitiation for sin, wholly resolve its efficacy into the mere appointment of God. According to them, God might have saved the whole world without the appearance of his Son: for the merits or efficacy of Christ's death arises not from his dignity of person, but from the mere appointment or will of God! Now we cannot think that it was possible for God himself to save sinners in any other way than he has chosen: for to have paid an overprice for our redemption, savors rather of prodigality. than of divine wisdom and prudence. And if mere appointment was sufficient, why not, then, have continued the legal sacrifices, and have made the blood of bulls and of goats efficacious to take it away?!

To conclude, sacrifice is essential to remission of sins, and is therefore old as the fall of man. But the sacrifices of the patriarchal and Jewish dispensations could not, and did not, take away sin. They were but types of the real sacrifice: for as Paul says, "It was not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sin." And again, "If the blood of bulls, and of goats, with the ashes of a heifer, did cleanse to the purification of the flesh; how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through an eternal spirit offers himself to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?" Christ's death is, therefore, a real and sufficient sacrifice for sin, and stands in the attitudes of propitiation, reconciliation, expiation, and redemption; from which spring to us, justification, sanctification, adoption, and eternal life.

The sacrifice of Christ, as before affirmed, is, as respects God, a propitiation; as respects man, a reconciliation; as respects sin, an expiation; as respects the penitent, a redemption; but the attributes that apply to it in any of these aspects do not apply to it in the others; and this oversight has in our opinion been the fruitful source of interminable controversies concerning the "atonement," as it is most usually denominated. It is indeed, infinite in value, as respects the expiation of sin, or its propitiatory power; but as respects the actual reconciliation and redemption of sinners, it is limited to those only who believe on and obey the Saviour. While, also, it is as universal as the sin of the world, the peculiar sins only of the obedient are expiated by it. Its design, then, is necessarily limited to all who come to God by it; while its value and efficacy, are equal to the salvation of the whole world, provided only, they will put themselves under the covering of its propitiatory power.

The "doctrine of the cross" being the great central doctrine of the Bible, and the very essence of Christianity--which explains all the peculiarities of the Christian system, and of the relation of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as far as mortals can comprehend them, and as it has been to sceptics and to many professors, "a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offence," for the sake of some of the speculative and cavilling, who ask why are these things so, I subjoin an extract from the writings of Mr. Watson, on this point, which may suggest to them some useful reflections on this cardinal and all absorbing subject:--

"How sin may be forgiven,” says Mr. Watson, “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 in 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 it 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 favor 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 entire and 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 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 sacrificial sufferings. If it then be true, that the release of offending man from future punishment, and his restoration to the divine favor, ought, for the interest 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, while 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 those 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 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 towards 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 if repentance imply a "renewal in the spirit of the mind," no criminal would of himself thus repent. But if by repentance be meant merely remorse and terror, in the immediate view of danger, what offender, surrounded with the wreck of former enjoyments, feeling the vanity of guilty pleasures, now past forever, 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 of ridicule. Nor is it recognized 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 dishonorable 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 a merely 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," "the just for the unjust," 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 judgments 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 the 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 further 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 or 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 placibility 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 forever. 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 tranquilize by faith, is to be found in the sacrificial death of Christ, and the principles and purposes for which it was endured."

1 The Hebrew term translated in the Greek Old Testament, of the ilasmsos, and in the common English version, atonement or propitiation, is copher, which signifies a covering. The verb COPHER "to cover," or "to make atonement" denotes the object of sacrifice; and hence, Jesus is called the ilasmos, the covering, propitiation or atonement for our sins. 1Jn_2:2; 1Jn_4:10. It is a curious and remarkable fact, that God covered Adam and Eve with the skins of the first victims of death, instead of their fig leaf robes. This may have prefigured the fact, that while sin was atoned or expiated as respects God by the life of the victim, the effect as respects man was a covering for his nakedness and shame, or his sin, which divested him of his primitive innocence and beauty, and covered him with ignominy and reproach.

2 Kattallagee, translated once atonement; Rom_5:11, occurs in the New Testament four times. In Rom_5:11, it ought to have been reconciliation, as in Rom_11:15, 2Co_5:18-19. It is not ilasmos, atonement, in the Jewish sense, but katallagee, reconciliation. God receives the atonement, and men the reconciliation. It is preposterous, then, to talk to the extent of the atonement, but not so of the reconciliation.

3 Heb_9:15.

4 2Co_5:18-21.

5 Heb_9:12.

6 See Eph_1:7, Col_1:14, 1Pe_3:18, Isa_59:20, Rom_8:23, Eph_1:14; Eph_4:30.