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§ 3. Definition of Terms.

Christ, it is said, executeth the office of a priest, in his once offering up of Himself a sacrifice to satisfy divine justice, and reconcile us to God, and in making continual intercession for us. Expiation, propitiation, reconciliation, and intercession are the several aspects under which the work of Christ as a priest, is presented in the Word of God.

Before attempting to state what the Scriptures teach in reference to these points, it will be well to define the terms which are of constant occurrence in theological discussions of this subject.


The Word Atonement.

The word atonement is often used, especially in this country, to designate the priestly work of Christ. This word does not occur in the English version of the New Testament except in Romans v. 11, where it is interchanged with “reconciliation” as the translation of the Greek word καταλλαγή. In the Old Testament it frequently occurs. The objections to its use to express the work of Christ are, —

1. Its ambiguity. To atone is properly to be, or cause to be, at one. It is so used in common language as well as in theology. In this sense to atone is to reconcile; and atonement is reconciliation. It, therefore, expresses the effect, and not the nature of Christ s work. But it is also, in the second place, used to express that by which the reconciliation is effected. It then means satisfaction, or compensation. It answers in our version to the Hebrew word כִּפֵּר; which in relation to the offence or guilt, means to expiate. Thus in Leviticus v. 16, it is said, if a man commit an offence, הִכּהֵֹו יְכַפֵּר עָלָוו, the priest shall make atonement for him; i.e., shall expiate, or make satisfaction for his offence. So in Ex. xxxii. 30; Lev. iv. 26; Num. vi. 11. In reference to the person of the offender, it means to reconcile by means of expiation, to propitiate God in his behalf. See Ex. xxx. 15; Lev. iv. 20; xvi. 6.; Ezekiel xlv. 17, “It shall be the prince’s part to give burnt-offerings; . . . he shall prepare the sin-offering . . . בֵית־ִיִשָרֵאל לְכַפֵּר בְּעַד to make reconciliation for the house of Israel.” Thus often elsewhere. While the verb to atone thus means to expiate and to reconcile by expiation, the substantive means, either the reconciliation itself, or the means by which it is effected. This latter sense is not a Scriptural usage of the word, but is very common in theological writings. Thus when we speak of the atonement of Christ, of its necessity, efficacy, application, or extent, we mean Christ’s work, what He did to expiate the sins of men. This ambiguity of the word necessarily gives rise to more or less confusion.

2. Another objection to its general use is that it is not sufficiently comprehensive. As commonly used it includes only the sacrificial work of Christ, and not his vicarious obedience to the divine law. The atonement of Christ is said to consist of his sufferings and death. But his saving work includes far more than his expiatory sufferings.

3. A third objection is that this use of the word atonement is a departure from the established usage of the Churches of the 470Reformation. It is important to adhere to old words if we would adhere to old doctrines.


The word satisfaction is the one which for ages has been generally used to designate the special work of Christ in the salvation of men. With the Latin theologians the word is “satisfactio,” with the German writers, “Genugthun,” its exact etymological equivalent, “the doing enough.” By the satisfaction of Christ is meant all He has done to satisfy the demands of the law and justice of God, in the place and in behalf of sinners. This word has the advantage of being precise, comprehensive, and generally accepted, and should therefore be adhered to. There are, however, two kinds of satisfaction, which as they differ essentially in their nature and effects, should not be confounded. The one is pecuniary or commercial; the other penal or forensic. When a debtor pays the demand of his creditor in full, he satisfies his claims, and is entirely free from any further demands. In this case the thing paid is the precise sum due, neither more nor less. It is a simple matter of commutative justice; a quid pro quo; so much for so much. There can be no condescension, mercy, or grace on the part of a creditor receiving the payment of a debt. It matters not to him by whom the debt is paid, whether by the debtor himself, or by someone in his stead; because the claim of the creditor is simply upon the amount due and not upon the person of the debtor. In the case of crimes the matter is different. The demand is then upon the offender. He himself is amenable to justice. Substitution in human courts is out of the question. The essential point in matters of crime, is not the nature of the penalty, but who shall suffer. The soul that sins, it shall die. And the penalty need not be, and very rarely is, of the nature of the injury inflicted. All that is required is that it should be a just equivalent. For an assault, it may be a fine; for theft, imprisonment; for treason, banishment, or death. In case a substitute is provided to bear the penalty in the place of the criminal, it would be to the offender a matter of pure grace, enhanced in proportion to the dignity of the substitute, and the greatness of the evil from which the criminal is delivered. Another important difference between pecuniary and penal satisfaction, is that the one ipso facto liberates. The moment the debt is paid the debtor is free, and that completely. No delay can be admitted, and no conditions can be attached to his deliverance. But in the case of a criminal, as he has no claim to have 471a substitute take his place, if one be provided, the terms on which the benefits of his substitution shall accrue to the principal, are matters of agreement, or covenant between the substitute and the magistrate who represents justice. The deliverance of the offender may be immediate, unconditional, and complete; or, it may be deferred, suspended on certain conditions, and its benefits gradually bestowed.

As the satisfaction of Christ was not pecuniary, but penal or forensic; a satisfaction for sinners, and not for those who owed a certain amount of money, it follows, —

1. That it does not consist in an exact quid pro quo, so much for so much. This, as just remarked, is not the case even among men. The penalty for theft is not the restitution of the thing stolen, or its exact pecuniary value. It is generally something of an entirely different nature. It may be stripes or imprisonment. The punishment for an assault is not the infliction of the same degree of injury on the person of the offender. So of slander, breach of trust, treason, and all other criminal offences. The punishment, for the offence is something different from the evil which the offender himself inflicted. All that justice demands in penal satisfaction is that it should be a real satisfaction, and not merely something graciously accepted as such. It must bear an adequate proportion to the crime committed. It may be different in kind, but it must have inherent value. To fine a man a few pence for wanton homicide would be a mockery; but death or imprisonment for life would be a real satisfaction to justice. All, therefore, that the Church teaches when it says that Christ satisfied divine justice for the sins of men, is that what He did and suffered was a real adequate compensation for the penalty remitted and the benefits conferred. His sufferings and death were adequate to accomplish all the ends designed by the punishment of the sins of men. He satisfied justice. He rendered it consistent with the justice of God that the sinner should be justified. But He did not suffer either in kind or degree what sinners would have suffered. In value, his sufferings infinitely transcended theirs. The death of an eminently good man would outweigh the annihilation of a universe of insects. So the humiliation, sufferings, and death of the eternal Son of God immeasurably transcended in worth and power the penalty which a world of sinners would have endured.

2. The satisfaction of Christ was a matter of grace. The Father was not bound to provide a substitute for fallen men, nor was the Son bound to assume that office. It was an act of pure grace that 472God arrested the execution of the penalty of the law, and consented to accept the vicarious sufferings and death of his only begotten Son. And it was an act of unparalleled love that the Son consented to assume our nature, bear our sins, and die, the just for the unjust, to bring us near to God. All the benefits, therefore, which accrue to sinners in consequence of the satisfaction of Christ are to them pure gratuities; blessings to which in themselves they have no claim. They call for gratitude, and exclude boasting.

3. Nevertheless, it is a matter of justice that the blessings which Christ intended to secure for his people should be actually bestowed upon them. This follows, for two reasons: first, they were promised to Him as the reward of his obedience and sufferings. God covenanted with Christ that if He fulfilled the conditions imposed, if He made satisfaction for the sins of his people, they should be saved. It follows, secondly, from the nature of a satisfaction. If the claims of justice are satisfied they cannot be again enforced. This is the analogy between the work of Christ and the payment of a debt. The point of agreement between the two cases is not the nature of the satisfaction rendered, but one aspect of the effect produced. In both cases the persons for whom the satisfaction is made are certainly freed. Their exemption or deliverance is in both cases, and equally in both, a matter of justice. This is what the Scriptures teach when they say that Christ gave Himself for a ransom. When a ransom is paid and accepted, the deliverance of the captive is a matter of justice. It does not, however, thereby cease to be to the captives a matter of grace. They owe a debt of gratitude to him who paid the ransom, and that debt is the greater when the ransom is the life of their deliverer. So in the case of the satisfaction of Christ. Justice demands the salvation of his people. That is his reward. It is He who has acquired this claim on the. justice of God; his people have no such claim except through Him. Besides, it is of the nature of a satisfaction that it answers all the ends of punishment. What reason can there be for the infliction of the penalty for which satisfaction has been rendered?

4. The satisfaction of Christ being a matter of covenant between the Father and the Son, the distribution of its benefits is determined by the terms of that covenant. It does not ipso facto liberate. The people of God are not justified from eternity. They do not come into the world in a justified state They remain (if adults) in a state of condemnation until they believe. And even the benefits of redemption are granted gradually. The believer receives more and more of them in this life, but the full plenitude of blessings 473is reserved for the life to come. All these are facts of Scripture and of experience, and they are all explained by the nature of the satisfaction rendered. It is not the payment of a debt, but a matter of agreement or covenant. It seemed good to the parties to the covenant of redemption that matters should be so arranged.


The words penal and penalty are frequently misunderstood. By the penalty of a law is often understood a specific kind or degree of suffering. The penalty of the divine law is said to be eternal death. Therefore if Christ suffered the penalty of the law He must have suffered death eternal; or, as others say, He must have endured the same kind of sufferings as those who are cast off from God and die eternally are called upon to suffer. This difficulty is sometimes met by the older theologians by saying, with Burman,395395Synopsis Theologie, V. xvii. 8, edit. Geneva, 1678, vol. ii. p. 89.Tenendum, passionem hanc Christi, licet pœnarum nostrarum vim omnem quoad intensionem quasi exhauserit, non tamen æternitatem earum tulisse: temporis enim infinitatem, infinita personæ dignitas recompensavit.” Turrettin says,396396Institutio, loc. XIV. qu. xi. 28; Works, edit. Edinburgh, 1847, vol. ii. p. 384.Si Christus mortem æternam non tulit sed temporalem tantum et triduanam, non minus tamen solvit quod a nobis debebatur quoad infinitatem pœnæ. Quia si non fuit infinita quoad durationem, fuit tamen talis æquivalenter quoad valorem, propter personæ patientis infinitam dignitatem, quia non fuit passio meri hominis, sed veri Dei, qui suo sanguine Ecclesiam acquisivit, Act. xx. 28, ut quod deest finito tempori, suppleatur per personæ divinæ conditionem, quæ passioni temporali pondus addit infinitum.

Another answer equally common is that Christ suffered what the law denounced on sinners, so far as the essence of the penalty is concerned, but not as to its accidents. These accidents greatly modify all punishments. To a man of culture and refinement, who has near relations of the same class, imprisonment for crime is an unspeakably more severe infliction than it is to a hardened and degraded offender. The essence of the penalty of the divine law is the manifestation of God’s displeasure, the withdrawal of the divine favour. This Christ suffered in our stead. He bore the wrath of God. In the case of sinful creatures, this induces final and hopeless perdition, because they have no life in themselves. In the case of Christ, it was a transient hiding of his Father’s face. With sinners, thus being cast off from God is necessarily attended 474by remorse, despair, and rebellious resistance and enmity. All these are mere circumstantial accidents, not attending the sufferings of Christ. Thus Turrettin says, “Vere tulit pœnas quas damnati tulissemus, non quidam tamdiu, non omnes, non in eo loco, non cum illis effectis; sed tamen sensit justam Dei iram.” Again,397397Loc. XIV. qu. xi. 29, edit. Edinburgh, 1847, vol. ii. p. 384.Licet desperatio et fremitus conjungantur cum pœnis damnatorum; non sequitur Christum ferendo pœnas peccato debitas debuisse illis exponi, quia non sunt de essentia pœnæ, prout a judice infligitur, vel a sponsore sanctissimo fertur; sed habent rationem adjuncti, quod eam comitatur, propter vitium subjecti patientis.

A third and more satisfactory answer to the objection in question is that the words penal and penalty do not designate any particular kind or degree of suffering, but any kind or any degree which is judicially inflicted in satisfaction of justice. The word death, as used in Scripture to designate the wages or reward of sin, includes all kinds and degrees of suffering inflicted as its punishment. By the words penal and penalty, therefore, we express nothing concerning the nature of the sufferings endured, but only the design of their infliction. Suffering without any reference to the reason of its occurrence is calamity; if inflicted for the benefit of the sufferer, it is chastisement; if for the satisfaction of justice, it is punishment. The very same kind and amount of suffering may in one case be a calamity; in another a chastisement; in another a punishment. If a man is killed by accident, it is a calamity. If he is put to death on account of crime and in execution of a judicial sentence, it is punishment. A man may be imprisoned to protect him from unjust violence. His incarceration is then an act of kindness. But if he be imprisoned in execution of a judicial sentence, then it is punishment. In both cases the evil suffered may be precisely the same. Luther was imprisoned for years to save him from the fury of the Pope. When, therefore, we say that Christ’s sufferings were penal, or that He suffered the penalty of the law, we say nothing as to the nature or the degree of the pains which He endured. We only say, on the one hand, that his sufferings were neither mere calamities, nor chastisements designed for his own benefit, nor merely dogmatic, or symbolical, or exemplary, or the necessary attendants of the conflict between good and evil; and, on the other hand, we affirm that they were designed for the satisfaction of justice. He died in order that God might be just in justifying the ungodly.

It is not to be inferred from this, however, that either the kind 475or degree of our Lord’s sufferings was a matter of indifference. We are not authorized to say, as has so often been said, that one drop of his blood would have been sufficient to redeem the world. This may express a pious sentiment, but not a Scriptural truth. He would not have suffered as He did, nor to the degree He did, unless there had been an adequate reason for it. There must be some proportion between the evil endured, and the benefit to be secured. If a man were saved from death or bondage by a prince’s paying a shilling, it would be absurd to call that either a satisfaction or a ransom. There must be enough of self-sacrifice and suffering to give dignity and inherent value to the proffered atonement. While, therefore, the value of Christ’s sufferings is due mainly to the dignity of his person, their character and intensity are essential elements in their worth. Nevertheless, their character as penal depends not on their nature, but on their design.


By vicarious suffering or punishment is not meant merely sufferings endured for the benefit of others. The sufferings of martyrs, patriots, and philanthropists, although endured for the good of the Church, the country, or of mankind, are not vicarious. That word, according to its signification and usage, includes the idea of substitution. Vicarious suffering is suffering endured by one person in the stead of another, i.e., in his place. It necessarily supposes the exemption of the party in whose place the suffering is endured. A vicar is a substitute, one who takes the place of another, and acts in his stead. In this sense, the Pope assumes to be the vicar of Christ on earth. He claims and assumes to exercise Christ’s prerogatives. What a substitute does for the person whose place he fills, is vicarious, and absolves that person from the necessity of doing or suffering the same thing.398398Even in medicine the word retains its proper meaning. “A vicarious secretion, is a secretion from one part instead of another.” It ceases to be vicarious when the former fails to stop the latter. When, therefore, it is said that the sufferings of Christ were vicarious, the meaning is that He suffered in the place of sinners. He was their substitute. He assumed their obligation to satisfy justice. What He did and suffered precluded the necessity of their fulfilling the demands of the law in their own persons. This idea of substitution, and of vicarious obedience and suffering, pervades all the religions of the world; which proves that it has its foundation in the nature of man. It is sanctioned in the Word of God, and incorporated in 476the doctrines therein revealed. And this proves that the idea is not merely human, but divine; that it is in accordance, not only with the reason of man, but with the reason of God. It is an unfairness to use words in a sense inconsistent with their established meaning; to say, for example, that the sufferings of Christ were vicarious, when nothing more is meant than that his sufferings inured to the good of mankind. This may be said of any suffering for the public good; even of the sufferings of criminals; and of the finally impenitent. Christ’s sufferings were vicarious in the sense in which the death of one man is vicarious who dies in the place of another to save him from a deserved penalty; in the sense in which the death of the Old Testament sacrifice, which was taken in lieu of the death of the transgressor, was vicarious. And this is the sense in which we are bound to use the word.


The word guilt, as has been repeatedly remarked, expresses the relation which sin bears to justice, or, as the older theologians said, to the penalty of the law. This relation, however, is twofold. First, that which is expressed by the words criminality and ill-desert, or demerit. This is inseparable from sin. It can belong to no one who is not personally a sinner, and it permanently attaches to all who have sinned. It is not removed by justification, much less by pardon. It cannot be transferred from one person to the other. But secondly, guilt means the obligation to satisfy justice. This may be removed by the satisfaction of justice personally or vicariously. It may be transferred from one person to another, or assumed by one person for another. When a man steals or commits any other offence to which a specific penalty is attached by the law of the land, if he submit to the penalty, his guilt in this latter sense is removed. It is not only proper that he should remain without further molestation by the state for that offence, but justice demands his exemption from any further punishment. It is in this sense that it is said that the guilt of Adam’s sin is imputed to us; that Christ assumed the guilt of our sins; and that his blood cleanses from guilt. This is very different from demerit or personal ill-desert. The ordinary theological sense of the word guilt is well expressed by the German word Schuld, which means the responsibility for some wrong, or injury, or loss; or, the obligation to make satisfaction. It, therefore, includes the meaning of our words guilt and debt. “Ich bin nicht schuldig,” means I am not answerable. I am not bound to make satisfaction. “Des 477Todes schuldig seyn,” means to be under the obligation to suffer death as a penalty. “Des höllischen Feuers schuldig,” means to be in justice bound to endure the fires of hell. So in the Lord’s prayer, “Vergieb uns unsere Schulden,” remit to us the obligation to satisfy for our sins. The German theologians, old and new, therefore, speak of the guilt (Schuld) of the offender being transferred in the sacrificial services of the Old Testament, from the offender to the victim. “Die Schuld,” says Ebrard,399399Dogmatik, § 401; edit. Königsberg, 1852, vol. ii. p. 159.kann, wie wir wissen, nur so hinweggethan werden, dass sie wirkhich gestraft, d. h. gesühnt wird; entweder muss der Sünder selbst die Strafe tragen, oder es muss sich ein stellvertretendes Opfer ausfindig machen lassen, welches die Schuld zu übernehmen, die Strafe zu tragen und alsdann die dadurch erworbene Schuldfreiheit oder Gerechitigkeit dem Menschen wieder mitzutheilen vermag.” That is, “Guilt, as we know, can be removed only by punishment. Either the sinner himself must bear the punishment, or a substitute must be provided to assume the guilt, and bear the punishment, and thus freedom from guilt, or righteousness, be secured for the offender.” This is the fundamental idea of atonement or satisfaction, which lies at the basis of all sacrifices for sin, the world over, and especially those of the Mosaic economy. And this is the essential idea of the doctrine of the satisfaction of Christ as it is presented in the Scriptures from the beginning to the end, and which is so inwrought into the faith and experience of the people of God that it has withstood all manner of assaults from within and from without, from philosophizing believers and from avowed unbelievers. It assumes that guilt, Schuld, reatus, in the sense of the obligation of the sinner to satisfy divine justice, may be removed, may be transferred from one person to another, or assumed by one in the place of another. In perfect consistency with this doctrine it is maintained that guilt or reatus in the sense of demerit or ill-desert does not admit of removal or transfer.


Redemption sometimes means simple deliverance; but properly, and always in its application to the work of Christ, it means deliverance by purchase. This is plain because it is a deliverance not by authority, or power, or teaching, or moral influence, but by blood, by the payment of a ransom. This is the etymological signification of the word ἀπολύτρωσις, which is from λύτρον, a ransom and that from λύω, to purchase, e.g., the freedom of a slave or captive.


Expiation and Propitiation.

Expiation and propitiation are correlative terms. The sinner, or his guilt is expiated; God, or justice, is propitiated. Guilt must, from the nature of God, be visited with punishment, which is the expression of God’s disapprobation of sin. Guilt is expiated, in the Scriptural representation, covered, by satisfaction, i.e., by vicarious punishment. God is thereby rendered propitious, i.e., it is now consistent with his nature to pardon and bless the sinner. Propitious and loving are not convertible terms. God is love. He loved us while sinners, and before satisfaction was rendered. Satisfaction or expiation does not awaken love in the divine mind. It only renders it consistent with his justice that God should exercise his love towards transgressors of his law. This is expressed by the Greek verb ἱλάσκομαι, propitium facio. “To reconcile oneself to any one by expiation.”400400Robinson, Lexicon of the New Testament, in verbo. That by which this reconciliation is effected is called ἱλασμός or ἱλαστήριον. The effect produced is that God is ἵλαος. God is good to all, full of pity and compassion to all, even to the chief of sinners. But he is ἵλαος only to those for whose sins an expiation has been made. That is, according to the Old Testament usage, “whose sins are covered.” “To cover sin,” כַּפֵּר, is never used to express the idea of moral purification, or sanctification, but always that of expiation. The means by which sin is said to be covered, is not reformation, or good works, but blood, vicarious satisfaction. This in Hebrew is כֹפֶר, that which covers. The combination of these two ideas led the LXX. to call the cover of the ark ἱλαστήριον, that which covered or shut out the testimony of the law against the sins of the people, and thus rendered God propitious. It was an ἱλαστήριον, however, only because sprinkled with blood. Men may philosophize about the nature of God, his relation to his creatures, and the terms on which He will forgive sin, and they may never arrive at a satisfactory conclusion; but when the question is simply, What do the Scriptures teach on this subject? the matter is comparatively easy. In the Old Testament and in the New, God is declared to be just, in the sense that his nature demands the punishment of sin; that therefore there can be no remission without such punishment, vicarious or personal; that the plan of salvation symbolically and typically exhibited in the Mosaic institution, expounded in the prophets, and clearly and variously taught in the New Testament, involves the substitution of the incarnate Son of God in the place of sinners 479who assumed their obligation to satisfy divine justice, and that He did in fact make a full and perfect satisfaction for sin, bearing the penalty of the law in their stead; all this is so plain and undeniable that it has always been the faith of the Church and is admitted to be the doctrine of the Scriptures by the leading Rationalists of our day. It has been denied only by those who are outside of the Church, and therefore not Christians, or by those who, instead of submitting to the simple word of God, feel constrained to explain its teachings in accordance with their own subjective convictions.

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