The term atonement is thrown around in Christian circles from time to time. We often hear about various theories and objections. In this series, we will define Atonement in the biblical sense and then handle the five most common objections to the doctrine.
I have had great difficulty in assigning a name to this definition because, although it is certainly fits the bill of Reformed, calling it “Reformed” would be selling it short because it is a definition that is represented in the writings of the Church Fathers and the best of the Church’s theologians prior to the Reformation. It might be best to call it a catholic definition of the Atonement, to signify its veracity universally and historically.
The Atonement means: That perfect satisfaction given to the Law and justice of God, by the sufferings and death of Jesus Christ, on behalf of elect sinners of mankind, on account of which they are delivered from condemnation.
I. Objection is made to the doctrine of the atonement that it represents God in a less than favorable light. Emphasizing as it does, the fact that God demands satisfaction for sin, as a just Judge, is said to destroy the attribute of mercy and resolve God’s whole character into strict, inexorable justice.
The Atonement is presented as if the death of Christ procures the mercy or love of God for sinners; as if Christ’s death is that which makes God willing to forgive the sins of his creatures – as if without it, He would not be willing. The atonement is thus portrayed as a motivator, or some kind of inducement which effects a change in God’s mind from wrath to compassion.
Problems with this objection:
A. The objection has a mistaken view of what the atonement is understood to produce. Let’s clear the decks: No one who understands this subject ever imagines that the work of Christ is, in any sense the cause of God’s love, mercy or grace; but the medium through which these perfections of God find expression to guilty creatures. The atonement is never regarded as necessary to produce love in God toward men, rather as necessary for His love to be manifested. Christ’s satisfaction for sin does not make God love the elect; it demonstrates the love He bore toward them in His heart from eternity past.
B. The objection proceeds on the mistaken assumption that God is ready to pardon sin without satisfaction, and, that retributive justice is not part of God's character. Our objectors therefore, falsely view forgiveness as the result of a purely arbitrary resolve of God’s will, which has nothing to do with law and government.
We must remind our objector that God is just as well as merciful. Rectitude is as essential a feature of the divine Being as is love. If the Scriptures represent God as a loving Father 'in whom compassions flow,' (Psalm 86:13) they no less conspicuously reveal Him as a Lawgiver 'who will by no means clear the guilty' (Exodus 34:7). These two things must never be set in opposition to each other. Rather they must be considered as equally essential, coexistent, cooperative, and congruent. It is a huge mistake to think of God as acting sometimes from the one attribute and at other times acting from the other. In other words, we must not imagine God at one time acting according to mercy, and at another according to justice. He acts in harmony with both at all times. Exercising the one never entails suspending the other. When God punishes the guilty, it is not at the expense of mercy. When God forgives the sinner, it is not at the expense of justice. Mercy operates on a principle that agrees with justice. So while mercy inclines God to forgive, justice must receive satisfaction in order for forgiveness to be given. Deny this, and you place in clashing opposition two essential attributes of God’s nature. But admit this, and the objection we are considering falls dead to the ground. The satisfaction which the doctrine of atonement supposes to be made by Christ is necessary, not to awaken the feeling of mercy in God’s heart, but to reconcile the merciful forgiveness of sin with the impartial demands of justice.