Friday, June 9, 2017

Witherspoon on Substitutionary Atonement

We come now to speak of the Covenant of Grace. This, taking it in a large sense, may be said to comprehend the whole plan of salvation through Jesus Christ. I am not to mention everything that belongs to this subject; but before entering directly into the constitution of the covenant of grace, it will be proper to speak a little of the doctrine of satisfaction for the guilt of a creature.

As to the first of these. Was satisfaction or some atonement necessary? would it have been inconsistent with divine justice to have pardoned sinners without it? might not the sovereignty and mercy of God have dispensed with the punishment of sin, both in the sinner and in the surety? The agitation of this question, and the zeal that is shewn by some upon it, I cannot help saying, seems to arise from an inward aversion to the truth itself of the satisfaction, and the consequences that follow from it. What does it signify, though anyone should admit that God by his sovereignty might have dispensed with demanding satisfaction, if notwithstanding it appears in fact that he has demanded and exacted it? “that without shedding of blood there is no remission,” and “that there is no other name,” &c. Whether it has been so ordained because to have done otherwise would have been inconsistent with the divine perfections, or because so it seemed good unto God, seems at least an unnecessary if not an indecent question. We have an infinite concern in what God has done, but none at all in what he might have done. On what is really difficult upon this subject, we may however make the few following remarks.

I. From its actually taking place as the will of God, we have good reason to say it was the wisest and best; the rather that we find many of the highest encomiums on the Divine perfections, as shewing in this great dispensation his power, wisdom, mercy and justice. His wisdom in a particular manner is often celebrated, Eph. 3. 10. Rom. 11. 33. At the same time it is proper to observe the harmony of the divine attributes, that the justice of God appears more awful in the sufferings of Christ than if the whole human race had been devoted to perdition; and his mercy more astonishing and more amiable in the gift of his Son, than it could have been in the total remission of all sin without any satisfaction, had it been possible.

There is a particular proof of the necessity of satisfaction that arises from the death of Christ, considered as intimately united with the Divine nature, which it has been already proved that he possessed. Can we suppose that such a measure would have been taken, if it had not been necessary? Can we suppose that the eternal Son of God would have humbled himself thus, and been exposed to such a degree of temptation, and such amazing sufferings, if it had not been necessary?

3. All the accounts given us in scripture of the nature of God, his perfections and government confirm this supposition. The infinite justice and holiness of his nature are often mentioned in scripture; that he hates sin, and cannot look upon it but with abhorrence, and particularly that he will by no means spare the guilty. It is sometimes objected here, that justice differs from other attributes; and that its claims may be remitted, being due only to the person offended. But this which applies in part to man, cannot at all be applied to God. I say it applies in part to man, because a matter of private right, independent of the public good, he may easily pass by. But it is not so with magistrates or public persons, nor even with private persons, when they take in the consideration of the whole. Besides, when we consider the controversy about the justice of God and what it implies, we shall see the greatest reason to suppose what is called his vindictive justice, viz. a disposition to punish sin, because it truly merits it, even independently of any consequence of the punishment, either for the reformation of the person, or as an example to others. The idea of justice and guilt carries this in it, and if it did not there would be an apparent iniquity in punishing any person for a purpose different from his own good.

II. The second question upon the satisfaction is, whether it was just and proper to admit the substitution of an innocent person in the room of the guilty. This is what the Socinians combat with all their might. They say it is contrary to justice to punish an innocent person; that God must always treat things as they really are, and therefore can never reckon it any proper atonement for sin to punish one that never committed any sin. Before I state the reasoning in support of this fundamental doctrine of the gospel, I will first briefly point out the qualifications necessary in such a substitution. (1) The security under taking must be willing; it would certainly be contrary to justice to lay a punishment upon an innocent person without his consent. (2) He must be free and independent having a right over his own life, so that he is not account able to any other for the disposal of it. (3) The person having the demand must be satisfied and contented with the substitution, instead of personal punishment. (4) That the surety be truly able to make satisfaction in full. (5) That it be in all respects as useful, and that the sufferer be not lost to the public. (6) Some add that he be related and of the same nature with the guilty. This is generally added from the constitution of Christ's person, and in that instance surely has a great degree of suitableness, but does not seem to me to be so necessary as the other particulars for establishing the general principle.

Now supposing all these circumstances, vicarious satisfaction for sin seems to me easily and perfectly justifiable. To make this appear, attend to the three following observations:

(1) There is nothing in it at all contrary to justice. If any innocent person were punished against his will, or laid under a necessity of suffering for the cause of another, it would evidently be repugnant to the idea of justice. But when it is done, as by the supposition, willingly and freely, injustice is wholly excluded. If we could indeed suppose ignorance and rashness in the undertaking, so that he consented to what he did not understand, there would be injustice, but this also is wholly excluded in the case before us.

(2) There is nothing in it contrary to utility, because it has precisely the same effect in demonstrating the evil of sin in the one case as in the other. In any human government it certainly serves as much to ratify the law, and in many cases the exacting the debt with rigor of a surety is a more awful sanction to the law, than even the satisfaction of the offending party. We have not in all history I think, an instance of this kind so striking as the lawgiver of the Lorrians who had made a law, that adultery should be punished with the loss of both the eyes. His own son was shortly after convicted of the crime; and to fulfill the law, he suffered one of his own eyes to be put out, and one of his son's. Everybody must perceive that such an example was a greater terror to others than if the law had been literally inflicted on the offender. After having mentioned these two particulars, I observe that the thing is in a most precise and exact manner laid down in scripture. It is impossible to invent expressions, that are either more strong or more definite than are there to be found. It is an observation of some of the Socinian writers that the word satisfaction is not to be found in scripture, and in this they often triumph: but nothing can be more ridiculous, for satisfaction is a modern term of art, and unknown in that sense to antiquity. But can there be anything more plain than that it is intended to express the very meaning so fully, and so variously expressed both in the scriptures and the heathen writers. The word in the Old Testament most frequently used is, atoning, making atonement for sin or for the soul. What could be more plain than not only the great day of atonement, but the daily sacrifice, in which certain men were appointed to represent the people of Israel and lay their hands on the head of the devoted beast; and confess the sins of the people, which had not any other intelligible meaning than the transferring the guilt from the sinner to the victim. The sprinkling the blood in the Old Testament upon the horns of the altar, whence by allusion the blood of Christ is called the blood of sprinkling, carries this truth in it, in the plainest manner — and the prophecies of Isaiah, chap. 53. 5. "he was" wounded for our transgression," &c. "When he shall give his soul an offering for sin." But were there the least obscurity in the type, the truth as stated in the New Testament, would put the matter out of all doubt. The expressions are so many that we cannot, and we need not enumerate them all — "redeemed — bought with a price — redeemed not with corruptible things, as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ— This is my blood shed for many, for the remission of sins — he gave himself a ransom for all — unto him that loved us, and warned us from our sins in his own blood."

I would just add here, that as by the constitution of our nature, and our being made to descend in a certain succession by natural generation, there is a communication of guilt and impurity from Adam; so we have in human society, and indeed inseparable from it, the idea of communication by natural relation of honor and shame, happiness and misery, as well as the clearest notion of voluntary substitution. We see that the worth and eminent qualities of any person, give lustre and dignity to his posterity; and wickedness or baseness does just the contrary. We see that men may easily, and do necessarily, receive much pleasure from the happiness of their relations, and misery in sympathy with their suffering. And as to voluntary substitution, it is as familiar to us, as any transaction in social life. It is true there are not many instances of men's being bound in their life for one another; for which several good reasons may be assigned. There are not many men of such exalted generosity as to be willing to forfeit life for life; it is rarely that this would be a proper or adequate satisfaction to the law; and it would not be the interest of human society, commonly to receive it. Yet the thing is far from being inhuman or unpractised. There are some instances in ancient times, in which men have procured liberty for their friends, by being confined in their room. And both in ancient and modern times, hostages delivered by nations, or public societies, are obliged to abide the punishment due to their constituents.

(3) The third question on the subject of satisfaction is, Whether it was necessary that the redeemer or mediator should be a divine person? It may be asked, whether an angel of the highest order, who was perfectly innocent, might not have made satisfaction for the sins of men? Perhaps this is one of the many questions in theology, that are unnecessary or improper. It is sufficient to say that it appears either to have been necessary or best, that one truly divine should make satisfaction for sin, since it has been ordained of God, who does nothing unnecessary.

But besides this, it seems to be consonant to other parts of revealed religion, particularly the infinite evil of sin as committed against God, for which no finite being seems sufficient to atone. To which we may add, that all finite, dependent, created beings are under such obligations themselves, that it is not easy to see what they can do in obedience to the will of God, which can have any merit in it, or which they would not be obliged to do for the purpose of his glory at any time; neither does any created being seem so much his own master, as to enter into any such undertaking.

There is an objection made to this doctrine, sometimes to the following purpose. How could the second person of the ever blessed Trinity be said to make satisfaction? Was he not equally offended with the other? Could he make satisfaction to himself? But this objection is easily solved, for not to mention that we cannot transfer with safety everything human to God, the thing in question is by no means unknown in human affairs. Though for the payment of a debt on which the creditor insists, it would be ridiculous to say he might pay himself; yet in the character of a magistrate sitting to judge a criminal where he represents the public, it is no way unsuitable for him to put off the public person, and satisfy the demands of justice, and preserve the honor of the law.

Here I would conclude by just observing, that there is no necessity of a surety's doing just the same thing in kind that the guilty person was bound to do. The character and dignity of the surety may operate so far as to produce the legal effect, and make the satisfaction proper for giving its due honor to the law. Thus in the sufferings of Christ, the infinite value of the sufferer's person, makes the sufferings to be considered as a just equivalent to the eternal sufferings of a finite creature.

John Witherspoon, Lectures on Divinity, Lecture XVI, Works: Volume 4

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