As we near the end of the book (only one chapter left), we find one of its longest chapters. Akin to what we believe about Jesus, what we believe about salvation is foundational for everything. We must be clear not only about who Jesus is but also about what he did for us. Enter the atonement. In 2013 a mainline denomination was considering including the modern hymn “In Christ Alone” in their hymnal. But the committee requested permission from the publisher to change one line in the song. They wanted to change “‘Til on that cross as Jesus died, The wrath of God was satisfied” to ‘Til on that cross as Jesus died, The love of God was magnified.” Were both lines true? Of course. However, the songwriters did not permit the change. Were they just being over-sensitive about their lyrics? They argue no. They were concerned to preserve a specific doctrine in the gospel: the satisfaction of the wrath of God in the atonement of Christ. That is, God punished Jesus for the sins of his people. In response, the committee, unable to accept the wording, dropped the hymn. One of the members argued that “The cross is not an instrument of God’s wrath” (Read about the whole thing here). At the heart of the issue is a debate about salvation and more specifically the atonement. This is not new of course. Machen devotes much of this chapter to answering objections to the doctrine of the atonement. There is a lot to deal with here so we will divide the chapter into two posts.
What is atonement?
The atonement in Christian theology is the basis of our salvation. It is another word for the work of Jesus as the mediator. Jesus was an example as we discussed last week, but we are Christians not because of what Jesus said, but what he did (117). Jesus “took upon Himself the dreadful guilt of our sins and bore it instead of us on the cross” (117). The technical theological term is “penal, substitutionary atonement.” It is penal because it has to do legal guilt and punishment. It is substitutionary because the guilty party (sinners) is substituted for the innocent party (Jesus). It is atonement because it satisfies divine justice and removes the guilt from the sinner. On top of all this, the doctrine of the atonement adds to once guilty sinners, now cleansed of sin, the positive righteousness of Christ. Jesus on the cross takes on the sin and guilt of his people. Having cleansed them he causes them to be considered righteous in God’s sight because of Jesus’ own personal righteousness. And this is all by faith, not works, merited by Christ alone. This is standard orthodox teaching. But then as now, people objected to the atonement and Machen addresses the popular objections of his own time.
Five Objections to the Atonement
1) The Atonement is too dependent upon history to be believed (120-121).
Why should we have to wait for a bunch of scholars to agree before we can have salvation? Do we depend upon historians or can we not look to our present experience of the divine? The problem, Machen argues, is that if you conceive of an atonement or salvation apart from history then all you end up with is vague mysticism. Further, the word “gospel” itself is from the Greek word which means “good news.” The concept of news necessarily assumes history whether it was yesterday or two thousand years ago. Christianity is not dependent upon something that was said or felt, but upon something that happened in history. Thus our doctrine of the atonement must be historical as well or it is mere sentiment.
2) The Atonement is too offensive because it is too narrow in its application; it should be universal. After all, there are other ways to be spiritual (122-124).
The gospel is indeed exclusive but it is also inclusive. It is exclusive in its object and foundation. Christ is the gate by which we enter in. There are no other doors. However, the gospel is inclusive in its offer of salvation to all who believe. It has been this way since the beginning! If in our effort to widen the atonement we make Jesus into a Jewish spiritual leader to put alongside other spiritual leaders we may indeed remove the offense of the gospel, but we also remove the gospel itself. In Christianity, salvation is bound to the name of Christ (124). Machen writes,
“So modern liberalism, placing Jesus alongside other benefactors of mankind is perfectly inoffensive in the modern world. All men speak well of it. It is entirely inoffensive. But it is also entirely futile. The offense of the cross is done away, but so is the glory and the power” (123-124).”
Just because there are ways to be spiritual doesn’t mean they are truthful ways or correct ways. Not all roads lead to the top of the mountain.
3) One person can’t suffer for the sins of another person (125-126).
Machen agrees with the principle of this objection. A mere man cannot suffer for another. For all men are sinful and can at best only suffer for their own sins. Even a perfect man who had no sin could not suffer for the sins of others. This would be an injustice. But Jesus is no mere man. This highlights the importance of the full humanity and deity of Jesus. In order to take on our misery, Jesus had to become fully human. But in order to suffer for the sake of his people he had to be fully God. The likeness to us in Jesus enables him to identify with us. But it is the difference of the divinity of Jesus which gives him the capacity to die for us. “The Christian doctrine of the atonement, therefore, is altogether rooted in the Christian doctrine of the deity of Christ” (126).
4) The Atonement presents a degraded view of God (129-130)
It is said that the idea that someone must die for us presents a picture of God as a cold tyrant, some violent deity demanding the price of blood before he is willing to forgive. But in reality, God is a God of love and is willing to forgive anyone at any time. We don’t need a cross, we just need to forgive ourselves and be forgiven. Let bygones be bygones.
In response, Machen argues that this view of God requires an unbiblical view of sin. It requires the belief that God really doesn’t care much about sin. And this is actually a rather heartless thing to do because it lets us off the hook for our sins and wrongs against others. We just wash it over and say it wasn’t really that big of a deal. Further, it doesn’t deal with the fact that every sin is most fundamentally a sin against God. But in the gospel, we find a God of perfect justice and mercy who satisfies both by providing “a fountain of cleansing in the precious blood of Christ” (130). Sin must be dealt with and it is only in the Gospel that we find a gracious God lavishing eternal life upon the spiritually dead. In liberalism you have God telling good people they are just fine the way they are. Thus to deny the necessity of the atonement is to deny the reality of a real moral order (131).
5) The Atonement is contrary to the love of God (131)
If we go with the gospel of justice and mercy, does not divine justice swallow up God’s love? How can he be loving if he must be so demanding of justice in this way? How can we love a God who punishes sinners or even is willing to punish his own son in their place? Machen argues that this requires a gross misunderstanding of sin as well as the doctrine of the atonement itself. The key point liberalism misses is that God’s love is revealed in what he does for his lost people. He takes on flesh and bears the punishment they deserve. Is this not John 3:16? Did Jesus not say that there was no greater display of love than to lay one’s life down for another? To jettison the idea of divine wrath because we find it distasteful and put in its place a God of all smiles, comforts who accepts us without changing us, who cares not a whit about our sin or rebellion against him is to not only create another religion, but a religion which does not work and is not true. It does not work because if such a God exists who does not really care what we do then there is no reason for him to speak to us in the scriptures or creation and there is no reason for us to care about him at all. Nor does this God satisfy our souls because he is not a true God. He is only a figment of our imagination. He is what C.S. Lewis refers to as a “senile benevolence that drowsily wishes you to be happy in your own way” (Lewis, Problem of Pain). Machen concludes this section,
“It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Were we not safer with a God of our own devising–love and only love, a Father and nothing else, one before whom we could stand on our our own merit without fear? He who will may be satisfied with such a God. But we, God help us–sinful as we are, we would see Jehovah. Despairing, hoping, trembling, half-doubting and half-believing, trusting all to Jesus, we venture into the presence of the very God. And in His presence we will live” (135).
One of my seminary professors shared this illustration: Suppose I came to your house. We had a wonderful time. But as I was leaving I backed my car into your mailbox. Well, you might say “I forgive you.” And that is all well and good, but it doesn’t fix the mailbox. To do that something must be done. Either I must pay the debt I owe, you must pay it or we must pay it together by sharing the cost. Sin causes damage and places us in debt toward God and those who we sin against. That debt must be paid. We cannot pay it because in trying to pay it off we sin more and incur more debt. We cannot split the check with God because we can’t fulfill our part. Thus the gospel tells us that full divine justice is demanded of our cosmic legal guilt for our sin. But God in his grace has paid the debt in full in Jesus. What is more, Jesus has merited for us his perfect righteousness in which we are clothed. Going back to the hymn controversy at the beginning of this post, we find that in view of the Christian doctrine of the atonement that the reason God’s love is magnified on the cross is that his wrath was satisfied in the work of Jesus as our Redeemer.
We don’t improve the gospel by pretending sin isn’t that bad or that God doesn’t really care that much. There is no Bible text to support such a view. Further, this kind of belief doesn’t increase grace, it removes it. The power of the gospel lay not in helping me to think better of myself, but in revealing to me that by his grace God loves me and accepts me. But for that to happen, my sin had to be punished, my debt had to be paid and as the hymn goes, “Jesus paid it all.” I periodically remind my congregation that in the end every sin ever committed will be fully punished by God’s justice. The question is will you pay for your sins or did Jesus pay for your sins? Our answer is found in whether or not we believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ.