Fundamental Christian Theology, Vol. 2

By Aaron Hills

Part V - Soteriology

Chapter 3


There are those who profess to believe in Salvation; but reject the idea or necessity of atonement. They hold that sin may be forgiven, and man's fallen nature corrected and heaven ultimately attained without it. Of course such thinkers must have some theory or doctrine or philosophy to set forth the rationality of their view and keep them satisfied in their own minds. The preacher should understand these schemes of thought; for, however absurd they may be, they float about in the public mind, and keep many from Christ and salvation.

I. There is the Universalist theory of salvation through penalty. Calvinism and Universalism differ widely as systems of theology; but they are at one in the cardinal doctrine that all sin must be punished according to its desert. Universalists hold that every soul must inevitably suffer the full consequence of his wrong doing. According to their views sin is comparatively a trifle, not meriting long or severe punishment, and when the punishment has been endured, bliss lies at the end. Logically, such a system offers no salvation at all, and practically has no Savior. It is strange that churches with such a theology should even call themselves "Christian." Such a scheme is false to the clearly revealed facts of forgiveness; false to the Soteriology of Scriptures. If the Bible teaches anything it teaches that Christ is a Savior from the punishment of sin, and the love of sin, and, as we shall see hereafter, from the being of sin, and He is such a Savior through His atonement. But when one has endured the full penalty of transgression, he would thank no one for a pardon; and such a thing as salvation would be utterly impossible. Of course the theory denies endless punishment, and then there could be no subsequent blessedness. The doctrine is without support in Scripture from start to finish. And so we may dismiss it.

II. THE SOVEREIGNTY THEORY. This view draws its ideal from the lowest Oriental despotism. Its abettors tell us that God is an infinite Despot who can do what he pleases with none to hinder. As such a monarch, clothed with absolute power, He can forgive when and whom He will, on what terms He may please, without any concern for the claims of justice or the interests of government. There are fatal objections to such a theory.

1. The Bible reveals no such God, who does what He pleases because He has infinite power. That He arbitrarily forgives sin on His mere sovereignty is the sheerest assumption wholly incapable of proof. We have already seen how the Bible teaches that God is a moral Governor who must have supreme regard for all the laws of the realm, and for all the interests of His Government. The universal history of man, and the signal punishments God has visited upon the race for sin is a standing proof that God does not so administer His laws.

2. God has distinctly declared that He does not, and cannot pardon sin without atonement and that to do so, He must first surrender His justice and righteousness (Rom. 3: 24-26). Penalty itself is a stern requirement of all Government. Its suspension without a substitute would revolutionize God's own plan of Government. It would set God's administration in opposition to His laws. He has solemnly announced the penalties of disobedience; and it is contrary to fact, and utterly improbable that He would set them all aside without a substitute, and launch out into a scheme of universal pardon.

3. No such plan would work in any human government. To cease to punish crime would be to license crime. It would practically say to depraved humanity, "Do as you please," when it would be morally certain that they would please to do evil. Such a course in any civil government that ever existed would open the floodgates of crime and bring an onsweep of ruin. The same would be true, only in a more marked degree, in the divine government. The carnal heart is most of all opposed to God. It resists His claims, tramples upon His commandments, throws off His authority; it often hardens itself against the atoning love of the cross and the wooings of the Spirit of God. To offer arbitrary, universal forgiveness to such beings would be to subvert all government and turn the universe over to become a pandemonium of sin.

III. FORGIVENESS ON REPENTANCE. It is urged by others that repentance is a sufficient ground of forgiveness, and therefore there is no need of an atonement. This is a view common among rationalists who reject the infallible Word and lean to their own understanding. We may say,

1. The importance of repentance can not be overstated. It has a fundamental place in the Gospel method of salvation which will be set forth hereafter. Nobody is saved without it. Hut the Bible never represents repentance as the ground of pardon and salvation. They are always grounded on the atoning work of Christ and the self-sacrificing love of God. Repentance is only a necessary condition of salvation, to be hereafter explained. "Impenitence after sinning is self-justification and the very spirit of rebellion; while penitence is the only self-condemnation, and the only return to obedience. There must therefore be a genuine repentance in order to salvation. There can be neither forgiveness nor any real redemption from sin without it."

2. But the sorrow of the world, the mere natural repentance of the carnal heart-regret for the evils that have overtaken it, and a deploring of the evils and retributions yet in store, coupled with a wish that it might be otherwise, and that the moral harvest might be better than the sins sown-such repentance, the warp and woof of the experience of all sinful hearts, never could be made the ground of forgiveness. For (1), It is inevitable. Sinners can not avoid that kind of sorrow over sin-regret of its doom. And as it is universal, it would make the forgiveness universal, and annul all penalty without a moral change being wrought in one rebel heart. (2) Such repentance is too superficial to lead to any salvation. Sin would not be confessed, and abhorred, and forsaken under any such system of thought. As a matter of fact, it is not abhorred and forsaken by the advocates of this theory. It takes the cross to measure the guilt of sin and fathom the depravity of the heart, and show it up in all its black perfidy of wickedness. Without the atonement a true salvation is not possible. "Forgiveness so easily granted never could bring the turpitude of sin home to the moral consciousness. The intenser the sense of sin, and the profounder the grateful love for the mercy of forgiveness, the more thorough is the moral recovery and salvation." There is therefore, not only a governmental necessity, but a profound moral necessity for the redemptive mediation of Christ in order to the moral recovery and salvation of the soul!

IV. There are some arguments made in defense of the doctrines of salvation without atonement which it would be well to mention.

1. It is argued that we are required to forgive one another without atonement; and if God requires it of us, He ought to do it Himself. That we are required to forgive one another cannot be denied, and our own forgiveness is conditioned on our forgiving others. But there is one point in which the analogy fails. We are private individuals, without any rectoral responsibility. But God is the Official Head of the Universe. Even in the Governments of this world, officials are often compelled to do, what as private citizens they would be only too glad not to do. The judge sentences the murderer to death, and the sheriff officially hangs him, when as private individuals neither of them would end his life. These officials do not consult their pity or their sympathy, but act from a stern sense of duty, and obligation to society. They take cognizance of their duty to the public. When an offense is a crime in the eyes of the law, it has public relations and the Governor has rectoral obligations in the case.

It is precisely so with God. He is the head of all government and law. And as a moral ruler, He must deal with crime only in such a way as will conduce to the best interests of all His subjects. The history of the divine administration shows just how He has done it, viz., by way of the atonement.

2. These men point to parental forgiveness. They affirm that parents forgive children without an atonement and so may the Heavenly Father. But here again the analogy fails in practically the same way. The head of a university, as is well known, could deal with an erring son or daughter in the privacy of the home as he could not deal with some refractory rebels among two thousand students. A Governor or king might manage a disobedient son in a family of six as he could not treat determined criminals in a great commonwealth of six or sixty millions. Vast public interests, far-reaching in their consequences, must ever be in his mind, in all his official treatment of wrong-doing. "The economy of the family will not answer for the government of the State, much less for the divine government of the world or the universe. God is a ruler in a universal moral realm, and no propriety of mere parental forgiveness can prove that he may consistently forgive without an atonement" (Miley's Theology, Vol. II, p. 103).

3. They appeal to the Parable of the Prodigal Son. One says, "It is remarkable how perfectly this parable precludes every idea of the necessity of vicarious suffering in order to the pardon of the penitent sinner. Had it been the special purpose to provide an antidote for such a doctrine it is difficult to conceive what could have been devised, better adapted to that end" ("Worcester: "Atoning Sacrifice," p. 215). An English infidel insists that "by special design it teaches the sufficiency of repentance as the ground of forgiveness."

Dr. Miley makes the keen comment: "It is certainly a queer kind of exegesis which claims a passage of Scripture that is entirely silent upon the atonement, as decisive both its reality and necessity. Besides the freeness of the divine forgiveness which this parable represents is in the fullest consistency with the doctrine of a vicarious atonement" (Miley, Vol. II, p. 104). We may remark further, that the parables of our Lord were usually spoken to rebuke one evil or teach one great truth. Many try to make them teach everything, and especially try to read into them their peculiar fads. As a matter of fact, what called out the parable of the Prodigal Son was this: "All publicans and sinners drew near to hear Jesus, and both the Pharisees and the Scribes murmured saying, 'This man receiveth sinners and eateth with them'." Jesus was doubtless both grieved and indignant, and spake the parables of the fifteenth chapter of Luke to justify His conduct and set forth heaven's interest in the salvation of sinners. He was not teaching a whole system of Theology, not even the doctrine of the atonement.

We may remark again that in scores of passages the Bible elsewhere teaches the doctrine of the atonement, and here nothing is said against it. In this gem of all parables, the Father acts simply as such. Had He been a ruler also, and His son a criminal, then, however; kindly disposed toward His erring child, His obligations as a ruler would have demanded official expression. It is a widespread error, and exceedingly pernicious, that God's sole relation to moral beings is that of a Father. God is a MORAL RULER, as well as a Father, and is compelled to carefully guard the interests of all His subjects, and preserve the integrity of His own character as well. Nothing could be more fatal to the moral universe than to have occasion to doubt God's character, or to suspect His sincerity in announcing His laws and their penalty. As the father in the parable graciously forgave his repenting son, so does God graciously forgive His repenting children. But He does it and is compelled to do it, through the Atonement in Jesus Christ His Son.

Joseph Cook, the famous Boston lecturer, in his "Monday Lectures on the Atonement," tells of a case of discipline in Bronson Alcott's school. He had a very unruly, lawless pupil whom he had often been obliged to punish for disobedience to the regulations of the school. He was grieved to observe that the infliction of punishment in this particular case did no good, and he wanted to save the boy if possible. He resorted to a new expedient. The next time the culprit deserved a punishment, Mr. Alcott told him of his love for him and his wish to save him from punishment. But the discipline of the school must be preserved and he could not allow its government to be broken down. Either the boy must be punished again or Mr. Alcott must receive vicarious chastisement in his place. He asked the offender to chastise him which he proceeded to do. But it soon subdued his heart, and cured him of his evil behavior.

Now that is a good illustration of God's method of dealing with sinners. He yearns over them and longs to save. But He cannot ignore the distinctions between right and wrong, obedience and disobedience, good-desert and ill-desert. Nor can He ignore His own laws and their penalties. Nor may He forget His own honor as a moral ruler. If He offers to forgive, there must be in His infinite realm, as in Bronson Alcott's little school, some vicarious suffering on His own part, as a substitute for the penalty. This is the divine method of forgiving sin by way of Atonement.