2. Principal Theories of the Sacrifice of Christ.

In the sketch I have given of the history of opinion on the subject of the atonement, I have endeavored to indicate the different views which have been advanced on this head, and their position relatively to each other. The two great antagonist theories are, on the one hand, that which regards the work of Christ as being designed to effect reconciliation between God and man by the offering of a legal satisfaction for man’s transgression; and, on the other, that which resolves the effect of Christ’s work into its moral power in moving man to seek reconciliation with God. Of these, various modifications have been advanced by different writers and accepted by theological schools of greater or less importance.

To examine all these in detail would require more time than we have at our disposal, and therefore I shall content myself with stating the leading opinions on both sides, and offering such remarks as may serve to indicate the worth of each. After noticing some of the more recent speculations which have been advanced on the subject in this country and America, I shall endeavour to lay down those principles which seem to me to be essential to our reaching a just view on this subject, and which seem to conduct to the view I am prepared to advocate.

Beginning with those who look upon the atonement of Christ in the light of a legal satisfaction or judicial expiation, I remark that all agree in thinking that the work of Christ derives its worth from the union of the divine and the human natures in His person, and all admit that worth to be not only supreme, but infinite. There is a difference, however, between certain schools or classes of them as to the nature of the compensation rendered to the divine government and law on our behalf by Christ, His special purpose and intention in offering it, and the consequent extent to which His work was designed to be sufficient. Of these varying shades of opinion we notice the following:–

(1.) That of the Hyper-Calvinists,–a name which has been given, not because those to whom it is attached are regarded as having gone beyond Calvin in their doctrine, but because they carry the views of Calvin on this head to their utmost extent, and hold them with unbending rigidity.

a. According to them, the work of Christ was of the nature of a price paid for the release of man from penalties which he had incurred,–price which bore a fixed and exact relation to the amount of debt which man had incurred by his sins. According to this view, what He rendered was strictly a quid pro quo; there was as much on the one side as on the other; the suffering obedience of the Savior being an exact equivalent for the sins of the saved, and that not by a solutio tantadem, but by a solutio cjusdem, i.e. not by paying something of equal value of the same kind, but by paying the very thing that was due.

This opinion cannot be ascribed to Calvin, who expresses himself in a very general manner as to the satisfaction made for man by Christ. “When we say,” he remarks, “that favor was procured for us by the merit of Christ we mean this, that by His blood we have been cleansed, and that His death was an expiation for our sins.” “This I take for granted, that if Christ satisfied for our sins, if He suffered the punishment due to us, if by His obedience He propitiated God, if, in tine, He, the just, suffered for the unjust, then salvation was procured by His righteousness for us, which is equivalent to our having merited it.”1 These statements are so general that they might be advanced by any one holding the Satisfaction theory.

Among Calvin’s followers, however, both on the Continent and in this country, there were found some by whom the doctrine as above stated was asserted in all its rigidity. Not only was it maintained that Christ became “sponsor for those alone who by eternal election had been given to Him, . . . and them alone did He reconcile unto God,”2–that He did not make satisfaction or in. any way die save for all and only those whom the Father had given Him, and who are actually saved;3 but the opinion was broadly avowed that there was a transference of the sin of the elect to Christ, and that He actually suffered the same as they should have suffered, and thereby paid for their redemption exactly what the law demanded as the due penalty of their offences. Thus, Owen says of the satisfaction made by Christ: “It was a full, valuable compensation made to the justice of God for all the sins of all those for whom He made satisfaction by under going that same punishment which, by reason of the obligation that was upon them, they themselves were bound to undergo. When I say the same” he goes on to explain, “I mean essentially the same in weight and pressure, though not in all accidents of duration and the like; for it was impossible that He should be detained by death.”4 Farther on, in the same treatise,5 he says, in reference to the laying of sins upon Christ, God “charged on Him and imputed to Him all the sins of all the elect, and proceeded against Him accordingly. He stood as our Surety, really charged with the whole debt, and was to pay the utmost farthing, as a surety is to do if it be required of him; though he borrow not the money, nor have one penny of that which is in the obligation, yet if he be sued to an execution, he must pay all. The Lord Christ (if I may so say) was sued by His Father’s justice unto an execution, in answer whereunto He underwent all that was due to sin” In another treatise the same great theologian gives the following as the expression of his view concerning the satisfaction rendered by Christ:

Christ paid the same thing that was in the obligation; as if in things real a friend should pay twenty pounds for him that owed so much and not anything in another kind. . . . I affirm that He paid idem, that is, the same thing that was in the obligation, and not tantundem, something equivalent thereunto in another kind.6

And farther on he says, “The assertion I seek to maintain is this: That the punishment which our Savior underwent was the same that the law required of us, God relaxing His law as to the person suffering, but not as to the penalty suffered.”7

These statements of Owen may be regarded as presenting clearly and in few words what were the views entertained by the English Puritans and early Nonconformists regarding the nature and extent of the atonement made for sin by Christ. They believed that to be in itself of infinite value; but they regarded it as limited both in design and in effect to the elect, and as being of the nature of a paying to the law of a quid pro quo, an enduring by Christ of the very penalty which they as sinners had deserved in order to secure their deliverance. By some the commercial character ascribed to the atonement was carried out still farther, and the idea of an actual and exact commutation of man’s sins on the one hand, and Christ’s righteousness on the other, was entertained and advocated. The principal representative of this school was Dr. Crisp, minister of Brinkworth in Wiltshire, about the middle of the 17th century; and it numbers the names of Chauncy, Saltmarsh, and Gill among its adherents. The republication of Dr. Crisp’s works by his son at the close of the century led to his peculiar views on the subject of the atonement being commented upon by Dr. Daniel Williams, an English Presbyterian minister, in a work entitled, Gospel-Truth Stated and Vindicated (Lond. 1692), which passed through several editions, and gave rise to a somewhat violent controversy. Of the views advanced by Dr. Crisp a correct idea will be obtained from his own words, which I quote from the work of Dr. Williams. Writing of the laying of our sins on Christ, he says:

It is the iniquity itself that the Lord hath laid upon Christ; not only our punishment, but our very sin. . . . This transaction of our sins to Christ is a real act; our sins so became Christ’s that He stood the sinner in our stead. . . . To speak more plainly: Hast thou been an idolater, hast thou been a blasphemer, hast thou been a murderer, an adulterer, a thief, a liar, a drunkard? If thou hast part in the Lord, all these transgressions of thine become actually the transgressions of Christ.

In another place he thus insists on the transfer of our sin to Christ and His righteousness to us:

Mark it well: Christ Himself is not so completely righteous, but we are as righteous as He; nor we so completely sinful, but Christ became, being made sin, as completely sinful as we. Nay more, we are the same righteousness, for we are made the righteousness of God; that very sinfulness that we were, Christ is made that very sinfulness before God. So that here is a direct change–Christ takes our person and condition and stands in our stead, we take Christ’s person and condition and stand in His stead.

These passages may serve to convey a clear view of the doctrines held by this school–a school which, though numbering among its adherents some of the best and holiest of men, has been the main support and promoter of antinomianism in this country. By the great body of the English Nonconformists these views have been and continue to be repudiated. Bates, Howe, Alsop, along with many other very decided Calvinists, joined at the time in denouncing them as unscriptural and dangerous; and in later times the vigorous pen of Andrew Fuller not to mention less famous names was employed in exposing them and advocating Calvinistic views apart from them. Even Dr. Owen raised his voice against them, for in one of his greatest treatises, that on the Doctrine of Justification by Faith, he expressly says: “Nothing is more absolutely true, nothing is more sacredly or assuredly believed by us, than that nothing which Christ did or suffered, nothing that He undertook or underwent, did, or could, constitute Him subjectively, inherently, and thereon personally, a sinner or guilty of any sin of His own. To bear the guilt or blame of other men’s faults to be alienœ culpœ reus makes no man a sinner, unless he did unwisely or irregularly undertake it” (p. 201); and again: “Our sin was imputed to Christ only as He was our Surety for a time to this end, that He might take it away, destroy it, and abolish it. It never was imputed unto Him so as to make any alteration absolutely in His personal state and condition” (p. 203). And, on the other hand, he strenuously maintains that “notwithstanding this full, plenary satisfaction once made for the sins of the world that shall be saved, yet all men continue equally to be born by nature ‘children of wrath,’ and whilst they believe not the wrath of God abideth on them, that is, they are obnoxious unto and under the curse of the law” (p. 216); and again: “The righteousness of Christ is not transfused into us so as to be made inherently and subjectively ours, as it was in Him” (p. 218). From these passages it is evident that Owen was far from holding the extreme views of Dr. Crisp and his school.

The views of Owen were accepted and advocated by the great American theologian Jonathan Edwards, who, in his Essay concerning the Necessity and Reasonableness of the Christian Doctrine of Satisfaction for Sin, uses such language as the following: “Christ suffered the full punishment of the sin that was imputed to Him, or offered that to God that was fully and completely equivalent to what we owed to God’s justice for our sins” (p. 384). “The satisfaction of Christ by suffering the punishment of sin is properly to be distinguished as being in its own nature different from the merit of Christ. For merit is only some excellency or worth. But when we consider Christ’s sufferings merely as the satisfaction for the guilt of another, the excellency of Christ’s act in suffering does not at all come into consideration; but only these two things, viz. their equality or equivalence to the punishment that the sinner deserved; and secondly, the union between Him and them, or the propriety of His being accepted in suffering as the representative of the sinner” (p. 38 J).

b. The arguments by which this view of the work of Christ is sought to be sustained are chiefly the following, which I take from Owen, whose masculine style of thought and exhaustive method of dealing with a subject are such as usually to leave little for any one else to add to what he advances on the side he espouses.

(a) Scripture expressly makes known to us the fact of a transference of punishment in respect of the subjects suffering it, but not one word is uttered respecting any change of the kind of punishment, but rather is the contrary affirmed; see Rom. viii. 32, “He spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all.”

(b) All the punishment due to us was contained in the curse and sanction of the law, that is, the penalty under which sin has brought man. But this was endured by Christ (Gal. iii. 13, “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us,” so that He suffered the very penalty we had incurred.

(c) When God condemns sin, then He condemns it in that very punishment which is due unto it in the sinner, or rather to the sinner for it. He hath revealed but one rule of His proceeding in this case. Now He condemned sin in the flesh of Christ, or of Him sent in the likeness of sinful flesh (Rom. viii. 3, “God sending His Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh .” The condemning of sin is the infliction of the punishment due to sin.

(d) The whole penalty of sin is death (Gen. ii. 17). This Christ underwent for us (Heb. ii. 9). And to die for another is to undergo that death which that other should have under gone (2 Sam. xviii. 33). But as eternal death may be considered two ways, either as such in potentia, and in its own nature, or as actually; so our Savior underwent it, not in the latter, but in the former sense (Heb. ii. 9, 14). The dignity of His Person (1 Pet. iii. 18; Heb. ix. 26, 28), which raises the estimation of punishment, makes what He suffered omnipotent to actual eternal suffering. There is a sameness in Christ’s sufferings with that in the obligation in respect of essence, and equivalency in respect of attendancies, such as duration and the like.

(e) In the meeting of our iniquities upon Christ (Isa. liii. 6), and His being thereby made sin for us (2 Cor. v. 21), lay the very punishment of our sin, as to us threatened, upon Him.

(f) The Scriptures describe His sufferings in such a way as to indicate that He suffered what was threatened to sin. Thus, His sufferings are called “stripes” or “wounds,” which were so laid on Him in our stead, that we are healed thereby (Isa. liii. 5; 1 Pet. ii. 24); they are described as a being sorrowful exceedingly even unto death, as a being troubled, a being in agony, etc. All these indicate that the bitterness of the death due to sin was fully on His soul. It was no less than the weight of the wrath of God and the whole punishment due to sin that He wrestled under.8

(g) The death of Christ is in different places of Scripture restricted to His people, His elect, His Church, and His sheep; and therefore the good purchased thereby ought not to be extended to those who are not of this class, to those who are reprobates, to those who are without.

(h) For whom Christ died, He died as their sponsor, in their room and stead, that He might free them from guilt and desert of death (Isa. liii. 5, 6; Rom. v. 6-8; Gal. iii. 13; 2 Cor. v. 21). Evidently He changes turns with us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him. . . . Christ dying for men made satisfaction for their sins, that they should not die. Now, for what sins He made satisfaction, for them the justice of God is satisfied; which surely is not done for the sins of the reprobates, because He justly punishes them to eternity upon themselves (Matt. v. 26).

(i) For whom Christ died, for them He also rose again to make intercession for them; for whose offences He was delivered, for their justification He was raised. He is an High Priest to make intercession for them for whom, by His death, He obtained eternal redemption. These two acts of His priesthood are not to be separated; it belongs to the same Mediator for sin to sacrifice and to intercede; our assurance that He is our Advocate is grounded on His being the propitiation for our sins; He is an Advocate for every one for whose sins His blood was a propitiation. But Christ does not intercede for all; He is not a Mediator for them that perish, nor an Advocate for them whose suit fails; and therefore the benefit of His death must also be restrained to them who are finally partakers of both.

(j) For whom Christ died, He merited grace and glory, faith, and salvation, and reconciliation with God. But this He has not done for all and every one. Many never do believe; the wrath of God remains on some, abiding on them that believe not. Now, to be reconciled to one and yet lie under His heavy wrath seem to be asustata, things that will scarce consist together.

(k) Christ died for them whom God gave to Him to be saved (John xvii. 6). He laid down His life for the sheep (x. 11). But all are not the sheep of Christ, all are not given to Him by God to bring to glory: for of those that are so given there is not one that perishes, for He gives eternal life to as many as God hath given Him.

(l) Those for whom Christ laid down His life are those whom the Father loved, and whom it was His good pleasure to endow with spiritual blessings. But this love and this good pleasure of His evidently comprehend some when others are excluded; so that there must be some for whom Christ did not die.9

In another of his works Owen thus argues the limitation of Christ’s atoning work:

I may add this dilemma to our Universalists” [he means those who hold that Christ died for all]: “imposed His wrath due unto, and Christ underwent the pains of hell for, either all the sins of all men, or all the sins of some men, or some sins of all men. If the last, some sins of all men, then have all men some sins to answer for, and so no man shall be saved. . . . If the second, that is what we affirm, viz. that Christ in their stead and room suffered for all the sins of all the elect in the world. If the first [viz. that Christ died for all the sins of all men], then why are not all freed from the punishment of all their sins ? You will say, Because of their unbelief; they will not believe. But this unbelief, is it a sin or is it not ? If not, why should they be punished for it? If it be, then Christ underwent the punishment due to it or not. If He did, why must that hinder, more than their other sins for which He died, from partaking of the fruit of His death? If He did not, then He (lid not die for all their sins. Let them choose which part they will.

So conclusive did Owen find this reasoning, that he does not hesitate to say that “to affirm Christ to die for all men is the readiest way to prove that He died for no man in the sense Christians have hitherto understood.”

c. The doctrine thus advocated has been often spoken against in severe terms by its opponents. Even Dr. Wardlaw forgets for the moment his usual suavity, and stigmatizes it as “this pitiful process of commercial reckoning, this weight and measure system of atonement.” This, as it appears to me, is hardly just. The conception of a purchase as involved in the work of Christ on our behalf is one borrowed from Scripture, and therefore one which, in taking a comprehensive view of the subject, we must neither leave out of view nor explain away. It may be that Owen and his school err in making this the exclusive aspect under which they have contemplated the atonement; but that this is one of the aspects under which it must be contemplated, cannot, I think, be doubted. Instead, then, of strongly denouncing this theory of the atonement, the proper course would seem to be to accept it so far as it rests on a scriptural basis, and then to show where it is defective and objectionable. If Owen is right in restricting the atonement to the idea of purchase, his reasoning appears to me quite unanswerable. It is here, however, that he and his party err. Whilst it is true that the salvation of believers is a redemption, a purchasing of them from sin and misery that they may be restored to God, it is not in accordance with the representations of Scripture or the facts of the case to make this the only or even the essential idea of the atonement. The objections to this are many, and apparently conclusive. You will find them stated by Dr. Wardlaw in his Theology, vol. ii. Lect. xxiv., and by Dr. Payne in his Lectures on Divine Sovereignty, Atonement, etc., Lect. ix. The weightiest are–(a) that this view is really incompatible with a belief in the infinite value of the Savior’s propitiatory work, seeing it necessarily limits that to an equivalency with the guilt of the elect. (b) That on this view it is impossible to take, in their fair and proper sense, those passages of Scripture which state that Christ was a propitiation for the sins of the world, and that He was sent "that whosoever believeth in Him might not perish." (c) That on this view the salvation of the non-elect becomes a natural impossibility, just as much so as it is for those to see for whom no eyes have been provided, or those to understand from whom God has withheld the gifts of intellect. (d) On this supposition the general invitations and promises of the gospel are without an adequate basis, and seem like a mere mockery, an offer, in short, of what has not been provided.

It will not do to say, in reply to this, that as these invitations are actually given we are entitled on the authority of God’s word to urge them and justified in accepting them; for this is mere evasion. The question is not as to whether they are to be regarded as sincere and valid, but on what ground can they be so regarded? Had God merely placed in Scripture these invitations and promises without making known to us anything regarding the work of Christ on which they are based, our wisdom would have been to accept the invitation and rely on the promise without further inquiry. But seeing it is not so; seeing God has rested His invitation and His promise on the work of Christ as made known to us in His word, we are not only entitled, but bound to inquire into the relation in which the two stand to each other, that we may see how the superstructure really rests on the basis. If a skilled architect tells me that a certain building is secure I may take his word for it and inquire no further; but if he insists on showing me the foundation, and how, resting on such a foundation, the building is secure, I am bound to examine and satisfy myself that it is really so. When, therefore, God is pleased not only to give us gracious invitations and promises, but to show us the foundation on which these rest, we are bound to examine this and see whether it is broad enough to sustain the superstructure that is erected upon it. And if on inquiry we find that the basis, according to our view of it, is not broad enough for what is erected on it, the fair conclusion seems to be that we have made a mistake in our survey, and that the basis is not such as we assumed it to be, but must be broader. Accordingly, when we find that the doctrine of a limited atonement, an atonement on the principle of a quid pro quo, does not afford a basis broad enough to sustain the unlimited offers of the gospel, it is surely a perfectly fair conclusion that the doctrine is erroneous, and cannot be the doctrine of Scripture. Finally, on this view the actual salvation of the elect ceases to be of grace, and becomes as much a matter of right on their part and of simple equity on the part of God as the release of a debtor whose debt has been paid by another is a matter of right and equity. If I am unable to satisfy the law, and the sovereign remits the penalty on some grounds of general jurisprudence or governmental righteousness which left Him free to give or withhold the blessing according to his sovereign good pleasure, then the reception of the But if the debt which I owed has been paid benefit by me is purely of grace, and I am made thereby a debtor to grace, if every special claim which the law had on me has been met and satisfied, then my release is a simple matter of justice, the ruler is bound in equity to set me free, and no room is left for grace to enter.

W. Lindsay Alexander, A System of Biblical Theology (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1888), 2: 101-111. [Some spelling modernized; some reformatting of extended quotations; footnote values modernize; footnote content original; bracketed inserts original; and underlining mine.]

[Notes: It should be noted by the reader that in this work, Alexander affirms that Christ died only for the sins of the elect. In this regard he was not a classic-moderate Calvinist. What is interesting is that he classifies Owen’s theology of identical suffering as a form of hypercalvinism. On the other hand, those Calvinists who affirmed that Christ suffered an equivalent satisfaction due to sin, Alexander calls Moderate Calvinists. He then divides the Moderate Calvinists into two sub-groups, those who say Christ died for all, and those who say Christ died for the elect alone. Alexander essentially rests this interesting taxonomy on his faulty reading of the doctrine of Christ’s sufficiency, as defined by Symington, Candlish and others–a sufficiency which he considers to represent a genuine universal aspect of the satisfaction. Alexander confuses the hypothetical sufficiency of Symington, and others, for an actual sufficiency, which for him, then grounds the universal offer and sustains the savability of all men. The problem is, however, if the sufficiency is only hypothetical, or if Christ only sustained a penal relationship with the sins of the elect, then there are no grounds for a sincere offer to the non-elect as the non-elect are not savable in terms of the law. And so therein lies the core of his confusion on this point. Having said all that, his analysis of Owen is quite correct.]


1Instit., ii. 17. 4, 3.

2Form. Com. Helvet., art. 13

3Witsius, Œcon. Fœd., ii. c. 9, 6.

4Death of Christ, Works, vol. x. p. 269.

5Ibid., p. 285.

6Death of Christ, Works, vol. x. c. ii. p. 438.

7Ibid., p. 447.

8Of the Death of Christ, Works, vol. x. c. iv. p. 448.

9Display of Arminianism, Works, voL x. c. ix. p. 91.

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