FULL ATONEMENT, AND SALVATION WHOLLY BY GRACE, CONSISTENT
WITH EACH OTHER.
The Scriptures plainly teach, that though Christ has made a full and complete atonement for sin, yet the salvation of sinners is entirely of grace. “By grace ye are saved.” Eph. 2 : 5. Many, however, have found it difficult to treat the subject as though these doctrines were reconcilable, the one with the other. But this difficulty has probably arisen from mistaken views of the nature of the atonement which Christ has made. Understanding the atonement to be, literally, a purchase, or the payment of a debt, some have inferred from it, that, since Christ is represented as a propitiation for the sins of the whole world, all men must be saved; others, that, inasmuch as it is evident that all will not be saved, the atonement could not be made for all; and others, again, that, if sinners are saved on account of the atonement, their pardon and salvation cannot be of grace.
These conclusions are much more consistent with the premises, from which they are respectively drawn, than either the premises or conclusions are with the truth. For, if the atonement did consist in the payment of a debt literally, it seems very obvious that there could not be any grace exercised in the acquittal of sinners, and that atonement and actual salvation, must be co-extensive. If Christ has really paid the debt of sinners, they, of course, must be free. Justice must be satisfied, and can make no further demand. On this ground it must, indeed, follow, that if Christ died for all, then all will be saved; and that if all are not saved, then he could not have died for all. And it equally follows, that none can be saved by grace. Their debt being paid, it cannot be forgiven.
Since, therefore, the Scriptures represent the pardon and salvation of sinners as being wholly of grace, we may be certain that the atonement cannot be the payment of a debt, nor, strictly, of the nature of a purchase. This, too, it is apprehended, has already been made evident, in what has been shown concerning the necessity and nature of atonement. But since many, at the present day, have adopted this scheme of the atonement, and have deduced sentiments from it which are of the most dangerous tendency, it may not be improper to examine, a little more directly, the reasoning by which they endeavor to make their scheme consistent with the exercise of grace, in the actual bestowment of pardon and salvation.
The Scriptures are so very explicit and particular, respecting the terms of pardon and justification, that few believers in divine revelation can be found, who do not appear anxious to have it understood that, in some way or other, they hold the doctrines of grace. It has been said by some, that though atonement be the payment of a debt, yet the pardon of a sinner may be called an act of grace, because it is founded in other acts, which certainly are acts of grace. God’s giving his Son to make atonement, and his actually making it, are acts of grace. And since the pardon of sinners has its foundation on these gracious acts, it may be called an act of grace itself. But this is, certainly, strange reasoning. To say that pardon is an act of grace, only because it is grounded on other acts which are gracious, is nothing less than to say, that it is an act of grace, though it is not an act of grace.
Besides, on the ground of the scheme in question, it is futile to talk of pardon. When a debt is paid, what can remain to be forgiven? The notion, however, is not more inconsistent with itself, than it is with Scripture. “In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace.” Eph. 1 : 7. “Being justified freely by his grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Rom. 3 : 24 These passages of Scripture, and many others of similar import, plainly imply, that forgiveness and justification are themselves acts of grace, and not merely that they are grounded on other acts of this nature.
Nor is this all. Pardon, or forgiveness, in its very nature, implies grace. So far as any crime is pardoned at all, it is pardoned graciously. It is impossible to forgive in any other way. Pardon, on the ground of justice, would be a contradiction in terms. To pardon a sinner is to treat him more favorably than he deserves; to release him from a punishment which he has justly merited; and to confer on him a favor, to which he has no claim. Pardon always implies this. If a criminal be pardoned, he is treated more favorably than he deserves. His release from punishment is a favor which he can have no right to demand. This circumstance, that he cannot demand it, constitutes his release an act of grace; and the same circumstance renders it an act of forgiveness. Without this circumstance, no acquittal can be an act, either of pardon or grace. Others, again, among those who consider the atonement as the payment of a debt, have attempted to solve the difficulty by saying that, though the pardon of the sinner is not an act of grace to Christ, since he has paid the debt; yet it is an act of grace to the sinner, because the debt was not paid by himself, but by Christ, his surety.
It may be observed in reply, that as to the release of the debtor, it makes no difference who pays the debt. Whoever may make the payment, if the debt is paid, it can never be forgiven. If a creditor has received payment of his demand, he is under obligation to discharge his debtor, whether he paid the debt himself or some other person paid it for him. This must be evident to every candid mind. No creditor can refuse to give up an obligation after it is fully paid, without the most manifest injustice. But an act of grace is what no being can be under obligation, to him who receives it, to perform. If a being is under obligation to another to perform an act in his favor, that act must be an act of justice, and not of grace. Hence there can be no grace in giving up a demand which is fully satisfied. What, then, becomes of the boasted arguments of those who plead for universal grace, on the ground that Christ has paid the debt for all men. Alas, what gross delusion! They talk about grace, free grace for all men, and yet exclude every idea of grace in the pardon of sinners, by alleging that Christ has paid their debt. If their debt is paid, they can never be pardoned. But if sinners may be pardoned for Christ’s sake, then their debt is not paid; and, consequently, God is under no obligation to exercise pardon on account of the atonement. Thus it appears that the argument for universal salvation, deduced from the notion that Christ has paid the debt for sinners, is totally groundless. Take it which way we will, it is mere delusion.
The truth is, Christ has paid no man’s debt. It is true, indeed, that our deliverance is, in Scripture, sometimes called a redemption; and this word refers to the deliverance of a prisoner from captivity, which is often effected by the payment of a sum of money. Christ is also called “a ransom,” and we are said to be “bought with a price.” But it must be remembered that these are figurative expressions. They are designed to communicate this idea, that as the payment of money as the price of liberty is the ground on which prisoners are released from captivity, so the atonement of Christ is the ground on which sinners are pardoned, or set free from a sentence of condemnation. These passages, thus understood, appear intelligible and consistent; whereas, understood literally, they would contradict other plain declarations of the Word of God. For sinners are certainly represented in Scripture as being pardoned of free grace; which, it is evident, cannot be said with propriety of captives whose liberty is purchased. Besides, these passages literally bring into view the payment of money and the discharge of debt. But surely no one will suppose that sinners have literally plundered the treasury of heaven, and deprived God of property, and that the business of the Redeemer was to refund the money which they had thus wrongfully taken away. We have not been “redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold; but with the precious blood of Christ.” It is evident, therefore, that these are metaphorical expressions, and were never designed to be taken in a sense strictly literal.
The Scriptures, indeed, use a variety of metaphors in describing the necessity and nature of atonement. When sin is represented under a figure, we find the Saviour introduced under a corresponding figure. If sin is a disease, and “the whole head sick, and the heart faint,” Christ is a physician. There is balm in Gilead, and a physician there. If sin is hunger and thirst, Christ is the bread and water of life. If sin is error, in a road or path, Christ is then the way. And if sin is a debt, Christ is then a price.
Let passages of this description be understood literally, and they immediately become not only unintelligible, but plainly contradictory. But let them be understood metaphorically, as was evidently designed, and they are intelligible, consistent, and fraught with instruction. If sin is called a disease, we are not to understand that it may be healed as easily as bodily diseases are, or in the same manner; but we are rather to infer, from this representation, the greatness of the evil; and that as diseases of the body which are not healed bring forth, so sin, if it be not destroyed in us, will inevitably issue in a more dreadful death of the immortal soul. If sin be spoken of as a debt, it is not to show us that it may be paid by another; but it is rather to signify to us that our sins render us accountable to God, though not precisely in the same manner, yet as certainly as debtors are to their creditors, and that a day of reckoning must come. If sin is a debt, and also a disease, and Christ a price to pay the debt, and a physician to heal the disease, we are no more authorized to infer that he has paid the debt, than we are to conclude that he has healed the disease, which we know is not the fact. The truth is, neither debt nor disease does specifically describe the nature of sin. Nor does the payment of a debt, nor the healing of a disease, with any greater literal correctness describe the work of the Redeemer.
From what has been shown concerning the necessity and nature of the atonement, it is evident not only that it does not at all consist in the payment of a debt, but that it is perfectly consistent with free grace in the pardon of sinners. Grace and justice may be considered as opposite terms. Where one begins, the other necessarily ends. That action which justice requires cannot be of grace. An action, to be gracious, must be unmerited; and, if unmerited, it must be what no being is under obligation to perform. An act of grace is what may be performed, or not performed, without any injustice. The bestowment of a favor, which might have been withheld1 without any injustice, is an act of grace; but nothing short of this can be grace. The term justice is used in three different ways.
1. It is used in relation to the property of individuals.
2. It is used in relation to the moral character of individuals.
3. It is used in relation to the interest and well-being of society at large.
The first kind of justice, which has respect to exchanging property, consists in giving every man his own without respect to moral character. To be just in this sense of the word, debtors must satisfy the equitable demands of their creditors, and creditors, when these demands are satisfied, must give up their obligations. That grace which would be opposed to justice in this sense, would consist in giving money where it is not owed, or in giving up obligations without receiving their value. But, as the controversy between God and sinners is not concerning property, this kind of
justice and grace is not at all concerned in the present inquiry.
It is the second kind of justice which relates to the treatment of moral beings, in regard to their character, to which this inquiry has respect. To treat moral beings exactly according to their real character, is an act of justice. To treat them more favorably than is correspondent with their character, would be an act of grace. To treat them more severely than is correspondent with their character, would be an act of injustice. Now, this kind of justice has not been satisfied, in the least degree, by the death of Christ. His sufferings have made no alteration, at least no favorable alteration, in the character of sinners. Their personal demerit is as great as it would have been if no atonement had been made. Indeed, in a multitude of instances, it is much greater. For if Christ had not come, they had not had so great sin; but now, they have both seen and hated, both him and his Father. Mankind are now by nature, subjects of the same evil heart of unbelief of which they were the subjects, before Christ appeared to make atonement for sin. It is still true that their throat is an open sepulchre, the poison of asps is under their lips, their mouth is full of cursing and bitterness, their feet are swift to do mischief [to shed blood], and the way of peace they have not known. It is still true, that their whole head is sick, and their whole heart faint. In point of personal merit, even now they deserve the damnation of hell. Should God now send them to that place of torment and confine them there forever, he would treat them according to their personal character, and, consequently, do them no injustice. But if, instead of sending them to hell, he is pleased to pardon them and restore them to his favor, he treats them more favorably than is correspondent with their moral character, and, consequently, their salvation must be entirely of grace.
And, since it is evident that the moral character of sinners is not made better by the atonement of Christ; and, of course, that this kind of justice, which consists in treating moral beings according to their character, is not in the least degree satisfied; it must follow, that there is as much grace exercised in pardoning sinners out of respect to the atonement, as there could possibly have been in case they had been pardoned without any atonement. Indeed, it was utterly impossible, in the nature of things, that this kind of justice could be satisfied. Nothing which Christ did, either in obedience or sufferings, could possibly alter the moral deserts of sinners. Nor was it, in the least, necessary that justice, in this sense of the term, should be satisfied. The moral desert of the sinner, considered in itself, presented no obstacle in the way of his salvation. If it had, it would have been an obstacle in the way of grace; and if it had been removed, grace would have been excluded. It is the third kind of justice mentioned, which has been satisfied by the death of Christ. This, if it be proper to call it justice, is fully satisfied. For, by the sufferings and death of Christ to atone for sin, God has fully manifested a proper respect for his law, has made it evident that he loves righteousness and hates iniquity, and has done what was needful to deter his other subjects from disobedience; so that he may now pardon sinners without doing any injustice to his kingdom in general. He may be just, and the justifier of him who believeth in Jesus. But while the obstacles arising from the regard which God had to his own character, and the highest good of his kingdom, which, without atonement, opposed the salvation of sinners, are all happily removed by the propitiation of Christ; still, as has been shown, the moral character of sinners remains unaltered, their personal ill-desert the same. Hence, notwithstanding God may pardon them without injuring his kingdom, yet he is under no more obligation to do it as it respects them, than he would have been, if no atonement had ever been made; nor will he do them any more injustice in sending them to hell, than he would have done in doing the same thing, if Christ had never died. It is evident, therefore, that there is as much grace exercised in the pardon of sinners, as there would have been, if they had been pardoned without any atonement whatever.
What, then, must be the disappointment of those, who flatter themselves that all mankind must be saved, because Christ has made atonement for their sins. How inconsistent must it be, to talk of salvation by grace, and yet suppose, that God is under obligation to save all mankind on account of Christ’s death! As well might it be argued, that God is under obligation to save fallen angels, for whom Christ never died.
Caleb Burge, “An Essay on the Scripture Doctrine of Atonement: Its Nature, Its Necessity, and Its Extent,” in The Atonement: Discourses and Treatises, ed. Edwards A. Park (Boston: Congregational Board of Publication, 1859), 488-493. [Some spelling modernized; footnote mine; and underlining mine.]