This brings us directly to the subject of this section, which is to inquire what it was about the sacrifice of Christ which rendered it an adequate cause to produce the effect of human salvation; that is to say, what it is that constitutes the moral worth or value of Christ’s atonement.

The value of Christ’s atonement we conceive to arise, not from the nature, or intensity, or continuance of his sufferings. The work of Jesus was not a mere commercial affair of debt and payment. We have no conception that, had the number of those for whom he suffered been greater than it was, or had their sins been more numerous or more aggravated than they were, his sufferings must have been proportionably increased. Neither can we subscribe to the notion that one pang or pain of all that he endured was itself sufficient to effect atonement. We conceive, on the contrary, that he suffered nothing but what was necessary, that if less could have sufficed less would have been required; while, on the other hand, the intrinsic worth of what he actually endured was such as to render it sufficient for the salvation of many more than shall be ultimately saved, had God only seen meet to extend to them his mercy in Christ Jesus. The sufferings of Christ we regard as a moral satisfaction to the law and government of God, which would have been necessary had there been only one to be saved, and which would have been found sufficient had the whole human race, without exception, been to rank, among the redeemed. Just as the arrangement which exists for the outward illumination of our globe, would have been required had there been but one inhabitant to reap the benefit presently enjoyed, and would have been sufficient had there been many more millions in existence than actually inhabit the earth. The worth or value of Christ’s atoning sacrifice we conceive to have arisen, not from one circumstance alone, but from several circumstances combined, none of which can be dispensed with in forming a proper estimate on the subject. These circumstances we shall now attempt to unfold.

I. The first is the dignity of the Savior person. He who, in making atonement, is at once the priest and the sacrifice, is divine. He is the Son of God, the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person. He is God himself, co-equal with the Father, Jehovah’s fellow. Titles which involve essential dignity are unhesitatingly ascribed to him. He is spoken of as possessing all the necessary attributes of Deity. Works which belong only to God, are said to be performed by him. And the highest forms of divine worship are used by all moral creatures, in doing him homage. The truth of these assertions we must be permitted to take for granted, as to exhibit even an outline of their evidence would lead us into an improper digression. The doctrine of Christ’s dignity is prominently set forth in the volume of revealed truth. It is the glory of Christianity. It sparkles, like a radiant gem, in every part of the sacred field. It invests the whole Christian system with heavenly beauty. It imparts a peculiar grandeur and sublimity to the doctrines of the cross.

From the dignity of the party offended by man’s sin, it was requisite that he, who should successfully transact for pardon, should possess a corresponding elevation of character. He who is offended is the infinite Jehovah, the great God of heaven and of earth. It is the infinite Majesty whose honor has been violated; it is the throne of the Eternal whose stability and authority have been invaded. To effect reconciliation, in such a case, is a work to which no man, no angel, no superangelic creature is adequate. No priest of less personal consequence than the Lord of glory, is competent to the office of appeasing the wrath of the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity. But we have such an High Priest, who is set on the right hand of the throne of the majesty in the heavens. The sacrifice by which atonement is made for offenses of infinite moral turpitude, must be possessed of infinite moral worth. The relative value arising from divine appointment is not enough; else it could never have been said, “It is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats could take away sin.” The blood of inferior animals was as capable as any other of all the worth which mere appointment can impart. But an intrinsic worth was required, which could be possessed by nothing short of “blood divine.” Hence the sacrifice of Christ is so often spoken of in scripture as being himself. “Christ has loved us and given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God.–Who gave HIMSELF a ransom for all.–When he had by HIMSELF purged our sins.–He offered up himself.–He appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.”1

As the substance of Christ’s atoning sacrifice consisted in his sufferings or death, it has been alleged that its intrinsic worth could be nothing more than human, as his human nature alone could suffer and die. But the close and inseparable union subsisting between the divine and human natures in the person of the Son of God is here to be remembered. Although the human nature alone could either suffer or die, it was the Son of God, as possessed of this nature, who endured the sufferings and died the death of the cross. The possession of a human nature qualified him for suffering; the divinity of his person gave to his suffering a worth equivalent to its own dignity. Although the human nature was alone capable of suffering, it was nevertheless the person to whom this nature belonged who suffered. It may be thought that at this rate, as the person was divine, such an assertion involves the blasphemy that Deity suffered. By no means. When a person suffers, it does not follow that he suffers in all that pertains to him. He may suffer in his property and not suffer in his honor; he may suffer in his happiness and not in his character; he may suffer in his body and not in his soul; still it is the person who suffers. So, in the case before us, while the Son of God suffers in his human nature it is still the person which suffers. If, before we are entitled to say that a person suffers, all that pertains to him must suffer, it follows that we can never say a person dies, as the soul, an essential constituent part of the person, never dies.

But, granting that it is the person who suffers, it may still be said that the value of these sufferings is to be estimated only by the nature of that in which he suffers. When a martyr suffers death, as it is the body only that dies, there cannot belong to his death a worth proportioned to his soul. In like manner, when Christ suffers, as Deity cannot suffer, his sufferings, it may be said, can possess only the worth of humanity. But this is to leave out of consideration altogether a circumstance which is allowed by all to have the effect of increasing the value of certain acts and sufferings. The circumstance to which I refer is dignity of character. There are some things which are of the same value, by whomsoever performed. Money, for example, paid by a prince, is of no more mercantile value than money paid by any other man. But there are other things in which the case is widely different, their value depending, in some measure, on the dignity of him by whom they are performed. The relative value of certain actions depends on the rank in the scale of intellectual, or moral, or social being of the person who performs them. To the action of an inferior animal we attach less value than to that of a human creature;–to that of a man less, again, than to that of an angel. On the same principle, the action of a peasant and that of a king may differ materially, with regard to relative worth. In one point of view, the life of a slave and the life of a monarch are of equal value; they are both human creatures. But, in another point of view, the life of a king is of far greater value than the life of a slave: and the act of laying down his life involves a higher degree of worth in the one than in the other. This distinction is recognized in the address of the people to king David, when he would go forth with them to battle:–“Thou shalt not go forth: for if we flee away, they will not care for us; neither if half of us die, will they care for us but now THOU ART WORTH TEN THOUSAND OF US.”2 For a king to submit to excruciating tortures and an ignominious death, with a view to save some one of his subjects, will be reckoned by all a more meritorious piece of conduct than if such had been submitted to by one who held the place merely of a fellow subject. Yet here it might be said, it is humanity and not royalty which suffers, and why attach to it a value arising from the latter, rather than confine it to that which springs from the former circumstance? The case is parallel to that of which we are now speaking. The humanity of Christ alone could either suffer or die, but that humanity belonged to a person who is divine, and this gave to his sufferings and death the value of divinity.3

How it comes to pass, that the personal dignity of the sufferer conveys to the sufferings of his humanity a worth proportioned to him who suffers rather than to that which suffers, we pretend not fully to explain. The above observations, however, serve to show that the principle on which this is affirmed, is one on which we are not altogether unaccustomed to reason. It is not meant to be interred that any analogies, such as that resorted to above, can give us a complete idea of the nature of a case which is transcendentally and awfully peculiar. It is enough if they serve to neutralize the objections of such as are disposed to cavil at the truth. On a subject of this nature, it ill becomes us to speak either with carelessness or precipitation. It is to be approached only with cautious reverence. Here, if anywhere, we should be careful to be “lowly wise.” Yet we may be permitted to show the reasonableness of a doctrine, and to expose the temerity and presumption of its adversaries, without laying ourselves open to the charge of being wise above what is written. The following statement may not altogether be without its use, in shedding a ray of light on this acknowledgedly great and profound mystery:–A person only can perform moral acts: The human nature of Christ possessed no personal subsistence: Of course, although the human nature of Christ alone could either suffer or obey, the obedience and sufferings of his humanity, viewed in themselves could have no moral character: To give them a moral character they must be viewed in connection with his person: Whence it follows that, the obedience and sufferings of Christ, physically considered, possessed only the worth of humanity, but morally considered possessed a worth proportioned to the dignity of his divine person. Now, the sufferings and death of Christ for the sins of his people were of a moral character, being endured with a view to meet the claims of the divine moral government, to satisfy the law and justice of God. It follows that there attached to them all the value which divine dignity could impart.4

But we are more concerned with the evidence of the fact, than with the explanation of the mode, of this great and important truth. Those who hold the doctrine of Christ’s divinity, can never hesitate to admit that the sufficiency or efficacy of his atonement springs from the supreme dignity of his person as the Son of God. The validity of his sacrifice takes its rise from his true and essential divinity. To this the testimony of Scripture is distinctly borne. The epistle to the Hebrews, which treats professedly of the insufficiency of the legal sacrifices, and the intrinsic validity of that of Christ, commences with an elaborate demonstration of Christ’s divinity, as the basis on which the subsequent reasoning is made to rest. The High Priest of the Christian profession is explicitly shown to be the brightness of the Father’s glory and the express image of his person; to be much better than the angels; to be God whose throne is forever and ever; to be Jehovah who laid the foundations of the earth, who shall remain when all else has perished, who is the same and his years shall not fail. While in another part of the book, the blood of Christ is represented as deriving its superiority over the ceremonial sacrifices, from its being offered " through the Eternal Spirit"— a phrase understood by some of our most eminent critics and divines to refer to the divine dignity of his person. " How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the Eternal Spirit offered himself without spot of God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God."5 It is because Jesus Christ is God’s Son that his blood possesses intrinsic validity to cleanse from all sin. The value of the gift and the sufficiency of the propitiatory sacrifice arise from the same circumstance. “God sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”6

II. But this is not all. Relationship of nature to those for whom the atonement was made, is an essential element in its validity. Christ required to be real and proper man, as much as the true God. To qualify him for making atonement he must possess opposite attributes, a frail and mortal nature combined with ineffable dignity of person. We allude not now to the necessity of the incarnation to fit the Messiah for suffering, to render him susceptible of pain and death, to make the offering of himself as a sacrifice a thing possible. We refer rather to the possession of human nature as imparting a character of worth or validity to what he did. This was requisite, not more to enable him to suffer, than to impart to his sufferings an essential value in the estimation of the divine law. Had the work of our redemption been a mere mercantile transaction, it mattered not by whom the price might have been paid. But being a moral satisfaction to the law of God for the sins of men, there existed a moral fitness or necessity that the satisfaction should be made by one in the nature of those who had sinned and were to be redeemed. The redeemer behooved, as of old, to be a kinsman, a brother. Without this, neither could the moral government of God be vindicated, nor the glory of the divine Lawgiver maintained, nor the principles of the law upheld. The law in its precept was suited to man, and in its curse it had a claim upon man. Its requirements were such as man only could fulfill; its penalty such as one possessing the nature of man only could bear. The penalty was suffering even unto death; and no angel, no one who had not a body as well as a soul, could die. The death only of a man could possess a moral and legal congruity to the curse of a law given to man and broken by man. It was not, then, merely to qualify him for suffering that the Messiah took upon him the nature of man, but to qualify him for such suffering as should possess validity in the eye of the divine law. But he that sanctifies and they who are sanctified must be ALL OF ONE.7 Therefore in all things it behooved him to he made LIKE UNTO HIS BRETHREN, that he might make reconciliation for the sins of the people. Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. The serpent’s head could be bruised, only by the SEED OF THE WOMAN.8

William Symington, The Atonement and Intercession of Christ (New York: Robert Carter, 1847), 162-170. [Some reformatting; some spelling modernized; footnote values modernized; footnote content original; italics and emphasis original; and underlining mine.]

[Note: In opposition to the standard Reformed consensus on this, the reader may be interested to read Tom Nettle’s assertion that Christ did, indeed, suffer for so much sin, and could have suffered more for more sin: here.


1Eph. V. 2. 1 Tim. ii. 6. Heb. i. 3; vii. 27; ix. 26.

22 Sam. xviii. 3.

3To suppose, because humanity only is capable of suffering, that therefore humanity only is necessary to atonement, is to render dignity of character of no account. When Zeleucus, one of the Grecian kings, had made a law against adultery, that whosoever was guilty of this crime should lose both his eyes, his own son is said to have been the first transgressor. To preserve the honor of the law, and at the same time to save his own son from total blindness, the father had recourse to an expedient of losing one of his own eyes, and his son one of his. This expedient, though it did not conform to the letter of the law, yet was well adapted to preserve the spirit of it, as it served to evince to the nation the determination of the king to punish adultery, as much, perhaps more than if the sentence had been put into execution against the offender. But if instead of this he had appointed that one eye of an animal should be put out in order to save that of his son, or if a common subject had offered to lose an eye, would either have answered the purpose? The animal and the subject were each possessed of an eye, as well as the sovereign. It might be added, too, that it was mere bodily pain; and seeing it was in the body only that this penalty could be endured, any being that possessed a body was equally capable of enduring it. True, they might endure it, but would their suffering answer the same end? Would it have satisfied justice? Would it have had the same effect upon the nation, or tended equally to restore the tone of injured authority.”–Works of Andrew Fuller, vol. v. p. 565.

4On this delicate point, I beg to confirm the view I have given, by referring the reader to the following paragraphs by Dr. Pye Smith. "

I. The assumption of human nature by the eternal word, who is God, was the act of an infinite mind, knowing, intending, and contemplating all the results of that act of assumption, through the period of the designed humiliation and for ever. To the divine mind, nearness and remoteness of time or space are equal. Consequently, as the actual assumption of human nature was the first result of the omnipotent will, so the same act, or volition, must equally have carried forwards and communicated its original divine value to all the subsequent moral and mediatorial acts of the incarnate Saviour.

II. The union of the divine and human natures, in his person, was constant and invariable. The Scriptures afford us no reason to think that the Messiah’s human nature, though retaining always its essential properties, had ever a separate subsistence. To the mother of Jesus it was announced, “The holy Being which is born of thee, shall be called the Son of God”: and according to the prophetic declaration, as soon as men could say, “Unto us a child is born,” so soon was it the fact that his name was called “The Wonderful, the Counsellor, the Mighty God.” It was the Mediator, in his whole person, that acted for the salvation of man; though it was impossible that the divine nature could be subject to suffering.

From these two positions I infer a third, which I venture to propose, as an unexceptionable mode of stating this important, though profound and difficult subject:–

III. All the acts of our Lord Jesus Christ that were physical, oi merely intellectual, were acts of his human nature alone, being necessary to the subsistence of a human nature: but all his moral acts, and all the moral qualities of his complex acts; or, in other terms, all tiaat he did in and for the execution of his mediatorial office and work.–were impressed with the essential dignity and moral value of his divine perfection. " These reasons appear to me sufficient to authorize our attributing to this holy sacrifice, a value properly INFINITE, on account of the divine nature ‘of him who offered it. A most important conclusion ! Rich in blessing to the contrite sinner: full of joy to the obedient believer.”–Disc, on Sac, pp. 69—71.

5Heb. be. 14.

61 John iv. 10.

7I.e., all of one nature.

8Heb. ii. 1 J, 17; 1 Cor. xv. 21: Gen. iii. 15.

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