I believe in Jesus Christ. Nowhere am I requested to believe in any thing, or in any statement, but everywhere to believe in God and in Jesus Christ. I do not believe in what many mean by the atonement, for it would be to believe a lie, and a lie which is to blame for much non-acceptance of the gospel. But, as the word was used by the very best English writers at the time when the translation of the Bible was made—with all my heart, and soul, and strength, and mind, I believe in the atonement, call it the a-tone-ment, or the at-one-ment, as you please. I believe that Jesus Christ is our atonement; that through him we are reconciled to, made one with God. There is not one word in the New Testament about reconciling God to us; it is we that have to be reconciled to God. I am not writing a treatise on the atonement, my business being to persuade men to be atoned to God; but I will go so far to meet the commonly held view as to say that, even in the sense of the atonement being a making-up for the evil done by men toward God, I believe in the atonement. Did not the Lord cast himself into the eternal gulf of evil yawning between the children and the Father? Did he not bring the Father to us, let us look on our eternal Sire in the face of his true son, that we might have that in our hearts which alone could make us love him—a true sight of him? Did he not insist on the one truth of the universe, that God was just what he, Jesus, was? Did he not thus lay down his life persuading us to lay down ours at the feet of the Father? Has not his very life by which he died passed into those who have received him?
The Justice of the Atonement
by Dave Roney
"I believe in Jesus," our text begins, then continues; "Nowhere am I requested to believe in any thing, or in any statement, but everywhere to believe in God and in Jesus Christ." This is one of the most dramatic statements a man can make; is so because of all it portends to, especially its impact on how a man understands Scripture, from which he arrives at his doctrines. And of all doctrines, there is one which is paramount, the doctrine of the Atonement. It is one thing to believe Christ, to believe in Christ; it may be an entirely different matter to believe Him, and in Him, rightly. The author goes immediately to this subject: "I do not believe in what many mean by the atonement, for it would be to believe a lie..."
At this point, to treat "the atonement," do so adequately, thoroughly, accurately, would require the steady hand of a man qualified, such as was our author; neither am I so able nor, were I, does space admit such treatment. Therefore, we shall needs be abbreviated as well as simple in our approach: The atonement—"...as the word was used by the very best English writers at the time when the translation of the Bible was made"—speaks to those translations made before MacDonald, and there were several, in different tongues, dating back to the early centuries of Christianity; it is the Greek ἱλασμός (hilasmós) which has been rendered by these "very best" of authors, and we will deal only with "the very best English writers" as a group. Included among these must be James Strong, whose 1890 Concordance became, and remains, the chief source for verse location as well as definition of words in evangelical circles; see below Strong's entry concerning ἱλασμός:
2434 hilasmós – properly, propitiation; an offering to appease (satisfy) an angry, offended, party. Hilasmós is only used twice (1 Jn 2:2, 4:10) – both times of Christ's atoning blood that appeases God's wrath, on all confessed sin. By the sacrifice of Himself, Jesus Christ provided the ultimate hilasmós ("propitiation").
Strong's Concordance gained immediate and nearly universal acceptance among Bible students for two reasons; first, as the tremendous help it provided in locating Scripture verses (nearly every word in the Bible is given with all its locations) and also, for the more serious student, its Greek and Hebrew lexicons provide an easily accessible word study in the same volume. Strong's work has to rank as one of the greatest and most valuable of any in literature. Now the caveat:
No closed system of any description, be it mechanical or philosophical, of a living organism or of a theological nature, any and every such system which comes to mind included; none can allow or tolerate the intrusion of a substance or premise which is alien to the system itself; otherwise, if allowed, the system begins to break down. If an air conditioner is charged with water, which is an alien substance, instead of freon, the system immediately fails; if Roundup, a foreign substance, is sprayed on the rose bush it will immediately begin to die; if Christ is reduced to a mere man and no God, Christianity is ruined, and so forth. Now to apply this same principle to theology.
Every theology seeks to be cohesive as well as coherent; and by that is meant that through cohesiveness a unity is created, and by coherence the unified body of belief is logically consistent throughout; in other words, "We all believe these things true and here is why." And these two elements are essential, for if either is lacking the system itself is at risk, for the intrusion of foreign elements into the theology is guaranteed. And when either, or both, cohesiveness and coherence are lost, the devotees do not necessarily cease, or reject, but divide themselves into factions; the Othodox from the Romish, the Protestants from the Romish, the Protestants themselves then dividing into many thousands of denominations. And each of these prescribes a specific theological view from which there can be no doubt, no question, no other understanding than the accepted one, allowed. The closed system becomes a box. A fellow can learn ever more of the contents in the box, but he cannot venture beyond it. If he does, he must be prepared to suffer persecution, alienation, and ultimately excommunication.
When Strong made his Concordance, he was inside a certain theological box; his work used the Authorized Version as the English context, and that Version was translated by men who were also in a theological box; they, with Strong, were among "the very best English writers." They, in turn, relied on the theology of the Reformers, who carried forward and refined the theology of men such as Anselm, and Augustine before him; and all these had a specific view of the Atonement: It is to this systematic view that MacDonald says "I do not believe in what many mean by the atonement." He was one of the few men of his day to refuse the confines of the popular theology; as a lad he cut windows in the box and saw a great light; as a young man he cut a doorway in it and walked out a freed man. He did so because "it would be to believe a lie, and a lie which is to blame for much non-acceptance of the Gospel."
Back to Strong's definition of hilasmós, which he renders as "propitiation." The theological framework which undergirds his definition is the Penal/Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement, and by that he, as "the very best English writers" of the KJV, and harking at least back to Augustine, draw their understanding; it is the understanding of a God filled with wrath, only His enduring patience holding this wrath at bay, He, ready to inflict unimaginable suffering eternally on His children (who, by the Theory, are no children); that it is only "Christ's atoning blood that appeases God's wrath" (Strong). Thus is the Son of God deemed our Substitute, His death (that of an innocent man for guilty men; what folly it is to think there is Justice in killing the innocent for the guilty!) a put back, a payment, the only satisfaction a brooding, vengeful, hateful, damning God would accept.
The fourth point in the Shorter Catechism is indicative of the Reformed view, first the question, then the answer:
Q. - What is God?
A. - God is a spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth.
What is the single suprasensual, all eclipsing, overarching quality and attribute of God which is in this definition omitted? From within the "box" of a calcified theological system that single imperative upon which rests all the others listed, and other things beside, is that God IS Love. So adamant were these "best of English writers" about their system, and so truistically bent on defending it as though unimpeachable, that they failed entirely to grasp that it was the Love of God, that alone, which drew forth the willing Son to be our Atonement. It was no penalty that Christ suffered, forbid even the thought; it was the willing, loving, only and highest act of Reconciliation God was capable of; He, through Christ, has demonstrated that He holds no grudge, demands no payback, will go to any length necessary, suffer any indignity, allow any humiliation, in order to bring back His children to His knee and bosom; it is in Christ that His Justice is made plain, shown impossible except for Mercy, Forgiveness, the highest example of giving more blessed than receiving, of love for neighbor even as self, that Justice is impossible if separated from Love, and that Love alone drew the Son to earth, born to live and minister, and to become our Atonement. And it is due to the false understanding, teaching and preaching, of the Atonement, the failure to bundle Love and Justice in one, that many, desiring nothing to do with such an ugly god as is announced to them, turn away; it is that "which is to blame for much non-acceptance of the Gospel." It is not Christ which men abhor but the caricature of God, fearsome, which they flee.
Did not the Lord cast Himself into the eternal gulf of evil yawning between the children and the Father? Did He not bring the Father to us, let us look upon our Eternal Sire in the face of His true Son, that we might have in our hearts which alone could make us love Him—a true sight of Him? Did He not insist on the one truth of the universe, that God was just what He, Jesus, was? Did He not lay down His life, persuading us to lay down ours at the feet of the Father? Has not His very life by which He died passed into those who have received Him?
These are five questions; there are an additional six in the next daily reading which, with these, form a contiguous whole. The questions are bathed in the Divine Love, they form an unshakable foundation for any "doctrine" of the Atonement; it is the working of God in Christ presented, and is sufficient for our beginning into a knowledge of the beauty of our Lord, apart from the cruel and misguided doctrines of men, the best of men, even "the very best English writers," both those of former days and those contemporary ones who even now continue to espouse, though with the best of intentions, and though they be godly men, albeit mistaken, lies against the true nature of God and His redemptive work in Christ Jesus, Who is our Atonement...