WHAT was the motive of the Atonement? is a question often asked, and variously answered. The blessed truth itself is revealed at the very opening of the Revelation vouchsafed to us, and pervades it even to its close. But the reasons operating on the Mind of GOD, and leading to this stupendous dispensation of His love, lie far beyond our reach, in the secrets of His predestination. GOD might have saved the fallen race by other means than His own sufferings and Death, had He so willed. Why He so willed, and not otherwise, is not revealed to us.
But though we cannot discern the reasons determining the Mind of GOD to choose this mode of saving man, we may clearly gather from the Scriptures, that there were special moral fitnesses in the Atonement being effected as it was, and not otherwise. It was man who sinned; it was fitting that Man should suffer. The sin of man was disobedience; it was fitting that his sin should be atoned for by a perfect obedience. The inner spring of that disobedience was pride; it was fitting that the obedience which atoned for it, should be paid in the extremest form of humiliation. The penalty of man's sin was death; it was fitting that the endurance of Death should be the means of atonement. Thus far the vision is made clear to us. "Obedience unto Death, even the death of the Cross" of shame, had true essential fitnesses, and correspondence with the evil which was to be atoned.
There was moreover a fitness between this amazing act of Divine Love, and our own instinctive susceptibilities. And it is this which S. Paul urges in the text. Our natural instincts and affections are moved by disinterested love, suffering generously in our stead, especially when we' have no claim to it, rather have deserved the very reverse. This motive affects us beyond every other that we can conceive. Love especially moves our whole being. Love suffering for us raises that impulse to the highest pitch. When such love is most gratuitous; when we have injured the very person who thus loves us, and suffers for us, nay, have deserved his anger rather than his love, we are moved to the utmost enthusiasm, we are overcome, we yield ourselves passively to our Benefactor.
This is the Apostle's argument in the verses preceding the text. He is speaking of the soul's conversion, of being "justified by faith;" of "peace with GOD;" of "access by faith into this grace in which we stand;" of "rejoicing;" of "glorying even in tribulations." Afterwards he proceeds to speak of what had moved the soul to embrace this state. It was, he says, "the love of GOD shed abroad in our hearts by the HOLY GHOST, Which is given unto us." He then adds the motive which quickens this love of the converted soul to such an amazing energy. "For when we were yet without strength, in due time CHRIST died for the ungodly." Then he appeals for his explanation to human instincts, which carry with them their own conviction. "For scarcely for a righteous man will one die, yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. But GOD commendeth His love towards us, in that while we were yet sinners, CHRIST died for us." In this appeal he has reached, according to the irresistible logic of the human heart, the climax of an enthusiastic influence over us. Man yields himself, because GOD has set in motion the most moving forces of His Divine love under its most impressive form, to rouse into rapturous energy the most susceptible passions of his nature. The Apostle rises to a very ecstasy at the thought possessing him, when he thus concludes: "But we also joy" (literally, exult) "in GOD, through our LORD JESUS CHRIST, by Whom we have now received the Atonement."
It is one of the wonderful orderings of the HOLY SPIRIT, that when He would reveal some great mystery, He selects as His inspired instrument one who by circumstance and special gift is most capable of feeling its power as a personal experience in his own soul. How striking an instance is it of this truth, that while S. James, noted for his stern austerities and high consistent virtue, is selected as the most distinguished teacher of the necessity of good works, S. Paul, struck in his mid career of indignant violence against the very Name of JESUS, and suddenly changed into a willing, childlike captive by the pure impression of undeserved love awakening his passionate nature to intensest gratitude to his Benefactor, revealing CHRIST in him,--is made the agent for expressing in his peculiarly fervent eloquence this great truth of the power of repentance awakened even in a hardened soul by the manifestation of the unutterable mercy shown in the special way in which the Atonement was effected. This consciousness thrills like a deep undertone through all his Epistles. One other instance of his glowing language, when speaking of this subject, may be added: "But GOD Who is rich in mercy, for His great love wherewith He loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with CHRIST (by grace ye are saved,) and hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in CHRIST JESUS; that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness towards us through CHRIST JESUS."
How intimately the life of penitence depends on this perception of the love shown in the Atonement, is evidenced by some remarkable illustrations iii the lives of others noted in Scripture for the depth of their repentance. David is pre-eminently the penitent of the Old Covenant; and, if we may draw any conclusion from the amount of details of the Passion, which his Psalms contain, none of the ancient prophets could have more habitually lived in the contemplation of the Atonement. His constant secret feeding on the great Sacrifice of Love, must have prepared him for that gift of "the broken and contrite heart," in which he returned to GOD after his deadly sin. Again in the New Testament by far the most preternatural energy of penitence was exhibited in the dying thief; and who was ever brought into such close sympathy with the suffering CHRIST, or ever saw with a more sudden flash of light the intense love of His patient obedience unto death? It is clear too that when our LORD pressed so closely home, so urgently, on S. Peter the question, "Lovest thou Me?" He was intending to seal his early penitence with the most enduring constancy, and in order to this sought to establish him in the power of a responsive love meeting His own atoning love, which had first awakened it.
And this motive once aroused must needs be an ever advancing impulse. As the heart is touched with a growing sense of the love of CHRIST, so the sense of the sin which caused the agony of His bleeding Heart, must also grow. And as true life increases, this sense of the love of CHRIST also increases. It is an endless circle, ever going forth and ever returning into itself, and thus ever expanding, as life passes into GOD to return from GOD, a yet more developed life. As we become more capable of Divine love, so we apprehend it better. As we know His love more truly, so we grow to understand how much it cost to redeem our souls, and as we better appreciate the cost--the more we hate the sin which demanded the sacrifice. And as we hate and condemn our sin the more, the more deeply we advance in penitence. Penitence is grounded on the love of GOD, and therefore must deepen, as that love deepens.
There are three main causes why the remorseful sense of sin is stirred by the sight of the atoning sufferings of CHRIST. (1.) Sin changed the life of the Incarnation. To take the flesh of man, must under any outward circumstances have been humiliation to GOD, beyond all that we can conceive. But this union, this newly assumed life, might have been painless, might never have tasted sorrow, never shrunk with shame, never bowed beneath the burden of the faintest struggle. In one undimmed, undisturbed progress from glory to glory of the shining out of the hidden Majesty of Godhead through the extremest beauty of perfected Humanity, He might have passed, and in Him all who are His, through a noviciate of unclouded bliss in man's first Paradise, the outer tabernacle of Heaven, until the time had come for His entrance into the innermost Presence, where GOD is All in all. But sin superinduced the dreadful Passion, and the Blood of the atoning Sacrifice. And as the sinner now contemplates the prostrate Form in agony, or the torn back, or the gashed forehead, or the Face streaming with gore; or gazes inwardly at the bleeding, fainting, breaking Heart,--he moans out its bitter lament, "My sin has done it." The life of my GOD on earth in my nature would have been all peace, all light, all joy, all rest. But through my sin it became a struggle, a desolation, a darkness, and an agony of death.
(2.) Again, sin is the continual renewal of the Passion. Many think that the crucifixion is wholly an event of the past, that our LORD then passed beyond the reach of human malice, or a creature's treachery. Outwardly He surely did so. He passed into an inner spiritual sphere, beyond the possible contact of this outer world. But there is an inward sense, through which He still feels the influence of what passes on earth. There is still a piercing of His heart in His secret abode of peace; and the Passion may be renewed, and the wounds may bleed afresh, and the Head may again be bowed in humiliation. We may "crucify the SON of GOD afresh, and put Him to an open shame." Not to speak of deadly sins of malice, or wilfulness or unbelief, but even as mere carelessness or indolence steals over the soul's life, and love waxes cold, and some fresh fault is permitted or renewed, it is as though we were still repeating the cry, "Crucify Him, crucify Him." We have forgotten what sin has cost. We are entailing the necessity of a fresh Sacrifice of Atonement. The precious Blood is gushing out again to cleanse the renewed guilt away.
And again (3,) sin annihilates the fruits of the Passion. What has been so dearly won, the revival of the Divine life in man, the restoration of the lost Image of GOD in the soul, the building up the Communion of Saints on earth, the returning of peace and love, and purity, and joy, and mutual kindnesses, and sweetness of sympathy, and gentleness of compassion, and high enthusiasm, and the longing to shed itself forth in blessing others with unselfish, unsparing devotion,--all the elements of a higher life, which His Passion restored in reconciling GOD and man again in one Body, and now sustains by His own indwelling Presence in the Spirit Which through His Passion sheds Itself forth to form the new Creation,--all these results of His Sacrifice sin throws back, saddens, blights, crushes. It is an evil influence at work, and in proportion as it prevails, it is opposing Him Who suffers still in the hindrance of His own work, in the diminishing of the fullness of His own designs of mercy. Every indulgence of passion or selfishness, every stumbling-block cast in another's way, every evil example before another set, every impure contagion, every provocation of another's infirmity, every needless corroding of another's peace, every unkindness, every undutifulness, is the emptying our LORD of His own glory, purchased at the cost of His Blood.
The consciousness of these workings of sin grows on the true penitent, and with it grows the sense of what it is to be forgiven. And as the sense of what we are forgiven, and what it cost Him to forgive, increases, so increases our penitence, and so life advances, stirred by such moving inducements to aim at higher things, enabling us the better and the more earnestly to follow Him Who loved us, and gave Himself to die for us.
It is not simply love which is the principle of growth, but forgiving love. Nor is it the immediate sense of the act of forgiveness, but the growing consciousness of forgiveness as a perpetual act of GOD through the continued offering of His Own Sacrifice. For it is not that we are forgiven once and for ever; nor merely that the sacramental act of absolving grace passes on the penitent in the hour of his confession. These are special applications, sealings of grace, like a Hand stretched forth, or a Voice heard out of the unseen world, revealed for the moment to touch the sensible frame of the penitent soul, and bid it go in peace and sin no more,--messengers coming out of the void and dim scene of ordinary life, to speak with the authority of GOD, breathing divine assurance within the soul, and communicating the sensible fruits of the Atonement, a prophet's response to the penitent moved to see and confess his sin,--"The LORD hath put away thy sin; thou shall not die." These special acts are but the fuller breathings of a love which is beating with a continual pulsation. Forgiveness to one who is in a state of grace, and in communion with GOD, is a perpetual unceasing act of grace. Even immediately after an absolution has been pronounced, we say the LORD'S Prayer. "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive," &c., is still heard. The confession still speaks on. The attitude of penitence is preserved. The unceasing craving of the soul for the continued communication of the ever-absolving grace, is breathing still, even while the words of absolution are in the ear. The ever present need of forgiveness is still cherished. The ever constant leaning on forgiving love is perpetuated, and "as we seek, we find; as we ask, we receive; as we knock, it is opened to us." Love sealed by the Blood of Sacrifice, love breathing its unvarying intercession before the Throne, ever flows on, as pulses in the air, or as waves of light in the luminous atmosphere surrounding us, which radiate unceasingly from the unchanging impulses of the central Light, and we see only as these waves, in the infinite succession of their ceaseless pulsations, strike our organs of sight. Even so only as the continual forgiving of GOD for the love of CHRIST, reaches and passes into us in its continuous, endless energies of forgiving and cleansing grace, which knows no pause in its fulness of compassion and restoring life, do we live on in peace as the children of His adoption, the very members of Himself. It is the sense of this, the sense not merely of forgiveness, and the need of it, nor merely of the love which has purchased the power to forgive at so great a cost, but of the unceasingness of this act through an unceasing pleading and offering of Himself for the soul that seeks Him,--this consciousness is the principle of growing life, and so of growing penitential love and tears, and so of actual penitence.
But more follows from the same principle. Not merely growth in penitence deepens with this advancing consciousness of forgiving love. But the character of the penitence wholly depends upon it. There are vital differences as to the kind of penitence produced. Of all the characteristics of a true penitence, tenderness is at once the most beautiful and the most expressive. While bodily mortification, however at times necessary, is, indirectly at least, beset with the danger of causing hardness and austerity of character, nay, even of feeding a subtle pride and self-complacency,--the very greatness of its power to sanctify becoming a snare, and though being so sure a remedy of certain sins, yet risking the approach of others, it may be as hateful,--sorrow for sin living in the perpetual sense of forgiving love, preserves the soul in a constant penitence, and acts upon the whole being with its divine energy, infusing a softness and a penetrating gentleness which keeps the whole spirit lowly, and yet fervent; meek, and yet confident; perpetually subduing self and self-esteem. It is the surest antidote to the universal clinging plague of self-consciousness, preserving, as no other grace is capable of doing, a child-like creaturely dependence on the Heart of GOD, as a fount and stay of life. It works miracles in saving from sin -which quickly arises within, if ever the soul loosen its hold on GOD, and gives untold power in resisting temptation, which dies down, finding no part in one always secretly touched with a loving sorrow at the thought of past sin, for ever forgiven, yet still ever feared. Besides ensuring all these safeguards, this tenderness, as it pervades the soul, becomes in itself a character of beauty, which taking all possible shapes, enters into every feature and impulse of life, giving them an unwonted tone, a sweetness and a winningness, a new power of thoughtfulness and repose, a depth of pathos, most loveable, most religious. That most beautiful feature in the character of CHRIST, which arises from His intense perception of the misery of sin, and His own loving sorrow over it, can be at all imitated by us, only as we learn to live in the deepening consciousness of our own sin, and of the power of His love and His pity in healing us.
The same cause, moreover, gives to our penitence a peculiar largeness of sympathy, and considerateness towards the faults and infirmities of others. Scarcely any lesson needs to be taught more earnestly than this. The temptation always besets the penitent, most especially in the early days of restored purity and new powers, to look with despising on others still weakly yielding to sins, from which himself has been delivered, or to which, though perhaps less evil than his own, he has not been exposed. There may even be a sharpness in speech, and an unkindness in judging, which has come on only since penitence began to work, as though it were an honouring of GOD, to condemn what we have learnt to hate, though vengeance is His alone. We are readily exposed to the temptation to be vexed and fretted by others' faults, all the more that we think ourselves to be free. We are inclined to narrow our sympathies for the fallen, and our forbearance for the imperfect, all the more that grace raises us above them. There is a selfish interest in bearing others' faults, when conscious of our own. We are easily lenient when we need leniency. Sinners make a large allowance for the faults of their fellow-sinners. But it is a sign of a deepening penitence, when, as we gain power and increasing purity, we exhibit an enlarged considerateness, a more generous forbearance, a greater tendency to pity, a kinder speech, and a gentler thought, for another's frailty or folly.
This true grace of a real contrition can be learnt scarcely in any other school than in the love of the Atonement. We enlarge our heart's compassionate-ness, as we grow into the same feeling which moves the Heart of JESUS towards ourselves. It does not follow, that we grieve less at the fault, because we are become more gentle to the faulty. We are not more favourable to the sin, because we are large-hearted in consideration for the sinner. The very reverse is more truly the result. But even to the last we need diligently to cherish this great grace. We can never safely forget the solemn warning against the lack of such a spirit, which the parable conveys. "Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me. Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellow-servant, even as I had pity on thee?" The great law which our LORD gave for almsgiving, applies as strongly to mutual forbearance. "Freely ye have received, freely give." This, which ever characterised His own Spirit, was intended to enter into His elect. He won us, because forgiving He did not upbraid us. He holds us still, now that we are forgiven, because He bears with so much faultiness still remaining in us. We are enthralled, led captive, penetrated with His dear love, because He has covered all our transgressions; and what remains, He mentions not against us. If we tell Him of them, He consoles us, even while we offend Him. Even as we sin, He is our Advocate, our Comforter.
Breathe over us, within us, LORD, the same forgiving, forgetting, forbearing spirit. LORD of love and pity, may we be, even as Thou art in this world; and Thou art Love, and "whoso dwelleth in love dwelleth in GOD, and GOD in him." And Thy Word has said; "He that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love GOD whom he hath not seen?'"
It is a law, which our common instinct recognizes, and has thus become a proverb, that like is drawn to like. A perpetual action and reaction is passing around, within us, through the power of forgiving love. It drew us without ourselves, and as we experience its blessedness, it draws us all the more; and as it draws us to others who have experienced the same love, it draws them and us together to Him, Who has thus loved us in one Body; and as we are thus drawn together in a community of conscious oblivion of the past and hope for the future, the spirit of penitence breathes out in a fuller, freer, richer glow, uniting us with each other, and with Him, Who is the Source and ever present Food of this blessed fellowship. Such grace must needs be the groundwork of new forms of life, manifesting themselves not only in our own character, but in our feeling and conduct towards others who, having the same needs, have found the same mercy. Therefore the Scriptures urge so unceasingly the call to mutual forgiveness and forbearing, as among the very essential characteristics of a life redeemed and renewed in the love of CHRIST. Therefore such full and stirring exhortations to this grace breathe throughout the Epistles. Thus it is written, "CHRIST is All and in all. Put on therefore, as the elect of GOD, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, long-suffering, forbearing one another, and forgiving one another; if any man have a quarrel against any, even as CHRIST forgave you, so also do ye. And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness." From the workings of such grace instantly follows the sure result; "And let the peace of GOD rule in your hearts, to the which also ye are called in one Body; and be ye thankful."
CHRIST has more than forgiven us. He changes us forgiven into the image of His own forgiving love. He would perpetuate on earth in the hearts of His faithful through all ages this His special grace, to be the motive power of winning other souls. He will make us to be even as Himself, to love and forbear, even as Himself loves and forbears, ever covering evil with good. He will thus make us instruments of His own mercy, co-workers with Himself in diffusing the blessed results of His Atonement, even in the same spirit in which He offered, and evermore applies It. Nor, if we grow thus into union with Him, is there any power of grace in Himself which He may not impart, Whose first act of love was to love us even when we were yet sinners. "He that spared not His own SON, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?"