Taken and adapted from, ATONEMENT, THE FUNDAMENTAL FACT OF CHRISTIANITY
Written by Newman Hall, LL.B.; D.D.
Edited for thought and sense.
The world was in a state of moral stagnation. Judaism, divinely ordained, having fulfilled its purpose, had become shell without kernel, body without life. Philosophy might be beautiful, but was powerless to purify. St. Paul, coming over from Asia to preach to Europe, proclaimed salvation for a ruined world through a Man who had been crucified as a malefactor, but whom the missionary affirmed to be the Son of God and the only Saviour. He asserted, not simply that this Benefactor had suffered martyrdom, but that this martyrdom was the grand object for which He lived, by which alone salvation was secured, without which mental culture, philosophy, ethics, cult, or creed could not avail to save mankind from sin, and give assurance of the favour of God and eternal life.
Jews, who were dwelling in every city, and to whom the missionary, as a Jew, made his first appeal, were offended by being told to recognize their promised Messiah in a poor mechanic, trained at no college, invested with no dignity, His chief followers poor fishermen, and Himself put to the most shameful death as a felon. That by Him alone, and not by their own Law of Moses, they could be saved, was to them a ‘stumbling-block.’
The Jews ‘required a sign’; a miracle so stupendous as to forbid all doubt. Their old religion had been thus certified. Christ performed many quiet miracles of benevolence on earth, but they demanded a ‘sign from heaven.’ When He fed the multitudes and raised Lazarus they thought that as a Leader He might supply His armies with food, heal the wounded, and restore the slain.
Then they wanted to make Him their king. But when He meekly submitted to be bound and condemned, they were disappointed, and in their provocation shouted, ‘Crucify Him!’ They wanted a carnal Christ, a worldly king: and so the cross became a symbol of delusion, disgrace, defeat, ‘a stumbling-block.’
Not less did it appear ‘to the Greek foolishness.’ They despised the Jews as a petty, bigoted, exclusive, troublesome tribe of barbarians, in a narrow strip of country, lost to view in the great Empire that ruled them. That a peasant member of this despised race was to be accepted by them as superior to their own Plato or Socrates, be honoured as Ruler as well as Teacher, be trusted as sole Saviour of men, and worshipped as the one and only true incarnation of the Deity –this, to the Greek, was the extravagance of ‘foolishness.’
Earliest records tell us that the people generally accounted those to be ‘fools who gave rank to One crucified.’ They said that ‘they who worshipped a crucified man deserved to hang on the cross they adore.’ In Rome is a fragment of plaster from the ruins of the barracks of the Praetorian guard which bears traces of a rough caricature, as if scratched by the point of a sword. On a cross is suspended the figure of a man with the head of an ass, before which a soldier is on his knees; and below is the inscription, ‘Aleximenos worships his god.’
The Apostolic Missionary was sober in his enthusiasm, and did not needlessly provoke opposition. ‘I am become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some’ (1 Cor. 9: 20-22). Unless essential to his mission, he would not emphasize what was likely to hinder it, and close the ears of those he came to teach. Did he therefore keep the fact of the Atoning Sacrifice in the background, or reserve it for future unfolding? On the contrary, he made it prominent, and at once.
It was his dominant theme, the message he felt directed by God to convey. Men might deride, oppose, persecute, but all the more boldly he proclaimed it, emblazoned it on his standard, gave it trumpet-voice, declaring to the cultured Corinthians ‘I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ and Him crucified’ (1 Cor. 2:2). This was his boast, not his shame. ‘Far be it from me to glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ ‘ (Gal.6:14). The Jews might demand celestial signs, and the Greeks worldly wisdom, but he was determined to ‘preach Christ crucified,’ Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God’ (1 Cor. 1: 22-25).
History, lauding its heroes of freedom, science, and religion, has taught us to honour rather than be ashamed of those who have endured suffering and scorn for the sake of principle. But that God, incarnated, should stoop so low; that nothing less than the cross should suffice for man’s salvation; that all classes should be placed on a common level, needing the same Atonement, by which the most degraded criminal will be accepted, side by side with the seemingly blameless religionist, on repentance and faith; and that whatever we do that is commendable is accepted on the basis of what Christ did and suffered –this is too humbling for human pride.
As breakers of law we are disposed to under-rate the claims of law. Sinners naturally make light of sin, framing excuses for it, sometimes defending it, lessening the peril of it, or altogether denying both its guilt and penalty. ‘The unsearchable riches of Christ,’ revealed in His sufferings on our behalf, imply a destitution on our part greater than we are willing to acknowledge. Are our stains of so deep a dye that ‘the blood of Jesus Christ’ is needed to cleanse us? Is our distance from God so great that we can only ‘be made nigh in the blood of Christ?’ Offence is thus taken at the doctrine of Atonement, which is either denied, or explained as one among other moral influences by which man’s sinfulness may be overcome, and he be reconciled to God by amendment of life. Thus salvation is regarded as self-reformation, and not as forgiveness through faith in Him who died for our sins.