Important Thoughts on the Atonement, and the Love from Whence it Springs

Excerpts taken and adapted from, “The Atonement”
Written by, John Murray, 1898-1975

The-Atonement

The Necessity of the Atonement

The love of God is the cause of the atonement. But why did the love of God take this way of realizing its end? This is the question of the reason as distinguished from the cause. Notable theologians in the history of the church have taken the position that there was no absolute reason, that God could have saved men by other means than by the blood-shedding of His own Son, that, since God is omnipotent and sovereign, other ways of forgiving sin were available to Him. But God was pleased to adopt this method because the greatest number of advantages and blessings accrued from it. God could have redeemed men without the shedding of blood, but He freely chose not to and thereby He magnifies the glory of His grace and enhances the precise character of the salvation bestowed (e.g., Augustine, Aquinas, Thomas Goodwin, John Ball, Thomas Blake).

It might appear that this view does honor to the omnipotence, sovereignty, and grace of God and, also, that to posit more would be presumptuous on our part and beyond the warrant of Scripture. Is it not the limit of our thought to say that “without the shedding of blood” (Hebrews 9:22) there is actually no remission and be satisfied with that datum? There are, however, certain things God cannot do. “He cannot deny himself” (2 Timothy 2:13) and it is “impossible for God to lie” (Hebrews 6:18). The only question is: are there exigencies arising from the character and perfections of God which make it intrinsically necessary that redemption should be accomplished by the sacrifice of the Son of God? It should be understood that it was not necessary for God to redeem men. The purpose to redeem is of the free and sovereign exercise of His love. But having purposed to redeem, was the only alternative the blood-shedding of His own Son as the way of securing that redemption? There appear to be good reasons for an affirmative answer.

Salvation requires not only the forgiveness of sin but also justification.

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And justification, adequate to the situation in which lost mankind is, demands a righteousness such as belongs to no other than the incarnate Son of God, a righteousness undefiled and undefilable, a righteousness with divine property and quality (cf. Romans 1:17; 3:21-22; 10:3; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Phi 3:9). It is the righteousness of the obedience of Christ (Romans 5:19). But only the Son of God incarnate, fulfilling to the full extent the commitments of the Father’s will, could have provided such a righteousness. A concept of salvation bereft of the justification which this righteousness imparts is an abstraction of which Scripture knows nothing.

Sin is the contradiction of God and He must react against it with holy wrath.

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Wherever sin is, the wrath of God rests upon it (cf. Romans 1:18). Otherwise God would be denying Himself, particularly His holiness, justice, and truth. But wrath must be removed if we are to enjoy the favor of God which salvation implies. And the only provision for the removal of wrath is propitiation. This is surely the import of Romans 3:25-26, that God set forth Christ a propitiation to declare His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the ungodly.

The Cross of Christ is the supreme demonstration of the love of God (cf. Romans 5:8; 1 John 4:9-10). But would it be a supreme demonstration of love if the end secured by it could have been achieved without it? Would it be love to secure the end by such expenditure as the agony of Gethsemane and the abandonment of Calvary for God’s own well-beloved and only-begotten Son if the result could have been attained by less costly means? In that event would it not have been love without wisdom? In this we cannot suppress the significance of our Lord ’s Prayer in Gethsemane (Mathew 26:39). If it had been possible for the cup to pass from him, his prayer would surely have been answered. It is when the indispensable exigencies fulfilled by Jesus’ suffering unto death are properly assessed that we can see the marvel of God’s love in the ordeal of Calvary. So great was the Father’s love to lost men that He decreed their redemption even though the cost was naught less than the accursed tree. When Calvary is viewed in this light, then the love manifested not only takes on meaning but fills us with adoring amazement. Truly this is love.

Those who think that in pursuance of God’s saving purpose the Cross was not intrinsically necessary are, in reality, not dealing with the hypothetical necessity of the atonement but with a hypothetical salvation. For, on their own admission, they are not saying that the actual salvation designed and bestowed could have been enjoyed without Christ but only salvation of lesser character and glory. But of such salvation the Scripture knows nothing, and no good purpose can be served by an imaginary hypothesis.

Obedience: The capacity in which Christ discharges all phases of his atoning work.

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Obedience does not define for us the specific character of the other categories but it does point us to the capacity in which Christ discharges all phases of his atoning work. No passage in Scripture provides more instruction on our topic than Isaiah 52:13-53:12. It is in the capacity of a Servant that the person in view is introduced and it is in the same capacity He executes His expiatory function (Isaiah 52:13, 15; 53:11). The title “Servant” derives its meaning from the fact that He is the Lord’s Servant, not the Servant of men (cf. Isaiah 42:1, 19; 52:13). He is the Father’s Servant and this implies subjection to and fulfillment of the Father’s will. Servant defines His commitment, and obedience to the execution. Psalm 40:7-8 points in the same direction. Our Lord Himself confirms what the Old Testament foretold. “I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me” (John 6:38; cf. 4:34; 10:17-18). The pivotal events of redemptive accomplishment He performed in pursuance of the Father’s commandment and in the exercise of messianic authority. Paul’s witness is to the same effect as that of the Old Testament and of Jesus Himself. Most important is Philippians 2:7-8. For this text in respect of the capacity in which Jesus acted attaches itself to Isaiah 52:13-53:12 and represents the climactic event of Jesus’ commitment, the death of the Cross, as an act of obedience. And Romans 5:19 expresses that it is by the obedience of Christ that many are constituted righteous. This evidence shows that our thought respecting the nature of the atonement is not Biblically conditioned unless it is governed by the concept of the obedience of Christ in His capacity as the Servant fulfilling the Father’s commission.

We must not view this obedience mechanically or quantitatively. It did not consist simply in the sum total of formal acts of obedience. Obedience springs from the dispositional complex of motive, intention, direction, and purpose.

And since our Lord was truly human and fulfilled the Father’s will in human nature, we must appreciate the progression in knowledge, understanding, resolution, and will which was necessary to and came to expression in the discharge of the Father’s will in its increasing demands upon Him until these demands reached their climax in the death upon the Cross. This explains the word in Hebrews 5:8 that he learned “obedience from the things which he suffered.” At no point was He disobedient. But the demands of obedience were so expansive and progressively exacting that He had to learn in the furnace of trial, temptation, and suffering. Since His obedience thus attained to the perfection and completeness required for the discharge of His commitments to the fullest extent of their demands, He was made perfect as the captain of salvation (Hebrews 2:10) and “being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him” (Hebrews 5:9). This is but saying that it was by obedience that he accomplished the salvation of the many sons who are to be brought to glory, and we see how integral to salvation secured is the obedience of Christ.

Sacrifice:  Christ’s giving of Himself

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There is abundant evidence in the New Testament to show that Christ’s giving of Himself is to be construed in terms of sacrificial offering (1 Corinthians 5:7; Ephesians 5:2; Hebrews 7:27; 8:3; 9:14, 23, 25, 26, 28; 10:10, 12, 14, 26). And it is not only these express statements which support the thesis but also references which can only be interpreted in terms of the altar of sacrifice (cf., e.g., Hebrews 13:10-13). The notion of sacrifice entertained by these New Testament writers is that derived from the Old Testament, for the allusions to the sacrificial ritual of the Levitical economy make it apparent that the latter provided the type in terms of which the sacrifice of Christ was to be interpreted. The Old Testament sacrifices were expiatory of guilt. This is particularly true of the sin-offerings, and these are specifically in view in some of the New Testament passages (cf. Hebrews 9:6-15, 23-24; 13:10-13). The idea of expiation is the removal of the liability accruing from sin. Sacrifice is the provision whereby this liability is removed—it is the substitutive endurance of penalty and transference of liability from the offerer to the sacrifice.

The Old Testament sacrifices were truly typological of the sacrifice of Christ. Isaiah 53:10 expressly applies to the self-sacrifice of the Servant what was figuratively represented by the trespass-offering, and in New Testament passages, as indicated above, the Levitical offerings provide the analogy after which Christ’s sacrifice is to be understood. But of more significance is the fact that the sacrifice of Christ is the archetype after which they were patterned—they were patterns of the things in the heavens and only figures of the true (Hebrews 9:23-24). Christ’s offering is the heavenly exemplar. This is additional confirmation that what was signified in shadow by the ritual offerings, namely expiation, was transcendently and really true in the sacrifice of Christ. The shadow portrays the outline of the reality. It is, however, this truth, that the sacrifice of Christ is the heavenly reality, that insures the efficacy and finality and perfection of His sacrifice in contrast with the obvious shortcomings of the levitical offerings (cf. Hebrews 9:9-14, 24-28). “By one offering he hath perfected forever them that are sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14).

It is the work of Christ, viewed in terms of sacrifice, which thrusts into the foreground the high priestly office of our Redeemer. It is the prerogative of the priest to offer sacrifice and only in the exercise of His prerogative as the great high priest of our profession did Jesus offer Himself. He was “called of God an high priest after the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 5:10). Here the uniqueness of Christ’s sacrifice is further demonstrated. He offered Himself, and the sacrifice He offered was Himself. He acted as both priest and offering (cf. Hebrews 7:27; 8:3; 9:14, 25; 10:5-9) and thus purged our sins. The transcendent perfection, efficacy, and finality of His sacrifice reside in the transcendent character of the offering and the dignity of His priesthood.

Propitiation: Christ’s dealing with God’s wrath

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The language of propitiation is clearly applied to the work of Christ in the New Testament (Romans 3:25; Hebrews 2:17; 1 John 2:2; 4:10). Plausible attempts have been made to interpret propitiation in terms of expiation and thus avoid the prima facie import of propitiation. The fallacy of these attempts has been successfully demonstrated by scholarly and painstaking study of the Biblical data (see bibliography). The reason for the attempt to relieve the work of Christ of its strictly propitiatory character is obvious. To propitiate means to pacify, to conciliate, to make propitious. It pre-supposes that the person propitiated is angry and needs to be pacified. If Christ propitiates, it must be God whom he propitiates. And surely, it is alleged, we cannot think of God as needing to be pacified or made propitious by the blood of Christ. If the atonement springs from the love of the Father and is the provision of His love, as has been shown above, is it not contradiction to maintain that He is conciliated by that which is the expression of His love? If invincible love is antecedent, then no place remains for the pacifying of wrath!

There is deplorable confusion in this line of reasoning. To love and to be propitious are not convertible terms. Even in the human sphere the unique object of love may at the same time be the unique object of holy wrath and displeasure. It is the denial of God’s holiness in relation to sin, as the contradiction of what He is and demands, not to recognize that sin must evoke His wrath. And just as sin belongs to persons, so the wrath rests upon the persons who are the agents of sin. Those whom God loved with invincible love were the children of wrath, as Paul expressly says (Ephesians 2:3). It is to this fact that the propitiation made by Christ is directed. Those whom God loved were the children of His wrath. It is this truth that enhances the marvel of His love, and if we deny it or tone it down we have eviscerated the greatness of His love. The doctrine of the propitiation is precisely this that God loved the objects of His wrath so much that He gave His own Son to the end that He by His blood should make provision for the removal of this wrath. It was Christ’s to deal with the wrath so that those loved would no longer be the objects of wrath, and love would achieve its aim of making the children of wrath the children of God’s good pleasure. It is a combined perspective that can dispense with the necessity and glory of propitiation.

The disposition to deny or even underrate the doctrine of propitiation betrays a bias that is prejudicial to the atonement as such. The atonement means that Christ bore our sins and in bearing sin bore its judgment (cf. Isaiah 53:5).

Death itself is the judgment of God upon sin (cf. Romans 5:12; 6:23). And Christ died for no other reason than that death is the wages of sin. But the epitome of the judgment of God upon sin is His wrath. If Jesus in our place met the whole judgment of God upon our sin, He must have endured that which constitutes the essence of this judgment. How superficial is the notion that the vicarious endurance of wrath is incompatible with the immutable love of the Father to Him! Of course, the Father loved the Son with unchangeable and infinite love. And the discharge of the Father’s will in the extremities of Gethsemane’s agony and the abandonment of Calvary elicited the supreme delight of the Father (cf. John 10:17). But love and wrath are not contradictory; love and hatred are. It is only because Jesus was the Son, loved immutably as such and loved increasingly in His messianic capacity as He progressively fulfilled the demands of the Father’s commission, that He could bear the full stroke of judicial wrath. This is inscribed on the most mysterious utterance that ever ascended from earth to heaven, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Psalms 22:1; Mathew 27:46; Mark 15:34). God, in our nature, forsaken of God! Here is the wonder of the Father’s love and of the Son’s love, too. Eternity will not scale its heights or fathom its depths. How pitiable is the shortsightedness that blinds us to its grandeur and that fails to see the necessity and glory of the propitiation. “Herein is love,” John wrote, “not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son…[a] propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). Christ is truly the propitiation for our sins because He propitiated the wrath which was our damnation. The language of propitiation may not be diluted; it bespeaks the essence of Calvary.

Reconciliation: Our alienation from God removed

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Just as sacrifice has in view the exigency created by our guilt and propitiation, the exigency arising from the wrath of God, so reconciliation is concerned with our alienation from God and the need of having that alienation removed. In the Scripture the actual terms used with reference to the reconciliation wrought by Christ are to the effect that we are reconciled to God (Romans 5:10) and that God reconciles us to Himself (2 Corinthians 5:18-19; Ephesians 2:16; Colossians 1:20-22). Never is it expressly stated that God is reconciled to us. It has often been stated, therefore, that the Cross of Christ, insofar as it contemplated reconciliation, did not terminate upon God to the removal of His alienation from us but simply and solely upon us to the removal of our alienation from Him. In other words, it is not that which God has against us that is dealt with in the reconciliation but only our enmity against Him. It is strange that this contention should be so persistent that scholars should be content with what is, to say the least, so superficial an interpretation of the usage of Scripture in reference to the term in question.

It is not to be denied that the reconciliation is concerned with our enmity against God. Reconciliation, like all the other categories deals with sin and the liability proceeding from it. And sin is enmity against God. But, when the teaching of Scripture is properly analyzed, it will be seen that reconciliation involves much more than that which might appear at first sight to be the case.

When in Matthew 5:24 we read, “Be reconciled to thy brother,” we have an example of the use of the word “reconcile” that should caution us against a common inference. In this instance the person bringing his gift to the altar is reminded that his brother has something against him. It is this grievance on the part of the other that is the reason for interrupting his act of worship. It is the grievance and, in that sense, the “against” of the other that the worshipper must take into account, and it is the removal of that grievance, of that alienation, of that against, that the reconciliation which he is required to effect contemplates. He is to do all that is necessary to remove the alienation in the mind and attitude of the other. It is plain, therefore, that the situation requiring reconciliation is the frame of mind or the attitude of the other and what the reconciliation must effect is the change of mind on the part of the other, namely, the person called the brother. Thus we are pointed in a very different direction from that which we might have expected from the mere formula, “be reconciled.” And although it is the “against” of the brother that is in view as requiring a change, the exhortation is in terms of “be reconciled to thy brother” and not at all “Let thy brother be reconciled to thee.” By this analysis it can easily be seen that the formula “reconciled to God” can well mean that what the reconciliation has in view is God’s alienation from us and the removal of that alienation. Matthew 5:23-24 shows how indefensible is an interpretation that rests its case upon what, at best, is mere appearance.

Another example points in the same direction. It is Romans 11:15. “For if the casting away of them be the reconciling of the world, what shall the receiving of them be, but life from the dead?” The “casting away” is that of Israel and the “reconciling” (reconciliation) is that of the Gentile nations. The “casting away” is contrasted with the “reconciliation” and the meaning of the latter is to be discovered from this contrast. The “casting away” is also contrasted with the “receiving,” that is, the receiving of them back again. The “casting away” can be nothing other than the rejection of them from the divine favor and blessing they once enjoyed and the “receiving” is the restoration of them again to the divine favor and blessing from which for a time they had been excluded. It is apparent that in both words the thought is focused upon the relation of Israel to God’s favor and saving blessing. Reconciliation, being in contrast with casting away, must, therefore, mean the reception of the Gentiles into the favor of God and the blessing of the Gospel; it is the relation to God’s favor that is expressed. Hence it is upon the change in the disposition of God and the change in the resulting relationship of God to the Gentiles that thought is focused in the word “reconciliation.” This demonstrates that the term can be used with reference to a change that takes place in God’s mind and relation with reference to men.

Conclusion The atonement springs from the fountain of the Father’s love…

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He commends His own love towards us. We must not think, however, that the action of the Father ended with the appointment and commission of the Son. He was not a mere spectator of Gethsemane and Calvary. The Father laid upon His own Son the iniquities of us all. He spared not His own Son but delivered Him up. He made Him to be sin for us. It was the Father who gave Him the cup of damnation to drink. God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. Here is love supremely demonstrated.

No stronger expression appears in Scripture than this that God made Christ to be sin for us. We fall far short of a proper assessment of Christ’s humiliation if we fail to appreciate this fact. It was not simply the penalty of sin that Jesus bore. He bore our sins. He was not made sinful, but He was made sin and, therefore, brought into the closest identification with our sins that it was possible for Him to come without thereby becoming Himself sinful. Any exposition of ours can only touch the fringe of this mystery. The liability with which the Lord of glory had to deal was not merely the penalty of sin but sin itself. And sin is the contradiction of God. What Jesus bore was the contradiction of what He was as both God and man. The recoil of Gethsemane (Mathew 26:39) was the inevitable recoil of His holy soul from the abyss of woe which sin-bearing involved. And His “nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt” bespeaks the intensity of His commitment to the extremities of Calvary, the bitter dregs of the cup given Him to drink. Here is love unspeakable; He poured out His soul unto death. Psalms 22 and 69 are the prophetic delineature of His agony, the Gospel story is the inspired record of fulfillment, the apostolic witness the interpretation of its meaning.

We cannot but seek to apprehend more and more of the mystery. The saints will be eternally occupied with it. But eternity will not fathom its depths nor exhaust its praise.