Ethics of the Atonement

Taken and adapted from, “Present Day Life and Religion”
Written by A.C. Dixon

[Amzi Clarence Dixon (July 6, 1854 – June 14, 1925) was a Baptist pastor, Bible expositor, and evangelist, popular during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. With R.A. Torrey he edited an influential series of essays, published as The Fundamentals (1910–15), which gave Fundamentalist Christianity its name. –Wiki]


“Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into His glory?”
–Luke 24: 26.

“Christ must needs have suffered, and risen again from the dead.” –Acts 17: 3.
“We also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement.” –Romans 5:11

THE WORD “ATONEMENT” occurs about eighty times in the Old Testament, and only this once in the New.

But the fact of atonement is everywhere in both Testaments, beginning with Abel’s bloody sacrifice and ending with “the Lamb as it had been slain in the midst of the Throne.” A friend said to John Newton, “I cannot see the doctrine of atonement in the Scriptures.” Mr. Newton replied: “I tried to light my candle the other evening with the extinguisher on it.” One who reads the Bible without seeing atonement has on his mind the extinguisher of prejudice or false teaching. It is the sun in the heavens of revealed truth. The types of the Old Testament, the ordinances of the New, and the teachings of prophet and apostle join with John the Baptist in saying, “Behold the Lamb of God.” As the scarlet thread runs through all the cordage of the British navy, so the atonement of Christ runs through all the teaching of the Bible.

The necessity of atonement is denied only by those who make light of sin. If sin be embryonic goodness, or merely hallucination of mortal mind, there is, of the necessity course, no need of paying attention to it; of atonement the less said about it the better. But it is plain that God sees sin as alienation from Him, rebellion against Him, disease of soul ending in eternal death, moral and spiritual anarchy that keeps heaven out of man and man out of heaven; and seeing sin as it is, His righteousness demands, while His love provides, atonement.

Origen’s View

Origen in the third century taught that the atonement made satisfaction to the Devil. Man had sold himself to Satan, and Christ by his death purchased him back to God. It came from his magnifying unduly view the importance and position of Satan. Man had no right to sell himself to Satan, and Satan had no right to make the purchase. Satan himself belongs to God, and the right of ownership has not been destroyed by his rebellion. Satan is usurper even of himself. All that God owes him is punishment for his persistent wickedness; and if man sold himself to Satan, all God owes him is punishment for being particeps criminis in Satan’s sin.

The Roman Catholic View

Another view of the atonement which has no scriptural basis makes the death of Christ avail for sins committed before baptism, while sins after baptism must be atoned for by penance and purgatory. This teaching keeps our Roman Catholic friends in bondage to the law and the priests, who will absolve them on condition of such penance as they may prescribe; and it even holds over them the lash of purgatorial fires in the future world. Such a view of atonement is a clever device for emphasizing the pernicious doctrine of baptismal regeneration, and for keeping the members of the church in subjection to ecclesiastical authority. While real atonement gives liberty, this forges chains of servitude.

The Rationalistic View

Another very subtle and attractive, though equally false, view of the atonement is that Christ died a martyr to a noble mission, and is merely our example, teaching us by His life how to live, and by His death how to die. He did not come into the world to die, but died because He was in the world. The crucifixion was an incident which resulted in the mad frenzy of an infuriated mob. This view cannot explain the text “Christ must needs have suffered,’ for, according to it, there was no need of such suffering. The question of Jesus, “Ought not Christ to have suffered?” is made meaningless. It also contradicts Hebrews 9: 26, “Once in the end of the age hath He appeared, to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.” The purpose of His appearing in the flesh was “to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.” The cross was no incident nor accident. It was the Mont Blanc among the events of His earth-life. His resurrection merely confirmed the virtue of the cross, giving to the gold of His sacrifice the stamp of heaven, and thus making it coin current. Thomas recognized the living Christ by the nail-prints, and to the other disciples he “showed His hands and His feet.” The marks of the cross he carried with Him as a badge of honor into heaven. In the book of Revelations, we hear the celestial choir singing “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain.”

The Guilt of Judas

Judas was guilty in betraying his Lord, and the Jewish Sanhedrin were guilty in condemning him to death. But we need to remember that the betrayal of Judas and the guilt the condemnation of the Sanhedrin was no part of the atonement. Jesus would have “put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself” without their aid. He permitted them to work out their own condemnation while He was making possible their salvation. In this, as in all things else, He made the wrath of man to praise Him.

An Old Fallacy

A thousand martyrs have willingly died for civil and religious liberty, and we praise them, while we blame their murderers. The guilt of the murderer is not lessened, but rather increased by the virtue of his victim. This false view of the atonement is based upon the fallacy that repentance and confession of sin is all that God requires. But when we apply this principle to human affairs it does not work satisfactorily. A Christian woman, while sick, was attended by an infidel physician, who tried to induce her to take, in addition to his drugs, some of his theological vagaries, among which was the theory that there is no need of atonement, because confession and repentance are sufficient. After the lady’s restoration to health she invited him to dine with her, and at the table she said: “Doctor, I am sure that yo”have been at much expense in treating my case, and I certainly owe yo”a good fee.” He acknowledged that his outlay had not been small, and he was glad to hear her confess her obligation to his skill. “And now, Doctor,” she continued, “I have confessed to yo”the debt I owe, and in order to show you my true repentance for it, I am determined not to do so any more, that is, I shall not send for yo”again when I get sick.” He saw the point at once, and, with some embarrassment, remonstrated against such a practical application of his teaching. But the good woman, with loving earnestness, insisted that he must give up either his teaching or his fee. Let us hope that he saw his folly and acknowledged that to pay the debt of sin more than confession and repentance are necessary ” indeed, that confession enforces the necessity of paying the debt, and repentance does not take the place of satisfaction to justice, but rather emphasizes the righteousness of the demand that satisfaction shall be made.

The Divine Side

The divine side of the atonement is in Romans 3: 24-26: “Being justified freely by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in His blood, to declare His righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; to declare, I say, at this time His righteousness; that He might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.”

Love for the Unlovely

Five things are clearly taught by these words:

First. We are ” justified by grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” “By grace” means that it is without merit on our part. The basis of it is “the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” It is of grace, and to add works as the ground of justification is to destroy grace; but to add works as the result of justification is to crown grace with the glory that is its due.

Second. God has “set forth Jesus Christ to be a propitiation.” “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (I John 4:10.) God did no love us because we loved Him; He loved us while we were yet unloving and unlovely. He manifested His love in many ways, but the climax of its manifestation was in sending His Son to be, not our example, our inspiration or our teacher, but “the propitiation for our sins.” Man is guilty, and, in order to [effect] salvation, guilt must be removed. The great purpose of the incarnation was to make it possible for Him to remain God and justify the sinner. All this implies depths of iniquity in sin which we have not fathomed, and heights of righteousness in God which we have not scaled; and yet our dim vision can see that a righteous God cannot maintain His righteous rule and save the guilty without propitiation. And His love, as well as His righteousness, is vindicated when we are informed that love prompted and provided the propitiation ” “not that we loved God, but that He loved us.” God does not require propitiation by the sacrifice of another, but He makes propitiation demanded by His own nature, through the incarnation, humiliation and sacrifice of Himself. What His righteous nature demands His loving nature gives.

Faith in a Dying Christ

Third. This propitiation comes to us “through faith in His blood.” On the night of the Passover a living lamb tied to the doorpost was not sufficient. Propitiation does not come through faith in a living Christ. Faith in a perfect model may inspire to noble deeds, but it does not save from sin. Faith in a wise teacher may lead one to sit at his feet and learn, but it does not remove guilt. Faith, even in the miracle worker, may give us glimpses of a God of Power, but it does not relieve the guilty conscience.

To Declare and Commend

Fourth. God’s purpose in this propitiation is “to declare His righteousness.” Calvary is God’s declaration to the universe that His throne is established in to declare righteousness. Jesus died that all the world might know this righteousness. Now link with this the Scripture, “God commendeth His love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” In the death of Christ, God declares His righteousness and commends His love. He would have us believe in His love while we see the manifestation of His righteousness. Love gives all that righteousness demands, and righteousness is pleased with all that love would give. In a very deep sense Jesus Christ is the Peace of God. His death keeps peace among all the divine attributes. Justice and mercy cannot be at peace because in their natures they oppose each other, unless justice is satisfied with what mercy brings; and when mercy, prompted by love, furnishes all that justice has a right to demand, then, and not till then, can mercy “rejoice against judgment,” while judgment exults in mercy; and thus it is that all things may be reconciled through the atonement of Christ. Calvary gives the keynote of harmony for earth and heaven.

Justice and Mercy Work Together

Fifth. Through this declaration of His Righteousness, God can now “be just and the justifier of him which believeth.” If, therefore, I accept Jesus Christ as the “Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world,” I may lovingly demand salvation upon the ground of justice. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive.” Forgiveness is now demanded by justice as well as granted by mercy. “Mercy and Truth are met together, Righteousness and Peace have kissed each other.” Justice demands what mercy delights to give. There is no war between the attributes of God. To save a sinner without atonement would destroy His righteous rule” would, indeed, be the abdication of His throne. But now that atonement is made and justice satisfied, for Him to refuse to save the sinner who comes to Him pleading propitiation through the blood of Christ would be again to abdicate the throne, which is founded upon the righteousness which demands that the sinner whose debt of sin has been paid, and the payment accepted, shall be acquitted. God’s throne would fall if a sinner who refuses atonement should be saved; and God’s throne would just as certainly fall if a Christian who has accepted atonement should be lost. The foundation of both heaven and hell is the righteousness of God. And yet, let us never forget that back of all this is the love of God. We believe it can be proved that hell itself, terrible as it is, is the expression of God’s love.

We leave this fact, while we dwell upon the love which gives heaven and hereafter through the atonement of Christ. God does not love us because Christ died; Christ died because God loved. ” God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.” Back of Calvary is love. It was love that led to the satisfaction of justice. This atonement is general. “He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” (I John 2:2.) And yet it is limited; for we read in I Timothy 4: 10, “We trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those that believe.” The reservoir has water enough for all, but only those who are willing to drink can have their thirst quenched. Salvation is sufficient for all, but efficient only for those who believe. The atonement is worldwide in its extent, but in its efficacy only so wide as those who will accept it. “There is a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea” but there is a narrowness in God’s justice like the narrowness of the ship on the sea. All who would cross this sea into the haven of rest must submit to the limitations of the ship. Its timbers are made of justice and love, worked together in beautiful harmony. One who trusts himself to the sea without the ship will fail as surely as one who trusts himself to the ship without the sea. “What God hath joined together let not man put asunder.”

This brings us to the heart of our subject, and we can best develop it by answering two questions:


“Ought Christ to have suffered?” Ought a mother to suffer for her child? Ought friend suffer for friend?

Damon became hostage for his friend Pythias, who, after being condemned to death, was permitted to go home and see his loved ones before the execution. Before the return of Pythias, Damon was heard to express the wish that he might be permitted to die for his friend; and when, to the surprise of his enemies, Pythias appeared the day before the execution, there was a generous dispute between the two friends as to which one should be permitted to die for the other. It is to the credit of the tyrant Dionysius that his heart was melted by such an exhibition of the self-sacrificing spirit of friendship, so that he pardoned Pythias and expressed a desire to be partner in their friendship. Has anyone from that day to this been mean enough to blame Dionysius for admiring the devotion which made Damon willing to die for his friend? The story has been woven into poetry, and is today an inspiration to noble minds.

A blacksmith in Germany was seated in the village post office, surrounded by his neighbors’ children, when a rabid dog appeared in the door, and the noble man, the village forgetful of self, throttled the beast in the grip of his sturdy hands, but not until the virus had passed into his own blood. Will any one deny him the right thus to risk his life, and die, if need be, for his neighbors’ children? The villagers put flowers on his grave every day.

I saw written on the pedestal of a soldier’s monument in Manchester, N. H., the words “Dulce et decorum est pro patriamori.” Was that a mistake? Is it sweet and honorable to die for one’s country? If so, we have admitted that patriots have a right to suffer and die for others. Every granite stone in Bunker Hill Monument echoes that sentiment.

Regulus, the brave Roman general, refused to advise the Roman Senate to accept the terms of Carthage, and went back with the envoys to be tortured “0 death, has any one, ancient or modern, been base enough to blame him for it?

The legend of Mettus Curtius sacrificing himself that the fissure in the Roman Forum might be closed has been used by statesman and orator to inspire the young to deeds of valor. Has one word ever been written in condemnation of the spirit that prompted his act?

A regiment of Austrian soldiers were guilty of mutiny, and each man of them, by the laws of war, had forfeited his right to live. The court-martial decided that only every tenth man should be shot, and the victims were chosen by lot. The lot fell upon an old soldier whose son pushed him aside, and stepping into his place died in his stead. The soldiers of Austria to this day praise him for the deed.

Dr. Guthrie is responsible for the story that in a “ragged” school a pale, half-invalid boy had violated a rule of the school, which demanded that he should be punished by receiving on his back a certain number of stripes; and when he came up for punishment, a rough, healthy little fellow stepped up beside him and offered to take chastisement for him. The teacher administered the chastisement to the strong boy, that honor of the law in his school might be maintained, and the brave little fellow who bore it became the hero of the school and of every home where the story was told. Who will deny that he had a right thus willingly and lovingly to suffer for another? No one had a right to compel him to do it, but no one could deny him the right to follow the promptings of his loving and sympathetic heart.

It is well known that Bronson Alcott, the Concord philosopher, maintained discipline in his school by requiring disobedient students to punish him for their disobedience.

In many a European prison is the record “Fine paid by John Howard;” “Debt paid by John Howard.” John Howard chose to set prisoners free by paying their fines and debts, and I have not heard of a Howard’s magistrate who denied him the right to do so.

Now, shall men have the right to do what we deny to Jesus Christ? Shall the mother suffer for her child, shall friend suffer for friend, shall the patriot suffer for his country, shall the soldier suffer for his comrade, shall the student suffer for his classmate and receive the praise of all, while we deny to Jesus the right to suffer for those he loves more than mother ever loved her children, or friend his friend, or patriot his country, or soldier his comrade, or student his classmate?


Shall the child refuse to be benefitted by the mother’s suffering? Shall the country refuse to be benefitted human by the suffering of its patriot soldiers? If it be true that soldiers do wrong in dying for others, and that those for whom they die ought not to be benefitted by their sufferings, let us go to Bunker Hill and tear down that monument; let us go to Washington and raze to the ground that white marble pyramid which commemorates the man who suffered the pangs of hunger and cold at Valley Forge. To adopt the claim of Theosophy that one should not receive benefit from the sufferings of another is to turn mankind, sooner or later, into leeches and hyenas, for if I should not be benefitted by the suffering of another, I, of course, should not suffer for another. My business, then, is to look after myself, and all the sweet ministries of loving sacrifice for others give place to greedy self-seeking. There is but one step from this to heartless cruelty.

On the other hand, the spirit of sacrificing love as seen in Christ on the Cross, if universally incarnate, would make earth a paradise of peace and joy. War would then cease; for if men loved well enough to die for one another, they certainly would not kill one another. It would close every divorce court; for if husband and wife loved well enough to die for each other, such a thing as unfaithfulness, or even unkindness, would be impossible. It would solve the problem of labor and capital; for if the laborer and the capitalist loved well enough to die for each other, they certainly would not oppress, or make unreasonable demands. It would run every business enterprise according to the Golden Rule; for if all men loved well enough to die for one another, there would be no lying or cheating to make money. It would be easy then to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And if everybody really believed that Jesus died on the cross to bear the chastisement of their sins, character would be transformed and this world would be heaven.

Let us look into Bronson Alcott’s school, and see how it worked there. “One day,” says Mr. Alcott, “I called up before me a pupil eight or ten years of age, who had violated an important regulation of the school. All the pupils were looking on, and they knew what the rule of the school was, I put the ruler into the hand of that offending pupil; I extended my hand and told him to strike. The instant the boy saw my extended hand and heard my command to strike, I saw a struggle begin in his face. A new light sprang up in his countenance, a new set of shuttles seemed to be weaving a new nature within him. I kept my hand extended, and the school was in tears. The boy struck once, and he himself burst into tears. I constantly watched his face, and he seemed in a bath of fire which was giving him a new nature. He had a different mood toward the school and toward the violated law. The boy seemed transformed by the idea that I should take chastisement in place of his punishment. He went back to his seat, and ever after was one of the most docile of all the pupils in that school, though he had been at first one of the rudest.”

I have heard of a father whose little son was given to lying, and he could not be cured of the vice by counsel, reward or punishment. One day, the father said, “My dear boy, you have sinned again today by telling home a lie.  And do you think that ten strokes on the hand with this rule would be excessive punishment for such a lie?” The hardened little fellow was used to such punishment, and he admitted that it would not. “Well, then,” said the father, “I have decided to take the punishment for you, and now take this rod and strike my hand with all your might.” The astonished boy was loth to do it, but as the father insisted, he began to strike. “Strike harder,” said the father, “for so great a sin as lying deserves more punishment than that.” When the boy saw the great blue welts begin to appear in the hand, he dropped the rule, and rushing into his father’s arms, exclaimed, ” Father, I will never tell another lie.” And he didn’t.

I know a widowed mother who adopted this principle of Calvary in dealing with her children, and whenever she willingly suffered for her children’s disobedience they were so overwhelmed with the sense of guilt that they refrained from transgressing again. Punishment for one’s own sin often hardens the nature, and this fact makes hell a poor reformatory. But suffering for another’s sin, prompted by willing love, develops the noblest that is in us and makes the strongest possible appeal to the sinner.

A friend of mine,” says Dr. Mackay, u had been told that the Word of Life was contained in the Bible. He went quietly home, and he said, If it is there I’ll find it.’ He began with Genesis. He could friend not see anything about salvation in the first chapter. He went to the second chapter, and the third, and all through Genesis, and then got into Exodus, but he could not understand it a bit. Then when he came to Leviticus and all the beasts of sacrifice, he thought I cannot see what is meant by this.’ But he was not to be beaten, he was wanting salvation, and he was told it was there. He went on from there until, in due course of time, he reached that good evangelical chapter, Isaiah 53. He read carefully until he came to the words, “By his stripes we are healed.” That is it,’ said he, I have it now; we are healed; I am healed. There is no hoping or wishing, or perhaps “we are healed.’ And then he began to rejoice in the complete salvation through Jesus Christ.”

A dying man said to me last night, “Jesus Christ on the Cross is the only one that can do me any good now.” Living or dying we need forgiveness and cleansing, which are ours only through the atonement which Christ made on Calvary.

A soldier stood on a street of Vienna playing an old violin that he might earn a little money for himself and those dependent upon him. The crowd passed by with but little notice of him or his futile attempt at music. One day a stranger took from him his violin and began at once to make such exquisite music that the crowd gathered and poured their money into the old soldier’s box. “Empty it into your pockets,” said the stranger, “and let them fill it again,” while he continued to fill the air with sweetest melody. The box was filled again, and then the stranger, returning the violin, disappeared in the crowd. “Who was that? Who was that?” was asked, and the reply came from one of the bystanders.” That was Bucher, the most famous violinist of the realm,” and his name was applauded by the crowd.

Now, had Bucher the right to take this poor soldier’s place, and by his own musical merit relieve him of his poverty? Who will deny it? Had the old soldier the right to let Bucher take his place, while he thanked him for his sympathetic and loving deed? Would you blame the soldier for being extravagant in his praise of the man who, without invitation or promise of reward, took his place and supplied his need?

Something like that, but more, Jesus did for us. He took our place, and by the keynote of his own sacrificing love he brought the justice of God into harmony with his mercy, while at the same time he awakens in our souls the music of gratitude, and makes the discord of sin give way to the harmony of righteousness. Let us yield without resistance to the magnetic charm of the music of God’s love that comes to us through Christ on the Cross, and it will not only draw us to Him for salvation, but every day it will make it easy to “draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith.”

One thought on “Ethics of the Atonement

  1. Emmanuel Luseno

    I did not have a chance to read these good words but after reading them I have learned a lot.

    On Mon, Apr 4, 2016 at 7:57 AM, Regeneration, Repentance and Reformation wrote:

    > Michael W. Pursley posted: “Taken and adapted from, “Present Day Life and > Religion” Written by A.C. Dixon [Amzi Clarence Dixon (July 6, 1854 – June > 14, 1925) was a Baptist pastor, Bible expositor, and evangelist, popular > during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. With R.A. T” >

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