Master Sermon List
Relation Between The Atonement And Faith
The Sovereignty Of God
by Robert Smith Candlish
The design of this second preliminary chapter will be best accomplished, as I think, and the point of view in which the subject of the atonement and faith is considered in the present treatise will be best indicated, if I begin with some remarks on the alleged complexity of modern creeds. This is often urged as an objection to these creeds, and the especially to the Westnnnster Standards, with reference to the important object of Christian union. The acknowledged harmony of the Reformed Confessions among themselves, is undoubtedly a fact highly favourable to that object. But it is said there is, on the other hand, an unfavourable characteristic common to them all, and at least as marked in those of Westminster as in any others. They are long, prolix, and minute. And this is carried, as it is argued, to such an extreme as to present a serious obstacle to what in these days is felt to be so desirable, the merging of minor differences in the great essential truths which make all believers one in Christ.
I am far from thinking that nothing may or ought to be attempted in the direction of simplifying and shortening the Church formularies now in use. But the attempt their must always be a difficult and delicate one; and shortened it should never be contemplated without a most reverential and scrupulous regard to the spirit of the Reformation revival which originated them, nor without an anxious study of the mutual bearings and relations of the parts of the evangelical system among themselves, as well as of the consistency of the system as a whole. In this view, the observations which follow seem to me to be practically of very considerable importance.
The use of human standards generally is alleged to be unfavourable to Christian unity, inasmuch as they embrace so wide a field, and contain such minute statements of doctrine, that it is impossible to expect a hearty and unanimous concurrence in so many various particulars on the part of all true believers. A sufficient answer to the objection may be found, I think, in the consideration that these standards are intended to shut out error; and that in proportion to the consistency Unity of and harmony of the truth of God, is the allpervading subtlety of the error of Satan. The truth of God is perfectly harmonious, and is one complete whole; all the parts of it fit into one another, and are mutually dependent upon each other. And as this edifice, thus reared by God, is complete and compact in all its parts, so the subtle influence of Satan is often applied to the undermining of one part of the building, in the knowledge that if he succeed in that, he can scarcely fail to effect the destruction of all the rest.
I might illustrate this policy of the adversary A little by showing how error, in what at first sight may appear an unimportant detail of Christian theology, affects the whole system, and essentially mars the entire scope and spirit of the gospel. It may seem, for instance, that the discussion regarding the precise nature of saving faith is a comparatively unimportant one, that it is a discussion on which Christian men may afford to differ; and yet an error on this point might easily he shown to affect the doctrines of the Divine sovereignty, of human depravity, of the extent and nature of the atonement, and of justification by faith alone.
I might show, for example, that those who make justifying faith to consist in the belief of the fact that they are themselves pardoned and accepted, and who maintain, consequently, that in order to his being justified, a man must believe that Christ died personally for him as an individual are, in consistency, compelled to adopt a mode of statemeat in regard to the bearing of Christ's death upon all men indiscriminately, and particularly upon the lost, which strikes at the root of the very idea of personal substitution altogether; making it difficult, if not impossible, to hold that Christ actually suffered in the very room and stead of the guilty. According to such a definition or explanation of faith as is given in the Shorter Catechism, in which it is described as "a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon Jesus Christ alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel," it is unnecessary to define the precise relation which the death of Christ has to mankind universally, and its precise bearing on the condition of the finally impenitent and the lost.
For it must be admitted, I apprehend and maintain, that the death of Christ has a certain reference to all men universally; such a reference as to impose upon all men universally the obligation to hear and to believe. The offer of salvation through the death of Christ is made, in the gospel, to all men universally. It is an offer most earnest and sincere, as well as most gracious and free on the part of God. But it could scarcely be so, without there being some sort of relation between the death of Christ and every man, even of those that ultimately perish, who is invited, on the credit and warrant of it, to. receive the salvation offered. What may be the nature of that relation what may be the precise bearing of Christ's death on every individual, even of the lost, I presume not to define.
My position is that it is unnecessary to define it. For I do not ask the sinner to believe in the precise definition of that relation respecting himself. Even if the sinner could put into articulate language his theory of the exact bearing of the death of Christ on himself, he would still be an unreconciled sinner, unless he complied with the proposal of reconciliation founded upon it, in terms of the gospel call and gospel assurance, indicated by the apostle: "Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God. For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him" (2 Cor. v. 20, 21).
Such a view of justifying aud saving faith relieves and exempts those who hold it from the necessity of prying too curiously into the relation between Christ's death and impenitent and unbelieving sinners, to whom God has made a free, unconditional, and honest offer of the blessing of reconciliation. For if we hold that faith is the actual personal closing with God's free and unconditional gift, on the part of the individual sinner, we are not required to state, in the form of a categorical proposition, what is the precise relation between the death of Christ and all mankind. And so we are left free to maintain, that while, in some way unknown to us, the effect of which, however, is well known, namely, that it lays the foundation for the free offer in the gospel of salvation universally to all men, Christ's death has a bearing on the condition even of the impenitent and lost; yet, in the strict and proper sense, he was really, truly, and personally, a substitute in the room of the elect, and in the room of the elect only.
On the other hand, if I hold the doctrine that faith is the belief of a certain fact concerning Christ's death and my interest in it, that it is the mere belief of a certain definite proposition, such as that Christ died for me, I am compelled to make out a proposition concerning Christ's death which shall hold true equally of believers and unbelievers, the reprobate and the saved; which proposition I am to believe, simply as a matter of fact, necessarily true in itself, whether I believe it or not. But how is this to be done? I am to believe that Christ died for me. Then, I must believe that in a sense which shall be true independently of my belief, in a sense, therefore, which shall be equally true of me whether I am saved or lost. Does not. this compel me to make Christ's dying for me, though I should be one of the chosen, amount really to nothing more than what is implied in his dying for the finally reprobate?
Accordingly, it is to be observed, that those who take this view of saving faith carefully avoid the use of any language respecting the atonement which would involve the notion of personal substitution. They do not like to speak of Christ being put actually in the room of sinners, considered as personally liable to wrath. They use a of the idea variety of abstract and impersonal phrases such as, Christ's dying for sin his death being a scheme for removing obstacles to pardon, or for manifesting God's character and vindicating his government, with other expressions, all studiously general and indefinite, and evading the distinct and articulate statement of Christ having died as a substitute in the actual room and stead of guilty sinners themselves.
The illustration now suggested of the intertwining, or interlacing, as it were, of the several parts of the one divine system of truth, might be extended; and it might be shown how the scheme of the sovereign mercy of God the entire, radical, and helpless corruption of human nature the utter impotency of man's will the perfection of God's righteousness the freeness of God's grace the simplicity and childlike nature of a holy walk how all these things are intimately associated together, so that unsoundness in one runs through all. In fact, it may be said of every error, that, if traced to its ultimate source, it will be found to take its rise in a denial of the doctrine which is the leading characteristic of the Westminster Standards the doctrine of the absolute sovereignty of God.
For it is unquestionably this doctrine of the absolute sovereignty of God that in the Westminster, as in the other Reformed and Calvinistic Confessions, rules in every part, and gives consistent unity to the whole. It is not, however, as an abstract and speculative notion about God, the result of a lofty attempt to sit, as it were, behind his throne, and scan beforehand (a priori) his eternal plan of government, that this doctrine is thus exalted to preeminence; but rather as a truth of practical application, gathered (aposteriori) out of those personal dealings of God with mankind generally, and with individual men, of which it is the one ultimate solution or rationale; suggesting the law or principle common to all of them, and therefore fitted to silence, if not to satisfy, all who reverently accept the divine teaching.
It is not as gratifying a theoretical inquisitiveness that it is put forward, but as meeting practically a real case of need. The question, How is God to treat the guilty? as an urgent anxiety of the conscience, and not merely a curious speculation of the intellect, must be ever kept in view, as that which originates the Evangelical theology, and is in fact its starting point, whatever may be the systematic arrangement adopted in its symbolic books. It is this very circumstance, indeed, that distinguishes the theological school which I have ventured thus to designate by the term Evangelical, from what may be called the Scholastic or the Orthodox; whereas this last, as it might seem, has for its theme chiefly the nature of the Supreme Being and his providence, considered as a sort of theorem to be demonstrated, the other aims from the first, and all throughout, at some tolerable working out of the problem of man's necessity, and the way in which God proposes to deal with it.
Sin, as the transgression of law, and that not a law of nature merely, whether physical or spiritual, or both, but a law of government, the authoritative, commanding will of a holy and righteous Ruler; sin, as an offence or crime to be penally visited in terms of law; criminality, guilt, demerit, blameworthiness; judicial condemnation and wrath; judgment, punishment, vengeance or retribution; these ideas, together with the sense of personal degradation and pollution, and of the unloveliness as well as the unrighteousness of a godless and selfish spirit, enter deeply into the foundation on which the evangelical divinity rests.
It is in the light of these ideas that two allimportant inquiries, in particular, present themselves for consideration; the one, as to what God has done and does; the other, as to what man has to do. On the one hand, the atonement, with the sort of treatment of us on the part of God for which it makes provision; and on the other hand, faith, or the response on our part which God's movement toward us calls for; must be viewed as bearing upon what consciousness and Scripture alike attest to be the realities of the sinner's position before God. So viewed, they cannot be slurred over or disposed of under any vague generality of expression any broad, undistiriguishing formula setting forth, for example, some undefined universal expression or exercise of God's holy love, and some undefined universal regeneration of humanity, as if that were all the grace and salvation presented in Christ to the acceptance of sinful men. Somewhat more of its nature, definition, even in detail, is craved.
I desire to know, if it please God in his word to reveal it, as I rejoice to find that it has pleased him to reveal it, what it is that the atonement really does for such a one as I am a sinner in the sight of the Holy God a criminal at the bar of the Righteous Judge? Is it a real judicial transaction, in which an infinitely sufficient Substitute really and actually takes the place of the breakers of God's law, and consents, in their stead, to fulfil the obligations which they have failed, and must ever fail, to fulfil; and to suffer in his own person the penalty of their disobedience, taking upon himself their responsibilities, having their guilt reckoned to his account, and submitting to be so dealt with, in the character and capacity of their representative, as to meet that necessity of punishment which otherwise must have entailed upon them retribution without redress or remedy?
Is that the sort of atonement which a gracious God and Father has provided, in the voluntary incarnation, life, and death of his onlybegotten and wellbeloved Son, for his children who, like me, have rebelled against him? Certainly, I feel at once that it is such as to meet my case. But I soon perceive, also, that if that, or anything like that, is a true representation of its nature, the question of its extent is necessarily forced upon me. I cannot help myself. Whether I will or not, I must come up to and face that question, if my notion of the atonement is thus articulate and unequivocal; as I now see it must be if it is to satisfy either God's justice or the sinner's conscious need, The substitution of the Son of God, in the sense and for the purpose now defined is it for all men? And if not for all men, then how is it determined for whom it is?
Then again, if it shall appear, as I apprehend it must appear, upon reflection, that the very fact of such a substitution precludes the idea of its being designed for any whom it does not save, there are other pressing practical questions which force themselves upon me. How am I, in ignorance of its destination, with no means of discovering or even guessing who they are for whom the Surety and Substitute made atonement, to arrive at anything like a satisfactory persuasion that I may rely on his having made atonement for me? How am I to regard that universal offer of a free and full salvation, based upon the atonement, which is so unreservedly and earnestly announced in the Gospel? And how am I, on the sole warrant of that universal offer, and with no pointing of it personally to me, to be emboldened, nevertheless, to appropriate the salvation as really mine? Still further, yet another question may occur to perplex me.
The sense of my own helpless incapacity and distaste for anything like spiritual life the feeling of that evil heart of unbelief in me that is ever departing from the living God may incline me to welcome the thought of a divine agency being put forth to produce in me that state of mind, whatever it may be, which insures my personal interest in Christ, as an atoning Substitute for me. But how is such an interposition of the Spirit to fit into the exercise of my own faculties of reasoning and choice?
Or what is there, in the assigning of this divine origin to faith, to explain or get over the difficulty of my taking home to myself personally a call addressed equally to all men, in connection with an atonement which, from its very nature, must be limited to those how many or who they may be I cannot tell whom he who made it actually and personally, in law and judgment, represented? These are questions which touch the region of what is practical and experimental in religion; and that not merely in a selfish point of view, or as bearing on one's own peace and happiness and hope, but also, and at least equally, in connection with that mission of evangelical love to which every real Christian feels himself called.
They are not questions meeting us in any transcendental sphere of ontological speculation, into which an attempt to scan the mysteries of the Divine existence might introduce us. They lie along the path which we have ourselves to tread, and which we would have all our fellowmen to tread with us, that a haven of satisfying rest may be reached a shelter from the thick clouds of guilt and wrath. It is not, therefore, theoretically, but chiefly in its practical aspects and bearings, that the whole subject to which they relate falls to be considered.
Such, at least, is the way of considering it which, as it seems to me, is most needed for earnest minds and in earnest times. And if, in thus considering the subject, we find that our inquiries, when prosecuted by the light which divine discoveries shed upon the darkness of human experience, shut us up at last to a recognition of the unexplained decree and absolute sovereignty of the Most High, as the final resting place of the tempesttossed soul; if at every turn, and in every branch of the investigation, we find that in the last resort we must be fain to content ourselves with the assurance, that He whom we have learned to trust and love as the only wise God, and as our Friend and Father, rules supreme, and that his will, simply as his will, must, for the present, be accepted always as the ultimate reason of all things; the conclusion will be to us, amid the perplexities and apparent anomalies of the reign of grace on earth, as satisfying as it was to Christ himself, when, contemplating the rejection of his gospel by the proud, and its warm welcome among the poor, he "rejoiced in spirit, and said, I thank thee, 0 Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes: even so, Father; for so it seemed good in thy sight" (Luke x. 2].)