Salvation through Christ's death, not by it.
The death of Christ is the central idea in all the prevalent theories of
man’s salvation. It is generally regarded as not only the crowning act of
His great work of Redemption, but as the essential thing in it. To the
Catholic, the cross has become the emblem of Religion and Salvation, and the
Protestant points to Calvary as the place where the full price was paid for
his ransom from death. The burden of all religious teaching is the cross of
Christ. Those who are inquiring the way to eternal life, are told that they
can find it only in the suffering and death of Christ. If they can believe
that Christ died for them and thus paid the debt due to Divine justice, and
are willing to accept pardon from the Father for the sake of Jesus Christ,
it is freely granted them, and their salvation is secured. Thus Christians
generally place their hope, and their only hope, of salvation in His death.
They look to that; they rest upon that; that is their plea for mercy, and
the only plea, they think, that will have any avail with Divine justice.
They perpetually remind the Father that the debt, due His justice for their
sins, is paid; that they accept the payment as due from them. They claim the
promise of acquittal; and they beseech Him, not for their sakes, but for the
sake of His suffering, dying Son, to have mercy upon them, and save them
from eternal death. And the Savior himself is represented as joining with
them in their plea as their great advocate. He holds up His hands pierced
with the cruel nails, and points to His wounded side, to move implacable
justice to compassion, by a vivid exhibition of His suffering and the
greatness of the price He has paid for human souls. If the plea is
successful, the Father accepts the satisfaction made by the sufferings and
death of the Savior, and freely pardons the sinner.
The idea of suffering and death is the central principle of this whole theory. According to it, our salvation is entirely due to them. They constitute the Lord’s merits and righteousness, which He transfers to our account, and the grounds on which He claims our release from punishment. The Father would not or could not forgive men, until the amount of suffering due to a violated law had been inflicted. The sacrifice must be made. Some victim must be offered. The debt must be paid to the uttermost farthing.
If we acknowledge this theory to be true, which we by no means do, and that it accomplishes the results claimed for it, it still fails in -one essential particular. It only saves men from the penalty of sin; it does not touch the sin itself. It is in no way applicable to it. The Bible everywhere declares, that the Lord came to save men from their sins. Sin is one thing, and its penalties quite a different thing. The distinction is the same as that between disease and the pain it causes. The pain is not anything in itself; it is only an indication of the disease, and is caused by the obstruction the disease opposes to the orderly activities of the soul. The wise physician so regards it. He does not seek to operate directly upon the pain. He looks for the disease and seeks to remove that, knowing the pain will cease with its cause.
It is possible to remove the pain in many cases, by the aid of chloroform and morphine, without removing the disease; but it is only a mere temporary expedient. The disease is not affected by it, and the pain soon returns with increased power. There can be no permanent relief, except by the cure of the disease. So it is with man’s spiritual diseases, his sins. It would be of no permanent service to man to remit the penalty of his sins, while the sin remained. It would not save him from spiritual death. Death is not punishment; it is loss of life. If our Lord, by His sufferings and death, had made the most ample satisfaction to Divine Justice for man’s disobedience, so that, according to the theory, God could be just and remit the penalty due to sin, it would not have removed a single obstacle in his way to heaven; it would not have communicated to him a single truth, or heavenly affection; it would not have contributed in the least to his salvation. He would have remained as dead in trespasses and sins, as he was before the pardon was offered. It would do no more to make angels of men than it would make good honest citizens of all the thieves, robbers, and murderers in our country, to open the prison doors and bid them go free.
Men have fallen into a fatal error, in confounding sin with its penalty. They have mistaken the shadow for the substance, and have constructed theories of the Divine government and of human salvation upon it. Every one desires to be saved from suffering. But how few desire to be saved from sin! Men implore the Divine mercy to save them from the torments of hell; but how few pray to be delivered from the sins which cause the torments. The sins they love. They roll them as sweet morsels under their tongues. To give them up is to give up their life. It is cutting off the right hand, and plucking out the right eye. It is forsaking all, to become His disciples. How many persons, do you think, sincerely and earnestly pray the Lord to forgive their sins, not the penalty, but the sin itself; that is, to assist them in overcoming and removing every selfish and worldly and impure desire? I fear not many. It is so easy to deceive ourselves, and to think we are really desiring to be good, when we are only seeking to escape punishment, and to be happy.
The Lord’s mission upon the earth, His life, and sufferings, and death, had no special and direct reference to saving man from punishment. He did not come to abrogate or evade His own law; he came to fulfill it. In His infinite wisdom He has so formed man, as a spiritual and a material being, that he cannot violate a single law of his organization without suffering the penalty. The penalty is good; it serves a useful purpose, so long as the sin remains. It is just as useful now as it ever was, and it will be just as useful in the spiritual world as it is in this world. He came to save us from sin and death.
This mistaking the penalty of sin for the sin itself has been one of the most mischievous and destructive errors in theology. It has diverted the minds of men from the true object of their attention, and fastened them upon a mere abstraction; upon the shadow instead of the substance. It has led men to fear punishment rather than sin, pain more than disease, and to implore the Lord to save them from imprisonment and death rather than the sins which lead to them. It has taken the whole subject of man’s relations to the Lord out of the established order and harmony of the Divine methods, and substituted a mere legal fiction for it; an abstruse and artificial technicality, which bewilders the mind, outrages the reason, and changes the plain and simple precepts of the Gospel into abstruse and groundless abstractions, and ends by representing the Lord as practically evading His own law, under the pretence of fulfilling it.
If any man will take his Bible, and while reading it keep in mind, that when the Lord says sin, He means sin, and not punishment, and that sin is the inversion and total derangement of his spiritual organization, and not merely evil desires, false opinions and wicked acts; that it is a disease involving the whole spiritual form; a disease which must be cured, or it will result in spiritual death, and forever exclude him from all the delights and joys of spiritual health, which are heavenly peace and blessedness, he will have no difficulty in understanding what he must do to be saved, and why it was necessary to his salvation that the Lord should come into the world, and suffer, and die. The reason is as plain as it is for calling a surgeon when you have broken your bones. Keep your thoughts fixed on sin as sin; as impure, selfish, and worldly affections brought into action, or longing for opportunity to gratify their lusts; and remember that our Lord came to save men from these evil affections, and you will have no more difficulty in understanding what relation His sufferings and death have to your salvation, than you have in understanding what relation the weariness, the painful, and often repulsive labor of those who watch over and minister to you in sickness, have to your recovery.
The Lord could not come into this world and reach humanity without assuming a human nature and a material body. Whenever he had appeared to men before, their spiritual sight was opened, and they saw Him in the spiritual world. That revelation of Himself answered His purpose, at that time, in that state of humanity; but when man had fallen so low that he could not be reached in that way, the Lord could gain no access to him except through the material body; and then He assumed that. And He did it according to His own laws. He came into this world as every soul or spiritual being comes into it. The nature He assumed, however, was imperfect, full of hereditary evils. There were no human natures in this world, at that time, that were not full of evil. Consequently, the humanity assumed from Mary was not a perfect medium between the Divine within and man, and He immediately set about the work of making it a perfect medium.
This human was subject to all the laws that every merely human being is subject to. It needed the same attention and tender care that every infant needs. It learned truth as every child learns it. “And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.” He violated no laws of physical or mental growth. Every step, from His conception to His resurrection, was ordered by infinite wisdom, and taken with direct reference to its bearings upon the great work of redemption. He was always “about His Father’s business.” The assumed nature was always controlled and directed in every particular in the best way to make it a perfect medium of accomplishing the Divine purposes of love to man; to prepare it to become a perfect mediator between God and man.
A part of this work could not be accomplished without suffering; without the most intense and awful agony. It required the death, or the entire dissipation and destruction of the evil life or nature he assumed from Mary, and this could not be fully accomplished without the death of the material body. His death was not, therefore, the whole of the work of redemption, nor the principal part of it. It was only the final scene in the great drama. The work of redemption was finished with the last cry of agony. Everything that was imperfect in form or tendency; everything that was merely natural; everything that was too weak to bear the full pressure and intense ardors of His Divine love; everything that obstructed His wisdom, or in any respect failed of perfect union with the Divine within, called the Father, was put off. The nature He assumed became glorified and Divine. Thus it became the perfect mediator, the perfect instrument of communicating the Divine life to men.
The life He laid down was not merely the death of the material body for three days. It was the death of every evil tendency in the nature assumed. It was a gradual, and sometimes a most painful, work. It was laid down for us because the Divine could not fully and effectually reach us without it. But it was not the laying down of His life that saved us, though we could not have been saved without it. Our Lord declares the real truth when He says, “Because I live ye shall live also.” His sufferings and death are the merely negative side of His work. They were necessary though incidental effects. They are the most conspicuous and striking part of the work, as the flash and thunder of a cannon are the most conspicuous effects of its discharge, and are so necessary to it, that it cannot be fired without them; and yet they contribute nothing whatever to the effect of the ball. The Lord saved us by coming to us, by ministering to us, by bringing His divine life so near to us that by touching, as it were, the hem of His garment, the garment of flesh, virtue could flow out of Him and heal us. The human nature, when glorified, became the Mediator; it opened up the way by which the only saving power in the universe could reach us.
Now, keeping the real work He accomplished for us, distinctly before us, we can further see in what sense He became a sacrifice for us; how His blood was shed for us, and cleanses us from sin.
The word sacrifice has two meanings. Its original and true meaning is, to make sacred or holy; its common meaning, is the surrender of something that is dear to us, for the good of others, as we sacrifice our time, money, strength, comfort, and life, for others, or for some ideal or real good; our Lord was a sacrifice for us in both these senses. His sufferings and death were a sacrifice for man. Every privation He accepted, every temptation He endured, every pang He suffered, was a sacrifice for us, in the same sense that everything we suffer for others, is a sacrifice for them. He laid down His life for us, or what is the same thing, He sacrificed His life for us. It is also in perfect accordance with the fact, to say that God sacrificed His Son for us, if by God we understand the Divine Being who assumed a human nature, and not a distinct person; and by His Son, the nature assumed. The Divine, the Father, did sacrifice the Human, derived from and born of Mary. He put off, He offered up, He laid down, or utterly destroyed, this merely human and evil life, as the priest sacrificed the animals upon the altar.
But He was not sacrificed instead of us. We were dead already. Humanity had lost all truly spiritual life. It was not for the purpose of making any satisfaction to offended justice, and bearing a penalty due to man, but to do a work necessary to his salvation.
He was also a sacrifice for us in the true sense of the word. It is generally supposed, “that when a person brought an animal to be sacrificed, it implied an acknowledgment that he deserved to be treated as the animal was about to be; that as the animal was to suffer death, so the offerer deserved to suffer damnation. And as he was required by the law to lay his hands upon the head of the victim, this was supposed to imply the transfer of his guilt from himself to the animal; which, therefore, was accepted in his place to appease by its death the anger of God." As, however, it is palpably evident that the death of an animal is a trifling substitute for the damnation of a human being, it is supposed, after all, that the sacrifice of the animal had nothing to do with the deliverance of the sinner, except as symbolizing the death of the Lord Jesus Christ, who is regarded as the great victim to whom were transferred, though innocent Himself, the iniquities of the whole human race, or at least of such of them as are saved, and who, in His sufferings on the cross, bore all the punishment which was due to them.
But this is a total misconception of the nature and meaning of the sacrifice in the ceremonial worship of the Jews. The animals sacrificed, represented the affections of the one who offered them, or of the people for whom they were offered. Killing the animal was no part of the sacrifice, but simply a necessary preparation for it. The sacrifice itself is repeatedly declared to be "most holy." The burnt-offerings and sacrifices represented the entire devotion and consecration of all our affections and thoughts to the Lord. They were offered to him to represent the constant truth, that we ought to love the Lord with all the heart; that we ought to present our affections and thoughts, and as the apostle says, our bodies, as a living sacrifice to the Lord. They implied also the acknowledgment that all our good affections and true thoughts come from the Lord. In a word, they were intended to represent and constantly set forth the eternal truth, that all we have and are, that is good and true, is the Lord's free gift, and that every spiritual and natural faculty ought to be consecrated to His service, by employing it in the service of humanity; and that we ought to put away and shun, as a sin against God, every evil affection and false principle and wrong act, which in any way hinders this offering of acceptable worship.
In this highest and true sense of the term, our Lord was a sacrifice for us. He declared of His disciples, for their sakes, “I sanctify myself that they also might be sanctified through the truth." He purged the nature He assumed of every hereditary defilement. He dedicated and consecrated it to the purposes of the Divine law—to the salvation of man. He made it the perfectly pure and fit medium of communicating His Divine life to men. He made it Divine, so that it became the perfect embodiment of His infinite perfections—became one with His essential nature before He came into the world. And now this Divine Humanity ever liveth to make intercession for us. From it we now receive all our power to shun evil and to do good.
It is impossible for us adequately to conceive how entire and perfect this sacrifice was. But we can form a true idea of its nature from an analogous work in ourselves. When we have learned the truth and begin to act from heavenly motives, we find much in ourselves that lies in the way of fully carrying out our principles in every relation of life. There is much in bodily appetites, and natural passions, and evil habits; many things in our relations to others, that tend to obstruct and thwart our purposes. To overcome these evils and falsities, and put them away, requires much labor and painful struggle. But we are determined to make every power and possession sacred to the attainment of the one end. We strive to put away all that opposes it, to train and discipline and bring under perfect control, every faculty, and make it contribute its share of service to the general result.
In this sense our Lord became a sacrifice for us. His sole object in the creation of man, was to make him happy by communicating His own life to him. He had consecrated everything in the universe to this end. Sin interposed and threatened to defeat His purpose of love. Now He sacrifices or makes sacred everything to the removal of sin. He provides Himself with all the means necessary to accomplish His ends, and He sacrifices or makes them sacred to their attainment. He lays down His life, that He may take it again in a form perfectly adapted to defeat the powers of evil, and pour a new tide of life into the dying soul of man. This is the true and perfect sacrifice; and in this as in all other respects, He is our perfect exemplar. He does this to help us to overcome and put away our sins. We must cooperate with Him in His efforts to do this great work in ourselves and in others. He makes all His infinite faculties sacred to our good in the same way, that we must make ours sacred to the good of others and to His GOOD.
But it may be asked, how does this view of the subject agree with the declaration that we are saved by the blood of Christ? that He purchased us with His own blood? that we are “justified," “propitiated," “redeemed," “brought nigh," and “saved" by His blood ? I answer, that it perfectly harmonizes with it in whatever sense the term “blood" is used.
By the blood of Christ, the apostles generally mean His sufferings and death; and this is doubtless the meaning generally attached to the word by Christians. If we understand it in this sense, we have already explained how we are saved by it. The work He came to do could not be effected without the shedding of His blood. The infirmities or evil tendencies in the humanity He assumed, could not be perfectly put off, and the human nature made Divine, without the entire dissipation of everything that was not perfectly homogeneous with His Divine nature, and this great change could not be effected without His sufferings and death, without the shedding of His blood.
We must understand it in the same sense that we use the words when we say that it is sometimes necessary to die for our country. When enemies attack us with weapons destructive to natural life, we must meet them with the same weapons; and in such a conflict it is impossible to avoid wounds and death; and it is common to say that the country is saved by the blood and death of those who fall in battle. But every one can see that it is not their blood and death that saves their country, but their victory. The country is saved by the wounds and death of their enemies.
Theologians have seen that this is the inevitable result of this reasoning, and some have accepted it, and have held that God regarded Christ as His enemy, and poured upon His innocent head the full measure of the indignation and wrath that was due to the sinner. But, that a Being of infinite love, and wisdom, and truth, could pretend that His son was guilty when He knew He was not; and punish Him as though He were really an infernal rebel against His righteous government, and guilty of all the foul crimes of a perverted and corrupt humanity, when He knew that He was as innocent and spotless from any stain of guilt as Himself, is a doctrine so repugnant to reason, so contrary to every principle of justice, and derogatory to the Divine character, that it would seem to be only necessary to state it, to cause a prompt and indignant rejection.
But the Lord's blood has another and more important meaning than His sufferings and death, a meaning which avoids all these difficulties, and explains many passages of the Word which otherwise have only a remote and doubtful signification. A comparison between the effects attributed, in the Bible, to the Lord's blood and to the Divine Truth, will show them to be identical.
I. Blood and truth are both declared to be the instruments of life. Blood bears the same relation to the body, and performs the same offices for it, that truth does for the soul. The Lord says, "the blood is the life of the body.” "The life of the flesh is in the blood." "Be sure thou eat not the blood, for the blood is the soul or life." So the Lord says in John, “The words I speak unto you, they are spirit and they are life." When the young man asked him what he should do to be saved, he replied, “If thou wouldst enter into life, keep the commandments," attributing to the commandments or Divine truth the power of giving life. And, again, He declares, “Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood hath eternal life." Many more passages might be given to the same effect. But these are sufficient to establish the general principle, that blood and truth both refer to life, and in relation to it have the same meaning.
II. Again: Both blood and truth are declared to be the means of conjunction with the Lord. We become united to the Lord, one with Him, by keeping His words, having His words abide in us, by doing His commandments. The same effects are attributed to eating His flesh and drinking His blood. Inasmuch as blood means the same as the Divine truth proceeding from the Lord, and by its reception by man conjunction with the Lord is effected, therefore blood was used to represent and sanction both the old and new covenant, and it is called the blood of the covenant. Covenant means coming together, agreement, conjunction. All covenants between man and man, and between man and the Lord, are effected by truths. The conditions of the covenant are statements of fact or truths, to which both parties assent. When the Lord instituted the Holy Supper He used wine, which has the same representative meaning as blood. “He took the cup and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it, for this is my blood of the New Testament (or covenant) which is shed for many for the remission of sins." Blood is also called the blood of the covenant in Exodus and in many other places. When solemn covenants were made between the Lord and His people, blood in some form was used. And it was used because it represented the truths by which the covenant was made.
III. Many other points might be mentioned in which blood and truth mean the same thing; but I have time to refer to but one, which has a more special bearing upon our subject. Blood and truth are both said to cleanse and sanctify. It was from this signification of blood that it was used in sanctifying those persons and things which related to Divine worship among the Jews. The blood of Jesus Christ, it is said, cleanseth from all sin. The robes of the redeemed, whom John saw, were washed and made white in the blood of the Lamb. He also calls upon the seven churches “to give glory and dominion to Him who hath loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood."
Precisely the same effects are attributed to the truth. “Thy word," says the Psalmist, “is very pure." The Lord, addressing His disciples, says “Ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you." “Sanctify them through Thy truth. Thy word is truth." The office of the Holy Spirit, the sanctifier, he declares to be to guide men into all truth, thus plainly declaring that blood and truth have the same cleansing and purifying power.
Now, no one supposes that the material blood shed upon the cross cleanses from sin. All persons, whatever may be their doctrine, agree that it is not the blood itself, but what it represents, that saves us. But we are saved by being cleansed from sin; by being cured of our spiritual diseases, and by the application of the Divine life to the dying soul. To have a true knowledge of God, and to live according to His commandments, is eternal life. And our Lord declares that He came to give us this knowledge, and that He is the way, the truth, and the life. If the Lord's blood represent the Divine truth, you can see how perfectly all that is said concerning it harmonizes with all He says concerning His own mission, and with a rational and Scriptural view of the real work He came to perform, and the means by which that work is effected. The shedding of His blood is not, therefore, an awful penalty rendered to a vengeful justice; it is the pouring out of His truth and life into the understandings of men. It is shedding it, as the sun sheds his light and heat. We can also understand what is meant by drinking His blood, and why we must do it, or we can have no life in us; how we are washed from our sins in His blood, for it is the same declaration that is made in another form when he says, “Ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you."
There is not a single sentence in the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, that is not in perfect harmony with the doctrine of the Lord's sufferings and death which I have attempted to set forth to you. It implies no contract, no implacable and enraged Deity, no legal technicalities, no division of the Personal Unity of God, no sacrifice of the innocent for the guilty, and consequently no offence against reason; no impossible transfer of righteousness, no vicarious suffering, and no vicarious goodness. Our Father Himself comes down upon the earth, as the Good Shepherd in search of his lost sheep, and He comes in the only way He could come; He endures all the labors that the work demands; He suffers all the temptations and agonies that inhere in the work; He subdues all the enemies that oppose Him; He finds His lost children blind, naked, starved, in prison, diseased, dying, and He opens their eyes; He clothes them, He feeds them with His own flesh and blood—His love and truth; He throws open the prison doors; as the Great Physician, He heals their diseases; the only source of life, He gives them life. Could infinite love do less? Could infinite power do more? How beautiful, harmonious, complete, is this view of the Lord's sufferings and death; how consistent with itself, with infinite love and wisdom, with human reason, with the wisest and purest love in human hearts, "God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them."