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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15

The Vicarious Atonement

and Obedience of Christ

John Stock, LL. D.

From the book, A Handbook of Revealed Theology, 1883

We come now to consider the moral import of the life and death of our Lord. In what light should we regard His career on earth, the shedding of His blood, and the laying down of His life? Was His work an atonement for our sins? Did He die as the substitute of the guilty? Are sinners pardoned and justified for the sake of His sacrifice and righteousness? Was His propitiation an element in the moral government of God necessary to the honourable exercise of mercy to the rebellious?

Or was this work simply a martyr's testimony to the truth of certain doctrines which in His life He had taught? Is it true, as some professedly orthodox divines have recently taught, that "there is not a word in the Bible about the punishment due to our sins being inflicted by a just God upon His own Son;" and that " Christ only shared our sin in the sense of it, in sorrow for it, in a vicarious confession of it, and in the miserable consequences of it "?

This is clearly a controversy about a fundamental. If the tame and lifeless theories of the modern school of theologians be true, then there is no such doctrine as atonement or propitiation, and redemption by the merits of the Son of God must be abandoned as a myth.

Even the Unitarian Channing makes the following admission:

“We have no desire to conceal the fact that a difference of opinion exists among us (Unitarians) in respect to an interesting part of Christ's mediation; I mean in regard to the precise influence of His death on our forgiveness. Many suppose that this event contributes to our pardon, as it was a principal means of confirming His religion, and of giving it a power over the mind; in other words, that it procures forgiveness by leading to that repentance and virtue which is the great and only condition on which forgiveness is bestowed. Many of us (here Channing evidently includes himself) are dissatisfied with this explanation, and think that the Scriptures ascribe the remission of sins to Christ's death, with an emphasis so peculiar that we ought to consider this event as having a special influence in removing punishment, though the Scriptures may not reveal the way in which it contributes to this end. Whilst, however, we differ in explaining the connection between Christ's death and human forgiveness, a connection which we all gratefully acknowledge, we agree in rejecting many sentiments which prevail in regard to His mediation." (Complete Works, vol. ii. pp. 515, 516, Griffin)

Now it is notorious matter of fact, as their published writings prove, that in our day many professedly orthodox men, both in the Establishment and out of it, are scarcely prepared to maintain even as much as the Unitarian Channing admits—namely, that the death of Christ has a special influence in the removal of punishment. We turn, however, from these unsatisfactory theories to a simple induction of the scriptural testimony on the subject. In this chapter we propose, first, to prove that the life and death of our Lord was a true and proper sacrifice and propitiation for sin, for the sake of which the sins of all believers are forgiven; secondly, to examine the extent of this glorious redemption; and, finally, to reply to objections.

I. First, then, we have to prove that THE LIFE AND DEATH OF OUR LORD WAS IN VERY DEED A SACRIFICE FOR SIN, by which the moral government of God was propitiated, and the forgiveness of the sins of believers was rendered consistent with the claims of eternal justice.

We say the life and death of our Lord was one complete sacrifice. His whole career was one grand act of atonement. "He gave HIMSELF for us." (Ephes. 5:2) "He was obedient unto death." (Phil. 2:8) The obedience commencing with His human life, and only culminating in His death. And the propitiation consists of the whole of His vicarious "obedience unto death," the shedding of His blood being absolutely necessary to complete the sacrifice, inasmuch as "without shedding of blood there is no remission." (Heb. 9:22)

We advance, then, to the proof of our position:

1. We refer to the vicarious and representative character which Jesus Christ sustained. It is obvious that throughout His career our Lord, as the God-man, acted as our federal Head. The Scriptures clearly testify that Jesus came among us to sustain an official relation to those whose cause He had undertaken. Hence He is called "The Last Adam" (I Cor. 15:45; Rom. 5:14); "the Surety of the better covenant" (Heb. 7:22); "the Mediator between God and man" (I Tim. 2:5); "the Head of the Church,"(Ephes. 4:15); "the High Priest of our profession" (Heb. 3:1); "the Husband of His spouse the Church" (Ephes. 5:25-32); "the Advocate with the Father" (I John 2:1); "the Propitiation for our sins" (I John 2:2); "the Intercessor for transgressors" (Isa. 53:12); " the Substitute of the unjust" (I Pet. 3:18); "the End of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth" (Rom. 10:4); that is, the preparatory setting forth of Christ as the sinner's righteousness was the object at which the law aimed.

As our substitute, then, the Redeemer lived, suffered, and died; and in virtue of this fact, the sins of those whose substitute He was were laid upon Him. If there be one truth taught more fully than another in the sacred volume, that truth is the substitution of Christ in the place of the guilty. But legal substitution involves the obligation of the substitute to meet the shortcomings of the person whom he represents.

For instance, if a man fails to pay his debts, his creditors come upon his surety or substitute, should he have one, for the amount. So in the case before us. Christ Jesus, as the voluntary bondsman of transgressors, acting in His official relation to them, meets their liabilities, pays the price of their ransom, and thus secures their deliverance. He becomes the propitiation for their sins, and by His one offering "perfects for ever all those who are sanctified" (Heb. 10:14).

Now we know the outcry that is always raised against such illustrations as the one just given. We are told that it is highly improper to reason respecting God's moral government according to pecuniary and mercantile analogies. We answer, that God Himself has used these illustrations in His own word; for there we are told that Christ's life and death were the ransom price of our redemption (Matt. 20:28; I Tim. 2:6); that we are bought with a price (I Cor. 6:20); that "saints are bought from among men" (Rev. 14:4); and that " Jesus bath purchased the Church of God with His own blood" (Acts 20:28), etc. The illustration, then, taken from ordinary legal transactions, is divinely authorized.

We know that such representations of the great transaction of our redemption are only figurative; and that the figure in such a case must be explained with a due regard to the difference between purely pecuniary and moral transactions.

But the figure means something, and in its real meaning teaches a great truth. Obedience to the law is a debt which man owes to God, as truly as he does any mercantile obligation which he has contracted with a fellow creature. The endurance of punishment is a debt which the man who has broken God's law owes to that law, as justly as any culprit in our prisons owes to the outraged laws of his country the imprisonment or other sentence which he is there suffering. Moral obligations, whether they relate to obedience, or to the undergoing of punishment for disobedience, are DEBTS most sternly true and real.

The only question is, then, did the Saviour consent to become our Substitute in the eye of the law which we had broken? And did the Eternal Father acquiesce in this arrangement? There can be only one answer to this inquiry if the Bible be true; for, as we have seen, throughout His career, our Lord sustained this official relation, and in what He did and suffered represented others. As their voluntary legal Substitute, He fulfilled the law which they had broken, and endured the curse which they had deserved.

2. The sacrificial character of our Lord's work and death appears from the names given to them. If language can teach anything, the Holy Scriptures set the work of Christ before us as a true and proper vicarious propitiation offered for our sins. They describe that work as being "a purchase" (Acts 20:28); "a price" (I Cor. 7:23); "a ransom" (Matt. 20:28); "a redemption" (Eph. 1:7); "an atonement" (Rom. 5:11); "a propitiation" (Rom. 3:25); "a sacrifice for sins" (Heb. 9:26); and such is the uniform style of Scripture in describing the nature of the Redeemer's work.

It is a profanation of the divine testimony to fritter away the moral significance of such terms, until we have nothing left but a mere shadow of their original meaning. If we may resolve "a propitiation for our sins" (I John 2:2), "a propitiation through faith in Christ's blood" (Rom. 3:25), into "a mere vicarious confession of our sins" for us by Christ; what may we not do with the sacred text? We protest against such dishonourable attempts to spirit away the whole force of a doctrine which is still professedly held.

For the fundamental idea of a sacrifice, or propitiation, or atonement for any crime, is that of an act of satisfaction rendered to the majesty of violated law, whereby the dishonour done to it by the transgression is repaired. Thus Christ's sacrifice for our sins was presented to His Eternal Father, against whom we have rebelled. It was a propitiation to the law which we had broken; to the justice which we had incensed; to the rectoral rights which we had repudiated. Jehovah Himself tells us how the vicarious work of Jesus operates in securing to us the remission of punishment—namely, by vindicating the judicial righteousness of God in the transaction. Channing affirms that the Scriptures say nothing on this head; but with all respect to the memory of that great man, we assert the contrary.

The whole theory of the atonement is comprehensively stated by the Apostle Paul in these memorable words: "Whom God hath set forth a propitiation through faith in His blood, to declare His (the Father's) righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; to declare at this time His righteousness; that He might be just, and the justifier of him who believeth in Jesus" (Rom. 3:25, 26). By the offering of the person of Jesus Christ upon the altar of eternal justice once for all, Jehovah proved his rectoral righteousness in the remission of the sins of believers who had lived before the offering up of the great atonement; and He still to this day vindicates the same attribute of rectoral righteousness in the justification of those who trust in Jesus as their Saviour. Thus the work of Christ magnifies the law, and makes it honourable in the forgiveness of the sinner. And thus "God is both faithful and just in the pardon of our transgression" (I John 1:9).

The propitiation offered to God does, indeed, reconcile us to the divine government and righteousness; but it does this by first reconciling the divine government and righteousness to our salvation. "God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them" (II Cor. 5:19). And the ground of the non-imputation of trespasses is thus stated: "For He hath made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him" (II Cor. 5:21). The Redeemer took our sins and bare their judicial consequences, that we might take His righteousness, and receive a full and free justification by its merits.


The propitiation does not procure for us the love of God, or, as Dr. Watts unhappily puts it, "turn the wrath to grace;" for, in truth, it is itself the most wonderful expression of that love. "God commendeth His love towards us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8). "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life" (John 3:16). The propitiation of Christ is a testimony both to the infinite love of God, and to His inviolable righteousness as the moral governor of the universe. The death of Christ did not make God disposed to love us; but it was the sacrifice which rendered God's love for us harmonious with the claims of His moral government: so that He might be " just and the justifier of him who believeth in Jesus " (Rom. 3:26).

3. We prove our position by those passages in which our sins are said to have been laid upon Christ. Jesus Christ had no sin of His own, either original or actual He was emphatically "without sin." He "knew no sin," and He "did no sin." He "was holy, harmless, undefiled, and separate from sinners." If, then, He suffered for sin, it must have been for the sin of others. This is a manifest truism. Accordingly, the Holy Scriptures tell us that "He suffered for sins, the just for the unjust " (I Pet. 3:18); that "He died for the ungodly" (Rom. 5:6); "God sent His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin" (Rom. 8:3); and the sins of those for whom He died are said to have been laid upon Him.

It is not affirmed that the consequences merely of those sins were visited upon Him, but that the sins themselves were placed to His account. The men of the modern school of theology stumble at this doctrine. They teach us that "the essence of the atonement consisted in our Lord's expiatory confession of sin on our behalf and in our name; His death being not a penalty endured as a substitute, but the perfected expression of such confession." They tell us, too, that Christ only "shared our sin in the miserable consequences of it."

But what saith the Scriptures? The testimony which they bear is, that our sins, and not their consequences merely, were laid upon Jesus. Let the reader take the following passages as a sample:

“Who His own self bare our sins in His own body on the tree" (I Peter 2:24). "The Lord hath laid upon Him the iniquity of us all" (Isa. 53:6). "He shall bear their iniquities" (Isa. 53:11). "He bare the sin of many" (Isa. 53:12). "Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many" (Heb. 9:28). "God sent His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin" (Rom. 8:3). And so strongly is this idea put in some passages, that Christ is said to have been made "sin itself." "He hath made Him, who knew no sin, to be sin for us" (II Cor. 5:24) "Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us; for it is written," etc. (Gal. 3:13).

We know that in such passages the meaning is that Christ was made the great sin-bearer and curse-bearer. But this is the very point which the men of the modern school deny. They assert that Christ bare "the miserable consequences of our sins," but not our sins; whereas the Scriptures tell us that He bare both; that, in fact, our sin was judicially laid upon Him as our substitute, that He might endure its penal consequences. Had not our sin been judicially laid upon Christ, He never could have suffered its consequences, inasmuch as He was Himself without sin.

What end is gained by the denial of the laying of our sin upon Jesus, if it be admitted that He endured all its miserable consequences? They tell us that it is revolting to their moral sense that the sin of one moral agent should be laid at the door of another! But we ask, is there not the same difficulty about the endurance by one moral agent of all the miserable consequences of the sins of other moral agents? The suffering is the same in both cases. The difficulty is in reconciling the anguish of the victim with his admitted personal innocence. And this difficulty is increased by the denial of the laying of our sin upon Him; for in that case we have a victim suffering all the miserable consequences of sin, being, at the same time, without sin Himself, and without the sin of others imputed to Him. He endured all the miserable consequences of sin, whereas no sin was laid upon Him! Who can believe this?

Admirably does Mr. Rogers put this argument in his third letter on the Atonement:

"And remember that if you insist on the injustice of God's inflicting suffering on Christ, for the sins of others, you cannot escape similar difficulty, and greater in degree, on your own system; for can it be less unjust to inflict such sufferings on Christ for no sins at all? If it be unjust to accept Him as sacrifice for the guilty, how much more un-just must it be to insist on the sacrifice for nothing, and when the victim thrice implored in agony that, if it were possible, the cup might pass from Him."

The true, proper, and voluntary substitution of Christ, explains the whole transaction. He took our place of His own free will; stood between us and the law which we had broken, and consented to bear the punishment due to our transgressions. Thus, bearing our sins, He submitted to the endurance of the curse justly attaching to them, and in the depth of his anguish exclaimed, "The cup which My Father hath given Me, shall I not drink it?" (John 18:11)

4. We further refer to those portions of divine truth in which all the penal consequences of our sins are said to have been visited upon Jesus. As our sins were laid by imputation upon our great Substitute, it was a judicial result that He should bear their penalty. And that He did bear all the penal consequences of our imputed sin appears from the following testimonies:

"He was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification" (Rom. 4:25). "Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures" (I Cor. 15:3). "He gave Himself for our sins" (Gal. 1:4). "He was wounded for our transgressions; He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace (that is, the chastisement or punishment by which our peace with God is made) was upon Him, and with His stripes we are healed" (Isa. 53:5).

"For the transgression of my people was he stricken" (Isa. 53:8). "It pleased the Lord to bruise Him; He hath put Him to grief; when His soul shall make an offering for sin, He shall," etc. (Isa. 53:10). "He was numbered with the transgressors" (Isa. 53:12).

5. The same great truth is confirmed by those texts which teach us that the remission of the punishment justly due to our guilt is owing to Immanuel's endurance of it in our stead. How numerous, how emphatic are the testimonies given in Holy Scripture to the connection existing between the substitutionary work of Jesus and the remission of our guilt! Our punishment is remitted because Jesus has died in our stead. The mediatorial economy is obviously a remedy for the evils attendant upon SIN, and hence the obedience and death of the Saviour secured to all believers the enjoyment of that inestimable benefit—pardon. The proof of the truth of this doctrine is found scattered profusely over almost every portion of revealed truth.

Messiah was to come to:

This last passage is obviously parallel with Rom. 3:25. Its meaning is that the death of Christ was as truly the legal ground of the remission of transgression under the law, as it is under the gospel. Thus the very method of the forgiveness of sin, and the justification of the sinner, assumes the substitutionary character of Christ's obedience and death. HE died in our stead, and because He died, those who believe in Him live forever. As the Substitute judicially meets the liabilities of those whom He represents, so all who are interested in His substitutionary work receive the benefits resulting from what He did and suffered. And thus we can understand the full import of those sublime sayings, "God for Christ's sake hath forgiven us" (Eph. 4:32); and, "Your sins are forgiven you for His name's sake" (I John 2:12).

The work of Christ is the "fountain opened to the house of David and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, for sin and for uncleanness" (Zech. 13:1). "The Son of Man was lifted up (on the cross), that whosoever believeth upon Him should not perish, but have eternal life" (John 3:14, 15). "Whoso eateth His flesh and drinketh His blood hath eternal life" (John 6:54). Thus all our hopes of redemption and glory cluster round the sacrifice of our Lord, and every blessing is bestowed upon us through the merits of His vicarious death. The doctrine of atonement is like a golden thread which runs through the entire length of revealed truth, so that we cannot separate this verity from the rest without tearing the whole fabric.

6. The wonderful distress of soul under which Jesus Christ laboured at the close of His career, can only be explained on the ground of His substitution in the place of sinners. It was predicted that our Lord would save His people by the endurance of fearful soul-travail on their account. "When His soul shall make an offering for sin, He shall see His seed," etc. (Isa. 53:10). "He shall see of the travail of His soul, and shall be satisfied." (verse 11)

And in harmony with these predictions, when He drew near the close of His earthly career, we find Him exclaiming, "Now is my soul troubled, and what shall I say? (Shall I say) Father, save me from this hour? Nevertheless, for this cause came I unto this hour. Father, glorify Thy name" (John 12:27, 28). The tempest of divine wrath against sin was already lowering, and the very crisis of the Redeemer's agony was at hand.

In the garden of Gethsemane the anguish of Messiah's soul was still greater. This was His plaintive cry, "My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death" (Matt. 26:38). His heart was overcharged. His agony was almost unbearable. Thrice He retired to repeat the prayer, that "if it were possible the cup might pass from Him;" and thrice He returned to His disciples with His terrific burden unremoved. At length His anguish became so intolerable, that His human frame seemed breaking up. Nature was giving way. A fearful, bloody sweat began to exude from His pores, and had not His sinking spirit been miraculously sustained, He must have died upon the earth of Gethsemane (Luke 24:44).

And why was this agony endured? No created hand had then been laid upon our Lord. The executioner had not yet nailed Him to the tree. The hand that was bruising Him was an invisible one. The law and justice of God were now "smiting the shepherd," and the terrors of the Lord were entering into the heart of our Substitute. The cup which He was draining to its dregs was the cup of the divine indignation against sin. This explains the whole transaction, and reconciles it with the moral dignity and greatness of Messiah.

There was an element of woe in His last agony which no believer has in his. Christ died in the dark that we might die in the light; He expired under the curse that we might expire in the enjoyment of the blessing; He sank under the weight of our imputed sins, that in the hour of dissolution we might rise to God clothed in His righteousness! Believers are enabled to die cheerfully by the very darkness in which the soul of their Lord was enwrapped in the hour of His departure. His woe is the secret of their bliss.

On the cross, too, we hear Him uttering that mysterious groan, "My God! My God! why hast Thou forsaken Me?” (Matt. 27:46) Separation from God is one element of the curse of sin, and it was right that our glorious Substitute should taste this fearful infliction. The light of His Father's countenance was withdrawn, and the human soul of Immanuel was covered with the shades of the second death.

Besides all this, the powers of hell were suffered to do their very worst in assailing the soul of our Surety. The Redeemer was conscious of this when He exclaimed to those who apprehended Him, "But this is your hour, and the power of darkness" (Luke 23:53). Thus, amid the assaults of hell and the frown of heaven, the glorious Victim offered up Himself upon the cross! Thus was He made "sin" and "a curse" for us.

Surely the idea of "a mere vicarious confession of sin on our behalf by the Saviour" is too tame an exposition of woe so unutterable as this! Such a line is too short to sound the depths of the Redeemer's anguish.

7. The types of the Old Testament dispensation adumbrate the same great truth. The sacrificial teachings of the Mosaic ritual are summarized in the memorable words, "Almost all things are by the law purged with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no remission" (Heb. 9:22). To particularize all the types of the law would require a separate volume; but in every instance the sins of the offerer were supposed to be laid upon the victim slain in his stead. The ceremonies observed on the great day of annual atonement were full of gospel teaching.

The two goats, both emblematical of Christ,—the slain one of Christ dying on the cross, and the live one, the scapegoat, of Christ as raised from the dead, and ascended into heaven—and the confession of the sins of the whole congregation over the head of the latter, and the consequent atonement made, were obviously suggestive of the transfer of our sin to the Lamb of God (Lev. 16). The inspired Epistle to the Hebrews, that grand commentary upon the law of Moses, is our warrant for regarding the sacrifices of the law as typical of the better sacrifice to be offered in the fulness of times. And from one end of it to the other the Levitical economy teaches us that our sins were laid upon Christ.

Jesus, by appealing to the Law of Moses as testifying to His death and atonement, which He did (see Luke 24:26, 27, and 44-48), has forever decided the question of the spirit and design of the Levitical dispensation. If we reject the Law of Moses as a prefiguration of Immanuel's death and atonement, we must not only erase the Epistle to the Hebrews from our Bibles, but we must cease to call ourselves believers even in the INSPIRATION of the Saviour.

It is only on this principle of interpretation that the wisdom and propriety of the Levitical economy can be demonstrated. Unitarians deny the only truth which can explain and justify the rites and ceremonies of the Levitical economy, and then complain of the darkness which enshrouds that dispensation. And we are frank to confess, that if we did not believe in the atoning sacrifice of the Son of God, the Levitical law would make us infidels, not only with regard to the Old Testament, but with regard to the New; because we find both Christ and His Apostles repeatedly appealing to the former as a preparatory witness to the great Atonement. If the Old Dispensation had no such significance, Christ and His Apostles were grossly deceived; they falsely attributed a sublime meaning to a system of empty ceremonies; the law of Moses was a farce; and Christ and His Apostles have for ever ruined their credit by giving to it their sanction.