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The Necessity of the Atonement

 

All the passages below are taken from Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ book “God the Father, God the Son.” The series of sermons were preached at Westminister Chapel, London, from 1952 to 1955 and was first published in 1996.

 

     We are now considering, let me remind you, what has always been regarded as the essential Protestant doctrine concerning the atonement. Not that it is confined by any means to the period in the Church subsequent to the Protestant Reformation, because it can be clearly shown that it has, in a sense, always been the main exposition of the doctrine of the atonement from the very beginning, but it is often called the Protestant emphasis. A better name is, of course, the substitutionary teaching of the atonement because it is the doctrine which emphasises the substitutionary penal elements in the atonement, and we summarised it under seven main headings.

     I ended the last lecture by saying that I had another, a final argument and, speaking for myself, this is one of the most cogent if not, indeed, the most cogent of the arguments. I would put this eighth point like this: we are going to consider statements in the Scriptures which emphasise the fact that the death of our Lord upon the cross was an absolute necessity. Obviously these are very crucial matters so I would subdivide those statements in this way: first of all, statements which describe our Lord's own conduct; second, statements which He made Himself about His death; and third, statements which others made about it. All these, it seems to me, prove quite conclusively that His death was an absolute necessity.

     The first, of course, is what we are told about the events in the Garden of Gethsemane. Why did our Lord endure that agony? Why did He sweat those great drops of blood? What is the meaning of it? The view that our Lord's death was a martyr's death, is, as we have seen, a totally inadequate explanation---the martyrs did not behave as Christ did face to face with death. Our Lord in the Garden was facing the fact that there was an element in His death which was utterly abhorrent to Him, something that caused Him such agony as to lead to this bloodstained sweat. We have to explain that, it must be accounted for, and I suggest to you that all those other ideas and theories about the atonement completely fail to do so.

     But, you remember, we are left, not only with the need of explaining what took place in the Garden, but also what our Lord said. Do you remember His prayer, `O my Father, if it be possible let this cup pass from me' (Matthew 26:39)? He went on to say, `Nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.' But the request was there. Now that cannot refer merely to the fact of physical death, because, again, this would make Him inferior to the martyrs, His own followers. No, something, which He foresaw, was going to happen in His death which He was anxious to avoid if it was possible.

     Now, we must emphasise this. It was the only time during His earthly life that our Lord ever made a request like this to His Father and obviously, therefore, it was something very exceptional. It points to this, that there was something in His death that was absolutely necessary. The question He asked was: Is it an absolute necessity? Is it possible for me to do this work in any other way? Let not this happen if it is possible. But, He said, if it is not possible, I submit to it. Now there, surely, is a final and conclusive argument that the death of our Lord upon the cross, in the way in which it happened, was an utter necessity.

     Nothing can be stronger that that, but then we can add something that confirms it and, in a sense, repeats it. It is the cry of dereliction upon the cross: `My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?' (Mark 15:34). Now, no doctrine of the atonement is adequate which does not explain that. And again, it is obviously inadequate to suggest that mere physical suffering produced that cry, because the whole argument about the martyrs again applies. No, no, something was happening there which was in a category on its own. Our Lord was conscious of being forsaken of God. His communion with the eternal Father was temporarily broken. He, who had come from the eternal bosom and had been with God from the beginning, for the one and only time in all eternity was not able to see the face of God. Surely again, here is another of those all-important and conclusive arguments which demonstrate, beyond any cavil whatsoever, that when a thing like that happened there could be only one reason for it---it had to happen. None of the other theories can account for that cry of dereliction.             Then the second group of statements I would describe as statements which directly affirm the absolute necessity of His death on the cross. Those others have been stating it more or less indirectly but here now is something direct. It is the specific statement which is to be found in Romans 3:25-6 and which is undoubtedly the locus classicus in connection with this whole subject: `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:'---God's righteousness---‘that he'---God---‘might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.'

     Now that is a tremendous statement. You see, Paul is saying that the problem which arises is this: How could God overlook or cover the sins of the children of Israel under the old dispensation? How can we account for the remission of sins that are past through the forbearance of God? And Paul's answer is that the death of our Lord upon the cross does that; that is one of the things it is meant to do. But, Paul says, it goes beyond that. His death not only explains how God could cover the sins that are past, it explains how God can forgive sin at any time, and it is the only explanation. Here is the problem: How can God, at one and the same time, be just and yet the justifier of him that believeth in Jesus? How can this eternal, holy God who is just and righteous and unchangeable, `the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning' (James. 1:17), the God who `is light, and in him is no darkness at all' (1 John 1:5), the God who is of such a pure countenance that He cannot even behold evil and sin, how can He forgive sin and still remain what He eternally is?

     And the answer that the apostle gives is this: The only way in which God can do that is what He did to His Son upon the cross---He has set Him forth as a propitiation of sins, and He has done it in that way, `to declare ... at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.' And, you see, there is only one explanation of that. God, who is just, can forgive sin because He has punished sin in the person of His only begotten Son. So He remains righteous; He remains just. He has done to sin what He said He would do, and yet, because He has done it in the substitute, He can forgive us, He can justify us `who believe in Jesus'.

     Now the argument of the apostle is that that was the only way in which God could forgive sins. And indeed, I say again, that for myself, if I had no other text, that would be enough. None of the other theories can explain that text, and they do not. The only explanation for Christ's death is that it was an absolute necessity. It was the only way in which, if I may so term it, the eternal character of God could be reconciled with itself and could be vindicated, not only before the whole world of men, but before the principalities and powers in heavenly places, indeed, even before the devil and all the citizens of hell. God proclaims His eternal justice and yet can forgive the sins of those who believe in Jesus---a most amazing, a most profound statement.

     And then my third and last group of references under this heading I put like this: there are certain other statements in the Scriptures which suggest that this was an absolute necessity. Take, for instance, Hebrews 2:9 where the author says, `But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man.' He had to suffer death; He had to `taste death'. Now take that word `taste'. What a word it is---what a strong word. Do we realise the full content of that tasting? There is a sense in which it can be said that the Lord Jesus Christ is the only one who has ever tasted death in all its bitterness and horror. That is why we see Him there sweating blood in the Garden. That is why we hear Him crying out upon the cross. That is why He died so soon and the authorities were surprised that He was already dead. That is why His heart literally broke, it actually ruptured. It was because he tasted. And my argument is this: Would God the eternal Father ever allow His only begotten, beloved Son to endure that if it were not absolutely essential?

     But take another statement which says the same thing---Romans 8:32: `He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?' Notice especially the first part: `He that spared not'. What does that mean? Spared Him from what? Spared Him from that agony, that shame. He delivered Him up. He, God the Father, delivered Him to that; it was the only way. The Son volunteered, the Son went voluntarily, but it was the Father who sent Him. He did not spare Him. And when the Son bore our sins the Father spared Him nothing. The full wrath of God against sin, the full blast of it, descended upon Him. `He that spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all.' Indeed John 3:16 says exactly the same thing: `For God so loved the world, that he gave. ..', and that giving includes the shame and the suffering and the agony of the death upon the cross. And my argument again is this: is it conceivable that God would have delivered up His own Son to that, even to the point of that break in the eternal communion that was between them? Is it conceivable, I ask, that God would have done that unless it was an absolute necessity? Well, this doctrine, this substitutionary penal view of the doctrine of the atonement asserts all that and that is why I say again that it is the only adequate and satisfactory explanation of the biblical teaching.

     But if you require certain subsidiary arguments, take these: first, the doctrine of the wrath of God. If you believe at all in the doctrine of the wrath of God against sin, then obviously sin must be punished. The penal element comes in and that leads to the necessity of substitution. Or take this argument---the majesty and the immutability of the divine law. ‘Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled' (Matthew 5:18). `Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away,' said Jesus (Matthew 24:35).

     Then another argument is that if we do agree that sin is guilt and not merely something negative, not merely some weakness, not merely some theory to develop, if we agreed, when we were considering the doctrine of sin, that sin is transgression and lawlessness, that sin, therefore, involves guilt, then, obviously, we will have to agree that guilt has got to be dealt with, and that somehow or another it must be punished. And this is the only view of the atonement that really does that.

     Then, lastly, there is no other theory which shows us why it is essential to believe in Christ and why it is believing in Him and on Him that saves us. Take any one of those other views. The moral influence view, which tells us that the love of God is displayed by the death of Christ upon the cross, says that the cross is supposed to melt our hard hearts and do away with our enmity against God. Well, I say, if that is its function, what it does is make me believe in God. I do not have to believe in Christ. He has merely shown me God. I must believe in the God whom Christ has shown me, not in Christ. And if He is an example, it is the same thing, and so with all the other theories. This is the only view of the atonement that shows us why we must believe in Christ; that we do not know God without believing in Christ, and that belief in Christ is the thing that saves us.

     Very well, that, then, allows us to consider, very hurriedly, some of the objections that are brought forward to this particular teaching. Of course, all people who deny that sin is something which renders us guilty disagree with this doctrine. I cannot stay to argue that. We have already demonstrated that sin is guilt, and so if you believe that, you must immediately accept this doctrine.

     Then there is the argument which says that surely God's love is enough. The argument is put like this. It says, `We forgive one another without any substitution and without any punishment, and if we, in our love for one another, can do that, surely God, whose love is still greater, should be able to do it with still greater ease.' To which, of course, the reply is this: If God were only love there might be some force in that argument, but God is light, and God is holy, and God is just, and God is righteous. Not only that; there is no greater fallacy than the argument that goes from men to God. It is a very common error today. People are constantly arguing like that---if this is true of us, they say, how much more so of God? As if God were in series with us! The truth is, of course, that we are in sin and all our ideas are wrong; our conception of love is more wrong than anything else and if we begin to think of God's love in terms of what we do and what we think, then---I say it with reverence---God help us! If we are going to attribute our sentimental, loose, unjust and unrighteous notions of love to the everlasting Godhead, then we place ourselves in the most precarious position.

     Another form of that last objection is that this substitutionary view of the atonement detracts from God's character, from His justice. People say that it would be unjust in God to punish someone who is innocent, to which the reply is that when the innocent person volunteers and takes upon Himself the sins of others and asks God to put them on Him, and punish them in Him, there is obviously no injustice at all. This was the great decision of the eternal Council, between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Son said, `Here I am, send me,' and God provided Him a body. There was perfect agreement and therefore no injustice.

     I have just dealt with the argument that says that the substitutionary view of the atonement detracts from God's love. People say, `Fancy God demanding blood as an appeasement before He can forgive!' And the reply to that is what I have just been saying. Then there are those who feel that we derogate from the pardoning grace of God when we insist that God demands a payment before forgiving. But, again, the answer is still the same---that God is one. He is a God of holiness and justice. We cannot separate all the great and eternal attributes of God. Therefore this argument collapses.

            Then there is another argument which used to be very popular. It is not as popular today but still one finds it. People say that the substitutionary penal view of the atonement was the invention of the apostle Paul. They say that if it were true, of course our Lord would have taught it, but you do not find it in the Gospels, you only find it in the epistles. But that is not correct. We saw in the last lecture that our Lord did say this. He said, `The Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many' (Matthew 20:28). It is all there in that word `ransom', as we saw, but that is not the end of the argument. There were very good reasons why our Lord could not give a full exposition of the doctrine of the atonement before He accomplished it upon the cross.

     Do you remember what happened? Let me suggest this as a bit of research for you. Read your Gospels and observe what happened every time our Lord spoke about His death. You will find that each time the disciples misunderstood it; they did not grasp it; they were cast down by it and objected to it; and our Lord Himself explained why this was so. He turned to them just at the end---you will find this in John 16:12---and He said, `I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now,' and they could not bear them. Their minds were darkened, their hearts seemed to be held. It is most interesting to watch that in the Gospels and it is not difficult to understand.

     Indeed, their whole idea of Him was still not clear. Peter had made his confession at Caesarea Philippi but he had not understood it all. It was the resurrection that convinced them of the ultimate truth concerning the fact that He was the only begotten Son of God, and in the light of that they began to understand the atonement. After His resurrection, you remember, we saw that He took them through it all, right through the Old Testament, and then they were able to receive it. So that argument which people put forward about our Lord not teaching the substitutionary view likewise has no real substance and no foundation.

     Let me sum it up like this: the real difficulty people have with this doctrine is generally due to the fact that their whole view of God is inadequate. They forget some aspect of His character. They emphasise one side only, to the exclusion of others. If they were to take God as He is and to realise the truth about Him, their difficulties would vanish.

     There is one argument that I am particularly anxious to demolish and it is this: there are those who say, `I don't like that substitutionary penal view because what it says is that God was reluctant to forgive us, and that our Lord had to die and go to God and plead His death and plead the merit of His blood before God would forgive.' Unfortunately, sometimes evangelical preachers have put the doctrine like that, and there are hymns which do the same, as if our Lord had to plead with God in order to persuade God to forgive! It is a terrible travesty of biblical truth!

     I have already answered this argument. I dealt with it when I showed that it is God Himself who has done all this. Why did the Son ever come to earth? Why did the Son die? And the answer is, `God so loved the world.' It was the love of God that thought out this way of salvation so that God might be `just and the justifier of him that believeth in Jesus.' It was His love that carried it out. The cross is not something that influences the love of God; no, the love of God produced it. That is the order. Were it not for His love, God would have punished sin in us, and we should all suffer eternal death. Indeed, I do not hesitate to go so far as to say this: nothing anywhere in the Scripture in any way approaches the substitutionary and penal doctrine of the atonement as an exposition and an explanation of the love of God. Is there anything greater than this, that God should take your sins and mine and put them on His own Son and punish His own Son, not sparing Him anything, causing Him to suffer all that, that you and I might be forgiven? Can you tell me any greater exhibition of the love of God than that? The moral influence theory and all these other theories which people put forward because, they claim, they believe in the love of God, actually fail to comprehend it. It is there you see the love of God, when His own Son suffered, as our substitute, the penalty of the law that you and I have incurred and so richly deserve.

     As we have seen, we must be forgiven and reconciled to God fully before we can be justified. The law must be honoured, it must be satisfied, and that is something that must take place in two respects. First and foremost the law comes to us and tells us that unless we keep it and honour it, unless we live it, we are condemned. `Moses describeth the righteousness which is of the law,' says Paul, like this: `That the man which doeth those things shall live by them' (Romans 10:5). We failed to keep God's law, but our Lord dealt with that guilt, as we have seen, upon the cross. He was there; He offered Himself. He presented Himself, His body, His life. And God put our sins upon Him. He was passive; God was doing it. It was God's action; Christ's passive obedience.

            Ah yes, but in His life He gave an active obedience. Paul says, `When the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law' (Galatians 4:4-5). And this is how He did it: He rendered a perfect obedience to the law. He kept it fully. He carried it out in every jot and tittle. He said He was going to do it: `Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil' (Matthew 5:17). And as we have seen, `One jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled' (Matthew 5:18). And He did so. He kept the law perfectly.

     This, then, is how He saves us. We are in Him, as Paul says in Romans 5. We were all in Adam. Adam was our representative, our federal head. When he fell we all fell with Him. We, who are saved, Paul argues, are in Christ. As we were in Adam, so we are in Christ. All that was true of Adam is true of us. All that Adam did became true of us. And all that is true of Christ is true of us. All that Christ did becomes true of us. When Christ honoured and kept the law by His act of obedience He was not only doing it for Himself, He was doing it for me, and therefore I can say with the apostle Paul, 'Ye are not under the law, but under grace' (Romans 6:14). Christians are no longer under the law in the sense that it is the keeping of the law that will save them. As far as they are concerned, the law has been kept, it has been honoured, it is imputed to them for righteousness. God 'hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him' (2 Corinthians 5:21). Or take the mighty statement in Romans 8: `For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh' (Romans 8:3). Why? `That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us' (v. 4).

     In other words, it is this great doctrine of our being one with Christ, in Christ. The atonement works in that way. What He did actively is imputed to us. What He did passively is imputed to us. So in Christ, believing in Christ, incorporated in Him, we can face the law without any fear, without any tremor or quiver. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that unless we are able to say that, there is something wrong with our faith. We are no longer under the law, we are under grace and we all ought to be ready to say with Augustus Toplady,

 

The terrors of law and of God

With me can have nothing to do,

My Saviour's obedience and blood

Hide all my transgressions from view.

 

What a glorious statement! But how very inadequate so many of our hymns on the death of Christ are. How few of them state these magnificent doctrines as they are stated in the Scriptures. Toplady has stated it there---it is the hymn which begins,

 

A debtor to mercy alone,

Of covenant mercy I sing,

Nor fear with thy righteousness on,

My person and offering to bring.

 

     `The terrors of law and of God,' says a man who is a sinner, but he must say it, and so must we, `with me can have nothing to do.' Why? `My Saviour's obedience'---active---‘and blood'---passive; `My Saviour's obedience and blood hide all my transgressions from view.'

     So then, when we come eventually to consider the doctrine of justification, we shall have to return to this and we shall see more fully what it means. But with regard to the atonement, it means that I am fully atoned for, and thus covered, because my sins are blotted out and because I have the righteousness of Christ. We shall go on to consider some of the results and consequences of this perfect work of our Lord on our behalf, and it is a greater subject than we sometimes think.(328-337)

 

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