Friday, February 09, 2007

Trinitarian Atonement

Can God forgive sin without Christ bearing the penalty? It depends on what it means to forgive. If Christ bore the penalty, did he do so as an “innocent third party” (giving the impression of "cosmic child abuse")? It depends on what it means to forgive.

The following is excerpted from A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion (Volume 2, pages 74-77) by James Oliver Buswell, Jr.

1. Forgiveness

Before reviewing the history of the doctrine of the atonement, and before examining the Scripture in detail, I must state a generalization which I believe to be of great importance, and which has meant much to me over a period of many years: I believe that all genuine forgiveness involves substitutional suffering fully commensurate with the disvalue of that which is forgiven. When orthodox theologians such as Charles Hodge reject the word "forgiveness" as conveying the central meaning of the atonement I must make it clear that I entirely agree. What Hodge and others mean by "forgiveness" correctly corresponds to the more superficial popular usage of the word. I do feel, however, that a deeper analysis of what is involved in genuine forgiveness is not contrary to traditional orthodox theology as Charles Hodge and other competent writers have set it forth. I came to the generalization which I suggest from a simple acceptance of the scriptural substitutional view of the atonement, and I make my suggestion as a defense of the substitutional view.

When I learned that there have been theological liberals who have suggested a "forgiveness" view of the atonement while rejecting the "substitutional" view, the discovery was a shock to me and caused me to re-examine my suggestion to see whether I had been wandering from the biblical position. I shall show later wherein my suggestion differs from the "liberal" views which emphasize forgiveness.

My chief point is that Christ is not a "third party" in the case, but the party sinned against. The "One Mediator" is "God manifest in the flesh" (I Timothy 2:5; 3:16). Since genuine forgiveness necessarily involves substitutional bearing of the sin forgiven, and since the crucifixion of Christ is to be taken as the all-inclusive, all-representative act of sin, therefore Christ died for my sin in my place as my Substitute. I should justly have been swept into the Lake of Fire. He might have said, "Angels, destroy them." But when He said, "Father, forgive them," He was dying in my place.

To make clear my own point of view at this stage in the discussion I ask the reader's indulgence in inserting the following material which I wrote in the early days of my ministry, material which was first published in 1924.

2. My Testimony in 1924

On my way to the Kansas City Student Volunteer Convention [in December 1913], I fell into conversation on the train with a philosophy teacher from the University of ———. In this conversation I met for the first time the modernistic criticisms of the doctrine of the atonement. I defended my orthodox views of substitution to the best of my immature ability. The Professor replied, "Those views will not appeal to your mind when you become more mature. Why not say that God simply forgives men, as we must forgive each other, and as the state pardons a criminal?"

In my first summer quarter in the University of —————— I again met with the same argument. It was advanced by several older students in a conversation at lunch in a restaurant. My belief in the Substitutional Atonement was laughed at. I replied to the best of my ability with the best illustrations I could command. "Oh, yes," one of the older students answered, "I used to believe that way and preach that way, but I gave it up long ago."


I went back to my room very thoughtful, and stayed there in prayer and meditation for I don't know how long. I remember that I walked back and forth, and sat down, and lay on my bed, and got up repeatedly to walk again. I thank God that that day I utterly disregarded my assigned studies and prayed and thought through a vital problem. Let no one suppose that I doubted for a moment that Christ died for my sins in my place. I did not doubt that, for I had been born again. My problem was that I had been unable to express my convictions in terms which modernistic-minded men could at all comprehend. "Our Passover," "Our Sin Offering," "Our Redeemer," "Our Ransom," "Our Mediator," all these terms were utterly void of significance in their minds, as they are in the minds of thousands of young people everywhere today. We had no common language of religious terms, such as Paul had with the Jews and even with the pagans of his day. When I said, "Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us," I was not, as Paul was, giving a new and fuller meaning to a bit of dearly cherished religious symbolism; I was to them merely repeating in a childish way an archaic and utterly meaningless formula of a long-buried age. "Substitutional Atonement is not necessary in human forgiveness," they said, "Why should it be necessary in Divine Forgiveness?"

I must give the conclusions I arrived at that day, though I hesitate to give them as briefly as I must here. ... I will give them in the knowledge that they have proved helpful to some of my friends who have met the particular problem which I have met, and in the hope that none of God's good people who have not met and are not likely to meet this problem, will be at all disturbed by the discussion of it.


1. The prophecy of the philosophy professor has proved the opposite of the truth. If there is one thing which has matured with my maturing, in the past ten years since the prophecy was made, it is my belief in the Substitutional Atonement. Christ died for my sins as my Substitute.

2. All forgiveness, human and divine, is in the very nature of the case vicarious, substitutional. I cannot take time here to develop this thought, but it is, to me, one of the most valuable views my mind has ever entertained. No one ever really forgives another, except he bears the penalty of the other's sin against him. When the state pardons a criminal, society takes upon itself the burden of the criminal's guilt. When we pray, "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors," we are not asking God to forgive us by a vicarious sacrifice while we forgive each other by merely overlooking faults which cost us nothing. The human analogy is of course imperfect, but all the moral outlines of divine substitutional atonement are present in human forgiveness.

3. The guilt of one individual's sin against another cannot morally be transferred to a third party. Moses and Paul prayed that they might become substitutes for Israel, and bear their guilt, but it was morally impossible, for they were third parties in the affair. "None of them can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him" (Psalm 49:7). When we say that Christ died as our Substitute, we do not in any sense imply that He was a third party who stepped in between God and man.

4. The guilt of one individual's sin against another can morally be borne either by the sinner (as in the case of justice without forgiveness . . .) or by the one sinned against (as in the case of forgiveness . . .) Christ was not a third party in the affair at Calvary. He was God against Whom that sin (and every sin in the last analysis) was committed. The issue was sharp, at Calvary, between twelve legions of angels to compel the ones offending to bear the guilt, and the lone Saviour, the One offended who in forgiveness bore the guilt Himself. No voluminous system of theology could comprehend the meaning of the death of Jesus Christ, but in the word 'forgiveness' it is more fully comprehended than in any other human formula. When the Son of God, being hanged on a gibbet of shame by the sons of men, said, "Father, forgive them," instead of saying "Angelic hosts, destroy them," He did, in the clearest imaginable way, substitute Himself for sinners, and bare their sin “in His own body on the tree.” What a wonderful Saviour!

1 comment:

Theodore A. Jones said...

Counter point 3.

Yes it can and has been. See Jn.16:8 and Heb. 7:12 "change of the law". The error of your assumption is the fact that no man's life taken by bloodshed cannot result in the residual requirement of God to give him an account. See Gen. 9:5 NIV. The doctrine of substitutionary atonement by proposing that all issues between God and men are resolved only by Jesus' crucifixion is false by the residual component to give account by taking a man's life by bloodshed remaining outstanding.