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Promoting Monotheism in the American Unitarian Tradition


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On the Atonement

Orville Dewey

For I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified." 1 Corinthians 2:2

THE preeminence thus assigned to one subject of Christian teaching, the sufferings of Jesus, must command for it our serious attention. It is true that Paul did not mean to say, that he would not speak of anything but the passion of Christ; for he did speak of many other things. But it is quite clear that he did give to this subject, in the Christian system, an importance, preeminent; predominating over all others.

Why did he so? Why is the death of Jesus the highest subject in Christianity? Why is the cross the chiefest emblem of Christianity? Why has something like Paul's determination always been realized in the Christian church; to know nothing else? Why has it been celebrated, as nothing else has been celebrated?

Why has a holy rite been especially ordained to show forth the death of Christ through all time? The brief answer to these questions is, that the substance, the subject-matter of Christianity, is the character of Christ, as the Saviour of men; and that the grandest revelation of his character and purpose was made on the cross. Of this revelation I am now to speak.

In entering upon this subject I feel one serious difficulty. It has taken such hold of the superstition of mankind, that it is difficult to present it in its true, simple, natural and affecting aspects. For this reason, I shall not attempt to engage your minds in the ordinary course of a doctrinal discussion. I cannot discuss this solemn theme in a merely metaphysical manner. I cannot contemplate a death, and least of all the death of the Saviour, only as a doctrine. It is to me, I must confess, altogether another kind of influence. It is to me, if it is anything, power and grandeur; it is something that rivets my eye and heart; it is a theme of admiration and spiritual sympathy; it leads me to meditation, not to metaphysics; it is as a majestic example, a moving testimony, a dread sacrifice, that I must contemplate it. I see in it a deathblow to sin; I hear the pleading of the crucified One for truth and salvation, beneath the darkened heavens and amidst the shuddering earth!

I mean to say, that all this is spiritual and practical. It amazes me, that this great event, which is filling all lands and all ages, should be resolved altogether, all gathered and stamped into a formula of faith. It is every way astonishing to me, that such a speculative use should have been made of it; that suffering should have been seized upon as a subject for metaphysical analysis; that the agony of the Son of God should have been wrested into a thesis for the theologian; that a death should have been made a dogma; that blood should have been taken to write a creed; that Calvary should have been made the arena of controversy.

That the cross, whereon Jesus, with holy candour and meekness, prayed for his enemies, saying, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do," that the cross should have been made a rack of moral torture for his friends, whereon, in all the valleys and upon all the hills of Christendom, they have been crucified by unkindness and exclusion; is there another such contradiction; is there another such phenomenon to be found, in all the strange history of the world? There have been martyrdoms recorded in the world's great story; but when before were martyrdoms wrought into sharp and reproachful metaphysics? There have been fields drenched with righteous blood; there have been lowly and lonely valleys, like those of Piedmont and Switzerland, where the sighs and groans of the crushed and bleeding have risen and echoed among the dark crags that surrounded them; but who ever thought of building up these dread testimonies of human suffering and fortitude, into systems of doctrinal speculation?

Let me not be misunderstood. In the train of the world's history, as I follow it, I meet at length with a being, marked and singled out from all others. I read, in the Gospel, the wonderful account of the most wonderful personage, that ever appeared on earth. Nothing, in the great procession of ages, ever bore any comparison with the majestic story that now engages my attention. I draw near and listen to this being, and he speaks as never man spake. By some strange power, which I never so felt before, he seems as no other master ever did, to speak to me. I follow him, as the course of his life leads me on. I become deeply interested, more than as for a friend, in everything he says, and does, and suffers. I feel the natural amazement at the resistance and hatred he meets with. I feel a rising glow in my cheek, at the indignities that are heaped upon him. I say with myself, "Surely, God will interpose for him!" I hear him speak obscurely of a death by violence; but, like the disciples, I cannot receive it.

I look, rather, that some horses and chariots of fire, shall come and bear him up to heaven. But the scene darkens around him; more and more frequently fall from his lips, the sad monitions of coming sorrow; he prepares a feast of friendship with his disciples, but he tells them that it is the last; he retires thence to the shades of Gethsemane; and lo! through those silent shades comes the armed band; he is taken with wicked hands; he is borne to the Judgment-Hall; he is invested with a bloody crown of thorns, and made to bear his cross amidst a jeering and insulting multitude; he is stretched upon that accursed tree; he expires in agony. Oh! where are now the hopes, that he would do some great thing for the world! He seemed as one, who would save the world, and lo! he is crucified and slain! He seemed to hold in his bosom the great regenerative principle; he knew what was in man and what man wanted; he appeared as the hope of the world; and where now is that hope? Buried, entombed, quenched in the dark and silent sepulchre. All is over; all, to my worldly view, is ended. I wander away from the scene in hopeless despair.

I fall in company, as the narrative leads me on, with two of the scattered disciples going to Emmaus. And as we talk of these things, one joins us in our walk, and asks us what are these sad communings of ours. And we say, "Art thou only a stranger in Jerusalem, and hast not known the things which are come to pass there in these days? And he says, what things? And we answer, concerning Jesus of Nazareth. Then expounds he to us the Scriptures; and says, ought not Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into his glory?" In fine, he reveals himself unto us, and then vanishes away. And we say, "Did not our hearts burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the Scriptures?" In short, it is at this point, that a new view enters my mind of the sufferings of Jesus. The worldly views all pass away; the worldly views of death and defeat, of ignominy and ruin; and I see that through death it was, that Jesus conquered. I see that his dying, even more than his living, is a ministration of power, and light, and salvation to the world. I see that that ignominy is glory; that those wounds are fountains of healing; that the cross, hitherto branded as the accursed tree, fit only for the execution of the vilest culprits, has become the emblem of everlasting honour.

Now, therefore, the death of Jesus becomes to me the one great revelation. I determine to know nothing else; nothing in comparison with it; nothing is of equal interest. All the glory of Christ's example, all the graciousness of his purposes, shines most brightly on the cross. It is the consummation of all, the finishing of all. The epitaph of Jesus, is the epitome of Christianity. The death of Jesus, is the life of the world.

In saying this, I wish to utter no theological dogma, which shall be respectfully received as a mere dogma. I simply express what is, upon my own mind, the natural impression. I stand by the cross of Jesus; for no intervening ages can weaken the power of that manifestation; and what is its language to me? I will suppose myself to stand alone by that cross; I will suppose that I have never heard of any theological systems; I stand in the simplicity of the elder time, before any systems were invented. And what now is the first feeling that enters my mind, as I gaze upon that Sufferer?

1. I think I shall state the natural impression, taking into account all that I have known of Jesus, when I say that the first feeling is, that I am a sinner. It is ever the tendency of human guilt, on witnessing any great catastrophe, to exclaim, "I am a sinner." But this is not a catastrophe without an explanation. Let us see if my feeling is not right. I have heard all that Jesus has said of the supreme evil, that sin is. I have seen how that one conviction rested upon his mind, and breathed out in all his teachings, that nothing beside is comparatively an evil. I have seen that it was on this very account, that he came on a mission of pity from the Father of mercies. I have heard all that he has said; my heart has been probed by his words, and I involuntarily exclaim, as I see him suspended on the cross, "Ah! sinful being that I am; that such an one should suffer for me. It is I that deserved to suffer; but God hath made him the propitiation for my sins. Could nothing else set forth before me the curse of sin? Could no other hand bear the burden of my redemption? Truly, I have sinned against the gracious Father of my existence; I always knew it; I always felt that I had; but how is it shown to me now, when the love and pity of the infinite Father appears in this; that he spared not his own Son, but gave him to die for me. Oh! sore and bitter to abide are pains and wounds; cherished in heaven are the sufferings of martyred innocence! how then does every pain of Jesus awaken the pain of conscious guilt in my mind! how does every wound reveal a deeper wound in my soul! I will repent me now, if I never would before. I will resist, I can resist no longer. I will be crucified to sin, and sin shall be crucified to me. I will bathe the cross of Jesus with the tears of penitence.. God, who hast interposed for me, help me to die daily unto sin, and to live unto righteousness!"

It is in this connexion, if anywhere, that we must give a few moments' attention to the doctrinal explanation of the atonement. I have indeed remonstrated against the speculative use of this subject, but the state of the public mind makes it necessary, perhaps, that something should be said of the theory of the atonement. I understand this, then, to be the state of the question. Two leading views of the sacrifice of Christ divide the Christian world. The one regards it as an expedient; the other as a manifestation. According to the first view, the sacrifice of Christ is usually represented either as the suffering of a penalty, or as the payment of a debt, or as the satisfaction of a law. It is something that either turns God's favour towards us, or makes it proper for him to show favour. It is some new element, or some new expedient introduced into the divine government, without which it is impossible to obtain forgiveness.

This, I understand to be, in general and in substance, the Calvinistic view. The other view regards the suffering of Christ, as simply a manifestation. It is not a purchase, or procurement, but a manifestation of God's love and pity and willingness to forgive. It is not the enfranchisement, from some legal bond, of God's mercy; but the expression, the outflowing of that mercy which was forever free. It was a satisfaction not to the heart of reluctant justice, but of abounding grace. The divine displeasure against sin, indeed, was manifested; for how costly was the sacrifice for its removal; but not a displeasure that must burn against the sinner till some expedient was found to avert it.

Now the view of manifestation is the one which we adopt; and certainly many of the more modern Orthodox explanations come to the same thing. They still proceed, it is true, upon the presumption that this manifestation was intrinsically necessary; that sin could not have been forgiven without it; that the authority of God's law could not have been otherwise upholden. I certainly cannot take this view of the subject. I cannot undertake to say what it was possible or proper for the Almighty to do. I can only wonder at the presumption of those, who do profess thus to penetrate into the fathomless counsels of the Infinite Government. I read in the Gospel, it is true, of a necessity for the sufferings of Christ; but I understand it to be founded in prophecy, which must be fulfilled; founded in the moral purposes of his mission; founded in the wisdom of God. I read, that God is the justifier of him that believeth in Jesus, of him that is penitent and regenerate; that is, God treats him as if he were just; in other words, shows favour to him; bestows pardon and mercy upon him. And of this mercy Jesus, the sufferer, is the great and all-subduing manifestation.

I cannot here go into the details of interpretation. It is perplexed by reasonings of the Apostles about the relations of Jews and Gentiles, by analogies to the Jewish sacrifices, by the language and speculations of an ancient time; by difficulties, in short, that require much study and leaning for their clearing up, and demand no solution at the hand of plain and unlearned persons, who are simply seeking for their salvation. This profound criticism, in short, is a subject for a volume, rather than for a sermon. But I will present to you, in accordance with a frequent practice of theologians, a single illustration, which, if you will carry into the New Testament, you will see, I believe, that it explains most of the language you will find there. Suppose, then, that a father, in a distant part of the country, had a family of sons, all dear to him. Suppose that all of them, save one, who remained at home with him, had wandered away into the world to seek their fortunes, and that in the prosecution of that design, they had come to one of our cities. Suppose that, in process of time, they yield to the temptations that surround them, and become dissolute and abandoned, and are sunk into utter misery; first one, and then another, till all are fallen. From time to time, dark and vague rumours had gone back to their country home, that all was not well; and their parent had been anxious and troubled. He thought of it in sleepless nights; but what could he do? He desired one and another of his neighbours, going down to the great city, to see his sons, and tell him of their estate. On their return they speak to him in those reserved and doubtful terms, that sear a parent's heart: one messenger after another speaks in this manner; till at length, evasion is no longer possible, and the father learns the dreadful truth, that his sons are sunk into the depths of vice, debasement, and wretchedness.

Then, at last, he says to his only remaining, and beloved son, "Go, and save thy brethren." Let me observe to you here, that nothing is more common in the books of Divinity, than comparisons of this nature; and that it is not, of course, designed to imply anything in such comparisons of the relative rank of the parties. The father says, "Go, and save thy brethren." Moved by compassion, that son comes to the great city. He seeks his unhappy brethren in their miserable haunts; he labours for their recovery. Ere long, a fearful pestilence spreads itself in the city. Shall the heroic brother desist from his task? No; he labours on; night and day he labours; till, in the noisome abodes of vice, poverty and misery, he takes the infectious disease, and dies. He dies for the salvation of his brethren.

Now what is the language of this sacrifice on the part of the father, what is it on the part of the son, and what is it to those unhappy objects of this interposition? On the part of the father, it was unspeakable compassion. It was also, constructively, an expression of his displeasure against vice; of the sense he entertained of the evil into which his sons had fallen. On the part of the son, it was a like conviction and compassion, and a willingness to die for the recovery of his brethren. What would it be to those guilty brethren? What would it be especially, if by dying for them, he recovered them to virtue, restored them to their father's arms, and to a happy life? "Ah! our brother," they would say; "He died for us; he died that we might live. His blood has cleansed us from sin. By his stripes, by his groans, by his pains, we are healed. Dearly beloved brother! we will live in memory of thy virtues, and in honour of thy noble sacrifice." Nor, my friends, is there one word of reliance or gratitude in the New Testament applied to the sacrifice of Jesus, which persons thus circumstanced, and with a Jewish education, would not apply to just such an interposition as we have supposed. If, then, we have put a case which meets and satisfies all the Scriptural language to be explained, have we not put a case that embraces the essential features of the great atonement?

II. I have now spoken of the relation of the cross of Christ to our sins, and to the pardon of sin. But we should by no means have exhausted its efficacy, we should by no means have shown all the reasons of its preeminence in the Christian dispensation, if we were to stop here. Not less practical, not less momentous is its relation to our deliverance from sin. That indeed, is its ultimate end, and pardon is to be obtained only on that condition. This idea, indeed, has been essentially involved in what we have already said; but it requires yet further to be unfolded. The death of Jesus is the greatest ministration ever known on earth to human virtue. It was intended not to be a relief to the conscience, but an incentive, a goad to the negligent conscience.

It was not meant, because Christ has died, that men should roll the burden of their sin on him, and be at ease; but that, more than ever, they should struggle with it themselves. It was designed that the cross should lay a stronger bond upon the conscience, even than the law. When I look upon the cross, I cannot indulge, my brethren, in sentimental or theologic strains of rapture, over reliefs and escapes; over the broken bonds of legal obligation; over a salvation wrought out for me, and not in me; over a purchased and claimned pardon; as if now all were easy, as if a commutation were made with justice; the debt paid, the debtor free; and there were nothing to do, but to rejoice and triumph. No; I should feel it to be base and ungenerous in me, thus to contemplate sufferings and agonies endured for my salvation. The cross is a most majestic and touching revelation of solemn and bounden duty. It makes the bond stronger, not weaker. It reveals a harder, not an easier way to be saved. That is to say, it sets up a stricter, not a looser law for the conscience. Every particle of evil in the heart, is now a more lamentable and gloomy burden, than it ever was before. The cross sets a darker stamp upon the malignity of sin, than the table of the cominandments; and it demands of us, in accents louder than Sinai's thunder, sympathetic agonies to be freed from sin.

The cross, I repeat, is the grand ministration to human virtue. It is a language to all lonely and neglected, or slighted and persecuted virtue. Often do we stand in situations where that cross is our dearest example and friend. It is, perhaps, beneath the humble roof, where the great world passes us by, and neither sees nor knows us; where no one blazons our patience, our humility, cheerfulness and disinterestedness, to the multitude that is ever dazzled with outward splendour. There must we learn of him, who for us was a neglected wanderer, and had not even where to lay his head. There must we learn of him, who was meek and lowly in heart, and find rest unto our souls. There must we learn of him, who bowed that meek and lowly head upon the cross; dishonoured before a passing multitude, honoured before all ages.

Or we stand, perhaps, beneath the perilous eye of observation, of an observation not friendly, but, hostile and scornful. We stand up for our integrity: we stand for some despised and persecuted principle in religion, or morals, or science. And it is hard to bear opprobrium and injury for this; hard for the noblest testimony of our conscience, to bear the worst infliction of human displeasure. The dissenting physician, the dissenting philanthropist, the dissenting Christian, knows full well how hard it is. And there, keeping there our firm stand, must we look upon that cross, whereon hung one who was despised and rejected of men; the scorned of earth, the favoured and beloved of heaven. That stand for conscience, kept firmly, humbly, meekly, we must learn, is not mean and low; it is the very grandeur of life; it is the magnificence of the world. It is a world of misconstruction, of injury, of persecution: that cross is lifted up to stay our fainting courage, to fix our wavering fidelity, to inspire us with meekness, patience, forgiveness of enemies, and trust in God.

Again, the cross is a language to all tempted and struggling virtue. Jesus was tempted in all points as we are, yet without sin. Thou too art tempted. In high estate as well as in low, thou art tempted. Nay, and the misery and peril of the case is, that all estates are becoming low with thee; all is sinking around thee, when temptation presses thee sore. When thou art tempted to swerve from the integrity of thy spirit or of thy life, and the perilous hour draws near, and thou reasonest with thyself, thou art in a kind of despair. Thou sayest that friends desert thee, and the world looks coldly on thee; or thou sayest that thy passions are strong, and thy soul is sad, and thy state is unhappy, and it is no matter what befalls. Then it is, that to thy tempted and discouraged virtue Jesus speaks, and says, "Deny the evil thought, and take up thy cross and follow me. Behold my agony, behold my desertion, behold the drops of bloody sweat; I shrink in the frailty of nature, as thou dost, from the cup of bitterness; I pray that it may pass from me; but I do not refuse it. There is worse to fear than pain, guilt; failure in the great trial; the prostration of all thy nobleness before the base appliance of a moment's gratification; ay, the pain of all thy after life, for an hour's pleasure. Learn of me, that virtue does not always repose on a bed of roses. Oh! no; sharp pangs; sharp nails; piercing thorns, are for me; wonder not thou, then, at the fiery trial in thy soul; my sufferings emblem thine, so let my triumph: all can be endured for victory, holy victory, immortal victory."

Once more; the cross appeals to all heroic and lofty virtue. Let me say heroic; though that word is scarcely yet found in the Christian's vocabulary. But in the Christian's life there is to be a heroism. He is to feel as one who has undertaken a lofty enterprise. He has entered upon a sublime work. It is his being's task, and trial, and triumph. We think too poorly of what a Christian life is. We hold it to be too commonplace. There is nothing heroic or lofty, as to the principle, in all history, in all the majestic fortunes of humanity, but is to come into the silent strife of every Christian's spirit.

Now to this, the example of the crucified Saviour, is an emphatic appeal. The cross is commonly represented as humbling to the human heart; it is so to the worldly pride of the human heart; but it is also to that heart, an animating, soul-thrilling, ennobling call. It speaks to all that is sacred, disinterested, self-sacrificing in humanity. I fear that we regard Christ's sacrifice for us so technically, that we rob it of its vital import. It was a painful sacrifice for us, as truly as if our brother had died for us; it was a bitter and bloody propitiation, to bring back offending man to his God; it was a groan for human guilt and misery that rent the earth; it was a death endured for us, that we might live, and live forever. I speak not one word of this technically; I speak vital truth. Even if Jesus had died as any other martyr dies; if he had thought of nothing but his own fidelity, had thought of nothing, but bearing witness to the truth; still the call would, by inference, have come to us. But it is not left to inference.

Jesus was commissioned to bear this very relation to the world. He knew that if he were lifted up, he should draw all men to him. And how draw all men to him? Plainly, in sympathy; in imitation in love. He designed to speak to all ages, to touch all the high and solemn aspirations of unnumbered millions of souls; to win the world to the noble spirit of self-sacrifice; to disinterestedness, and fortitude, and patience; to meekness and candour, and gentleness and forgiveness of injuries. This is the heroism of Christianity. In these virtues, centres all true glory. This did Jesus mean to illustrate. His purpose was, to turn off the eyes of men from the power, pride, ambition and splendour of the world, to the true grandeur, dignity and all-sufficing good of love, meekness and disinterestedness. And how surely have his purposes and predictions been accomplished! A renovating power has gone forth from him upon the face of the whole civilized world, and is fast spreading itself to the ends of the earth. And one emphatic proof of this is, that the cross, before the stigma of the vilest crimes, has become the emblem of all spiritual greatness. At the risk of wearying your patience, my brethren, let me invite you to a brief consideration of one other relation of the cross of Christ; I mean its relation to human happiness. It shall be a closing and a brief one.

Jesus was a sufferer: and yet so filled was his mind with serenity and joy, that the single instance, in which we read that he wept, seems to open to us a new light upon his character. Jesus was a patient, cheerful, triumphant sufferer. The interest, which in this light his character possesses for the whole human race, has never, it appears to me, been sufficiently illustrated. We are all sufferers. At one time or another, in one way or another, we all meet this fate of humanity. So true is this, and so well do we know it to be true, that it would be only too painful to open the wide volumes of proofs which life is continually furnishing.

It is really necessary to lay restraint upon our thoughts, when speaking of the pains and afflictions of life. I know it is often said, that the pulpit is not sufficiently exciting. But how easy were it, to make it more so! A thoughtful man will often feel, that instead of cautiously and considerately touching the human heart, he might go into that heart, with swords and knives, to cut, to wound, and almost to slay it, if such were his pleasure. What if he were to describe suffering infancy, or a sick and dying child, or the agony of parental sorrow, or manhood in its strength, or matronage in its beauty, broken down under some infliction, touching the mind or the body, to more than infant weakness; who could bear it? Yes; it is the lot of humanity to suffer. No condition, no guarded palace, no golden shield, can keep out the shafts of calamity. And especially it is the lot of intellectual life to suffer. As man becomes properly man; as his mind grapples with its ordained probation; the dispensation naturally presses harder upon him.

The face of careless childhood may be arrayed with perpetual smiles; but behold, how the brow of manhood, and the matronly brow, grows serious and thoughtful, as years steal on; how the cheek grows pale, and what a meaning is set in the depths of many an eye around you; all proclaiming histories, long histories of care and anxiety, and disappointment and affliction! Now into this overshadowed world, One has come, to commune with suffering; to soothe, to relieve, to conquer it: himself a sufferer, himself acquainted with grief, himself the conqueror of pain; himself made perfect through sufferings; and teaching us to gain like virtue and victory. For in all this, I see him ever calm, patient, cheerful, triumphant.

And what a touching aspect does all this strong and calm endurance lend to his afflictions. For he was afflicted, and his soul was sometimes "sorrowful, even unto death." When I read, that at the grave of Lazarus, "Jesus wept;" when I hear him say, in the garden of Gethsemane, " Father, if it be possible, remove this cup from me;" when from the cross arose that piercing cry, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" I know that he suffered. I know that loneliness, and desertion, and darkness were upon his path; I feel that sorrow and fear sometimes touched, with a passing shade, that seraphic countenance.

But oh! how divinely does he rise above all! What a peculiarity was there in the character of this wonderful Being; the rejected, the scorned, the scourged, the crucified: and yet no being was ever so considerate towards the faults of his friends, as he was towards the hostility of his very enemies; no being was ever so kindly and compassionate in spirit; so habitually even and cheerful in temper; so generous and gracious in manner. I cannot express the sense I have of his equanimity, of his gentleness, of the untouched beauty and sweetness of his philanthropy, of the unapproached greatness of his magnanimity and fortitude. He looked through this life, with a spiritual eye, and saw the wise and beneficent effect of suffering. He looked up with confiding faith to a Father in heaven; he looked through the long and blessed ages beyond this life; and earth, with all its scenes and sorrow, shrunk to a point, amidst the all-surrounding infinity of truth and goodness, and heaven.

Thus, my brethren, has he taught us how to suffer. He has resolved that dark problem of life; how that suffering, in the long account, may be better than ease; and poverty, better than riches; and desertion, better than patronage; and mortification, better than applause; and disappointment, better than success; and martyrdom, better than all honours of a sinful life; and how, therefore, that suffering is to be met with a brave and manly heart, with a sustaining faith, with a cheerful courage; counting it all joy, and making it all triumph.

Thus have I attempted, however imperfectly. to enfold the intent for which Jesus suffered; to unfold the import and teaching of the cross of Christ to human guilt, to human virtue, and to human happiness. May you know more of the truth as it is in Jesus, than words can utter, or worldly heart conceive! And may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you always. Amen.

2003 American Unitarian Conference