Ethics of Atonement

by D. M. Panton

The germ of all forgiveness, and therefore a latent principle of all atonement, lies in the fact that whosoever forgives deliberately sustains the consequences of the wrong done in order that the forgiven may be exempt. If I cancel a debt, I lose the amount; if I forgive a blow, I acquiesce in the injury with which it bruised my body; if I pardon an insult, I endure without complaint the laceration it caused my soul. Forgiveness cancels all injury at its own expense: that is, the innocent must suffer in the place of the guilty if, after wrong done, there is to be atonement. For forgiveness not only foregoes the penalty which could legally be exacted from the offender, and which, in the eyes of justice, is an exact equivalent of the offence; but it also consents to suffer, in person and without a murmur, any injuries--to feeling or reputation or property or limb--which the wrong has caused. So if a murderer were forgiven, beyond the grave, the murdered man would in effect consent to his own death, unavenged, that the murderer might be exempt from punishment--that is, that his death should go in place of the murderer's;--an extreme case which brings us within actual sight of the Atonement. Every act of forgiveness is an act of substitution, whereby he who is sinned against, being innocent, substitutes himself as a bearer of the consequences of the sin, from which, by doing so, he relieves the guilty person.

The Atonement

Now we apply this to the Atonement. God the wronged, man the wronger: no third, differing in nature from either, can effect atonement, "Sin is lawlessness" (1 John iii., 4): i.e., it is supremely and always an affront levelled at the lawgiver, at God as God. Thus it is not bulk of suffering that justice demands for the expiation of sin; for atonement is a readjustment of jarred relations between two persons or parties: all that justice requires is an adequate expiation of the offence; and the only person who can give this expiation, if the penalty is not to fall on the wrongdoer, is the one aggrieved. "Shall I come before the Lord with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? shall I"--resorting even to human sacrifice--"give my firstborn for my transgressions, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?" (Mic. vi. 6). No: for all such suffering, however great, however intense, falls outside the two concerned, God the wronged, and myself the wronger. Either the law must take its course, and I must suffer the full penalty of my sins--which is justice, or the dread consequences must fall on God--which is mercy, effecting a means of forgiveness. For forgiveness is not justice, but mercy, and therefore has no exact parallel in earthly courts of law; but it is mercy which has first satisfied the principles of justice.


We now arrive at God's plan of salvation. If Christ is God, the atonement is just; and conversely, if the atonement is just, Christ is God: the atonement is based absolutely on the Godhead of Christ. For Christ, being God, is the Person wronged, and can thus, by bearing the dreadful consequences of the quilt, acquire power to remit. But the Manhood of Christ is equally essential to the atonement. For what is the penalty of the wrong? "The law is unto life (Rom. vii. 10),--that is, keeping it tends to life: therefore transgression of it bears the natural and inevitable consequence of death: "the wages of sin is death" (Rom. vi. 23). It is not suffering for suffering's sake that justice requires, but suffering that falls as a natural, righteous, and inevitable consequence of sin. But God is immortal; "who only hath immortality," or deathlessness (1 Tim. vi. 16): of the two, then it is only man that can die. Therefore the Incarnation is essential to the Atonement. Thus Christ, the God-man, in virtue of His Godhead is the One sinned against, and therefore can forgive, after satisfying the principles of Justice in bearing the consequences of the quilt; and in virtue of His manhood, and therefore ability to die, He could and did bear in His own person the natural and legitimate consequences of the quilt, and thus now is free to forgive.


Thus human forgiveness, however broken a light, illuminates the grace and marvel of Divine pardon. If it is morally wrong for the innocent to suffer, voluntarily, in the place of the quilty, then all forgiveness is for ever impossible, and all forgiveness now being exercised is morally wrong, for it is the innocent choosing to suffer the consequences that should, legally, fall on the guilty. But who will affirm that it is wrong to forgive who has once known what it is to be forgiven? Is it wise or safe, on the plea of justice, to repudiate all forgiveness, human or Divine? but if not, we have already accepted the principle of the Atonement. For punishment to fall on the innocent in the place of the quilty against his own will is inquity: for the innocent to suffer in the place of the guilty (as Christ did) of his own accord at once exhausts the penalty, vindicates the law, delivers the transgressor, and glorifies God. God is both just and the justifier of the ungodly through the exhaustive penalty borne by Christ in the sinner's stead: He is free to forgive because He has Himself borne the full consequences of the sin. "Feed the church of God, which He purchased WITH HIS OWN BLOOD." (Acts xx. 28).