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It is apparent, then, that repentance cannot satisfy the conscience for past sins. How can a feeble, finite creature, who is sinning every day, make any condemnation of sin that the conscience looks upon as effective? And how infinitely below the supreme condemnation does it fall! Conscience, as we have said, looks after desert. What boots it that you and I, and ever so many sinners in our poor, halting, self-justifying way loathe sin? Does this brand sin as it deserves, so that the moral universe can look on and say: "Behold how this curse and shame is crushed and made abominable for ever and ever?"
We may find an illustration, on a low plane, in our attitude toward ordinary crimes. Would the conscience be satisfied by the repentance of all criminals, without any punishment? We say nothing about what the interests of society require, nothing about authority; we inquire whether there is a voice of our moral nature which demands something more than repentance. When a criminal repents, will any right-minded person assert that sin has received its due? Certainly not. And why? Because crime is not thereby adequately condemned. The extorted testimony of the culprit, even if perfectly sincere, has but a feather's weight compared with that overwhelming burden of reprobation which sin and crime deserve.
We may illustrate further the demand of conscience for effective condemnation. Would it be satisfied by any declaration of the magistrate, condemnatory of the crimes brought to his notice? Most certainly not. Because his personal testimony is just as inadequate as that of the penitent criminal. Even if we grant that the judge, as a representative of the moral sentiment of the state, pronounces the judgment of the whole body, we are but little nearer the desert of sin. If sin escapes the condemnation of the Supreme Judge it is forever uncondemned and triumphant.
Where then can conscience and justice find satisfaction under human law? In God's ordinance of punishment. Punishment is God's mode of condemning crime in human
society. Though not always effectual in preventing crime, it is effectual in bringing it under the law of condemnation. It is executed by human hands; but its range of results, as seen especially in capital punishment, is far beyond human calculations. It is a divine sanction.
We are brought by this illustration to our second question: What does a sinner deserve? Let us take the simplest answer of conscience, and then try to interpret it. Conscience says: The sinner deserves punishment. This seems to shut the door of investigation, and make it impossible for a sinner to be saved with any satisfaction to the sense of justice. But the door opens to us again when we consider the relation of the two testimonies of conscience to each other. Are the two propositions, "Sin deserves condemnation," and "The sinner deserves punishment," logically independent of each other? It can hardly be so. Are they identical? Obviously not. What then is their mutual relation? Is it not twofold, as follows: The sinner deserves punishment because, (1) Sin deserves to be condemned. In all the ordinary categories of human action punishment is an indispensable means to condemnation. The history of the world exhibits but one example of the fact that a general offer of pardon is compatible with the condemnation of sin. Now the testimony of conscience which we are considering is obviovsly not delivered with any reference to the unique example of atonement. We may wonder at this, but it will hardly be denied. When conscience says: "A sinner deserves to be punished," it unites an acknowledged means with its own end. In a word, punishment as the desert of a sinner is not a first principle, like condemnation as the desert of sin. Punishment is an expedient; and it is solely as such that conscience and justice are satisfied by it. The sinner also deserves punishment because (2) his sin deserves to be condemned. This is the personal end of punishment; and although it may thus be expressed in few words, it will be seen to cover the whole ground of sin as a personal matter.
We have thus given comprehensively what we understand
to be the testimony of conscience respecting the desert of sin and sinners. Sin deserves the effective condemnation of supreme righteousness, and the sinner deserves punishment considered as the means of carrying out that condemnation.
Now is there anything that can take the place of punishment so that sin can be condemned and yet the sinner escape? Here we reach the blessed atonement. If the dreadful difficulty is not beyond the power of infinite wisdom and infinite love we shall find it overcome here. And who that believes in the Deity of Christ can doubt that sin is condemned, most unqualifiedly, effectively, and with supreme authority in the work of our Lord Jesus Christ? Consider the infinite abasement of that life in which, amid incessant and awful trials and temptations, he exemplified a perfect righteousness. Consider that in this and in the ignominy of his death he incurred the bitterest woes sent upon our race for sin, thus endorsing in blood its penal desert. Consider the unveiling of human sin produced by contact with Jesus's holy life-a contact ending in the blackest of human crimes, because the darkness could not endure the light by which it was revealed. Consider that sin, in all the forms in which it can assail a moral being, was met and vanquished. Sin as enthroned in Satan; sin as actuating sinful men; sin as doing its last and worst through death; sin as casting upon him the very curse under which sinners lived - this sin was vanquished, and thus condemned with an emphasis vastly beyond that which the obedience of a race, or the punishment of a race, could have produced.
If then, sin, considered by itself, deserves condemnation, there is no question that it has received its desert, strictly and fully, in the atonement. The whole human race may say with one voice: "Our eternal punishment could never brand sin as the blood of Jesus' has." And each sinner can say: "So far as my eternal punishment is the means of condemning sin, there is no need of it. That work is done. 'God sending his own son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh.""
VOL. XXIV. No. 93.
But how does the atonement answer the other question: What does the sinner deserve? The general end of punishment has been fulfilled by the cross; but how is the personal end fulfilled? In order to accomplish this, two things seem to be requisite.
1. We must be marked as sinners. The punished culprit, willingly or not, is the marked man; the one in whom that abominable thing to be condemned has been found and acted out. Now by faith we come to Christ as a Saviour from sin. The act of coming gives us our place as sinners. What the culprit does whether he will or not, the believer does freely. He says: "I am the sinner, else I would not be here with my Saviour."
2. We must be directly involved in the condemning of our sin. The culprit is by punishment made the means of condemnation; his pains, privations, disgrace, or death are indispensable to condemnation by punishment. Now by faith we come to Christ not only as a Saviour from sin, but as a condemner of sin. Hence in this respect we do freely what the culprit does generally of necessity. But let us see clearly that this is not mere repentance. The part which a culprit bears in the reprobation of crime is not dependent on his repentance. Repentance condemns sin in our own name. This is a small matter. But the atonement condemns it in the name of God, and with all the force of the highest possible manifestation of God's character. Faith accepts this import of the atonement. Faith is sometimes called "taking God at his word "; but the atonement is the mightiest word of God respecting sin, and each one's sins. To take God at this word of his is to acknowledge and adopt God's own condemnation of sin, and of our sins. Here is the deepest point in the relation of faith to absolution. By this faith we lay our sins upon the Lamb of God; or rather, the Lord hath already laid upon him our iniquities, and what he asks of us is to own that they are ours. We do not suffer condemnation, but we accept it as a thing accomplished by another. If we suffer forever we can make no valuable addition to
that condemnation. The work is done, and by faith our interest in it is as intimate as if we had borne the full penalty of our sins. A fully punished sinner, if such there can be, has no advantage over a believing sinner. All that either can say is: "Sin has been fully condemned as sin, and as my sin." With this conscience and justice are satisfied.
We have thus tried to show that the atonement, by itself, answers the general end of punishment, and "through faith" answers the personal end of punishment. We may add here that if the atonement, by itself, answered all the punitive demands of justice, both general and personal, then faith would not be essential to salvation. But according to the view we have taken, the sense of justice cannot be satisfied in the salvation of any individual, in a condition of responsibility, without faith. If, instead of exercising this faith, we reject Christ, it is plain that we deserve a greatly aggravated punishment.
The satisfaction of conscience, which we have all along considered as practically equivalent to the satisfaction of justice, is evidently quite consistent with pardon. It is not only safe, but altogether right, to pardon with an atonement. Sin being already under the deepest possible condemnation, no plea can be put in at the bar of conscience why pardon should not be freely granted, if individuals are in a proper condition to receive it, i.e. if they have faith. Thus the same faith that fulfils what we have called the personal end of punishment prepares the soul for pardon. The pardon is genuine, because it is the bestowal of grace by the Sovereign upon the guilty. It is right, because it belongs to a system that satisfies justice.
We turn now to consider very briefly the idea of reward as found in the atonement, and as viewed by the conscience. This idea seems to have fallen into the background in the later New England soteriology; but why should it? Is not the idea of atonement incomplete without it? Not that there are two distinct lines of efficacy, one of which terminates in pardon and the other in reward; but there is a twofold