In order to have a proper conception of the atonement, it is essential that clear and correct views of the origin and nature of the law, both natural and moral be held. Faulty conceptions of the atonement fail to take into consideration the fact that God cannot dispense with His law.1 The law cannot show mercy: "He that despised Moses' law died without mercy under two or three witnesses." (Heb. 10:28) Law demands a penalty for disobedience and this law must be honored. Sin, in its essence, is "the transgression of revealed law" and "law to moral beings is the will of God in commandment."2 To transgress God's law is to go contrary to His revealed will and, in reality, is disobedience to God Himself. Sin is an affront to God's holiness and for God to ignore sin without satisfaction of the law would mean that His holiness is flexible. In other words, this would make God to be something less than absolutely perfect. Whether in the case of the redeemed in Heaven or the wicked in Hell, God's broken law must be vindicated. The atonement is the vindication of the law by God's Son on behalf of God's people.
In every case of sin, we find that a just penalty must be meted out by Divine justice. Of moral creatures who have violated the law we may categorize as follows:
Chronologically speaking, the first instance we have of rebellion against God's will is the fallen angels. We do not know the exact nature of God's revealed law to them, but apparently they were in a state of conditional holiness dependent upon their subjection to God. We find that their sin took the form of self-will and rebellion against God's prescribed sphere for their lives, for we read that "they kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation." (Jude 6) The penalty which shall be meted out is eternal judgment and a subsequent committal to the lake of fire and brimstone. (Jude 6, Rev. 20:10, 14) At present they are reserved unto judgment, but apparently with more or less degrees of imprisonment. There is no atonement or mitigation of penalty in the case of fallen angels.
The Scriptural account of the transgression of man and God's law or commandment to man in his original state is given in Gen. 2:16, 3:1-7. We find that the sin of Adam was a deliberate transgression against the revealed commandment of God, a wilful disobedience of God's law. The penalty for this sin had been previously declared in anticipation of this disobedient act, "in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die." (Gen. 2:17) In this Adam was not deceived, for he knew even as he sinned what the penalty would be. (I Tim. 2:14) The penalty, being death, was applicable, not only to Adam, but to all his posterity, for we read "in Adam all die." (I Cor. 15:22) This death is not merely the penalty of physical death, but has a much deeper implication of spiritual death and all that it involves. The ultimate consequence is the second death, which involves judgment and eternal damnation. (Rev. 20:12-15) The extent of the penalty in the case of the finally impenitent and those who die in an unregenerate state is eternal death. This is not annihilation but interminable anguish and suffering in Hell. Of the state of those in Hell we read, "the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and for ever; and they have no rest day or night (Rev. 14:11) Jesus described the state of the wicked dead as a state in which there is "weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth." (Mt. 8:12, 13:42) In Isaiah we read, "And they shall go forth and look upon the carcasses of the men that have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh." (Isa. 66:24)
In the case of redeemed mankind, they are equally guilty of having transgressed God's law, "for all have sinned." (Rom. 3:23) "Now we know that what things-so ever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped and all the world may become guilty before God." (Rom. 3:19) This includes Jews, Gentiles, Barbarians, savages and all mankind. (Rom. 3:9) But even in the case of the redeemed, God does not dispense with His law. The law must be satisfied. This has been accomplished for the believer by the atonement. Christ suffered in His own person for the believer the penalty prescribed by the law, death.
Was this death merely physical and did it merely involve physical sufferings? When one considers Gethsemane and Jesus' anguish of soul, the awful utterances of Jesus on the cross when He cried "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" and the darkness that settled upon the scene of the crucifixion, it must be that more than physical suffering was involved. Herein is a great mystery. Who can know the depth of sorrow and suffering which Christ underwent? We are told that he "bare our sins in his own body on the tree" but we are not told, nor can we fathom, the excruciating torment which he underwent when burdened with our sins.
In the atonement, Christ did something for the redeemed that only Deity could accomplish. "Vicarious atonement cannot be made by a creature."4 In Psalms 49:7-8 we read, "None of them can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him: (For the redemption of their soul is precious, and it ceaseth forever.)" In the atonement, it was God putting Himself in the creature's place and dying for his sins. This is "the greatest and strangest mercy that can be conceived of."5 God Himself, the Sovereign and the Judge, put Himself in our place on the tree and died for us.
As God, He could not dispense with the legal penalty required by the law; as our compassionate Saviour He would not condemn us to the flames of eternal punishment: as our Redeemer, He became our Substitute, our Surety, and suffered in His own person the legal penalty demanded by the law, which had its origin in His holy nature.6 Thus, He demonstrated to the universe "the exactness and inviolability of the law" and His inexpressible love for the objects of redemption.7
There is a division among theologians concerning the extent of the sufferings of Christ, whether or not His sufferings were an exact equivalent of the sufferings which would have been inflicted upon the elect for their sins or whether the very merit in Christ's atonement makes ample provision for the sins of all."8 Likewise, Strong affirms that "Christ would not need suffer more if all were to be saved."9 Pink, however, believes that the sufficiency of the atonement is not wider than the design of the atonement.10 Shedd indicates that the question is not the value of Christ's atonement, but the question of the personal application of the atonement to individuals by the Holy Spirit. In other words, extension is really intention.11
Wardlaw, while finding fault with the Arminians for making salvation dependent upon the will of man, disagrees with those who hold to the exact equivalency theory because they make a demand of precise, legal compensation. He objects on the ground that the atonement of Christ is infinite because of His divinity. Wardlaw further objects to the exact-equivalency view on the ground that "salvation to any but the elect becomes a natural impossibility"12 Taking these objections into consideration, it seems that he is saying that Christ being infinite, His atonement is infinite and therefore is sufficient for all men. In this respect he seems to lean toward those who hold to the general atonement though he objects to Arminianism. Spurgeon definitely held to the exact-equivalency theory. He says:
As concerning the infinity of Christ's atonement, Spurgeon held to this as well as Wardlaw:
Yet, as has been observed, he believed firmly that the atonement was an equivalent offered to God for the sins of His people. Again, he says:
However, he firmly believed that Christ's atonement was fully sufficient for all who believed, or would believe in Him:
The atonement is of such magnitude that even angels, we are told, have a desire to inquire into these things. (I Pet. 1:12) Perhaps the apostle here has reference to the angels which overshadowed the mercy seat in the tabernacle, for their gaze was downward towards the mercy-seat where the blood of the sacrifice was applied once a year on the great day of atonement. (Heb. 9:5)
In summary, we may say that the law demanded strict justice and was inflexible. God's holiness demands that the broken law be vindicated. The atonement of Christ was made on behalf of the elect and the blood of Christ was shed only for those whom God intended to save. Yet it is not inconsistent to invite sinners to Christ for it is our responsibility to do so and sinners have a responsibility to believe the gospel. Further, since the atonement is infinite and all-sufficient, all who come to the Saviour may be saved and He is able to save to the "uttermost" all who do come. The atonement is infinite in nature and an exact equivalent of the penalty required for the sins of the elect and satisfies the demands of the law. The atonement secures the object for which it was intended, the salvation of all the elect. The intent of the atonement and the extent are equal.