Three Old and New Errors on the Atonement
“We must acquire, as much as lies in us, sharply defined ideas on the atonement from the gospels themselves.”
Written by David Murray | Friday, June 9, 2017
“In all true progress in spiritual knowledge, men will make advances in the knowledge of His atonement as well as of His person. The history of the disciples before and after His crucifixion is a proof of this. The more fully we enter into Christ’s truly human experience, and trace His checkered course of joy and of sorrow, the livelier will be our apprehension of His curse-bearing life, and of His penal death.”
How can a book on the atonement written 150 years ago have anything worthwhile to say to us today? Apart from the fact that so many of the truths in the book have been forgotten or neglected, Christ’s Doctrine of the Atonement highlights errors that have a habit of reappearing in cycles throughout history. The three that he highlights in the early pages of the book are:
1. “The inner life matters more than clarity on the atonement.”
Smeaton insisted on the utmost clarity when it came to the doctrine of the atonement. In doing so, he was combatting “many in these days who exalt the inner life at the expense of true and proper doctrine.” If you had asked these opponents of clarity, “Did Christ’s death procure our pardon or simply give assurance of it?” they would have shrugged and said, “It doesn’t matter.” The same reaction would have resulted from asking them “Is the atonement a vicarious sacrifice or simply an expression of divine love?” or “Does it display the evil of sin or just revoke the Old Testament sacrifices?” In fact, they may have gone beyond a nonchalant shrug and criticized you for engaging in mere theological debates or human speculations. Better to leave all vague and uncertain.
Smeaton rejects this aversion to clear definitions and says, “We must acquire, as much as lies in us, sharply defined ideas on the atonement from the gospels themselves.”
2. “Christ’s death was simply fate or misfortune.”
It’s unfortunate, say other opponents, that Christ’s holy zeal resulted in his becoming a victim. However, as a consolation, his death does give a weighty confirmation of his declaration of forgiveness.
“That is an insipid half truth,” wrote Smeaton, “which is seemingly right and essentially wrong.” It views Jesus as simply a preacher of salvation but not as the Savior. Although this view claimed to focus on personal spirituality, without an objective atonement, the result is always legalistic self-reliance and self-dependence.
Nothing so effectually carries off the mind from self-dependence as the atonement,—nothing so exalts grace and humbles the sinner; and on this account, God appointed that acceptance and forgiveness of sin should not be given without a Mediator, and without a dependence upon His merits.
3. “The person of Christ is more important than the work of Christ.”
Yet others place all the emphasis upon the incarnation, and virtually none on the cross. Those who hold this view may allow the phrases “penalty, price, suretyship, and satisfaction to divine justice” but they don’t see them as necessary.
Smeaton rejected the possibility of making progress in understanding Christ’s person at the expense of his work:
In all true progress in spiritual knowledge, men will make advances in the knowledge of His atonement as well as of His person. The history of the disciples before and after His crucifixion is a proof of this. The more fully we enter into Christ’s truly human experience, and trace His checkered course of joy and of sorrow, the livelier will be our apprehension of His curse-bearing life, and of His penal death.
Sadly, versions of these errors are with us to this day and, therefore, Smeaton’s writing is as valuable to us today as it was 150 years ago.
David Murray is Professor of Old Testament & Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. This article first appeared on his blog, Head Heart Hand.