According to Christian belief, Jesus is our Savior, not by virtue of
what He said, not even by virtue of what He was, but by what He did. He
is our Savior, not because He has inspired us to live the same kind of
life that He lived, but because He took upon Himself the dreadful guilt
of our sins and bore it instead of us on the cross. Such is the
Christian conception of the Cross of Christ.
This Bible doctrine is not intricate or subtle. On the contrary, though
it involves mysteries, it is itself so simple that a child can
understand it. "We deserved eternal death, but the Lord Jesus, because
He loved us, died instead of us on the cross" — surely there is nothing
so very intricate about that. It is not the Bible doctrine of the
atonement which is difficult to understand — what are really
incomprehensible are the elaborate modern efforts to get rid of the
Bible doctrine in the interests of human pride.
Modern preachers do indeed sometimes speak of the "atonement." But they
speak of it just as seldom as they possibly can, and one can see
plainly that their hearts are elsewhere than at the foot of the Cross.
Indeed, at this point, as at many others, one has the feeling that
traditional language is being strained to become the expression of
totally alien ideas. And when the traditional phraseology has been
stripped away, the essence of the modern conception of the death of
Christ is fairly plain. The essence of it is that the death of Christ
had an effect not upon God but only upon man. Sometimes the effect upon
man is conceived of in a very simple way, Christ's death being regarded
merely as an example of self-sacrifice for us to emulate. The
uniqueness of this particular example, then, can be found only in the
fact that Christian sentiment, gathering around it, has made it a
convenient symbol for all self-sacrifice; it puts in concrete form what
would otherwise have to be expressed in colder general terms.
Sometimes, again, the effect of Christ's death upon us is conceived of
in subtler ways: the death of Christ, it is said, shows how much God
hates sin — since sin brought even the Holy One to the dreadful Cross —
and we too, therefore, ought to hate sin, as God hates it, and repent.
Sometimes, still again, the death of Christ is thought of as displaying
the love of God; it exhibits God's own Son as given up for us all.
But these modern "theories of the atonement" err in that they ignore
the dreadful reality of guilt, and make a mere persuasion of the human
will all that is needed for salvation. They do indeed all contain an
element of truth: it is true that the death of Christ is an example of
self-sacrifice which may inspire self-sacrifice in others; it is true
that the death of Christ shows how much God hates sin; it is true that
the death of Christ displays the love of God. All of these truths are
found plainly in the New Testament. But they are swallowed up in a far
greater truth — that Christ died instead of us to present us faultless
before the throne of God. Without that central truth, all the rest is
devoid of real meaning: an example of self-sacrifice is useless to
those who are under both the guilt and thralldom of sin; the knowledge
of God's hatred of sin can in itself bring only despair; an exhibition
of the love of God is a mere display unless there was some underlying
reason for the sacrifice.
The Christian way of salvation through the Cross of Christ is
criticized because it is dependent upon history. It is sometimes said
that as Christians we may attend to what Christ does now for every
Christian rather than to what he did long ago in Palestine. Must we
really depend for the welfare of our souls upon what happened long ago?
With regard to this objection it should be observed that if religion be
made independent of history there is no such thing as a gospel. For
"gospel" means "good news," tidings, information about something that
has happened. A gospel independent of history is a contradiction in
terms. The Christian gospel means, not a presentation of what always
has been true, but a report of something new — something that imparts a
totally different aspect to the situation of mankind. The situation of
mankind was desperate because of sin; but God has changed the situation
by the atoning death of Christ — that is no mere reflection upon the
old, but an account of something new.
We are shut up in this world as in a beleaguered camp. To maintain our
courage, the liberal preacher offers us exhortation. Make the best of
the situation, he says, look on the bright side of life. But
unfortunately, such exhortation cannot change the facts. In particular
it cannot remove the dreadful fact of sin. Very different is the
message of the Christian evangelist. He offers not reflection on the
old but tidings of something new, not exhortation but a gospel.
In the second place, the Christian doctrine of salvation through the
death of Christ is criticized on the ground that it is narrow. It binds
salvation to the name of Jesus, and there are many men in the world who
have never in any effective way heard of the name of Jesus. What is
really needed, we are told, is a salvation which will save all men
everywhere, whether they have heard of Jesus or not, and whatever may
be the type of life to which they have been reared. Not a new creed, it
is said, will meet the universal need of the world, but some means of
making effective in right living whatever creed men may chance to have.
It is sometimes said that although one way of salvation is by means of
acceptance of the gospel there may be other ways. But this relinquishes
one of the things that are most obviously characteristic of the
Christian message — namely, its exclusiveness. What struck the early
observers of Christianity most forcibly was not merely that salvation
was offered by means of the Christian gospel, but that all other means
were resolutely rejected. Such exclusiveness ran directly counter to
the prevailing syncretism of the age. In that day, many saviors were
offered by many religions to the attention of men, but the various
pagan religions could live together in perfect harmony; when a man
became a devotee of one god, he did not have to give up the others. But
Christianity demanded an absolutely exclusive devotion; all other
Saviors, it insisted, must be deserted for the one Lord. Salvation, in
other words, was not merely through Christ, but it was only through
Christ. In that little word "only" lay all the offence.
But modern liberalism has still more specific objections to the
Christian doctrine of the Cross. How can one person, it is asked,
suffer for the sins of another? The thing, we are told, is absurd.
Guilt, it is said, is personal; if I allow another man to suffer for my
fault, my guilt is not thereby one whit diminished.
It is perfectly true that no mere man can pay the penalty of another
man's sin. But it does not follow that Jesus could not do it; for Jesus
was no mere man but the eternal Son of God. He has done what none other
could possibly do; He has borne our sin. Why is it that men are no
longer willing to trust for their own salvation and for the hope of the
world to one act that was done by one Man of long ago? The answer is
plain. It is because they have lost sight of the majesty of Jesus'
Person. They think of Him as a man like themselves; and if He was a man
like themselves, His death becomes simply an example of self-sacrifice.
The Christian doctrine of the atonement, therefore, is altogether
rooted in the Christian doctrine of the deity of Christ. The reality of
an atonement for sin depends altogether upon the New Testament
presentation of the Person of Christ.
But still another objection remains against the Christian doctrine of
the Cross. The objection concerns the character of God. What a degraded
view of God it is, the modern liberal exclaims, when God is represented
as being "alienated" from man, and as waiting coldly until a price be
paid before He grants salvation! In reality, we are told, God is more
willing to forgive sin than we are willing to be forgiven;
reconciliation, therefore, can have to do only with man; it all depends
on us; God will receive us any time we choose.
The objection depends of course upon the liberal view of sin. If sin is
so trifling a matter as the liberal supposes, then indeed the curse of
God's law can be taken very lightly, and God can easily let by-gones be
This business of letting by-gones be by-gones has a pleasant sound. But
in reality it is the most heartless thing in world. It will not do at
all even in the case of sin committed against our fellow men. To say
nothing of sin against God, what shall be done about the harm that we
have wrought to our neighbor? Sometimes, no doubt, the harm can be
repaired. If we have defrauded our neighbor of a sum of money, we can
pay the sum back with interest. But in the case of the more serious
wrongs such repayment is usually quite impossible. The more serious
wrongs are those that are done, not to the bodies, but to the souls of
men. And who can think with complacency of wrongs of that kind which he
has committed? Who can bear to think for example, of the harm that he
has done to those younger than himself by a bad example?
The truly penitent man longs to wipe out the effects of sin, not merely
to forget sin. But who can wipe out the effects of sin? Others are
suffering because of our past sins. We long to go back into the tangle
of our life, and make right the things that are wrong. And something
like that Christ did for us when He died instead of us on the cross; He
atoned for all our sins.
The sorrow for sins committed against one's fellow men does indeed
remain in the Christian's heart. And he will seek by every means that
is within his power to repair the damage that he has done. But
atonement at least has been made — made as truly as if the sinner
himself had suffered. And the sinner himself, by a mystery of grace,
becomes right with God. All sin at bottom is a sin against God.
"Against thee, thee only, have I sinned" is the cry of a true penitent
(Psalm 51:4). Yet in Christ we stand spotless before the judgment
Thus to deny the necessity of atonement is to deny the existence of a
real moral order. And it is strange how those who venture upon such
denial can regard themselves as disciples of Jesus; for it one thing is
clear in the record of Jesus' life it is that Jesus recognized the
justice, as distinguished from the love, of God. God is love, according
to Jesus, but He is not only love. Clearly Jesus recognized the
existence of retributive justice; Jesus was far from accepting the
light modern view of sin.
But what, then, it will be objected, becomes of God's love? Even if it
be admitted that justice demands punishment for sin, the modern liberal
will say, what becomes of the Christian doctrine that justice is
swallowed up by grace? If God is represented as waiting for a price to
be paid before sin shall be forgiven, perhaps His justice may be
rescued, but what becomes of His love?
Modern liberal teachers are never tired of ringing the changes upon
this objection. They speak with horror of the doctrine of an
"alienated" or an "angry" God. In answer, of course it would be easy to
point to the New Testament. The New Testament clearly speaks of the
wrath of God and the wrath of Jesus Himself; and all the teaching of
Jesus presupposes a divine indignation against sin. If a man has once
come under a true conviction of sin, he will have little difficulty
with the doctrine of the Cross.
But as a matter of fact the modern objection to the doctrine of the
atonement on the ground that that doctrine is contrary to the love of
God is based upon the most abysmal misunderstanding of the doctrine
itself. The modern liberal teachers persist in speaking of the
sacrifice of Christ as though it were a sacrifice made by some one
other than God. They speak of it as though it meant that God waits
coldly until a price is paid to Him before He forgives sin. As a matter
of fact, it means nothing of the kind; the objection ignores that which
is absolutely fundamental in the Christian doctrine of the Cross. The
fundamental thing is that God Himself, and not another, makes the
sacrifice for sin — God Himself in the person of the Son who assumed
our nature and died for us, God Himself in the Person of the Father who
spared not His own Son but offered Him up for us all. Salvation is a
free for us as the air we breathe; God's the dreadful cost, ours the
gain. "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son" (John
This love and this love alone brings true joy to men. Joy is indeed
being sought by the modern liberal. But it is being sought in ways that
are false. How may communion with God be made joyful? Obviously, we are
told, by emphasizing the comforting attributes of God — His
long-suffering, His love. Let us, it is urged, regard Him not as a
moody Despot, not as a sternly righteous Judge, but simply as a loving
Two questions arise with regard to this method of making religion
joyful — in the first place, Does it work? and in the second place, Is
Does it work? It certainly ought to work. How can anyone be unhappy
when the ruler of the universe is declared to be the loving Father of
all men who will never permanently inflict pain upon His children?
Where is the sting of remorse if all sin will necessarily be forgiven?
Yet after the modern preacher has done his part with all diligence —
after everything unpleasant has carefully been eliminated from the
conception of God, after His unlimited love has been celebrated with
the eloquence that it deserves — the congregation somehow persistently
refuses to burst into the old ecstasies of joy. Is that really love
that costs so little? If God will necessarily forgive, no matter what
we do, why trouble ourselves about Him at all?
The other objection to the modern encouraging idea of God is that it is
not true. How do you know that God is all love and kindness? Surely not
through nature, for it is full of horrors. Human suffering may be
unpleasant, but it is real, and God must have something to do with it.
Just as surely not through the Bible. For it was from the Bible that
the old theologians derived that conception of God which you would
reject as gloomy. "The Lord thy God," the Bible says, "is a consuming
fire" (Deuteronomy 4:24). Or is Jesus alone your authority? You are no
better off. For it was Jesus who spoke of the outer darkness and the
everlasting fire, of the sin that shall not be forgiven either in this
age or in that which is to come.
Religion cannot be made joyful simply by looking on the bright side of
God. For a one-sided God is not a real God, and it is the real God
alone who can satisfy the longing of our soul. The search for joy in
religion seems to have ended in disaster. God is found to be enveloped
in impenetrable mystery, and in awful righteousness; man is confined to
the prison of the world, trying to make the best of his condition,
beautifying the prison with tinsel, yet secretly dissatisfied with his
bondage, dissatisfied with a merely relative goodness which is no
goodness at all, dissatisfied with the companionship of his sinful
fellows, unable to forget his heavenly destiny and his heavenly duty,
longing for communion with the Holy One. There seems to be no hope; God
is separate from sinners; there is no room for joy, but only a certain
fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation.
Yet such a God has at least one advantage over the comforting God of
modern preaching — He is alive, He is sovereign, He is not bound by His
creation or by His creatures, He can perform wonders. Could He even
save us if He would? He has saved us — in that message the gospel
consists. The atoning death of Christ, and that alone, has presented
sinners as righteous in God's sight; the Lord Jesus has paid the full
penalty of their sins, and clothed them with His perfect righteousness
before the judgment seat of God. It never could have been predicted,
for sin deserves naught but eternal death. But God triumphed over sin
through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
(1) Dr. Machen
(1881-1937) was Professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological
Seminary and Westminster Theological Seminary.
Excerpts from Christianity and Liberalism (1923).