10 Atonement


For he said, Surely they are my people, children that will
not lie : so he was their Saviour.
In all their affliction

he was afflicted, and the Angel of his presence saved them :
in his love and in his pity he redeemed them ;
and he bare them, and carried them all the
days of old. —Isaiah lxiii. 8, 9.

THE subject to which I invite your attention is justly regarded by the whole Christian world as vital to man’s salvation. Our eternal happiness or misery rests upon it. We all know that we are sinners ; that we have rebelled against the government of the King of kings and Lord of lords. We are under condemnation. We confess it by our fears. We are already suffering the penalties of our disobedience. We feel it in the weariness of servitude, in the weakness and pain of disease, in cares, anxieties, disappointments, in yearning for a freedom we do not possess, in aspirations for a good we cannot gain, and in the sharp thrusts of conscience for violated law. The whole earth is a prison whose walls are not stone or iron, but ignorance and error and evil ; and multitudes fear that they will be released from this prison-house only to be plunged into a more terrible one. Whether you believe the Bible or not, whether you accept the common doctrine of sin and punishment or not, you know that you suffer ; you know that your affections, your understandings, and your lives are not in the harmonies of Divine order. You know that you are weak and bhnd, that your heart is full of fears and questions about your relations to the Lord and your chances for future happiness.

The subject we are to consider is, How the differences between us and the Lord are to be harmonized ; how His claim upon us is to be adjusted. If it is a punishment which must be inflicted, who is to bear it ? If it is a debt which must be paid, who will pay it ? If it is a case of spiritual disease, weakness, and death, which have come upon man as a consequence of violating the laws of spiritual hfe, how is he to be restored to spiritual soundness and health, so that his whole nature shall act in harmony with the Divine nature ? Put the question as you will, it touches every vital interest and immortal hope of man. It is the essential question between man and the Lord, the root principle on which all other questions depend. There have been many opinions and theories upon this subject, some of which have become obsolete. But there is still a great variety of opinion, and will continue to be until men understand how we are related to the Lord, until we regard the subject from central and immutable principles. This is the only point of view from which it can be understood. This is, therefore, the first question to which I ask your attention. How do we stand related to the Lord ? The answer is so important to our understanding of the present subject that we shall consider it with care, at the risk of restating some principles already familiar.

According to the doctrines of the New Church, the primary and essential relation between man and the Lord, which gives character to all other relations, is that of the recipient of life to the Source and Giver of life. Every human being is the direct recipient of life from the Lord, at every moment of his existence, just as truly and absolutely as the first man was at the first moment of his existence. The Lord now breathes into our nostrils the breath of all the life we have, in every particular and degree of our existence.” In him we live, and move, and have our being, ” is a plain and exact statement of the truth. ” Without me ye can do nothing. ” The amount and quality of our life is measured by the degree of reception. This is the essential relation which we sustain to the Lord. It is described in many ways, but this is the essence of them all. It is necessary to recall another point. While every particle of life is constantly given, the current which comes to us from within flows by such secret channels that we are wholly unconscious of it, and consequently we are in as much freedom to act as we should be if it were underlved and absolutely our own. Though we are only recipients of life, we are as free to act as the Lord Himself Though we are as dependent upon the inflowing power for every movement of mind and body as a machine is for the movement of its wheels and springs, yet we are not machines. We have power to act in one way or In a different one. We can close our minds to the truth as we can our eyes to the light. We can receive or reject, act according to the commandments or contrary to them. But we possess this power only because the Lord constantly gives it to us.

The Lord created man to receive life from Him in its true forms and harmonies. He made him in His own image and likeness that man might receive and possess in a derivative and finite form all those qualities which exist in the Lord in their infinite perfections. So long as man received life from the Lord in its true order and in its unperverted forms, his whole nature was in perfect accord with the Divine nature ; all his activities flowed in the currents of the Divine harmonies. Man’s life was in perfect unison with the Lord’s life. Man and the Lord were at one with each other. They were like two instruments in perfect tune. This is the normal, orderly relation of man to the Lord.

Now, if I have succeeded in conveying the idea I intend, it will be seen that man’s relation to the Lord is not essentially a legal one. It is not the relation of a citizen to the state or of a debtor to a creditor. It is not in any sense an arbitrary or factitious one. It is more like the relation of a plant to the sun, or of the body to the soul. It is a relation which inheres in and grows out of the essential nature of the beings related. Arbitrary human relations may be used, for the want of better means, to express those which inhere in the essential nature of man and of the Lord. We may call God a King, a supreme Ruler, an almighty Sovereign, who acts according to His own pleasure, but we must take these words in their highest and not in their lowest sense. We must think of a king or sovereign from infinite love and wisdom, and from our highest conceptions of love and wisdom, and not measure the Divine character by an earthly despot. The Lord is our Father ; but we must not bring Him down to the level of human parents ; we must exalt every fatherly quality to the highest possibilities of our conception. These natural relations are steps to assist our minds to rise up towards the Lord and gain some true conceptions of Him, and not weights to hold us down to the earth. Whatever corresponding human relations we use to express our relations to the Lord, we must always take them in their highest sense. They are at the best but fingers which point in the direction in which we are to look and go.

Such being our relations to the Lord, we cannot conceive that He would subject man to the control of any arbitrary law, or that He would attach any arbitrary penalty to the violation of any law. The Lord is related to man as a spiritual being in the same way that He is related to him as a physical being. Every one can see the absurdity of attempting to subject man’s physical nature to any arbitrary laws. Would it not be equally absurd to impose any arbitrary rules for the government of his spiritual nature ? It is contrary to reason, contrary to all known methods of Divine working. It is leaving methods which accord with the constitution and nature of things for those which have no necessary relation to them ; it is abandoning law and following caprice. It cannot be denied, however, that there are many statements in the Sacred Scriptures which seem to favor the idea that the Lord does govern in an arbitrary way, and exacts obedience because He has the right to demand it and the power to enforce it. But it can easily be shown that the commandments and prohibitions are only arbitrary in form, to adapt them to the condition of men. A law of life may be stated as a principle, as a warning, as a command. The consequences of its violation may be pointed out or not, according to circumstances and the conditions of those who are the subjects of the law, while the law itself is inherent and essential. This principle is so necessary to a correct understanding of our relations to the Lord, that it is worthy of illustration. An engineer who understands his business perfectly is called upon to build a bridge across the chasm below the Niagara Falls. He knows the force of gravity, he is acquainted with the strength of the materials he is to use, he knows what form is most conducive to strength, and what relations the parts should sustain to one another, and to what strain the structure will be subjected, and he gives his orders accordingly. Put stone here, iron there. He gives specific directions about the form of the parts and the way they are to be joined together. His directions are issued in an arbitrary form, as though his will were law and he were a despot. But there is nothing arbitrary in his directions. They are based on immutable law, to which he must conform or his structure will prove a failure and become the cause of sorrow and suffering and death. So all the precepts, prohibitions, statutes, and commandments contained in the Bible, in whatever form given, are based upon the immutable laws of the Divine wisdom, upon the essential principles of man’s nature, according to which his life unfolds and he attains the end of his being.

The true relation between the Lord and man is often expressed in specific terms. He is the light of the world ; He is the life of men. ” In him we live, and move, and have our being ;” “I am the vine,” He says to His disciples, “ye are the branches.” In this last expression we have a perfect example of our relation to the Lord. We are related to Him as the branch to the vine. There is nothing arbitrary about it. The branch grows out of the vine, and partakes of its nature. It gets all its life from it. And the amount of the life it receives depends upon its connection with it. If that connection is interrupted or broken, or if the organism of the branch is in any way deranged, it cannot bear fruit.

If we suppose that the branch has the power of closing its doors against the life of the vine, which comes to it in the currents of its juices, or of so changing their nature that they produce poison instead of grapes, we shall have a perfect illustration of how man as a sinner is related to the Lord. By sinning, which is violating the laws of his life, man has interrupted the inflow of life from the Lord into his soul, in its full and normal currents, and so perverted what does reach him that it is changed into the poison of evil, and he does not bear the fruits of heavenly joy and peace.

The question is, How is the branch to be restored to its union with the vine ? How is the recipient of life to become readjusted to the source of life, so that all its channels shall be opened and filled with life ? They cannot open themselves ; they cannot be forced open by any violence ; one branch cannot help another in this extremity. It is not a question of punishment for having broken a law. That does not enter into the consideration of the subject. It is a question of reunion of the branch with the vine. It might be bruised to a jelly, or ground to powder and cast into the fire ; that would not tend to its reunion with the vine. On the contrary, it would make reunion impossible. It is not a question of debt. Suppose it was. The branch is indebted to the vine for the grapes it ought to have borne. Destroying it will not pay the debt. And if the debt were paid, it would not have the slightest influence in restoring the union between the branch and the vine. Suppose the penalty for man’s sins were paid by the suffering of another person ; it would not restore man to conjunction with the Lord ; it would not have the slightest tendency to do it. The gulf between him and the Source of life would remain as great as it was before. The breach has not been healed, because it was not an arbitrary but a real one. The healing is not a vicarious work. If the laws which man had broken were arbitrary, they might be annulled or the penalty remitted at the good pleasure of the legislator, or for any considerations he might designate. But as they are laws of man’s life, the very principles on which his existence is based, they cannot be annulled without destroying him. No being Divine or human can keep the laws of life for him, or suffer for their violation for him.

As we have seen, spiritual laws are of the same nature as physical laws, and we know perfectly well that one person cannot keep these for another. It is a law enacted by the Lord Himself and written in every member of the material body, that man must be constantly supplied with a proper amount of wholesome food. The penalty of continued disobedience is death. Can one person keep this law for another ? Can one man eat for another? Can the best friend on earth or in heaven save another from starvation by eating for him ? Every child knows that would be impossible. A law of life which inheres in the essential nature of man cannot be vicariously kept, nor can disobedience to it be atoned by vicarious punishment. A debt can be paid by another, because the relation of debtor and creditor is not a vital one. It has no organic connection with man. An arbitrary law may be broken and no one suffer for it ; but a vital law cannot, and the one who breaks it must suffer. According to the same principle, a moral quality cannot be transferred from one person to another. Neither goodness nor wickedness are transferable commodities.” The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him. ” Vicarious virtue, or vicarious guilt, or vicarious reward or punishment, is not possible. It is contrary to the nature of God, and the nature of man. It is just as impossible in the spiritual plane of man’s being as it is in the physical. Now we have cleared away the obstructions and have gained the right point of view to understand Who made the atonement, Why it was necessary, and How it was made.

Who made the Atonement? The Lord’s answer is that He made it. He is the only being who could make it. And He affirms and reaffirms in the most emphatic manner that He is the only Redeemer and Saviour. Put out of your thought, if you can, every idea which disturbs or weakens the distinct conception that God is one in essence and person. Think that there is only one Being who is God. Call that Being by whatever name you please, but keep before your mind’s eye only one Person, one Being. Call Him Jehovah, God, Lord, Father, Son, Jesus Christ ; but think of one Being, one Divine Person. That Being created man. He is the source from which man constantly derives his life. He alone can give life and restore man to such union with Him that he can receive it in larger measures and higher forms. It may help us to get this distinct idea of the unity of God to hear what He says about Himself. ” Surely God is in thee ; and there is none else, there is no God. Verily thou art a God that hidest thyself, O God of Israel, the Saviour.” (Isa. xlv. 14, 15.) ” Have not I Jehovah ? and there is no God else beside me ; a just God and a Saviour; there is none beside me.” (Isa. xlv. 21.) “I, even I, am Jehovah ; and beside me there is no saviour.” (Isa. xliii. 11.) “I am Jehovah thy God, . . . and thou shalt know no God but me : for there is no saviour beside me.” (Hosea xiii. 4.) “As for our redeemer, Jehovah of hosts is his name.” (Isa. xlvii. 4.) “Jehovah, my strength, and my redeemer.” (Ps. xix. 14.) ” Thus saith Jehovah, thy redeemer, . . . I am Jehovah that maketh all things ; that stretcheth forth the heavens alone ; that spreadeth abroad the earth by myself.” (Isa. xliv. 24.) There are many other passages to the same effect.

If words have any meaning, these mean that Jehovah is the Redeemer and Saviour, and that there is no other being who is in any way a party or sharer in the work. Jesus Christ was not another being. He was Jehovah, clothed with a human mind and a human nature. He was not changed into that nature. He did not divest Himself of any power or attribute by His descent into this world in a personal form. He was the same omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent Being ; He did not cease to be the Alpha, the beginning, the first, when He became the Omega, the ending, the last. He simply invested Himself with the means of revealing Himself immediately to men, and of bringing Himself into direct personal contact with His children in every plane and degree of the creation. As earthly sovereigns sometimes disguise themselves as peasants and common citizens, assuming their manners and their language, that they may gain the means of relieving their ills and improving their condition, so Jehovah assumed not only the outward garb, but the material and spiritual organization of His children, their mind, their habits of thought and feeling, every form and quality which constitutes their natures. In this way He assumed their weaknesses, their evil tendencies ; He could be tempted at all points as they were ;He could live their life ; He could feel the force of all their struggles and trials and sufferings, come into a personal experience of every illusion and every sorrow, feel the sharpness of every pang, and the despair and agony of every lost hope. He could stand where dying man stood and bring Himself into close and conscious relations with him in every phase of his being. He was not thereby changed into a weak and dying human being, as a king is not changed into a peasant by assuming his manners and dress.

Now we have before our minds, in distinct and personal form, one Divine Being, one God, the only God, adapting Himself to all human conditions, from the highest to the lowest. The thought is not divided. It goes straight to one glorious Person. The affections are not distracted. They rest on one Being, who is love and wisdom itself There is no remote, indistinct, awful embodiment of inflexible justice demanding the exact punishment stipulated in the bond. We see a Father with a heart of infinite tenderness and love. Himself coming to the rescue of His lost and dying children, that He may bring them into such relations with Himself as the source of life that He can heal all their diseases, rectify all their perversities, and restore them to union with Himself This is a work worthy of infinite love and wisdom.

The idea that my Creator, my Father, my God did not stand aloof in stern and solitary grandeur, but came to me, His lost and perishing child, took upon Himself my nature, my mind, my affections, my flesh and blood even, and with infinite compassion and tenderness opened my eyes to see Him, unstopped my ears to hear the sweet words of comfort and hope, the winning call to follow Him to heaven and eternal rest,—this idea satisfies my reason and fills my heart. I can understand that infinite love could do this. It satisfies every instinct and conception of the parental nature. I can do something for my children, feeble and imperfect as my love is. I can work for them, I can suffer for them, I can bear with them, I could plunge into the water or the fire to rescue them ; and I can understand how infinite love could take upon itself our nature, polluted as it is by sin, and exposed to temptation and pain, to save us.

But I cannot understand how love or justice or mercy could punish the innocent instead of the guilty. I can see neither love nor mercy nor justice in that. I could not punish one of my children for the disobedience of the others. Every principle of justice in my nature revolts against it. It seems to me the greatest injustice, while no suffering is saved by it. The punishment is simply transferred from the guilty to the innocent, from the many, and poured with terrible concentration upon one. Such a transfer satisfies neither love nor justice. Nothing is gained by it. Every principle of right is violated. It also necessitates two distinct Divine beings to carry a vicarious scheme of salvation into effect ; all our relations to the one only Lord are thrown into confusion, and we are brought into no more intimate union with Him than we were before. All that is claimed for the vicarious scheme is the transference of a penalty from the guilty to the innocent. But if my Creator, my Heavenly Father, the constant source of my life, touched with infinite pity, came after me, His lost and dying child, found me, took me by the hand, tried to gain recognition and lead me back to life, I can understand that. It meets every demand of my nature.

But if it was not to suffer a penalty, and if it was to restore man to union with Himself, the question still remains. Why was it necessary to take upon Himself man’s nature? The question has already been answered by inference if not directly ; but it demands a fuller and more direct reply.

To see the reason clearly we must go back to our original point of view ; we must keep in mind that the real relations between man and the Lord are those of the recipient of life to the Giver of life, of the branch to the vine. The interior degrees of man’s being were nearly dead. He had lost all true knowledge of God. He had almost lost the knowledge of His existence. He had made the Word of God of none effect by his traditions ; he had so perverted every form of his spiritual organism that he called evil good and truth falsity. Communication with the pure and good in the spiritual world was interrupted and nearly closed, and man was surrounded within and without by beings like himself Every child was born with the perverted spiritual as well as physical nature of its parents ; it breathed an atmosphere poisoned with every evil. Man in his relations to the Lord was like a tree stripped of its leaves and bruised and marred, and so excluded from the light and heat of the sun that its influences could reach it only in feeble and reflected forms. All the avenues between man and the Lord, the source of his life, were so closed and perverted that he was dying. He had lost all consciousness of the higher qualities of goodness and truth. The Lord could not get access to him from within. He could not reach him through others. There was only one way. He must come Himself But He could not come to man without bridging the gulf between the infinite and the finite, between the Divine and the human. Man was in a merely sensuous condition ; the Lord could not come to him except where he was. He must confront him face to face. He must do as Elisha did to the Shunammite’s son. He must stretch Himself upon man. He must put His mouth upon man’s mouth, His eyes upon man’s eyes, and His hands upon man’s hands. He must bring His life in direct contact with man’s organism, and in forms that would take effect. Here was a real difficulty to be overcome. It was not a legal or technical difficulty ; it was not any fiction of justice. It was a question of reaching man where he lay dying, and of breathing new life into him. There was no other medium of communicating life than a spiritual and material organism which should touch the Divine on one side and the material on the other, and so connect them link by link until the chain was complete and the Divine power could be brought to bear upon man. Then when he should touch this Divine human presence virtue would go out of the Lord to heal him, as it did to the woman who touched the hem of His garment and was made whole.

The human nature of our Lord is called by many names, according to the office it performs. It is called the Son of God and the Son of man, because it was begotten of God and born of man. It is called the right hand and arm of power because by means of it the Lord could bring His Divine power to bear upon man to save and bless him. It is called the door because it opens the way of access of the Lord to man and of man to the Lord, swinging either way. It is called the mediator between God and man because it is the medium by which the Divine life is transmitted to man, and the way by which man ascends to the Father. ”No man cometh unto the Father but by me.” It is called Jesus, Saviour, because it is the means by which man is saved. It is called Christ because it is anointed to subdue man’s enemies and to rule in the power of the Divine truth. It was what all these names describe, and much more ; but there was one thing it was not- It was not a being or person separate and distinct from the one God. It was the necessary means of closing the breach between the recipients of life and the source of life ; the means by which God came to man.

I have one more question to answer, and I am done. How did this assumption of man’s nature by Jehovah effect an atonement between Him and man ? The answer to this question will depend upon what is meant by atonement. If by atonement is meant a satisfaction of Divine justice, made by suffering a penalty which is equivalent to that which man would have suffered if it had fallen upon his unsheltered head, then I grant it did not accomplish that. If Jesus Christ is a distinct person from Jehovah, and He assumed this nature for the purpose of paying a debt to Jehovah which man could not pay, then I do not see how Jehovah, who is the source of life, is brought into any nearer relations with man, who is merely a form recipient of life. I do not see how it connects them in any way. If by atonement is meant the settlement of legal difficulties between man and his Maker, I grant that the doctrine which I have stated does not explain it, because it has no relation to it ; it does not look to it in any respect ; it does not recognize any such difficulties. If you mean the removal of any vengeful or unkind feelings from the heart of Jehovah towards man, effecting a willingness in the Divine mind to acquit man of the punishment due to his sins, in consideration of the sufferings of another, then I confess that the doctrine that Jehovah Himself assumed a human nature from pure love to man, for the purpose of reconciling man to Himself and bringing him within the reach of His Divine arms, that He might raise him up and draw him closer to His infinite heart, does not account for any such effect. None of these purposes look to any real union between man and the Lord. They only look to the payment of a debt or the satisfaction of some legal claims of the Lord upon man. Supposing such a result to be reached, it leaves man intellectually and morally just where it finds him. No new and higher knowledge of God is communicated to him, no discords in his nature are silenced, no evils are removed, no sins are remitted ; only the penalty is paid. No new and higher life is breathed into his soul, reviving and quickening and purifying and enlarging it. No new bond of union is formed between man and the Lord, no old one is strengthened.

Man has gone into voluntary bankruptcy, and all claims against him have been cancelled because a Friend has paid them. He remains as naked and destitute as ever. But if the work of atonement consists in the removal of obstacles to the inflowing of Divine life into men, which really exist, and a reawakening of his spiritual consciousness ; if new channels are opened between the Lord and man, through which the river of life can flow into his parched and withered heart ; if new and clearer knowledge of the Lord is communicated to him, new help is given to him to overcome his evils ; if his spiritual blindness is cured, his ears opened to hear the Word of the Lord ; if the lame begin to leap as a hart, and the tongue of the dumb to sing, and man is lifted out of the dust and darkness of a merely sensual life ; if all the activities of his nature are brought into harmony with the Divine nature, and his whole being is quickened with a new and higher hfe, and he is drawn into closer union with the Lord,—if such blessed results are meant by atonement, then we can see that this bridging of the gulf between the Source of life and the recipients of life is the direct, orderly and specific means of accomplishing it. It involves no distinction of persons in God, and no conflicting elements in His character ; it leads us into no legal absurdities. This is a doctrine which is in harmony with reason and a sense of justice, and it brings the Lord, the only Lord, our Father, Redeemer, and Saviour, so near to us, and presents Him so distinct and glorious as the embodiment of infinite love and wisdom, that our hearts must be hard indeed if we cannot love Him, and are not powerfully impelled to study His commandments that we may learn the ways which lead to closer union with Him and diligently walk in them. This is a real at-one-ment. There is no fiction about this. It is the restoration of man to conjunction with the Lord. It is the renewal of the covenant between man and the Lord. It is the provision of the means by which man can gain the remission of his sins and the Divine prayer can be fulfilled, ”That they all may be one; as thou. Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us : that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. ”

I must say one word in conclusion about the practical value of true knowledge upon this subject. If our salvation depends upon our character, upon our intimate and vital conjunction with the Lord, who is the source of life ; if it depends upon being cleansed from sin itself, and not upon the remission of a penalty ; upon the recreation of our spiritual faculties and such a change in our whole spiritual nature that it is brought back into harmony with the Divine nature and restored to its original excellence ; and if in this work, as in every other, we are to co-operate, you can see how dangerous it would be to rely upon the hope that some one else has suffered for us, paid the debt for us, borne the penalty for us, and transferred His merits to our account. Any doctrine or theory which turns away our attention from our inherent and essential relations to the Lord, and obscures the truth that there are no obstacles to our salvation but false and evil principles in us, and that there is no way of salvation but shunning evils as sins against God and living according to the commandments, is misleading, and will end in absolute failure. The Lord did not come to suffer in our stead, to pay a penalty for us, to be good for us. He came to help us to resist evil, and thereby escape its penalties. He came to help us to live according to the laws of life, that we might enjoy the peace and blessedness which results from so living.

Author: Chauncey Giles, From Progress in Spiritual Knowledge, 1895