III. The Cause and Necessity of the Atonement

The great and central part of the priestly work of Christ lies in the atonement, but this, of course, is not complete without the intercession. His sacrificial work on earth calls for His service in the heavenly sanctuary. The two are complementary parts of the priestly task of the Saviour. This and the following three chapters will be devoted to a discussion of the doctrine of the atonement, which is often called “the heart of the gospel.”


This lies:

1. IN THE GOOD PLEASURE OF GOD. It is sometimes represented as if the moving cause of the atonement lay in the sympathetic love of Christ for sinners. He was so good and loving that the very idea that sinners would be hopelessly lost, was abhorrent to Him. Therefore He offered Himself as a victim in their stead, paid the penalty by laying down His life for transgressors, and thus pacified an angry God. In some cases this view prompts men to laud Christ for His supreme self-sacrifice, but at the same time, to blame God for demanding and accepting such a price. In others it simply causes men to overlook God, and to sing the praises of Christ in unqualified terms. Such a representation is certainly all wrong, and often gives the opponents of the penal substitutionary doctrine of the atonement occasion to say that this doctrine presupposes a schism in the trinitarian life of God. On this view Christ apparently receives His due, but God is robbed of His honour. According to Scripture the moving cause of the atonement is found in the good pleasure of God to save sinners by a substitutionary atonement. Christ Himself is the fruit of this good pleasure of God. It was predicted that He would come into the world to carry out the good pleasure of God, . . . “and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in His hand”, Isa. 53:10. At His birth the angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men in whom He is well pleased”, Luke 2:14. The glorious message of John 3:16 is that “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on Him should not perish, but have eternal life.” Paul says that Christ “gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us out of this present evil world, according to the will of our God and Father”, Gal. 1:4. And again, “For it was the good pleasure of the Father that in Him should all the fulness dwell; and through Him to reconcile all things unto Himself”, Col. 1:19, 20. It would not be difficult to add other similar passages.

2. NOT IN THE ARBITRARY WILL OF GOD. The question may be raised, whether this good pleasure of God is to be regarded as an arbitrary will, or as a will that is rooted in the very nature of God and is in harmony with the divine perfections. It has been represented by Duns Scotus as if it were merely an arbitrary expression of the absolute sovereignty of God. But it is more in harmony with Scripture to say that the good pleasure of God to save sinners by a substitutionary atonement was founded in the love and justice of God. It was the love of God that provided a way of escape for lost sinners, John 3:16. And it was the justice of God which required that this way should be of such a nature as to meet the demands of the law, in order that God “might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus,” Rom. 3:26. In Rom. 3:24,25, we find both elements combined: “Being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: whom God set forth to be a propitiation through faith in His blood, to declare His righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God.” This representation guards against the idea of an arbitrary will.

3. IN LOVE AND JUSTICE COMBINED. It is necessary to avoid all one-sidedness in this respect. If we represent the atonement as founded only in the righteousness and justice of God, we fail to do justice to the love of God as a moving cause of the atonement, and afford a pretext to those enemies of the satisfaction theory of the atonement who like to represent it as implying that God is a vindictive being, who is concerned only about His own honour. If, on the other hand, we consider the atonement purely as an expression of the love of God, we fail to do justice to the righteousness and veracity of God, and we reduce the sufferings and the death of Christ to an unexplained enigma. The fact that God gave up His only begotten Son to bitter sufferings and to a shameful death cannot be explained on the principle of His love only.


On this subject there has been considerable difference of opinion. The following positions should be distinguished:

1. THAT THE ATONEMENT WAS NOT NECESSARY. The Nominalists of the Middle Ages generally regarded it as something purely arbitrary. According to Duns Scotus it was not inherently necessary, but was determined by the arbitrary will of God. He denied the infinite value of the sufferings of Christ, and regarded them as a mere equivalent for the satisfaction due, which God was pleased to accept as such. In his estimation God might have accepted any other substitute, and might even have carried on the work of redemption without demanding any satisfaction at all. Socinus also denied the necessity of the atonement. He removed the foundation pillar for such a necessity by the denial of such justice in God as required absolutely and inexorably that sin be punished. For him the justice of God meant only His moral equity and rectitude, by virtue of which there is no depravity or iniquity in any of His works. Hugo Grotius followed his denial on the basis of the consideration that the law of God was a positive enactment of His will, which He could relax and could also set aside altogether. The Arminians shared his views on this point. One and all denied that it was necessary for God to proceed in a judicial way in the manifestation of His grace, and maintained that He might have forgiven sin without demanding satisfaction. Schleiermacher and Ritschl, who had a dominating influence on modern theology, broke completely with the judicial conception of the atonement. As advocates of the mystical and moral influence theories of the atonement, they deny the fact of an objective atonement, and therefore by implication also its necessity. With them and with modern liberal theology in general atonement becomes merely at-one-ment or reconciliation effected by changing the moral condition of the sinner. Some speak of a moral necessity, but refuse to recognize any legal necessity.

2. THAT IT WAS RELATIVELY OR HYPOTHETICALLY NECESSARY. Some of the most prominent Church Fathers, such as Athanasius, Augustine, and Aquinas, denied the absolute necessity of the atonement and ascribed to it merely a hypothetical necessity. Thomas Aquinas thus differed from Anselm on the one hand, but also from Duns Scotus on the other hand. This is also the position taken by the Reformers. Principal Franks says that Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin all avoided the Anselmian doctrine of the absolute necessity of the atonement, and ascribed to it only a relative or hypothetical necessity, based on the sovereign free will of God, or in other words, on the divine decree. This opinion is shared by Seeberg, Mosley, Stevens, Mackintosh, Bavinck, Honig, and others. Cf. also Turretin, on The Atonement of Christ, p. 14. Calvin says: “It deeply concerned us, that He who was to be our Mediator should be very God and very man. If the necessity be inquired into, it was not what is commonly called simple or absolute, but flowed from the divine decree, on which the salvation of man depended. What was best for us our Merciful Father determined.”[Inst. II, 12.1.] The atonement was necessary, therefore, because God sovereignly determined to forgive sin on no other condition. This position naturally served to exalt the sovereign free will of God in making provision for the redemption of man. Some later theologians, such as Beza, Zanchius, and Twisse, shared this opinion, but according to Voetius the first of these changed his opinion in later life.

3. THAT IT WAS ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY. In the early Church Irenaeus already taught the absolute necessity of the atonement, and this was stressed by Anselm in the Middle Ages in his Cur Deus Homo? Reformed theology in general rightly shows a decided preference for this view. Whatever may be true of Beza in later life, it is certain that such scholars as Voetius, Mastricht, Turretin, à Marck, and Owen, all maintain the absolute necessity of the atonement and ground it particularly in the justice of God, that moral perfection by which He necessarily maintains His holiness over against sin and the sinner and inflicts due punishment on transgressors. They regard it as the only way in which God could pardon sin and at the same time satisfy His justice. This is also the position of our Confessional Standards.[Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 40; and Canons of Dort II, Art. 1.] This view is undoubtedly the most satisfying, and would seem to be most in harmony with the teachings of Scripture. The denial of it really involves a denial of the punitive justice of God as one of the inherent perfections of the divine Being, though the Reformers, of course, did not mean to deny this at all.


The proofs for the necessity of the atonement are mostly of an inferential character, but are nevertheless of considerable importance.

1. It would seem to be the clear teaching of Scripture that God, in virtue of His divine righteousness and holiness, cannot simply overlook defiance to His infinite majesty, but must needs visit sin with punishment. We are told repeatedly that He will by no means clear the guilty, Ex. 34:7; Num. 14:18; Nah. 1:3. He hates sin with a divine hatred; His whole being reacts against it, Ps. 5:4-6; Nah. 1:2; Rom. 1:18. Paul argues in Rom. 3:25,26, that it was necessary that Christ should be offered as an atoning sacrifice for sin, in order that God might be just while justifying the sinner. The important thing was that the justice of God should be maintained. This clearly points to the fact that the necessity of the atonement follows from the divine nature.

2. This leads right on to the second argument. The majesty and absolute immutability of the divine law as inherent in the very nature of God made it necessary for Him to demand satisfaction of the sinner. The transgression of the law inevitably carries with it a penalty. It is inviolable exactly because it is grounded in the very nature of God and is not, as Socinus would have it, a product of His free will, Matt. 5:18. The general principle of the law is expressed in these words: “Cursed be he that confirmeth not the words of this law to do them,” Deut. 27:26. And if God wanted to save the sinner, in spite of the fact that the latter could not meet the demands of the law, He had to make provision for a vicarious satisfaction as a ground for the sinner’s justification.

3. The necessity of the atonement also follows from the veracity of God, who is a God of truth and cannot lie. “God is not a man, that He should lie; neither the son of man, that He should repent; hath He said it, and shall He not do it? or hath He spoken, and shall He not make it good?” Num. 23:19. “Let God be found true,” says Paul, “but every man a liar.” Rom. 3:4. When He entered into the covenant of works with man, He decreed that death would be the penalty of disobedience. That principle finds expression in many other words of Scripture, such as Ezek. 18:4; Rom. 6:23. The veracity of God demanded that the penalty should be executed, and if sinners were to be saved, should be executed in the life of a substitute.

4. The same conclusion may be drawn from the nature of sin as guilt. If sin were merely a moral weakness, a remnant of a pre-human state, which is gradually brought into subjection to the higher nature of man, it would require no atonement. But according to Scripture sin is something far more heinous than that. Negatively, it is lawlessness, and positively, transgression of the law of God, and therefore guilt, I John 3:4; Rom. 2:25,27, and guilt makes one a debtor to the law and requires either a personal or a vicarious atonement.

5. The amazing greatness of the sacrifice which God Himself provided also implies the necessity of the atonement. God gave His only-begotten Son, to be subjected to bitter sufferings and to a shameful death. Now it is not conceivable that God would do this unnecessarily. Dr. A. A. Hodge correctly says: “This sacrifice would be most painfully irrelevant if it were anything short of absolutely necessary in relation to the end designed to be attained—that is, unless it be indeed the only possible means to the salvation of sinful man. God surely would not have made His Son a wanton sacrifice to a bare point of will.”[The Atonement, p. 237.] It is also worthy of note that Paul argues in Gal. 3:21 that Christ would not have been sacrificed, if the law could have given life. Scripture explicitly speaks of the sufferings of Christ as necessary in Luke 24:26; Heb. 2:10; 8:3; 9:22,23.


There are especially two objections that are often raised to the idea that God had to demand satisfaction, in order that He might be able to pardon sin, and because there was no other way, constituted His only begotten Son a sacrifice for the sin of the world.

1. THIS MAKES GOD INFERIOR TO MAN. Man can and often does freely forgive those who wrong him, but, according to the view under consideration, God cannot forgive until He has received satisfaction. This means that He is less good and less charitable than sinful men. But they who raise this objection fail to observe that God cannot simply be compared to a private individual, who can without injustice forget about his personal grievances. He is the Judge of all the earth, and in that capacity must maintain the law and exercise strict justice. A judge may be very kind-hearted, generous, and forgiving as a private individual, but in his official capacity he must see to it that the law takes its course. Moreover, this objection utterly ignores the fact that God was not under obligation to open up a way of redemption for disobedient and fallen man, but could with perfect justice have left man to his self-chosen doom. The ground of His determination to redeem a goodly number of the human race, and in them the race itself, can only be found in His good pleasure. The love to sinners revealed in it was not awakened by any consideration of satisfaction, but was entirely sovereign and free. The Mediator Himself was a gift of the Father’s love, which naturally could not be contingent on the atonement. And, finally, it should not be forgotten that God Himself wrought the atonement. He had to make a tremendous sacrifice, the sacrifice of His only begotten and beloved Son, in order to save His enemies.

2. The objection just considered often goes hand in hand with another, namely, that this view of the absolute necessity of the atonement assumes a schism in the trinitarian life of God, and this is a rather monstrous idea. Says David Smith, the author of In the Days of His Flesh: “It (the penal theory of satisfaction) places a gulf between God and Christ, representing God as the stern Judge who insisted on the execution of justice, and Christ as the pitiful Saviour who interposed and satisfied His legal demand and appeased His righteous wrath. They are not one either in their attitudes toward sinners or in the parts which they play. God is propitiated; Christ propitiates; God inflicts the punishment, Christ suffers it; God exacts the debt, Christ pays it.”[The Atonement in the Light of History and the Modern Spirit, p. 106.] This objection is also based on a misunderstanding, a misunderstanding for which those Christians are, at least in part, to blame who speak and sing as if Christ, rather than the triune God, were exclusively the author of their salvation. The Bible teaches us that the triune God provided freely for the salvation of sinners. There was nothing to constrain Him. The Father made the sacrifice of His Son, and the Son willingly offered Himself. There was no schism but the most beautiful harmony between the Father and the Son. Cf. Ps. 40:6-8; Luke 1:47-50,78; Eph. 1:3-14; 2:4-10; I Pet. 1:2.